Lessons Learned From Research on How 23 Nations Actually Considered Or Ignored Ethics and Justice in Formulating National Climate Commitments


A joint research project of the University of Auckland and Widener University Commonwealth Law School has concluded that when most nations have formulated national climate change policies not only the nations, but also the NGOs and media in these nations, have failed to seriously consider equity, ethical, and justice considerations that should guide national climate change policy.


The project enlisted the support of 23 researchers from around the world to examine how 23 nations actually considered or ignored equity, ethics, and justice in formulating national climate change commitments. Each researcher answered the same 10 questions which sought to determine how equity, ethics, and justice considerations affected national policy formation on greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets and commitments and on funding adaptation, l,osses and damages in vulnerable developing countries. The nations studied in this project are: Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, Fiji , India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mauritius, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, Samoa, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, Uganda, United States of America, and Zimbabwe.


The reports on these countries are available on the project website, nationalclimatejustice.org.


The research project has been motivated by the fact that climate change is a threat that screams for attention to be understood essentially as a problem of ethics and justice, an understanding which has profound significance for national climate change policy development but a fact which our research has concluded is largely being ignored by most nations.

The research project seeks to help deepen reflection by nations and civil society on national responses to climate change by examining national climate change policies through an equity, ethical and justice lens.

If nations fail to base their climate change policies on what equity, ethics, and justice require of them on mitigation of their greenhouse gas emissions and funding for adaptation, losses, and damages, then the global response to climate change will not likely be ambitious enough to avoid catastrophic climate impacts while deepening existing injustices in the world.

Although several organizations have created metrics to evaluate the national voluntary climate commitments, known as Independent Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), on the basis of equity, ethics and justice, this research project, by examining what actually happened at the national level when nations formulated their INDCs has uniquely identified important lessons about how equity, ethics and justice were actually considered or ignored that are the basis of recommendation to improve national compliance with what equity, ethics, and justice require of them. For instance, by looking at what actually happened at the national level in formulating INDCs, the project concluded, among other things, that:

(a) Almost all nations have actually based their INDC at least in part on economic self-interest rather than global ethical responsibility.
(b) Not only have most nations ignored equity, ethics, and justice in domestic development of INDCs, national media and NGOs in most countries have not criticized inadequate INDCs on the basis of equity, ethics and justice.
(c) Even nations that have given lip service to the need to develop INDCs that represent the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, these nations have not explained how ethics and justice quantitatively influenced the formulation of the INDC and in most cases the INDC has actually been based on national economic self-interest.
(d) National explanations of their INDC often hide the actual basis for the weakness of the INDC and to determine the actual basis for the INDC one must understand the domestic forces which opposed more ambitious INDCs.
(e) In most countries there appears to be little understanding among civil society about what equity, ethics, and justice would require of the country in formulating its INDC particularly in regard to the practical implications of living within a carbon budget that would constrain global emissions so that atmospheric ghg concentrations remain below dangerous levels, and the need for the nation to limit its ghg emissions to its fair share of a carbon budget.

These are only a few of the lessons learned from the project. Following is a complete list of the 37 lessons learned and 21 recommendations that have been derived from the research project:

Lessons Learned

The following lessons have been learned by the project so far.

1. Some high-emitting nations have expressly stated that they will not adopt climate change policies that harm their economy – thus ignoring their obligations to others as a matter of ethics, justice, and international law. These nations include Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

2. Any national ghg emissions reduction commitment is implicitly a position on two ethical questions, namely, first, what safe atmospheric ghg concentration level the commitment aims to achieve and, second, what equity framework or principles of distributive justice the percent reduction is based on. Despite this, no nation has explained quantitatively how its commitment is related to an atmospheric carbon budget or an equity framework.

3. Although some nations acknowledge that their climate policies should be guided by ethical principles, for instance, South Africa and Japan, even these nations have not expressly explained quantitatively how their commitments were guided by ethical principles and appear to have based their commitments on economic self-interest at least in part.

4. A few nations have acknowledged that their ghg emissions commitments need to limit warming to 2°C and be derived from a fair and equitable framework, yet even these nations have not explained how their specific emissions reduction commitments can be understood to be consistent with an emissions reduction pathway that will limit warming to 2°C. In fact, despite the almost universal acceptance by nations of the 2°C warming limit, the actual ghg emission targets and timetables chosen by almost all nations do not meet the levels of emissions reductions specified by IPCC as necessary to keep atmospheric concentrations below 450 ppm and thereby achieve the 2°C warming limit. As a result the world is currently on target to hit warming of 3.7°C by 2100.

5. Those developed nations that have acknowledged that they should act to limit warming to 2°C have not adopted emissions reduction targets at levels the IPCC recently concluded would be necessary to limit warming to 2°C – namely, of 25% to 40% by 2020.

6. All nations, including those nations that acknowledge that their policies must be based upon a fair share of a safe global emissions, appear to have actually based their emissions reduction commitment at least in part on national economic self-interest rather than global responsibility.

7. In some nations it is not possible to determine the actual normative basis for the +government’s commitment simply by examining what the national government claims is its normative justification. Instead, one must understand the arguments made against stronger national climate change policies made by those who have successfully opposed stronger climate action. For instance, the United States commitment is based upon what is currently achievable under existing law. In Russia references to international obligations are mere lip service as the national INDC has been based almost exclusively on national economic interest. In the United States, because stronger laws have been successfully blocked by opponents of strong climate change policies on the basis that stronger laws will harm the US economy, destroy specific industries, and destroy jobs, the actual US climate change policies are based upon US economic interests, a fact not clear from examining the statements of the US federal government alone.

8. Some non-Annex 1 countries including China and Mauritius claim that their non-Annex 1 status is justification for making no binding commitments to reduce their ghg emissions even though a substantial percentage of their population has very high income and high per capita emissions. For instance, China per capita emissions are 7.1 tons while the US is 16.4 tons per capita. However, 10% of Chinese have ghg per capita are well above 10 % of US citizens ghg per capita. China has more than 1.1 million millionaires and more people with wealth over 50 million than any country except USA. By 2018 China is expected to have 2.1 million millionaires. There is a huge consuming class in China on which the government is creating no expectations. One of the ethical issues raised by these facts is whether nations which may have much smaller national emissions reductions commitment obligations for the nation derived from an acceptable equity framework should nevertheless be expected to limit activities of individuals causing high levels of ghg emissions.

9. Some nations, including Australia and New Zealand, have expressly made their commitments to reduce climate change policies contingent on the willingness of other nations to make commensurate commitments thus implicitly claiming they have no obligation to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions unless other nations do so. The justification for this approach is not stated in the national commitments and is ethically dubious.

10. NGOs who support stronger climate change policies in many nations, including those in Australia, Canada, and the United States, are failing to frame climate change issues on the basis of ethics, justice, and equity.

11. Several developing nations, including Bolivia, have asserted that they have no obligation to make commitments to reduce ghg emissions unless the costs of reductions are funded by developed nations without identifying an equity framework which justifies this conclusion. South Africa and other developing nations have made commitments while also claiming that some of their commitments are contingent on funding from developed nations without explaining why some of the commitments should be funded according to an equity framework to justify which part of their climate change policies must be funded by developed nations. For this reason developing nations need to take a position on an equity framework that would apply to all developing countries.

12. Bolivia claims that funding for mitigation and adaptation in developing nations should be understood as the climate “debt” of developed countries in response to their historical, high-level per capita, and failure to fund adaptation but has not offered an equity framework to operationalize this claim. Bolivia draws strongly and explicitly upon ethical justifications for requiring deep cuts in national ghg emissions by other nations, together with financial contributions and holistic mitigation and adaptation measures, capable of both reducing poverty and vulnerability to climate change – yet has not identified an equity framework that could be applied at the global scale.

13. Several countries, including Bolivia, Fiji, South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda, have asserted that domestic justice issues need to be considered to reduce domestic poverty in setting national climate policies although they have not offered an equity framework to operationalize this idea at the global scale. Their positions appear to argue that domestic justice obligations can trump global responsibilities.

14. Several developing countries have primarily considered ethics and justice issues in regard to how climate policies affect domestic justice considerations rather than global justice issues.

15. Bolivia has claimed that 6% of GDP of developed nations should be devoted to funding climate change needs in developing nations but has not explained the equity framework that supports this conclusion.

16. Most developing countries, including Bolivia, strongly support a “loss and damages” mechanism while some developed nations oppose this mechanism. The United States denies any responsibility for losses and damages in other countries.

17. Several countries, including Canada have made commitments to reduce ghg emissions but not adopted the regulatory programs needed to achieve their commitments.

18. Several governments including Canada, have domestic legal obligations to protect vulnerable minorities from climate change which they are not fulfilling.

19. Although meaningful local and regional climate change programs and strategies can be found in many nations, many national governments have done little or nothing to encourage local or regional governments to adopt policies that will limit ghg emissions even though for some
activities that cause ghg emissions in the nation only regional and local governments have legal authority to require lower emissions. For instance in the United States, local and state governments regulate aspects of transportation and land use not regulated by the federal government. Some national governments including Australia that have made weak INDCs for the nation, nevertheless contain local governments that have made aggressive ghg emissions reductions commitments.

20. Most nations have not created programs to encourage individuals to greatly reduce their carbon footprint.

21. Some developing countries have set meaningful ghg emissions targets including Mauritius and South Africa but depend on funding from developed nations to achieve some of the climate goals. South Africa, despite being a non-Annex 1 developing country, has acknowledged its status as the highest ghg emitter on the African continent and announced a voluntary emissions reduction target, the objective of which is to make a ‘fair contribution’ to keep global concentrations within the range required to keep within the 2°C warming limit. South Africa openly acknowledges the need to voluntarily respond to climate change despite being a poor developing country. Yet the actual emissions reduction target identified by South Africa does not explain how it is quantitatively linked to an atmospheric concentration goal that will achieve a warming limit or why its emissions reduction target represents South Africa’s fair share of safe global emissions. In fact, the South African target, because it is a commitment only to reduce emissions below business as usual expansion, allows for large increases in South African ghg emissions by 2020 and 2025 without explaining how these increases are consistent with a specific understanding of what equity requires.

22. No developed country has explained how their contributions to the major climate funds relate in any quantitative way to their obligations under the UNFCCC for adaptation, mitigation, or losses and damages.

23. Almost all nations need to increase awareness among citizens and the press of the policy significance of the ethical and justice dimensions of climate change.

24. In some high-emitting developed nations, including the United States, the media is utterly failing to cover the ethics and justice dimensions of national climate change commitments.

25. In the case of EU member states, the collective decision making process of the EU does not seem to have led to any greater ethical analysis at the national level for individual EU nations, including the Netherlands and Italy, when these nations set their emissions reduction targets.

26. A few developing nations , including South Africa and Uganda, recognize the need to take positive action on climate change because they recognize the need and the responsibility toward their own nationals.

27. Two national reports revealed some reference to the concept of contraction and convergence, but no nation is implementing this approach.

28. No developed nations deny responsibility for funding adaptation and loses and damages in poor vulnerable nations, but no nation has made an express link between their ethical responsibility for supporting adaption and compensation for losses and damages and what funds have been committed`. Adaptation contributions seem to be left to the largess or interests of individual nations, leaving them free to withdraw. Including Australia, or determine the scale and nature of contributions. Even when a nation is a major contributor to adaptation (e.g., Japan), its activity is not explicitly linked to its own emissions targets.

29. There was a noticeable absence of explicit use of the concept of climate justice by developed nations. In contrast, Bolivia is using the concept of climate debt to mean liability for historic and continuing emissions and failure to take mitigation and adaptation actions. As the Bolivian report details, Bolivia is the champion on climate justice with a highly developed and multi-faceted concept that includes demands for a compensation mechanism beyond provision for adaptation of developing states.

30. Some developing nations, for instance, Brazil have committed to increase resilience and adaptation responses.

31. Some developing nations including Brazil have encouraged local and regional climate change plans and strategies.

32. Some developing countries including Bolivia, for instance, have made significant commitments to increase non-fossil energy.

33. Bolivia has advocated the ‘Climate Justice Index’ which calculates each country’s ‘fair share’ of atmospheric space according to their; 1) historical responsibility since 1750; 2) ecological footprint; 3) development capacity; and 4) technological capacity. According to this methodology, Bolivia asserts that non-Annex I (developing) countries should have 89% of the remaining atmospheric budget, leaving Annex I (developed) countries with just 11%. However, Bolivia does not go into details about how the 89% of atmospheric space reserved for non-Annex I countries should be divided, nor what types of commitments each country would be responsible for given their positioning on the index.

34. Some national level NGOs (including several in India) have expressly examined national INDCs on the basis of ethics and justice but most have not.

35. In some countries (e.g., Australia), even when media coverage of INDCs considers justice, this coverage misleads citizens by comparing commitments to other nations without any analyses of how equity and justice considerations would allow differences between national commitments.

36. Some countries (including Australia) argue for the need to take economic considerations into account by arguing about the future demand for coal without fully explaining why larger investments in non-fossil fuel sources are impossible.

37. Some nations’, including Australia’s, commitments to the Green Fund have been taken from existing foreign aid budgets – thus providing no new funds that would represent the nation’s satisfaction of it is obligations to fund adaptation and resilience in vulnerable developing countries.


Recommendations on how to improve consideration of ethics and justice in policy formation in light of these lessons learned include:

1. All nations should be required to explain quantitatively how their emissions reductions commitments will achieve an acceptable warming limit and on what equity framework or principles of distributive justice their percent emissions reductions is based. For this reason, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) should identify: (1) tonnes of CO2eq emissions reduced rather than a percent reduction from a baseline year, (b) the temperature limit and associated carbon budget that the INDC is seeking to achieve, (c) the equity principles that the nation relied on to assure the justice of its INDC, and (d) For Annex 1 countries, ghg emissions in 1990, the common baseline year.

2. There is an urgent need in most nations to raise public awareness of the ethical and justice issues entailed by climate change policymaking in general and ghg emissions commitments in particular. Along this line there are several issues in particular about which greater awareness is needed including greater public understanding of the ethical implications of any nation’s ghg emissions reduction commitment in regard to an atmospheric stabilization goal the commitment is seeking to achieve and the coherence or lack there of the national commitment to an acceptable equity framework.

3. An international mechanism under the UNFCCC is urgently needed that helps other nations and civil society to understand the lack of conformity of national ghg emissions targets with principles of ethics and justice. This mechanism should provide that any government’s positions on their climate change commitments can be questioned by other governments and NGOs in regard to the adequacy of the commitment to achieve a warming limit and the fairness of the reductions. This mechanism must also require governments to respond to these questions.

4. The media, NGOs, education institutions, academia, businesses and other social actors must all become involved in lifting both public awareness of the ethical and justice implications of national climate policy. In this regard media coverage that compares national commitments with other nations’ commitments without acknowledging that equity and justice considerations could lead to morally different emissions reductions should be avoided because these comparisons are potentially misleading

5. NGOs should justify their policy analyses and action recommendations on ethical grounds.

6. Nations should be required to explain how their commitments to fund adaptation and losses and damages in poor vulnerable nations link to their ethical obligations to provide funding. A mechanism to fund losses and damages in vulnerable countries is necessary.

7. Training for policy-makers, national politicians, and NGOs on the ethical issues inherent in climate change policy is urgently needed. Training is particularly needed to help all engaged in climate change policy formation to understand the links between INDCs, a warming limit, and an equity framework

8. Developing nations should adopt programs that will create ghg emissions limitations for high-emitting individuals and organizations even if equity and justice considerations don’t require that nations significantly reduce national ghg emissions.

9. National media need to significantly increase their coverage of how ethics, justice, and equity considerations should affect national climate change policies.

10. Developing nations that make commitments based upon funding from developed nations should be required to explain the equity framework that led to the claim for the contribution.In this regard claims of ecological debt should include explanation of the equity framework on which the equitable debt claim is based.

11. Nations who claim that duties for domestic justice trump global responsibilities should explain quantitatively how they reached this conclusion.

12. Nations who make ghg emissions reduction commitments should identify (to the extent practical) the regulatory programs or policies that will achieve the reductions.

13. Nations should develop a program encouraging local and regional governments to adopt climate change emissions reductions programs.

14. All governments should adopt programs that encourage individuals to reduce their carbon footprints to fair levels.

15. Where national commitments have been deduced from collective decision making – such as the case in the EU – nations should be required to explain the equity and justice basis for its national commitment.

16. Nations should explain domestic programs they have adopted on adaptation and resilience.

17. Developing countries that claim certain amounts of atmospheric space should be allocated to developing countries should explain their reasoning.

18. All nations should provide transparent processes to consult with citizens on national climate policies

19. Nations should be required to explain the fairness of their current and projected per capita emissions levels.

20. Nations who justify lower INDCs on the inevitability of the need for continuing fossil fuel use (including coal) should be required to explain what economic or technical consideration were assumed in implicit claims that greater uses of non-fossil fuel is impossible.

21. If a developed nation’s contribution to climate funds such as the Green fund are simply a shift of money from existing foreign aid funds, they should expressly admit to this while explaining why they have no ethical obligations to increase funding for adaptation and response in vulnerable nations.

Donald A. Brow
Scholar In Residence and Professor Deputy Director
Widener University Commonwealth Law School



Prue Taylor, Director

New Zealand Center for Environmental Law


Improving IPCC Working Group III’s Analysis on Climate Ethics and Equity, Second In A Series.


jutice climate


This is the second in a three part series examining the ethical and justice issues discussed by the IPCC Working Group III in its 5th Assessment Report (AR5) . In the first entry in  this series we concluded that although the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable improvement over prior IPCC reports in regard to identifying ethical and equity issues that should be considered in developing climate change policy, some criticisms are also warranted of how IPCC has articulated the significance and implications of the ethical, justice, and equity principles that should guide nations in developing climate change policies.

In short, we will argue improvement is possible in how IPCC deals with ethics, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change policy-making despite very significant improvements on these matters in the AR5 report compared to prior IPCC reports.

In this entry we will examine several preliminary ethical and justice issues raised by the new IPCC Working Group III Chapter 3, on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts.  The last entry will continue the examination Chapter 3 and then turn to Chapter 4 on Sustainable Development and Equity.

As a preliminary matter, one of the challenges that IPCC faces in its mandate on of ethics and justice issues relevant to climate change policy-making is that it is not IPCC’s role to be prescriptive in deciding what governments should do. It’s mandate is to synthesize the extant social-economic and scientific literature for policy-makers. In this regard, the IPCC chapter on ethics said expressly:

This chapter does not attempt to answer ethical questions, but rather provides policymakers with the tools (concepts, principles, arguments, and methods) to make decisions. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 10)

And so it is not IPCC’s role to do ethical analyses of policy issues that raise ethical questions. IPCC can, however, distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive questions that arise in relevant socio-economic literature about climate policy-making, identify important ethical and justice issues that arise in this literature, where there is a consensus on ethics and justice issues in the relevant literature describe the consensus position, where there is no consensus on ethical and justice issues describe the range of reasonable views on these issues, and identify hard and soft law legal principles relevant to how governments should resolve ethical and justice issues that must be faced by policy-makers.

There are several subjects in climate change policy-making which raise important ethical and justice issues. They include policy judgements about:

  1. how much warming will be tolerated, a matter which is implicit but rarely identified when nations make ghg emissions reduction commitments,
  2. any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, matters which are referred to by the IPCC usually as burden-sharing or effort-sharing considerations and a matter taken up in chapter 4 of IPCC, Working Group III chapter on sustainability and equity,
  3. any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those who are harmed by climate change,
  4. when a nation is responsible for its ghg emissions given differences in historical and per capita emissions among nations,
  5. responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations,
  6. how to evaluate the effects on and responsibilities to others of climate change technologies that are adopted in response to the threat of climate change, including such technologies as geo-engineering or nuclear power, for instance,
  7. who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, a topic usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice,
  8. the policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change,
  9. the responsibility of not only nations but subnational governments, entities, organizations, and individuals for climate change,
  10. when economic analyses of climate change policy options can prescribe or limit national duties or obligations to respond to the threat of climate change,
  11. ethical and justice implications of decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty,
  12. whether action or non-action of other nations is relevant to any nation’s responsibility for climate change,
  13. how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation,
  14. when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science,
  15. who is responsible for climate refugees and what their responsibilities are.

nw book advOn some of these issues, the recent IPCC report included a good summary of the extant ethical literature, on other issues important gaps in IPCC’s analysis can be identified, and lastly on a few of these issues, IPCC Working Group III is silent. IPCC reports cannot be expected to be exhaustive on these matters and therefore gaps and omissions in the IPCC reports in regard to ethics and justice issues relevant to policy-making is not necessarily a criticism of IPCC and is here pointed out only for future consideration. In fact, IPCC’s work on the ethical limits of economic arguments is a particularly important contribution to the global climate change debate. What is worthy of criticism, however, is if IPCC’s conclusions on guidance for policy-makers is misleading on ethics and justice issues.

II. Ethical Issues Raised by Economic Arguments About Climate Policy

Perhaps the most important practical ethical and justice issues raised by Working Group III’s work on ethics is its conclusions on the ethical and justice limitations of economic analyses of climate change policy options. This topic is enormously practically important because nations and others who argue against proposed climate change policies usually rely on various economic arguments which often completely ignore the ethical and justice limitations of these arguments (In the case of the United States, see Brown, 2012.) Because most citizens and policy-makers have not been trained in spotting ethically dubious claims that are often hidden in what appear at first glance to be “value-neutral” economic arguments, IPCC’s acknowledgement of the ethical limitations of economic arguments is vitally important.  It is also practically important because the first four IPCC reports, although not completely ignoring all ethical and justice problems with economic arguments about climate change policies, failed to examine the vast majority of ethical problems with economic arguments against climate change policies while making economic analyses of climate change policies the primary focus of Working Group III’s work thereby  leaving the strong impression that economic analyses, including but not limited to cost-benefit analyses, is the preferred way to evaluate the sufficiency of proposed climate change policies.  On this matter, the AR5 report has made important clarifications.

The AR5 III report included a section on this very issue entitled: Economics, Rights, and Duties which we reproduce here it  its entirety because of its importance to this discussion,  followed by comments in bold italics:

Economics can measure and aggregate human wellbeing, but Sections 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 explain that wellbeing may be only one of several criteria for choosing among alternative mitigation policies.

Other ethical considerations are not reflected in economic valuations, and those considerations may be extremely important for particular decisions that have to be made. For example, some have contended that countries that have emitted a great deal of GHG in the past owe restitution to countries that have been harmed by their emissions. If so, this is an important consideration in determining how much finance rich countries should provide to poorer countries to help with their mitigation efforts. It suggests that economics alone cannot be used to determine who should bear the burden of mitigation.

What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take into account of justice and rights in general. However, distributive justice can be accommodated within economics, because it can be understood as a value: specifically the value of equality. The theory of fairness within economics (Fleurbaey, 2008) is an account of distributive justice. It assumes that the level of distributive justice within a society is a function of the wellbeings of individuals, which means it can be reflected in the aggregation of wellbeing. In particular, it may be measured by the degree of inequality in wellbeing, using one of the standard measures of inequality such as the Gini coefficient (Gini, 1912), as discussed in the previous section. The Atkinson measure of inequality (Atkinson, 1970) is based on an additively separable social welfare function (SWF), and is therefore particularly appropriate for representing the prioritarian theory described in Section 3.4.6 . Furthermore, distributive justice can be reflected in weights incorporated into economic evaluations as Section 3.6 explains.

Simply identifying the level of inequality using the Gini Index does not assure that the harms and benefits of climate change policies will be distributed justly. For that a theory of just distribution is needed. The Gini index is also at such a level of abstraction that it is very difficult to use it as a way of thinking about the justice obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change. Even if there is strong economic equality in a nation measured by the Gini index, one cannot conclude that climate change policies are distributively just.

Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. For example, a CBA might not show the drowning of a Pacific island as a big loss, since the island has few inhabitants and relatively little economic activity. It might conclude that more good would be done in total by allowing the island to drown: the cost of the radical action that would be required to save the island by mitigating climate change globally would be much greater than the benefit of saving the island. This might be the correct conclusion in terms of overall aggregation of costs and benefits. But the island’s inhabitants might have a right not to have their homes and livelihoods destroyed as a result of the GHG emissions of richer nations far away. If that is so, their right may override the conclusions of CBA. It may give those nations who emit GHG a duty to protect the people who suffer from it, or at least to make restitution to them for any harms they suffer.

Even in areas where the methods of economics can be applied in principle, they cannot be accepted without question (Jamieson, 1992; Sagoff, 2008). Particular simplifying assumptions are always required, as shown throughout this chapter. These assumptions are not always accurate or appropriate, and decision‐makers need to keep in mind the resulting limitations of the economic analyses. For example, climate change will shorten many people’s lives. This harm may in principle be included within a CBA, but it remains highly contentious how that should be done. Another problem is that, because economics can provide concrete, quantitative estimates of some but not all values, less quantifiable considerations may receive less attention than they deserve.

This discussion does not adequately capture serious ethical problems with translating all values into monetary units measured by willingness to pay or its surrogates nor that such transformation may greatly distort ethical obligations to do no harm into changes in commodity value.

The extraordinary scope and scale of climate change raises particular difficulties for economic methods (Stern, forthcoming). First, many of the common methods of valuation in economics are best designed for marginal changes, whereas some of the impacts of climate change and efforts at mitigation are not marginal (Howarth and Norgaard, 1992). Second, the very long time scale of climate change makes the discount rate crucial at the same time as it makes it highly controversial (see Section 3.6.2 ). Third, the scope of the problem means it encompasses the world’s extremes of wealth and poverty, so questions of distribution become especially important and especially difficult. Fourth, measuring non‐market values—such as the existence of species, natural environments, or traditional ways of life of local societies—is fraught with difficulty. Fifth, the uncertainty that surrounds climate change is very great. It includes the likelihood of irreversible changes to societies and to nature, and even a small chance of catastrophe. This degree of uncertainty sets special problems for economics. (Nelson, 2013) (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 12-13)

Again this discussion does not adequately describe the ethical problems with economic determinations of all values. In fact it leaves the impression that if non-market values can be discovered the problems of transforming all values to commodity values are adequately dealt with.

Chapter 3, also includes additional statements about the ethical limits of economic reasoning sprinkled throughout the chapter. They include:

1. Most normative analyses of solutions to the climate problem implicitly involve contestable ethical assumptions.(IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg.10)

2. However, the methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They can be based on ethical principles, as Section 3.6 explains. But they cannot take account of every ethical principle. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not to taking account of justice and rights (with the exception of distributive justice − see below), or other values apart from human wellbeing. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)

And so Chapter 3 of the IPCC report contains a number or clear assertions  about the ethical limitations of economic arguments. However there are important gaps missing from this analysis. Also several sections of Chapter 3 that can be interpreted as claims that policy makers are free to choose economic reasoning as justification for climate policies. That is, some of the text reads as if a policy-maker is free to choose whether to base policy  on economic or ethical and justice considerations, choosing between these two ways of evaluation is simply an option. Some of these provisions follow with responses in italics

Chapter 3 page 6 says:

Many different analytic methods are available for evaluating policies. Methods may be quantitative (for example, cost‐benefit analysis, integrated assessment modeling, and multi‐criteria analysis) or qualitative (for example, sociological and participatory approaches). However, no single best method can provide a comprehensive analysis of policies. A mix of methods is often needed to understand the broad effects, attributes, trade‐offs, and complexities of policy choices; moreover, policies often address multiple objectives  (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Although economic analyses can provide policy-makers with valuable information such as which technologies will achieve ethically determined goals at lowest cost, thereby providing criteria for making remedies cost-effective, there are serious ethical problems with cost-benefit analyses used prescriptively to set emissions reductions targets. Some of these are alluded to in IPCC Chapters 3 and 4, others are not acknowledged. Because of the prevalence of cost-benefit justifications for climate change policies, future IPCC reports could make a contribution by identifying all of the ethical issues raised by cost-benefit analyses.

 Any decision about climate change is likely to promote some values and damage others. These may  be values of very different sorts. In decision making, different values must therefore be put together or balanced against each other. (IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

This provision can be understood as condoning a consequentialist approach to climate policy that fails to acknowledge deontological limits. Since when any nation makes policy on climate change it affects poor people and vulnerable nations around the world, there are serious procedural justice issues which go unacknowledged in this section and,  for the most part, all throughout Chapter 3. Nowhere does the chapter acknowledge that when a climate policy is  under development at the national level,  nations have no right to compare costs to them of implementing policies  with the harms to others that have not consented to the method of valuation being used to determine quantitative value.

Ideally, emissions should be reduced in each place to just the extent that makes the marginal cost of further reductions the same everywhere. One way of achieving this result is to have a carbon price that is uniform across the world; or it might be approximated by a mix of policy instruments (see Section 3.8 ). (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

This statement fails to acknowledge that emissions reductions amounts should be different in different places according to well accepted principles of distributive justice. Although other sections of the chapter acknowledge that responsibility for climate change is a matter of distributive justice, this section and others leave the impression that climate policy can be based upon economic efficiency grounds alone. The way to cure this problem is to continue to reference other sections that recognize ethical limits in setting policy on the basis of efficiency.

(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Since, for efficiency, mitigation should take place where it is cheapest, emissions of GHG should be reduced in many developing countries, as well as in rich ones. However, it does not follow that mitigation must be paid for by those developing countries; rich countries may pay for mitigation that takes place in poor countries. Financial flows between countries make it possible to separate the question of where mitigation should take place from the question of who should pay for it. Because mitigating climate change demands very large‐scale action, if put in place these transfers might become a significant factor in the international distribution of wealth. Provided appropriate financial transfers are made, the question of where mitigation should take place is largely a matter for the  economic theory of efficiency, tempered by ethical considerations. But the distribution of wealth is amatter of justice among countries, and a major issue in the politics of climate change (Stanton, 2011). It is partly a matter of distributive justice, which economics can take into account, but compensatory justice may also be involved, which is an issue for ethics. (Section 3.3).(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

There are a host of  potential ethical problems with mitigation taking place in one part of the world to satisfy the ethical obligations of a nation in another part of the world which is emitting above its fair share of safe global emissions that are not mentioned in this article. Included in these problems are:

  • Environmental Sufficiency. There are many technical challenges in assuring that a project in one part of the world that seeks to reduce ghg by an amount that otherwise would be required of a polluter will actually succeed in achieving the reductions particularly when the method of reduction is reliant on biological removal of carbon.
  • Permanence. Many proposed projects for reducing carbon in one part of the world to offset reductions ethically required in another part of the world raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by the project will stay out of the atmosphere forever, a requirement that is required to achieve the environmental equivalence to ghg emissions reductions that would be achieved at the source.
  • Leakage. Many proposed projects used to offset emissions reductions of high-emitters raise serious questions about whether carbon reduced by a project at one location will result in actual reductions in emissions because the activity which is the subject of the offset is resumed at another location.
  • Additionality. A project that is proposed in another part of the world to offset emissions reductions of a high-emitting entity may not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons.
  • Allowing Delay In Investing In New Technology. The ability to rely on a cheaper emissions reductions project in another part of the world as a substitute of reducing emissions creates an excuse for high-emitting entities to delay investment in technologies that will reduce the pollution load. This may create a practical problem when emissions reductions obligations are tightened in the future. 

Chapter 3 also treats other important ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. They include:

3.3 Justice, equity and responsibility,

3.3.1 Causal and moral responsibility

3.3.2 Intergenerational justice and rights of future people

3.3.3 Intergenerational justice: distributive justice

3.3.4 Historical responsibility and distributive justice

3.3.5 Intra‐generational justice: compensatory justice and historical responsibility

3.3.6 Legal concepts of historical responsibility

3.3.7 Geoengineering, ethics, and justice

3.4 Values and wellbeing

3.4.1 Non‐human values

3.4.2 Cultural and social values

3.4.3 Wellbeing

3.4.4 Aggregation of wellbeing

3.4.5 Lifetime wellbeing

3.4.6 Social welfare functions

3.4.7 Valuing population

III. Some Additional Gaps In Chapter 3

Some of the gaps in Chapter 3 on ethical issues raised by climate change policy-making include: (1) ethics of decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty, (2) whether action or non-action of other nations affects a nation’s responsibility for climate change, (3) how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation, (4) when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science, and (5) who is responsible to for climate refugees and what are their responsibilities.

The last entry in this series will continue the analyses of IPCC  Chapter 3 on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts and Chapter 4 on Sustainability and Equity.


Brown, 2012,  Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change Ethics In Light of a Thirty-Five Year Debate, Routledge-Earthscan, 2012

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Reference and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of  Law




Ethical and Justice Issues At the Center of the Warsaw Climate Negotiations-Issue 3, Financing Adaptation in Vulnerable Counties, and Issue 4, Ethical Responsibilities for Loss and Damages.

adaptationadaptation picture

I. Introduction 

This is the fourth paper in a series which is looking at the ethical issues entailed by the negotiation agenda at COP-19 in Warsaw. The firs two papers looked at ethical issues entailed by the need for increasing ambition for national ghg emissions reduction commitments in the short-term and the second examined ethical issues created by urgent needs of nations to commit to significant ghg emissions reductions in the medium- to long-term. This paper concludes a series that has been examining ethical issues in play at Cop 19 before the conclusion of the Warsaw COP.  Additional papers in the series will again look at these issues in light of what actually happens in Warsaw.

In this paper we look at two issues together, namely ethical issues entailed by the need of many developing countries to find funding necessary to adapt to climate change and the related question of funds needed to compensate vulnerable countries and peoples for losses and damages that are not avoided by protective adaptation measures. These two issues are being examined in the same paper because ethical obligations for adaptation and compensation spring from the same ethical and legal considerations. We conclude in this paper that high-emitting nations have an ethical responsibility to fund adaptation needs in vulnerable nations and to provide funds for loss and damages in these nations despite difficult questions in determining precisely what the amount of these obligations are.

II. Ethical Responsibility for Funding Adaptation

The international community agreed in Copenhagen in 2009 to raise $100 billion annually by 2020 to fight climate change – in addition to the $30 billion they pledged to raise through 2012 in “fast-start” financing for the developing world. This funding has not yet materialized and it is not certain whether rich nations will be able to meet the 2020 goal. This paper looks at the ethical obligations of developed countries to provide this funding.

The United States and other industrialized countries committed to such assistance through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Copenhagen Accord (2009), and the Cancun Agreements (2010), wherein the higher-income countries pledged jointly up to $30 billion of “fast start” climate financing for lower-income countries for the period 2010-2012, and a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion annually by 2020. The Cancun Agreements also proposed that the pledged funds are to be new, additional to previous flows, adequate, predictable, and sustained, and are to come from a wide variety of sources, both public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance.new book description for website-1_01

The United States and European Union, citing budget constraints, have refused to put concrete figures on the table during COP-18 in Qatar last year.
 A Green Climate Fund agreed at the Durban conference to spearhead funding to combat climate change, still has no money.
 For this reason, funding for needed adaptation in vulnerable countries is high-priority agenda item in Warsaw.

As we shall see, that high-emitting nations have responsibility for funding adaptation measures in developing countries is a conclusion that can be based on strong ethical grounds despite reasonable disagreements about such matters as when the ethical responsibility was triggered, which kinds of adaptation measures should be funded now, and the need to distinguish between responsibilities that arise due to the “fault” of high-emitting countries and responsibilities which arise without attributing “fault.”

High-mitting developed countries have undeniable ethical obligations to fund reasonable adaptation measures in vulnerable developing countries both as a matter of sound ethical reasoning and international law. This obligation exists even though reasonable disagreement exists about the details of this funding. It is therefore ethically unacceptable for some nations to assert that because there is disagreement about the details of funding obligations for adaptation, they need not commit to funding adaptation needs.

A rigorous ethical analysis of the obligations of high-emitting developed nations to fund reasonable adaptation measures is beyond of the scope of this paper. (For such analysis see: Brown, 2013, Chapter 7, and Grasso, 2009) Yet the outlines of this analysis are as follows:

The developed countries are most responsible for the human-induced warming which the world is experiencing and is threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world because of the levels of both historical ghg emissions amounts and high per-capita ghg emissions that have been increasing ghg atmospheric concentrations. In addition, those most vulnerable to climate change damages are often the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, those who could most benefit from adaptation measures are often least responsible for excessive greenhouse gas emissions. This is true both at the national and the local level.

In addition, those most vulnerable to climate change are often least able to afford adaptation measures such as dikes, irrigation to compensate for droughts, moving away from flood or storm prone areas, installing HVAC systems and implementing improved public health systems.

In general terms, a society’s vulnerability to human-induced climate depends upon its poverty. The Pew Center for Climate Change described vulnerability to climate change as follows:

Vulnerability to climate change reflects its degree of exposure and its capacity to adapt. Exposure has two principal elements: the climatic conditions themselves, and the extent and character of the population, wealth, and development exposed to them. Capacity is a society’s ability to adapt to changing climatic conditions, whether by reducing harm, exploiting beneficial new opportunities, or both. This ability to adapt, whether to changing climate or other new circumstances, is in part a function of a society’s level of wealth, education, institutional strength, and access to technology. The nature and the extent of a society’s development, therefore, heavily influence both its degree of exposure to climate risks and its capacity to adapt.

(Burton et al. 2006)

Because vulnerability to climate change is both a function of where harsh climate change impacts will be experienced and the financial ability of people to adapt, many poor developing countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

That those who are causing climate change have an ethical responsibility to protect those who could be seriously harmed by human-induced warming by funding responsible adaptation measures is a conclusion that follows from numerous ethical theories and several international law principles.

Almost all the world’s religions, basic human rights theories, and numerous other ethical arguments hold that no person has a right to greatly harm someone else without their consent. In fact, the right to life and security is considered a core human rights principle that has been accepted by almost all nations in the world. All nations that are responsible for the violation of human rights have clear duties to restore conditions required to assure that the rights are enjoyed.

Some nations have denied responsibility for compensation and adaptation costs in climate change negotiations. Yet norms about responsibility for damages from human-induced climate change are well established not only by most ethical theories but also in a variety of international agreements, including the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (UN, 1992b), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN 1992a).

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states in relevant part:

• States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UN 1992b: Principle 2, emphasis added).

• National authorities should endeavor to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment (UN 1992b, Principle 16, emphasis added).

• States shall develop national law regarding liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage. States shall also cooperate in an expeditious and more determined manner to develop further international law regarding liability and compensation for adverse effects of environmental damage caused by activities within their ‘s point is he or hejurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction (UN 1992b, Principle 13, emphasis added).

Additional norms relevant to national responsibility for damages caused by one nation to another are contained in UNFCCC including:

• Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UN 1992a: Preface, emphasis added).

• The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof (UN 1992a: Art. 3, emphasis added).

• The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent, or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost (UN 1992a: Art 3, emphasis added).


These provisions of international law have been agreed to by all almost all nations and establish clear national responsibilities to not harm others beyond their jurisdiction, to pay for the damages to those beyond their borders who are harmed by domestic ghg emissions, and to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to take protective action. Yet many nations have caused, and continue to cause climate change damages while they have refused to limit their emissions to their fair share of safe global ghg emissions, compensate those who have been harmed, or provide adequate, predictable funding for adaptation. Yet, the above international law provisions make it clear that nations have obligations to others to prevent climate change damage. Consequently, their failure to take action to reduce the threat of climate change makes them responsible for climate change harms and therefore responsible for funding reasonable adaptation measures of developed nations needed to prevent harm.

loss and damage

 III. Responsibility for Compensation for Climate Change Harms

Innocent people around the world will suffer harms that should be compensated by those who are responsible for climate change because: (a) there is insufficient money to support all the adaptation that is needed, (b) some harms have already occurred, (c) time does not allow for the adoption of adaptation measures necessary to protect some vulnerable people from harm, (d) it is impossible to predict where some harms will occur, or (e) the technology to protect against some of the harms is not now available. For instance, although biological sciences have produced some drought resistant crops, for other crops no drought resistant strains have yet been developed.

From this, the following conclusions can be made. Some climate change harms are unavoidable, others harms can be prevented or minimized through adaptation, and some harms have already happened. Yet, those experiencing these harms are rarely those who are most responsible for them. For this reason, developed nations have responsibility to compensate vulnerable nations and people for the harms from human-induced climate change.

IV. Difficulties In Determining Precise Amounts of Funding Amounts for Adaptation And Compensation Obligations of Individual Nations.

Thus far we have explained why high-emitting nations have clear duties to fund both reasonable adaptation in vulnerable developing countries and compensation for climate change harms in countries that have done little to cause climate change. Yet, there are, however, a number of issues that make it difficult to say what precisely is the magnitude of financial obligations for adaptation and compensation of any one nation. Looking at these issues in detail is beyond the scope of this article. (For more detailed analysis of these difficulties see Brown, 2013, Chapter 7 and Grasso, 2009.)

These issues include: (a) the need to determine when the obligation of any nation is triggered, (b) difficulties in determining which adaptation and compensation needs are attributable to human-induced warming versus natural variability, (c) challenges in allocating responsibilities among all nations that have emitted ghg above their fair share of safe global emissions, (e) challenges in prioritizing limited funds among all adaptation and compensation needs, (f) needs to set funding priorities in consultation with those who are vulnerable to climate change impacts as a matter of procedural justice, and (e) the need to consider the capacity of some nations to fund adaptation and compensation needs.

V. The Obligations of Nations To Fund Adaptation Needs and Compensate for Loss and Damages Despite Challenges in Determining Precise National Obligations.

As we have seen there are many challenges in determining precise obligations of nations for adaptation and compensation. However, these difficulties do not justify nations from ignoring their obligations for adaptation and compensation. The fact that there are challenges in working through what precisely are any nation’s obligations is not justification for failing to fund adaptation nor compensate for losses and damages.

To overcome some of the challenges in determining precise obligations, international institutional responses such as funding needs through common forms of taxation, dedication of trading revenues for use for adaptation and compensation, and other institutional responses of high-emitting countries are worthy of serious consideration.


Brown, Donald, 2013, Climate Change Ethics, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Routledge, Earth Scan, London and New York

Burrton, I., Deringer, E., and Smith, J. (2006) ‘Adaptation to climate change, international policy options’, Pew Center for Climate Change, available at: <http://www.pewclimate.org/docUploads/PEW_Adaptation.pdf&gt; (accessed 7 March 2012)

Grasso, Marco, 2009, An Ethical Approach to Adaptation Funding, Gl0bal Environmental Change, http://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/9873146/an-ethical-approach-to-climate-adaptation-finance-marco-grasso

United Nations (UN) (1992a) ‘United Nations framework convention on climate change’, UN Document, A: AC237/18.

United Nations (UN) (1992b) ‘The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development’, UN Document A/CONF.151/26.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Visiting Professor, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan

Part-Time Professor, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology,

Nanjing, China