Ethical Issues Raised By US Blue Dog Democratic Senators’ Opposition to Climate Legislation – When May a Nation Make Domestic GHG Reduction Commitments Contingent on Other Nations’ Actions

I. Introduction

Most Blue Dog Democratic and Republican senators have declared their opposition to cap and trade climate change legislation that has passed the US House of Representatives and is likely to be pending in the US Senate for two reasons.

First, they oppose the legislation because it will impose unacceptable costs on their constituents. In a recent post, we examined the duty of the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions even if costs are high. See, The Crucial Missing Element in Media Coverage of the US Climate Change Debate: the Ethical Duty to Reduce GHG Emissions, http://climateethics.org/?p=138.

Secondly, some US senators have indicated that they will oppose US federal legislation that does not make the US reductions commitments contingent on the action of other nations. (See. US Senators, 2009) More specifically, ten Democratic US Senators have said in a letter to President Obama that they will oppose legislation that does not require other countries to make emissions reductions in their manufacturing sector commensurate with US reductions. (US Senators, 2009) The authors of this letter want steep tariffs on goods from countries that do not agree to an international regime of carbon dioxide reductions. It is not clear from the letter whether these senators will refuse to support any legislation that does not require sanctions of any government that refuses to reduce its GHG emissions to levels agreed to by the US or only those governments that are already exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. Moreover it is not clear from the letter, although it would appear to be the case, whether the senators would oppose any legislation that did not sanction any government that did not make reductions quantitatively consistent with reduction levels committed to by the US. Despite several ambiguities the senators’ letter, this post examines as a matter of ethics whether nations can make domestic GHG reductions’ commitments contingent upon other nations also reducing their emissions to levels acceptable to a nation making a commitment.

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Nations Must Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions To Their Fair Share of Safe Global Emissions Without Regard To What Other Nations Do

I. Introduction

One frequently hears the argument that it would be unfair to the United States to commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because some large emitting countries including China and India have not done so. Although this argument has waned somewhat since it was first strongly made in opposition to the Kyoto Protocol, recently this contention has arisen again in response to proposed new US climate change laws and in discussions about what the US position should be when it negotiates a post-Kyoto regime this December in Poland and next December in Copenhagen.

In response to this argument, proponents of US government emissions reduction commitments often argue that the world needs the United States to take action to show leadership to the rest of the world even if China and India do not commit to binding emissions reductions targets. This response appears to concede that the United States has no duty to act until other emitting nations agree to act but, nevertheless, the United States should act to show “leadership” to reduce climate change’s great threat. The ideas seems to rest on the conclusion that if the United States acts to reduce emissions others will follow and therefore as a matter of “prudence” the US should make commitments given climate change’s potential catastrophic impacts. This position seems to concede that the United States has no ethical obligation to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, the reason for moving ahead despite the fact that other countries have not done so is the practical need to show leadership. Can a case be made that the United States and other high-emitting nations have an ethical duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even if other nations do not do so?

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The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty

I. Introduction

This post examines the ethical duty to act to reduce the threat of climate change even if one assumes there is more scientific uncertainty about the causes and impacts of climate change than those identified by the scientific consensus view as articulated most recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

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