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.
Editor’s Note: This entry contains both a video and a the text on which the video was based that examines the views of US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney on climate change though an ethical lens. The text follows the video.
Ethicsandclimate.org has critically examined US President Obama’s approach to climate change on several occasions. See, for instance:
Ethicsandclimate.org now turns to an ethical analysis of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s views on climate change. Although Mitt Romney’s position on climate change appears to have changed over time (at one time supported policies to reduce the threat of climate change), he recently has opposed legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gases citing two reasons. In an October 2011 he asserted in response to a question about his view on climate change that he was opposed to climate change legislation because:
He did not know whether climate change was human caused.
Climate change is a global problem and the US should not spend huge amounts of money on a problem that is global in scope.
In addition, during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention on August 30, 2012, Romney commented on climate change by asserting that President Obama would try to stop raising seas and heal the planet while he would help American families, thus implicitly implying that he would not support climate change legislation while he was President (Lacey, 2012).
II. Ethical Analysis Of Romney’s Opposition To Climate Change Policies
Should Mitt Romney’s opposition to government action on climate change be understood as a profound ethical lapse? The potential ethical significance of an unwillingness to act on climate change is obvious once one understands that:
High emitting nations and individuals are putting tens of millions of the world’s poorest people at risk.
Tens of thousands of deaths and other harms caused by climate change are already attributable to human-induced warming, that is climate change is not just a civilization challenging future problem but the present cause of misery to some humans in some parts of the world.
Even if the international community could stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions at current levels further warming will continue for as much as 100 years because of thermal lags in the climate system.
The mainstream scientific view holds that the world is likely running out of time to prevent rapid, nonlinear, and potentially catastrophic warming.
These facts are held by mainstream scientific view on climate change, a view supported by every academy of sciences in the world that has taken a position including theUnited States Academy of Sciences, 97 to 98% of the scientists that actually do climate science research, and over 100 scientific organizations in the world whose members have relevant expertise.
In light of the above, Mitt Romney’s position on human-induced warming is a stunning moral failure. We now investigate in more detail ethical problems with the specific justifications articulated by Romney so far for his unwillingness to support climate change legislation.
Ethical analysis of opposing greenhouse gas reduction policies on the basis of lack of scientific evidence of human causation.
It is not clear from candidate Romney’s stated position about human causation of observable warming whether he is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation or alternatively that there is significant scientific uncertainty about links between human activities and observed warming.
If Romney is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation of warming this is either a lie or reckless disregard for the truth. That is any claim that there is no evidence that observed warming is caused by human activity is demonstratively false. In fact there are numerous independent and robust lines of evidence that humans are mostly responsible for the undeniable warming the world is experiencing. This evidence includes:
Multiple climate fingerprints of human causation including how the upper atmosphere is warming in comparison to the lower atmosphere, nights are warming faster than days, the upper limit of the troposphere is rising as the world warms, more heat is returning to Earth, less oxygen is being found in atmosphere as CO2 rises, and ocean temperature change patterns can’t be attributed to factors that drive natural climate variability.
Multiple studies (called attribution studies) designed to statistically test the probability that observed warming could be attributed to natural variability.
Measures of isotopes of CO2 that support the conclusion that the CO2 appearing in the atmosphere is from fossil fuels combustion.
Close correlation between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global consumption of fossil fuel and deforestation.
Inability to attribute observed warming to known causes of natural climate variability.
Uncontestable scientific understanding that as greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere the Earth’s climate will warm to some extent.
It is clearly untruthful to claim that there’s no evidence of human causation of observed warming.
Perhaps, Romney is claiming, however, not that there is no evidence of human causation, but rather that there is significant scientific uncertainty about whether warming can be attributed to human activities. Yet the mainstream scientific view on this issue is that it is more than 90% certain that observable warming is primarily caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities including the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation (IPCC, 2007). The mainstream scientific view, as we have seen, is supported by the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world a fact in itself that has moral significance.
Even assuming for the sake of argument that there is more scientific uncertainty about human causation of warming than that recognized by the mainstream scientific view, as we have explained in Ethicsandclimate.org before in numerous articles (See. e.g. Brown, 2008a), using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for non-action on climate change does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny due to certain features of the climate change problem including:
The enormous adverse potential impacts on human health and the environment from human-induced climate change articulated by the consensus view.
The disproportionate climate change impacts on the poorest people of the world.
The real potential for potentially catastrophic climate surprises recognized by the mainstream scientific view.
The fact that much of the science of the climate change problem has never or is not now in dispute, even if one acknowledges some remaining uncertainty about timing or magnitude of climate change impacts.
The fact that climate change damage is probably already being experienced by some people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world in the form of rising seas and increased strength of tropical storms and more frequent and intense droughts and floods.
The strong likelihood that serious and irreversible damage will be experienced before all the uncertainties can be eliminated.
The fact that the longer nations wait to take action, the more difficult it will be to stabilize greenhouse gases at levels which don’t create serious damage.
The fact that those who will be most harmed by climate change have rights to be consulted about decisions that dare made to take no action on climate change on the basis of basis scientific uncertainty.
The fact that the mainstream view holds that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
Given these features of the climate change problem, it is inconceivable that any ethical system would condone an excuse for non-action on climate change based upon scientific uncertainty. This is particularly true because if the consensus view is wrong about the magnitude and timing of climate change it could be wrong in both directions, that is, climate change impacts could be much worse and more rapid than the impacts identified by IPCC and the US Academy of Sciences even if they also could be less harmful in regard to timing and magnitude.
All major ethical systems would strongly condemn behavior that is much less threatening and dangerous than climate change. That is deontological, utilitarian, justice, ecocentric, biocentric, and relationship based ethics would not condone using scientific uncertainty as justification for not reducing high levels of greenhouse gas emissions given what is not in dispute among mainstream climate scientists (See Brown, 2002: 141-148). For this is a problem that if not controlled may cause the death of tens or hundreds of thousands of helpless victims caused by intense storms and heat waves, the death or sickness of millions that may suffer dengue fever or malaria, the destruction of some nations’ ability to grow food or provide drinking water, the devastation of forests and personal property, and the acceleration of elimination of countless species of plants and animals that are already stressed by other human activities. In summary, global warming threatens many of the things that humans hold to be of most value, i.e., life, health, family, the ability to make a living, community, and the natural environment.
The ethical duty to avoid risky behavior is proportional to the magnitude of the potential harm. Because climate change is likely to cause death to many, if not millions of people, through heat stroke, vector borne disease, and flooding, annihilate many island nations by rising seas, cause billions of dollars in property damage in intense storms, and destroy the ability of hundreds of millions to feed themselves in hotter drier climates, the duty to refrain from activities which could cause global warming is extraordinarily strong even in the face of scientific uncertainty about consequences.
Therefore, the nature of the risk from climate change is enormous and using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for doing nothing is ethically intolerable.
In fact that there is wide spread cross-cultural acceptance of the idea that one should not engage in very risky behavior that could cause great harm to things which people attach great value to is a conclusion that is clear from the acceptance of the “precautionary principle” in a growing number of international treaties including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN, 1992, Article 3). Under the precautionary principle agreed in the climate change convention, nations promised not to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking cost-effective action. This is an additional ethical reason why scientific uncertainty cannot now be used by nations as an excuse for refusing to make reductions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, in addition to the strong ethical reasons identified sbove, a nation may not break a promise made to other nations in the UNFCCC to not use scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change.
II. Ethical Duty To Act Does Not Depend On Other Nation’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Commitments
As we have seen, Presidential candidate Romney has also indicated that he would not support US domestic change legislation because it is a global problem and the United States should not spend money on such a global problem. It would appear that Romney is objecting to US expenditures to reduce greenhouse gases as long as other nations are not also committing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions although it is not clear why Romeny would object to US action on climate change on the basis that is a global problem. Implicit in this justification appears to be the unstated assumption that no nation need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global missions until other nations act accordingly. Yet this excuse for non-action on climate change also does not withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.
Because current greenhouse gas levels are already harming people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world according to the consensus climate change scientific view, and even if global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases could be stabilized at current levels, an extraordinarily difficult goal to achieve, climate change-caused harms will grow in the years ahead. For this reason, current levels of total global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced significantly to avoid future harms especially to those who have done little to cause the existing problem.
Yet, not all nations have equal responsibility to reduce greenhouse emissions given differences among nations in current and past emissions levels and steps already taken to reduce national emissions. However, all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions if they are exceeding their fair share (See Brown 2008). Although reasonable people may disagree on what fairness requires because different theories of distributive justice reach different conclusiosn about how to allocate responsibility, no developed nation may reasonablly make the argument that they are justified in not reducing greenhouse gas emissions subatanially because of the cilization challenging magnitude of emissions reductions that are needed to stabilze atmospheric concentrations at safe levels and the hugely disproportionate emissons levels attributable to developed nations.
As a matter of distributive justice, no nation nay deny that it has a duty to keep its national emissions levels below its fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore if a nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions, that nation has an ethical duty to reduce emissions and this duty does not depend upon what other nations are doing.
Although some developing nations can make a presentable argument that they could increase greenhouse gas emissions without exceeding their fair share of global emissions, the developed nations, including the United States cannot make this argument because it is known that existing total global emissions levels need to be significantly reduced and the developed nations are very high emitting nations compared to most nations in the world. For this reason, the United States and other developed nations, along with perhaps a few developing nations, have an immediate duty to begin to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and this obligation is compelled by basic justice, not a need for leadership.
The duty to reduce emissions is not diminished if others who are contributing to the harm fail to cease their harmful behavior. This is so because no nation or person has a right to continue destructive behavior on the basis that others who are causing damage have not ceased their destructive behavior. The only question that needs to be examined to trigger a responsibility to begin to make immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is whether the nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions.
In addition to principles of distributive justice, developed nations have another strong reason why they must reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, they promised to do reduce their emissions based upon “equity” in the Untied Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system. Violating a provision of an international agreement such as the UNFCCC is considered a wrongful act under international law, and is therefore an unethical action for consenting nations (See, e.g., International Law Commission Draft Articles on State Responsibility Art. 2(a) & (b), 2001). Since parties to the UNFCCC also agreed that Annex I countries, that is developed countries, would take the lead in combating climate change and modifying future trends, Annex I countries must undertake policies and measures to limit their emissions regardless of actions taken by non-Annex I country parties. This is now a matter of international law as well as a principle of distributive justice.
For these reasons, high emitting nations in particular have a legal and ethical responsibility to reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. This duty applies regardless of efforts undertaken by other nations.
And so, Republican presidential candidate Romney may not justify a refusal of the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that other nations refuse to do so. All that is being asked of United States is that it limit its greenhouse gas emissions to it’s fair and just share. It is not being asked to solve the problem for the rest of the world.
For these reasons, the United States may not refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emission because not all nations have acted accordingly. Such a conclusion is ethically absurd.
For all these reasons, US presidential candidate Romney’s position on climate change fails to pass minimal ethical scrutiny.
Brown, Donald (2002) American Heat, Ethical Problems with The United States Response to Global Warming, Rowman and Littlefield, Lantham Maryland.
International Law Commission (2001) Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, Supplement No. 10 (A/56/10), chp.IV.E.1, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3ddb8f804.html [accessed 1 September 2012]
Is higher education failing to adequately educate citizens about a movement referred to in the sociological literature as the “climate change disinformation campaign?” An event at Penn State University will examine this topic on April 30th.
A well-educated citizen should know how science works including the indispensable role of skepticism in moving science forward. Yet throughout human history, ideologically motivated movements have made claims inconsistent with well-established scientific conclusions. These, for instance, have included claims that the Earth is the center of the universe, the holocaust did not happen, and evolution can’t explain life on Earth. Particularly when these ideologically motivated but demonstratively false claims encourage citizens to behave in ways that are harmful to others, a strong argument can be made that higher education has a strong duty to educate their students and civil society about problems with these claims.
A growing substantial sociological peer-reviewed literature has arisen that describes an ideological movement usually referred to as the “climate change disinformation campaign.” ClimateEthics has recently completed a four part series that summarizes this literature, explains what is meant by the term “disinformation campaign,” describes the tactics of this campaign, subjects these tactics to ethical analyses, distinguishes these tactics from responsible skepticism, and makes recommendations about scientific norms that should be followed in light of the fact that skepticism in science should be encouraged while disinformation should be condemned. (See the last entry in this series, Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign )
On April 30th at 7 pm in room 101 Thomas Building at Penn State’s University Park, a panel will examine the climate change denial machine while calling for greater involvement by higher education in educating citizens about these matters. Presenters will include Dr. (Juris) Donald Brown from Science, Technology, and Society and Program Manager for United Nations Organizations at the United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of International Environmental Policy, Peter Buckland, A.B.D. in Educational Theory and Policy, Dr. Janet Swim from Psychology and chair of the 2009 American Psychological Associations task force on the psychology of climate change, Dr. Rick Shuhmann of Mechanical Engineering and the Engineering Leadership program, and Dr. Michael Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center and author of the recent book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.
Sponsors of this event include Penn State’s Center for Sustainability, The Rock Ethics Institute At Penn State University, The Penn State Program on Science, Technology, and Society, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Elk County C.A.R.E.S., Juniata Valley Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Pennsylvanians for Clean Air and Water, PennEnvironment, Sierra Club Pennsylvania, Sierra Club Moshannon, Sustainability Now Radio,Voices of Central Pennsylvania, The Interfaith Coalition on the Environment, and the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium.
Preface: The following post by Dr. John Lemons argues that there is an extremely urgent need to systematically transform US higher education to create an informed citizenry about the scientific, social, political, policy, legal, cultural, and moral dimensions of climate change. ClimateEthics believes that US higher education is at least partly responsible for the failure of the United States to respond to its ethical obligations, duties, and responsibilities for climate change. The following post makes the case that “piecemeal” reform of higher education about climate change will not be sufficient and that comprehensive educational reform of higher-education is necessary.
Education is not about carrying buckets, but lighting fires- William Butler Yeats
Some have argued that the lack of political resolve to tackle sustainability issues stems from resistance to assumptions that modern economic and technological thinking will solve society’s problems (Basso 1996, Bowers 2003).
I have been living in Alaska the past few years, and in contrast to assumptions about faith in technology, some Inuit people tell me their foundations for government and education are based on traditional sets of relationships by which they have lived. Their fundamental belief is that the connections that individuals feel for each other and to their environment determine personal character and value to the community. Without using the word “sustainability,” for Inuits this belief is the definition of “sustainability.” Sustainability is a core value of Inuit life. Instead of having to be incorporated or infused into policies and programs, culturally embedded concepts of sustainability form a natural foundation from which all policies and practices are derived. This is an inversion of the usual approach to trying to incorporate sustainability in policies, laws, and practices of the Western world (IALEI 2009).
The problem of global climate change can be considered a subset of “sustainability.” Universities need to urgently, if not radically, respond to the challenges of anthropogenic global climate change by focusing on the complicated intertwined aspects of the scientific, social, political, policy, legal, cultural, and moral dimensions necessary for an informed citizenry.
Following, I discuss three topics. The first reminds us of the quantifiable scientific urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The second concerns the evolution of environmental and sustainability programs because their evolution can inform us about prospects of emergent global climate change programs. The third topic focuses on prospects for change in universities, especially those of research universities, which, as I also note, have influenced the teaching missions of small colleges and universities. Part of my critique is based on the view that comprehensive responses by higher education include a return to liberal education and education about climate change for all students.
The year 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment (UNCHE 1972), when the concept of “sustainability” arguably first began to influence higher education and public policies. We have not yet achieved sustainability.
Dernbach (2002) described the checkered history of sustainability as “…stumbling toward sustainability.” Stumbling toward solutions of global climate change is not an option, or at least a wise one. Time is not on our side. How can we dislodge our universities from their lethargic responses to the kinds of problems we are discussing?
II.Global Climate Change Science: The Problem of Urgency
Scientific conclusions published after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report (IPCC 2007) indicate that not only are greenhouse gas emissions rising faster than IPCC’s worst-case scenario but that observed impacts exceed those projected (Allison et al. 2009, Levin and Tirpak 2009, New et al. 2011).
Recent scientific studies conclude that in order to avoid serious and irreversible impacts there is an urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 40 percent by 2020 or so compared to 1990 or 2000 levels (Hansen et al. 2008, Baer et al. 2009; Bates 2009; Kaufmann et al. 2009; Rockström 2009). Several major scientific studies conclude that avoiding serious and irreversible consequences of global climate change is plausible, but only if urgent actions are undertaken by developed nations, which means that greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak prior to or not later than around 2020 and then decline at an annual rate of six percent or more, eventually reaching a level close to zero if equity between developed and developing nations is to be honored (Anderson and Bows 2008, Ramanathan and Feng 2008, Baer et al. 2009, WGBU 2009, den Elzen et al. 2010, New et al. 2011).
These kinds of studies add a quantified dimension that has been missing from prior discourse about sustainability-the importance of which should not be underestimated. For decades, scientists have quantified human appropriation of natural resources but have not put any numbers on when our use of resources will have to peak and then decline in order to avoid so-called “unsustainable” tipping points. By way of contrast, global climate change science is now quantifying that within a matter of a decade or so, we must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by certain levels. Urgency beckons.