This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19. This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.
This article identifies and explains six things that most citizens around the world, although particularly those in developed countries, need to understand about climate change in light of the most recent climate change science. These six things are:
The enormous magnitude of GHG emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic warming.
The speed of GHG emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic warming.
No nation may either legally or morally use national self-interest alone as justification for their failure to fully meet their obligation under the UNFCCC.
No nation may either legally or morally use scientific uncertainty as justification for their failure to fully meet their obligations under the UNFCCC.
Developed countries must legally, morally, and practically more aggressively reduce their GHG emissions than developing countries
Developed countries must legally, morally, and practically help finance mitigation and adaptation programs in poor developing countries.
The need for broad understanding among civil society of these issues follows from several recent scientific reports on climate change. For instance, on October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a Special Reporton limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures. This landmark report, along with several additional recent scientific studies published in the last few months including a paper published by the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences on July 21, 2018, Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropoceneby Steffen et.al., and a paper published in mid-August of this year in Nature Communications by Anthony et. al., 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath, lead to the conclusion that the international community is facing an urgent existential crisis that threatens life on Earth. Preventing this catastrophe requires the entire international community at all levels of government (national, state, regional, and local) to engage immediately in an unprecedented effort to rapidly reduce GHG emissions to net zero in the next few decades.
Although the October IPCC report on 1.5 degrees C warming received some significant notice in the US media, the recent US elections on November 6th in which climate change played only a very minor role at best, demonstrates a startling lack of understanding about the enormity and urgency of the climate threat facing the international community. Because of the immense ramp-up of programs and efforts needed to reduce the staggering threat of climate change depends on broad understanding of the scale of the problem facing the human race, and given the apparent ignorance of most citizens about the magnitude and urgency of the climate change crisis and other issues discussed in this paper, concerned citizens need to mount an aggressive educational program to inform civil society about aspects of the climate change threat that appear to be poorly understood. These issues include the following:
1. The Immense Magnitude of GHG Reductions Urgently Needed to Prevent Catastrophic Warming
The IPCC Special Report concludes that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. This is so because to limit warming to 1.5 C, CO2 emissions would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050 according to the IPCC Special Report. This means if global CO2 emissions have not fallen to net zero levels by 2050, any remaining emissions would need to balanced by removing CO2 from the air.
The Steffen et. al. paper also describes how the positive feedbacks depicted in the following graphic, once triggered could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions alone would not prevent additional warming until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over reducing disastrous warming.
The Steffen et.al paper also explains how human-induced warming of slightly over 1.0 degrees C is already rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positive climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves, droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world.
The Anthony et.al paper also explains that, contrary to common assumptions previously made by many in the international community that positive feedbacks in the climate system that could cause abrupt temperature increases would not likely be triggered if warming could be limited to below 20 C above pre-industrial levels, positive feedbacks could be initiated between current temperatures which have risen slightly above 1.10 C and 20 C. Moreover, the additional warming caused by these feedbacks could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world, phenomena which threaten life on earth.
For these reasons, citizens around the world need to understand the urgent need to reduce GHG emissions to net zero as soon as possible.
2. The Speed of GHG Reductions Needed to Prevent Catastrophic Warming.
Every day that nations fail to reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to achieve a warming limit goal such as 2 degrees C makes the problem worse because the carbon budgets for the whole world that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal shrink as emissions continue. Therefore, the speed that nations reduce their GHG emissions reductions is as important as the magnitude of the reductions identified by any national GHG reduction commitment. For this reason, any national commitment on climate change should not only identify the amount of GHG emissions that will be reduced by a certain date, but also the reduction pathway by which these reductions will be achieved.
The following illustration depicts two different GHG reduction pathways for reaching zero emissions by 2050. Although the curve on the top achieves zero GHG emissions at the same time as the curve on the bottom, total emissions during the period are much greater following the emissions reductions pathway under the top curve compared to total emissions under the bottom curve because the lower curve pathway more quickly reduces emissions. Citizens need to understand that waiting to reduce GHG emissions makes the problem worse because waiting consumes more of any shrinking carbon budget that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal.
3. No Nation may either Legally or Morally use National Self-interest Alone as Justification for Their Failure to Fully Meet Their Obligations under the UNFCCC.
Because GHG emissions from every country mix rapidly in the atmosphere, all nations’ emissions are contributing to rising atmospheric GHG concentrations thus harming people and ecological systems on which life depends all over the world. The above illustration depicts that the atmosphere is analogous to a bathtub in that it has limited volume and that all nations emitting GHGs are raising atmospheric concentration of GHGs to its current concentration of approximately 407 ppm CO2 (the second line from the bottom in the above bathtub) which level is already causing enormous harm in many vulnerable countries while threatening the entire world if the atmospheric GHG concentration is raised to levels which trip positive feedbacks discussed above (represented by the upper line in the above bathtub). Thus high-emitting countries such as the US may not formulate their climate change policies on the basis of costs and benefits to itself alone. Particularly those nations that are emitting high levels of GHGs must acknowledge and respond to the devastating climate change harms they are already contributing to in other countries and particularly harms to poor people and nations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Thus in the United States, for instance, the Trump administration’s justification for withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement on the basis of “putting US interests first ” is ethically indefensible and tragic because of the damage the Trump climate change policy will cause outside the United States.
The following illustration depicts nations emitting high levels of GHG in red in the top half of the illustration while those countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts are indicated in red in the bottom half of the illustration.
For this reason, as a matter of law, given that nations under the UNFCCC agreed to stabilize GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. (UNFCCC, Art. 2), a nation may not fail to reduce its GHG emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions based on the cost to it because it has ethical and legal duties to other nations not to harm them.
4. Scientific Uncertainty is Not a Legally or Morally Defensible Justification for Not Adopting Aggressive Climate Change Policy Responses.
Although opponents of climate change policies have justified their opposition on the basis of scientific uncertainty, and despite the fact that the most prestigious scientific organizations have expressly stated their conclusions about the enormous threat of climate change with increasingly higher levels of scientific probability for over 40 years, scientific uncertainty is not a justifiable response for any nation’s unwillingness to adopt climate change policies as a matter of law or morally.
Under international law, including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, Art. 3.3) which states in relevant part “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty may not be used as a reason for postponing such measures,” and the “no harm principle”, a principle of customary international law recognized in the Preamble to the UNFCCC, nations may not legally use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to take action to prevent dangerous climate change.
Given, that numerous reputable scientific organizations beginning in the late 1970s, including the US National Academies of Sciences, (See Early Climate Change Consensus at the National Academy) and five reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change beginning in 1990 (See IPCC report timeline) have concluded with increasing levels of certainty that human activities are dangerously threatening people and ecological systems on which life depends, nations have been on strong notice for over four decades that human activities responsible for GHG emissions are dangerous to the human community, thus nations have been on notice about the dangers of climate change for over 40 years and therefore may not legally or morally use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to adopt climate change policies that will reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to prevent dangerous climate change.
5. High Emitting Developed Countries, Including the United States, Must Reduce GHG Emissions More Aggressively than Other Countries as a Matter of Law and Practically to Prevent Dangerous Climate Change.
Hiigh-emitting nations have a legal duty under the UNFCCC to reduce their GHG emissions faster than lower emitting nations because they agreed to:
[P]rotect 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. (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.1)
These principles were re-committed to in the Paris Agreement , Art 2.2 which provides that:
This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.
Thus under law, hiigh emitting nations, such as the US, have a legal duty under the concept of “equity” to reduce its GHG emissions more rapidly than most other nations. Although there is reasonable disagreement among nations about what “equity” requires of them, formulate its ghg emissions reduction target on the basis of equity is not only required by its legal obligations under the UNFCCC, practically the US and other high emitting nations must reduce their GHG emissions by much greater amounts and faster than poor developing nations because if they don’t the poorer nations will have to reduce their GHG emissions almost immediately to near zero CO2 so that global emissions don’t exceed the carbon budget available to prevent a warming limit such as 2 degrees C from being exceeded,
There is a basic set of shared ethical principles and precedents that apply to the climate problem…[and] such principles… can put bounds on the plausible interpretation of equity in the burden sharing context…[and] are important in establishing what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg .317 )
The IPCC went on to say:
these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, , AR5, WG III, Ch 4, p. 318).
As a matter of law, therefore, high-emitting countries such as the United States must reduce its GHG emissions to safe levels based on equity at faster levels than other countries as any reasonable interpretation of equity would require the US to make much larger and more rapid GHG reductions than almost all other nations given that the United States (under the concept of responsibility) emitted 5,011,687 metric kilotons (kt) of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2016, second only to China’s 10,432,741 kt CO2. (Netherlands Environmental Agency), also under the concept of responsibility the United States has emitted a greater amount of cumulative CO2 emissions, that is 29.3% of global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2002, while China emitted 7.6% during the same period, (WRI, Cumulative Emissions) making the US much more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to the current level of approximately 406 ppm than any country. Also, under the concept of equality given the US is responsible for 15.56 metric tons per capita CO2 emissions which is more than twice as much as China’s 7.45 metric tons per capita in 2016 (World Bank), as a matter of equity the US must reduce its GHG emissions much more rapidly and steeply than almost all countries.
The following illustration demonstrates why high-emitting nations must also practically reduce emissions more aggressively than other nations because it can be seen that if the high emitting nations such as China, the EU, and USA, depicted near the bottom of the illustration, don’t reduce GHG emissions muchfaster than the rest of the world, and if the international community is going to be restrained by the emissions reduction pathway needed to achieve a warming limit goal, such as the 2 degee C pathway depicted in the illustration, then there is quickly nothing left for the rest of the world. Therefore, high-emitting nations must more aggressively reduce their emissions than lower emitting nations not only as a matter of law but also to retain any hope for the international community to achieve warming limit goals agreed to in the Paris Agreement of as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2 degrees C.
6. Developed Nations Have a Legal and Moral Duty to Provide Financial Resources to Assist Developing Nartions with both Mitigation and Adaptation Programs and this Financial Assistance is also Practically Indespensible to Prevent Climate-induced Harms in all Countries.
Under the UNFCCC, developed country Parties agreed to provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties in implementing the objectives of the Convention (UNFCCC, Article 4, §3). The Paris Agreement also provides that the developed countries shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention. (Paris Agreement, Art, 9.1)
Financial support of developing nation’s mitigation obligations under the UNFCCC mitigations is not only legally required under the UNFCCC but also practically important because large-scale investments are required to significantly reduce emissions and dangerous climate change will not likely be avoided unless developing nations reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Financial support for developing nations by developed nations is also both legally and ethically required to meet the adaptation needs of developing countries, as significant financial resources are needed by many vulnerable countries to adapt to the adverse climate change.
Climate impacts, such as sea-level rise and more frequent droughts and floods, are already having devastating effects on communities and individuals in developing countries. These impacts on developing countries are already affecting developed nations because, for instance, between 2008 and 2011, approximately 87 million people were displaced due to extreme weather events which is causing a mass migration of refugees which is destabilizing many developed nations, particularly in Europe.(Climate Change in Developing Countries, Government of Canada) According to the World Health Organization, climate change is expected to contribute to approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.(World Health Organization, Climate and Health) .
Developing countries are the most impacted by climate change. This is due to many factors, including the economic importance of climate-sensitive sectors for these countries (e.g. agriculture) and the limited financial and human capacity to respond to the impacts of climate change. (Climate Change in Developing Countries, Government of Canada). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that by 2030, up to 122 million more people could be forced into extreme poverty due to the effects of climate change—many of them women. (Conflicts Fueled by Climate Change, The Guardian.)
Because climate change is already destabilizing developed countries due to refugees who are fleeing vulnerable areas of poor developing nations that have become inhabitable due to climate change-induced droughts, floods, loss of drinking water, and rising seas, if developed nations do not help finance climate change adaptation programs in developing countries, they will experience growing conflict and stress caused by vulnerable people and refugees in developing countries who are both creating conflicts in their countries and in developed countries they have or are seeking to enter. .
The following illustration depicts the number of refugees who are fleeing or who have fled climate change.
For this reason, developed country financing assistance for emissions reduction and adaptation programs in developing countries is not only legally required but practically necessary to reduce climate change-induced problems and conflicts in developed countries.
On July 31, 2018, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which should create a shiver of fear in all humans everywhere. The paper, Trajectories in the Earth System in the Anthropoceneby Steffen et..al., explains how human-induced warming is rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positive climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves and droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world.
The Steffen et. al. paper also describes how the positive feedbacks depicted in the following graphic, once triggered could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (ghg) emissions alone would not prevent until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over reducing disastrous warming.
Steffen et. al,, supra pg. 4.
If this is not scary enough, the Steffen et. al. paper concluded some of these feedbacks could be triggered between 1 degree C to 3 degrees C, suggesting that the “risk of tipping cascades could be significant at a 2 degree C rise (Steffen at al p.7), the upper warming limit goal of the Paris Agreement which President Trump has announced the United States will withdraw from.
Given that even if temperature increases already baked into the system don’t trigger positive feedbacks until global temperatures rise by 2 degrees C and given the enormous challenge facing the world to achieve the 2 degrees C warming limit goal agreed to by the international community in Paris in 2015 requires the international community to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2070 (UNEP, Emissions Gap, 2016), the international community needs to immediately join forces to achieve extraordinarily ambitious international cooperation almost immediately to achieve the 2 degree C warming limit goal. However, given that the 2 degree C warming limit goal agreed to in Paris was selected because it was believed that if warming increases could be limited to 2 degrees C, triggering dangerous climate system positive feedbacks was unlikely, the conclusions of the Steffen et al paper that positive feedbacks could be triggered below 2 degrees C additional warming must be interpreted as a justification for a call for an unprecedented urgent global cooperative effort to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon sinks as rapidly as humanly possible.
Given that human-induced climate change is now widely understood to be an existential threat to life on Earth unless all nations rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) to net zero as fast as possible, Americans urgently need to understand certain features of the problem which have been infrequently mentioned in the US national climate change conversation including the following:
There is growing evidence that even if global ghg emissions could be reduced to near zero rapidly, there is enough carbon already in the atmosphere that limiting warming to the then 2 degrees C warming limit goal by the end of this Century has only a 5% chance (Mooney, 2017).
Every day that nations fail to reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to achieve a warming limit goal such as 2 degrees C makes the problem worse because budgets available for the whole world that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal shrink as emissions continue. Therefore, the speed that nations reduce their GHG emissions reductions is as important as the magnitude of reductions identified by any national GHG reduction commitment. For this reason, any national commitment on climate change should not only identify the amount of ghg emissions that will be reduced by a certain date, but the reduction pathway by which these reductions will be achieved,
For reasons stated in the Seffen et.al. paper, climate change is an existential threat to life on Earth that requires the international community to rapidly take extraordinarily aggressive coordinated steps not only sufficient to prevent global temperatures from rising no than more than 2 degrees C, the upper warming limit agreed to by the international community in the 2015 Paris Agreement, but to minimize any additional warming as quickly as possible,
Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which the US ratified in 1992, the US has a legal duty under the concept of “equity” to reduce its GHG emissions more rapidly than most other nations, and although there is reasonable disagreement among nations about what “equity” requires of them, any reasonable interpretation of equity would require the US to make much larger and more rapid GHG reductions than almost all other nations given that the United States emitted 5,011,687 metric kilo tons (kt) of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2016, second only to China’s 10,432,741 kt CO2. (Netherlands Environmental Agency). The US also has an equitable duty to more aggressively reduce its emissions than most other countries because it has emitted a greater amount of cumulative CO2 emissions, that is 29.3% of global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2002, while China emitted 7.6% during the same period, (WRI, Cumulative Emissions) making the US much more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to the current level of 406 ppm than any country. Also given the US is responsible for 15.56 metric tons per capita CO2 emissions which is more than twice as much as China’s 7.45 metric tons per capita in 2016 (World Bank), as a matter of equity the US must reduce its GHG emissions much more rapidly and steeply than almost all countries,
The US duty to formulate its ghg emissions reduction target on the basis of equity is not only required by its legal obligations under the UNFCCC, practically the US and other high emitting nations must reduce their GHG emissions by much greater amounts and faster than poor developing nations because if they don’t the poorer nations will have to reduce their GHG emissions almost immediately to near zero CO2 so that global emissions don’t exceed the carbon budget available to prevent a warming limit such as 2 degrees C from being exceeded,
Any US policy response to climate change such as a carbon tax must be structured to reduce US ghg emissions to levels and speeds required of the US to achieve its responsibilities to the rest of the world to prevent dangerous climate change. Thus, if the US were to pass a carbon tax, the imposition of a tax must either reduce US GHG emissions to the level and the speed required of it by its obligations or be supplemented by other policy responses such as, for instance, mandatory conversions of electric power generation from fossil fuel combustion to renewable energy by a date certain or mandatory requirements for electric vehicles,
Because GHG emissions from every country mix rapidly in the atmosphere, all nations emissions are contributing to rising atmospheric GHG concentrations thus harming people and ecological systems on which life depends all over the world. Thus, the US may not formulate its climate change policies only on the basis of costs and benefits to itself alone, it must acknowledge and respond to the devastating climate change harms the United States is already contributing to that are being experienced around the world and particularly by poor people and nations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. For this reason, the Trump administration’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on the basis of “putting US interests first” is deeply morally indefensible and tragic because of the damage it will likely cause to the world,
Because of the rapid speed required of the US to reduce its ghg emissions to net zero carbon emissions, the US urgently needs to put ghg emissions reductions on the equivalent of a wartime footing by not only adopting policy responses that can achieve ghg emission reduction goals required of it, but also by investing in research and development in new technologies that can facilitate and achieve the its ghg emission reduction obligations and increase carbon sinks that could reduce the rise in atmospheric ghg concentrations,
The United States needs to develop a strategy to achieve these objectives in the next two years and begin implementing the strategy immediately as quickly as possible.
This article explains the first two of several issues that citizens need to understand to evaluate appropriate national responses to climate change after the Paris Agreement. Although the mainstream media in the United States and other developed countries has widely reported on some aspects of the Paris Agreement, this series will describe important issues that are largely being ignored by press coverage of the Paris deal.
The first issue is why a 25-year delay in responding to increasingly stronger scientific warnings of the danger of human-induced climate change has made the problem much more threatening. The second is the urgency of the need for hard-to-imagine action to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions at all scales, that is globally, nationally, and locally, but particularly in high-emitting nations such as the United States in light of the limited amount of ghgs that can be emitted by the entire world before raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to very dangerous levels and in light of the need to fairly allocate ghg emissions reductions obligations around the world.
Media in the US has accurately reported on some positive aspects of the Paris deal including:
a. 186 nations have made commitments to reduce the threat of climate change although nations conceded in Paris that current commitments need to be upgraded to prevent dangerous climate change.
b. All nations agreed to limit the increase in global average temperatures to “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” – the level beyond which scientists believe the Earth will likely begin to experience rapid global warming and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”, a warming amount which may also cause serious global harms particularly to many poor, vulnerable nations. Also the Paris Agreement says by the second half of this century, there must be a balance between the emissions from human activity such as energy production and farming, and the amount that can be captured by carbon-absorbing “sinks” such as forests or carbon storage technology.
c. All countries agreed to submit updated plans that would ratchet up the stringency of emissions by 2020 and every five years thereafter.
d. Nations agreed to report to each other and the public on how well they are doing to implement their targets and to track progress towards the long-term goal through a robust transparency and accountability system.
e. Developed countries agreed to provide funding to help developing countries make the costly shift to green energy and shore up their defenses against climate change impacts like drought and storms and rich nations must report every two years on their finance levels — current and intended. The document refers $100 billion a year that rich countries had previously pledged to muster by 2020 as a “floor”. Under the new agreement the amount must be updated by 2025.
The Paris Agreement has been widely and accurately portrayed in the mainstream media as creating a policy framework that has the potential to reduce the threat of climate change if nations greatly step up to what they have committed to do. (This framework could have been tightened by including more specific language on several issues proposed by some countries but rejected by others on such matters as human rights, losses and damages, legal effect of the agreement, and financing of adaptation among others, yet the framework includes provisions that these issues can be considered in the years ahead.) However, the enormity of the challenge facing humanity from climate change and the special responsibilities of high-emitting developed nations in particular has not been covered in the mainstream press at least in the United States.
II. The Urgency and Enormity of the Need to Reduce GHG Emissions
Although the mainstream media has widely reported on the fact that the national ghg emissions reductions that were made before the Paris COP are not sufficient to limit warming to 2 degrees C, the media, at least in the United States, has been largely failing to report on the urgency and enormity of the need to rapidly reduce ghg emission globally and how further delays in taking action will dramatically make the problem much more threatening.
Looking at the delay caused by the climate change policy opposition in the United States is illustrative of the harm caused by political opposition to climate change policies worldwide.
The above illustration depicts, in a very abbreviated and sketchy form, that as the scientific evidence of the threat from human-induced climate change became stronger over a 40-year period and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 400 ppm. (For a much more rigorous analysis of the role of the climate change policy opposition in US climate policy formation see Brown 2002, chap 2 and Brown 2012, chap 2 and numerous articles on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign.”)
The rise in atmospheric CO2 levels is, of course, not only attributable to the US ghg emissions, yet the United States has played a major blocking role in preventing international action on climate change up until the recent more constructive role of the Obama administration which recently made commitments before the December Paris meeting to reduce US CO2 emissions by 26% to 28 % by 2025 below 2005 levels. However these new US commitments have not yet been implemented in the United States, and even if fully implemented still don’t represent the US fair share of safe global emissions (see report on US INDC. The US commitment, because it is based on a 2005 baseline, masks the fact that is only a mere 13-15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025, the baseline used by most of the world. For a discussion of the problems with the Obama administration commitment see report Captain America)
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s commitments still face strong opposition from the US climate change political opposition and are very likely to be rejected if a Republican becomes the next US President in 2016. Furthermore as long as US ghg emissions are exceeding the US fair share of safe global emissions, US ghg emissions are making the already very perilous climate change threat worse.
A detailed description of the climate change disinformation campaign that is responsible for much of the political opposition that has been largely responsible for the over 25-year US delay in responding to the scientific warnings about the threat of climate change is beyond the scope of this article but has been extensively discussed on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign.”
To fully understand the nature of the harm caused by this delay it is necessary to understand the policy implications of a “carbon budget” that must limit global emissions to avoid dangerous warming levels. .
To understand the policy implications of a carbon budget it is helpful to see the atmosphere as like a bathtub to the extent that it has limited volume and has been filling up with ghg so that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have been rising in proportion to human activities which release ghgs.
CO2 levels remained relatively stable for 10,000 years before the beginning of the industrial revolution at approximately 280 ppm (the lower line in the bathtub). Human activities have been responsible from elevating CO2 atmospheric concentration levels to the current concentration of approximately 400 ppm (the second line from the bottom of the tub). Although there is considerable scientific evidence that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is necessary to prevent very dangerous warming, a fact implicit in the recent Paris Agreement in which nations agreed to work to keep warming as close as possible from exceeding 1.5 degrees C additional warming, if the international community seeks to limit warming to 2 degrees C it must assure that global emissions do not exceed the number of tons of CO2 emissions that will raise atmospheric concentrations to levels that will cause warming of 2 degrees C. This number, that is the number of tons of CO2 emissions that can be emitted before atmospheric concentrations exceed levels that will cause dangerous climate change, is what is meant by a carbon budget.
This illustration, using figures from the most recent 2014 IPCC report, depicts that because only 800 gigatons of CO2 can be emitted by humanity before creating a 66% probability that a 2 degree C warming limit will be exceeded and humans have by 2011 already emitted 530 gigatons of CO2, there are only 270 gigatons of CO2 that may be emitted after 2011 to limit warming to 2 degrees C. (For a more detailed explanation of these figures see, Pidcock 2013)
The enormity of the challenge for the international community to keep warming from exceeding dangerous level can be understood by the fact that the remaining carbon budget is so small, that is approximately 270 gigatons of CO2, and current global ghg emissions are in excess of 10 gigatons per year and still rising, which means that even if the international community could stabilize global CO2 emissions levels there would be nothing left to allocate among all nations in 23 years. This grim fact is even bleaker if the international community concludes that it should limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, a conclusion that might become more obvious if current levels of warming start to make positive feedbacks visible in the next few years such as methane leakage from frozen tundra or more rapid loss of arctic ice.
The concept of the carbon budget explains why waiting to reduce ghg emissions levels to a certain percentage in the future is more harmful than rapid reductions earlier because the longer it takes to reduce emissions the more the remaining budget is consumed. For this reason, a joint research project between Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland recommended in Paris that national climate commitments be stated in tons of emissions over a specific period rather than percent reductions by a given date because waiting to the end of specific period to achieve percent reductions will cause the total tons of ghg emitted to be higher than if reductions are made earlier.
The enormous significance of the carbon budget can be seen from the following chart prepared by the Global Commons Institute.
The illustration depicts the enormity and urgency of global emissions reductions that would be necessary to limit warming to 1.5 or 2.0 degrees C given the steepness of the reductions curves necessary to limit warming to 2.0 degrees C with a 50% probability (the red dotted line), 2.0 degrees C with a 66% probability (the blue dotted line), and 1.5 degrees C (the green dotted line). The steepness of these curves superimposed on actual national ghg emissions levels is an indication of the enormity of the challenge for the international community because the emissions reduction curves are much steeper than reductions that can be expected under projections of what current national commitments are likely to achieve if fully implemented. The steepness of these reductions curves is somewhat controversial because any calculation of a carbon budget which determines the steepness of the the needed reduction curve must make assumptions about when positive feedbacks in the climate system will be triggered by rising temperatures, yet these controversies are reflected in giving different probabilities about the likelihood of achieving a specific warming limit. Yet even carbon budgets which have been discussed in the carbon budget literature which have assumed lower amounts of positive feedback yield very. very steep reduction curves.
The enormous increase in the magnitude of the challenge that has been caused by delay given the limited carbon budget can be seen from a recent statement of Jim Hansen who said that “the required rate of emissions reduction would have been about 3.5% per year if reductions had started in 2005 and continued annually thereafter, while the required rate of reduction, if commenced in 2020, will be approximately 15% per year. Without doubt every delay in reducing ghg emissions makes the problem more difficult and more expensive to solve. For this reason, all nations should aim to reduce ghg emissions as quickly as possible and any nation which opposes doing so on the basis of scientific uncertainty should be asked if the nation is willing to take full legal and financial responsibility for harms caused by any delay.
III. On the Additional Need to Make National GHG Emissions Allocations on the Basis of Equity
The above chart also helps explain the gross unfairness of requiring all nations to reduce by the same percentage reduction rates to achieve the globally needed emissions reductions because some nations are emitting at vastly higher per capita rates and some nations are responsible much more than others for raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to current dangerous elevated levels which are now in excess of 400 ppm CO2. .If each nation had to reduce their ghg emissions only to conform to the rates described in the reduction curves in the above chart despite their steepness, it would lead to grossly unfair results because of great differences among countries in per capita and historical emissions levels and urgent needs to increase energy consumption to escape grinding poverty in poor developing countries.
Per capita carbon levels by nations
The above chart gives some indication of huge differences in nations in per capita ghg emissions. If nations must reduce their ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, then such an allocation will freeze into place huge differences in per capita rights to emit ghg emissions into the atmosphere. If, for instance, the United States and India are required to reduce ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, for instance 90%, then the US per capita emissions of approximately 20 tons CO2 per capita would allow US citizens to emit CO2 at the rate of 2 tons per capita while the current India per capita emissions of approximately 1.8 tons per capita would mean that the Indian citizens could emit only at the rate 0.18 tons per capita even though India needs to dramatically increase its energy use to assure that hundreds of millions of people economically rise out of grinding poverty and India has comparatively done little to cause the existing problem. This result is clearly grossly unfair particularly in light of the fact that India has emitted far less tons of CO2 than most developed countries and therefore is less responsible for causing the existing problem than many developed nations. If some consideration for historical responsibility is not taken into account in allocating national responsibility for ghg emissions reductions, then those poor nations which have done very little to create the current threat of climate change will be required to shoulder a greater burden of needed global ghg emissions obligations than would be required of them if responsibility for the existing problem is not taken into account. As a result, although there are reasonable differences of opinion among nations about how to consider historical national ghg emission in determining national ghg emissions reductions allocations, including when, for instance, historical responsibility should be measured, almost all equity frameworks agree that prior levels of ghg emissions must have some consideration in national ghg allocations.There is also reasonable disagreement in the equity literature about what weight should be given to other matters that are widely considered to be valid considerations in determining fairness including the economic capability of rich countries to pay for ghg emissions reductions technologies and per capita considerations.
Yet unless fairness is taken into account in allocating national ghg targets necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, those nations who are mostly responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations will not be held responsible for their past ghg emissions while nations who have done almost nothing to cause the rise of atmospheric concentrations will be held equally responsible for lowering emissions.
From the above illustration it can be seen that the United States and the EU are more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations to current dangerous levels than than the rest of the world combined.
Many opponents of climate change policies argue that countries like the United States should not have to reduce their ghg emissions until China reduces its emissions by comparable amounts because China is now the largest emitter of all nations in terms of total tons, yet such an argument usually ignores the historical responsibility of countries like the United States which the following illustration reveals is more than twice as responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations than China is. (For a discussion of the fact that there are both a strong ethical and legal arguments that explain why no nation may use the claim that it need not reduce its ghg emissions until other nations do so, see, Brown 2012 p 214 )
Although there is a difference of opinion in the “equity” literature about how to consider valid equity considerations including per capita, historical emissions levels, and the economic capabilities of nations to fiance non-fossil energies, all nations agree that national commitments about ghg emissions reductions must consider fairness.
For this reason the Paris Agreement calls for nations to reduce their ghg emissions “to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” (Paris Agreement, Article 2)
In other words, the international community has agreed that national ghg emissions reductions commitments must be based on “equity” or “fairness.”
And so as a matter of international law under the Paris Agreement, national commitments to reduce ghg emissions must be based on achieving a warming limit as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2 degrees C, a requirement often referred to as the level of “ambition” but national commitments also must be based on “equity” or “fairness.” Although there are some reasonable disagreements among many engaged in climate policy debates about what “equity” or “fairness” requires, all nations have agreed that their obligations to reduce ghg emissions must consider equity or fairness principles.
However, if high-emitting nations take the “equity” and “fairness” requirement seriously, they will need to not only reduce ghg emissions at very, very rapid rates, a conclusion that follows from the steepness of the remaining budget curves alone, but also they will have to reduce their ghg emissions much faster than poor developing nations and faster than the global reductions curves entailed only by the need to stay within a carbon budget.
Source, Global Commons Institute
The above illustration prepared by the Global Commons Institute shows that even if only one equity consideration is taken into account, in this case per capita fairness, the USA ghg emissions reductions must be much faster than the rest of the world. Other organizations who have made calculations of the US fair share of the remaining carbon budget using different equity factors have concluded that the US fair share of safe global emissions is even smaller than that depicted in the above chart. For instance the following illustration prepared by EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that the US fair share of global emissions, making what the authors of the report claim are moderate assumptions of what equity requires, demonstrates that equity not only requires the US to reduce its emissions to zero quickly almost immediately but that US obligations to prevent a 2 degree C rise requires the US to substantially fund ghg emissions reductions in other countries by 2025 despite achieving zero emissions by 2020.
The above illustration, following the assumptions about what equity requires made by the authors of the report about how to determine US emissions reductions obligations, leads to the conclusion not only does the United States need to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2020, the US must reduce its emissions by -141% from 1990 levels by 2025. National Fair Shares. p 18. This is to be achieved, according to the report, by US financial support for reductions in developing countries .
Although national ghg emissions reductions commitments that have been evaluated by different organizations which have made different assumptions about how to calculate what equity requires of nations have come to different conclusions, most evaluations of national commitments made through an equity prism done before Paris concluded that even if they high emitting nations achieve net zero emissions by 2050, they will need, as a matter of equity and justice, to help pay the costs of emissions reductions in poor developing countries or finance technologies that will remove carbon from the atmosphere. The reasons for this are that the remaining carbon budget is so small, the per capita and historical emissions of high-emitting developed nations are so large compared to poor developing countries, and the financial resources of developed countries are so large compared to poor developing countries that equity considerations demand that the high-emitting nations financially help developing nations achieve their targets.
Without doubt, if nations reduce their ghg emissions to levels required of them by ambition, that is levels required by conformance with a carbon budget necessary to assure that future warming is limited to 2 degrees C or 1.5 degrees C adjusted to also consider equity and fairness, the international community is faced with an extraordinarily daunting challenge. Moreover, any delay in meeting this challenge will make the problem worse.
The Paris Agreement created a framework for solving the climate problem, yet the post-Paris media has poorly covered the implications for nations of what sufficient ambition and fairness should be required of nations when they formulate national climate policies if very dangerous climate change is to be avoided. As a result, there appears to be little awareness of the huge damage that will likely be caused by further delay. The research report of Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland has revealed that there appears to be little awareness around the world about what ambition and equity requires of nations when they formulate national climate change policies. As a result the international community is not likely to respond with sufficient urgency and ambition unless greater awareness of the policy implications of the need to live within a carbon budget at levels required of nations because of equity and fairness considerations.
Because of this, perhaps the most important immediate goal of climate change policy proponents is to help educate civil society and governments about the need to move urgently to make extremely rapid decreases in ghg emissions whereever governments can and to the maximum extent possible in light of the policy implications of limiting national ghg emissions to levels constrained by a carbon budget and in response to what fairness requires of nations. .
Brown. D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems with the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman Littelfield, Lantham Maryland
Brown. D. (2012) Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Routledge/Earthscan, Oxon, England
Many of the positions taken by some governments and individuals on climate change are so obviously unjust and unfair, that monkeys would get the injustice this video argues. Monkeys are believed to be capable of responding to obvious unfairness as this video demonstrates when one monkey is given a cucumber (which monkeys don’t like that much) and another is give a grape (which some monkeys love). The monkey who gets the cucumber throws it back at the trainer when the monkey sees the other monkey getting a beloved grape.
The more serious point of this video is that those who desire to see that ethics and justice become more influential in climate change policy formation need to help others spot the injustice of actual positions being taken by governments and others on climate change policy issues rather than focus on perfect justice. Many positions of governments on climate change fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny yet ethics and justice issues are largely being ignored in discussions of climate change policies at least in the United States. Although there is a growing literature on the ethical dimensions of climate change, most of this literature is focused on theoretical ethical questions rather than on the injustice of positions actually being taken about climate policies.
The purpose of this video is to encourage the press, NGOs, and concerned citizens around the world to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change. Despite a thirty-five year debate on climate change, for the most part, governments, NGOs, organizations, and individuals are ignoring the ethical dimensions of climate change even though an increased focus on ethics and justice is needed to move the world to a global solution to this immense threat. The video argues that ethics is the crucial missing element in the climate change debate and if an ethical framing of most climate change policy issues were taken seriously it would transform how the public debate on climate change takes place.
Hurricane Sandy is clearly responsible for a renewed interest in the American press about climate change. For a good sample of how the US media has, at least for the short-term, woken up to climate change see an excellent summary of press coverage of links between Sandy and climate change on the website Residence on Earth at www.anothergreenblogg.wordpress.com,
Will this new interest in human-induced global warming lead to a cure of the grave US media failures to communicate adequately to the American people the urgency and magnitude of the threat to the world entailed by climate change?
Some of the press coverage of climate change after Sandy is likely to improve. For instance, there is some hope after Sandy that the press will no longer ignore the monumental scale of the potential damages to the United States as our planet continues to heat up. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported:
Perhaps the most important message from Sandy is that it underscores the enormous price of underestimating the threat of climate change. Damage increases exponentially even if preparations are only slightly wrong. (Linden 2012)
And so Sandy may convince Americans that the threat of climate change is real and the damages of inaction are immense. However, there is very little evidence in the most recent reporting in the US press on Sandy and climate change that other grave failures of the American media to cover climate change will be remedied. In fact US media reporting on climate change in the last few weeks has focused primarily on whether Sandy demonstrates that the threat of climate change is real. Still missing from mainstream media coverage of climate change are the 5 features on climate change that US citizens must understand to fully comprehend the urgent need of United States government to enact strong policies to reduce US emissions of greenhouse gases. As we have explained in the last six articles on EthicsandClimate.org missing from US media coverage of climate change are:
the nature of the strong scientific consensus on climate change,
a clear understanding of the magnitude and the urgency of total greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic warming,
a recognition a of the practical significance for policy that follows from an understanding that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical issue,
acknowledgments that the United States has been a significant barrier to finding a global solution to climate change for over 2 decades, and
an understanding of the nature of the well-organized, well-financed disinformation campaign that has been operating in the United States for over 20 years and that has been funded largely by fossil fuel interests and free market fundamentalist foundations.
This is the fifth in a series of articles that examines grave communications failures of the US media about climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. EthicsandClimate.org has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change that can be found at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/
The last paper in the series will examine the failure of the US media to help Americans understand the well-organized, well-financed climate change disinformation campaign.
II. The World Waits In Vain For US Leadership On Climate Change.
Most Americans are completely unaware that the United States has consistently been a barrier to achieving a global solution to climate change despite the fact that the United States is an indispensable party to a global climate change solution. To understand the importance of the US solving the global climate change problem, one must keep in mind that: (a) the United States is by far the largest historical emitter of global greenhouse gases that have caused the existing problem, (b) the United States is near the top of national greenhouse gas emitters on a per capita basis, (c) the United States is second only to China in total tons of greenhouse gases emitted, and (d) the United States has the worst record among developed countries in making commitments to a global climate change solution.
Although the United States is an indispensable participant in solving climate change because of the size of the US contribution to the global problem, the United States has a dismal record in over twenty years of international efforts to achieve a global solution to this civilization-challenging global problem. In American Heat, Ethical Problems With the United States Response To Global Warming, (Brown, 2002) this writer documented in detail the negative role in achieving a global approach to climate change that the United States played in the first decade of climate change negotiations from the late 1980s through the year 2000. Among other things during the negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) between 1990 and 1992, the United States, virtually standing alone, successfully prevented the UNFCCC from including enforceable national emissions reductions targets for developed nations.
In a book to be published this month, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Ethics, this writer documents in detail the failure of the United States to be a leader since the conclusions of the UNFCCC negotiations in 1992, (Brown 2012).
Among other things, since the UNFCCC negotiations:
The United States has been the only developed country in the world to fail to ratify to the Kyoto Protocol and thereby commit itself to a binding interim emissions reduction target.
George W. Bush announced that the United States was not only unwilling to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it was withdrawing the United States from the Kyoto Treaty all together
When President Obama was elected, there was wide-spread hope the United States would change course on climate change. Yet, the United States under President Obama has approached climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, Cancun in 2010, and South Africa making only a voluntary commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions levels by 2020 thereby making the US promise: (a) the weakest of all of the developed country commitments, and (b) far short of what is required of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.
Although there is evidence that President Obama hopeto make the United States, for the first time, a responsible participant in an adequate global approach to climate change, since the Republicans took over the US House of Representatives in November of 2010, the United States hast been unable to make meaningful national commitments on climate change and will not likely to be able to do so until well into 2013 at the very earliest.
There is no evidence that the United States is willing to make commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to levels consistent with what the world needs to do to prevent dangerous climate change, a matter discussed in the second paper in this series.
Although there are several countries that have frequently failed to respond to what justice would require of them to reduce the threat of climate change, the United States, more than any other country, has consistently failed to respond to its ethical duties to reduce its emissions to the its fair share of safe global emissions during the over two decades that the world has been seeking a global agreement on how to respond to climate change.
Because the United States is such a vital player in any global solution to climate change, the United States response to its obligations to reduce the global threat of climate change has been an immense impediment to an urgently needed global climate change solution. And so the world continues to wait for ethical leadership from the United States on climate change as significant damages are becoming more visible around the world. As the world is running out of time to prevent significant climate change, the United States continues to ignore its global obligations. Yet coverage of climate change debates in the US media rarely mention the negative role the United States has been playing in developing a global solution.
The world awaits US leadership on climate change at a time when human-induced climate change harms are becoming more obvious. Yet there is little evidence that US citizens understand their obligations to poor people around the world for climate change damages and the United States has been significantly responsible for delays in reaching a global solution to climate change. This is both a tragic failure of domestic leadership and a failure of the US press to help educate Americans about the negative role the US has played in finding a global solution to climate change.
Brown, D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems With the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman and Littlefield.
Brown, D. (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm,Climate Change Ethics, Routledge/Earthscan
This is the fourth entry in a series that is examining grave communications failures of the US media in regard to climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. EthicsandClimate.org has recently developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/
Subsequent posts will examine the following additional communication failures of the US media:
The consistent barrier that the United States has been in developing a global solution on climate change for over 20 years.
The nature of the climate change disinformation campaign in the United States.
II. Significance of Understanding Climate Change as A Civilization Challenging Ethical Issue.
There has been almost no coverage in the American press about the ethical duties of governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals to reduce the threat of climate change other than occasional general assertions by some activists or members of a religious groups referring to climate change as a moral issue. When substantive issues about climate change policies have been debated in the United States, there has not been a whimper in the US press about the ethical dimensions of climate change in general or the ethical implications for specific issues under consideration.
The evidence for this widespread failure to understand the practical significance of seeing climate change as a moral issue includes the almost universal failure of the press or advocates of climate change policies to ask businesses, organizations, or individuals who oppose national climate change policies on the grounds of economic cost alone, whether they deny that, in addition to economic interests, nations must comply with their obligations, duties, and responsibilities to prevent harm to millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world. In the United States and other high-emitting nations there is hardly a peep in the US media about the practical consequences of seeing climate change as a world-challenging ethical problem.
If climate change is understood as essentially an ethical problem, several practical consequences for policy formation follow. Yet it is clear that there has been widespread failure of those engaged in climate change policy controversies to understand the enormous practical significance for policy formation of the acknowledgement that climate change is a moral issue.
Given the growing urgency of the need to rapidly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and the hard-to-imagine magnitude of global emissions reductions needed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at reasonably safe levels, the failure of many engaged in climate change controversies to see the practical significance of understanding climate change as an ethical problem must be seen as a huge human tragedy.
Without doubt, there are several reasons why climate change must be understood essentially as a civilization challenging ethical problem. yet very few people appear to understand what practical difference for policy formation follows if climate change is understood as an ethical problem.
Why is climate change fundamentally an ethical problem?
First, climate change creates duties, responsibilities, and obligations because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries or rich people in developed and developing countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who have done little to cause the immense threat to them.
Second, climate-change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world. Climate change harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat, and intense storms, damages to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. In fact, climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are potentially catastrophic. Yet there is growing evidence that greenhouse gas levels and resulting warming may be approaching thresholds that could lead to losing control over rising emissions.
Third, climate change must be understood to be an ethical problem because of its global scope. If other problems are created at the local, regional, or national scale, citizens can petition their governments to protect them from serious harms. But at the global level, no government exists whose jurisdiction matches the scale of the problem. And so, although national, regional and local governments have the ability and responsibility to protect citizens within their borders, they have no responsibility to foreigners in the absence of international law. For this reason, ethical appeals are necessary to motivate governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.
Although a few people have acknowledged that climate change must be understood as an ethical problem, the practical significance for policy formation that follows from this recognition appears to be not widely understood. The following are ten practical consequences, among many others, for policy formation that flow from the acknowledgement that climate change is an ethical problem. Although there are some climate change ethical issues about which reasonable ethical principles would reach different conclusions about what ethics requires, the following are conclusions about which there is a strong overlapping consensus among ethical theories. The ethical basis for these claims have been more rigorously worked out in prior articles on Ethicsandclimatge.org and are not repeated here.
If climate change is an ethical problem, then:
1. Nations or sub-national governments may not look to their domestic economic interests alone to justify their response to climate change because they must also comply with their duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to prevent climate-change caused harms.
2. All nations, sub-national governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Although different theories of distributive justice would reach different conclusions about what “fairness” requires quantitatively, most of the positions taken by opponents of climate change policies fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny given the huge differences in emissions levels between high and low emitting nations and individuals and the enormity of global emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. Any test of “fairness” must look to principles of distributive or retributive justice and must be supported by moral reasoning.
3. No nation may refuse to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that some other nations are not reducing their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. All nations must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.
4. No national policy on climate change is ethically acceptable unless it, in combination with fair levels of greenhouse gas emissions from other countries, leads to stabilizing greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations at levels that prevent harm to those around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change. This is so because any national position on climate change is implicitly a position on adequate global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration stabilization level and all nations have a duty to prevent atmospheric greenhouse concentrations from exceeding levels that are harmful to others.
5. Because it has been scientifically wellestablished that there is a great risk of catastrophic harm from human-induced change (even though it is acknowledged that there are remaining uncertainties about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts), no high-emitting nation, sub-national government, organization, business, or individual of greenhouse gases may use some remaining scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts as an excuse for not reducing its emissions to its fair share of safe global greenhouse gas emission on the basis of scientific uncertainty. The duty to prevent great harm to others begins once a person is on notice that they are potentially causing great harm, not when the harm is absolutely proven.
6. Those nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals that are emitting greenhouse gases above their fair share of safe global emissions have obligations, duties, and responsibilities for the costs of adaptation or damages to those who are harmed or will be harmed by climate change.
7. Given the magnitude of potential harms from climate change, those who make skeptical arguments against the mainstream scientific view on climate change have a duty to submit skeptical arguments to peer-review, acknowledge what is not in dispute about climate change science and not only focus on what is unknown, refrain from making specious claims about the mainstream science of climate change such as the entire scientific basis for climate change that has been completely debunked, and assume the burden of proof to show that emissions of greenhouse gases are benign.
8. Those nations or entities that have historically far exceeded their fair share of safe global emissions have some responsibility for their historic emissions. Although the date at which responsibility for historic emissions is triggered is a matter about which different ethical theories may disagree, at the very least nations have responsibility for their historical emissions on the date that they were on notice that excess greenhouse gas emissions were dangerous for others, not on the date that danger was proven.
9. In determining any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, the nation must either assume that all humans have an equal right to use the atmosphere as a sink for greenhouse gases, or identify another allocation formula based upon morally relevant criteria. All nations have an ethical duty to explain why any deviation from per capita greenhouse gas emissions is ethically justified.
10. Some economic tools frequently used to evaluate public policy on climate change such as cost-benefit analysis that doesn’t acknowledge responsibility for allocating the burdens for reducing the threat of climate change on the basis of distributive justice are ethically problematic.
Given that climate change is obviously an ethical problem, and that if climate change is understood as an ethical problem it has profound significance for climate policy, the utter failure of the US media to cover climate change as an ethical problem is an enormous practical error and tragedy.
This is the third entry in a series that is examining grave communications failures of the US media in regard to climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. EthicsandClimate.org has recently developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/
This is the second paper that examines in more detail the issues briefly examined in the video. In the last entry we examined the failure of the US media to communicate about the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change. In this post we look at the failure of the US press to communicate about the enormous magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent harsh climate change impacts.
Subsequent posts will examine the following additional communication failures of the US media:
The consistent barrier that the United States has been in developing a global solution on climate change for over 20 years.
The fact that climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical problem, an understanding that is of profound significance for climate change policy formation.
The nature of the climate change disinformation campaign in the United States.
II. Communication Failures On The Magnitude Of The GHG Emissions Reductions Necessary To Prevent Dangerous Climate Change
Most Americans are completely unaware of the magnitude of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change. If US citizens don’t understand the size and scope of the problem, they will almost certainly refuse to support legislation and policies necessary to put the UnitedStateson an emissions reduction pathway that represents the US fair share of safe global emissions. Because, as we discussed in the last entry, the scientific consensus is so strong that the world is headed to harsh and dangerous impacts, the US media’s failure to communicate clearly about the magnitude of the problem facing the world is a serious, grave, and tragic lapse.
No US national climate change strategy makes any sense unless it is understood to implicitly be a position on the US fair share of a global greenhouse gas emissions reductions pathway capable of preventing dangerous climate change. Yet when US federal climate change legislation was under consideration between 2009 and 2010, there was almost no public discussion about whether proposed US climate change legislation would reduce US greenhouse gas emissions to levels that represent the US fair share of safe global emissions.
To understand the urgency for civilization challenging emissions reductions it is necessary to understand: (a) what temperature increases will likely trigger harsh climate change impacts, (b) what atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will cause specific temperature increases that are of concern, and (c) what quantities of greenhouse gas emissions will exceed atmospheric greenhouse target concentrations. Only then can one understand the amount of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions from business as usual that are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.
A. Dangerous Temperature Increases
The international community agreed at a meeting of the conference of the parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 that the world must work together to limit warming to an additional 2oC to avoid rapid non-linear impacts from climate change. The 2oC warming limit was agreed to because there is widespread agreement among the vast majority of mainstream scientists that warming of more than 2oC significantly increases the probability of harsh climate impacts.
However, catastrophic harms, at least for some parts of the world, could be triggered by additional warming of less than 2oC because there is uncertainty about how the Earth will respond to different increases in temperatures. (Athanasiou and Bear 2002) The 2oC upper temperature limit is quite controversial scientifically because, as we shall see, some scientists believe that lower amounts of additional warming could set into motion rapid climate changes that could greatly harm people around the world and increases of as little as 1oC will likely greatly harm some people in some regions.
A report, “Assessment of Knowledge on Impacts of Climate Change,” prepared by the Potsdam Institute to examine the meaning of “dangerous” climate change under the UNFCCC supported the 2°C danger limit after a rigorous analysis of climate change impacts at various temperatures concluding:
Above 2°C the risks increase very substantially involving potentially large extinctions or even ecosystem collapses, major increases in hunger and water shortage risks as well as socio-economic damages, particularly in developing countries. (Hare 2003: 89)
Yet, even this report identified very serious global and regional impacts below 2°C. In fact, this report concluded that temperature increases below 1°C threaten highly vulnerable ecosystems and between 1°C and 2 °C increase the risks of damage for all ecosystems and particularly for some regional ecosystems. (Hare 2003: 89)
There is substantial scientific evidence that even a 1.5°C temperature limit would not be sufficient to protect those most vulnerable to climate change. For instance, a recent paper by Jim Hansen and seven other authors concluded that additional warming should be limited to 1°C warming to prevent serious harms. (Hansen et al 2008) To do this, existing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 must not only not be allowed to rise the small amount to 450 ppm CO2 from current levels of 394 ppm CO2 but must be reduced below existing levels to 350 ppm CO2. (Hansen et al. 2008) According to this paper, the world has likely already shot past the level of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations that will lead to dangerous climate change for many. According to Hansen and his collaborators, the world has already used up all of the assimilative capacity of the atmosphere and biosphere that has been available to buffer against dangerous climate change. As a result, this paper asserts that to prevent dangerous climate change the world must not only reduce its emissions but reduce existing greenhouse gas CO2 atmospheric concentrations from the current 394 ppm to 350 ppm CO2 to avoid dangerous climate change.
And so, although the international community agreed in Copenhagen to limit future warming to 2°C, this could prove to be a limit that is too high to protect millions around the world. As one observer recently noted:
We feel compelled to note that even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8 °C of warming so far, calling 2°C a danger limit seems to us pretty cavalier.
(Real Climate 2009)
In thinking about an upper temperature limit, many scientists are concerned with avoiding runaway climate change. That is, they fear that global temperatures will exceed a tipping point that will trigger a release of stored carbon from the biosphere, an event that would cause further rapid climate change. Runaway climate change would mean that governments would lose the ability to control future climate change that they would otherwise have through reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. That is, runaway climate change means that human action would be unable to stop significant temperature increase without massive geo-engineering. (Washington and Cook 2011: 30-31) This is so because, among other things, there are vast amounts of methane stored in permafrost, methane hydrates on the ocean floor, and carbon in the forests that could be released as the world warms. If the world warms too much, increased temperatures could cause huge amounts of carbon to be released that would overwhelm the quantities of carbon being released through fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. This is known to be a possibility, because such releases of stored carbon have happened in Earth’s history and caused rapid non-linear Earth temperature changes.
And so, the magnitude of greenhouse gas reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change is understood to be the reductions from business-as-usual that will allow atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to be stabilized at levels that will limit warming to between 1 to 2°C with prudence calling for a 1°C limit. We now turn to what atmospheric greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations levels are understood to prevent warming above these amounts.
B. Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Stabilization Goal
The amount of warming that will be experienced from different greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations is usually referred to as the issue of “climate sensitivity.” Climate sensitivity is somewhat uncertain as there are remaining scientific uncertainties about the magnitude of the positive and negative feedbacks in the climate system.
Climate sensitivity is usually defined to mean the amount of warming that the Earth will experience if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 reach 560 ppm of CO2 equivalent, where CO2 equivalent is the metric which translates other greenhouse gases into an equivalent level of CO2 . The IPCC in its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) concluded that climate sensitivity is likely to be in the range 2 to 4.5 °C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5 °C. (IPCC 2007) The IPCC also noted that climate sensitivity values substantially higher than 4.5 °C cannot be excluded. And so the temperature change that the consensus view believes is likely if all of the greenhouse gases rise to 560 ppm carbon equivalent is somewhere between 2 °C and 4.5 °C with even higher temperatures possible. The current concentration of CO2 is 394 ppm. (CO2 Now 2012)
To operationalize an upper temperature limit, the international community must set an atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration stabilization limit. Since there is scientific uncertainty about how much warming will be experienced by different atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration levels, there is significant scientific controversy about what the greenhouse gas atmospheric stabilization target should be to achieve any warming limit.
Making the calculation of emissions reductions needed at any one time is complicated by the fact that how rapidly greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced is a problem that depends upon when global emissions reductions begin. The longer the international community waits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the steeper the necessary emissions reductions pathway becomes. It is relatively easy to calculate the amount of additional tons of emissions that can be allowed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at a certain level such as 450 ppm CO2 but this number will depend upon when emissions reductions begin. At any time it is therefore possible to create a budget that identifies the total tons of emissions that can be allowed before a specific atmosphere concentration is exceeded but the longer the international community waits to begin to reduce emissions, the steeper the reductions must be.
The magnitude of the challenge entailed by the need to set a greenhouse gas atmospheric concentration target becomes evident after looking at the probability of exceeding 2°C if CO2 equivalent targets are set at specific levels such as 450 or 550 ppm. In the following chart the colored lines represent emissions reduction pathways that would stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide equivalents at various levels. The yellow line is a pathway that would stabilize at 550 ppm. The red line is a reduction pathway that could stabilize carbon dioxide equivalent at 450 ppm. The numbers on the boxes on these two lines specify the probability of exceeding 2°C if atmospheric concentration levels are stabilized at these levels.
From this chart we therefore see that if atmospheric carbon dioxide is stabilized at 550 ppm there is between a 75% and 99% chance that the world will experience temperatures in excess of 2°C. Looking at the red line we see that even at a stabilization level of 450 ppm there is between a 45% and 86% chance that the world experience increases in temperature greater than 2°C. Because CO2 levels are already approaching 395 ppm and other greenhouse gases make current carbon dioxide equivalent levels in the vicinity of 430 ppm it becomes evident that the world is running out of time to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the atmospheric concentrations that would limit warming to 2°C. Because as we have seen it is possible that temperature increases as small as 1°C will create harsh impacts for some people in some parts of the world it becomes apparent that the need to reduce greenhouse gases aggressively, and dramatically, and urgently.
C. Percentage Reductions From Business As Usual Required To Stabilize Atmospheric Concentrations Of Greenhouse Gases
The startling magnitude of the challenge to the world from climate change becomes apparent upon reflection that the world is currently increasing greenhouse gas emissions during the last decade of an average annual increase of 2.7%. (PBL 2012) Yet to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations at about 450 ppm by 2050, global emissions will have to decline by about 60% from current levels. (Hossol 2011). Because developing countries need to expand economic activity to escape grinding poverty according to one US White House paper, industrial countries greenhouse gas emissions would have to decline by about 80% by 2050. (Hossol 2011)
Given that greenhouse emissions are increasing year to year and that the entire world will need to reduce emissions by as much as 60% by 2050 to give any hope of remaining below 2°C, the challenge to the world is staggering. One observer sums up the situation as following:
The growth of emissions is making the task ahead more and more difficult. The longer we wait to start shrinking emissions, the faster we’ll have to shrink them to stay under budget. Here’s a visualization of what that means — some sample reduction curves with varying peak years (the four different lines are based on the four main IPCC scenarios):
(citing Anderson, K. 2011)
As you can see, if we delay the global emissions peak until 2025, we pretty much have to drop off a cliff afterwards to avoid 2 degrees C. Short of a meteor strike that shuts down industrial civilization, that’s unlikely.
This, then, is the brutal logic of climate change: With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2°C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever — we will have no chance.
Although the challenge of achieving sufficient global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent 2°C is extraordinarily daunting, as we have explained above a 2°C warming limit may not prevent catastrophic harm because temperature increases more than 1°C may cause great harm.
International climate negotiations have sought to find a global solution to climate change since they began in 1990 and have struggled since then to reach a global deal among most countries to prevent dangerous climate change. Because global emissions continue to rise rather than decrease after 20 years since climate change negotiations began, the international community has lost several decades in finding a way to prevent dangerous climate change. And so, the human race may be running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change. Yet most Americans are unaware of the seriousness and urgency of the staggering problem we are facing. The US media has utterly failed to sound the alarm about the magnitude of the threat of climate change.