Lessons Learned From Research on How 23 Nations Actually Considered Or Ignored Ethics and Justice in Formulating National Climate Commitments


A joint research project of the University of Auckland and Widener University Commonwealth Law School has concluded that when most nations have formulated national climate change policies not only the nations, but also the NGOs and media in these nations, have failed to seriously consider equity, ethical, and justice considerations that should guide national climate change policy.


The project enlisted the support of 23 researchers from around the world to examine how 23 nations actually considered or ignored equity, ethics, and justice in formulating national climate change commitments. Each researcher answered the same 10 questions which sought to determine how equity, ethics, and justice considerations affected national policy formation on greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets and commitments and on funding adaptation, l,osses and damages in vulnerable developing countries. The nations studied in this project are: Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, Fiji , India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mauritius, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, Samoa, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, Uganda, United States of America, and Zimbabwe.


The reports on these countries are available on the project website, nationalclimatejustice.org.


The research project has been motivated by the fact that climate change is a threat that screams for attention to be understood essentially as a problem of ethics and justice, an understanding which has profound significance for national climate change policy development but a fact which our research has concluded is largely being ignored by most nations.

The research project seeks to help deepen reflection by nations and civil society on national responses to climate change by examining national climate change policies through an equity, ethical and justice lens.

If nations fail to base their climate change policies on what equity, ethics, and justice require of them on mitigation of their greenhouse gas emissions and funding for adaptation, losses, and damages, then the global response to climate change will not likely be ambitious enough to avoid catastrophic climate impacts while deepening existing injustices in the world.

Although several organizations have created metrics to evaluate the national voluntary climate commitments, known as Independent Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), on the basis of equity, ethics and justice, this research project, by examining what actually happened at the national level when nations formulated their INDCs has uniquely identified important lessons about how equity, ethics and justice were actually considered or ignored that are the basis of recommendation to improve national compliance with what equity, ethics, and justice require of them. For instance, by looking at what actually happened at the national level in formulating INDCs, the project concluded, among other things, that:

(a) Almost all nations have actually based their INDC at least in part on economic self-interest rather than global ethical responsibility.
(b) Not only have most nations ignored equity, ethics, and justice in domestic development of INDCs, national media and NGOs in most countries have not criticized inadequate INDCs on the basis of equity, ethics and justice.
(c) Even nations that have given lip service to the need to develop INDCs that represent the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, these nations have not explained how ethics and justice quantitatively influenced the formulation of the INDC and in most cases the INDC has actually been based on national economic self-interest.
(d) National explanations of their INDC often hide the actual basis for the weakness of the INDC and to determine the actual basis for the INDC one must understand the domestic forces which opposed more ambitious INDCs.
(e) In most countries there appears to be little understanding among civil society about what equity, ethics, and justice would require of the country in formulating its INDC particularly in regard to the practical implications of living within a carbon budget that would constrain global emissions so that atmospheric ghg concentrations remain below dangerous levels, and the need for the nation to limit its ghg emissions to its fair share of a carbon budget.

These are only a few of the lessons learned from the project. Following is a complete list of the 37 lessons learned and 21 recommendations that have been derived from the research project:

Lessons Learned

The following lessons have been learned by the project so far.

1. Some high-emitting nations have expressly stated that they will not adopt climate change policies that harm their economy – thus ignoring their obligations to others as a matter of ethics, justice, and international law. These nations include Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

2. Any national ghg emissions reduction commitment is implicitly a position on two ethical questions, namely, first, what safe atmospheric ghg concentration level the commitment aims to achieve and, second, what equity framework or principles of distributive justice the percent reduction is based on. Despite this, no nation has explained quantitatively how its commitment is related to an atmospheric carbon budget or an equity framework.

3. Although some nations acknowledge that their climate policies should be guided by ethical principles, for instance, South Africa and Japan, even these nations have not expressly explained quantitatively how their commitments were guided by ethical principles and appear to have based their commitments on economic self-interest at least in part.

4. A few nations have acknowledged that their ghg emissions commitments need to limit warming to 2°C and be derived from a fair and equitable framework, yet even these nations have not explained how their specific emissions reduction commitments can be understood to be consistent with an emissions reduction pathway that will limit warming to 2°C. In fact, despite the almost universal acceptance by nations of the 2°C warming limit, the actual ghg emission targets and timetables chosen by almost all nations do not meet the levels of emissions reductions specified by IPCC as necessary to keep atmospheric concentrations below 450 ppm and thereby achieve the 2°C warming limit. As a result the world is currently on target to hit warming of 3.7°C by 2100.

5. Those developed nations that have acknowledged that they should act to limit warming to 2°C have not adopted emissions reduction targets at levels the IPCC recently concluded would be necessary to limit warming to 2°C – namely, of 25% to 40% by 2020.

6. All nations, including those nations that acknowledge that their policies must be based upon a fair share of a safe global emissions, appear to have actually based their emissions reduction commitment at least in part on national economic self-interest rather than global responsibility.

7. In some nations it is not possible to determine the actual normative basis for the +government’s commitment simply by examining what the national government claims is its normative justification. Instead, one must understand the arguments made against stronger national climate change policies made by those who have successfully opposed stronger climate action. For instance, the United States commitment is based upon what is currently achievable under existing law. In Russia references to international obligations are mere lip service as the national INDC has been based almost exclusively on national economic interest. In the United States, because stronger laws have been successfully blocked by opponents of strong climate change policies on the basis that stronger laws will harm the US economy, destroy specific industries, and destroy jobs, the actual US climate change policies are based upon US economic interests, a fact not clear from examining the statements of the US federal government alone.

8. Some non-Annex 1 countries including China and Mauritius claim that their non-Annex 1 status is justification for making no binding commitments to reduce their ghg emissions even though a substantial percentage of their population has very high income and high per capita emissions. For instance, China per capita emissions are 7.1 tons while the US is 16.4 tons per capita. However, 10% of Chinese have ghg per capita are well above 10 % of US citizens ghg per capita. China has more than 1.1 million millionaires and more people with wealth over 50 million than any country except USA. By 2018 China is expected to have 2.1 million millionaires. There is a huge consuming class in China on which the government is creating no expectations. One of the ethical issues raised by these facts is whether nations which may have much smaller national emissions reductions commitment obligations for the nation derived from an acceptable equity framework should nevertheless be expected to limit activities of individuals causing high levels of ghg emissions.

9. Some nations, including Australia and New Zealand, have expressly made their commitments to reduce climate change policies contingent on the willingness of other nations to make commensurate commitments thus implicitly claiming they have no obligation to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions unless other nations do so. The justification for this approach is not stated in the national commitments and is ethically dubious.

10. NGOs who support stronger climate change policies in many nations, including those in Australia, Canada, and the United States, are failing to frame climate change issues on the basis of ethics, justice, and equity.

11. Several developing nations, including Bolivia, have asserted that they have no obligation to make commitments to reduce ghg emissions unless the costs of reductions are funded by developed nations without identifying an equity framework which justifies this conclusion. South Africa and other developing nations have made commitments while also claiming that some of their commitments are contingent on funding from developed nations without explaining why some of the commitments should be funded according to an equity framework to justify which part of their climate change policies must be funded by developed nations. For this reason developing nations need to take a position on an equity framework that would apply to all developing countries.

12. Bolivia claims that funding for mitigation and adaptation in developing nations should be understood as the climate “debt” of developed countries in response to their historical, high-level per capita, and failure to fund adaptation but has not offered an equity framework to operationalize this claim. Bolivia draws strongly and explicitly upon ethical justifications for requiring deep cuts in national ghg emissions by other nations, together with financial contributions and holistic mitigation and adaptation measures, capable of both reducing poverty and vulnerability to climate change – yet has not identified an equity framework that could be applied at the global scale.

13. Several countries, including Bolivia, Fiji, South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda, have asserted that domestic justice issues need to be considered to reduce domestic poverty in setting national climate policies although they have not offered an equity framework to operationalize this idea at the global scale. Their positions appear to argue that domestic justice obligations can trump global responsibilities.

14. Several developing countries have primarily considered ethics and justice issues in regard to how climate policies affect domestic justice considerations rather than global justice issues.

15. Bolivia has claimed that 6% of GDP of developed nations should be devoted to funding climate change needs in developing nations but has not explained the equity framework that supports this conclusion.

16. Most developing countries, including Bolivia, strongly support a “loss and damages” mechanism while some developed nations oppose this mechanism. The United States denies any responsibility for losses and damages in other countries.

17. Several countries, including Canada have made commitments to reduce ghg emissions but not adopted the regulatory programs needed to achieve their commitments.

18. Several governments including Canada, have domestic legal obligations to protect vulnerable minorities from climate change which they are not fulfilling.

19. Although meaningful local and regional climate change programs and strategies can be found in many nations, many national governments have done little or nothing to encourage local or regional governments to adopt policies that will limit ghg emissions even though for some
activities that cause ghg emissions in the nation only regional and local governments have legal authority to require lower emissions. For instance in the United States, local and state governments regulate aspects of transportation and land use not regulated by the federal government. Some national governments including Australia that have made weak INDCs for the nation, nevertheless contain local governments that have made aggressive ghg emissions reductions commitments.

20. Most nations have not created programs to encourage individuals to greatly reduce their carbon footprint.

21. Some developing countries have set meaningful ghg emissions targets including Mauritius and South Africa but depend on funding from developed nations to achieve some of the climate goals. South Africa, despite being a non-Annex 1 developing country, has acknowledged its status as the highest ghg emitter on the African continent and announced a voluntary emissions reduction target, the objective of which is to make a ‘fair contribution’ to keep global concentrations within the range required to keep within the 2°C warming limit. South Africa openly acknowledges the need to voluntarily respond to climate change despite being a poor developing country. Yet the actual emissions reduction target identified by South Africa does not explain how it is quantitatively linked to an atmospheric concentration goal that will achieve a warming limit or why its emissions reduction target represents South Africa’s fair share of safe global emissions. In fact, the South African target, because it is a commitment only to reduce emissions below business as usual expansion, allows for large increases in South African ghg emissions by 2020 and 2025 without explaining how these increases are consistent with a specific understanding of what equity requires.

22. No developed country has explained how their contributions to the major climate funds relate in any quantitative way to their obligations under the UNFCCC for adaptation, mitigation, or losses and damages.

23. Almost all nations need to increase awareness among citizens and the press of the policy significance of the ethical and justice dimensions of climate change.

24. In some high-emitting developed nations, including the United States, the media is utterly failing to cover the ethics and justice dimensions of national climate change commitments.

25. In the case of EU member states, the collective decision making process of the EU does not seem to have led to any greater ethical analysis at the national level for individual EU nations, including the Netherlands and Italy, when these nations set their emissions reduction targets.

26. A few developing nations , including South Africa and Uganda, recognize the need to take positive action on climate change because they recognize the need and the responsibility toward their own nationals.

27. Two national reports revealed some reference to the concept of contraction and convergence, but no nation is implementing this approach.

28. No developed nations deny responsibility for funding adaptation and loses and damages in poor vulnerable nations, but no nation has made an express link between their ethical responsibility for supporting adaption and compensation for losses and damages and what funds have been committed`. Adaptation contributions seem to be left to the largess or interests of individual nations, leaving them free to withdraw. Including Australia, or determine the scale and nature of contributions. Even when a nation is a major contributor to adaptation (e.g., Japan), its activity is not explicitly linked to its own emissions targets.

29. There was a noticeable absence of explicit use of the concept of climate justice by developed nations. In contrast, Bolivia is using the concept of climate debt to mean liability for historic and continuing emissions and failure to take mitigation and adaptation actions. As the Bolivian report details, Bolivia is the champion on climate justice with a highly developed and multi-faceted concept that includes demands for a compensation mechanism beyond provision for adaptation of developing states.

30. Some developing nations, for instance, Brazil have committed to increase resilience and adaptation responses.

31. Some developing nations including Brazil have encouraged local and regional climate change plans and strategies.

32. Some developing countries including Bolivia, for instance, have made significant commitments to increase non-fossil energy.

33. Bolivia has advocated the ‘Climate Justice Index’ which calculates each country’s ‘fair share’ of atmospheric space according to their; 1) historical responsibility since 1750; 2) ecological footprint; 3) development capacity; and 4) technological capacity. According to this methodology, Bolivia asserts that non-Annex I (developing) countries should have 89% of the remaining atmospheric budget, leaving Annex I (developed) countries with just 11%. However, Bolivia does not go into details about how the 89% of atmospheric space reserved for non-Annex I countries should be divided, nor what types of commitments each country would be responsible for given their positioning on the index.

34. Some national level NGOs (including several in India) have expressly examined national INDCs on the basis of ethics and justice but most have not.

35. In some countries (e.g., Australia), even when media coverage of INDCs considers justice, this coverage misleads citizens by comparing commitments to other nations without any analyses of how equity and justice considerations would allow differences between national commitments.

36. Some countries (including Australia) argue for the need to take economic considerations into account by arguing about the future demand for coal without fully explaining why larger investments in non-fossil fuel sources are impossible.

37. Some nations’, including Australia’s, commitments to the Green Fund have been taken from existing foreign aid budgets – thus providing no new funds that would represent the nation’s satisfaction of it is obligations to fund adaptation and resilience in vulnerable developing countries.


Recommendations on how to improve consideration of ethics and justice in policy formation in light of these lessons learned include:

1. All nations should be required to explain quantitatively how their emissions reductions commitments will achieve an acceptable warming limit and on what equity framework or principles of distributive justice their percent emissions reductions is based. For this reason, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) should identify: (1) tonnes of CO2eq emissions reduced rather than a percent reduction from a baseline year, (b) the temperature limit and associated carbon budget that the INDC is seeking to achieve, (c) the equity principles that the nation relied on to assure the justice of its INDC, and (d) For Annex 1 countries, ghg emissions in 1990, the common baseline year.

2. There is an urgent need in most nations to raise public awareness of the ethical and justice issues entailed by climate change policymaking in general and ghg emissions commitments in particular. Along this line there are several issues in particular about which greater awareness is needed including greater public understanding of the ethical implications of any nation’s ghg emissions reduction commitment in regard to an atmospheric stabilization goal the commitment is seeking to achieve and the coherence or lack there of the national commitment to an acceptable equity framework.

3. An international mechanism under the UNFCCC is urgently needed that helps other nations and civil society to understand the lack of conformity of national ghg emissions targets with principles of ethics and justice. This mechanism should provide that any government’s positions on their climate change commitments can be questioned by other governments and NGOs in regard to the adequacy of the commitment to achieve a warming limit and the fairness of the reductions. This mechanism must also require governments to respond to these questions.

4. The media, NGOs, education institutions, academia, businesses and other social actors must all become involved in lifting both public awareness of the ethical and justice implications of national climate policy. In this regard media coverage that compares national commitments with other nations’ commitments without acknowledging that equity and justice considerations could lead to morally different emissions reductions should be avoided because these comparisons are potentially misleading

5. NGOs should justify their policy analyses and action recommendations on ethical grounds.

6. Nations should be required to explain how their commitments to fund adaptation and losses and damages in poor vulnerable nations link to their ethical obligations to provide funding. A mechanism to fund losses and damages in vulnerable countries is necessary.

7. Training for policy-makers, national politicians, and NGOs on the ethical issues inherent in climate change policy is urgently needed. Training is particularly needed to help all engaged in climate change policy formation to understand the links between INDCs, a warming limit, and an equity framework

8. Developing nations should adopt programs that will create ghg emissions limitations for high-emitting individuals and organizations even if equity and justice considerations don’t require that nations significantly reduce national ghg emissions.

9. National media need to significantly increase their coverage of how ethics, justice, and equity considerations should affect national climate change policies.

10. Developing nations that make commitments based upon funding from developed nations should be required to explain the equity framework that led to the claim for the contribution.In this regard claims of ecological debt should include explanation of the equity framework on which the equitable debt claim is based.

11. Nations who claim that duties for domestic justice trump global responsibilities should explain quantitatively how they reached this conclusion.

12. Nations who make ghg emissions reduction commitments should identify (to the extent practical) the regulatory programs or policies that will achieve the reductions.

13. Nations should develop a program encouraging local and regional governments to adopt climate change emissions reductions programs.

14. All governments should adopt programs that encourage individuals to reduce their carbon footprints to fair levels.

15. Where national commitments have been deduced from collective decision making – such as the case in the EU – nations should be required to explain the equity and justice basis for its national commitment.

16. Nations should explain domestic programs they have adopted on adaptation and resilience.

17. Developing countries that claim certain amounts of atmospheric space should be allocated to developing countries should explain their reasoning.

18. All nations should provide transparent processes to consult with citizens on national climate policies

19. Nations should be required to explain the fairness of their current and projected per capita emissions levels.

20. Nations who justify lower INDCs on the inevitability of the need for continuing fossil fuel use (including coal) should be required to explain what economic or technical consideration were assumed in implicit claims that greater uses of non-fossil fuel is impossible.

21. If a developed nation’s contribution to climate funds such as the Green fund are simply a shift of money from existing foreign aid funds, they should expressly admit to this while explaining why they have no ethical obligations to increase funding for adaptation and response in vulnerable nations.

Donald A. Brow
Scholar In Residence and Professor Deputy Director
Widener University Commonwealth Law School



Prue Taylor, Director

New Zealand Center for Environmental Law


Urgent Call to Climate Journalists Around The World: Research Concludes You Are Tragically Failing to Cover Climate Change Issues Through An Ethical and Justice Lens


Research conducted by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland concludes that national debates about climate change policies and the press coverage of these issues are for the most part ignoring the obvious ethical and moral problems both with how nations are justifying climate change commitments and the arguments of climate change policy opponents at the national level. (See Nationalclimatejustice.org under “lessons learned.”) This is so despite the fact that:

(a)  It is impossible for a nation to think clearly about climate policy until the nation takes a position on two ethical issues: (1) what warming limit the nation is seeking to achieve through its policy, and (d) what is the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. These are ethical issues that can’t be decided through economic or scientific analysis alone.

(b) Climate change policy making raises numerous ethical issues that arise in policy formulation. (See below)

(c) Ethical arguments made in response to the arguments of climate change policy arguments are often the strongest arguments that can be made in response to the claims of climate  policy opponents because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail  to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

(d) Climate change more than any other environmental problem has features that scream for attention to see it fundamentally as a moral, ethical, and justice issue. These features include: (a) It is a problem overwhelmingly caused by high-emitting nations and individuals that is putting poor people and nations who have done little to cause the problem at greatest risk, (b) the harms to the victims are potentially catastrophic losses of life or the destruction of ecosystems on which life depends, (c) those most at risk usually can’t petition their own governments for protection, their best hope is that high emitters of ghgs will respond to their moral obligations to not harm others, and, (d) any solution to the enormous threat of climate change requires high emitting nations to lower their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a classic problem of distributive justice.

Our research has discovered that most journalists and national debates about climate policies around the world  have largely ignored the numerous ethical issues that arise in climate policy formation and instead usually have narrowly responded to the arguments of the opponents of climate policy which have almost always been variations of claims that climate change policies should be opposed because: (a) they will harm national economic interests, or (b) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action.

Yet numerous issues arise in climate change policy formation for which ethical and moral considerations are indispensable to resolve these issues and moral arguments about these issues are by far the strongest responses to arguments on these issues usually made by opponents of climate policies. The issues include:

  • Can a nation justify its unwillingness to adopt climate change policies primarily on the basis of national economic interest alone?
  • When is scientific uncertainty an ethically acceptable excuse for non-action for a potentially catastrophic problem like climate change given that waiting until the uncertainties are resolved makes the problem worse and more difficult to solve?
  • Should proponents or opponents of climate change policies have the burden of proof to scientifically demonstrate that climate change is or is not a threat before climate change policies are in enacted?
  • What level of proof, such as, for instance, 95% confidence levels or the balance of the evidence, is needed to demonstrate climate change is a threat that warrants policy responses?
  • What amount of climate change harm is it ethically acceptable for a nation to impose on those nations or people outside their jurisdiction who will be harmed without their consent?
  • How aggressive should a nation be in achieving carbon neutrality?
  • Do high emitting nations have an ethical responsibility to reduce their ghg emissions as dramatically and quickly as possible or is their responsibility limited to assuring that their ghg emissions are no greater than their fair share of safe global emissions?
  • How transparent should a nation be in explaining the ethical basis for national ghg commitments particularly in regard to sufficiency of the ambition and fairness of the national commitments?
  • To what extent does a nation’s financial ability to reduce ghg emissions create an ethical obligation to do so?
  • What are the rights of potential victims of climate change to consent to a nation’s decision to delay national action on the basis of national cost or scientific uncertainty?
  • Who gets to decide what amount of global warming is acceptable?
  • Who should pay for reasonable adaptation needs of victims of climate change?
  • Do high emitting nations and individuals have a moral responsibility to pay for losses and damages caused climate change to people or nations who have done little to cause climate change?
  • How should national ghg targets consider the per capita or historical emissions of the nation in establishing their national climate commitments?
  • How should a nation prioritize its climate change adaptation needs?
  • Who has a right to participate in a nation’s decision about funding and prioritizing domestic and foreign adaptation responses?
  • How does global governance need to be changed to deal with climate change?
  • What difference for climate change policy-making is entailed by the conclusion that climate change violates human rights?
  • If climate change violates human rights, can economic costs to polluting nations be be a relevant consideration in the development of national climate policy?
  • Can one nation condition its response to the threat of climate change on the actions or inaction of other nations?
  • Which equity framework should a nation follow to structure its response to climate change?
  • What principles of distributive justice may a nation consider in determining its fair share of safe global emissions?
  • What kind of crime, tort, or malfeasance is spreading disinformation about climate change science by those who have economic interests in resisting constraints on fossil fuel?
  • What are the ethical limits of economic reasoning about the acceptability of climate change policies?
  • What ethical issues arise from cap and trade or carbon taxing solutions  to climate change?
  • What is ethically acceptable climate change scientific skepticism, for instance should all climate skeptics be expected to subject their claims in peer-reviewed journals?
  • Can a politician avoid responsibility for taking action on climate change simply on the basis that he or she is not a climate change scientist?
  • What ethical obligations are triggered by potentially catastrophic but low probability impacts from climate change and who gets to decide this?
  • What are the ethical limits to using cost-benefit analyses as a prescriptive guide to national climate policies?
  • What responsibility do high emitting nations have for climate refugees?
  • When are potential adverse environmental impacts of low emitting ghg technologies such as solar and wind a valid excuse for continuing to use high emitting ghg fossil fuel technologies?
  • Who gets to decide whether geo-engineering techniques which could lessen the adverse impacts of climate change are acceptable as long as these techniques could also create potential previously unexperienced environmental impacts?
  • What are the ethical and moral responsibilities of sub-national governments, businesses, organizations and individuals for climate change?
  • Can poor nations which have done little to cause climate change justify non-action on climate change on the basis of their lack of historical responsibility for climate change if some citizens or entities in the country are emitting high amounts of ghgs?
  • Do poor low-emitting nations have any moral responsibility for climate change and what is it?
  • When should a nation be bound by provisions of international law relevant to climate change including provisions in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that they agreed to such as the “no-harm,” and “precautionary? principles and the duty of developed nations to take the lead on climate change?
  • To what extent should stakeholder groups that advise governments on climate policies be gender and minority representative?

This website contains over 160 articles on these and other climate change ethical issues.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law


A Call for Researchers on A Project On Deepening National Responses to Climate Change On The Basis of Ethics and Justice

This is a call for researchers in different nations to investigate how national debates about climate change policies have expressly considered or not ethics and justice issues in formulating climate policies. So far we have researchers who have committed to produce papers on Australia, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Canada, Chile, China, Equator, Germany, Ghana, India, Japan, Kenya, Netherlands, Nigeria, Malawi, Mauritius, Marshall Islands, Nepal, Panama, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, and USA.

We are also looking for researchers from other nations.

The following description of the project:

  • explains the purpose and urgency of the research,
  • includes a research template that includes 10 questions that entail the research questions to be answered,
  • describes procedures for researchers who wish to become involved,
  • explains that the research will become part of a peer-reviewed publication to be published initially as a book and later as an ongoing web-based project, and
  • identifies additional guidelines on producing the research papers.

This new project has been organized by Widener University School of Law, Environmental Law Center and the University of Auckland, School of Architecture and Planning. As the following explains, those interested in participating in the research project should email Prue Taylor at the University of Aukland at prue.taylor@auckland.ac.nz and Donald Brown at Widener University School of Law at dabrown57@gmail.com indicating your interest and the nation you will research.

Research Project on Ethics and Justice in Formulating

A.    The Need for Research

This program will encourage researchers around the world to investigate how individual nations have or have not taken ethics and justice into account in their national responses to climate change.

There is widespread agreement among many observers of international attempts to achieve a global solution to climate change that there is little hope of preventing dangerous climate change unless nations take their equity and justice obligations into account in setting national responses to climate change. In ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), nations agreed to adopt policies and measures based upon “equity” to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.  Yet, many nations continue to make national commitments under the UNFCCC as if national economic self-interest rather than ethical obligations is an adequate basis for determining national policies on climate change.  As a result there is a huge gap between national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions that have been made thus far under the UNFCCC and global ghg emissions reductions that are necessary to limit warming to 2 oC, a warming limit that has been agreed to by the international community as necessary to prevent very dangerous climate change.

The research agenda outlined below seeks to develop information and analyses that could be helpful in ensuring that nations take equity and justice seriously when making national commitments on climate change.  Experience with international human rights regimes demonstrates that national performance on ethical and justice issues can be improved through the development of publically available records of national compliance with justice obligations. If records were available on national compliance with ethical obligations for climate change, they could be used both by the international community to pressure nations to improve performance on their climate change ethical obligations and also create a factual basis that could be used by citizens within the nation to ensure that the national climate change policies consider ethical obligations in setting their emissions targets. Currently there is no international database on how nations have taken equity and justice into account in setting national ghg reduction target or other wise responded to the ethical dimensions of climate change.

This research project calls upon researchers around the world to examine the issues outlined in the template below.

This is a project of Widener University School of Law and the University of Auckland who will manage the project and provide results to interested governments, NGOs students and citizens and publish the research and summaries of this work.

B.    Research Template

Focusing on a nation’s response to climate change in respect to policies adopted or under consideration, the researcher will examine the following issues, ideally over at least the last 5 years:

  1. To what extent has the national debate about how the nation should respond to climate change by setting a ghg emissions reduction target expressly considered that the nation not only has economic interests in setting the target but also ethical obligations to those who are most vulnerable to climate change and that any national ghg emission reduction target must represent the nation’s fair share of safe global emission.  In answering this question, identify the national ghg emissions reduction target, if any, that the nation has committed to under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
  2. In making a national commitment to reduce ghg emissions under the UNFCCC, to what extent, if at all, has the nation explained how it took equity and justice into consideration in setting its ghg emissions reduction target.
  3. Given that any national ghg emissions target is implicitly a position on achieving an atmospheric ghg concentration that will avoid dangerous climate change, to what extent has the nation identified the ghg atmospheric concentration stabilization level that the national emissions reduction target seeks to achieve in cooperation with other nations.
  4. Given that any national ghg emissions target is implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, to what extent has the nation identified the ethical and justice considerations that it took into account in allocating a percentage of global ghg emissions to the nation through the identification of a ghg emissions reduction commitment.
  5. To what extent, if at all, has the nation acknowledged that nation’s emitting ghg above their its share of safe global emissions have a responsibility to fund reasonable adaptation measures or unavoidable losses and damages in poor developing countries.
  6. What formal mechanisms are available in the nation for citizens, NGOs and other interested organizations to question/contest the nation’s ethical position on climate change?
  7. How is the concept of climate justice understood by the current government? Have they articulated any position on climate justice issues that arise in setting ghg emissions policy or in regard to the adaptation needs of vulnerable nations or people?
  8. Are you aware of any regional, state, provincial, or local governments in your country that has acknowledged some ethical responsibility for climate change? If so, what have they said?
  9. Has your national government taken any position on or other wise encouraged individuals, businesses, organizations, subnational governments, or other entities that they have some ethical duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  10.  What recommendations would you make to get the nation or civil society to take ethics and justice issues seriously in climate change policy formulation?

C.   Procedures

Researchers interested in participating in this project should send an email to Prue Taylor Prue.taylor@auckland.ac.nz  and Donald Brown at dabrown57@gmail.com

Please indicate the country you will be working on and include a bio.

We will then acknowledge your willingness to participate and provide any additional information.

Questions should be directed to Prue Taylor or Donald Brown at above email.

First drafts of Report due September 5th. 2014

D.  Additional Guidelines for Research Papers.

  • Each paper should be limited to 8 single spaced pages (16 doubled spaced) or about 3000 words.
  •  First drafts of the  papers should be submitted  by September 5, 2014 to myself and Prue Taylor from the University of Auckland for those researchers that desire to be published in the initial book on the topic.
  • Research papers received after this date will be published on the project website which is under construction. We expect this work will continue to be updated by additional papers on the website and that eventually the website will be the main method of publishing the research work.
  • Approximately the first 10 papers which are relieved and pass a quality control review will be published in the initial book which is part of phase one of this project.
  • All papers should follow the format of Earthcan/Routledge which follows.

Format guidelines for authors:

The following guidelines are provided to help you in the preparation of your manuscript,

• Text files must be supplied as Word documents containing plain text with no formatting (such as linked footnotes, section numbers, etc.) and no embedded images.

• Please use Oxford English spelling: -ize endings for words such as ‘organize’ and ‘dramatization’; ‘analyse’, not ‘analyze’; ‘colour’, not ‘color’; ‘labelling’, not ‘labeling’, etc.

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If there are questions about format issues please direct to Prue Taylor prue.taylor@auckland.ac.nz


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University School Of Law



Prue Taylor

Deputy Director

New Zealand Center for Environmental Law

University of Auckland

Auckland, New Zealand






At the UN Climate Talks, Thinking About Equity May Require Understanding the Conditions of Mutual Trust

Editor’s Note: The following entry is by guest blogger, Dr. Idil Boran, from  York University in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Boran has previously reported on equity and justice issues that arose in the recently concluded Bonn intercessional meetings of climate negotiations under the UNFCCC. This latest report was made at the conclusion of these negotiations during which almost no progress was made in defining equity under UNFCCC by the Ad Hoc Working Group on Durban Platform For  Enhanced Action (ADP), a mechanism under the UNFCCC that seeks to achieve a adequate global climate agreement, despite a growing consensus among most observers of the UNFCCC negotiations that nations need to align their emissions reductions commitments to levels required of them by equity and justice if the world is going to prevent extremely dangerous climate change.

climate justicenow

At the UN Climate Talks, Thinking About Equity May Require Understanding the Conditions of Mutual Trust

The UN Climate Conference held in Bonn, Germany, June 4-15, 2014, concluded in a generally positive tone. Much work has been done before COP 20 in Lima, where negotiators are expected to produce a fully written draft of the new agreement.

International talks on climate change have taken many twists and turns since the UNFCCC came into effect. In the current round of negotiations important shifts are occurring. As explained in a previous post, the new platform of negotiations favors the concept of global participation, where every nation is expected to do its part in some capacity. This is to replace the idea of common but differentiated responsibilities, which was the guiding principle of the negotiations in the Kyoto era. This principle was specially opted to capture a sense of equity within a binding global treaty. The current focus on global participation is to facilitate agreement and induce greater participation. But does this shift imply that the new agreement will have to make a compromise on the issue of equity?

Moral and political philosophers tend to think about equity in substantive terms, as claims about how to apportion the burdens and the benefits as part of a collective venture. The thinking is usually that of identifying an appropriate criterion of equity (a guiding principle) and then articulating an allocation of responsibilities from this criterion.

This way of thinking can be applied to many topics arising within the Framework Convention. Take, for example, the new issue at the heart of the multilateral negotiations: the Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage associated with climate impacts in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. When the issue of loss and damage is raised, a standard approach that comes to mind is that of prescribing an allocation of the costs associated with loss and damage (human, economic, as well as non-economic costs) by a criterion of equity.

For example, historical accountability provides a morally powerful criterion. This is the idea that those who are historically responsible for the problem of climate change should provide the resources to deal with loss and damage. Ability to pay provides another criterion. Here the idea is that developed countries should take up the costs, simply because they are more wealthy. These arguments have been made for mitigation efforts, and they can also be made as new issues arise, such as the issue of an international mechanism on loss and damage.

But the reality is far more complex. However neat these substantive arguments are, they do not capture the layers of discussions that actually take place. In fact, most of the discussions regarding the Warsaw Mechanism, at this point in time, are not over substantive questions. They are focused on deciding on the rules and procedures, and the composition of the Executive Committee, whose mandate will be to develop the details of the mechanism. But the questions that arise at this procedural level are no less interesting. As discussions continue, developing countries who feel threatened by the effects of climate change will press for greater representation within the Committee, and developed countries, such as the United States and the E.U. will press more on the importance of securing the right team of experts regardless of country representation.

But why are developing countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change are pressing for more seats on the Committee? Clearly, when it comes to decisions made by the Executive Committee, they worry that their interests will not be taken into account, unless they secure greater representation.

So, it looks like there is a problem of trust that needs to be addressed at the heart of the deliberations. Within rightful conditions of collective decision-making, equitable terms of cooperation can be captured and agreed upon. And this is exactly what the new round of negotiations aims to achieve by 2015, with more flexibility conferred to countries in making their contributions to the climate effort. What remains to be done, then, is to work on the conditions that will promote trust between parties.

More than neat arguments from first principles, this may require specially talented people, with strong diplomatic skills working on the ground, who can foster a sense of building bridges, and a feel for working together on a global problem. This will also require the building of strong international institutions that put greater emphasis than ever on transparency, accountability, and governance.

At this juncture then, if equity is the concern, there are reasons to invest in understanding what, if at all, can generate more trust between parties at the UNFCCC. Figuring out what it takes to secure mutual trust is more an art than strict rational argumentation. It has something to do with creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere, as opposed to a hostile one where all hold their cards close to their chests. It therefore makes sense for academic researchers interested in the ethical, political, and legal aspects of climate talks to tune in to these dynamics.

As for the institutional structure of the UNFCCC, adopting the right institutional rules and procedures can help in fostering mutual trust. That’s why the new multilateral assessment and review processes under development are of special significance. So is the effort to agree on a common metric on emissions reduction, so to allow all parties to pitch in their contributions in a coherent way, and work together toward ratcheting them up in the future. This may not be a magic solution to the climate problem, but it can set the foundations of cooperation that’s not only equitable but durable too. If successful, it can set an important precedent.

That’s why all eyes will be on Lima in December 2014…


Dr. Idil Boran. Associate Professor &

Director of the Certificate Program in Practical Ethics

Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies

Core Faculty Member

Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS)

York University, Toronto Ontario


An Ethical Analysis of Warsaw COP-19 Outcomes In Light of the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change.

I. Introduction. 

If climate change is a world challenging ethical and justice problem, what can we learn from the state of recognition of this fact from the recently concluded Warsaw climate negotiations?

The 19th Conference of the Parties (COP-19) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 9th Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (MOP-9) completed its work on Saturday 23, 2013 in Warsaw. COP-19/COP 9 was seen by most observers as another in a series of extraordinarily serious failures of the international community to find a global solution to climate change, a tragic outcome in light of the hard-to-imagine global greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions that the mainstream scientific community is now saying are urgently needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Yet the November meeting did produce a few very, very modest results that managed to keep the slim hope alive that an adequate global solution to climate change will be worked out in 2015.

We here review the outcomes of Warsaw through an ethical lens to determine and draw attention on the ethical issues that need to be emphasized as the world approaches the next negotiations in Lima, Peru in December.

jutice climateA major hope for the Warsaw COP was to make significant progress on negotiation of new treaty which is to be completed in 2015 in Paris as agreed to in climate talks in Durban, South Africa in 2011. (UNFCCC, 2011 ) The Durban COP decided to create a global climate agreement applicable to all parties by 2015—known as the Durban Platform—with the goal of keeping average global temperature rise to 2° C, the level that scientists claim is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. A main task for the parties in Warsaw was to establish a process and timetable for creating the new agreement to be finalized by 2015.

Other major issues in Warsaw included whether the international community would make progress on: (a) implementing past promises for funding needed climate adaptation in developing countries, (b) creating an institutional response to nations and peoples who suffer losses and damages from climate change, and (c) creating an institutional response to forest degradation and destruction.

At the center of the most contentious issues at COP-19/MOP-9 were conflicts about what justice and equity require of nations to respond to climate change.

A. Pathway to An Adequate New Climate Change Agreement.

The agreement to be completed in 20I5 under the Durban Platform will take the form of a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force,” and will be applicable to all Parties.

An adequate global climate change treaty will need to limit total global ghg emissions to levels which will prevent atmospheric ghg concentrations from accumulating to dangerous levels and to do this any solution will also need to allocate total global emissions levels among all nations. Therefore nations must agree to commit to limit their emissions to their share of safe global emissions if there is any hope of preventing harsh climate impacts.

climate justiceSince COP-18 in Qatar last year, there have been two prestigious scientific reports that have made it clear that much greater ambition from nations on their previous ghg emissions reductions commitments is urgently needed. In September of this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change and in November the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released its Emissions Gap Report. Both reports contain information that lead to the conclusion that the international community is quickly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.

nw book advThe UNEP report is particularly relevant to the short-term situation that was the focus of the Warsaw meeting given that the international community has agreed to limit future warming to prevent catastrophic warming to 2° C or perhaps 1.5° C if studies that are now underway demonstrate that a 1.5° C warming limit is necessary to prevent catastrophic harms. The UNEP report found that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, ghg emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level that would provide a reasonable chance of avoiding the 2° C warming limit.

To be on track to stay within the 2° C target and head off very dangerous climate change, the report concluded that emissions should be a maximum of 44 GtCO2e by 2020 to set the stage for further huge cuts needed to keep warming from exceeding the 2° C target.

Since total global ghg emissions in 2010 already stood at 50.1 GtCO2e, and are increasing every year, reaching a 44 GtCO2e target by 2020 is extraordinarily daunting and much greater ambition is needed from the global community than can be seen in existing national ghg emissions reduction commitments.

Moreover if the world continues under a business-as-usual scenario 2020 emissions are predicted to reach 59 GtCO2e. And so increasing the ambition of national ghg commitments is urgently needed to provide any reasonable hope of limiting warming to non-catastrophic levels. For this reason there was some hope before Warsaw that some nations would make significant increases in their previous ghg emissions reduction commitments. This did not happen. Not one single country increased its previous emissions reductions commitments in Warsaw and Australia and Japan announced they were lowering prior promises.

There is a growing consensus among many observers of international negotiations that the international community will fail to increase ghg emissions reductions commitments to levels that will avoid dangerous climate change unless nations take their ethical obligations to other nations and vulnerable people seriously. Nations continue to enter climate negotiations as if only their own economic interests count. And so, most nations are continuing to ignore their responsibilities to other nations and people when making national commitments on ghg emissions reductions.

To change this, the UNFCCC should require that when nations make emission reduction commitments they must explain three things. First, what ghg atmospheric concentration level is their target designed to achieve. Second, what is their assumption about the remaining ghg emissions budget that the entire international community must stay within to avoid dangerous climate change. Third on what equitable principle is their national target based to that would achieve the safe atmospheric ghg concentration level. In short, nations should be required to explain expressly how their emissions reduction target has been developed in consideration of equity and distributive justice.

The September IPCC report contained an emissions budget on total CO2 emissions for the entire world. If the international community limits ghg emissions to the budget amounts, there is 66% chance of preventing very dangerous warming. The IPCC said that for warming to remain below dangerous levels, the total amount of CO2 equivalent that may be emitted is 431 gigatons. This further means that the budget would be completely used up by current emissions by around 2044, just over 30 years from now. If ghgs other than CO2 that are being emitted around the world are taken into consideration, the remaining CO2 equivalent emissions budget is reduced to approximately 270 gigatons. This fact has led many climate scientists to strongly warn the international community that it is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change because the world will exceed the budget in 25 years at current emissions rates.

In light of these reports, UNFCCC Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC Christiana Figueres said at the beginning of COP-19 that: “Global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak this decade, and get to zero net emissions by the second half of this century.

In addition to increasing national ghg emissions reductions commitments in the short-term there was some hope that Warsaw would put into place initial elements of an emissions reduction framework that would be included in the new treaty to be completed in 2015. Yet this did not happen either.

The only positive outcome of COP-19 in regard to  adequate ghg emissions reductions commitments was a decision that all nations would submit their new ghg emissions reduction commitments by the “first quarter of 2015” in time for consideration during the final treaty negotiations in Paris that year.

There was intense disagreement in Warsaw about whether levels of historical emissions should be taken into consideration in allocating national emission ghg reductions levels under the new treaty. The U.S. and European Union blocked a proposal supported by 130 nations including Brazil and China that would use pollution levels dating back to the industrial revolution to help set limits on emissions in the future. According to a November 16th New York Times report, discussions on equity and justice became an emotionally charged flash point in Warsaw.

No nation should be able to escape explaining the ethical principles on which its ghg emissions reduction commitment is based. In a previous entry in Ethics and Climate we explained why strong ethical claims can be made that nations have clear duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.


loss and damage

B. Funding for Adaptation.

In 2009, developed countries committed to annually mobilize $100 billion from public and private sources for climate mitigation and adaptation by 2020 in developing countries. Countries also agreed to the creation of the Green Climate Fund, or GCF, which would provide a significant portion of the $100 billion commitment.

For the most part promises to provide specific amounts of funding have not materialized. As a result the Group of 77 developing nations and China unsuccessfully pushed in Warsaw for specific funding pledges for the period before 2020.

Although there were several countries in Warsaw that made small new pledges for funding for adaptation, for the most part the developed nations have failed to identify specific amounts of funding consistent with prior promises. A decision was made that simply requests that developed countries to submit specific pledges at workshops to be convened on the issue and asks developing nations to submit ideas for a high-level ministerial dialogue on climate finance every two years, starting in 2014 and ending in 2020.

COP-19 also approved a decision urging the fledgling GCF to ensure it is operational in time to begin receiving funds next year. The decision calls for “ambitious and timely contributions” by developed countries to the fund before the next round of high-level talks in Peru.

All high-emitting nations must be required to explain, as a matter of ethics and distributive justice,  why they are not responsible for their equitable share of adaptation costs for vulnerable developing nations. In so doing they should be forced to explain whether they disagree with the “polluter pays” principle.

In a previous entry in Ethics and Climate we explained the basis for concluding that high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to fund reasonable adaptation measures in vulnerable poor countries.

C. Loss and Damages

During COP-18 in Doha, Qatar last year, the parties agreed to establish at COP 19 in Warsaw institutional arrangements to address loss and damage in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change

Issues entailed by discussions on creating an institutional response to losses and damages from human-induced climate change were particularly contentions in Warsaw. High-emitting developed nations have been particularly concerned about creating an institution that would act as a mechanism to compensate nations and peoples who are harmed by human-induced climate change.

Two questions in particular about the prospective mechanism caused controversy in Warsaw. The first was whether a new mechanism would be an independent entity within the UNFCCC, which already contains two semi-independent institutions on mitigation and adaptation. Negotiators from low-lying islands and other developing countries argued that devastating human-induced climate change damages are now visible around the world and therefore a new separate loss and damages mechanism under the UNFCCC is needed.

Some developed countries supported the creation of a mechanism but opposed the creation of a new independent funding institution and argued that losses and damages funding should fall under the adaptation framework.

A Warsaw decision established an entity called the “Warsaw Mechanism,” which would fall under the adaptation framework. However, in a concession to vulnerable nations, the decision included a provision to reassess the mechanism after three years. Most of the details of the. role, funding, and makeup of this mechanism await future likely very contentious negotiations

The United States and other nations have resisted discussing responsibilities for loss and damages from climate change for several reasons including the fact that assigning specific responsibility for harms is a difficult question about which reasonable people may disagree.  These countries should be required to explain why they are ignoring the “polluter pays” principle and ethical responsibility that is entailed by basic principles of distributive justice.  In a previous entry in Ethics and Climate we explained the basis for concluding that high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to compensate losses and damages from human-induced climate change particularly in vulnerable poor countries.

D. Preventing Deforestation and Degradation, REDD+

Since 2005, UNFCCC negotiations have worked on establishing a program on reducing emissions for deforestation and degradation of forests usually referred to as REDD+. Conquering deforestation is an important element in a global solution to climate change as emissions from loss of forests represents approximately 20 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

Establishing REDD+ has been challenging for several reasons including establishing credible quantitative measures for measuring precisely the amount of emissions saved from programs that prevent emissions from deforestation, assuring that the emissions saved by funded REDD+ projects  are permanent, and determining how investments in deforestation programs might work with other market mechanisms under the UNFCCC.

Warsaw made considerable progress on for REDD+ issues that included a series of seven decisions that outline issues relating to payments to developing countries implementing REDD+ projects, a framework for establishing a formal REDD+ mechanism, some rules for creating performance-based financing mechanisms, and forest monitoring systems, and establishing forest reference levels among other issues.

Because all high-emitting nations have clear ethical responsibilities to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, high-emiting nations should be required to explain how they will reduce their ghg emissions to their  fair share of safe global emissions if they do not financially support programs that reduce forest degradation.

The next COP will be held in Lima, Peru in December of 2014 which will mostly focus on the details of the new international climate agreement that is scheduled to be completed in 2015.


Ethics and justice issues were central to the most contentious disputes in Warsaw particularly in regard to ghg emissions reduction commitments and funding for adaptation and loss and damages. This fact was recognized by the international media covering Warsaw more frequently than ever before as we have explained in a previous entry here on Ethicsandclimate.org. Yet neither nations or the press covering Warsaw appear to be recognizing the significance for climate policy of the equity, ethics, and justice issues. For this reason, there is a continuing urgent need to increase awareness around the world of the practical significance of the ethics and justice issues for policy.

E.,Lyman and D. Scott ,  Warsaw Climate Talks Produce Progress On Finance, Loss and Damage, Forests, BNA, http://www.bna.com/warsaw-climate-talks-n17179880357/ . (last visited Dec., 14, 2013)

Figueries, Christina, UNFCCC: Warsaw COP “pivotal moment to step up climate action”, Clean Technology, http://cleantech.cleantechpoland.com/?page=news&id=113&link=unfccc-warsaw-cop-pivotal-moment-to-step-up-climate-action- . (last visited Dec., 18, 2013)

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC, 2013),The Physical Basis for the Science, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/#.UqwUWKX_MpE. (last visited Dec., 14, 2013)

A. Morales, 2013, U.S., EU, Reject Brazilian Call for Climate Equity Metric, Bloomzberg News,  No, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-11-15/u-s-eu-reject-brazilian-call-for-climate-equity-metric.html, (last visited  Dec 18, 2013)

Roz, Pidcock, Carbon briefing: Making sense of the IPCC’s new carbon budget, http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2013/10/carbon-briefing-making-sense-of-the-ipcc’s-new-carbon-budget/(last visited Dec., 19, 2013)

Stephen Meyers and Nicholas Kulish, , Growing Clamor About Inequities of Climate Crisis, New York Times, November 16, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/world/growing-clamor-about-inequities-of-climate-crisis.html?_

United Nation Environment Program (UNEP), 2013, Emissions Gap Report, 2013, http://www.unep.org/publications/ebooks/emissionsgapreport2013/

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, (UNFCCC, 2011)(FCCC/CP/2011/9/Add.1, http://unfccc.int/bodies/body/6645.php.  (last visited Dec, 15, 2013)

UNFCCC, 2013, Further Advancing the Durban Platform Draft Decision-/CP.19, http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/warsaw_nov_2013/decisions/application/pdf/cop19_adp.pdf (last visited Dec.16, 2013)

UNFCCC,  2013, Work Program On Long-Term Finance, Decision -/CP.19, http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/warsaw_nov_2013/decisions/application/pdf/cop19_ltf.pdf

UNFCCC Decision, 2013, Approaches To Address Loss And Damage Associated With Climate Change Impacts In Developing Countries That Are Particularly Vulnerable To The Adverse Effects Of Climate Change To Enhance Adaptive Capacity FCCC/CP/2012/L.4/Rev.1, http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2012/cop18/eng/l04r01.pdf (lasted visited December 17, 2013)

UNFCCC Decision, -/CP.19, Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damages Associated With Climate Change Impacts, https://unfccc.int/files/meetings/warsaw_nov_2013/decisions/application/pdf/cop19_lossanddamage.pdf (last visited  Dec 16, 2013)



Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

Visting Professor, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan

Part Time Professor, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing China.







Ethical and Justice Issues At the Center of the Warsaw Climate Negotiations-Issue 3, Financing Adaptation in Vulnerable Counties, and Issue 4, Ethical Responsibilities for Loss and Damages.

adaptationadaptation picture

I. Introduction 

This is the fourth paper in a series which is looking at the ethical issues entailed by the negotiation agenda at COP-19 in Warsaw. The firs two papers looked at ethical issues entailed by the need for increasing ambition for national ghg emissions reduction commitments in the short-term and the second examined ethical issues created by urgent needs of nations to commit to significant ghg emissions reductions in the medium- to long-term. This paper concludes a series that has been examining ethical issues in play at Cop 19 before the conclusion of the Warsaw COP.  Additional papers in the series will again look at these issues in light of what actually happens in Warsaw.

In this paper we look at two issues together, namely ethical issues entailed by the need of many developing countries to find funding necessary to adapt to climate change and the related question of funds needed to compensate vulnerable countries and peoples for losses and damages that are not avoided by protective adaptation measures. These two issues are being examined in the same paper because ethical obligations for adaptation and compensation spring from the same ethical and legal considerations. We conclude in this paper that high-emitting nations have an ethical responsibility to fund adaptation needs in vulnerable nations and to provide funds for loss and damages in these nations despite difficult questions in determining precisely what the amount of these obligations are.

II. Ethical Responsibility for Funding Adaptation

The international community agreed in Copenhagen in 2009 to raise $100 billion annually by 2020 to fight climate change – in addition to the $30 billion they pledged to raise through 2012 in “fast-start” financing for the developing world. This funding has not yet materialized and it is not certain whether rich nations will be able to meet the 2020 goal. This paper looks at the ethical obligations of developed countries to provide this funding.

The United States and other industrialized countries committed to such assistance through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Copenhagen Accord (2009), and the Cancun Agreements (2010), wherein the higher-income countries pledged jointly up to $30 billion of “fast start” climate financing for lower-income countries for the period 2010-2012, and a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion annually by 2020. The Cancun Agreements also proposed that the pledged funds are to be new, additional to previous flows, adequate, predictable, and sustained, and are to come from a wide variety of sources, both public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance.new book description for website-1_01

The United States and European Union, citing budget constraints, have refused to put concrete figures on the table during COP-18 in Qatar last year.
 A Green Climate Fund agreed at the Durban conference to spearhead funding to combat climate change, still has no money.
 For this reason, funding for needed adaptation in vulnerable countries is high-priority agenda item in Warsaw.

As we shall see, that high-emitting nations have responsibility for funding adaptation measures in developing countries is a conclusion that can be based on strong ethical grounds despite reasonable disagreements about such matters as when the ethical responsibility was triggered, which kinds of adaptation measures should be funded now, and the need to distinguish between responsibilities that arise due to the “fault” of high-emitting countries and responsibilities which arise without attributing “fault.”

High-mitting developed countries have undeniable ethical obligations to fund reasonable adaptation measures in vulnerable developing countries both as a matter of sound ethical reasoning and international law. This obligation exists even though reasonable disagreement exists about the details of this funding. It is therefore ethically unacceptable for some nations to assert that because there is disagreement about the details of funding obligations for adaptation, they need not commit to funding adaptation needs.

A rigorous ethical analysis of the obligations of high-emitting developed nations to fund reasonable adaptation measures is beyond of the scope of this paper. (For such analysis see: Brown, 2013, Chapter 7, and Grasso, 2009) Yet the outlines of this analysis are as follows:

The developed countries are most responsible for the human-induced warming which the world is experiencing and is threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world because of the levels of both historical ghg emissions amounts and high per-capita ghg emissions that have been increasing ghg atmospheric concentrations. In addition, those most vulnerable to climate change damages are often the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, those who could most benefit from adaptation measures are often least responsible for excessive greenhouse gas emissions. This is true both at the national and the local level.

In addition, those most vulnerable to climate change are often least able to afford adaptation measures such as dikes, irrigation to compensate for droughts, moving away from flood or storm prone areas, installing HVAC systems and implementing improved public health systems.

In general terms, a society’s vulnerability to human-induced climate depends upon its poverty. The Pew Center for Climate Change described vulnerability to climate change as follows:

Vulnerability to climate change reflects its degree of exposure and its capacity to adapt. Exposure has two principal elements: the climatic conditions themselves, and the extent and character of the population, wealth, and development exposed to them. Capacity is a society’s ability to adapt to changing climatic conditions, whether by reducing harm, exploiting beneficial new opportunities, or both. This ability to adapt, whether to changing climate or other new circumstances, is in part a function of a society’s level of wealth, education, institutional strength, and access to technology. The nature and the extent of a society’s development, therefore, heavily influence both its degree of exposure to climate risks and its capacity to adapt.

(Burton et al. 2006)

Because vulnerability to climate change is both a function of where harsh climate change impacts will be experienced and the financial ability of people to adapt, many poor developing countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change.

That those who are causing climate change have an ethical responsibility to protect those who could be seriously harmed by human-induced warming by funding responsible adaptation measures is a conclusion that follows from numerous ethical theories and several international law principles.

Almost all the world’s religions, basic human rights theories, and numerous other ethical arguments hold that no person has a right to greatly harm someone else without their consent. In fact, the right to life and security is considered a core human rights principle that has been accepted by almost all nations in the world. All nations that are responsible for the violation of human rights have clear duties to restore conditions required to assure that the rights are enjoyed.

Some nations have denied responsibility for compensation and adaptation costs in climate change negotiations. Yet norms about responsibility for damages from human-induced climate change are well established not only by most ethical theories but also in a variety of international agreements, including the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (UN, 1992b), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN 1992a).

The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states in relevant part:

• States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UN 1992b: Principle 2, emphasis added).

• National authorities should endeavor to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment (UN 1992b, Principle 16, emphasis added).

• States shall develop national law regarding liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage. States shall also cooperate in an expeditious and more determined manner to develop further international law regarding liability and compensation for adverse effects of environmental damage caused by activities within their ‘s point is he or hejurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction (UN 1992b, Principle 13, emphasis added).

Additional norms relevant to national responsibility for damages caused by one nation to another are contained in UNFCCC including:

• Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UN 1992a: Preface, emphasis added).

• The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof (UN 1992a: Art. 3, emphasis added).

• 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 (UN 1992a: Art 3, emphasis added).


These provisions of international law have been agreed to by all almost all nations and establish clear national responsibilities to not harm others beyond their jurisdiction, to pay for the damages to those beyond their borders who are harmed by domestic ghg emissions, and to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to take protective action. Yet many nations have caused, and continue to cause climate change damages while they have refused to limit their emissions to their fair share of safe global ghg emissions, compensate those who have been harmed, or provide adequate, predictable funding for adaptation. Yet, the above international law provisions make it clear that nations have obligations to others to prevent climate change damage. Consequently, their failure to take action to reduce the threat of climate change makes them responsible for climate change harms and therefore responsible for funding reasonable adaptation measures of developed nations needed to prevent harm.

loss and damage

 III. Responsibility for Compensation for Climate Change Harms

Innocent people around the world will suffer harms that should be compensated by those who are responsible for climate change because: (a) there is insufficient money to support all the adaptation that is needed, (b) some harms have already occurred, (c) time does not allow for the adoption of adaptation measures necessary to protect some vulnerable people from harm, (d) it is impossible to predict where some harms will occur, or (e) the technology to protect against some of the harms is not now available. For instance, although biological sciences have produced some drought resistant crops, for other crops no drought resistant strains have yet been developed.

From this, the following conclusions can be made. Some climate change harms are unavoidable, others harms can be prevented or minimized through adaptation, and some harms have already happened. Yet, those experiencing these harms are rarely those who are most responsible for them. For this reason, developed nations have responsibility to compensate vulnerable nations and people for the harms from human-induced climate change.

IV. Difficulties In Determining Precise Amounts of Funding Amounts for Adaptation And Compensation Obligations of Individual Nations.

Thus far we have explained why high-emitting nations have clear duties to fund both reasonable adaptation in vulnerable developing countries and compensation for climate change harms in countries that have done little to cause climate change. Yet, there are, however, a number of issues that make it difficult to say what precisely is the magnitude of financial obligations for adaptation and compensation of any one nation. Looking at these issues in detail is beyond the scope of this article. (For more detailed analysis of these difficulties see Brown, 2013, Chapter 7 and Grasso, 2009.)

These issues include: (a) the need to determine when the obligation of any nation is triggered, (b) difficulties in determining which adaptation and compensation needs are attributable to human-induced warming versus natural variability, (c) challenges in allocating responsibilities among all nations that have emitted ghg above their fair share of safe global emissions, (e) challenges in prioritizing limited funds among all adaptation and compensation needs, (f) needs to set funding priorities in consultation with those who are vulnerable to climate change impacts as a matter of procedural justice, and (e) the need to consider the capacity of some nations to fund adaptation and compensation needs.

V. The Obligations of Nations To Fund Adaptation Needs and Compensate for Loss and Damages Despite Challenges in Determining Precise National Obligations.

As we have seen there are many challenges in determining precise obligations of nations for adaptation and compensation. However, these difficulties do not justify nations from ignoring their obligations for adaptation and compensation. The fact that there are challenges in working through what precisely are any nation’s obligations is not justification for failing to fund adaptation nor compensate for losses and damages.

To overcome some of the challenges in determining precise obligations, international institutional responses such as funding needs through common forms of taxation, dedication of trading revenues for use for adaptation and compensation, and other institutional responses of high-emitting countries are worthy of serious consideration.


Brown, Donald, 2013, Climate Change Ethics, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Routledge, Earth Scan, London and New York

Burrton, I., Deringer, E., and Smith, J. (2006) ‘Adaptation to climate change, international policy options’, Pew Center for Climate Change, available at: <http://www.pewclimate.org/docUploads/PEW_Adaptation.pdf&gt; (accessed 7 March 2012)

Grasso, Marco, 2009, An Ethical Approach to Adaptation Funding, Gl0bal Environmental Change, http://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/9873146/an-ethical-approach-to-climate-adaptation-finance-marco-grasso

United Nations (UN) (1992a) ‘United Nations framework convention on climate change’, UN Document, A: AC237/18.

United Nations (UN) (1992b) ‘The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development’, UN Document A/CONF.151/26.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Visiting Professor, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan

Part-Time Professor, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology,

Nanjing, China


Retrospective Moral Intuitions on Equity Dominate the Warsaw Talks as the UN Climate Conference Transitions into its Second Week.


Editor’s note: The following entry is a report from Idil Boran who shares her views about the ethical issues in play in the Warsaw Climate Negotiations at the end of the first week. Ethicsandclimate.org  has posted three of several articles to be posted which are looking at the ethical issues entailed by the Warsaw agenda. This series will continue this week. At the conclusion of the Warsaw meeting, the series will review how the ethical issues were dealt with in Warsaw.

Idil Boran is  attending the Warsaw negotiations and is Associate Professor and Director of the Certificate Program in Practical Ethics, Department of Philosophy, York University, Toronto, Canada.  For inquiries, contact iboran@yorku.ca


Retrospective Moral Intuitions on Equity Dominate the Warsaw Talks as the UN Climate Conference Transitions into its Second Week


The 19th Conference of the Parties at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is taking place in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, through November 11-22, 2013.  As the first week of the conference ended, the delegates have taken a break on Sunday to prepare for the second week.  The discussions at the National Stadium in Warsaw, the official venue of COP 19, have so far been tense, which is to be expected.  This is in many respects a critical year for climate negotiations.  With 2015 in the horizon, pressure is building up to establish the details of a possible new treaty to be adopted in 2015 as the outcome of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

Two issues came the forefront on the first week, setting the tone for the week to come.

  1. Historical emissions

Brazil put forward a proposal, supported by China, to use historical emissions levels going back to the industrial turn of mid-nineteenth century, in order to determine how much countries should be allowed to emit in the future.  Both the European Union and the United States have categorically rejected this proposal.  This issue is clearly highly divisive.  Yet, at the same time, a focus on past emissions has long been a recurrent rationale at COP meetings, as it resonates in the minds of many negotiating parties as a possible starting point for establishing fair terms of cooperation.

  1. Loss and damage

An agreement in principle was reached in Doha, Qatar, at COP 18 in 2012 to include a “loss and damage” clause in the new treaty.  Prompted by the destruction in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan, last week’s discussions were heavily focused on claims of compensation against loss and damage associated with climate change.  The suggested scheme, supported by many developing countries, is that developed countries would pay compensation to developing countries experiencing a weather-related disaster. There are difficulties with this proposal, however.  Although weather extremes are to be expected in world affected by climatic change, associating a single event with climate change is not straightforward, which is why the discussions on this issue remain deeply politicized and highly contentious.

nw book advWhat these issues have in common is that they both put forward a conception of equity appealing to a principle of corrective justice.  Both proposals follow a retrospective logic for establishing equitable terms for allocating the costs of climate change within a possible treaty.  The former is concerned with the costs of mitigation.  And the latter is concerned with the costs of adaptation.  Nevertheless, both perspectives consist of looking at the past for identifying wrongdoing, and request compensation from those viewed to be responsible for climate change.

Yet, establishing fair terms of cooperation need not be based on a retrospective logic, and the thinking certainly need not revolve so narrowly on compensation.  This way of thinking consists of allocating costs and responsibilities by appealing to claims of blame and liability.  These appeals bring to the negotiation table tort-like intuitions, which are more divisive than cooperative.  Equitable cost sharing can be conceptualized within a forward-looking framework, by identifying needs and capacities and moving onwards into a future where genuine cooperation will be needed. Even on the issue of loss and damage, policy can be designed to achieve a system of cooperation against weather disasters based on risk-sharing and risk-transfers, without focusing so narrowly on placing blame.  This kind of policy would provide more than ad hoc disaster aid and would help build resilience in vulnerable countries on an ongoing basis. Although retrospective moral thinking is highly intuitive, the worry is that this way of conceptualizing equitable cost sharing may seriously jeopardize the possibility of an agreement.

The international community has an interest in conducting discussions within non-retrospective and forward-looking parameters for equitable cost sharing.  It would be unfortunate if the negotiations became deadlocked because of insistence on retrospective moralizing on these two issues.  How the discussions will unfold at National Stadium throughout the second week of the conference is yet to be seen.


Idil Boran