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.
Climate change has certain features that more than any other environmental problem scream for attention that it should be understood and responded to as an ethical problem. These features include that it is a problem that: (1) has mostly been caused by developed nations; (2) most threatens poor vulnerable people and nations which have done comparatively little to cause the problem; (3) creates harms to the most vulnerable that include potential catastrophic losses of life and damages to ecological systems on which life depends; (4) those people who are most vulnerable to it cannot depend on petitioning their governments for protection, their best hope is that those most responsible for raising atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations will respond to their ethical and moral duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions; and, (5) because GHGs from any country mix well in the atmosphere, they thereby are contributing to rising atmospheric concentrations which are responsible for harming people and ecological systems far beyond their boarders.
Yet nations, and even most environmental NGOs have largely ignored evaluating nations’ responses to climate change through an ethical lens but have usually simply responded to the arguments of opponents of climate change which largely have been claims that proposed policies on climate change are unsupportable because: (1) the policies would create unacceptable costs to the national economy or a specific national industry; or, (2) the policies were not justifiable because of scientific uncertainty about alleged adverse climate change impacts. And so, when opponents of climate change argued in opposition to proposed climate change policies on the grounds of unacceptable costs that the policy would create, proponents often responded by simply asserting responses to climate change would create jobs rather than helping citizens understand that behaviors that cause violations of human rights, kills others or destroys ecological systems on which life depends cant be justified on the grounds that the cessation of these destructive behaviors would impose costs on those engaged in the destructive behavior. In response to the scientific uncertainty arguments made by opponents of proposed climate change policies, proponents of climate policies usually simply make claims such as 97% of climate sciencentists support the consensus view while ignoring the fact that that every country in the world agreed in the 1992 climate threaty that scientific uncertainty should not be used as a excuse for taking protective action.
By not helping citizens see the morally indefensible problems with orguments made by opponents of climate change policies, proponents of climate change policies are failing to motivate those who are not motivated by the scientific and economic technical discoures which have dominated climate change policy controversies and which are not likely to mobilize public concern, strong emotion, or activism that fuel strong public social movements. (Wetts, 2019)
A recent paper by sociologist Rachel Wetts of Brown University found that of 1768 press releases about climate change issues only 3.4% attempted to motivate climate responses on the basis of moral obligations. (Wetts, 2019)
On December 12th at the Madrid COP 25 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNESCO, in cooperation with the Center for Environmental Ethics and Law, sponsored a panel on the urgency of getting nations to comply with their ethical obligations to respond to climate change. This panel On the Urgency of and Getting Traction for Ethical Principles to Guide National Responses to Climate Change was part of a UNESCO event entitled Changing Minds, Not the Climate, Science, Knowledge Systems, and Ethics for Enhanced Ambition and Resilience.
The ethics panel discussed numerous specific policy decisions on climate issues that raised important ethical issues, yet tragically the ethical problems with the arguments made by opponents of climate policies were rarely identified. Despite the fact that arguments made in opposition to the proposed climate policy issues would not survive minimum ethical scrutiny if they were subjected to ethical critique, the ethical problems with the arguments made against climate policies are rarely identified. Furthermore, unless citizens spotted the ethical problems with their nation’s response to climate change they could not effectively critique their nation’s response to climate change. For instance, every national GHG reduction target is implicitly a position of the national government on how much harm the government deems it is acceptable to impose on vulnerable people and nations because every ton of GHG emissions makes the harms worse, and every target is also implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of a carbon budget that the entire world must live within to prevent a warming limit goal from being exceeded. Yet these ethical problems with national climate change responses have been infrequently part of national climate debates. The speakers on the Madrid COP 25 panel on the urgency of getting traction for ethics in climate change policy formation were
Donald A. Brown, Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University Commonwealth Law School (USA) who explained the urgency of getting traction for ethical principles to guide government responses to climate change both to prevent climate catastophe and to critically evaluate the arguments of climate change policy opponents;
Kathryn Gwiazdon, J.D., Esq., Executive Director, Center for Environmental Ethics, and Law, Chicago (USA) who gave numerous examples of specific climate change policy controversies that raise obvious but often unacknowledged ethical issues;
Sébastien Duyck, Research Fellow, Institute of European and International Economic Law, University of Bern who explained efforts to get traction for human rights obligations in climate change policy formation; and,
Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Professor of Climatology and Environmental Sciences, “Université Catholique de Louvain” (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium), former IPCC Vice-Chair (2008-2015), member of the Royal Academy of Belgium who epained his experiences with getting the conclusions of IPCC which should trigger moral obligations accepted.
In December of 2017, UNESCO adopted the Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change, which sets out a number of important ethical principles to guide political decision-making and formulation of cross-cutting public policies around the world. Among the proclaimed six ethical principles, the Declaration emphasizes the links between justice, sustainability and solidarity that could support countries to scale their national commitments and coordinate action across cultures. The Madrid panel discussed why finding ways for getting nations to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate change, and explored strategies for getting traction for ethical principles in guiding national responses to climate change. Furthermore, the panel discussed that although there are other important and binding sources of international law containing many well settled ethical principles which are relevant to national responses to climate change such as the “no harm,” “precautionary,” and “polluter pays” principles, duties of nations to protect human rights, and adopt emissions reduction targets at levels to prevent dangerous climate change on the basis of “equity,” and common but differentiated responsibilities, nations are ignoring these principles in formulating national policies.
The UNESCO Madrid COP 25 panel reviewed evidence that most nations are still ignoring these ethical principles in national climate change policy formation. The UNESCO panel concluded by inviting individuals to submit ideas about how to get traction for ethics in national responses to climate change.
Until UNESCO sets up a website on these issues, individuals with ideas about how to get traction for ethical guidance for climate policy formation should submit comments to firstname.lastname@example.org for the time being.
Greta Thunberg’s September 23rd 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.
A. The Speech’s Rhetorical Excellence
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
One day in September1997, while serving as Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US EPA Office of International Activities, I was sitting at the microphone representing the United States during negotiations of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development when an agenda item arose about whether governments were willing to stipulate that the global warming then already discernible as had largely been predicted by the peer-reviewed science, was human-caused rather than the result of natural forces. These natural climate drivers include, among others, several cyclical changes in the sun’s energy output that reaches Earth, changes in ocean circulation and chemistry, movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, and CO2 releases as the result of volcanic activity.
A few OPEC countries led by Saudi Arabia at the start of the negotiation on this matter balked at agreeing to language that concluded that human activities were responsible for the growing climate change threats. Yet when I pointed out that their scientific representatives had agreed to the very same language under discussion in a meeting of climate scientists the year before, all countries finally agreed to stipulate that the growing global warming was human-caused. Thus, every country in the world, including the world’s petroleum states which have consistently blocked global action on climate change, agreed more than two decades ago that the ominous climate changes the world has been experiencing are largely caused by rising levels of GHGs in the atmosphere which are attributable to human activities.
The reason for the universal international agreement among nations that humans are responsible for the climate change the world is experiencing is that the evidence of human causation is extraordinarily compelling despite the fact that the Earth has experienced warming and cooling cycles during Earth’s history in responses to natural forces. The confidence of human causation is very high because scientists: (1) can predict how the Earth will warm up differently if a layer of GHGs in the atmosphere warms the Earth compared to how our planet warms if the natural forces that have caused warming in the Earth’s historical heating and cooling cycles, (2) have known precisely since the mid-1880s the amount of energy a molecule of CO2 generates in watts per square meter, (3) have known that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil fuel combustion because of its chemical isotope, (4) have determined that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is directly proportional to the timing and amount of fossil fuel combustion around the world, (5) tested these lines of evidence rigorously in computer model experiments since the 1960s.
Climate change is not only a terrifying future problem, it is already causing increasing devastation and human suffering to more and more parts of the world. Just in early March, Cyclone Idai devastated Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi killing over a 1000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands of others in Mozambique alone. The New York Times described the devastation as follows:
Nearly a week after southern Africa was hit by one of the worst natural disasters in decades, it was all rescue workers could do to try to reach the victims let alone count the dead. People were climbing to trees desperately waiting for some form of rescue. Around them, the remnants of homes sat in piles, collapsed as easily as if they had been houses of cards. Hundreds of thousands of people in Mozambique alone were displaced and everywhere there was a vast inland sea where once there had been land.
The 1.1 0C temperature rise the Earth has experienced since the beginning of the industrial revolution that the mainstream scientific community has attributed to human activities has already caused brutal suffering caused by increases in killer hurricanes, unprecedented flooding, droughts, forest fires, storm surges, climate refugees, increases in vector-borne and tropical diseases, killer heat stresses, loss of valued ecological systems including coral reefs around the world, and human conflict in Syria and parts of Africa.
Because even modest amounts of additional warming create the risk that certain thresholds, or “tipping points,” in the climate system may be exceeded causing much more abrupt climate change, human-induced climate change creates grave threats to life on Earth. These thresholds include ice sheet destabilization, methane leakage stored in permafrost and oceans, loss of the energy reflective properties of sea ice, and changes to the ocean heat circulation system among others. If some of these tipping points are triggered, the increased warming will subject some parts of the world, including many African states, large parts of the middle east, and hundreds of cities near oceans to multiple impacts including crop failures, deadly heat waves, expansion of tropical diseases, flooding, and drought. Thus, future devastation threatened by climate change is horrifying. For this reason, all the nations of the world in 2015 agreed to adopt policies that limited warming to as close as possible to 1.5 0C but no greater than 2.0 0C. Yet limiting the warming to these levels will require all nations and levels of government, including state and local governments, to act with a war-like coordinated effort to decarbonize the global economy.
Despite the universal agreement among nations that climate change is human-caused and very dangerous, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy invited Gregory Wrightstone on March 27 to testify on climate change issues. Mr. Wrightstone’s only qualifications to testify as an expert on climate change are bachelors and masters degrees in geology and some published research on geology including the geology of the Marcellus shale. Although Mr. Wrightstone acknowledged that he has never published in the peer-reviewed climate science literature, Mr. Wrightstone took issue with the conclusions of 97% of climate scientists who publish in peer-reviewed climate science literature and who support the consensus view on human causation of climate change and its potentially catastrophic impacts to the human race from current climate change trends. The “consensus” view on climate science is also supported by 80 academies of science in the world, including the US Academy of Science, and at least 21 prestigious scientific organizations whose members engage in science relevant to climate change including the American Geophysical Union, the European Geosciences Union, the Geological Sciences of America and London, organizations whose members include geologists, Mr. Wrightstone’s discipline.
The consensus view of mainstream science has often been initially articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization created by the world’s governments and the United Nations at the suggestion of the United States in 1988 to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate change science and make recommendations to the world’s governments on climate change policies. IPCC does not do independent scientific research but approximately every five years examines the peer-reviewed scientific literature and draws conclusions which are further reviewed by climate scientists and approved by experts from the governments of the world. The IPCC has issued five comprehensive assessments starting with the first assessment report in 1990 and several special reports. The 5th assessment was published in 2014 and was written by 861 climate scientists whose nominations were reviewed to determine whether they had expert qualifications in climate science. (IPCC, 2014)
Mr. Writestone’s testimony began with a statement that he would “undercut the notion that our changing climate is primarily caused by human-caused increases in greenhouse gases and those changes are having negative impacts on Earth’s ecosystems and on humanity.”
Skepticism in science is a good thing, in fact, it is the oxygen that allows science to make contributions to human understanding of how the world works. But skeptics, to be taken seriously, must abide by the rules of science which require that scientific claims be subjected to peer-review. Mr. Wrightstone’s claims about climate change made during the March 31 hearing not only have never been peer-reviewed, but they were also either dramatically inconsistent with peer-reviewed climate change science or were cherry-picked facts that although true on their face do not undermine the conclusions of peer-reviewed science. “Cherry-picking” means picking from possible facts only those facts that support a predetermined conclusion while ignoring other facts. Examples of Mr. Wrightstone’s cherry-picked arguments made in his testimony to undermine the scientific consensus view that human activities were responsible for raising atmospheric CO2 to dangerous levels included that:
The current concentration of CO2 is very low compared to other levels in the historical record, ignoring the strong scientific consensus that current elevated CO2 levels are human-caused and global catastrophe is likely unless there is an unprecedented international effort to rapidly reduce GHG emissions;
Earth’s ecosystems thrived when CO2 levels were much higher, ignoring the fact that when atmospheric CO2 levels got high enough, the resulting warming tripped dangerous positive feedbacks which led to abrupt warming increases that several times caused mass extinctions of much of life on Earth and mainstream scientists believe that the current rise in global temperatures is approaching levels which may trigger several of these positive feedback triggers which could cause abrupt very dangerous levels of warming;
CO2 is good because it promotes plant growth and prevents the Earth from getting too cold, ignoring the huge scientific literature that has identified enormous human suffering and damages that current levels of warming have already caused particularly harming the world’s poorest people and the potential to cause abrupt climate change which could cause mass extinction;
Current concentrations of CO2 are not unprecedented if one looks at the full history of the Earth’s atmosphere rather than the time span usually considered, ignoring the scientific evidence that that high CO2 levels in the Earth’s history were sometimes responsible for causing mass extinctions and conditions such as sea level rise which would now cause hard-to-imagine destruction especially to hundreds of the Earth’s most populated cities small island states, and poorest people and countries.
Several sociologists, including Dr. Robert Bruelle from Drexel University and Riley Dunlap from Oklahoma State, among others, in many peer-reviewed sociological papers and in a recent book (Dunlap and McCright, 2015), have documented how some fossil fuel companies or their industrial organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute, and free-market fundamentalists foundations and think tanks have funded and supported efforts to undermine the public’s faith in the consensus view of climate science similar to the way the Tobacco Industry supported disinformation about the health threats of smoking tobacco. One of the tools in this effort has been to financially support or publicize the claims of climate skeptics whose claims frequently have not been subjected to peer review.
Mr. Wrightsone’s claims, like many of the arguments made by climate skeptics supported by the fossil fuel industry, not only have not been subjected to peer-review, they were dramatically inconsistent with the large body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence.
I have no evidence that Mr.Wrightstone’s testimony was orchestrated by any members of the Pennsylvania fossil fuel industry or politicians that frequently represent their interests, however, his testimony was similar to the problematic claims of the skeptics supported by the fossil fuel industry organized climate science disinformation campaign.
Mr. Wrightstone also took issue with the frequent claim that the consensus climate science is supported by 97% of climate scientists by stating he was one of the 97% while ignoring that the full claim is that 97% of scientists who engage in “peer-reviewed” climate change science, a group he does not belong to, support the consensus view along with every academy of science in the world, including the US Academy of Science.
Mr.Wrightstone’s testimony included arguments against two proposals under consideration in Pennsylvania that would lower GHG emissions from the state. One, a petition before the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board to establish a Pennsylvania cap and trade program similar to programs in other states. The second proposal is known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative which is a proposed multi-state cooperative program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.
His argument against these two programs was that the Governor and the House Committee should make recommendations on these two programs that were based on scientific facts, not on a politically driven narrative of coming planetary gloom. Yet the “facts” of science are established in constant testing through peer-review.
On May 1, the Senate Majority Policy Committee held a hearing about climate change at which Mr; Wrightstone along with climate change deniers David Legates (The Heartland Institute) and Joe Bastardi (WeatherBELL Analytics/frequent FOX News contributor) also testified making arguments that disagreed with the enormous peer-reviewed science which has been synthesized by 861 climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s and agreed to by every government in the world and every Academy of Science in the world. The testimony of all three of these skeptics took issue with elements of the scientific consensus view agreed to by every country in the world and their Academies of Science.
We have written extensively on this site under the category “disinformation” in the above index about why the fossil fuel disinformation campaign is some new heinous crime against humanity. (see index above under “disinformation”) Also see D. Brown, Is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity?
Yet, because the Pennsylvania state government has done little so far to adopt aggressive climate change policies, but Pennsylvania Governor Wolf has announced his intention to begin to adopt Pennsylvania climate change policies that will significantly reduce Pennsylvania’s GHG emissions, the legislative hearings discussed in this article which have been devoted to publicizing the views of climate skeptics who have not published the claims made in the hearings in peer-review journals are likely only the beginning of more intense efforts to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate science.
Pennsylvania is the third largest emitter of GHGs among US states, behind only Texas and California. The Keystone state is responsible for 1 percent of global emissions yet has only 0.19 percent of the global population.
The Pennsylvania legislature and the Wolf administration have thus far failed to enact policies that will prevent activities in Pennsylvania from causing harsh climate impacts here and to hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable people around the world. Although Governor Wolf in January took the welcome step of issuing Pennsylvania’s first executive order on climate change which included a goal of reducing GHGs by 26 percent reduction by 2025 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050, from 2005 levels, these targets are woefully short of Pennsylvania’s fair share of needed global action to achieve the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming as close as possible to 1.5 0C and no greater than 2.0 o C and nothing has yet been done to decarbonize the Pennsylvania economy as required of the world to by the Paris Agreement.
IPCC said in an October special report that to limit warming to 1.5 0C, total global CO2 emissions would need to fall by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero by 2050. (IPCC, 2018) If Governor Wolf takes climate change seriously, it is very likely that members of the fossil fuel industry in Pennsylvania will try and undermine Pennsylvania citizens’ support for the consensus climate science position by among other tactics making arguments similar to those made by Mr. Wrightstone.
Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change,The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
On July 31, 2018, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which should create a shiver of fear in all humans everywhere. The paper, Trajectories in the Earth System in the Anthropoceneby Steffen et..al., explains how human-induced warming is rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positive climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves and droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world.
The Steffen et. al. paper also describes how the positive feedbacks depicted in the following graphic, once triggered could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (ghg) emissions alone would not prevent until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over reducing disastrous warming.
Steffen et. al,, supra pg. 4.
If this is not scary enough, the Steffen et. al. paper concluded some of these feedbacks could be triggered between 1 degree C to 3 degrees C, suggesting that the “risk of tipping cascades could be significant at a 2 degree C rise (Steffen at al p.7), the upper warming limit goal of the Paris Agreement which President Trump has announced the United States will withdraw from.
Given that even if temperature increases already baked into the system don’t trigger positive feedbacks until global temperatures rise by 2 degrees C and given the enormous challenge facing the world to achieve the 2 degrees C warming limit goal agreed to by the international community in Paris in 2015 requires the international community to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2070 (UNEP, Emissions Gap, 2016), the international community needs to immediately join forces to achieve extraordinarily ambitious international cooperation almost immediately to achieve the 2 degree C warming limit goal. However, given that the 2 degree C warming limit goal agreed to in Paris was selected because it was believed that if warming increases could be limited to 2 degrees C, triggering dangerous climate system positive feedbacks was unlikely, the conclusions of the Steffen et al paper that positive feedbacks could be triggered below 2 degrees C additional warming must be interpreted as a justification for a call for an unprecedented urgent global cooperative effort to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon sinks as rapidly as humanly possible.
Given that human-induced climate change is now widely understood to be an existential threat to life on Earth unless all nations rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) to net zero as fast as possible, Americans urgently need to understand certain features of the problem which have been infrequently mentioned in the US national climate change conversation including the following:
There is growing evidence that even if global ghg emissions could be reduced to near zero rapidly, there is enough carbon already in the atmosphere that limiting warming to the then 2 degrees C warming limit goal by the end of this Century has only a 5% chance (Mooney, 2017).
Every day that nations fail to reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to achieve a warming limit goal such as 2 degrees C makes the problem worse because budgets available for the whole world that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal shrink as emissions continue. Therefore, the speed that nations reduce their GHG emissions reductions is as important as the magnitude of reductions identified by any national GHG reduction commitment. For this reason, any national commitment on climate change should not only identify the amount of ghg emissions that will be reduced by a certain date, but the reduction pathway by which these reductions will be achieved,
For reasons stated in the Seffen et.al. paper, climate change is an existential threat to life on Earth that requires the international community to rapidly take extraordinarily aggressive coordinated steps not only sufficient to prevent global temperatures from rising no than more than 2 degrees C, the upper warming limit agreed to by the international community in the 2015 Paris Agreement, but to minimize any additional warming as quickly as possible,
Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which the US ratified in 1992, the US has a legal duty under the concept of “equity” to reduce its GHG emissions more rapidly than most other nations, and although there is reasonable disagreement among nations about what “equity” requires of them, any reasonable interpretation of equity would require the US to make much larger and more rapid GHG reductions than almost all other nations given that the United States emitted 5,011,687 metric kilo tons (kt) of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2016, second only to China’s 10,432,741 kt CO2. (Netherlands Environmental Agency). The US also has an equitable duty to more aggressively reduce its emissions than most other countries because it has emitted a greater amount of cumulative CO2 emissions, that is 29.3% of global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2002, while China emitted 7.6% during the same period, (WRI, Cumulative Emissions) making the US much more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to the current level of 406 ppm than any country. Also given the US is responsible for 15.56 metric tons per capita CO2 emissions which is more than twice as much as China’s 7.45 metric tons per capita in 2016 (World Bank), as a matter of equity the US must reduce its GHG emissions much more rapidly and steeply than almost all countries,
The US duty to formulate its ghg emissions reduction target on the basis of equity is not only required by its legal obligations under the UNFCCC, practically the US and other high emitting nations must reduce their GHG emissions by much greater amounts and faster than poor developing nations because if they don’t the poorer nations will have to reduce their GHG emissions almost immediately to near zero CO2 so that global emissions don’t exceed the carbon budget available to prevent a warming limit such as 2 degrees C from being exceeded,
Any US policy response to climate change such as a carbon tax must be structured to reduce US ghg emissions to levels and speeds required of the US to achieve its responsibilities to the rest of the world to prevent dangerous climate change. Thus, if the US were to pass a carbon tax, the imposition of a tax must either reduce US GHG emissions to the level and the speed required of it by its obligations or be supplemented by other policy responses such as, for instance, mandatory conversions of electric power generation from fossil fuel combustion to renewable energy by a date certain or mandatory requirements for electric vehicles,
Because GHG emissions from every country mix rapidly in the atmosphere, all nations emissions are contributing to rising atmospheric GHG concentrations thus harming people and ecological systems on which life depends all over the world. Thus, the US may not formulate its climate change policies only on the basis of costs and benefits to itself alone, it must acknowledge and respond to the devastating climate change harms the United States is already contributing to that are being experienced around the world and particularly by poor people and nations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. For this reason, the Trump administration’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on the basis of “putting US interests first” is deeply morally indefensible and tragic because of the damage it will likely cause to the world,
Because of the rapid speed required of the US to reduce its ghg emissions to net zero carbon emissions, the US urgently needs to put ghg emissions reductions on the equivalent of a wartime footing by not only adopting policy responses that can achieve ghg emission reduction goals required of it, but also by investing in research and development in new technologies that can facilitate and achieve the its ghg emission reduction obligations and increase carbon sinks that could reduce the rise in atmospheric ghg concentrations,
The United States needs to develop a strategy to achieve these objectives in the next two years and begin implementing the strategy immediately as quickly as possible.
A.Urgent Need For Greater Understanding Among Nations and Civil Society of How Nations Should Formulate and ExplainTheir NDCs under the Paris Agreement.
Research conducted by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland concluded not surprisingly that when 24 governments identified greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets they ignored their legal duties to set a national target on the basis of preventing dangerous anthropogenic climate change, equity, and common but differentiated responsibilities in light of national circumstances under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement. In all cases, this research concluded that nations inappropriately took national economic self-interest into account in establishing their GHG reduction target. (Nationclimatejustice.org) while not clearly explaining how their GHG reduction targets were formulated on the basis of what was required of nations under law. This conclusion was not surprising to the researchers. But what was very surprising was that the vast majority of NGOs in these countries appeared not to understand how a nation should quantitatively formulate a target in light of its nondiscretionary and discretionary duties under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. Without an understanding of how a nation should formulate and explain its GHG emissions reduction target, nations and civil society will not be able to effectively evaluate a nation’s NDC.
It is this writer’s view that the widespread ignorance around the world about how a nation should set a GHG target is attributable to the fact that although nations have been setting GHG targets for many years, only recently have they had to expressly respond to the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals and to in so doing take the equity requirements of the Paris Agreement seriously while at the same time being clear and transparent in how they responded to there obligations under the Paris Agreement. Up until recently, a nation could set a GHG target without considering how much of a shrinking carbon budget that remains to achieve a warming limit goal the nation was going to allocate to itself on the basis of equity. Very few nations, if any, have expressly formulated their national GHG reduction targets on the basis of a carbon budget that remained to achieve a warming limit goal.
Because the Paris Agreement’s success depends on nations being clear and transparent in explaining how they formulated their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, yet there is widespread ignorance around the world on how nations should formulate their NDCs to comply with their obligations under the Paris deal, there is an urgent need to help nations and civil society around the world understand how a nation should formulate its NDC to comply with their obligations under the Paris Agreement.
B. A New Paper Explains How Nations Should Formulate and Justify their NDCs under Paris Agreement
To meet this need, a new paper describes 4 steps in detail that all governments should follow to comply with their legal obligations under the Paris Agreement as well as the information that nations should include with their NDCs about how they formulated their NDCs, which information is necessary to comply with the clarity and transparency requirements of the Paris Agreement.
The paper is: A Four-Step Process for Formulating and Evaluating Legal Commitments Under the Paris Agreement. Donald A Brown, Hugh Breakey, Peter Burdon, Brendan Mackey, Prue Taylor, Carbon & Climate Law Review, Vol 12, (2018) Issue 2, Pags 98 – 108, https://doi.org/10.21552/cclr/2018/2/
The four steps are:
(1) Select a global warming limit to be achieved by the GHG emissions reduction target. The description of this step also explains the need of nations to explain why it chose a warming limit goal greater than the 1.5 degree C goal but no less than 2.0 degree warming limit goal.
(2) Identify a global carbon budget consistent with achieving the global warming limit at an acceptable probability. The paper includes a description of how a nation should identify a carbon budget to achieve a warming limit goal and other considerations relevant to identifying a carbon budget on which the GHG reduction target will be based.
(3) Determine the national fair share of the global carbon budget based upon equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. This section of the paper does not resolve all controversies about how to interpret equity under the Paris Agreement, although it does identify principles identified by IPCC that nations should follow in applying equity to guide their GHG reduction target and information that nations should include with their NDC that explains how they applied discretion in determining what equity requires of the nation.
(4) Specify the annual rate of national GHG emissions Reductions on the pathway to net zero emissions.This section explains that because different amounts of shrinking carbon budgets will be consumed by how long it takes a nation to achieve a quantitative GHG emissions reduction amount, nations need to explain the nation’s reduction pathway over time to determine how much of a global budget available for the whole world the nation is allocating to itself.
The paper also explains why expressly following these steps is necessary to ensure that a nation’s NDC is sufficiently transparent to allow the Paris Agreement’s “stocktake” and “transparency mechanism” processes achieve their goal of increasing national ambition if necessary to achive the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.
In addition to describing the steps nations should follow in formulating their NDC, the paper includes a chart which summarizes information that should be supplied with their NDC when it transmits the NDC to UNFCCC, information necessary to make the Paris Agreement’s transparency requirementts work and information necessary to evaluate the adequacy of the NDC under the Paris Agreement.
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?
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
To be an American at the Bonn 2017 climate negotiations felt very different than the 13 other times this writer has participated in the yearly efforts that almost every nation in the world has participated in with the hope of finding a global solution to climate change.
Shortly after entering the huge complex on the Rhine River at which every nation in the world was meeting to finalize the details of the 2015 Paris Accord, I ran into several acquaintances from other years who all remarked about the outrageousness of the US intention announced by President Trump of withdrawing from the global climate change deal.
The United States had a delegation at the Bonn talks that was telling other nations what they should do on an agreement about which the US president wants no part. According to a representative from India, Dr. Vijeta Rattani, of the New Deli Center for Science and Environment, at the beginning of the Bonn talks the US was obstructing agreement on some issues that had wide support among most other nations.
The US’s main contribution was to host a panel which made a full-throated defense of coal while most of the rest of the world was trying to get an agreement that nations would phase out coal by 2030 because of the likely impossibility of keeping warming to non-catastrophic levels without phasing out of coal combustion. According to a story in the New York Times before the Trump team could make its case on the benefits of fossil fuel, “the panel was disrupted for more than 10 minutes by scores of chanting and singing demonstrators. The protesters then walked out, leaving the room half empty. Throughout the remainder of the presentation, audience members shouted down and mocked White House officials who attempted to explain away President Trump’s stated view that global warming is a hoax.”
During the Bonn COP, 20 countries including Angola, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, El Salvador, Fiji, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Marshall Islands, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Niue, Portugal and Switzerland agreed to phase out of coal combustion by 2030.
Throughout the Bonn talks, representatives of some of the most vulnerable nations to climate change pleaded with high-emitting nations to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in light of the current suffering of their citizens. Among others I talked to early during the Bonn talks was a representative from Seychelles, a nation of 115 islands about 900 miles East of the East African coast in the Indian Ocean, who was strongly disturbed by the US lack of response to climate change given that people on her island were already suffering from rising sea levels and drought which was making it more difficult for her island nation’s citizens to grow food.
I also talked to Africans working on climate issues who claimed that massive human suffering from drought is now visible in the sub-Sahara countries of Mali, Chad, and Niger, suffering which is responsible for the creation of waves of refugees who have been attempting to enter Europe often through Libya, many of whom have drown at sea while those of have made it to Europe are destabilizing European politics.
Throughout the Bonn negotiation complex, most nations mounted pavilions which included displays of climate change impacts already being experienced in their countries, adaptation responses which are underway, and mitigation efforts which they are undertaking. Walking through the Bonn complex, participants could not escape the conclusion that adverse climate change impacts are not just a future menace but a troubling current reality in much of the world. Although ten years ago, one could participate in the yearly climate negotiations and conclude that most nations thought that human-induced climate change was mostly a future threat, in November 2017 it is clear that most nations are already experiencing some adverse climate change impacts that they realize they and other nations need to respond to now.
In several Bonn events, representatives of the global scientific community created a mood of gloom and urgency by discussing the magnitude and speed of GHG reductions now necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change harms. One program put on by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) described the enormous gap between the GHG emissions reductions pledged so far by nations under the Paris Agreement and those that are required to limit warming to the Paris Accord’s goals of 1.5 to 2.0 degrees C. A report by UNEP concluded that if the international community fully complied with its GHG emissions reduction pledges made so far, the gap between the pledges and what is needed to achieve the warming limits is “alarmingly high.” The report goes on to say that even if national pledges are fully complied with, the remaining carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to limit warming to 2.0 degrees C will be 80 % depleted by 2030 while by that year the remaining budget to achieve 1.5 degrees C warming limit goal will have been completely depleted. The report also says much more ambitious national pledges are now necessary by 2020, just over two years from now, to have any realistic hope of staying on a reduction pathway necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.
Other scientists during the Bonn negotiations alarmingly warned of the more rapid loss of Arctic ice than what was expected, increasing yearly larger rises of atmospheric CO2 concentration levels perhaps because forest and ocean sinks are starting to decrease, and greater than expected sea level rise.
Some of the great anger about the United States that I witnessed in Bonn was somewhat muted by the presence of 16 US States and numerous American cities and businesses who had been organized by California governor Jerry Brown and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg under the America’s Pledge Campaign. This group which accounted for almost half the US economy had a large presence in Bonn including a large pavilion which showcased what many US sub-national governments and private sector entities were doing to reduce US GHG emissions. One German participant said to me that he had hope that the United States would eventually do the right thing on climate change despite the Trump’s administration indefensible position because of the presence of the defiant US states and local governments. However, he said since these entities only represented about half of the US GHG emissions, the Trump administration’s unwillingness to cooperate with the rest of the world was a major global abomination.
During the last event I went to in Bonn, a UNEP representative discussed the fact that even if every nation fully achieved GHG reductions at levels they committed to, the world was headed toward over a 3 degree C warming in this Century, a level of warming that is extremely dangerous particularly for some parts of the world. He then exhorted the audience to work tirelessly to get every national, state, regional, and local government to set ambitious GHG reduction targets. The situation is ominous he said, we need “all levels of government, that is nations, regions, and local governments, to immediately work toward achieving zero carbon emissions.”
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.