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.
Most arguments against climate change laws and policies are based on claims of unacceptable costs or scientific uncertainty, arguments that hide or ignore ethical problems with these arguments, This video explains how to ask questions of those who oppose climate change policies on the basis of cost or scientific uncertainty which questions are designed to expose ethical problems with these arguments.
The list of questions referenced in the video follows:
Questions to be asked of those opposing government action on climate change on the basis of cost to the economy, cost to specific industries, or job destruction.
When you argue that governments should not adopt policies to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that climate policies will impose unacceptable costs on national economies, destroy specific industries, or kill jobs:
Do you deny high-emitting nations not only have economic interests but also duties and obligations to nations and people most vulnerable to climate impacts to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions?
Do you deny that a high emitting nation needs to take responsibility for the harms to human health and ecological systems on which life depends which the nation is causing in other nations
Do you deny the applicability of the well-established international norm that polluters should pay for consequences of their pollution?
Do you agree that a nation’s climate change policy is implicitly a position on how high atmospheric concentrations of ghgs should be allowed to rise?
Do you agree that a national ghg emissions target must be understood as implicitly a position on a global emissions reduction pathway necessary to stabilize atmospheric ghg concentrations at safe levels?
Do you agree that no nation has a right kill other people or destroy the ecological systems on which life depends simply because reducing ghg emissions will impose costs on the high-emitting nation?
Do you agree that nations which emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting vulnerable countries and individuals who have done little to cause climate change?
Do you agree that the costs of inaction on climate change must be considered by nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them?\
Given that the United States has for over twenty-five years failed to adequately respond to climate change because of alleged unacceptable costs to it and that due to delay ghg emissions reductions now needed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change are much steeper and costly than what would be required if the United States acted twenty-five years ago, is it just for the United States to now defend further inaction on climate change on the basis of cost
Questions to be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty.
When you argue that nations such as the United States or states, regional, or local governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emission because of scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts:
On what specific basis do you disregard the conclusions of the United States Academy of Sciences and over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations whose membership includes those with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and the Royal Society of the UK and according to the American Academy of Sciences 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change which conclusions holds that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are already being experienced in parts of the world, and that the international community is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are some remaining scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve uncertainties before action is taken will virtually guarantee that it will too late to prevent catastrophic human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems around the world?
Given that waiting until uncertainties are resolved will make climate change harms worse and the scale of reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change much more daunting, do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in any decision about whether a nation should wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change because of scientific uncertainty?
Should a nation like the United States which has much higher historical and per capita emissions than other nations be able to justify its refusal to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty, given that if the mainstream science is correct, the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent warming above 2.Oo C, a temperature limit which if exceeded may cause rapid, non-linear climate change.
If you claim that there is no evidence of human causation of climate change are you aware that there are multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies which point to human causation of observed warming?
When you claim that the United States or other nations emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven in peer reviewed scientific literature that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?
If you concede that climate skeptics have not proven in peer-reviewed journals that human-induced warming is not a very serious threat to human health and ecological systems, given that human-induced warming could create catastrophic warming the longer the human community waits to respond to reduce the threat of climate change and the more difficult it will be to prevent dangerous warming, do you agree that those responsible for rising atmospheric ghg concentrations have a duty to demonstrate that their ghg emissions are safe?
Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty? Article 3 states:The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. (UNFCCC, Art 3)
Do agree if a government is warned by some of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world that activities within its jurisdiction are causing great harm to and gravely threatening hundreds of millions of people outside their government’s jurisdiction, government officials who could take steps to assure that activities of their citizens do not harm or threaten others should not be able escape responsibility for preventing harm caused by simply declaring that they are not scientists?
If a nation such as the United States which emits high-levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually seriously harms the health of tens of millions of others and ecological systems on which their life depends, should the nation be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?
This is the second in a series of articles looking at the potential of human rights law to reduce the threat of climate change. The first few entries in this series summarize the main conclusions of a growing literature on human rights and climate change. Later entries will discuss other benefits of a human rights approach to climate change which have not been widely discussed in existing literature on climate change and human rights.
This entry will look at several features of human rights that are relevant to any human rights that are violated by climate change. As we explained in the last entry there are at least three core human rights that climate change violates. They are rights to life, health, and subsisdence. As we shall see later in this series, there are other human rights which have been widely acknowledged by most of the countries in the world that are also are violated by climate change. However it is only necessary to show that climate change interferes with the above uncontroversial core human rights to understand the potential of human rights law to reduce the threat of climate change. This post now reviews some features of human rights law that could help reduce the threat of climate change if climate change is viewed as a human rights problem.
II. Some General Features of Human Rights Relevant To Climate Change
The following are features of human rights that are relevant to an understanding of why a human rights approach to climate change could be an important tool to reduce the threat of climate change.
Individual human rights are widely acknowledged to be derived from the idea that all human beings should be treated with dignity and respect. Furthermore, if one assumes that each and every individual person is entitled to respect and dignity, the human rights which have been widely acknowledged by most of the nations of the world are simply deductions from the obligation to treat every human being with respect.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the international community in 1948 begins with the following in the Preamble:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.
(UDHR, 1948: Preamble)
And so human rights are understood to apply to all people. Furthermore, governments have a duty to protect all citizens’ rights by law. This duty is understood to impose a responsibility for nations to adopt laws to protect human rights. If climate change is violating human rights, therefore, nations have duties to pass laws to prevent climate change. The duty to do this does not depend upon prior law. The duty precedes legislative action.
Article One of the UDHR reinforces the idea that human rights should apply to all human beings because each human being is equal in dignity and rights. It says:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (UDHR, 1048: Article 1)
The duty to protect the human rights of citizens does not depend upon the nationality of citizens, nor other characteristics of citizens. Article 2 of the UDHR provides:
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty. (UDHR, 1948: Article 2)
Article 3 of the UDHR makes it clear that the basic rights to life and security, rights which are clearly violated by climate change, apply to all human beings no mater where they are:
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. (UDHR, 1948: Article 3)
That human rights exist prior to legislative action that creates them has been grounded in several philosophical ethical traditions including, for instance, natural law theories, the deontological theories of Kant and others, some utilitarian or consequentialists theories such as the theory of Johan Steward Mills, and theories of justice derived from fair process including John Rawls’s theory of justice as fair process. (Moecki, et al., 2010)
And so human rights are often claimed to be self-evident truths discoverable by reason. Therefore there is no need for government legislative action to claim that governments have a duty to take action to prevent threats to life, food security, and human health from climate change.
Many of the human rights that have now been widely acknowledged as binding obligations of states to their citizens have been recognized for hundreds of years including in documents such as the Magna Carta in Great Britain in 1215, the English Bill of Rights in 1689, the French Declaration on the Rights of Man in 1789, the US Bill of Rights in 1791, the United Nations Charter in 1945. Since the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted in 1948 numerous international and regional treaties on human rights have been adopted around the world.
And so most of the human rights violated by climate change have been acknowledged to be binding on governments for a very long time. Because of this, a strong argument can be made that once climate change science had concluded that human activities causing climate change were threatening human lives, health, and food security, nations and others causing climate change had a duty to take action to reduce the threat of climate change despite the absence of a treaty or other consensually arrived at international agreement that would require them to reduce ghg emissions.
According to human rights law all rights have: (a) a right-holder, usually a citizen , that is the party who has the right, (b) an object, or what the right is, and (c) an addressee, the party who must make the right available. (Moecki,et al., 2010)
For human rights violated by climate change, the right-holder is all citizens whose rights are being violated, the addressee is the nation or other government entity, courts, or legislatures, and the object is the rights to life, health, and sustainable food among other human rights infringed by climate change.
Human rights are understood to be the solemn promises of nations to citizens to which they are already bound. And so nations already have obligations to individuals to prevent climate change from violating their human rights.
Human rights obligations are understood to include the duty to respect human rights, to protect citizens from human rights violations, and the duty to fulfill human rights enjoyment.
The duty to protect requires governments to protect citizens not only from the acts of the government that would deprive citizens of human rights but also to protect citizens from the climate change causing activities of entities within the nation’s jurisdiction. And so, under a human rights approach to climate change nations have a duty to take action to prevent high emitting entities within their jurisdiction to reduce their ghg emissions.
The duty to fulfill means that nations must enact laws that are necessary to assure that citizens will enjoy human rights. Therefore governments have duties to pass laws on climate change that will assure that all citizens enjoy the free and full exercise of their rights.
Moeckli, D., S. Shah, & S. Sivakumaran, 2010, International Human Rights Law, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.
This is the first in a series that will rigorously examine the importance of understanding climate change as a human rights problem. There is a large and growing literature that examines links between human rights and climate change. This series will summarize the main conclusions of this literature while making additional arguments about the benefits of examining climate change as a human rights problem that can be deduced from almost seven decades of international human rights law. This series will conclude that those who see climate change as a civilization challenging moral and ethical problem will find many practical lessons to be learned from human rights law and its philosophical foundations that should help achieve a greater response to climate change consistent with national, regional, and individual ethical and moral obligations. These lessons will include: (a) substantive conclusions about obligations that follow when specific rights that are violated. (b) procedural lessons about increasing compliance with rights obligations that can be seen by examining almost 65 years of continuing development of international human rights law at the international, regional, and national scale, (c) and specific ideas about how to get nations to take their ethical and equity obligations seriously in international climate change negotiations. The series will end with recognition of some challenges to a human rights approach to climate change. yet with an explanation why despite these challenges, greater use of human rights should be made to find a solution to climate change.
This first in the series will begin with a summary of major conclusions reached about climate change and human rights reached in an excellent paper on the subject: Climate Change, Human Rights and Moral Thresholds by Simon Caney. (Caney, 2010)
II. Climate Change Prevents Enjoyment of the Most Basic, Non- Controversial Human Rightsand as a Result Certain Practical Consequences Follow.
The Caney paper explains that climate change violates many human rights including three of the most fundamental least controversial rights: (1) right to life, (2) right to health, and (3) right to subsistence. Climate change violates the right to life because a changing climate will and is killing people through more intense storms, floods, droughts, and killer heat waves. Climate change will violate the right to health by increasing the number of people suffering from disease, death, and injury form heatwaves, floods, storms, fires, and droughts, increases in the range of malaria and the burden of diarrhoeal diseases, cardie-respiratory morbidity associated with ground level ozone, and increase the number of people at risk from dengue fever. Climate change will violate the right to subsistence by increasing: (a) droughts which will undermine food security, (b) water shortages, (c) sea level rise which will put some agricultural areas under water, and (d) flooding which will lead to crop failure.
Caney explains that other human rights are affected by climate change but an understanding that climate change violates these three rights puts the claim that climate change violates human rights on the most uncontroversial grounds. Caney also explains that climate change is also morally objectionable on other grounds than human rights including non-anthropogenic moral grounds.
Caney further explains in the article that because climate change clearly violates human rights, certain things follow.
These consequences for policy include:
Because human rights are violated, costs to those causing climate change entailed by policies to reduce the threat of climate change are not relevant for policy. That is if a person is violating human rights, he or she should desist even if it is costly. The abolition of slavery was immensely costly slave owners yet because basic human rights were violated by climate change costs to the slave owner of abolishing slavery were not relevant
If climate change is a human rights problem, compensation is due to those whose rights have been violated. The human rights approach generates both duties for mitigation and adaptation. It also generates duties of compensation for harm.
Human rights apply to each and every human being as they are based on the idea that all human beings are born free and entitled to certain rights.
If one has a right not to suffer a particular harm, then it is wrong to violate that right because one can pay compensation. It is for instance wrong to assault someone even if the person assaulted can be paid compensation for the harm.
If the human rights of the most vulnerable are being violated they need not bear the burdens of mitigating the threats.
Human rights usually take priority over other human values such as efficiency and promoting happiness.
Caney, Simon, 2010, Climate Change, Human Rights and Moral Thresholds, in S. Gardiner. S. Caney, D. Jamieson, H. Shue (editors), Climate Ethics, Essential Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,
Widener University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China.
Interest in tackling climate change in the United States has increased somewhat recently in response to global CO2 atmospheric concentrations reaching 400 ppm, although there is almost no hope of new federal legislation soon. Many claims have been made recently that increased use of natural gas is an important element in any US response to climate change. In this regard, the natural gas industry has made a considerable effort to convince citizens that natural gas from hydraulic fracking is part of the solution to climate change. As an example, the following is from a gas industry website.
Because carbon dioxide makes up such a high proportion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, reducing carbon dioxide emissions can play a pivotal role in combating the greenhouse effect and global warming. The combustion of natural gas emits almost 30 % less carbon dioxide than oil, and just under 45 % less carbon dioxide than coal.
One issue that has arisen with respect to natural gas and the greenhouse effect is the fact that methane, the principle component of natural gas, is itself a potent greenhouse gas. Methane has an ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. According to the Energy Information Administration, although methane emissions account for only 1.1 % of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they account for 8.5 % of the greenhouse gas emissions based on global warming potential. Sources of methane emissions in the U.S. include the waste management and operations industry, the agricultural industry, as well as leaks and emissions from the oil and gas industry itself. A major study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Gas Research Institute (GRI), now Gas Technology Institute, in 1997 sought to discover whether the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from increased natural gas use would be offset by a possible increased level of methane emissions. The study concluded that the reduction in emissions from increased natural gas use strongly outweighs the detrimental effects of increased methane emissions. More recently in 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University released “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas”, a report comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the Marcellus Shale region with emissions from coal used for electricity generation. The authors found that wells in the Marcellus region emit 20 percent to 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal used to produce electricity.
The interest in natural gas combustion as a potential solution to climate change has been gaining because US ghg emissions have fallen somewhat as natural gas from hydraulic fracturing technologies has been rapidly replacing coal in electricity sector generation. In this regard, for instance, Reuters recently reported in regard to recent drops in US ghg emissions that:
Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy use in the first quarter of this year fell to their lowest level in the U.S. in 20 years, as demand shifted to natural gas-fired generation from coal-fired electricity due to record low gas prices, the energy department said.
The US natural gas industry has often argued that a switch to natural gas will significantly reduce ghg emissions from the electricity sector because natural gas emits almost 50 % less CO2 per unit of energy produced than coal combustion. For this reason, natural gas is often referred to as a “bridge fuel.” (See, e.g, Kirkland)
The following chart shows the amount of pollutants including CO2 from natural gas, oil, and coal combustion.
As we can see from this chart, natural gas combustion as a source of electricity generation produces about 70 % of the CO2 as oil and 56 % of the CO2 compared to coal without including methane leakage amounts, a matter discussed below. Yet controversies remain about whether natural gas should be understood as a solution to climate change and if so to what extent. This article first identifies the controversies and then reviews these issues through an ethical lens.
II. The Controversies
Two controversies about the efficacy of switching from coal to natural gas combustion in the production of electricity need to be resolved before conclusions on the beneficial effects of natural gas in reducing ghg emissions can be made. These controversies are: (a) Lingering issues about methane leakage rates, and (b) The inability of current natural gas combustion technology to achieve the magnitude of ghg emissions required to prevent dangerous climate change particularly in the medium- to long-term.
A. Unresolved Methane Leakage Rates
Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent ghg. Natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing is known to leak methane. It is usually assumed that replacing coal with gas would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as long as the leakage of methane into the air from gas production does not exceed 3.6%. (Reuters, 2012) Yet significant controversies remain about actual methane leakage rates. In this regard recently there has been a flurry of conflicting papers about methane leakage rates from natural gas production. For instance, US EPA concluded that methane leakage was 2.4% of total natural-gas production in 2009. Other recent studies have found leakage rates of 4% and 9% from hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado and Utah. (Tollefson, 2013) As a result, no rational climate change action plan or ghg inventory should ignore controversies about methane leakage from hydraulic fracking operations. Until methane leakage rates are scientifically determined, any ghg inventory or projection of future emissions should identify the range of leakage rates that appear in the extant literature. In addition to leakage rates from natural gas production facilities, methane leakage is also known to occur in natural gas transmission lines as well as from vehicles powered by natural gas and other end uses of natural gas. Therefore, actual methane leakage rates into the atmosphere from natural gas need to be based on the sum of leakage from all of these sources that include production, transmission, and end use.
Because methane leakage rate controversies are not yet resolved, any climate change action plan must be transparent about the limitations of predicting ghg emissions from natural gas consumption and fully identify all uncertainties about leakage rates.
(b)The Need To Move Aggressively To Non-Fossil Renewable Energy Even If Natural Gas Proves to Be A Short-Term Bridge Fuel
To understand why natural gas combustion in the electricity sector is not likely be an adequate solution to climate change in the long-term, it is necessary to understand the scale of the problem facing the world. The international community agreed in climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 that the international community should limit warming to 2°C to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact, countries agreed to further assess whether the 2°C warming limit needs to be replaced by a more stringent 1.5°C warming limit to avoid dangerous climate change impacts. This conclusion was confirmed in climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010, in Durban in 2011, and in Doha in 2012. A 2°C warming limit was chosen because there is substantial scientific evidence that warming above 2°C could trigger rapid, non-linear climate change threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends. Even if rapid climate change is not triggered if the 2°C warming is exceeded, this amount of warming will create huge harms to some people and nations around the world. Stabilizing CO2 equivalent concentrations at 450 ppm would only result in a 50% likelihood of limiting global warming to 2°C, and that it would be necessary to achieve stabilisation below 400 ppm to give a relatively high certainty of not exceeding 2°C. (Report of the Scientific Steering Committee of the International Symposium on the Stabilization of Greenhouse Gases)
And so, the challenge facing the world to limit future warming to tolerable levels is extraordinarily daunting and will likely require a level of global cooperation far beyond any other previous human problem.
Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change requires immediate action. The entire world will need to peak its ghg emissions as soon as possible followed by emissions reductions at extraordinarily ambitious rates over the next 30 years. The longer it takes for world ghg emissions to peak and the higher ghg emissions levels are when peaking is achieved, the steeper global emissions reductions need to be to prevent dangerous levels of warming. The following chart shows the emissions reduction pathways that are needed in this century to give the world any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C, assuming global emissions continue to rise at current levels during the next few years.
And so it is clear that the later the peaking of total global emissions, the steeper the reduction pathways that are needed.
Further scientific analysis may reveal that methane leakage rates may be small enough to provide climate change emissions reduction benefits when coal combustion of electricity production is replaced by natural gas combustion. As we have seen this is an ongoing controversy about which further scientific analysis is needed. Still, as explained below, given the enormity of global reductions of ghg emissions that are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, natural gas is likely only to be a short-term bridge fuel. (IEA, 2012)
This is so because according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, natural gas can play at best a limited, very temporary role “if climate objectives are to be met.” That is, greater ghg emissions reductions are needed to prevent 2°C warming than those that can be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas combustion. And so most observers argue that the only viable response to the threat of catastrophic climate change is rapid deployment of existing carbon-free technology. (IEA, 2012) Even if natural gas combustion creates a 50 percent less CO2 per unit of energy produced, an amount which is beyond best case on ghg emission reductions, it will not produce the greater emissions reductions necessary in the next 30 years necessary to give any hope of restricting warming to potentially catastrophic levels. In short, natural gas combustion cant get us where we need to be just a few decades out. It might help in the short term, but we need massive investment in non-fossil technology as soon as possible.
In addition if coal combustion were to be replaced now by non-fossil fuel energy, it would help immediately much more than conversion of coal to natural gas combustion does with putting the world on an urgently needed ghg emissions reduction pathway that gives more hope of preventing catastrophic warming.
There are also other significant benefits of moving quickly to non-fossil fuels. For instance, according to IEA report, fuel savings from investment in non-fossil fuel technologies will pay for the investments. (IEA, 2012) Even if natural gas is a short-term bridge fuel, delay in investing in non-fossil fuel technologies may make it impossible to meet the emissions reductions targets needed to prevent dangerous climate change. For this reason, any climate action strategy must look at emissions reductions pathways beyond 2020 necessary to limit warming to 2oC and consider what amounts of non-fossil energy are needed through 2050. Because huge amounts of non-fossil energy will very likely be required to allow the United States and other developed nations reduce their carbon foot-print to levels required to meet their fair share of safe global emissions, the more rapid the ramp up of non-fossil energy the easier it will be to reach acceptable ghg emissions levels in the years ahead.
Furthermore, the IEA report makes it clear that abundant cheap natural gas could push renewables out of the market unless there is a price on carbon or aggressive economic support for non-fossil renewable energy. It is also possible that cheaper natural gas prices may lead to higher rates of consumption of electricity creating higher CO2 emissions. For this reason, any reliance on natural gas combustion as a method of reducing CO2 emissions must provide for ramped up commitments to non-fossil fuel sources of energy at levels needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Reliance on natural gas alone will not achieve the 80%-95% reductions required of developed nations to prevent dangerous climate change.
Barriers to much more aggressive use of non-fossil combustion appear to be a lack of political will coupled and arguments about prohibitively high costs of non-fossil energy. We will now examine these issues through an ethical lens.
III. Ethical Analysis of the Natural Gas and Climate Change Controversies
Natural gas hydraulic fracturing technologies have created issues about social and environmental impacts that are beyond the scope of this article. Here we more narrowly examine ethical questions raised by reliance on natural gas as a solution to climate change.
Depending on how the methane leakage controversy is resolved, switching from coal combustion to natural gas combustion could help lower ghg emissions from the electricity sector in the short term. Given that the United States has strong ethical responsibilities to rapidly reduce its carbon footprint, a matter examined extensively in Ethicsandclimate.org, one might initially conclude that as a matter of ethics switching to natural gas from coal combustion is ethically justifiable as a short-term strategy. Yet, undeniably replacement of coal combustion with non-fossil energy would create a much greater reduction in the long run in the US carbon footprint than a shift to natural gas from coal combustion would alone. As we noted above, objections to moving immediately to non-fossil energy are lack of political will and cost arguments. We now look at these political and cost arguments through an ethical lens.
A. The United States and Other High-Emitting Nations Have A Duty to Reduce Their Carbon Footprint As Rapidly and Dramatically As Reasonably Possible
No reasonable ethical theory could justify current US projected ghg emissions, including projected reductions that are expected to come from increased substitution of coal with natural gas at least in the medium to long term. This is so for many reasons including, first, as we have explained in considerable detail in the recent article on climate change equity, US emissions far exceed global averages in per capita emissions, the US is by far the largest contributor to historical emission which have raised atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from approximately 280 ppm to 400 ppm, and the world is now running out of time to limit warming to non-dangerous levels. Because, as we have demonstrated in the recent article on “equity” and climate change, there are approximately 50 ppm of CO2 equivalent atmospheric space that remain to be allocated among all nations to give the world approximately a 50% chance of avoiding a 2oC warming and developing nations that have done little to elevate atmospheric CO2 to current levels need a significant portion of the remaining atmospheric space , high emitting developed nations need to reduce their emissions as fast as possible to levels that represent their fair share of the remaining acceptable global budget. (See On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.) For this reason, high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to reduce their ghg emissions as fast as possible to their fair share of safe global emissions. Without doubt, this means that the United States has an ethical duty to reduce emissions both in the short and long run faster than switching to natural gas combustion from coal sector will allow by itself.
The actual amount of emissions reductions that are needed between now and 2020 is somewhat of a moving target depending on the level of uncertainty that society is willing to accept that a dangerous warming limit will be exceeded, the most recent increases in ghg emissions rates, and assumptions about when global ghg emissions peak before beginning rapid reduction rates.
One new study shows that we have to reduce emissions even more than scientists initially thought in order to avoid climate change’s worst impacts. A paper published in Energy Policy on February 20, 2013 by Michel den Elzen and colleagues examines new information on likely future emissions trajectories in developing countries. (Ezden, 2013) As a result, the report finds that developed countries must reduce their emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 2°C, thus preventing some of climate change’s worst impacts.
As we have seen above, to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change the entire world will need to peak its emissions in the next few years followed by emissions reductions at hard to imagine rates over the next 30 years.
No matter what reasonable assumptions are made about carbon budgets that need to guide the world’s response to avoid dangerous climate change, as a matter of ethics, the US has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions both in the short and long run to levels much greater than switching to natural gas combustion from coal will accomplish by iteslf.
Even if switching to natural gas in the short term reduces the US carbon footprint somewhat, it is still not sufficient by itself to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations without other policy interventions including putting a price on carbon or rapid ramp up of renewable energy. Given that the natural gas is likely to reduce costs of electricity production, there is also some risk that with lower costs demand for electricity will increase which will undermine both incentives for finding increases in efficiency while raising ghg emissions levels. For this reason, the United States needs to create an emissions reduction target consistent with its obligations to the world. (See, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.)
Although ethical reflection on benefits of short term switching to natural gas reveals the above ethical questions, long-term reliance on natural gas as a climate change solution raises greater issues of ethical concern. This is so because although switching to natural gas combustion from coal can reduce temporarily the US carbon footprint when coupled with the right policy measures, there is no hope that natural gas combustion alone can achieve the huge emissions reductions necessary to put the United States on an emissions reduction pathway that matches the US ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States urgently needs to adopt policies that will ramp up its use of non-fossil energy immediately. Investment in natural gas combustion could delay investment in non-fossil energy. Moreover the amount of non-fossil energy needed to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations requires the United States to begin immediately as a matter of ethics. The longer the United States waits to move more aggressively to increase the share of non-fossil energy, the more difficult, if not impossible, it will be to meet non-fossil energy needs a few decades from now. And so as a matter of ethics a strong case can be made that the United States needs immediately to adopt policies designed to aggressively increase levels of non-fossil energy.
And so if political will is a barrier to greater use of non-fossil energy, politicians resisting greater commitment to non-fossil energy are most likely supporting positions that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
The fact that much greater US commitments to renewable energy are feasible is demonstrated by looking at achievements of other nations. Germany, for instance, has set a goal of 100% renewable energy in its electricity sector by 2050. (The Gaurdian, 2010) Germany’s Environment Agency’s study found that switching to 100 % green electricity by 2050 would have economic advantages, especially for the vital export-oriented manufacturing industry (The Gaurdian, 2010) It would also create tens of thousands of jobs.
B. Ethical Analysis of Cost Arguments In Opposition to Non-Fossil Electricity Generation
There are many factual issues that could be contested in regard to any argument that switching to a non-fossil fuel future is cost-prohibitive. As we have seen, for instance, Germany claimd that an aggressive move to a non-fossil future has economic benefits. (For a good discussion of economic arguments for aggressive policies in support of renewable energy see, Germany Energy Transition, Henric Boll, 2012)
Cost arguments made in opposition to aggressive policies in support of a non-fossil future many not only be challenged on a factual basis but also on an ethical basis. There are several ethical issues raised by such cost arguments that have been extensively looked at in prior articles in EthicsandClimate.org. These ethical issues include
Cost arguments are often deeply ethically problematic because they ignore duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce ghg emissions. That is, cost arguments usually appeal to matters of self-interest and ignore responsibilities to others including the tens of millions of poor people around the world that are already suffering from climate change impacts or who are much more vulnerable to much harsher climate change impacts in the future than the United States is.
Cost arguments are ethically problematic if they fail to examine the costs of non-action and only consider the costs to high emitters of reducing ghg emissions. Given that most economists now believe that costs of non-action far exceed costs of reducing the threat of climate change, costs considerations that only consider costs to polluters are both deeply ethically troublesome and radically incomplete.
Costs arguments may not be made against climate change policies if greenhouse gas emissions lead to serious human rights violations of victims who have not consented to be put at risk.
Cost arguments often translate all values to economic values measured in markets and thereby transform some things that victims hold have sacred value into commodity value.
Cost arguments usually ignore questions of distributive justice while arguing that government policy should be based upon maximizing economic efficiency or utility. Distributive justice issues that are frequently ignored by the use of cost arguments to oppose climate policy include the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world that have done little to cause the problem
Cost arguments usually ignore issues of procedural justice including the right of victims to consent to being put at risk to climate change impacts.
Cost arguments alone usually ignore well settled norms of international law including the “polluter pays” and “no harm” principles that the United States and almost all other nations have agreed to in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In conclusion, we have identified strong ethical arguments that support the need to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion in the United States and other developed countries while implicitly acknowledging that there could be some short-term benefit if coal combustion is replaced by natural gas, a conclusion that only can be reached with better understanding of the methane leakage issues. Yet even if there is some short-term benefit from substituting natural gas for coal combustion, there is no ethical basis for doing this without simultaneously aggressively ramping up non-fossil fuel electricity combustion. We note that some in the natural gas industry and their political supporters continue to oppose policies designed to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion at the same time claiming that natural gas is a solution to climate change. Because the failure to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion Under the circumstances discussed in this article, such opposition is ethically problematic.
Donald A Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
This paper examines ethical issues entailed by wind power, a technology that holds great hope for reducing the threat of human-induced warming but like all climate change solutions has several potential adverse environmental impacts. Recently opposition to wind projects has grown in the United States and several other countries as opponents have objected on the basis of potential adverse environmental and social impacts from proposed wind projects.
Wind power is a hopeful solution to the threat of climate change because it consumes neither fuel nor water and emits no greenhouse emissions strictly related to electricity production. Yet wind power can cause some adverse impacts to wildlife including deaths to birds and bats and some potential harms to people living near wind projects through the aesthetic degradation of natural landscapes and noise irritation to nearby residents. Transmission lines built to move wind power from project sites to electrical grids can create adverse land impacts of several different types. However, care in locating wind power projects can minimize or sometimes eliminate these potential adverse environmental and social impacts.
II. Ethical Analysis of Wind Power Project
A. Ethical Issues That Arise Because Wind Power Is a Potential Solution to Climate Change
Because climate change is a civilization challenging threat to human health and ecological systems on which life depends, solutions to climate change including wind power must be evaluated in relation to the problem for which they are a potential solution. Because climate change has existing and growing devastating impacts on current humans, future generations, ecological systems on which life depends, any ethical analysis of solutions to human-induced warming including wind power must take into account the responsibilities of those who are causing or contributing to climate change to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate in great detail the magnitude of potential adverse environmental impacts from wind power. Without doubt, wind projects have been known to kill some birds and bats, interfere with the aesthetic enjoyment of some landscapes, and create some noise problems for people living very close to large wind projects. However, proponents of wind power argue that wind power’s adverse environmental impacts are minor compared to other energy technologies that would constitute alternatives to wind power or that are currently the source of electrical generation. Thus they argue that wind power is very environmentally benign compared to available electricity generating alternatives. In addition they argue that any adverse impacts that could be caused by wind power can be avoided or greatly minimized through thoughtful project siting decisions.
To the extent that wind power projects can be implemented in ways that minimize or avoid adverse impacts to wildlife, aesthetic values, or harmful land uses, wind power projects should be located, designed, and constructed to minimize these adverse impacts. Yet the adverse impacts to wildlife and birds, landscapes, water, human health, and ecological systems are likely to be much greater from human-induced warming than from wind power projects. Wind power projects may kill some birds and bats if unwisely located, but climate change is likely to kill entire species of birds and bats and other wildlife not threatened by wind power. In addition fossil fuel generated energy causes adverse impacts to human health and ecological systems that are not caused by wind power.
Climate change is not only a future catastrophic problem, it is already believed to be killing people around the world in increased vector borne disease, droughts, heat waves, floods, and intense storms. Wind power has not caused these problems at all.
Some regions of the world are already clearly affected by human-induced warming. For instance, according to the IPCC, precipitation that can cause deadly floods is already increasing significantly in eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia, while precipitation is declining in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia and contributing to diminished food supply and freshwater needed for agriculture and drinking (IPCC 2007: 17). Climate change-caused harms that are already being experienced by some people are of many types including, but not limited to, death, disease, ecological harm, floods and droughts, rising seas, more intense storms, and increased heat waves (IPCC 2007). These harms will grow in the years ahead even if it is possible for the international community to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions at current levels. That is, increased warming will continue even if atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are held constant because of thermal lags in the oceans and other delays in the climate system. It is simply too late to prevent additional climate change-caused suffering. To stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at current levels will require huge reductions from current emissions levels. Therefore those who are opposing wind power projects are very likely already contributing to environmental destruction and human suffering around the world. This fact, as a matter of ethics, should disenfranchise those opponents of wind power who object because of potential harms to themselves as long as they are contributing to much worse environmental harms to others from climate change.
All major ethical systems hold that people have obligations not to harm others, regardless of where they are located around the world. That is, utilitarian, rights-based theories, and justice-based ethical theories hold that humans have duties to not harm others regardless of their location (Brown 2012: Chapter 7). Different ethical theories will reach different conclusions about how duties should be allocated among people who are causing great harm to others but almost all ethical theories agree that human beings have duties to not harm others without regard to where in the world they live. Because individuals have duties to not harm others, governments have duties to not harm others outside their jurisdictions because these governments are the locus for creating policies that achieve the duties and responsibilities of their citizens (Brown 2012: Chapter 8). For this reason, both the governments themselves have duties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under their control to their fair share of safe global emissions and individual citizens have duties to do all in their power to assure that their governments reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels required by distributive justice because: (a) governments in a democracy can be understood to be a means of implementing the collective responsibilities of their citizens, and (b) individuals also have responsibilities to not harm others. For this reason, individuals that are emitting greenhouse gases in excess of their fair share of safe global emissions not only have duties to generate their power needs from more climate friendly technologies such as wind power, they have duties to support government policies to reduce the threat of climate change through greater reliance on renewable energy.
It is quite clear that the vast majority of regional and local governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in developed countries may not reasonably argue that they are not far exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions because of the enormous reductions in current levels of greenhouse gas emissions that will be necessary to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at safe levels.
Climate change will put into jeopardy the very lives, health, and indispensable natural resources upon which lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world depend, while most gravely threatening the poorest people who are also usually the most vulnerable. And so, climate change is a threat to things that are the minimum material conditions for human life and it is interference with the dignity of human life that is usually the predicate for recognizing that human rights have been violated. In fact, climate change is currently threatening the very existence of nations like the Maldives and Kiribati. These facts demonstrate that excess greenhouse gas emissions violate basic human rights, a conclusion that strengthens the obligations of individuals and governments to replace fossil fuel energy with renewable energy. And so wind power projects not only satisfy the ethical obligations of individuals in regard to future energy consumption, they help individuals meet their obligations to reduce the harms that are coming from their existing energy consumption practices.
For these reasons those who object to wind power projects on the basis of some adverse harm to themselves may not object to wind power projects or other comparatively benign renewable energy technologies that could lower their carbon footprint unless they can demonstrate that they are not currently exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. This is particularly the case when the adverse impacts from wind power on which they base their objection are harms to themselves while they to continue to engage in activities that are generating significant levels of greenhouse gases that are undoubtedly exacerbating great harms to tens of millions of people around the world. For this reason, no person who is responsible for emitting greenhouse gas emissions at levels greater than their fair share of safe global emissions should be able to object to wind farm projects other than to assure that any new wind power project minimizes avoidable adverse impacts.
B. Other Ethical Issues Entailed By Wind Power Projects
So far we have only discussed ethical issues that arise because wind power has the potential of significantly reducing carbon footprints of those who are contributing to human-induced warming. There are other ethical issues that arise when wind power projects that have not been adequately considered in this paper thus far, but, which are beyond the scope of this paper. These ethical issues include:
The need to assure that the process of approving wind power projects with ethical norms designed to prevent corruption and conflicts of interest in the approval process (for a good discussion of these issues see, Sutton 2012)
The need to assure that all potential adverse environmental and social impacts that could be caused by proposed wind power projects are adequately identified (see Sutton 2012)
Ethical issues that arise because of the deceptive practices of some corporations and free-market fundamentalist organizations thathave created front groups and astroturf groups (fake grassroots groups) that disguise the real parties in interest. (Goldenberg 2012) This funded opposition is ethically troublesome because it uses deceptive tactics designed to give the false impression that opposition to wind power projects is a spontaneous “bottom-up” citizen opposition when it has sometimes been funded by those who have economic interests in maintaining or increasing fossil fuel consumption (Goldenberg 2012).
Brown, Donald (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Ethics, Routledge Earthscan, London, in press
Goldenberg, Susan (2012) Conservative Thinktanks Step Up Attacks Against Obama’s Clean Energy Strategy, The Guardian, http://www. guardian. co. uk/environment/2012/may/08/conservative-thinktanks-obama-energy plans
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007), Summary For Policy Makers, Synthesis Report, Contribution to Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland, Available at: http://www. ipcc.ch/publications and data/ar4/syr/en.contents.html.
Preface: Most arguments against climate change policies are short-term economic arguments of various types that almost always raise serious ethical problems. The following article by guest blogger Nicholas Krause is one in a series of ClimateEthics posts that look at ethical issues raised by economic arguments againts climate change policies. This post looks at three specific economic arguments that are frequently made against climate change policies and identifies ethical isues raised by these arguments. These arguments are climate change policies should be opposed because they: (a) increase fuel costs, (b) decrease GDP, and (c) destroy jobs. Other ClimateEthics articles on this topic include:
Ethical issues are everywhere. Perhaps the greatest ethical issue of the time arrives as a problem that has the power to change the planet. Climate Change is a grave issue that is facing the world today. This can be seen from evidence stated by the UNFCCC.
“The frequency of heavy precipitation events has increased over most land areas. Significantly increased precipitation has been observed in eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia. There is also observational evidence for an increase of intense tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic since about 1970. Drying has also been observed over large regions, i.e. the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa, and parts of southern Asia.” (UNFCCC)
It is not a future problem to deal with; it is affecting people now and needs to be dealt with accordingly. There are several arguments that oppose action to limit the effects of climate change but perhaps none are more publicized (or argued) than those based on economic reasoning. This post will focus on the ethical issues of three economic arguments opposing climate change policy. These are ethical questions because they imply that there should be no action taken because of economic and cost arguments. The three economic arguments are increased energy prices, decrease of global GDP, and significant loss of jobs.
II. Three Economic Arguments
A. Increased Fuel Costs
The first argument of increased energy prices is being made by oil companies. The oil companies claim that due to the lack of cheap alternative fuels, the cost of energy will increase.
“Oil companies and industry -backed groups argue there aren’t good alternatives to gasoline. Efforts to lower carbon dioxide emissions from fuel use in the Northeast won’t have impact on global emissions and could raise oil prices.” (Snyder, 2010)
The oil companies have the most to lose if climate change policies are adopted. They profit from fuel for nearly every industry imaginable. The downfall of oil companies are the amounts of carbon dioxide being emitted from their product. The only concern oil companies have is the amount of profits they will lose if climate change polices are put into action.
“The Big Oil and Dirty Coal lobbies are working hard to stop reforms so that they can protect their enormous profits.” (Weiss, 2010)
These arguments are not based on factual statements. The oil companies are consumed by greed so make statements based on their best interest without regard to the consequences they will have on others. This brings up the issue of ethics within the decisions of the oil companies to reject climate change policies. The oil companies are making their arguments on utilitarian grounds meaning that the most favorable decision is the one in which happiness is experienced by the most people. However, even within this argument are violations of utilitarian principles. This boils down to being a simple calculation without regard to keeping anything sacred. They are making the statement that the benefits of using oil (keeping energy costs “low”) outweigh the costs that consumption will have. In this, they are saying that allowing warming to continue and have devastating effects on the planet and its inhabitants is an acceptable cost of keeping oil as the main source of energy. This is ultimately taking life without consent. The oil companies are benefiting from loss of human life. This may seem indirect but it is exactly what is happening. Michael Sandel comments that the right thing to do is not simply a matter of calculating consequences by using cost and benefit analysis. He suggests that morality has a greater meaning. It pertains to the proper way human beings are to treat each other (Sandel, 2009). The oil companies are implicitly suggesting that a proper way to treat other humans is destroying their lives for the singular purpose of gaining profit. This is not how people are meant to be treated. All people deserve a greater respect than to be abused by companies with motives that disregard human life. Sandel suggests that the biggest weakness of utilitarianism logic it that it fails to respect the individual rights (Sandel, 2009). The case of climate change is a perfect example of this weakness. The oil companies are disregarding individual rights by continuing to fight policy regarding carbon dioxide emissions based on the argument of increasing energy costs.
Individual rights may seem like a loose term but there is a document known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which outlines rights of all persons.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” (Article 1)
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” (Article 3)
These rights are being violated by the oil company’s rising price argument. They are using people as a means to and end thereby violating Immanuel Kant’s theory of rights. Sandel writes about Kant’s philosophy that morality is not about maximizing happiness or some other end, such as increased profit. Morality requires that persons are to be treated as ends in themselves.
“For Kant, respecting human dignity means treating persons as ends in themselves. This is why it is wrong to use people for the sake of the general welfare, as utilitarianism does.” (Sandel, 2009)
Kant makes the argument that we are not to use people for personal gain. The oil companies are using the argument of rising energy costs as a way of convincing people that climate change policy is not a good idea. They are completely rejecting scientific literature and using public ignorance of the subject in order to maintain a high level of profits. This method is a complete failure to acknowledge Kant’s ideals of not using people as a means to an end.
Thus, the economic argument of rising energy costs brings up several ethical issues. First, it brings up the issue of the proper way to treat other people. Next it violates the idea of individual rights based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Finally, it contests Kant’s principle of not using people as a means to an end. Instead persons should be treated as ends in themselves because everyone deserves at least that much.
As we have seen in prior ClimateEthics’ posts, with the possible exception of arguments that claim the science of climate change does not support action on climate change, by far the most common arguments against action on climate change are claims that proposed climate change policies should be opposed on grounds that they cost too much. These arguments are of various types such as claims that climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage specific businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that proposed climate change legislation can’t be afforded by the public. This post is one of a series that identifies ethical problems with these cost arguments made against the adoption of climate change policies and legislation.
In the entry entitled Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Recognize Duties To Non-citizens, ClimateEthics explained how cost arguments were usually deeply ethically problematic because they ignored duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In an entry entitled Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs, ClimateEthics explained that cost arguments were ethically flawed because they:
(a) ignore the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world, and
(b) implicitly rely on “preference utilitarianism,” a justification for non-action on climate change that is deeply ethically problematic.
This post now identifies another ethical problem with the use of cost arguments made against proposed climate change policies and legislation:They ignore the duty to prevent human rights violations.
II-Cost Arguments and Human Rights Violations
A recent report by Sir Nicolas Stern, the chief economist for the United Kingdom, acknowledged that if climate change violates human rights there could be a moral, if not legal, obligation that those nations or groups most responsible for climate change to reduce their emissions not withstanding what cost-benefit analysis conclude. (Stern, 2006, 42). Therefore, according to Stern, if climate change policies are viewed to create human rights violations, it could be argued that all have the right only to emit some very small amount of greenhouse gases, equal for all, and that no one has the right to emit beyond that level without incurring the duty to compensate. (Stern, 2006: 42).
According to Henry Shue, a human right provides: (1) a rational basis for justification: (2) that actual enjoyment of the substance of the right may be enjoyed by the right holder, and (3) that the right be socially guaranteed. (Shue, 1980: 13). In other words, to have a right is to be in a position to make demands on others about one’s entitlement to enjoy the right. As Shue asserts, if a person has a right, the right can be insisted on without embarrassment. (Shue, 1980:15). To have a right also entitles the right holder to expect that those who can do so guarantee that the right can be enjoyed by the right holder. For this reason, if a person has a right to be protected from climate change caused by others, then they may expect that those who can act to prevent climate change caused harm will take protective action. This obligation is not modified by the fact that reducing pollution will impose costs on the polluter. In other words, if climate change violates human rights, high-emitters can’t use cost arguments to minimize their responsibility to reduce their emissions to their fair share of global emission levels that don’t cause human rights violations.
Many commentators to ClimateEthics argue that since people are self-interested beings, it is more important to make arguments in support of climate change based upon self-interest rather than ethical arguments. Some go so far to assert that people don’t care about ethics and therefore only self-interest-based arguments should be used to convince people to enact domestic climate change legislation. In other words, they argue:”get real” only self-interest arguments matter.
Almost all arguments in the United States in support of climate change policies have been different self-interest based arguments such as climate change policies will protect the United States against adverse climate caused damages in the United States, create good green jobs, or are necessary to prevent national security risks to the United States that might be created if millions of people become refugees fleeing diminished water supplies or droughts that are adversely affecting food supplies. There are no known politically visible arguments being made in the United States that argue that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because it has duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others. In particular, there has been no coverage of the specific ethical arguments for climate change legislation in the mainstream media except with a very few infrequent exceptions.
More specifically, when opponents of climate change policies make self-interest based arguments against the adoption of policies such as cost to the United States, there are no follow-up questions asked by the press about whether those who argue against climate change policies on grounds of cost to the United States are denying that the United States has duties or responsibilities to those outside the United States to prevent harm to them
Now ClimateEthics agrees, of course, that if the consensus view of climate change science is correct, enlightened self-interest would support strong climate change policies. As an example, most economists now support action on climate change because they believe the costs of doing nothing are greater than the costs of taking action. In fact, there are many reasons why enlightened self-interest would support action on climate change. Yet what we explore here is not whether enlightened-self interest supports climate change policies, of course it does, but whether self-interest arguments are actually stronger than ethical arguments. Although the conclusions reached in this post are initially counter-intuitive, we here explain why ethical arguments are in some ways much stronger arguments than self-interest based arguments and the failure to look at climate change policies through an ethical lens has practical consequences. This, as we shall see, is particularly true of arguments made against climate change policies. And so ethical arguments may be no stronger then self-interest based arguments for some things, but they are actually indispensable for understanding what is wrong with certain arguments made against adopting climate change policies.
In fact, ClimateEthics believes that an appeal to self-interest alone on climate change, a tactic followed both by the Clinton and Obama administrations for understandable reasons, has been at least partially responsible for the failure of the United States to take climate change seriously. We have written about this in some detail at Climate Ethics in and entry entitled “Having We Been Asking the Wrong Questions Scientists.?”
We would like now to explain in greater detail why taking the ethical reasons for support of climate change policies off the table in the debate about climate change is tantamount to a soccer team unilaterally taking the goalie out of the net. In other words, a case can be made that the ethical arguments are actually much stronger than self-interest based arguments at least in some very important ways. Therefore the failure to make the ethical arguments for climate change policies should be a concern because such failure has practical consequences.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of reports from the Copenhagen climate change negotiations.
There is something new in the air here in the Copenhagen climate change negotiations.These new developments have profound implications for the international community but particularly for developed nations such as the United States, Australia, Canada, and the European Union countries.
I have been participating in international climate change negotiating sessions since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 including seven conference of the parties (COPs) under the United States Framework Convention on Climate Change. I also negotiated climate change and other environmental issues for the United States EPA at the United Nations from 1995 to 1998. This experience leads me to conclude that there are two new big stories here in the Copenhagen that have implications far beyond those generated by the perennial climate change debates about whether nations should make meaningful commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, the world is still watching which nations will make significant greenhouse gas reduction commitments. Yet other climate change issues are pushing to be the central focus in Copenhagen.
II. Ethics and Climate Change.
The first is the frequency and centrality in which the claim that climate change is an ethical problem, that is responses to climate change must be guided by ethical, justice, and human rights considerations. Unlike previous years, the agenda in Copenhagen has included dozens of meetings and side-events expressly devoted to the ethical dimensions of climate change. In addition claims that climate change raises ethical issues have also been frequently heard in other Copenhagen meetings and events devoted to other topics. Clearly, developing countries and NGOs have been successful in turning up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.
Of course, one occasionally heard that climate change triggers ethical issues at prior climate change COPs, yet here in Copenhagen it is as if the ethical, justice, and human rights dimensions of climate change has become the central organizing principle for resolving climate change disputes. As we shall see, this development has important practical consequences.
However, despite the apparent growing recognition that climate change is an ethical, justice, and human rights issue, many nations continue to negotiate as if national economic interest alone is a sufficient justification for domestic climate change policies on the slate of Copenhagen issues under consideration including greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments, and funding adaptation, technological transfer, and programs that will prevent deforestation. Yet, if climate change is an ethical issue, several practical consequences follow.