This is part II of a series on: Why Nations Should Support Mechanisms For Financing Needed Adaptation and Loss and Damages From Climate Harms That Create Climate Change Refugees.
Part 1 explained that climate change is already creating millions of refugees and threatens to create many millions more.
Part 2 will cover why relevant international law on causation of trans-boundary harms is consistent with the creation of a mechanism for financing loss and damages from climate change induced harms and thus why developed nations should support the creation of such a mechanism.
V. International Law On Compensation for Loss and Damages (L & D) Caused by Trans-boundary Caused Harms.
Nations agreed under the 1992 UNFCCC pro Preamble:
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 areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UNFCCC, 1992, Preamble) .
Thus governments expressly agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC that they had a duty to abide by the “no harm” rule which required them to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from harming others beyond their borders. Yet they were already bound by the “no harm” principle because it is a principle of customary international law. In international law, customary law refers to the Law of Nations, or the legal norms that have developed through customary exchanges between states over time.
The history of L&D in climate negotiations dates back to 1991 when the Alliance of Small Island States called for a mechanism that would compensate countries affected by sea level rise. The concept of loss and damage made it into a climate decision coming out of a climate negotiations when in 2010 the so-called loss and damage work program was initiated at COP16, which finally lead to the establishment at COP19 in 2013 of a body to deal specifically with issues relating to loss and damage: the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage (or WIM for short). With the inclusion of Article 8 of the Paris Agreement in 2015, loss and damage has now become firmly installed as a thematic pillar under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Under Article 8 of the Paris Agreement, all nations agreed;
1. Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.
2. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts shall be subject to the authority and guidance of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Agreement and may be enhanced and strengthened, as determined by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Agreement.
3. Parties should enhance understanding, action and support, including through the Warsaw International Mechanism, as appropriate, on a cooperative and facilitative basis with respect to loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.
UN Paris Agreement, 2015, Art 8
Determining a nation’s responsibility for specific climate change caused harms can be challenging because climate change damages are the result of a multitude emitters, emitting activities, and emitted gases. It is, thus, evident that the question of how to determine responsibility among nations when allocating responsibility for climate harms and damages is a challenge which cries for a negotiated set of rules that enable rational comparison among nations that failed to prevent activities in their nations from harming others beyond their borders.
In common and civil law the principle of joint and several liability is recognized as a method for allocating responsibility among multiple defendants. But no such rule exists in international law.
Yet human induced climate change has scientific features that could provide the basis for negotiating rules for allocating responsibility for climate harms. The amount of harm caused by climate change is a function of atmospheric GHG concentrations and background climate conditions which change seasonally. Atmospheric CO2 has features that are different than other air polluting substances that have pofound policy implications. CO2 mixes well in the atmosphere and is very long lived. Although approximately 80% of CO2 emissions are removed by carbon sinks in 100 years, some stay in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years contributing to climate change harms everywhere for a very long time.
As we have seen earlier in this discussion, climate change has features that other environmental problems dont have which has profound implications for policy including the fact that all CO2e emissions contribute to atmospheric Co 2 concentrations globally and are long lived in the atmosphere thus contributing to harms everywhere.
In determine whether climate harms are attributable to the failure of a nation to comply with its responsibility to prevent activities within its jurisdiction from harming others, historical experience could be used to link projected climatic shifts with their probable physical, economic, social and human impacts (e.g., the probable impacts of temperature increase or excessive rainfall on ecosystems, populations and agricultural productivity, or probable impacts of sea level rise on coastal land area and infrastructure).
Baseline information might include, for example, average number of days of drought over a period of years, average annual or seasonal rainfall over a period of years, or average frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
VI. National Legal Responsibility for Breach of the No Harm Rule
The no harm rule is understood to be an obligation of a nation to prevent foreseeable harm beyond a nation which has been interpreted to require nations to act to prevent harm when nations have;
(i) the opportunity to act to prevent harm:
(ii) foreseeability or knowledge that a certain activity could lead to transboundary
(iii) have taken proportionate measures to prevent harm or minimize risk.,
WWF-UK-2008, Beyond Adaptation, (2008:18)
VII. The Opportunity to Act has Long Existed
A State can only fail to exercise due diligence with respect to a specific prevention duty if it does not act where it otherwise could have. In the framework of climate change damage, almost every State has had the opportunity to take measures to prevent damage or to minimize the risk of damage. Each ton of a GHG not emitted, and every carbon sink preserved in the long term reduces the risk of further damage.
IX. Proportionate Measures Were Not Taken
In order to determine whether any nation took proportionate measures to avoid climate caused harms that created refugees ideally. any critical analysis would have to consider the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases that triggered the harm and then consider whether that nation took steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their “equitable” share of global missions that were responsible for the atmospheric concentrations that caused the harm. Such analysis would likely lead to the conclusion that zero global emissions were necessary to avoid the climate change induced har that caused the transboundary harm. . Yet as we have seen in this first part of this discussion zero greenhouse gas emissions have been necessary to achieve the Paris agreement’s warning limit goals of 1.5°C but no greater then 2°C. In addition, the world needs to reduce global emissions to net zero to avoid destabilizing several climate “tipping points” several of which are already showing alarming signs of destabilization. Whatever the atmospheric concentration is deemed adequate to prevent the harms that will minimize the suffering of climate caused refugees, and to determine any nation’s equitable share, governments have to grapple with what “equity” requires of the nation.
Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity expressly requires of a nation to reduce its GHG emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its 5th Assessment report that despite some ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden-sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4.pg 317).
The IPCC went on to say that;
(T)hese equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality, and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4, pg 317).
Nations were already required under the Paris agreements “transparency” mechanism to explain periodically how they determined what equity requires of them when they established their NDC. Yet a 2015 study of 15 nations NDCs revealed that nations nor their NGOs demonstrated an understanding of what “equity” required of them.. (IUCN, 2015).For this reason, any mechanism to fund loss and damages will have to grapple with what equity requires of it, a matter which will be raised in any mechanism for loss and damages.
X. Why Developed Nations Should Support A Mechanism for a Adaptation and Loss and Damages Funding For Harms that Affect and Cause Refugees .
Nations have not only agreed to be bound by the no harm principle, they have agreed that they have a duty to cooperate to develop rules regarding compensation and liability.
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 jurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction. Rio Declaration, 1992` Principle 13,
The harms suffered by refugees may require negotiations for recovery for both economic and non-economic damages including rights to adequate temporary housing, access to adequate health care, and food,
Why would Parties ratify liability and compensation schemes? Attaching clear liability and responsibility for the transboundary consequences of environmental pollution helps to enforce regulatory regimes established to protect the environment. Participation in liability and compensation regimes reduces uncertainty for States which might otherwise have to cover loss and damage caused by their citizens and incurred by citizens of other States when adequate compensation cannot be obtained from the responsible parties. These regimes also reduce uncertainty for potential victims, by ensuring the availability of a certain minimum level of compensation and elaborating procedures for making claims. Finally, these regimes reduce risk for those investing in business operations that engage in activities associated with risk, by defining limits of liability.
As the preceding Section V explains, there is a sound legal basis under customary international law and the UNFCCC for States seeking compensation for damage and loss resulting from the impacts of climate change. Nevertheless, each individual case would meet with a number of challenges under existing law, among them the apportionment of responsibility between the various countries that have acted in breach of the no-harm rule. They would also be likely to require specially-commissioned scientific investigations with attendant costs, for in relation to causation and damage assessment. These cases could proceed in an forum, with good prospects of success, adding to the potential liability and litigation risk uncertainty that already exists with respect to private claims and possible tort actions.
Such individual cases should not, however, be the path of choice. International law is based on the notion of cooperation and the avoidance of adjudication – where possible – in favor of diplomatic solutions. Cumbersome individual cases should not be necessary, given that the climate regime is based on the notion of cooperation and good faith. The view has been expressed by international law scholars that States even have a legal duty to provide negotiated solutions where environmental damage is expected to occur, so that prompt and adequate compensation can be obtained in practice.
Although the issues of who pays what, to whom, and when, will be challenging to resolve, and ratification of such an instrument could face substantial domestic hurdles, a negotiated treaty to address the unavoided and unavoidable loss and damage is likely to be the only appropriate and practical solution to addressing climate change damage. The ‘AOSIS Proposal’ of 1991 provides a glimpse of what could be conceivable – not least as it only covers one type of damage.. International law principles and precedent provide support for the negotiation of a compensation instrument, as a necessary and appropriate response to this regulatory gap. The current negotiations leave room to begin this discussion.
Nations should also support financing adaptation and mechanisms to compensate those outside their borders for harms created by activities within their borders because, as the 2008 US Army War College report concluded, such harms are likely to cause social disruptions including violence against those who caused climate induced suffering. (Pumphery, 2008) The Army War College also concluded after describing in detail the higher levels of conflict and chaos that expected increases in unplanned population movements will cause, the US support for a mechanism which deals with the human and political turbulence will be viewed as a public good that is necessary in order to cope with the looming consequences of climate change. (Pumphrey, 2008, 112)
XII. The Moral Case for a Loss and Damage Mechanism under International Law
Although some moral claims are controversial, a claim that nations who cause harm and suffering to places and people living beyond their boarders have a moral duty to compensate those that they have been harmed without their consent is consistent with the golden rule, a moral obligation acknowledged by almost all the world religions. This rule says that people cant harm others because of benefits to them. Furthermore, almost all nations agreed that they had a moral duty to compensate for damages if they harmed others when they adopted the 1992 Rio Declaration which provides:
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. (Rio Declaration, 1992. Principle 16)
The creation o f a Loss and Damage mechanism will raise both tricky procedural and distributive justice issues.
Already some opposed to the mechanism are warning of the mischief that developing countries may do if the fund is created. For instance, opponents of the mechanism are claiming developing countries may seek compensation for comparatively trivial harms. All of these concerns can be minimized through negotiation of the rules.
Brown, D., Breakey, H., Burdon, P., Mackey B., Taylor, P (Brown et al., 2018) A Four-Step Process for Formulating and Evaluating Legal Commitments Under the Paris
Agreement, Carbon ; Climate Law Review, Vol 12, (2018) Issue 2, Pg 98 –
Center for Science Education, Sea Level Change in Bangladesh
Ceasar L, et al, 2022, Current Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation Weakest in Last Millennium, Nature GeoScience
Current Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation Weakest in Last Millennium | Nature Geoscience,
This post will raise issues that are very controversial to some. As I tell students and audiences I have talked to around the world, I am not asking you to accept the claims I make, nor will I necessarily hold it against you if you disagree. I do this to provoke critical thinking amongst us all about why climate change remains an existential threat to life on earth and why these issues are also relevant to making democracies work for the common good on other issues. I have very frequently benefited from discussions with others who disagreed with me but who engaged with me in critical interchange. This post will be very critical of some corporations’ and affiliated entities’ tactics to undermine democracy’s efforts to achieve the common good. While acknowledging the contributions of free-markets, and the private sector for what they can contribute to economic growth, technical innovation, and private sector employment, this analysis demonstrates the indispensable need for appropriate government constraints on the corrosive power of money in politics to prevent corporate and financial interests from using their enormous wealth to undermine what citizens in a democracy decide in deliberations about how to achieve the common good. This post will be critical of the United States for its failure to control the power of the fossil fuel industry to spread misinformation about climate change. This ruthless scheming of some elements of the private sector was actually predicted by Adam Smith who also convinced civil society of the benefits of the free market. This strong criticism in this paper is believed to be in response to the duty of citizens to fix the flaws of democracies as long as there is the possibility to do so, particularly when the flaws are seriously harming others. As the second verse of Kathrine Lee Bates song America the Beautiful says: ” America, America, God Mend Thine Every Flaw, Confirm Thine Soul in Self-control, Thy Liberty in Law. But as this post points out, research concludes that this is also a problem in other countries which have economies with strong fossil fuel sectors. As a result this, getting traction for ethical principles that nations have already agreed to or have negotiated is a challenge for democracies with strong economic interests which are threatened by legislation or treaty making that seeks to achieve the common good. This paper was originally initiated in response to UNESCO’s interest in getting traction for ethics in international cooperative efforts to protect the international community from several growing threats that cant be solved at the national level. Because the author had concluded most Americans would have no idea of why global cooperative efforts to solve growing global threats must grapple with ethical issues, section 1. of this paper explains the indispensable need of countries seeking to work cooperatively to solve global threats to grapple with ethical issues in treaty making and other global responses to growing global threats.
This paper takes the unusual step of listing the conclusions of this entry first to help readers judge how much of this paper they want to read although readers should read and critically consider the relevant analysis below before accepting any conclusions uncritically.
This paper deals with the failure to get traction for ethical principles in all claims about what governments should do to achieve the common good, given all such claims implicitly have the form:
A. Because of facts A. B, and C (Factual Premise)
B. Governments should do D ( Normative/Ethical Conclusion). Here normative means right or wrong, ethical duty, or prescriptive conclusion in light of facts. We will in this article refer to the conclusion of arguments about what governments should do as the normative or ethical conclusion. Notice the normative/ethical conclusion is already part of any claim about what a government should do given certain facts.
This paper will examine why normative rules that all countries including the US had already agreed to under international environmental law failed to get traction in national climate responses. This analysis will be particularly focused on the failure to get traction for the ‘no harm’, ‘precautionary’. and ‘equity’ principles natiions had agreed to be bound by in the 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreementt. The United States also agreed to human rights protections for its citizens which have also been ignored in public debates about climate change. These principles are focused on in this paper because they completely undermine the validity of the scientific uncertainty and excessive cost arguments that the publically visisble climate debate has focused on for thirty years due to the successul framing of the debate by fossil fuel intersts, Because there is shockingly little public discussion about “normative” or “ethical” conclusions of claims made by opponents of climate change policies in the US public climate debate, this paper examines why the ethical principles that nations had already agreed should guide their responses to climate change were rarely discussed in US debates about climate change policies by examining what actually happened.
a. The primary cause of the failure to get traction for key ethical principles that the US government had already agreed would guide its climate policy formation is that a well-funded, sophisticated spread of misinformation that began in a focused way in the US in 1971 with the Powell memo, discussed below, created a widely accepted unquestionable cultural narrative that included the claim that the government is the problem not the solution to many of society’s most troubling problems. Cultural narratives often become so accepted that many citizens become afraid to challenge them.The tactics of the Powell memo were expanded in the climate change disinformation campaign, discussed below, which were designed from the beginning to undermine citizens faith in mainstream climate science not to get the science right. This website has previously argued that the disinformation campaign is a new kind of crime against humanity despite the indispensable role of skeptictism in science and the right of free speech. Therefore a major challenge for getting traction for ethics in climate policy formation, is to get traction for truth in climate change policy making disputes to undermine lies and misinformation sophisticatedly spread throughout the government’s population by increasingly powerful computer tools and other techniques. Poltical Scientist Hannah Arendt described in her paper Truth and Power, that politicians whose power is threatned have throughout human history responded with lies, and so getting traction for truth in the climate debate is not a new political challange but is nevertheless much more challanging now given the effectiveness of the computer tools to spread the disinformation that targets people who will be most receptive.
An example of this which hasn’t been widely reported, while serving as the US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations, I was invited in 1997 to participate in war games being conducted by the Army War College that considered risks from parts of the world that would that may be destabilized by climate change. During this session the Army identified Syria, parts of the Sahil area of Africa, and as I rember three countries in Central America which were drought prone and potential places where refugees would create social disruption. In 2001, a multi-year drought began in Syria which eventually caused 1000000 refugees who destabilized large parts of the world and continue to be a source of social unrest.
The US army also predicted over 20 years ago that three countries in Central America were vulnerable to drought and therefore likely to produce refugees. Yet this aspect of the refugee problems that are causing social disruption and unspeakable suffering is rarely commented on in the the US media while discussing refugee problems from Syria and Central America. While at the same time prominent US politicans are spreading misinformation about climate change such as climate science is a hoax, climate law is unfair to the United States, climate change cant be real because it snowed in parts of the United States, and numberous false claims that havent been subjected to peer review and other techniques described in the climate change disinformation campaign entries referenced below.
The Army War College in a more recent 2008 report assessing climate threats predicted horrific impacts to the United States and around the world leading to social disruption and conflict. Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/6
While the Army College’s 2008 threat assessment became increasing confirmed by droughts, floods, diseases, increasingly damaging tropical storms, and refugees, many American politicians continued to claim that human-induced climate change was a ‘hoax’. I particularly paid attention to these claims because while serving as the US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations I was asked by the State Department in June 1997 to cochair with a colleague from the Energy Department a negotiation that would ask governments to agree as governments to the IPCC conclusion that the balance of the evidence demonstrates a discernable human influence on the climate system.
2. The United States has failed to achieve the common good because it ignored the warning of Adam Smith who although convinced civil society of the value of the free market through its invisible hand but also lesser known he predicted that merchants would sometimes ruthlessly scheme against the common good . (Sagar, Paul, Adam Smith and the conspiracy of the merchants: Global Intellectual History: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com) Thus governments need to establish rules to make democracies work for the common good that anticipate the very likely behavior of some economically powerful interests to undermine what democratic processes want to determine the common good while acknowledging the benefit of free markets and private sector institutions for some purposes in a democracy. .
3. Some US founding fathers claimed that the goal of democracy was to achieve the common good which according to Thomas Paine and others was essentially justice. They anticipated this would create disagreements among contending parties about factual claims and normative conclusions which are implicitly present in any claim about what a government should do to achieve the common good. Thus some founding fathers recommended that citizens be educated in skills to help them evaluate factual disputes namely science, history, among others, and ethics and other subjects to help citizens critically evaluate disagreements about justice.
4. The goals of higher education have increasingly shifted its major empasis from teaching skills needed by citizens to participate in a democratic processes to achieve the common good to teaching skills to make students attractive to potential employers such as science, engineering, and technology. (The support for this claim wil be the subject of the next entry on this website). Although claims about what governments should do to achieve the common good have both factual premises and normative conclusions, this shift in higher education’s major focus has increased the power of opponents of environmental policies to frame the public debate on disputes about facts which usually ignore very relevant ethical considerations including ethical principles that governments have previously agreed should guide their policy formation. For instance, all governments in the 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change agreed to be bound by the “precautionary,” “no harm” and adopt GHG emmission reductin targets to levels required of itin accordance with ‘equity ” which principles expressly undermine the excessive costs and scientific uncertainty arguments made by opponents of climate change. Yet proponents of climate policies usually ignore critically evaluating the normative conclusions of the arguments made by opponents of policies while focusing on counter factual claims about uncertainty and cost.
5. Why a global solution to climate change requires a national response consistent with its ethical and legal obligations to not harm others is not apparent to most US citizens in my experience until one understands certain features of climate change which are different than other environmental problems that don’t raise these urgent ethical problems. These features include all CO2e emissions mix well in the atmosphere raising atmospheric CO2e concentrations globally and thus increasing harms globally, because although 80% of CO2e emissions are removed feom the atmosphere by carbon sinks in 100 years, some remain for tens of thousands of years thus contributing to future harms everywhere including atmospheric concentrations that trigger abrupt climate change, the most vulenerable countries are usually least responsible for the harms, delays by a nation in reducing its emissions makes it more difficult and expensive for the whole world to achieve any warming limit goal, the setting of any national GHG emissions target implicitly takes a position on four ethical questions. (the warming limit goal the nation is seeking to achieve, the carbon budget it is basing its reduction amount on given different budgets with different probabilities are options, the equitablle basis it has used to calculate the nation’s fair share, and date by which the reduction will be achieved which effects the amount of carbon budget available for the whole world. For a discussion of these issues see:
6. This article will examine what can be learned from the failure to get traction in national responses to climate change for several ethical principles that nations had already agreed should guide their obligations under the 1992 climate treaty.
7. As we have explained in many entries, for 30 years the fossil fuel industry has been successful in framing the major focus of the public debate in United States so that it has focused largely on issues related to scientific uncertainty and excessive costs. This is so despite the fact that the international community including the United States under G.H. Bush had agreed in 1992 to be guided in their response to climate change by the “precautionary principle” which make’s scientific uncertainty an illegitimate excuse for a nation’s failing to achieve their legal obligations, and the ‘no harm’ principle which makes governments responsible for harms to others caused by activities within their borders without regard to scientific uncertainty or cost to them once they are on notice that activities within their jurisdiction are threatening others.
8. The article explains why the need in international cooperative efforts to solve serious growing threats that cant be solved at the local level frequently raise questions of fairness and justice between nations that are usually worked out through negotiations among nations about what is fair.
The goals of this post are ambitious as it examines several different crucial topics necessary to understand the enormous importance of getting traction for ethics in global cooperatiive efforts to respond to emerging threats that cant be adequately dealt with at the national level. This is a concept that I have discovered NGOs passionately involved in finding a solution to climate change have little understanding of why this is important, nor how one resolves disputes about ethical principles, and as several sociologists have predicted technical experts will sometimes be traumatized by the mere suggestion that their work be supplemented by ethical considerations.
Because the article is long, the reader may want to skip topics without reading the entire paper. The paper gets into detail about several ethical principles that all nations have agreed upon in the 1992 UNFCCC should guide their responses to climate change but which have been largely ignored in the public debate about national responses to climate change. Some detail is included on these issues because getting traction on these principles is still crucial to getting nations to comply with their obligations under the climate change regime while opponents of climate policies have spread false claims about these issues which are still frequently repeated in media coverage without comment.
The sections of this paper are:
1 Why governments must practically grapple with justice issues when developing rules about threats that cant be solved at the national level.
2. Why opposition to international rules developed for the common interest are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the international common good.
3. The failure of higher education to educate students in skills necessary to evaluate the normative conclusions made in claims about what government should do to achieve the common good given certain facts
4. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs at the international level seeking to achieve the global common good.
I . Why governments at the national and internation level have to grapple with justice issues in developing and applying law or rules seeking to achive the global common good.
Several enlightenment philosophers and US founding fathers, believed that achieving the common good was the essential role of government and the essence of the common good is justice. Although international negotiations often focus on other issues in international environmental negotiations, the most time consuming issues are usually over differences between developed and developing nations about what fairness requires. Also in the last 20 years corporate interests which are economically threatened by issues under consideration have been successful in generating political opposition at the national level often by the dissemination of sophisticated disinformation on issues most consequential to the global community including poor developing nations.
Thomas Paine among other US founding fathers believed that the purpose of democracy was to achieve the common good which usually cant be achieved without grappling with justice questions among others.
Getting traction for justice in government affairs has become more urgent since the 1970s when well organized, aggressive, sophisticated efforts have undermined governments central role in ordering society for the common good, Sociologists attribute the organized beginning of this phenomenon in the US to a 1972 memo from Lewis Powell who was then vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce which began with a claim that the free market is under attack citing the successful social and environmental movements in the 1960s. This is deeply ironic because the very reason why many in the world saw hope for the world in the US system was because the US democracy in the 1960s successfully found remedies for the racial, voting, woman’s rights and many more justice issues. Yet the Powel memo construed these very victories on rights and injustice as a threat to the corporate power. The Powell memo also criticized corporations for their lack of vigor in responding to the challenges to free enterprise that were growing in the beginning of the 1970s. Powell thus called for a much more aggressive response from the business community that the memo claims is needed to protect free enterprise from criticism from college campuses, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. Two months after the Powell memo was released, President Nixon nominated him to the US Supreme Court where he served for 15 years.
The success of the propaganda to get American citizens to support less government regulation for the common good was already evident when US President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural speech proclaimed that government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem. Amazingly, although I believe most people would acknowledge benefits of free markets while agreeing that government is sometimes the problem, it is absurd to conclude that the private sector alone will provide pubic goods that most people want, such as affordable health care, protection from environmental threats, towns designed to promote social interaction, affordable high quality education for all, affordable housing for all, and among other things protection from the scheming of some merchants and despots throughout history who have sometimes ruthlessly schemed against the public good as Adam Smith warned. This scheming is inevitable when the solution to growing global threats requires the regulation of new technologies that have admitted value but dangerous potential for harm. Curent potentially beneficial technologies of concern include, for example, artificial intelligence and bioengineering.
While I worked for EPA on UN international environmental issues, I saw corporate interests lobby EPA to oppose provisions of the biodiversity treaty and climate law that other countries were pushing for. Most Americans including NGOs seem to be unaware that the United States is, in my experience having worked at the UN and taught or lectured in 38 countries, is increasingly internationally widely viewed as an obstructionist on many global environmental issues although many non-nationals believe there is still hope that US can make democracy work for the common good. The 2008 Army War College Threat Assessment in fact concludes that the failure of the US to adequately respond to climate change may result in more violence against the US.
I have been shocked how much our democracy in the last decade has made it easier for money to dominate politics by removing limits on corporate donations, voter suppression, gerrymandering, allowing donors to hide who make donations to entities who are involved in political issues, while other countries have often made it easier to vote in ways that initially shocked me. By law, for instance, Australian citizens have a duty to vote which my Australian colleagues say is enforced with a routine fine. While teaching in Japan I was told political money is not allowed to be used on television, which explains why one hears political messages on loud speakers in trucks all the time. I offer these examples to encourage research on their truth and to suggest that others do research on these kinds of issues. Of course these issues will create disagreements among citizens, a matter that democracies should resolve according to the supporters of the role of democracies by making arguments about what is fair
The process of international environmental treaty making usually requires governments to grapple with important and sometimes thorny justice issues that are indispensable to accomplish the goals of the treaty. For instance those drafting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) had to grapple with what rules would govern each countries GHG emissions reduction target in light of the fact that some nations more than others are responsible for the current problem. Although the treaty negotiations that ended in the 1992 UNFCCC established very general rules about national responsibilities to adopt policies to prevent dangerous climate change, the international negotiations were unable to agree on how to allocate responsibility among nations for emissions except in the most general and abstract terms. This is so despite the fact that climate change is a problem that necessarily required some guidance on how to allocate responsibility among nations for reducing national GHG emissions. Some nations have been pushing for more clarity on these issues for decades. The best the initial round of negotiations could agree on is that the developed countries should take the lead on reductions and each country should reduce GHG emissions to levels required to achieve any warming limit goal in accordance with “equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.” Most international environmental governance processes have gotten bogged down in strong differences between developed and developing states with differences not fully resolved in the initial negotiations. Thus many treaties initial text coming out of the first international negotiations resolves the conflict often between rich and poor countries with “weasel words” or words which give no clear guidance, in the hope that further negotiations in yearly Conference of Parties (COPs) will resolve important but ambiguous language on crucial issues. The UNFCCC is still full of such weasel words despite 25 COPs since 1992 on the meaning of central terms such as “equity.” Despite almost thirty years of negotiations which often sought to resolve these ambiguities, the UNFCCC implementation has been plagued by the lack of clarity about several key concepts.
During the international negotiations each year, energy industry lobbyists have been well represented along with US congressmen usually mostly from US fossil fuel states closely monitoring the US position on issues important to them and often arguing that the US should make no commitment on issues the energy industry believes will hurt their interests.
An additional challenge to getting traction for ethics is since the 1980s neoliberal ideas have gotten traction around the world. Since the central idea of neoliberal ideology is not obvious but is usually understood as market processes should order society for the common good through the operation of the market’s invisible hand, early proponents of neoliberal ideology claimed there was no or at least a greatly reduced need for the government to develop rules and regulations to achieve the common good based on justice. As a result justifications for government regulation on environmental issues that existed in the first 20 years of the modern environmental movement, such as that regulation was needed to adequately protect human health and the environment, or protect the environment for future generations were gradually replaced over several decades by cost-benefit analyses or other economic criteria.
An example, while I was working as the US Program Manager to UN Organizations during the Clinton administration while the US was considering ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, much of the policy talk in the agency centered on which of two different cost-benefit analysis that had been prepared by different government agencies should guide the US decision about whether to join the Protocol. During this time, the Global Climate Coalition, an international lobbying group of businesses who opposed action to reduce GHG emissions were waging an intense national campaign in opposition to the US ratification of the Kyoto Deal which observers attributed to President Clinton’s decision after negotiating a deal in Kyoto acceptable to the United States, he never submitted it to Congress for ratification. I have learned that the way power often works is to spread a narrative through a culture that becomes so accepted that citizens are afraid to challenge it. That is power often works by scaring people to not discuss certain things. But we have Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and the lesser known Hannah Arendt who have implied we citizens have a duty to call out injustice when we see it, although violence is never justifiable morally and will also undermine the credibility of the moral claim.
During my career I watched the United States fall precipitously from the position of undisputed international environmental leader at the beginning of the 1980s and be replaced by the European Union (EU) after that. For over a decade the US environmental law and policy was an inspiration for the rest of the world after being given birth by Rachel Carson’s vision and other successes on justice issues in the late 1960s. A recent book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power by investigative reporter Mark Shapiro documents how developing nations no longer go to Washington for advice on environmental policy; they now go to Brussels.[i] The European Union is now widely viewed to be the global leader on environmental programs. Shapiro explains how this shift in power has not only been bad for human health and the environment in the United States but also for American business in a world increasingly moving toward a greener global economy. The 2008 Army War College Threat Assessment Report on Climate Change not only draws the same conclusion about diminishing respect around the world for a country which was once more widely thought of as the shining city on the hill but may generate more violence against US interests from parts of the world increasingly stressed by water shortages.
In addition getting nations to appropriately comply with their ackowleged obligations to base their GHG target on equity, one of the ethical principles nations have agreed to would guide their policy, it is still practically crucial to preventing gross harms to the world as the following chart demonstrates,
Notice this chart shows the GHG emissions reduction needed for the whole world to have any hope of achieving the Paris Agreement warming limit goal of 2C is depicted by the top line. You can see if the high emitting nations don’t reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them by equity, the lesser emitting developing nations must go to zero immediately if there is any hope of achieving any warming limit goal.
2. Why opposition to rules developed for the common good are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the common good.
Some of the tactics used by the fossil fuel industry has been to spread disinformation . This has been accomplished by morally ruthless tactics that will be explored in the next section.
Another tactic which has been used with increasing effectiveness is the use of what I call false intimidating manipulative smears (FIMS), that are aimed at anyone who appears in the media who challanges the cullurally unchallengable narrative. Currrent frequently used FIMS hurled against anyone challenging the hegemonic cultural narrative are the person is an “alarmist.” “socialst,” or recently believers in “entitlements.’ Because most people dont know how to respond to these FIMS, false intimidating smears, a future entry will critically evaluate the dominent FIMS.
3. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs under consideration at the international level to achieve global common good.
I have learned from academics and climate change NGOS working on climate issues who I have often sincerely publicly praised for their technical work on climate change that they have no idea about how to spot nor critically evaluate ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. This is one of the reasons why they frequently shun discussing supplementing their technical conclusions with ethical considerations.
I have have rarely met US climate activists or academics engaged in climate science or economics that are aware that philosophers believe that even on ethical issues that reasonable people disagree on what justice requires, most reasonable people will agree that certain proposals on interpreting and applying ethical principles flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. They explain this phenomenon by saying people don’t need to know what justice requires to get agreement that some claims about justice flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. For instance, any proposal which allows someone to hurt others because of economic benefit to them violates the most basic ethical principle, the golden rule that says I cant harm others because of benefits to myself. It also violates the ” no harm” principle which the US agreed to in the UNCCC which requires nations to prevent activities within their boundaries from harming others even if the harms are not fully proven. A crucial example from climate law, although there are differences among ethicists about what equity requires, most ethicists agree “equity” may not be construed to mean anything that a nation claims it to mean, such as national economic self-interest. As IPCC said, despite ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).
In the 1980s I was invited to join the Editorial Board of the Journal of Environmen Ethics whose authors rarely contributed to conflicts about what ethics required on issues that arose in actual environmental controversies while for several decades focused almost exclusively on how to put a non-anthropocentric based value of nature. I had through my experience concluded that there were many important issues arise in other environmental policy conflct that need the help of ethical analysis which must be considered to protect people and animals including some for which the ethical rule appropriate to policy had already been agreed to. So just spotting the implicit ethical issue is often all that is needed because some ethical issues that arise in policy are often surprising easy to resolve once spotted.
Academic environmental ethics focus on resolving theoretical conflicts is a tragic mistake because ethicists are needed to help civil society evaluate untruths about unfairness claims that have been circulated by US opponents of climate change policy continue to frequently circulate, for instance, a recent example is that unless China reduces GHG emissions at levels required of the US, it is unfair to the US although the US has significantly higher historical and per capita emissions than China. According to IPCC’s to description of reasonable considerations for determining equity, the US percentage reductions should be greater than China although like all claims about what distributive justice requires, for instance, which happens frequently in US environmental law cases where there are multiple defendants who must find away to apportion hundreds of millions of damages among, the court system works out how to apportion the damages. This is a common problem on allocating damage awards in hazardous waste cleanup litigation in the US . In cases I have been involved with there were as many as 200 defendants fighting about how damages would be distributed. US courts are face*d with kind of problem frequently.
Notice in the charts below, US historical emissions are much higher than China’s as well as US per capita emissions even though China’s current emissions lead the world.
The enormous damage to the world that has already been caused by a large sector of US civil society’s acceptance of arguments made by the fossil fuel industry about excessive cost and scientific uncertainty despite all governments having agreed that these excuses do not justify the failure of governments to comply with their agreed to obligation’s under the UNFCCC. See discussions of “precautionary principle” and “no harm” rule on this website.
The United States is not the only country in the world that has let its powerful fossil fuel industries interfere with their legal climate change obligations. See NationalClimateJustice.org, although there is some evidence that the climate disinformation campaign organized originally in the US has been used by fossil fuel interests in other countries. I have also recently discovered that neoliberal ideology has gotten traction around the world, a fact of concern to many national leaders. See also Ethics And Climate Change, A Study of National Commitments, Brown D. Taylor, P, (IUCN, Press-
Since climate negotiations began in the 1990s which resulted in the 1992 Convention on Climate Change, I have witnessed from a front row seat while representing US EPA at the UN on environmental issues and for a few years as staff person lead for Pennsylvania DER on climate change how fossil fuel interests have successively fought proposed government climate action largely by framing the public debate so that it has narrowly focused on scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy and circulating false claims about unfairness. This is so, despite all nations had agreed to be guided by principles in their climate change policy formation that made scientific uncertainty and excessive national cost illegitimate excuses for a nation’s failing to comply with their climate obligations. Yet I have seen no press coverage of this phenomenon. I have also experienced that with a little ethical reasoning, people agree that these rules are ethically justified.
The article will argue this US failure to abide by principles they have agreed has been caused by the economically powerful forces’ successful framing the arguments that have dominated the visible climate debates in the US so the debate has largely focused on facts about uncertainty and facts about high costs with the absence of critical reflection on the normative conclusions made by opponents about these facts.
3. The Failure of Higher Education
This problem has also been caused in part by the major failure of US higher education to educate citizens in skills needed to critically evaluate the normative conclusions of claims made in democracies about what should be done to achieve the common good. Despite all such claims have both factual premises and normative conclusions, citizens almost always only engage in critically evaluating the factual premises of arguments about what governments should do to achieve the common good. Citizens in a democracy need to be educated in subjects that facilitate crital evaluation factual premises and normative conclusions in claims about the common good, an assumption made by enlightenment philosophers and some US founding fathers. But as we will see, US higher education is increasingly part of the problem as many schools have shifted their primary goals to develop skills that will make students marketable for jobs, not competent citizens seeking to achieve the common good. (This claim will be the focus of the next entry on this website) Also, academics, as well as citizen activists often become preductively engaged in responses to climate change that they judge have some potential to make a difference given the political status quo. The focus of their energy thus is often responses to climate change that they believe have a chance of working given the acceptance of cultural narratives about excessive cost is an enormous urgent need to reduce GHG emissions to net zero ASAP a topic I argue should be mentioned in every discussion of a response to climate change. It is also an understandable tactic to justify climate policies solely on the basis policy will create jobs because it implicitly confirms the unreasonableness of the claim if this policy causes some job loss the policy should not be adopted. A more enlightened use of the jobs argument would be we must reduce GHG emissions immediately because they are causing and threatening enormous harms around the world, a byproduct of this policy will be some job creation but job creation is not why we should do this.
After Paris Agreement in 2015, I convened meetings of the leaders of the 5 largest environmental groups in Pennsylvania to explain and document that that the 1.5 C and 2.0 C warming limit goals required the whole world to achieve net zero emissions by 2045 and 2070 yet all five leaders who I greatly respect said they would not publicly talk about it because they would be labelled as ‘alarmists.’ Thus confirming the power of developing an unquestionable cultural narrative coupled with the widespread use of false,intimidating, manipulative smears FIMS discussed above.
Some climate activists have claimed they dont know how to spot the ethical issues that arguments against climate policies raise. This is remarkable because almost all claims about what governments should do given certain facts are already part of the claim in the normative conclusion. This criticism does not diminish, in my view that many academic climate change scientists should be publically honored for the courage they displayed in correcting the misinformation on climate science that was undermining the political will to reduce national GHG emission.
That US higher education has done such a horrible job in educating students in environmental sciences on how to critically evaluate the normative conclusions in claims about the common good became clear in a three-year study at Penn States revealed that undergraduate students in environmental sciences could not identify which part of a claim about what governments should do was the normative claim without training. This is truly frightening because it explains how vulnerable citizens are to bogus claims made by economically powerful entities and why proponents of climate policy frequently focus on the factual issues in a claim and ignore critically reflecting on the normative conclusions of claims made about what governments should do to achieve the common good.
Almost all claims about what a government should do in response to climate change implicitly have the above form but many climate scientists and environmental activists whose technical work I have sincerely publicly honored have admitted to me that they were not aware that if they cant draw conclusions about the magnitude of climate impacts because of the complexity of the climate system, the inability to describe physical elements of the climate system needed to quantify risk assessments or do not have enough time to develop a risk assessment, they are expected to engage in precautionary science. Most American climate scientists I have talked to have admitted they were unaware of the arguable duty of governments who have a responsibility to protect human health and the environment have a responsibility to engage in “precautionary science” when reaching certainty about harms can’t be accomplished for practical purposes.
Scientists failure to understand the ethical duty to develop a process to implement precautionary science when normal scientific procedures are unable to do so when engaged in research on the harms from some potentially dangerous problems is a enormous practical problem because part of the tactics of the morally outrageous of climate change disinformation have been to call all scientific conclusions that have not been based upon the epistemic norms of science that have been established to prevent a false positive or a type 1, statistical error, “junk science”.
Most American scientists and students in environmental studies in my experience are aware that some EU countries have already created procedures to apply precautionary science when scientific norms designed to prevent false positives prevent timely descriptions of dangerous risks. Nor that this has been done in the in the United States for determining a few threats like the cancer risk of low doses of tox substances. Yet this failure in assessing the risk of harms from GHG atmospheric concentrations through precautionary science may turn out to be the most catastrophic policy failure in environmental law history. It may explain why earlier conclusions of IPCC underestimated climate impacts it described in its few first assessments, an issue worthyy of further research.. In other words this may be a failure with profound implications for the human race.
Another troubling area of ignorance among most climate activists is that the failure of nations to timely adopt a policy to achieve a warming limit goal makes the global challenge for everyone more expensive and more difficult because the delay reduces the carbon budget that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal. Therefore their reassurance that ‘we have time’ is greatly misleading in a number of ways
An example of delays cost was given in the 2019 UNEP report is as follow
In 1992, under the UNFCCC all nations agreed to be bound by the ” no harm” principle which stipulated that that nations have a duty to adopt climate change policies that prevent activities from within their jurisdiction from harming others outside their jurisdiction. A nation’s duty to adopt policies that will prevent climate change caused harms is not diminished under the “no harm” rule because these policies will be costly to the nation or the harms haven’t been fully proven. The reasons there is widespread acceptance of the precautionary principle is that is not difficult to get people to agree that once there is credible evidence that an activity is potentially very harmful to others, the person in control of the activity can’t continue to put others at risk because the potentially harmed person has not proven they will be harmed.
Some European nations deal with this issue by shifting the burden off proof from government to the entity in control of the risky matter to determine risk and safety.
Yet most US climate activists and academics engaged in climate usually respond to opponents claims about scientific uncertainty or cost by making counter factual claims about certainty and cost. My advice to them is that they continue to do their good work but they should publicly acknowledge that some scientific uncertainty is not a legitimate excuse for a government to fail to comply with their obligations to reduce the threat of climate change as all countries agreed when the adopted the precautionary principle in the 1992 UNFCCC.
I also urge that activists who are pushing for an economically based solutions couple this to a legally enforceable government deadline for achieving zero GHG emissions because market-based solutions that admittedly could be a productive tool to reduce emissions will likely have to be supplemented by other legal tools to achieve zero GHG emissions needed ASAP and market-based tools implementation will not likely be quick enough by themselves. Around the world countries that adopted carbon taxes or cap an trade regimes had to supplement them with other legal tools to achieve net zero reduction goals in a timely matter. Therefore the laudable efforts of many climate activists to get carbon taxes and cap and trade regimes into law should be acknowledged for helping create a helpful tool to achieve a legally enforceable target. But this tool needs to be supplemented with other legal tools to get to zero emissions ASAP.
In addition, because climate change is now violating the most basic human rights including the rights to life and health, and national responsibilities to protect human rights are not excused because of high costs to a government responsible for preventing human rights violations, nations may not refuse to adopt climate strategies necessary to prevent predicted climate impacts that violate basic human rights on the basis of cost to the nation. Yet this is a missiing subject in the American conversation about climate change
A 2019 Special Report of the UN General Assembly found that climate change was already causing 150,000 premature deaths, a number which is sure to increase as temperature rises (UN General Assembly, 2019). So US emissions are already contributing to human rights violations but rarely is this brought up in US public discussions of climate issues in the nation that instituted international human rights law although the US is now behind many parts of the world in adopting procedural rights to bring human rights claims that continue to be hurdles to enforcements of some human rights largely because of difficult standing hurdles in US LAW
Climate change is also expected to increase infectious diseases through greater transmissions by bugs including mosquitoes and ticks whose numbers and ranges are expected to increase in a warming world. Climate change is also expected to cause numerous other health problems and deaths to the world’s population in many additional ways including the increase in pandemics and vector borne diseases.It is already causing massive health problems including loss of life from intense storms, droughts, floods, intense heat, and rising seas and the current numbers of these health problems will surely rise in a warming world. Predicted warming is also already creating international chaos and conflict from the over million refugees that have had to flee their homes due to the loss of water supplies needed for drinking and agriculture.
As horrific as these climate impacts, even modest amounts of additional warming threatens to surpass levels that will trigger various ” tipping points. or positive feedbacks that that could very dangerously speed up the warming. A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate system – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system. Progress toward triggering a tipping point is often driven by energizing positive feedbacks, in which a change in one component of the climate system leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic global warming example is the ice-albedo feedback which happens when melting ice sheets cause more heat energy to warm the Earth rather than the ice reflecting the heat energy from the sun out into space.,
To defend itself against charges that climate programs needed to implement the Kyoto Protocol were too costly, the Clinton Administration in July of 1998 prepared a CBA that showed that costs to the United States of complying with Kyoto would not be great.[i]
The Clinton Administration’s analysis concluded that these costs were justified because damages from a doubling of pre-industrial concentrations of greenhouse gases would cost the United States economy about 1.1 percent of GDP per year, that is $8.9 billion per year.[iii] In so doing the Clinton Administration seemed to acknowledge the validity of climate change counter-movement’s basic argument that domestic action should be limited to actions justifiable by CBA. That is, at no time did the Clinton Administration assert that the logic of CBA that supported the position of the opponents to Kyoto was ethically problematic; the Clinton Administration simply asserted that the CBA calculations of those that opposed Kyoto were overly pessimistic.
The Clinton administration did not acknowledge any of the specific ethical problems with CBAs applied to environmental problems discussed on this website. In fact, remarkably there was no discussion in EPA or in the US media’s coverage of the Kyoto Protocol about the use of CBA to determine the acceptability of climate change raised the following ethical problems.
If climate change is an ethical problem, nations may not determine the acceptability of national climate change policies on the basis of national interest alone; they must acknowledge the duty to not harm others who have not consented to be harmed. Yet the debate in the US about the Kyoto commitment remarkably only focused on harms and benefits to the United States alone. The fact that US ghgs were harming and threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world was not considered or even commented on in my experience when the Clinton administration CBA on the Kyoto Protocol was discussed inside the government.
The Clinton administration CBA did not acknowledge the duty of high-emitting nations to compensate those who are greatly harmed by climate change, despite the fact the US had agreed to the “polluter pays” principle in the Rio Declaration in the in 1992. [iv]
The Clinton administration CBA did not acknowledge that the duty of the United States to not cause human rights violations despite the fact that the least contentious human rights, including the right to life and security, will be violated by climate change.
The Clinton administration CBA treated all harms to human health and the environment form climate change as commodities whose value could be determined in markets or by asking people what they are willing to pay for the entity harmed.
The Clinton administration CBA failed to acknowledge that those who might be harmed or killed by US ghg emissions had a right to consent to be harmed thus violating principles of procedural justice.
In response to the Clinton CBA, opponents of Kyoto argued that the Clinton Administration’s analysis understated the costs to the United States economy. The fossil fuel industry and others continued to oppose ratification of the Kyoto Protocol mostly on the basis that costs to the United States compliance with the Protocol would exceed benefits.
The most morally repugnant tactics of merchant class schemes that I have seen that have undermined the public good, a behavior predicted by Adam Smith, is likely the climate change disinformation campaign, see numerous articles and videos on the climate change disinformation campaign on this website.
I have struggled to express my view of the depth of the moral depravity of the climate change disinformation campaign which sociologists have well documented who paid for it, how it was organized, and how it operated. See, Is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity. While fully acknowledging the importance of skepticism to science, skeptics must play by the rules of science including subjecting their claims to peer review. Ethically this is mandatory particularly when the skepticism is circulated to the public with the express goal of undermining the peer-reviewed science for the sole purpose of undermining public support for regulatory action that the most prestigious scientific organizations and Academies of Sciences have claimed government action is necessary to prevent catastrophic harm.
Nor can this be excused on the ground of free speech, a defense that the opponents of climate policies often make when they are confronted by the damage they have done in supporting the climate change disinformation campaign.
Its tactics have included the following which are further described in several articles and videos on this website under the category climate disinformation.
Climate change is an environmental problem about which a little reflection reveals cant be solved at the national level because CO2 emissions from all countries mix well in the atmosphere, and raise atmospheric concentrations globally and thus are partly responsible for the horrific harms around the world including droughts, floods, more intense storms. In other words US GHG emissions increase climate harms everywhere which is often ignored while the press limits coverage to time left to achieve a Paris warming limit goal. Because, no other environmental problem known to me has this characteristic , I have concluded that the failure of competent people in their discipline to give informed advice on several important policy issues is because there are scientific aspects of climate change that are different than other more common environmental problems that require different policy responses that need to consider input from different disciplines.
The fact that excessive GHG emissions from any country are contributing to environmental harms globally because they mix well in the atmosphere raising atmospheric concentrations everywhere is never discussed in the US media in my experience, which is even more startling when the media extensively covers the migrant problem on the Mexican Texas border.
Recently the US media covered the claim of some Republicans that the refugee crisis serge on the Mexican Border was caused by the Democrats while not connecting this to predictions made by the Army War College in 1997 during war games and that i attended and later described in more detail in the 2008 Army War College report referenced above that drought would create migrants in many parts of the world that would cause social disruption and conflict.
In I997, while serving as US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations, I was invited to participate in war games at the Army War College which were examining risks from climate change that could cause social conflict. One of the security risks the army examined that day was from refugees in Syria which had a large farming area that was vulnerable to drought. In 2001 a three year drought began in Syria which caused 1,000,000 refugees who are still destabilizing large parts of Europe.
The US army also predicted over 20 years ago that three countries in Central America were vulnerable to drought and therefore likely to produce refugees. Yet this aspect of the refugee problems that are causing social disruption is rarely commented on in the media while discussing refugee problems from Syria and Central America.
The Army War College in a more recent 2008 report assessing climate threats predicted horrific impacts to the United States and around the world leading to social disruption and conflict. Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65. https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/65
Yet, I cant stress enough the moral unacceptability of using violence or property damage as a tactic to respond to injustice as Martin Luther King stressed He also claimed that it will undermine the credibility of the protestor’s moral claim.
Having written a book in 2002 called “American Heat, Ethical Problems with the US response to Global Warming,” I was greatly surprised in March 2009 when the George W. Bush State Department invited me to speak to the Scottish Parliament about ethical issues raised by climate-change policies as they were debating an aggressive climate-change law in Edinboro.
Before I spoke, a Scottish Parliamentarian made an argument that I have never heard any US politician make nor American climate activist. He argued that Scotland should adopt the new aggressive legislation under consideration because the Scots had an obligation to the rest of the world to do so. This justification is remarkably enlightened compared to the Trump’s deeply morally bankrupt justifications for getting the US out of the Paris Agreement on the basis of putting America First. He also gave several other justifications for leaving the deal which were factually wrong such as the Paris Agreement was unfair to the US. The UNFCCC a allows nations to decide what equity requires of them.
In the coverage of Trump’s decision to get out of the Paris deal all commentators that I have heard ever mentioned that US delay makes achieving the Paris warming limit goal more difficult because the available budget for the world that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal has gotten smaller have never mentioned in the press discussion of Trump’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Deal.
Trump’s America First and claims that the Paris Deal is unfair to the US justification for leaving Paris are based upon obvious easily falsifiable crazy assumptions yet the US media has largely focused public attention on the fact that the US could rejoin which Biden has decided to do.
I noticed during my career as an environmental lawyer in government which started soon after the first Earth day in 1970 that the value of the environment became understood to be more and more its commodity value, while Rachel Carson claimed that the environment should be preserved for the benefit of future generations. This phenomenon of making the value of everything its commodity value is consistent with the ideology of neoliberalism that continued to gain force beginning in the late 1970s. One of the neoliberalism’s central ideas is that government’s regulatory decisions should be based on market valuation not ethical logic. This is inconsistent with so many universally accepted ethical principles such as the golden rule that are the basis for much of international law.
By the miid-1980s both Democrats and Republicans used with increasing frequency cost-benefit analysis to determine whether a law or regulation was appropriate. And so by 1997, while the Clinton administration was debating internally whether it should decide to join the Kyoto Protocol on the basis of two cost-benefit analyses both of which had commodified the costs and benefits by looking looking at US impacts of climate change alone, nor consulted with those who who were most vulnerable to climate impacts, nor considered that under the ‘no harm’ rule that the US had agreed to the US is morally if not legally enforceable responsible for harms they contributed to in other countries.
About a decade ago, John Broom, a respected English economist/philosopher was giving a lecture at the University of Delaware, when during a break in his presentation he casually asked the audience a question. “Do you know how to calculate the value of climate caused harms if climate change kills all the people in the world?” I experienced this question as a Monty Python moment. This is the kind question that a comic would ask to show the obvious absurdity of a claim.
It is amazing to me that many ethical problems with cost benefit analysis are rarely discussed in the US media, despite obvious ethical problems with its use to determine justice. CBA can be productively useful as a tool to determine efficiency of policy options, but as IPCC said economic conclusions by themselves cant determine justice. .
In 1997, I was asked by the US State Department while serving as US EPA Program Manger to the UN to co-chair for the US in a UN negotiation that was considering a document in which all governments, not IPCC scientists, would be asked to agree that the elevated warming the Earth was already experiencing was human caused. By the end of the negotiation all approximately 155 nations agreed to a stipulate that the balance of the evidence supported human causation. Yet 30 years later, all Republican presidential candidates and some democratic politicians would not agree that climate change is human caused. Given the destruction to human health, property, and ecological systems on which life depends, this is a failure of monumental tragic significance. Many scientists and academics usually respond to issues about models. In addition to the models being able to usually predict future temperatures and when run backward usually describe prior warming, other evidence that deepen the moral duty to take action is the for me,is finger prints evidence and attribution studies that test whether natural forces that have driven Earth’s natural heating an cooling cycles are extraordinary strong evidence that warming is very likely human caused more than enough to crate moral responsibility to act in most peoples views.
Enlightenment philosophers and several US founding fathers claimed that the purpose of a democracy was to achieve the common good. Because of this, and aware that some economically powerful entities or people might try and make the government work for their economic interests, they advised that citizens should be educated in science and other disciplines that would help them critically evaluate factual claims and ethics to enable them to critically evaluate disputes about justice.
In the next post we will describe the overall failure of higher education to educate civil society with critical thinking skills needed to evaluate contentious normative conclusions in claims that arise in government’s efforts to achieve the common good. We will see that some of these problems are also attributable to academic philosophy departments which have mostly focused on theoretical philosophical issues, not on helping training students to spot and resolve ethical issues that arise in policy controversies. Unfortunately and tragically, many universities also have changed their major focus to training students in skills needed in the market economy not to make government work for the common good. And why this has happened has also been the subject of social research that we will write about next
The next entry on this topic will cover in more detail why higher education is partially responsible for US and other country failures to get traction for ethics in response to national responses to climate change despite the continuing need to praise some academics for their courage in helping civil society understand the validity of mainstream science. To say that higher education is part of the problem should not be interpreted to demean the academics who are making valient contributions but to explain why the US universities ever increasing focus on technical issues is lamentable.
There over 200 entries on these issues on ths website which can be found in the search bar.
Because global cooperation is needed to solve other emerging global threats that cant be solved at the national level, global cooperation will require getting traction for ethics in international negotiations on these additional threats. Thus problems discussed here are relevant to other emerging needs for nations to cooperate on global governance
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence,
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University Commonwealth Law School
Winner of the UNESCO prize for excellence in ethics in science
This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19. This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.
When invited by UNESCO to Paris in 2019 to receive the Avicenna Award for my work on climate ethics, they introduced 10 young people who like Greata not only spoke passionately to their governments about the injustices of the governments positions but had actually succeeded in getting their governments to change their positions. Ever since then when I am asked what gives me hope in the dire climate position the world is I mention the young people who are speaking out about the climate injustices of their government’s positions.
Greta’s 2019 speech at the UN on climate change was a brilliant lesson both on the potential power of bringing attention to moral bankruptcy of arguments made by opponents of needed climate change policies, as well as a model for how to make moral and ethical arguments critical of reasons offered in opposition to climate policies. Thunberg’s speech successfully demonstrated the power of moral arguments critical of claims made by opponents of climate change policies for two reasons: first, because of her speech’s rhetorical excellence, and second for Thunberg’s selection of facts about climate change which supported the speech’s main thesis that governments’ failures to act to reduce the threat of climate change are morally repugnant.
Aristotle claimed in his writing on rhetoric that speakers are effective in persuading their listeners if the speaker exhibits three qualities: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
Ethos. Speakers exhibit ethos if they convince listeners that the speaker is motivated by what is right or wrong, not by self-interest. Greta Thunberg effectively communicated by her choice of words, rhythm, and emotions that she was motivated by the moral indefensibility of governments that have refused to do what is necessary to avoid climate change harms given the facts she stated in support of this conclusion.
Pathos. Effective speakers demonstrate some passion about the injustice that is motivating him or her. Greta Thunberg’s display of anger was palpable and supported by the facts she relied upon.
Logos. In an effective speech, the speaker’s claims and conclusions are clear and logical. The facts which motivated and supported the premise of her speech, namely that governments’ responses to climate change are morally repugnant, were clearly stated.
B. The Speech’s Foundational Facts
The facts the speech relied upon to support the claim that governments’ responses to climate change are morally indefensible were very persuasive. The speech made the following claims about governments’ inadequate response to climate change:
1, You have stolen my dreams. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.
2. The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50 % chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.
3. 50 % may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.
4. “So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.
5. “To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. – the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on Jan. 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons.
6. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.
7. “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.
She then invited listeners to reflect on the moral significance of these facts by repeating the words “How dare you” four times after stating the facts.
The facts that Greta Thunberg relied on to support her conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible effectively supported this conclusion.
There are many other facts that proponents of climate change policies could also rely on to support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible. For instance proponents of climate change policies could bring attention to the following facts which also support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible:
The staggering magnitude of percent reductions in GHG emissions needed to achieve any warming limit goal such as 1.5 C or 2.0 C become greater the longer governments wait to respond because current emissions are rapidly consuming any carbon budget that the world must live within to achieve any warming limit goal.
The IPCC carbon budgets on which the quantity of reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal have been calculated through the use of climate models which have ignored some of the positive feedbacks such as methane emissions from melting permafrost or rapid breakup of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, both of which are already starting to happen.
The percentage reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal articulated by IPCC are for the entire world and ignore the legal, practical, and ethical obligations of developed countries to go faster than poor developed countries under the concept of “equity.”
Although skepticism in science is necessary for science to develop, sociologists have documented that fossil fuel companies have funded disinformation about climate science to undermine public confidence in the conclusions of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world. See Why Climate Science Disinformation is So Ethically Abhorrent
This site has often commented negatively on the propensity of many proponents of climate change policies to justify climate action largely by making claims that simply counter the factual arguments of opponents of climate change such as that climate change policies are unjustified because they will impose unacceptable costs on the economy, to which most proponents of climate policies often respond by claiming that policies will create new jobs. Such responses allow opponents of climate change to frame the problem in a way that ignores the moral problems with their arguments. Philosophers call this type of reasoning, which is reasoning exclusively based on facts that ignores ethical and justice issues “instrumental reasoning’ and sociologists have warned for over a decade that economically powerful entities would accomplish their goals by tricking citizens to limit their arguments about public policy to instrumental reasons. The mainstream media, at least in the United States, almost never brings attention when the fossil fuel industry and other opponents of climate policy make factual economic or scientific uncertainty arguments against climate policies to the strong ethical arguments that can be made in response to these claims.
The facts relied upon by Greta Thunberg and those above could help citizens understand the moral indefensibility of governments’ inadequate responses to climate change. Armed with such facts and learning from Greta Thunberg’s excellent rhetorical techniques could make climate change activists more effective in getting governments to make the extraordinary urgent hard-to-imagine reductions in GHG emissions needed to prevent climate catastrophe.
Sociologists also claim that the most successful social movements are energized by a strong sense of unfairness or injustice of the status quo. For this reason, although appeals to the self-interest of citizens based upon identifying the harms from climate change that they will experience should continue, such an appeal to self-interest alone does not justify ignoring the strong moral problems with the arguments of those who oppose climate change policies. In fact, only responding to the factual scientific and economic arguments of climate change policy opponents by making counter “factual” economic and scientific claims has the ironic effect of justifying the notion that these instrumental reasons for opposing climate change policies are ethically legitimate. In addition, as we have explained in the recent website entry UNESCO Examines the Urgency of and Strategy for Getting Traction for Ethical Guidance in Climate Change Policy Formation at Bangkok Program.there is no hope of averting catastrophic climate impacts unless governments comply with their ethical obligations under the UNFCCC. Moreover. not raising ethical problems with the arguments of those opposing climate change policies is a practical mistake because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail to survive minimum ethical scrutiny. They usually violate non-controversial, widely agreed-upon ethical principles such as human rights obligations, the “no-harm” principle of customary international law, or the “precautionary principle” expressly agreed to by all nations in the 1992 UNFCCC among many other ethical principles.
For these reasons, Greta Thunberg’s UN speech should be honored and used as an inspiration by climate activists around the world while encouraging the media to cover the ethical issues raised by climate change formation controversies.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Most arguments against climate change laws and policies are based on claims of unacceptable costs or scientific uncertainty, arguments that hide or ignore ethical problems with these arguments, This video explains how to ask questions of those who oppose climate change policies on the basis of cost or scientific uncertainty which questions are designed to expose ethical problems with these arguments.
The list of questions referenced in the video follows:
Questions to be asked of those opposing government action on climate change on the basis of cost to the economy, cost to specific industries, or job destruction.
When you argue that governments should not adopt policies to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that climate policies will impose unacceptable costs on national economies, destroy specific industries, or kill jobs:
Do you deny high-emitting nations not only have economic interests but also duties and obligations to nations and people most vulnerable to climate impacts to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions?
Do you deny that a high emitting nation needs to take responsibility for the harms to human health and ecological systems on which life depends which the nation is causing in other nations
Do you deny the applicability of the well-established international norm that polluters should pay for consequences of their pollution?
Do you agree that a nation’s climate change policy is implicitly a position on how high atmospheric concentrations of ghgs should be allowed to rise?
Do you agree that a national ghg emissions target must be understood as implicitly a position on a global emissions reduction pathway necessary to stabilize atmospheric ghg concentrations at safe levels?
Do you agree that no nation has a right kill other people or destroy the ecological systems on which life depends simply because reducing ghg emissions will impose costs on the high-emitting nation?
Do you agree that nations which emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting vulnerable countries and individuals who have done little to cause climate change?
Do you agree that the costs of inaction on climate change must be considered by nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them?\
Given that the United States has for over twenty-five years failed to adequately respond to climate change because of alleged unacceptable costs to it and that due to delay ghg emissions reductions now needed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change are much steeper and costly than what would be required if the United States acted twenty-five years ago, is it just for the United States to now defend further inaction on climate change on the basis of cost
Questions to be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty.
When you argue that nations such as the United States or states, regional, or local governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emission because of scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts:
On what specific basis do you disregard the conclusions of the United States Academy of Sciences and over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations whose membership includes those with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and the Royal Society of the UK and according to the American Academy of Sciences 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change which conclusions holds that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are already being experienced in parts of the world, and that the international community is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are some remaining scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve uncertainties before action is taken will virtually guarantee that it will too late to prevent catastrophic human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems around the world?
Given that waiting until uncertainties are resolved will make climate change harms worse and the scale of reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change much more daunting, do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in any decision about whether a nation should wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change because of scientific uncertainty?
Should a nation like the United States which has much higher historical and per capita emissions than other nations be able to justify its refusal to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty, given that if the mainstream science is correct, the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent warming above 2.Oo C, a temperature limit which if exceeded may cause rapid, non-linear climate change.
If you claim that there is no evidence of human causation of climate change are you aware that there are multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies which point to human causation of observed warming?
When you claim that the United States or other nations emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven in peer reviewed scientific literature that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?
If you concede that climate skeptics have not proven in peer-reviewed journals that human-induced warming is not a very serious threat to human health and ecological systems, given that human-induced warming could create catastrophic warming the longer the human community waits to respond to reduce the threat of climate change and the more difficult it will be to prevent dangerous warming, do you agree that those responsible for rising atmospheric ghg concentrations have a duty to demonstrate that their ghg emissions are safe?
Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty? Article 3 states: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. (UNFCCC, Art 3)
Do agree if a government is warned by some of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world that activities within its jurisdiction are causing great harm to and gravely threatening hundreds of millions of people outside their government’s jurisdiction, government officials who could take steps to assure that activities of their citizens do not harm or threaten others should not be able escape responsibility for preventing harm caused by simply declaring that they are not scientists?
If a nation such as the United States which emits high-levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually seriously harms the health of tens of millions of others and ecological systems on which their life depends, should the nation be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?
This entry will examine ethical issues raised by relying on putting a price on carbon as a policy response to reduce the threat of climate change.
Establishing a price on carbon emissions as a response to reduce a government’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has received strong support around the world. One observer of global climate change policy developments has concluded:
Not only is there a robust consensus among economists, but they have been remarkably successful in spreading the gospel to the wider world as well. Climate activists, wonks, funders, politicians, progressives, and even conservatives (the few who take climate seriously) all sing from the same hymnal. It has become conventional wisdom that a price on carbon is the sine qua non of serious climate policy. (Roberts, 2016)
This article will identify potential ethical problems with relying on carbon pricing to reduce the enormous threat of climate change despite the widespread popularity of pricing carbon regimes. As we shall see, although a few ethicists have ethical problems with any carbon pricing scheme, many others approve of carbon pricing schemes provided that the regime design adequately deals with certain ethical issues that carbon pricing regimes frequently raise.
Climate pricing regimes vary greatly from the government to government and among different types of carbon pricing regimes. However, there are two basic methods for using a price on carbon to reduce greenhouse (GHG) emissions.
The first is to distribute carbon caps, often referred to as carbon allowances, to GHG emitters usually followed by a tightening of the cap over time to achieve desired GHG emissions reduction goals. Those who have more allowances than they need may sell allowances to those who do not have enough. Thus carbon allowances may be bought and sold, a scheme that is often justified by economists by claiming that this approach leads to GHG reductions at the lowest cost thereby finding an efficient solution to climate change while the amount`of GHG emissions achieved by the scheme may be determined by the total amount of allowances permitted. This method is usually referred to as “cap and trade”
Many cap and trade regimes allow those who need additional allowances to reduce GHG emissions to levels required by the cap to fund GHG emissions reduction projects often anywhere in the world including in places without a cap and get credit for the amount of GHG reductions achieved by the funded project, which credit then can be applied to determine whether the cap has been achieved. Different trading regimes have different rules specifying where and under what conditions emissions credits can be obtained by funding projects in other places.
The other common carbon pricing scheme is for government to charge a price for carbon emissions, a method usually referred to as carbon taxing. The carbon tax works also to lower GHG emissions because it makes technologies which produce less GHG per unit of energy more attractive thereby creating strong incentives for energy users to switch to energy technologies which produce less GHG emissions per unit of energy produced. A price on carbon also creates incentives for all those responsible for GHG emissions to do what they can to emit less GHGs, including, for instance, reducing their carbon footprints by driving less, walking more, lowering thermostats in the winter, adding insulation to buildings, etc.
For these reasons, putting a price on carbon emissions as a policy response to human-induced climate change has strong global support particularly among economists.
This article will identify ethical issues created by (a) any carbon pricing scheme, (b) cap and trade regimes, and (c) carbon taxing regimes. This analysis will be followed by several conclusions.
II. Ethical Issues Raised By Any Carbon Pricing Scheme.
Although many ethicists who have identified ethical issues raised by policy responses to climate change that rely on putting a price on carbon acknowledge that pricing schemes have shown to be effective in reducing GHG emissions often at lower costs than other regulatory approaches, some ethicists nonetheless oppose carbon pricing schemes because of certain ethical problems with these schemes. Many other ethicists who acknowledge potential ethical problems with carbon pricing schemes believe these problems can be adequately dealt with by appropriate carbon pricing regime design. Yet even if ethical problems raised by carbon pricing regimes can be averted through carbon pricing regime design, policymakers and citizens need to understand these ethical problems so that they can be mitigated in the design of the carbon pricing scheme.
An ethical approach to climate change would limit GHG emissions by law at levels necessary to prevent human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems. For instance, many governments have established legal requirements on the percentage of renewable energy required of electricity providers, a policy response that does no rely on pricing carbon. An ethical approach to climate change is based on different justifications for reducing change harms than some economic approaches. As Vanderhelen said:
An ethical approach to climate policy is based on different assumptions than economic-based policy assumptions. The ethical approach says we should act on climate change now, not because the future costs of inaction exceed those of mitigation, but because the failure to do so harms others. It is our ethical duty to avoid this. (Vanderhelen, 2011)
And so an ethical approach to climate change requires those who are responsible for human-induced climate change harms to comply with their duty to not harm others without regard to the economic value of costs and benefits of climate change policy responses. All national governments in the world have duties to take actions that reduce GHG emissions from their jurisdiction to the nation’s fair share of safe global GHG emissions under the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In addition, an ethical approach to climate change also identifies ethical issues raised by carbon pricing schemes including the following:
A. Assuring the price will achieve GHG reductions at levels entailed by the government’s ethical obligations.
The amount and speed of GHG emissions reductions that government policies should achieve is fundamentally an ethical question that economic reasoning alone cannot determine. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its 5th Assessment Report:
How should the burden of mitigating climate change be divided among countries? It raises difficult questions of fairness, and rights, all of which are in the sphere of ethics. (IPCC, 2014, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 215).
The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg.224).
What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, 2014,.AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 225).
Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice (IPCC,2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3,pg. 225).
[I]t is morally proper to allocate burdens associated with our common global climate challenge according to ethical principles. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).
Thus, no carbon pricing scheme alone without consideration of ethical issues can determine what the magnitude and timing of a government’s GHG emissions reduction goals should be because a government’s GHG emissions reduction goals must be based on fairness, justice, and obligations to not harm others or the ecological systems on which life depends without the consent of those who will be harmed. These are essentially ethical matters that economic rationality alone cannot deal with. Proponents of carbon pricing schemes claim that pricing regimes allow those responsible for reducing GHG emissions to achieve reductions at the lowest cost, yet the amount of reductions that a nation is obligated to achieve is essentially an ethical matter. So the goal of any pricing scheme should be designed to achieve ethically justified national GHG emissions reduction targets.
All nations in the world have agreed under the 2015 Paris Accord that they are duty bound to adopt policies that will enable the international community to limit warming to between 1.5 degrees C and 2.0 degrees C, the warming limit goal, on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in light of national circumstances, the ‘equity’ requirement under the Paris Agreement.(UNFCCC, Paris Agreement, 2015, Art 2.) And so all nations have an ethical duty to determine their GHG emissions reduction goals which at a minimum would limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C although no greater than 2.0 degrees C on the basis of what equity requires of it to achieve these warming limits. Equity is understood by philosophers as a synonym for distributive justice.
Although there are differences among ethicists about what equity requires, “equity” may not be construed to mean anything that a nation claims it to mean, such as national economic self-interest. As IPCC said, despite ambiguity about what equity means:
there is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).
The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg 317)
As a result, because some pricing regimes will not reduce national GHG emissions to levels required by their national obligations under the Paris Agreement even those nations that have adopted some kind of carbon pricing regime have had to enact other climate change policies to achieve the nation’s GHG reduction goals. For this reason and because some politicians have conditioned their support for a proposed carbon pricing scheme on acceptance of legal provisions that prohibit policy responses that are in addition to a carbon pricing scheme under consideration by a legislature, policymakers and citizens need to understand that any carbon pricing scheme must assure that a government’s emissions reduction policies will achieve the government’s ethically determined carbon emissions reduction obligations. Thus they must oppose legislation that prohibits a government from supplementing carbon pricing schemes with other laws to reduce GHG emissions.
Thus the quantity of the price placed on carbon under a taxing scheme or the magnitude of allowances under a cap and trade regime should be established after express determination of the government’s ethically prescribed obligations to reduce GHG emissions to its fair share of adequately safe global emissions.
Every national GHG emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on two profound ethical questions among others. They are:
the amount of warming and associated harms the nation is willing to inflict on others including poor vulnerable people and nations, Since all nations have agreed under the Paris Agreement to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C and no greater than 2.0 degrees C, these warming limits should be the default assumptions of governments’ GHG reduction target formulation;
the nation’s fair share of total global GHG emissions that may not be exceeded to keep global warming from exceeding the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals of 1.5 degrees C to 2.0 degrees C
Thus, to make sense of the acceptability of any carbon pricing scheme, government’s should; (a) identify its GHG reduction target, (b) how the target achieves its GHG emissions reduction obligations in regard to warming limits and fairness, (c) the date by which the target will be achieved, and (e) the reduction pathway that will achieve the GHG reduction goal.
The date by which the GHG reductions will be achieved is ethically relevant because any delay in achieving required reductions affects the remaining carbon budget that is available to assure that any warming limit goal is achieved. Carbon budgets that must constrain global GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal such as the 1.5 degrees C to 2.0 degrees C warming limit goals under the Paris Agreement continue to shrink until total GHG emissions are reduced to levels that will stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations at levels that will not cause warming greater than the warming limit goal. Therefore both the magnitude of the government’s GHG emissions reduction goals and the time it takes to achieve the goal are relevant factors in regard to whether any government will achieve GHG reductions that represent its fair share of safe global emissions. In fact the reduction pathway by which the reduction goal will be achieved is also relevant to whether a government will reduce its GHG emissions to levels required of it by its obligations because pathways which produce rapid reductions early in any period will consume less of a shrinking carbon budget than pathways that achieve most of the reductions at later times in the relevant period. This fact is depicted in this chart.
This chart demonstrates that different GHG reduction pathways may consume different amounts of any relevant carbon budget even if the percent amount of reductions, in this case, 100% reduction by 2050, is the same for the different pathways. The amount of the budget consumed by the two pathways is represented by the areas underneath the curves.
B. Intrinsic Ethical Problems With Any Carbon Pricing Scheme.
A few ethicists argue that relying on putting a price on carbon to achieve a government’s obligations is ethically problematic without regard to the details of the pricing scheme.
Ethicist Michael Sandel, for instance, in a 1967 OpEd in the New York Times entitled It’s Immoral to Buy the Right to Pollute identified the following ethical problems with pricing carbon after acknowledging that trading GHG emissions allowances could make compliance for the United States cheaper and less painful. (Sandel, 1967)
Turning pollution into a commodity to be bought and sold removes the moral stigma that is properly associated with it. If a company is fined by a government for spewing excessive pollutants into the air, the government conveys its judgment that the polluter has done something wrong. A fee, on the other hand, makes pollution just another cost of doing business, like wages, benefits, and rent. (Sandel, 1967)
The distinction between a fine and a fee for despoiling the environment is not one we should give up too easily. Suppose there was a $100 fine for throwing a beer can into the Grand Canyon, and a wealthy hiker decided to pay $100 for the convenience. Would there be nothing wrong with his treating the fine as if it were simply an expensive dumping charge?
Or consider the fine for parking in a place reserved for the disabled. If a busy contractor needs to park near his building site and is willing to pay the fine, is there nothing wrong with his treating that space as an expensive parking lot?
In effacing the distinction between a fine and a fee, emission trading is like a recent proposal to open carpool lanes on Los Angeles freeways to drivers without passengers who are willing to pay a fee. Such drivers are now fined for slipping into carpool lanes; under the market proposal, they would enjoy a quicker commute without opprobrium. (Sandel, 1967)
Some human behavior is so morally reprehensible that charging a price for the behavior to create a disincentive is widely seen as morally unacceptable. For instance, most societies would agree that a strategy to reduce child prostitution that relies on increasing the price of child prostitution or taxing a sexual transaction in which children are involved is morally unacceptable. Because some countries’ GHG emissions are far greater than any reasonable determination of their fair share of safe global emissions and these GHG emissions are already contributing to the killing or harming millions of people around the world while threatening tens of millions of others, allowing GHG emitters to continue to emit GHGs at unsafe levels if they are willing to pay the price required by a government rather then establishing a legally determined maximum emissions rate consistent with the emitter’s morally determined emissions limits can be argued to be as morally unacceptable as dealing with child prostitution by imposing a tax. Even though a tax might achieve the same amount of reductions as a legal limit implemented by an enforceable cap on GHG emissions amounts, applying a tax implicitly signals that it is morally permissible to continue emitting GHGs at current levels as long as the carbon tax is paid. Thus, the tax can diminish the moral stigma entailed by status quo levels of emissions.
Putting a price on carbon as a policy response to climate change is often justified by economists as a way to make sure that market transactions consider the value of harms caused by climate change that are unpriced in market transactions. For instance, because the price of coal does not consider the value of the harms caused by the burning of coal that will be experienced by some people who are not participants in the sale of the coal, putting a price on carbon equivalent to the value of the harms caused by the burning of coal is a way of assuring that the value of the harms caused by the coal are considered in the market transaction. This addition to the price is referred to as a Pigovian tax or a tax on any market transaction that generates negative externalities, so that the value of the negative externalities is included in the market price. Most economists recommend that the amount of the tax be based on the social cost of the negative externalities where the social costs are measured in dollars or other monetary units determined by the amount people would be willing to pay to prevent the harm. Once the cost the harms is determined and included in a tax, the market will be able to operate efficiently.
Economists thus justify a tax set in this way because it enables the market to maximize preferences. But ethics is interested not in maximizing preferences people have but in assuring that people’s preferences are those that people should have morally. For ethicists, it is wrong to harm people without their consent, even if those causing the harm could pay victims money calculated by the market value of the harm. That is, according to most ethicists it is morally wrong to harm people or the ecological systems on which life depends even if those causing the harm are willing to compensate those harmed. Some ethicists therefore argue, putting a price on carbon as a policy response to climate change does not pass ethical scrutiny unless the price prevents all non-trivial harms to life, health, and ecological property that people have not consented to. Given that some human rights have already been demonstrated to be violated by climate change (UNHR, 2018), any price on carbon that allows human rights violations to continue does not pass ethical scrutiny.
And so putting a price on carbon does not pass ethical scrutiny as long as the price does not prevent the harms that people have right to object to without their consent.
Although the money from the carbon tax could be used to compensate people for harms caused by climate change, this potential use of the tax revenues does not ethically justify continuing the behavior which causes serious harms to others without the consent of those who are harmed. In addition, because those being harmed by GHG emissions are people all around the world, if the revenue from a tax is to be used to compensate those who will be harmed by the GHG emission, the revenues from a tax would have to be distributed worldwide. At this time there is no such global revenue stream from national carbon pricing schemes.
Many citizens and institutions around the world including many colleges and universities have significantly reduced their carbon footprint because they believed they had a moral obligation to do so as long as their GHG emissions could contribute to harming people, animals, ecological systems on which life depends, or things of great value to people. A sense of moral obligation, without doubt, motivates, at least some people and institutions, to do the right thing. Yet pricing carbon as a response to climate change does not create a legal prohibition to reduce GHG emissions but only an economic incentive to do so. A government could always legally prohibit activities that create GHG emissions that create harms, an approach to changing behavior that was the dominant strategy in environmental law for many decades. Economists, however, have often objected to these “command and control’ approaches because they claim that market-based mechanisms can achieve needed reductions in a more efficient economic way, that is, at a price that includes consideration of the value of the harms created.
At least in the United States, many of the proponents of carbon pricing are failing to educate civil society about the moral obligations of all nations and people to reduce GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a concern particularly in light of the very limited time left to limit warming to non-catastrophic levels. These proponents often passionately advocate for the adoption of a carbon pricing scheme because they are accurately convinced that a price on carbon will reduce GHG emissions, yet ignore discussing the non-discretionary moral duty to reduce GHG emissions thus inadvertently leaving the impression that provided that those who are willing to pay a price placed on carbon they have no moral obligation to cease activities which are responsible for carbon emissions.
Economists often justify their market-based solutions as a method for maximizing the enjoyment of human preferences. They thus calculate the value of harms avoided by climate policies by determining a market value of the harm and if there is no market value they often determine the value of the harms by determining what people are willing to pay to prevent the harm. This allows the economists to compare the cost of reducing GHG emissions against the value of harms prevented through pricing and in so doing allows a policymaker to select a policy option which maximizes human preferences. Yet, as we have seen ethics is concerned not solely with efficiently achieving the preferences people have but with establishing what preferences people should have in light of their moral obligations.
Under an ethical approach to climate change based on an injunction against harming others, because any additional GHG are raising GHG atmospheric levels which are already increasing harms people are suffering from droughts, floods, intense storms, tropical storms, and heat waves among other causes of climate-induced harms, an ethical argument can be made that any carbon pricing scheme should seek to achieve the lowest feasible GHG emissions levels as quickly as possible. Ethics refuses to define what is ‘feasible’ in terms of the balance of costs and benefits. Ethics requires that harm to innocent victims must be avoided, even when the cost of reducing pollution exceeds the monetary value of harms to life and ecological systems on which life depends. Not all economists, of course, argue that government policies should be based on cost-benefit analysis but many do.
An ethical approach to climate change also requires that polluters should pay for the harms and damages they create as well as the costs to them of reducing the pollution. Many carbon pricing schemes ignore the duty of GHG emitters to compensate those who have been harmed by their GHG emissions and base the amount of the tax on the amount of money needed to reduce GHG emissions while ignoring any obligations to compensate those who have been harmed by their emissions. This problem could be remedied by basing any price on the amount of money needed to compensate those who have experienced loses and damages or by providing separate funds to compensate those who are harmed by climate change but most carbon pricing schemes fail to take these matters into consideration.
Ethicists also acknowledge that climate-related harms are more likely to affect the poor, not just those who are now being asked to contribute toward its mitigation. For this reason, many ethicists prefer laws that prohibit certain immoral behaviors over laws that allow people to continue their immoral behavior if they are willing to pay higher prices entailed by the value of the harms caused by their behavior.
Economists often support pricing schemes if the pricing leads to the market incentivizing the use of alternative technologies that don’t create the harms of concern. In such cases, the morality of the pricing scheme likely depends on whether the technical transformation created by the pricing scheme will take place soon enough to prevent the harms of concern.
However, even in these cases, many ethicists believe that human activities that create morally unacceptable levels of GHG emissions should be responded to as moral obligations and only support pricing schemes so long as the scheme will enable reducing GHG emissions to morally acceptable levels as rapidly as possible. However, even so, some ethicists warn against erasing the moral stigma entailed by morally unacceptable levels of GHG emissions that could occur by allowing some to continue to exceed their moral obligations if they are willing to pay to do so.
Pope Francis inLaudato Si, the papal encyclical released in July 2015, questions whether market capitalism can effectively protect the poor, and in one passage specifically criticized “the strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits.’ More specifically Laudato Si argues that:
The strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’ can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. (Laudato Si 171).
The Pope’s objection appears to be based in part on the fact that a carbon pricing scheme will allow those who can afford to continue emitting GHGs after paying the pricing fee to do so while those that are unable to afford to pay the fee will need to reduce the activities that create GHG emissions. Yet this problem can be somewhat ameliorated by carbon pricing regime design decisions on how revenues are distributed or how allowances to emit are allocated. However, these decisions raise questions of distributive justice, that is questions about how burdens or benefits of public policy should be allocated to comply with what fairness requires. For this reason, carbon pricing schemes often raise serious questions of distributive justice.
In addition if revenues from pricing schemes are to be used to help compensate those who are most harmed by climate change, given that those who are most harmed are often very poor people in poor nations that usually have done little to cause climate change, the revenues would need to transferred to poor nations and people around the world. Yet no national carbon pricing schemes have yet proposed such international financial transfers.
III. Ethical Issues Raised by Cap and Trade GHG Emissions Reduction Schemes
This paper next examines the following ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes that are additional to those discussed in Section II.
A very detailed examination of some ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes by Simone Carey and Cameron Hepburn is entitled Carbon Trading: Unethical, Unjust, and Ineffective? The Carey/Hepburn paper discusses in detail the following ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes that are in addition to those discussed above. The following is a summary of issues discussed by the Carey/Hepburn paper.
A. Rights to use nature cannot be owned
Because GHG emitters that receive allowances or buy allowances from those that have excess allowances could under some trading mechanisms hold or bank these allowances, holders of allowances could be understood under some trading schemes to have a right pollute the atmosphere at levels entailed by the allowances they hold. However, most ethicists believe that no one should have a property right to pollute the atmosphere. Because in absence of a rule that would prevent the owner of allowances to bank the allowances for use far into the future, the owners of the allowances could accumulate the right to pollute far into the future. As a result, some ethicists have argued that allowances should be limited to a specific time period and be understood to be revocable if the science changes and concludes that greater reductions are necessary then those that were understood to be necessary to prevent harm when the allowances were distributed.
B Responsibilities to abate harms cannot be transferred to others
Some ethicists believe that some human responsibilities should not be allowed to be transferred to others. For instance, it is generally believed to be ethically unacceptable for those who are potentially subject to being drafted into the military to be able to buy their way out of this obligation by paying someone else to agree to take one’s place if he or she is drafted. For this reason, some ethicists claim that is ethically problematic for high GHG emitters to get a credit for reductions made by others while not requiring more of the high emitters to reduce their emissions.
C. Distributive justice issues with how allowances and revenues are allocated
Because those with the money to do so can buy scarce allowances, participants in a cap and trade regime can wind up with vastly unequal levels of allowances creating significant differences among participants in rights to emit GHGs. In addition, because rules determining who can get allowances and what is done with the money generated from allowance trading can create great imbalances, rules for allocating allowances and revenues from sales of allowances should be consistent with what distributive justice requires to assure fair burden and benefit sharing. Distributive justice requires that people should be treated equally unless there are morally relevant reasons for treating people differently. There is no reason in principle for allowance and revenue allocations to lead to a more unequal distribution of wealth. It will depend on how the cap and trade scheme is designed.
These issues are discussed in more detail by the Carey/Hepburn paper.
D. Ethical issues created by the fact that some cap and trade regimes allow high emitters of GHGs to count emissions reductions made by projects of others funded by the emitters in achieving the high emitters’ GHG reduction obligations.
Some cap and trade regimes allow those with GHG emissions reduction obligations to count the reduction of GHG emissions made by others’ projects funded by the emitter as a credit in achieving the emitter’s cap obligations. Economists justify this feature of cap and trade because it allows emitters to achieve GHG reductions at a lower price, However, not all GHG reduction strategies will reduce GHG emissions with equal probabilities that GHG reductions made by the emitter would actually have achieved. For instance, an electricity supplier can commit to reducing its emissions to amounts that will be achieved with high levels of confidence by installing non-fossil energy but if the electricity supplier relies on funding a forestation project in a third world country to obtain a credit for its emissions reductions. the actual reductions to be achieved by the funded project are much more speculative because of problems in assuring that any forest project will keep GHG reductions achieved by photosynthesis of the forest out of the atmosphere forever. Thus funding a project to achieve GHG emissions credits raises issues about the reliability of achieving specific GHG emission reduction amounts that are more reliable if the person responsible for GHG emissions must assure that GHG emissions will actually be achieved.
Thus cap and trade regimes often also raise the following ethical problems which were discussed in more detail in a prior entry on this website. (Brown, Ethical Issues Raised By Carbon Trading, 2010).:
a. Permanence. Many proposed projects for carbon trading raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by a project will stay out of the atmosphere forever. Yet permanent storage of carbon is needed to assure equivalence between emissions reductions avoided if no credits were issued and atmospheric carbon reductions attributable to a project which creates carbon credits. This is so because emissions reductions should guarantee that some quantity of GHG will not wind up in the atmosphere, yet some projects which are used to substitute for emissions reductions at a source have difficulty in demonstrating that the quantities of carbon reductions projected will actually be achieved. For instance, carbon stored in forests, soils, or geological carbon sequestration projects could be released to the atmosphere under the certain conditions. For example, rapid temperature change could kill trees thus releasing back into the atmosphere carbon stored in the trees. This problem is usually referred to as the problem of “permanence” of carbon reduction projects. For this reason, only projects that assure permanent reduction of carbon in the atmosphere can be categorized as environmentally effective projects and should be used to offset activities which actually release carbon.
b. Leakage.Many proposed projects for carbon trading 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 trade could be resumed at another location. For example, paying people to plant trees in location A is not environmentally effective if these same people that receive the money chop down trees at place B. This is the problem usually referred to as “leakage.” Forest and other kinds of bio-sequestration projects that sequester carbon in particular often create leakage challenges. Industrial projects can also create leakage problems if the industry gets credit for reducing carbon at one industrial plant while moving the carbon producing activities to another place. If leakage occurs, then the trade is not environmentally effective.
c. Additionality. Getting a credit for a project which is used in a trade will also not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons. This is so because trading regimes usually assume that a GHG emitter should get credit because of their willingness to invest in projects that reduce carbon emissions that would not happen without the incentive to get credit for carbon reductions. If the project would happen without the investment of the emitter, then the investment in the project is not “additional” to business as usual. This is the problem usually referred to as the “additionality” problem.
d. Enforcement of trading regime. A trading regime is environmentally ineffective if its conditions cannot be enforced. Although enforcement of trading regimes is sometimes practical when the project on which the trade is based is within the jurisdiction of the government issuing the allowances, enforcement is particularly challenging when the project is located outside of allowance issuing government. In such cases, enforcement must be “out-sourced” to other institutions or governments In addition, while many hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in setting up emissions trading schemes all over the world, virtually no resources are being channeled into their enforcement or verification. Although most cap and trade regimes have built-in carbon reduction verification steps, verification remains extremely difficult for many types of carbon reduction projects for which credits are being issued because of the lack of enforcement or long-term verification potential. This enforcement challenge is exacerbated when projects for which credits are issued are in poor countries without the technical capability to enforce or verify that reductions have been made. Because of this, a strong case can be made that those who desire to rely on projects that have dubious enforcement and verification potential should have the burden of demonstrating enforcement and verification potential before they may obtain credits generated from these projects.
e. Distributive justice and internal allocation of a government-wide cap.How a cap is allocated among entities within a government creates many potential distributive justice problems. Governments sometimes distribute a cap they have by giving away allowances, auctioning allowances, and other ad hoc considerations that often take into account political feasibility. Each of these methods of distributing a cap raises distributive justice issues that are often ignored for political reasons. For instance, both auctioning allowances and giving away allowances could be significantly regressive, making higher-income households better off while making lower-income households worse off. Auctioning could also be regressive if the most wealthy get the most permits forcing those without the financial resources into non-polluting options. Sometimes governments choose to allocate the cap by placing caps on “upstream” carbon users such as coal and petroleum companies and ignoring “downstream” carbon emitters such as coal-fired industrial users. A decision to place a cap upstream makes the climate change regime easier to administer but could have regressive effects on those least able to afford increased fuel costs. An upstream cap also can create little incentives for those who can afford to waste energy to change behavior. In contrast, downstream caps puts the responsibility on energy users. There is no ethically neutral way to decide these design questions.
f. Distributive justice and revenue from allowances. When allowances are auctioned or otherwise purchased, governments must make decisions about how to use allowance revenues. These decisions raise a host of distributive justice issues that are often ignored for political reasons. Some governments have chosen, for instance, to use allowance revenues to fund climate change technology research, to meet international obligations to fund climate change adaptation projects in developing countries, to fund programs to reduce deforestation projects in developing countries, to buy off politically powerful opponents to climate change legislation, to help those least able to cope with rising energy costs, or to subsidize nuclear power, geologic carbon sequestration, or renewable energy. Thus, decisions about how to allocate revenues from distributing allowances raise distributive justice issue
IV. Ethical Issues With Carbon Taxes.
In addition to the ethical issues that apply to all carbon pricing regimes identified in section II of this entry, carbon taxing regimes can raise the following additional ethical issues.
a. Distributive Justice and a Carbon Tax. Carbon taxing regimes must decide who must pay the tax and just as is the case for cap and trade regimes in the allocation of allowances, taxing schemes may choose to apply the tax either to upstream producers of carbon fuels such as petroleum or coal companies that distribute fossil fuels or further downstream to entities such as electricity generators who consume the fossil fuels. Upstream taxation creates fewer taxable entities who have a huge tax burden. Therefore the decision on who to tax creates different winners and losers, an outcome which has political significance particularly in places where fossil energy is mostly produced. If the tax is based on the amount of CO2 per unit of energy, then some fossil fuel industries such as coal production will pay a much higher tax per unit of energy, a fact which most greatly affects those places and communities that produce fuels with higher CO2 emissions levels per unit of energy. This fact creates heavy burdens from the tax for those who are dependent on the sale of fuel with higher CO2 production levels. And so a decision about who must pay a tax has distributive justice implications.
How the tax revenues are used by the government also has enormous political and distributive justice implications. Policymakers are faced with many competing ways of using tax revenues generated by putting a price on carbon. Many parts of the world that have established a carbon tax use it primarily to subsidize technologies that produce lower amounts of GHG per unit of energy such as wind and solar power. Other governments use the revenues to ease the burden on those who are most affected by the tax, including poor people. Thus how the revenues of a carbon tax are distributed raises deep questions of distributive justice which also create issues of political feasibility.
b.Amount of the tax.
As we have seen all carbon pricing schemes raise ethical issues about whether the price is sufficient to achieve GHG emissions reductions consistent with the government’s ethically determined obligations to reduce GHG emissions. A pricing regime that is based on taxing carbon emissions raises more challenging questions about whether the tax is ethically stringent enough than cap and trade regimes because governments are able more easily assure that the cap is stringent enough than a regime based on taxing carbon because the size of the cap may be set directly on the magnitude of GHG reductions required for the government to achieve its ethically determined GHG emissions reductions obligations while the sufficiency of a tax must rely on economic modelling to determine the magnitude of reductions that will be achieved by different levels of the tax. Determining the amount GHG reductions that will be achieved by different levels of the tax is always somewhat of a guessing game due to the inherent imprecision of economic modeling to predict how entities and people will respond to different price signals. For this reason, taxing schemes that seek to assure that the government will reduce GHG emissions reductions levels congruent with the government’s ethically determined reduction obligations should include accelerator provisions that would increase the amount of the tax once it is determined that actual GHG reductions are not consistent with reductions pathways required to achieve ethically determined reductions obligations. However, because experience with carbon taxing programs around the world has demonstrated that political backlash will likely arise that undermines government support for continuing a carbon tax that is judged to be too high, governments which seriously seek to reduce their GHG emissions through imposing a tax alone may need to consider back up strategies rather than rapidly accelerating taxes if the original tax does not achieve the GHG reductions required of it by its ethical obligations.
c. Considering responsibility for prior emissions, an issue relevant to distributive justice.
Distributive justice supports an allocation of burden sharing obligations on the basis of who is most responsible for causing the current problem. Carbon tax regimes are usually forward-looking; in that most schemes make everyone pay the same price for using the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb CO2. Thus the scheme ignores responsibility determined by looking backward at questions such as:
Who caused the problem?
Who benefited from past emissions?
Who is in the best position to fix the problem?
To deal with these questions, a carbon tax may need to be supplemented by additional policies, for example by tax credits for poor people or sharing of tax revenues with those who must pay the tax but who have done little to cause the current problem so that the tax scheme can consider the distributive justice implications of looking backward at who is most responsible for the current problem
As we have seen carbon pricing schemes designed to reduce GHG emissions raise a host of ethical issues and problems.
Although many of these ethical problems can be dealt with by the pricing carbon regime design, given the enormous threat to life and ecological systems created by human-induced climate change, perhaps the most important ethical issue raised by carbon pricing regime is whether the carbon pricing regime will be successful in reducing a government’s GHG emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions.
Because there is limited political support for enacting carbon pricing schemes with sufficient pricing levels to achieve the enormous reductions in GHG emissions now necessary to prevent very dangerous climate change, carbon pricing schemes will likely require policy responses in addition to carbon pricing alone.
Because of the need to judge whether any carbon pricing scheme will achieve a government’s ethically determined GHG emissions reduction obligations, all proposed carbon pricing schemes should be clear and transparent on how the pricing scheme will achieve the government’s ethically determined GHG reduction goals. A pricing scheme could contribute to achieving a nation’s GHG reduction obligations either by establishing a price that will sufficiently reduce a government’s GHG emissions to achieve the nation’s GHG reduction obligations by itself or in combination with other GHG reduction policies. However, to judge the adequacy of the pricing scheme, governments should explain the role of any carbon pricing scheme in achieving its ethically determined GHG reduction obligations.
The following comments on this entry were made by Eric Haites, an economic consultant for Margaree Consultants Inc, in Toronto
Ethical Issues Entailed by Pricing Carbon as a Policy Response to Climate Change confuses benefit-cost analysis with carbon pricing and criticizes carbon pricing on grounds that also apply to non-price policies.
Carbon pricing policies – cap and trade systems (CTSs) and carbon taxes – are regulatory measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by specified sources within a jurisdiction. They may be implemented in conjunction with or as substitutes for non-price regulations such as subsidies for non-carbon energy, minimum gasoline efficiency standards for vehicles, funding for affordable public transportation, requirements/incentives to increase the supply of renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for buildings.
Benefit-cost analysis of climate change compares the estimated costs of different levels of global emissions reductions with the estimated value of reduced global climate change damages associated with those emission reductions. Benefit-cost analysis of climate change is extremely complex conceptually and in practice. Since the analysis must span a century or more due to the long atmospheric lives of greenhouse gases, the calculations are very sensitive to the discount rate and have large uncertainty ranges.
A CTS or carbon tax can be implemented by a jurisdiction to help achieve its GHG reduction goal regardless of how that goal is established. A country that has a nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement can use carbon pricing and/or non-price policies to meet its commitment.
It is true that many economics textbooks suggest that the carbon tax be set at the level determined by benefit-cost analysis, but that is not necessary and is based on the implicit assumption that an emissions reduction goal has not been established by other means, such as international negotiations.
Many of the criticisms of carbon pricing policies do not specify an alternative policy. If emissions are to be reduced, the alternative is a set of non-price regulations including efficiency standards and increased reliance on renewable energy. In practice, neither carbon pricing nor non-price regulations cover all GHG emissions, so there are regulated emissions and exempt emissions under every policy.
Consider then the claim that it is immoral to buy the right to pollute. Before a regulation is implemented, the right to pollute in unlimited quantities is free. Regulations impose costs and/or quantity limits on the right to pollute. In the case of a carbon tax, there is a cost for each ton of GHGs emitted by specified sources. In the case of a CTS, total emissions by specified sources are capped. In the case of non-price regulations there is a compliance cost, but any remaining emissions are free and unrestricted. The cost of an efficient automobile is higher, but its emissions are not priced or restricted.
One of the arguments by Simone Carey and Cameron Hepburn cited by the paper is that the rights to nature can not be owned. Many CTSs explicitly state that the allowances are not property rights. Almost all of the CTSs have cancelled or greatly devalued surplus allowances.
In the paper, the discussion of the distinction between a fine and a fee is misleading for a CTS. Every CTS has penalties for non-compliance, so the correct comparison is the fine for a CTS and that for a non-price policy. The non-compliance penalty for most CTSs is a reduction in emissions equal to the exceedance plus a penalty. To use the analogy in the paper, a CTS requires the offender to pick up the beer can and pay a penalty. In contrast, a non-price regulation only imposes a fine.
The paper raises the concern that “the tax can diminish the moral stigma entailed by status quo levels of emissions.” Why would the moral stigma associated with residual emissions differ? Are the residual emissions by a source subject to a carbon tax morally less acceptable than those by the owner of a more efficient automobile. Sources subject to carbon pricing policies have a financial incentive to make emission reductions that cost less than the tax/allowance price. Sources subject to non-price policies have no incentive to reduce their emissions.
Issues of distributive justice arise for all regulations; which sources are regulated, how stringent is the regulation, how should groups that are adversely affected by compensated? The paper clearly identifies these issues for CTSs and carbon taxes. But they apply equally to non-price regulations. Who pays for the more efficient vehicles and buildings, the public transit and the additional renewable energy? Those costs will be borne by specific groups or the government. Carbon pricing policies have the advantage that they generate revenue that can be used to help address distributive justice.
The paper argues that past emissions should be considered when addressing distributive justice. Presumably, this consideration applies to any policy, not just carbon pricing. In practice the ability to do this is limited due to lack of data and the long atmospheric lives of GHGs. Non-price regulations often differentiate between existing and new sources and CTSs address this concern through their allowance allocations.
In summary, carbon pricing can be implemented by a government to help meet its GHG emissions reduction target regardless of how that target is established. A CTS or carbon tax can be implemented alone, jointly or in combination with non-price policies. In practice all jurisdictions with a pricing policy also implement non-price policies. Many of the ethical criticisms of pricing policies apply to non-price policies as well. Price policies have the advantage of raising revenue that can be used to address distributive justice.
 Indeed, they may have a financial incentive to increase emissions. A more efficient vehicle may have a lower operating cost per km so the owner may drive more.
Resonse to comments
I agree that levels of GHG reductions achieved by a pricing scheme need not be determined by Cost-Benefit Analysis although some economists recommend this. In such cases the ethical issues discussed in this paper apply
Mr, Haite is correct that the articles criticism of carbon pricing schemes may also apply to other responses to climate change, However, if the level of reductions that constitute a nation’s GHG reduction target are based on a nation;s ethical obligations, then the problem entailed by some carbon pricing scheme’s allowing emitters to continue emit as long as they pay a tax is not possible.
I. The Failure of Ethical Principles to Get Traction in Climate Change Policy Formation.
This entry will explain why a type of rationality, referred to as instrumental rationality, both dominates policy formation on climate change around the world and is responsible for the failure of ethical principles to guide government responses to climate change.
As we have explained frequently on Ethicsandclimate.org, climate change is a problem with features that particularly require that it be seen and responded to as an ethical problem even more than other environmental problems. These features include that:
First, it is a problem that is being caused by some people in one part of the world who are putting others in other places who have often done little to cause the problem at great risk.
Second, the harms to those at most risk are not mere inconveniences but potentially catastrophic harms to life and natural resources on which life depends. In fact, unless humans adequately respond to climate change’s growing threats, most of life on Earth is threatened.
Finally climate change is a problem about which many of its greatest victims can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments for protection. The victims’ best hope is that the those high-emitting nations and people causing the problem will see that they have duties to climate change victims to avoid harming them.
The ethical dimensions of climate change are important to understand because unless those nations and individuals that are emitting high levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) reduce their emissions in accordance with their ethical obligations, climate change will eventually cause great harm to all but particularly to those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts and who usually have done little to cause the great harm.
There are many ethical principles that should, without controversy, guide national responses to climate change. These include, for instance:
Governments around the world have agreed under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) and agreements by parties under this treaty since then, including the Paris Agreement (Paris Agreement 2015), to adopt national climate change policies on the basis of several ethical principles including the duty to establish national policies in accordance with equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.1), to apply the precautionary principle that prohibits nations from using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking action to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.3), and the principle that developed countries have the obligation to take the lead on reducing the threat of climate change (UNFCCC,1992, Art 3.1), and to enact policies that limit warming to between 1.5 to 2.0 degrees C (United Nations, 2015 Art 2)
In addition there are numerous other non-controversial ethical norms that are understood to apply to nations as a matter of international law to global environmental problems such as climate change including the “no harm principle” which obligates nations to prevent people or entities within their jurisdiction from harming people and nations outside their borders (UNFCCC,1992, Preamble), and the “polluter pays principle” which requires those nations causing harm from pollution to pay for the damages they cause (Rio Declaration, 1992, Principle 16).
Yet most nations are completely ignoring these ethical obligations when they formulate policy responses to climate change (National Climate Justice. Lessons Learned).
A research project led by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland found that despite express national promises under the Paris Agreement to base national climate commitments known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reduce the threat of climate change to prevent warming as close as possible to 1.5°C but no more than 2°C, on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, all 24 nations studied actually set their NDCs on economic self-interest. Yet this conclusion was not determinable from the documents that nations submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat when the nations submitted their NDCs (National Climate Justice, Lessons Learned). The study also found that environmental NGOs in the country that supported national action on climate change did not seem to understand how to critique the failure of the nation to set its NDC on the basis of the nation’s ethical obligations including ethical obligations that the nation expressly agreed to.
Every national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GOHG) emissions, or NDC, is implicitly a position on two profound ethical questions among others. They are:
the amount of warming and associated harms the nation is willing to inflict on poor vulnerable people and nations, and
the nation’s fair share of global GHG emissions that may not be exceeded to keep global warming from exceeding a warming limit goal.
Yet nations around the world are setting their NDCs on economic self-interest and ignoring their ethical responsibilities on these issues.
Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity requires of nations to reduce their GHG emissions, national economic self-interest as a justification for their GHG reduction targets does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its fifth assessment report that despite ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014).
The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014).
And so ethical principles are failing to guide national climate change policy formation despite the uncontroversial applicability of several ethical principles that should guide national climate change policies.
The failure of ethical principles to get traction in guiding policy is a much broader problem than in regard to climate change policy formation alone. Despite the emergence of the academic sub-discipline of environmental ethics in the late 1970s, ethical principles are failing to influence environmental policy-making for most environmental problems.
The claim that ethical principles are rarely guiding environmental policy formation is strongly supported by the comments of the founder of the journal Environmental Ethics, Eugene Hargrove, who in 2003 published an essay “What’s Wrong ? Who’s to Blame? (Hargrove, 2003). This essay invited reflection on why environmental ethics has not had an influence on environmental policy. Just three years later, Robert Frodeman, in the same journal in an article entitled “The Policy Turn in Environmental Ethics” also reflected on the huge failure of environmental ethics to achieve traction in environmental policy formation (Frodeman, 2006).
Since its inception in the late 1970s, academic environmental ethics has been mostly focused on theoretical issues while completely failing to help policy makers understand what is ethically wrong with specific arguments made by opponents of environmental policies who almost always use arguments derived from instrumental rationality which hide dubious unstated norms that are the justification for the arguments and which would often fail minimum ethical scrutiny if the norms were made express and critically reflected on.
One of the reasons why ethical principles have failed to affect environmental policymaking is the failure of the academic discipline of environmental ethics to pay attention to actual controversies that arise in environmental policymaking debates. Academic environmental ethics since its inception in the late 1970s has been almost exclusively focused on theoretical issues, such as how to ground a biocentric or ecocentric ethics, while completely failing to help policymakers understand what is ethically wrong with specific arguments made by opponents of environmental policies who almost always rely on arguments derived from instrumental rationality which hide or ignore dubious unstated norms on which the arguments are based.
II. The Problem of Instrumental Rationality
This article now explains why a first order task that needs to be addressed before ethical principles can play their appropriate role in shaping environmental public policy is to open policymaking arguments on environmental issues including climate change to express ethical reflection. This is a first order task because throughout the world those responsible for environmental policymaking are following instrumental reason, a mode of reason which hides or ignores ethical questions, to determine the acceptability of environmental policies. It is a first order problem because before one can consider what ethical principles should guide policy formation, policymaking must be made open to ethical critique and reflection. If policymakers don’t see and respond to the ethical issues that are implicitly raised by arguments raised against proposed policies, they can’t apply the appropriate ethical rules.
Instrumental rationality is a mode of rationality that is exclusively concerned with the search for efficient means or scientific facts which, consequently, is not concerned with assessing the goals—or ends— that policies should pursue. This form of rationality has existed throughout history, but has become increasingly more dominant in post-Enlightenment liberal democratic capitalist societies (Cruickshank,2014).
Ethics rationality, on the other hand, is concerned about what the goals of society should be. Ethical reasoning seeks to determine what should be the goal of human behavior by examining what is right or wrong, what is permissible or impermissible, what actions are obligatory or non-obligatory, and how burdens of preventing harm should be justly distributed.
Instrumental rationality, because it focuses on means, usually ignores ethical questions about what the goals of policy should be despite the fact that every argument against a proposed environmental policy already contains an unstated norm. For instance, a claim that a proposed climate change policy should not be adopted because it imposes unacceptable costs rests on the unstated norm that the government should not adopt policies that impose significant costs on the economy or specific industries.
Scientific and economic reasoning, which have increasingly dominated public policy-making from the beginning of the Enlightenment, almost always focuses on how to achieve goals, not on what goals or ends should be desired.
Economic rationality often focuses on how to maximize human preferences. Ethics asks a different question of economic activity, namely what preferences humans should have.
Scientific reasoning usually tests hypotheses to determine what “is.” Moral philosophers believe that determining what “is,” which is the proper domain of science, cannot determine what “ought” to be, which is the domain of ethics.
Yet instrumental rationality that scientists and economists deploy in their search for scientific and economic facts has dominated public life and higher education for several centuries.
That instrumental rationality dominates environmental policy making is clear given that most government environmental agencies are staffed exclusively by engineers, scientists, economists, and lawyers but very infrequently by employees trained in ethics. This is huge problem because very few employees of environmental agencies or scientific organizations that make policy recommendations can spot problematic ethical issues that should be acknowledged in policy debates and particularly ethical issues that are ignored or hidden when instrumental rationality is deployed to make policy recommendations. Although employees of government agencies responsible for policy formation often understand they should apply policy rules entailed by relevant laws, many relevant laws do not contain clear rules on how to respond to economic and uncertainty arguments against proposed environmental policies.
Instrumental rationality dominates public policy formation for at least two reasons:
First, sociologists, including Max Weber, have predicted that instrumental rationality would over time crowd out ethical rationality in modern societies because increasingly complex human problems would be relegated to bureaucracies run by technical experts whose expertise depends on the use of instrumental rationality. Since the power of experts depends, in part, on maintaining the fiction that their expertise is the central key to solving modern problems, these experts are reluctant to acknowledge that their analytic tools for solving problems are often ethically inadequate and sometimes ethically inappropriate (Thomas, 2017). Moreover particularly in capitalist societies, wealthy interests are able to hire experts and frequently do so to fight government action which would reduce profits.
Second, opponents of proposed environmental policies usually frame opposition to these policies on the basis of excessive costs to governments or specific industries or lack of scientific certainty about harms the policy seeks to prevent. These arguments very frequently hide controversial normative assumptions implicitly embedded in the arguments. For instance, cost arguments made in opposition to environmental policies often rest on the very ethically dubious idea that any policy which creates significant cost to a nation, regional economy, or to a specific industry should not be adopted even when the problematic behavior causes serious harm to people or nations who have not consented to be harmed. The public debate in response to these claims often narrowly focuses on the magnitude of the costs or whether the regulatory action will create jobs and in so doing ignores several serious ethical problems with these arguments.
In policy disputes about matters in which potential harms are acknowledged by opponents of proposed policies, the public debate about the acceptability of the harms is often limited to some form of “cost-benefit analysis”(CBA).
Yet CBAs frequently hide important ethical issues. If, for instance, a CBA concludes that government action to protect vulnerable people or ecological systems should not be taken because costs of taking action to reduce an environmental threat outweigh the economic value of harms avoided by the proposed regulation, controversial ethical assumptions may be hidden in factual assertions about the magnitude of the costs or value of benefits particularly if:
Potentially but not fully proven catastrophic harms were ignored in the CBA.
The costs of taking action would be imposed upon parties that are harming others, yet the victims of the harm have not consented to be harmed.
Things that were believed to be sacred by one culture are valued in the CBA as if they were commodities whose value can be measured adequately by “willingness-to-pay” monetary measures. CBAs usually commodify all human values and thus value is restricted to monetary value while ignoring other values including sacred value or beliefs that certain entities should not be for sale. Thus in CBAs, usually the value of things that could be harmed are measured by human preferences measured in monetary values. Yet ethics is concerned with what preferences people should hold, not simply what preferences people hold.
Human rights will be violated if regulatory action is not taken.
The proposed government action implements the ethical duty of people to not harm others on the basis of self-interest.
The CBA determined economic value of entities that might be harmed are determined without obtaining the consent of those who might be harmed.
The benefits of government action to protect the environment are discounted too greatly in calculations that seek to allow future benefits of action to be compared to current costs to those who must act to prevent harm (Brown, 2008).
Thus, if a decision to take no government action on a potential environmental problem is justified only as a matter of imbalance between costs and benefits, very dubious ethical assumptions are frequently hidden in the CBA calculations while ethical principles, including those that have been widely acknowledged as valid and applicable to government policy formation are often ignored.
In this writer’s experience, proponents of environmental policies also not only rarely identify the ethical problems with the use of CBAs or almost any cost-based argument made in opposition to proposed policies, they almost always respond to the cost-based arguments by making counter cost claims. And so public debate about proposed policies usually focuses on economic “factual” claims while ignoring ethical principles.
Evidence of the utter dominance of instrumental rationality in the United State includes executive orders of several US presidents which require that any US proposed regulation must satisfy a CBA before it may be promulgated (Congressional Research Service, 2017).
This is so despite the fact that, as we have seen, a CBA used as a prescriptive guide to policymaking often hides many controversial ethical issues including, for instance, the duty of nations to not harm others on the basis of national economic self-interest.
Using cost to those causing harm to others as justification for failing to abate the harm also violates well-established principles of international environmental law including the “polluter pays principle” (Rio Declaration,1992, Principle 16 ) and the “no harm principle.” (UNFCCC,1992, Preamble)..
Yet the United States continues to very frequently base the acceptability of environmental regulations on the results of a CBA.
In 1997, while working as the Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of International Affairs, this author closely observed the US debate about whether the US should agree to the Kyoto Protocol under the UNFCCC. This debate focused exclusively on two different CBAs, one completed by the US EPA and the other by the US Department of Energy which reached slightly different conclusions about the magnitude of negative impacts on US GDP if the US agreed to be bound by the Protocol. Amazingly both CBAs examined costs and benefits to the United States alone if the United States ratified the Kyoto Protocol while completely ignoring potentially harsh climate impacts on poor people around the world and the most vulnerable nations. Yet no one in the US government nor NGOs participating in the debate about whether the US should ratify the Kyoto Protocol raised any ethical problems with the US reliance on CBAs that examined costs and benefits to the US alone as a tool to determine the appropriateness of US action on climate change.
In most Western capitalist countries, corporations and their industry associations have huge political power to frame public policy questions and don’t hesitate to exercise their power to prevent any government action that could lower corporate profits. And so the public debate on proposed policies often focuses on economic “facts,” not ethical duties, despite the almost universally accepted ethical norm agreed to by almost all religions and nations that people should not harm others on the basis of self-interest.
Opposition arguments against proposed environmental policies often rest on the unstated very dubious norm that regulatory action limiting commercial activities should not be taken unless the harms are proven by the government with high degrees of scientific certainty even in cases where achieving high levels of certainty is scientifically difficult or very prohibitively expensive.
For over 30 years, opponents of US action on climate change have frequently based their opposition on scientific uncertainty about human-caused climate change harms despite the fact that the United States agreed to the “precautionary principle” when it agreed to the UNFCCC in 1992. (UNFCCC. 1992, Art 3.3) This principle says that governments will no longer fail to take action on the basis of scientific uncertainty. Yet advocates of national action on climate change in response to opponents’ scientific uncertainty arguments almost always simply claim that the scientific “facts” of harm have been sufficiently scientifically demonstrated not on the ethical rule that precaution is required once it is scientifically established that significant harm might be created by certain human activities.
If a government decides not to act to reduce the threat of environmental harm on the basis of lack of proof of harm, such a decision can hide important ethical questions particularly if:
The government assumes that the proponents of government action to prevent environmental harm should shoulder the burden of proof of demonstrating harm particularly in matters where proof is very expensive, difficult to demonstrate, or cannot be fully demonstrated before potential harms are experienced..
There is credible but uncertain evidence that the current activity may be approaching thresholds that could trigger very serious consequences.
If the government waits until all uncertainties are resolved it will be too late to prevent serious harm.
Some very serious potential harm is judged to be low probability just because the mechanism for causing serious harm is not completely understood so that the probability of the serious harm cannot be confidently evaluated.
The victims of potential harm have not consented to put at risk.
All of these considerations are relevant to climate change yet, the United States has failed to decisively act on climate change since international climate change negotiations began 30 years ago because opponents of US climate change policies have claimed that there is insufficient proof of human-induced climate change caused harms.
Although the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world including most national academies of science and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have concluded with high levels of confidence that humans are causing and threatening great harms from human-induced climate change, even conceding, for the sake of argument, that great harms from human induced climate change are not yet proven, ethical principles requires that action should be taken to reduce the threat of climate change. Yet the ethical basis for requiring action is almost never discussed in the US public debate about whether scientific uncertainty about human-induced climate change is an appropriate justification for US unwillingness to act on climate change.
Scientists employed by environmental agencies usually focus on understanding the environmental harms and risks of various human activities and whether proposed government action will acceptably reduce threats to human health and the environment. The goals of environmental regulatory action are usually given to them by law or regulation such as water pollution should be reduced to prevent unreasonable harm to humans or ecological systems. Yet, in the face of scientific uncertainty about whether human actions may cause harm, scientists cannot determine who should have the burden of proof or what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof by scientific methods alone because these are fundamentally ethical questions.
An understanding the ethical problems with instrumental rationality leads to an understanding of why nations often ignore even well-established ethical principles in policy formation such as the ethical principle that no nation should harm others outside their jurisdiction on the basis of national economic interest.
For this reason, a first-order problem on the road to a world which formulates policies guided by ethical principles is to open policy formation controversies to express consideration of ethical issues. This goal requires that those engaged in policy formation spot and identify the ethical issues frequently hidden in economic and scientific arguments against proposed policies that currently dominate policy formation controversies on environmental issues around the world.
Unfortunately most professionals engaged in environmental policy formation have no training that would help them identify the hidden ethical issues embedded in arguments made against environmental and sustainable development policies. Nor do those NGOs who participate in controversies about these issues have the training to spot ethical problems made by opponents of proposed policies that are derived from various forms of instrumental rationality.
Frodeman, R. (2006) A Policy Turn in Environmental Ethics, Environmental Ethics, 26
Hargrove, E., ‘(2003) What’s Wrong? Who Is to Blame?, Environmental Ethics, 25 (1):3-4,  3-4
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2014) 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Chapter 4. Sustainable Development and Equity. Sec 4.6. 2.1, p 4., http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/ assessed , Dec 23, 2017
National Climate Justice, Research Project On Ethics and Justice in Formulating National Climate Policies, Lessons Learned, https://nationalclimatejustice.org, accessed 24 Dec, 2017
When Pope Francis in May of 2015 issued his Laudata Si encyclical which called climate change a moral issue, it got global attention. Yet despite extensive international media coverage of worldwide condemnation of President Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris agreement, there has been relatively little coverage of why the Trump decision should be understood not only as a dangerous break with the international community but as a profoundly immoral choice.
Climate change has certain features that more than any other global environmental problem call for responding to it as a moral problem. First, it is a problem caused mostly by high-emitting developed countries that are putting relatively low emitting developing countries most at risk. Second, the potential harms to the most vulnerable nations and people are not mere inconveniences but include catastrophic threats to life and the ecological systems on which life depends. Third, those people and nations most at risk can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments to shield them; their best hope is that high-emitting nations will respond to their obligations to not harm others. Fourth CO2 emissions become well mixed in the atmosphere so that CO2 atmosphere concentrations are roughly the same around the world regardless of the source of the emissions. Therefore unlike other air pollution problems which most threaten only those nations and communities located within the pollution plume, greenhouse gas emissions from any one country are threatening people and other countries around the world. This means that US greenhouse gas emissions are causing and threatening enormous harm all over the world.
Under the 2015 Paris accord, 195 nations agreed to cooperate to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5°C and no more than 2.0°C. Even nations that have historically opposed strong international action on climate change, including most of the OPEC countries, agreed to this warming limit goal because there is a broad scientific consensus that warming above these amounts will not only cause harsh climate impacts to millions around the word, but could lead to abrupt climate change which could create great danger for much of the human race. The international community’s condemnation of the Trump decision is attributable to the understanding that achieving the Paris agreement’s warming limit goals will require the cooperation of all nations and particularly high emitting nations including the United States to adopt greenhouse gas reduction targets more ambitious than nations have committed to thus far. For this reason, most nations view the Trump decision as outrageously dangerous.
Trump justified his decision by his claim that removing the United States from the Paris agreement was consistent with his goal of adopting policies that put America first. According to Trump staying in the Paris Agreement would cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025 including 440,000 fewer manufacturing jobs. This claim was based on a dubious study by National Economic Research Associates which was funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Council for Capitol Formation. This study has been widely criticized for several reasons including that it neither counted the number of jobs which would be created in the renewable energy industry in a transformed energy sector nor the economic benefits of preventing climate change caused harms.
Yet it is the Trump assertion that the United States can base its energy policy primarily on putting US economic interests first while ignoring US obligations to not harm others that most clearly provokes moral outrage around the world. The moral principle that people may not harm others on the basis of self-interest is recognized by the vast majority of the world’s religions and in international law under the “no harm principle”. The “no- harm’ rule is a principle of customary international law whereby a nation is duty-bound to prevent, reduce, and control the risk of environmental harm to other nations caused by activities within the nation For these reasons, the Trump decision on the Paris Agreement is a moral travesty.
For over 35 years, opponents of climate change policies most frequently have made two kinds of arguments in opposition to proposed climate policies. First proposed climate policies should be opposed because there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action. Second climate policies should be opposed because of the adverse economic harms that the policies will cause. This kind of argument has taken several different forms such as, climate policies simply cost too much, will destroy jobs, harm the economy, or are not justified by cost-benefit analyses just to name a few cost-based arguments made frequently in opposition to climate change policies. .
For most of the 35 years, proponents of climate change policies have usually responded to these arguments by making counter “factual” claims such as climate policies will increase jobs or trigger economic growth. Although the claims made by opponents of climate change policies about excessive costs are often undoubtedly false and therefore counter factual arguments are important responses to these arguments of climate change opponents, noticeably missing from the climate change debate for most of the 35 years are explanations and arguments about why the cost-based arguments fail to pass minimum ethical and moral scrutiny. This absence is lamentable because the moral and ethical arguments about the arguments of those opposing climate policy are often very strong.
This video identifies questions that should be asked of those who oppose climate change policies on the basis of cost or adverse economic impacts to expose the ethical and moral problems with these arguments. The video not only identifies the questions, it give advice on how the questions should be asked. The questions in the video also can be found below.
We are interested in hearing from those who use these questions to expose the ethical problems with cost arguments made against climate change policies. Those who wish to share their experiences with these questions, please reply to: email@example.com.
This post identifies three updated 15 minute videos which have previously appeared on this site. These videos describe, analyze, and respond to controversies about the climate change disinformation campaign. They include descriptions of:
(1) The enormous damage to the world that has been caused by a mostly fossil fuel corporate funded disinformation campaign on climate change,
(2) What is meant by the climate change disinformation campaign, a phenomenon sociologist describe as a “countermovement,”
(3) The tactics of the disinformation campaign,
(4) An explanation of why the tactics of the campaign cannot be excused either as an exercise in free speech or as responsible scientific skepticism,
(5) What norms should guide responsible scientific skepticism about climate change.