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 is the first in a series of three posts that will identify important insights about the social causes of climate change in a new book that examines climate change through the lens of sociology. This new book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Bruelle, Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.
This book explains, among other things: (1) why sociological analyses of the causes of climate change as well as the identification of the serious ethical and moral problems with arguments of opponents of climate change policies have largely been missing from most climate change literature, (2) how certain corporations, industry organizations and free-market fundamentalist foundations have successfully prevented governments from adequately responding to climate change, and (3) how the failure to look at the causes of climate change through a sociological lens has partially blinded climate change policy advocates from a deeper understanding of the social causes of climate change and thereby prevented the development of potentially effective strategies to increase government responses to climate change
Before discussing the insights of this new important book, we note that many entries on this blog site have explained that for over 30 years opponents of climate change policies have mostly made two kinds of arguments in opposition to climate change policies. First, they have argued that proposed policies designed to lessen the threat of human-induced climate change should be opposed because there has been inadequate scientific support for the conclusion that human activities are causing climate change harms which are threatening humans and ecological systems on which life depends. Second, opponents of climate change policies have made a variety of economic arguments that proposed climate change policies were too expensive, would destroy jobs, decrease national GDP, or otherwise would impose unacceptable costs on the nation’s economy.
In the United States and in a growing number of countries around the world these scientific uncertainty and unacceptable economic impact arguments have dominated disputes about proposed climate change policies since the mid-1980s. Proponents of climate change policies have almost always responded to these claims by disputing the factual claims about scientific uncertainty or unacceptable cost made by climate change policy opponents. And so, proponents of climate change policies have inadvertently allowed opponents of climate change policies to frame the public policy debate so as to limit the public controversy about climate change to disputes about scientific and economic “facts.” Largely missing from this three decade debate have been analyses of why the arguments of climate change policy opponents are not only factually flawed but ethically and morally bankrupt. Although a climate change ethics and justice literature has been growing for over a decade, the public debate about climate change has largely ignored strong ethical and moral problems with the scientific and economic arguments that have been the consistent focus of the opponents of climate change policies.
Until the last few years, also largely missing from the public debate about climate change has been serious analyses of which organizations and interests have been most responsible for the arguments made by the opponents of climate change, who funded these organizations, what tactics have they used, and how can we understand that success of the climate change policy opposition in undermining serious responses to the growing threat of climate change. In other words, missing from the public discussion about climate change has been serious analyses of how the opponents of climate change policies have successfully blocked government responses to climate change despite increasingly louder and more intense calls from the mainstream scientific community that government urgently must act to prevent catastrophic harms from climate change. That is, largely missing from the climate change debate has been any sophisticated analyses of how self-interested corporations. organizations, and ideological foundations have been able to manipulate a democracy to prevent the government from responding to a huge potential threat, matters which are the domain of the discipline of sociology.
Sociologists often seek to understand how self-interested minority groups within society can frequently hide the ethical and moral problems with their arguments by framing important public controversies in such a way that the ethical and moral problems raised by their arguments are hidden from public scrutiny. This framing works to hide the ethical and moral problems with arguments made by the opponents of government action to solve social and environmental problems by tricking the public to debate “factual” claims, such as those made by scientists or economists, as if there were no moral or ethical problems with these claims. As a result, in the case of climate change, rather than debating whether it is morally acceptable for some people to put large numbers of other people at great risk from catastrophic harm on the basis that there’s some scientific uncertainty that the catastrophe will happen, the public is tricked into narrowly debating whether the catastrophe will happen with high levels of scientific certainty even in cases where waiting until all the uncertainties are resolved with high levels of confidence will likely make it too late to prevent the catastrophic harm. Rather than examining wether it is morally acceptable to delay action on climate change when delay will make the problem worse and the people most at risk have no say on whether to delay response action until scientific uncertainties are resolved, the public is tricked into debating the uncertainty. Rather than debating whether it is morally acceptable for one government to impose catastrophic harm on hundreds of millions of other people, citizens are tricked into arguing about the magnitude of the economic costs that will be experienced by the country causing the harm if response action is taken.
As a result, in the United States, ethical and moral problems with the scientific uncertainty and unacceptable cost arguments made for over three decades by opponents of climate change policies have very rarely appeared in the US public debate about climate change that has been followed by the media. Although there has been a growing literature on the ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies and agreement among most ethicists that the arguments of most opponents of climate change are morally bankrupt, the mainstream climate change literature has rarely looked at the arguments of opponents of climate change policies through a moral lens.
And so, one of the reasons why ethical problems with the arguments most frequently made by opponents of climate change policies have neither rarely appeared in the dominant climate change literature nor become part of the public debate about what a country like United States should do in response to the threat of climate change is because economically powerful opponents of climate change policies have successfully narrowly framed the issues that have been discussed in the public debate, a common problem in democracies recognized by sociologists.
Also, largely missing in the public debate about climate change until very recently, has been sociological analyses of how those opposed to climate change have successfully created a social context about climate change, that is a cultural understanding of the problem in which individuals form opinions, Sociologists understand that culture is not fixed and and can change over time often in response to powerful forces that seek to affect widespread cultural understanding of a problem. Because individuals make decisions in light of the information about the problem provided by their culture, individual decisions about problems are often influenced by those who have sought to change the cultural understanding of the problem.
Although sociologists have begun in the last decade to explain how a climate change countermovement, a sociological term which will be discussed in the next entry in this series, has successfully influenced the cultural understanding of climate change in the United States, very little of the sociological explanation of how this countermovement has succeeded in influencing the public’s understanding of climate change has appeared in the mainstream literature about climate change nor in media coverage of human-induced warming because the media also has largely reported on issues raised by opponents of climate change, namely, claims about scientific uncertainty and unacceptable costs of taking action.
The absence of sociological insights on how economic power has distorted the public’s understanding of climate change is most striking in the work of organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that study climate change primarily through a scientific lens although they also have responsibility for making policy recommendations to decision-makers and in so doing have obligations to synthesize the relevant socioeconomic literature that should be considered by decision-makers.
In its first four assessments in 1990 (IPCC, AR1), 1995 (IPCC, AR2) , 2001(IPCC, AR4), and 2007 (IPCC, AR4), IPCC in its summary of relevant socioeconomic literature relevant to climate change relied almost exclusively on economic analyses of policy issues, rather than on the ethics and justice and justice literature. In fact, in this regard, in the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report in 2014 (IPCC, AR5), in a new chapter on the Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts, IPCC admitted expressly that in prior IPCC Reports “ethics has received less attention than economics, although aspects of both are covered in AR2.” (IPCC, AR5, Working Group III, Chapter 3, pg. 10) Yet the treatment of ethics in IPCC Working Group III in AR2, was hardly a serious consideration of the implications of ethical and justice principles that should guide climate change policy given that the vast majority of text in this report was focused on traditional economic analyses which assumed that climate policy should maximize efficiency rather than assign responsibility for reducing the threat of climate change or pay for harm to those poor most vulnerable countries that have done little to cause climate change on the basis of justice. In fact, the AR2 report includes many statements that would lead policy-makers to conclude that it is perfectly permissible to determine the amount of ghg emissions reductions any nation should be required to achieve solely on economic considerations. For instance, AR 2 says expressly that: “there is no inherent conflict between economics and most conceptions of equity.” (IPCC, 1995, AR2, Working Goup III, pg. 87) Moreover. any fair reading of prior IPCC reports would conclude that policymakers were encouraged by IPCC to base policy on economic considerations such as those determined in cost-benefit analyses. Yet, as we have explained many times on this website. cost-benefit analysis used as a prescriptive tool for policy-making on climate change raise many serious ethical problems. (See, for example, Brown, 2008, Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs )
Why has economics and psychological literature dominated the work of IPCC whose mission includes synthesizing the relevant socioeconomic literature for policy-makers? The new Dunlap/Brulle book attributes the dominance of economics and psychology literature in the work of IPCC to the fact that the major focus of IPCC is science. Organizations like IPCC which are dominated by scientists after determining what needs to be done scientifically to reduce the environmental harm look to disciplines that offer advice on how to motivate individuals including economics and psychology to enact the responses to the problems that scientists have described need to be implemented (Brulle, R., & Dunlap, R., 2015, p. 8-9). And so the discipline of economics, which often assumes that individuals can be motivated to act by appealing to their economic self-interest, and psychology, which also focuses on how individuals can be motivated to change their individual behavior by appropriate messaging, have dominated the social science literature on climate change because scientific organizations like IPCC have turned to disciplines that offer potential strategies for motivating individual behavioral change after the scientific organizations explore precisely what needs to be done. These disciplines do not examine how powerful groups in society frame public policy issues in a way that hides ethical problems with status quo approaches to societal problems nor how economically dominant groups shape government’s and civil society’s potential responses to societal problems by changing the cultural understanding of the problem, concerns which in the social sciences are the domain of sociology. Because the vast majority of climate change social science literature is focused on motivating individual behavioral change, ethical criticisms of economic rationality and analyses of how “value-neutral” discourses including economics have come to dominate approaches to solving climate change have played a very small role in the social science literature that IPCC has attempted to synthesize.. Explaining this phenomenon Brulle, R. & Dunlap, R. (2015), p. 8 conclude that:
An analysis of the social science literature finds that economics is the most widely represented social science discipline in climate research. Fundamental to economic analysis of climate change is the “rational actor” model embedded in the discipline. The object of the analysis is the individual and the decisions and principles that each individual brings to the marketplace. Given the widespread societal influence of economics, it comes as no surprise that it has been highly influential in climate change research.
For these reasons it is not surprising why IPCC has allowed economic considerations to dominate much of its analyses of to reduce climate change’s great threat in its first four assessments.
IPCC’s work initially defines what needs to be done scientifically to prevent climate change’s jharm and it should be expected that it would turn to the two disciplines that claim they understand how to motivate individuals to do what needs to be done, namely economics and psychology. Yet these disciplines have little to offer about how the cultural understanding of climate change has been deeply influenced by those with strong economic interests in maintaining the status quo nor invite citizens around the world to examine responses to climate change from the lens of ethics and morality.
Although, IPCC has made some improvement in covering ethics and justice in its 5th Assessment, much improvement is still needed (Brown, 2014).
The next entry in this series will examine the insights from the Dunlap/ Brulle book about how the climate change denial countermovement influenced the cultural understanding of climate change initially in the United States and later in other parts of the world.
Brulle, R., & Dunlap, R., (2015) Sociology and Climate Change, Introduction, in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR5) (2014), 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/
If climate change is a world challenging ethical and justice problem, what can we learn from the state of recognition of this fact from the recently concluded Warsaw climate negotiations?
The 19th Conference of the Parties (COP-19) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 9th Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (MOP-9) completed its work on Saturday 23, 2013 in Warsaw. COP-19/COP 9 was seen by most observers as another in a series of extraordinarily serious failures of the international community to find a global solution to climate change, a tragic outcome in light of the hard-to-imagine global greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions that the mainstream scientific community is now saying are urgently needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Yet the November meeting did produce a few very, very modest results that managed to keep the slim hope alive that an adequate global solution to climate change will be worked out in 2015.
We here review the outcomes of Warsaw through an ethical lens to determine and draw attention on the ethical issues that need to be emphasized as the world approaches the next negotiations in Lima, Peru in December.
A major hope for the Warsaw COP was to make significant progress on negotiation of new treaty which is to be completed in 2015 in Paris as agreed to in climate talks in Durban, South Africa in 2011. (UNFCCC, 2011 ) The Durban COP decided to create a global climate agreement applicable to all parties by 2015—known as the Durban Platform—with the goal of keeping average global temperature rise to 2° C, the level that scientists claim is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. A main task for the parties in Warsaw was to establish a process and timetable for creating the new agreement to be finalized by 2015.
Other major issues in Warsaw included whether the international community would make progress on: (a) implementing past promises for funding needed climate adaptation in developing countries, (b) creating an institutional response to nations and peoples who suffer losses and damages from climate change, and (c) creating an institutional response to forest degradation and destruction.
At the center of the most contentious issues at COP-19/MOP-9 were conflicts about what justice and equity require of nations to respond to climate change.
A. Pathway to An Adequate New Climate Change Agreement.
The agreement to be completed in 20I5 under the Durban Platform will take the form of a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force,” and will be applicable to all Parties.
An adequate global climate change treaty will need to limit total global ghg emissions to levels which will prevent atmospheric ghg concentrations from accumulating to dangerous levels and to do this any solution will also need to allocate total global emissions levels among all nations. Therefore nations must agree to commit to limit their emissions to their share of safe global emissions if there is any hope of preventing harsh climate impacts.
Since COP-18 in Qatar last year, there have been two prestigious scientific reports that have made it clear that much greater ambition from nations on their previous ghg emissions reductions commitments is urgently needed. In September of this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change and in November the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released its Emissions Gap Report. Both reports contain information that lead to the conclusion that the international community is quickly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
The UNEP report is particularly relevant to the short-term situation that was the focus of the Warsaw meeting given that the international community has agreed to limit future warming to prevent catastrophic warming to 2° C or perhaps 1.5° C if studies that are now underway demonstrate that a 1.5° C warming limit is necessary to prevent catastrophic harms. The UNEP report found that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, ghg emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level that would provide a reasonable chance of avoiding the 2° C warming limit.
To be on track to stay within the 2° C target and head off very dangerous climate change, the report concluded that emissions should be a maximum of 44 GtCO2e by 2020 to set the stage for further huge cuts needed to keep warming from exceeding the 2° C target.
Since total global ghg emissions in 2010 already stood at 50.1 GtCO2e, and are increasing every year, reaching a 44 GtCO2e target by 2020 is extraordinarily daunting and much greater ambition is needed from the global community than can be seen in existing national ghg emissions reduction commitments.
Moreover if the world continues under a business-as-usual scenario 2020 emissions are predicted to reach 59 GtCO2e. And so increasing the ambition of national ghg commitments is urgently needed to provide any reasonable hope of limiting warming to non-catastrophic levels. For this reason there was some hope before Warsaw that some nations would make significant increases in their previous ghg emissions reduction commitments. This did not happen. Not one single country increased its previous emissions reductions commitments in Warsaw and Australia and Japan announced they were lowering prior promises.
There is a growing consensus among many observers of international negotiations that the international community will fail to increase ghg emissions reductions commitments to levels that will avoid dangerous climate change unless nations take their ethical obligations to other nations and vulnerable people seriously. Nations continue to enter climate negotiations as if only their own economic interests count. And so, most nations are continuing to ignore their responsibilities to other nations and people when making national commitments on ghg emissions reductions.
To change this, the UNFCCC should require that when nations make emission reduction commitments they must explain three things. First, what ghg atmospheric concentration level is their target designed to achieve. Second, what is their assumption about the remaining ghg emissions budget that the entire international community must stay within to avoid dangerous climate change. Third on what equitable principle is their national target based to that would achieve the safe atmospheric ghg concentration level. In short, nations should be required to explain expressly how their emissions reduction target has been developed in consideration of equity and distributive justice.
The September IPCC report contained an emissions budget on total CO2 emissions for the entire world. If the international community limits ghg emissions to the budget amounts, there is 66% chance of preventing very dangerous warming. The IPCC said that for warming to remain below dangerous levels, the total amount of CO2 equivalent that may be emitted is 431 gigatons. This further means that the budget would be completely used up by current emissions by around 2044, just over 30 years from now. If ghgs other than CO2 that are being emitted around the world are taken into consideration, the remaining CO2 equivalent emissions budget is reduced to approximately 270 gigatons. This fact has led many climate scientists to strongly warn the international community that it is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change because the world will exceed the budget in 25 years at current emissions rates.
In light of these reports, UNFCCC Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC Christiana Figueres said at the beginning of COP-19 that: “Global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak this decade, and get to zero net emissions by the second half of this century.
In addition to increasing national ghg emissions reductions commitments in the short-term there was some hope that Warsaw would put into place initial elements of an emissions reduction framework that would be included in the new treaty to be completed in 2015. Yet this did not happen either.
The only positive outcome of COP-19 in regard to adequate ghg emissions reductions commitments was a decision that all nations would submit their new ghg emissions reduction commitments by the “first quarter of 2015” in time for consideration during the final treaty negotiations in Paris that year.
There was intense disagreement in Warsaw about whether levels of historical emissions should be taken into consideration in allocating national emission ghg reductions levels under the new treaty. The U.S. and European Union blocked a proposal supported by 130 nations including Brazil and China that would use pollution levels dating back to the industrial revolution to help set limits on emissions in the future. According to a November 16th New York Times report, discussions on equity and justice became an emotionally charged flash point in Warsaw.
No nation should be able to escape explaining the ethical principles on which its ghg emissions reduction commitment is based. In a previous entry in Ethics and Climate we explained why strong ethical claims can be made that nations have clear duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.
B. Funding for Adaptation.
In 2009, developed countries committed to annually mobilize $100 billion from public and private sources for climate mitigation and adaptation by 2020 in developing countries. Countries also agreed to the creation of the Green Climate Fund, or GCF, which would provide a significant portion of the $100 billion commitment.
For the most part promises to provide specific amounts of funding have not materialized. As a result the Group of 77 developing nations and China unsuccessfully pushed in Warsaw for specific funding pledges for the period before 2020.
Although there were several countries in Warsaw that made small new pledges for funding for adaptation, for the most part the developed nations have failed to identify specific amounts of funding consistent with prior promises. A decision was made that simply requests that developed countries to submit specific pledges at workshops to be convened on the issue and asks developing nations to submit ideas for a high-level ministerial dialogue on climate finance every two years, starting in 2014 and ending in 2020.
COP-19 also approved a decision urging the fledgling GCF to ensure it is operational in time to begin receiving funds next year. The decision calls for “ambitious and timely contributions” by developed countries to the fund before the next round of high-level talks in Peru.
All high-emitting nations must be required to explain, as a matter of ethics and distributive justice, why they are not responsible for their equitable share of adaptation costs for vulnerable developing nations. In so doing they should be forced to explain whether they disagree with the “polluter pays” principle.
In a previous entry in Ethics and Climate we explained the basis for concluding that high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to fund reasonable adaptation measures in vulnerable poor countries.
C. Loss and Damages
During COP-18 in Doha, Qatar last year, the parties agreed to establish at COP 19 in Warsaw institutional arrangements to address loss and damage in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change
Issues entailed by discussions on creating an institutional response to losses and damages from human-induced climate change were particularly contentions in Warsaw. High-emitting developed nations have been particularly concerned about creating an institution that would act as a mechanism to compensate nations and peoples who are harmed by human-induced climate change.
Two questions in particular about the prospective mechanism caused controversy in Warsaw. The first was whether a new mechanism would be an independent entity within the UNFCCC, which already contains two semi-independent institutions on mitigation and adaptation. Negotiators from low-lying islands and other developing countries argued that devastating human-induced climate change damages are now visible around the world and therefore a new separate loss and damages mechanism under the UNFCCC is needed.
Some developed countries supported the creation of a mechanism but opposed the creation of a new independent funding institution and argued that losses and damages funding should fall under the adaptation framework.
A Warsaw decision established an entity called the “Warsaw Mechanism,” which would fall under the adaptation framework. However, in a concession to vulnerable nations, the decision included a provision to reassess the mechanism after three years. Most of the details of the. role, funding, and makeup of this mechanism await future likely very contentious negotiations
The United States and other nations have resisted discussing responsibilities for loss and damages from climate change for several reasons including the fact that assigning specific responsibility for harms is a difficult question about which reasonable people may disagree. These countries should be required to explain why they are ignoring the “polluter pays” principle and ethical responsibility that is entailed by basic principles of distributive justice. In a previous entry in Ethics and Climate we explained the basis for concluding that high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to compensate losses and damages from human-induced climate change particularly in vulnerable poor countries.
D. Preventing Deforestation and Degradation, REDD+
Since 2005, UNFCCC negotiations have worked on establishing a program on reducing emissions for deforestation and degradation of forests usually referred to as REDD+. Conquering deforestation is an important element in a global solution to climate change as emissions from loss of forests represents approximately 20 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
Establishing REDD+ has been challenging for several reasons including establishing credible quantitative measures for measuring precisely the amount of emissions saved from programs that prevent emissions from deforestation, assuring that the emissions saved by funded REDD+ projects are permanent, and determining how investments in deforestation programs might work with other market mechanisms under the UNFCCC.
Warsaw made considerable progress on for REDD+ issues that included a series of seven decisions that outline issues relating to payments to developing countries implementing REDD+ projects, a framework for establishing a formal REDD+ mechanism, some rules for creating performance-based financing mechanisms, and forest monitoring systems, and establishing forest reference levels among other issues.
Because all high-emitting nations have clear ethical responsibilities to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, high-emiting nations should be required to explain how they will reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions if they do not financially support programs that reduce forest degradation.
The next COP will be held in Lima, Peru in December of 2014 which will mostly focus on the details of the new international climate agreement that is scheduled to be completed in 2015.
Ethics and justice issues were central to the most contentious disputes in Warsaw particularly in regard to ghg emissions reduction commitments and funding for adaptation and loss and damages. This fact was recognized by the international media covering Warsaw more frequently than ever before as we have explained in a previous entry here on Ethicsandclimate.org. Yet neither nations or the press covering Warsaw appear to be recognizing the significance for climate policy of the equity, ethics, and justice issues. For this reason, there is a continuing urgent need to increase awareness around the world of the practical significance of the ethics and justice issues for policy.
UNFCCC Decision, 2013, Approaches To Address Loss And Damage Associated With Climate Change Impacts In Developing Countries That Are Particularly Vulnerable To The Adverse Effects Of Climate Change To Enhance Adaptive Capacity FCCC/CP/2012/L.4/Rev.1, http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2012/cop18/eng/l04r01.pdf (lasted visited December 17, 2013)
This is the third paper in a series which is looking at the ethical and justice issues entailed by the Warsaw climate change negotiating agenda. This paper looks at issue two, namely, the ethics and justice issues entailed by the need to find a global solution to climate change that includes national ghg emissions targets after 2020. The last entry looked at ethical issues entailed by the need to increase the ambition of national emissions targets before 2020 when a new climate change treaty that will be negotiated by 2015 comes into effect.
The issues of long-term national commitments to reduce ghg emissions is being negotiated in Warsaw under the Durban Platform. The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) is a subsidiary body of the UNFCCC that was established by a decision of the Durban COP in December 2011. The mandate of the ADP is to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015 in order for it to be adopted at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020. Among many other issues, the new treaty will need to take a position on several issues relating to national ghg emissions obligations after 2020.
The last entry in this series examined some of the most recent scientific evidence that has concluded that the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change. The staggering magnitude of the challenge facing the international community to limit warming to 2 degrees C can be visualized by understanding the following chart that depicts three ghg emissions reductions pathways which would allow the world to stay within a specific remaining budget to achieve a specific atmospheric concentration of ghgs. As we explained in the last entry, the IPCC has in September of this year described a budget that would give the world a 66% confidence of preventing the 2 degree C warming limit which the international community has agreed upon.
Any atmospheric ghg concentration target can only state the warming that will be experienced at the concentration limited by a probability statement because there is scientific uncertainty about climate sensitivity, a term which is used to describe the warming that will be caused by different concentration of atmospheric ghgs. The level of certainty that we should seek to limit warming to a specific atmospheric concentration is itself an ethical question, not just a scientific question which often goes unexamined by the scientific community when discussing warming limits and emissions budgets to achieve warming limits.
One might ask why the budget prepared by IPCC was not based upon achieving the 2 degree C with much higher levels of certainty, a question which is not discussed in the IPCC report, yet one might speculate that IPCC’s failure to discuss a budget that would assure 100% certainty that the 2 degree C warming limit would not be exceeded was because it would leave no remaining budget for additional ghg emissions. The international community has already emitted so much CO2 that limiting warming to 2 degrees C with very high levels of certainty would mean that future emissions must be negative emissions, that is activities which remove ghg from the atmosphere while immediately ceasing ghg emissions activities.
As we have seen in the last entry, if the IPCC budget would have included all ghgs that have been emitted, it would have concluded that there remains only 269 billion tons of CO2e left to be emitted by the entire global community to stay within an emissions budget that will give a 66% confidence that the 20C warming limit would not be exceeded. Achieving the global reductions entailed by this budget is a civilization challenging problem of the highest magnitude.
The following chart prepared by the Global Commons Institute provides a visualization of the enormity of the challenge entailed by a budget of approximately 242 billion tons. This chart shows 3 different potential missions reductions pathways which will stay within the budget which differ depending upon how fast the needed emissions reductions are begun. The later global emissions peak and begin to be reduced, the steeper the emissions reductions pathways must become. This fact alone leads to the conclusion that any delay in emissions reductions has ethical significance because the steeper emission reductions are needed, the more difficult, if not impossible, it becomes to achieve the needed reductions. For this reasons, those who have been advocating for a delay in implementing a very aggressive ghg emissions policy can be understood to be engaged in ethically troublesome activities because it is alreadly likely to be too late to prevent some very serious consequences from climate change to hundreds of millions of people around the world.
This chart, being a depiction of total global emissions reductions pathway, does not attempt to display what the emissions reductions pathway in any one nation would be if equity and justice were to be taken seriously by nations. High emitting nations will need even steeper reductions in global missions than those depicted in the above chart. If there is any hope of achieving the global emotions needed to limit warming to 2°C, as we explained in the last entry in the series, nations will need to limit their emissions based upon equity. Yet, equity-based emissions for high emitting developed countries will lead to an even greater challenge for high emitting nations. The following chart, also prepared by the Global Commons Institute, depicts what the US share of total global missions must be if United States were to agree on a per capita allocation of the remaining global budget to satisfy its clear obligations to take equity into account although this chart would change depending upon when nations would agree on equal per capita shares and when global emissions peaked. Nevertheless it is helpful to demonstrate the enormity of the challenge entailed by the undeniable need to take equity into account by depicting the consequences for one nation as this chart does.
This chart uniquely shows why the United States and other high-emitting nations likely do not want to discuss “equity” in the Warsaw climate negotiations. If United States and other high-emitting nations were to take seriously its obligation to reduce its emissions based upon equity or distributive justice, such a decision would create an enormous challenge for them. And so, it would appear that the United States and several other developed countries have entered the Warsaw negotiations as if they can ignore the equity and justice issues while justifying their national ghg reductions commitments ultimately on the basis of national economic interest.
However, emissions reductions commitments based upon national economic interest can not be understood to satisfy any reasonable definition of equity or plausible formula for distributive justice.
Distributive justice does not require that all parties be treated equally. But distributive justice does require that parties who want to be treated differently justify their different treatment on the basis of morally relevant criteria. For instance, according to theories of distributive justice, I cannot justify my desire for more food on the basis that I have blue eyes. The color of my eyes it not a relevant basis for unequal treatment when it comes to food distribution. For the same reason, a justification for national ghg emissions reduction target commitments based upon national economic interest alone that does not consider global responsibilities does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. It is totally ethically bankrupt.
Many commentators on the “equity” issue arising in international climate negotiations dismiss any plea for “equitable” allocations on the basis that because different people reach different conclusions about what equity requires the search for an equitable global solution to climate change should be abandoned. For instance it has been reported that the United States has resisted discussing equity on the basis that there is no objective way of determining what equity requires.
Yet the fact that different people reach different conclusions about what equity means does not mean that all opinions about what acting equity means or entitled to respect. As we’ve seen, theories of distributive justice require that people want to be treated differently identify morally relevant criteria for being treated differently. As we have seen, the color of my eyes is not a morally relevant criteria were being treated differently. Similarly my race is not a morally relevant justification for giving me the right to vote above others.
The world urgently needs a deeper conversation about equity and justice and national climate change policies.
To move the equity debate along, nations should be required to specify specifically how their emissions reductions commitments deal with both the enormity of the challenge entailed by the global emissions budget identified by the IPCC and how their emissions reductions target specifically can be justified on the basis of equity and justice.
Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity and justice may require of any national ghg emission reduction commitment, there are only a few considerations that are arguably morally relevant to national climate targets. This entry will end with the identification of a few equity frameworks that have received serious attention in the international community. It is important to stress, however, that although there is some legitimate disagreement about which of these formats to follow in international negotiations, almost all national emissions reductions commitments of large emitting countries fail to pass any reasonable ethical scrutiny. In discussing equity and the distributive justice of national commitments, the relevant criteria for being treated differently that have been recognized by serious participants in the debate about equity include: (A) per capita considerations, (B) historical considerations, (C) luxury versus necessity emissions, (D) economic capacity of nations for reductions, (E) levels of economic development, and (E) and combinations of these factors.
The fact that reasonable people may disagree about the importance of each one of these criteria does not mean that anything goes as a matter of ethics and justice. In addition, the positions actually been taken by nations on these issues in the negotiations utterly fail any reasonable ethical scrutiny. For this reason, concerned citizens of the world should focus heavily on the obvious injustice of national positions on these issues rather than worrying about what perfect justice requires.
In addition, in all probability, a global framework for equity would include some forward looking considerations including per capita considerations and backward looking considerations such as historical responsibility from a specific date, modified by certain economic considerations including economic ability to respond rapidly and perhaps differences between necessity emissions and luxury emissions.
We would stress, it is not as necessary to get immediate agreement on the final framework as it is to achieve a wider understanding of the utter failure of national commitments thus far to deal with the equity and justice issues. Along this line each nation should be asked to answer a series of questions about their commitments which include:
A. What specifically is the quantitative relevance of your emission reduction commitment to a global ghg emissions budget to keep warming below the 2°C warming target. In other words how does your emissions reduction commitment in combination with others achieve an acceptable ghg atmospheric concentration that limits warming to 20C.
B. What is the atmospheric ghg concentration level that your target in combination with others is aiming to achieve?
C. How specifically does your national commitment take into consideration your nation’s undeniable obligation under the UNFCCC to base your national climate change policy on the basis of “equity.” How have you operationalized equity?
D. What part of your target was based upon “equity.”
E. Are you denying that nations have a duty under international law to assure that:
a. the “polluter pays,”
b. that nations have a duty to assure that citizens in their country not harm other people outside their national jurisdiction,
c. nations should have applied the precautionary approach to climate change policy since 1992 when the UNFCCC was adopted?
F. How does your national ghg target commitment respond to these settled principles of international law?
As we have noted, citizes of the world need to increase international understanding of the failure of nations to respond to equity and distributive justice. The following equitable framework formats are among others in serious discussion in international climate negotiations about what “equity” requires. However, as we have argued, it is more important in this moment in history to achieve a higher level of understanding of the utter injustice of national ghg emissions commitments than it is to get agreement on what perfect justice requires. This is particularly because, the international media, for the most part, is utterly failing to cover the obvious ethical unacceptability of most national commitments on climate change.
• Contraction and Convergence (C&C) is a proposed global framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. Conceived by the Global Commons Institute [GCI] in the early 1990s, the Contraction and Convergence strategy consists of reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gases to a safe level (contraction), resulting from every country bringing its emissions per capita to a level which is equal for all countries (convergence). It is intended to form the basis of an international agreement which will reduce carbon dioxide emissions to avoid dangerous climate change, carbon dioxide being the gas that is primarily responsible for changes in the greenhouse effect on Earth. C&C does not require immediate per capita emissions per country but allows a later convergence on capita allocations to deal with other equitable considerations.
• Greenhouse Development Rights is a framework wherein the burdens for supporting both mitigation and adaptation are shared among countries in proportion to their economic capacity and responsibility. GDRs seeks to transparently calculate national “fair shares” in the costs of an emergency global climate mobilization, in a manner that takes explicit account of the fact that, as things now stand, global political and economic life is divided along both North/South and rich/poor lines.
• Equity in the Greenhouse, South-North dialogue is a global “multi-stage approach,” based on principles of: responsibility; capability; mitigation potential; right to development.
• Brazilian Historic Responsibility is based primarily on historic responsibility for emissions: developed countries are each allocated emissions cuts based on the total contribution of their historic emissions (going back to 1800s) to the current global temperature increase.
• Oxfam has proposed an approach, subsequently supported by various other NGOs, that uses a calculated responsibility and capability index to allocate an overall developed country target of 40%, and allows for a climate finance budget of $150bn to be allocated using the same method. Developing countries individual need for financing is assessed in line with available economic capability, taking into account intra-national inequality, and hence climate finance is provided on a sliding scale (below a minimum ‘available capability threshold’).
• The EU has (e.g. EU Commission Proposal of 2009) suggested a method for distributing targets amongst Annex 1 countries that includes starting with an overall target for Annex 1 countries of 30% below 1990 levels by 2020 and allocating this target on the following basis: GDP per capita, addressing the capacity to pay for emission reduction within a country and through the global carbon market [capacity]; GHG per GDP, addressing the opportunities to reduce GHG emissions within one economy [capacity/mitigation potential]; Change of GHG emissions between 1990 and 2005, rewarding early action by developed countries to reduce emissions [reward early action/recognize latent mitigation potential]; Population trends over the period 1990 – 2005, recognizing different population trends between countries and as such different pressures on the projected emission evolution [equal rights to pollute]
There is a need to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change for many reasons including the fact that ethically dubious positions of nations are being hidden in self-interested arguments made in opposition to climate change policies and there is no hope of meeting the 2 degree C warming target without a serious national response based upon equity.
One need not seek agreement on what ethics requires to get traction on ethical issues because most opposition to action on climate change fails to survive minimum ethical scrutiny. The key is to spot the injustice of positions not on getting agreement on what justice requires.
The longer the world waits to develop a global approach to climate change, the more central the ethics questions become about the most contentious issues in consideration.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,
Widener University School of Law
Visting Professor, Nagoya University,
Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology
US President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie Inspect Damages from Hurricane Sandy., October 31, 2012
In this paper we examine through an ethical lens how the controversy about links between Hurricane Sandy and climate change have been covered by the US media. In the last two weeks the mainstream media has awoken, at least temporarily, from a slumber about climate change because of the enormous damages from Sandy and their potential links to human-induced warming. Although this renewed attention to climate change should be welcomed, in the last entry on EthicsandClimate.org we identified several crucial missing features of climate change in the renewed press coverage of climate change that citizens need to know to understand why climate change is such a civilization challenging threat. These missing features include: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about climate change, (b) the magnitude and urgency of the emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, (c) the barrier that the United States has been to finding a global solution for over 20 years, (d) the nature of the climate change disinformation campaign, and (e) the significance for policy of the fact that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical problem.
Ethicsandclimate.org has frequently explained the practical significance for policy of the fact that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical problem. We now look at the recent press coverage of the links between hurricane damage and climate change to identify how recognition of the ethical dimensions of climate change would affect the way the press covers links between hurricane damage and climate change.
II. Scientifically Understood Links Between Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change
Hurricane Sandy has produced a flurry of media activity on the possible links between climate change and the damage from Sandy in the Northeastern United States. For a sampling of various ways the US media has discussed possible ways of understanding this connection see the blog Residence on Earth: Articles about Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change.
Much of the press coverage makes the claim that there are links between Hurricane Sandy and climate change by pointing to the elevated ocean temperatures that have been caused by human-induced climate change, increased wind speed that is fueled by elevated ocean water temperatures, greater amounts of water that is transported into the atmosphere from the oceans in a warming world and dumped as rain during the storms, and rising sea levels that make storm surges worse.
Those opposing action on climate change often deny that one can link Hurricane Sandy to climate change.
A website whose mission is to oppose action on climate change, ClimateDepot, lists the following statements, among many others, of those who claim that there is no link between Hurricane Sandy and climate change:
Meteorologist Hoerling of NOAA: ‘The immediate cause is most likely little more than the coincidental alignment of a tropical storm with an extratropical storm. Both frequent W. Atlantic in Oct….nothing unusual with that’
Prof. Pielke Jr.: ‘We’ve done long-term trends with respect to hurricane damage in the United States, and it’s very safe to say that regardless of how [Sandy] plays out, there’s a century-long time series with no trend in it — and that’s in damage, the number of landfalls, or the intensity of storms at landfall. So, if you are looking for signals of long-term climate change, focusing in on any one storm is the wrong way to go about it to begin with’
Houston Chronicle’s Science guy Eric Berger: ‘…it is a big stretch to go from there to blaming Sandy on climate change. It’s a stretch that is just not supported by science at this time’
The mainstream scientific view on climate change, a view as we have previously explained in Ethicsandclimate.org that is supported by every Academy of Science in the world, almost all scientific organizations whose members have expertise relevant to climate science, and over 97% of scientists that do peer-review climate change science, holds that human-induced climate change is making the world warmer and sea level rise in predictable and measurable amounts. The mainstream view also holds that a warmer world will create more intense storms for a variety of reasons including that there will be more water vapor in the atmosphere in a warming world. There is now very strong evidence that the frequency of extreme weather events is increasing even if the record is not yet clear as to whether hurricanes are increasing in frequency.
Scientists know with high levels of certainty that climate change has increased Earth’s temperature, and that this warming has fueled more heat waves, more intense precipitation, more intense droughts, and more wildfires.
It is also true that scientists dont know for sure that climate change will make hurricanes more frequent but if hurricanes are formed they will increase damages because:
Higher sea levels will make storm surges more destructive
Warmer sea surface temperatures will fuel wind speed
Other potential links between Sandy and climate change are:
More moisture in the atmosphere causes larger amounts of rain fall
The unusual path of Sandy may have been affected by an unusual high pressure system which has links to climate change.
As Joe Romm has stated:
The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be….
Because very destructive hurricanes existed before impacts from climate change were measurable, one cannot simply point to high damages alone from a hurricane and deduce that the damages by themselves unequivocally demonstrate the link between hurricane damages and climate change. However one can point to elevated sea levels and sea surface temperatures caused by climate change and conclude that the hurricane damages will on average increase because of climate change.
We therefore conclude that strong connections can be made about the damages to be expected from hurricanes even though one cannot attribute the initiation of any hurricane to climate change alone.
III. Ethics, Hurricanes, and Climate Change.
So far, almost the entire controversy created by Hurricane Sandy and its connection to climate change as discussed in the US media has been about whether one can attribute direct causation of Sandy to climate change. This is a scientific question and as we have seen there are strong scientific grounds for linking the magnitude of damages from Sandy to climate change, despite the fact that some uncertainties still remain about whether climate change increases the frequency of hurricanes. This issue has not been completely resolved.
Interest in the US press about whether there are links between climate change and hurricane damages appears to be motivated largely by the question of whether adopting climate change policies in the US will prevent even costlier damages to the United States. Most of the press coverage about links between Sandy and climate change follows this line of reasoning at least implicitly. That is the press coverage has treated issues about connections between Sandy and climate change as an issue of interest relevant to national calculations of costs and benefits that would flow from adopting climate change policies. Yet such reasoning ignores several ethical conclusions entailed by understanding that climate change could greatly increase harms to some. These conclusions are:
Those causing potential serious harms to others have duties and responsibilities to those that they may harm including those outside the United States, and not just economic interests in preventing harms to themselves,
It is not necessary to establish complete proof that one is harming others before duties to avoid potential harm to others are triggered. A person need only be on notice that his or her actions may be harming others to establish the duty to cease activities that could harm them particularly in cases where the harm to others is grave and the uncertainties cannot be resolved in a timely fashion before the harms are experienced.
The stronger the possibility that one may harm others, the greater the duty to avoid activities that may harm them.
This ethical reasoning exposes serious problems with how the press has covered the controversy about links between climate change and Hurricane Sandy. The press has treated the issue as if only two possibilities exist. Either there is a link between climate change and the damage caused by Sandy or there is no link. As we have seen this framing ignores the responsibilities of those putting others at risk that are entailed once it is established that links are likely. As we have seen, the science of climate change has long passed this threshold trigger for action.
The US press has also largely ignored likely ties to climate change when extreme weather events in the last few years have taken place in other parts of the world that have wrecked havoc on hundreds of thousands of people including killer floods in Pakistan, Brazil, China, and Australia. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report in March of last year that linked climate change to increased extreme weather around the world including floods, heat waves, droughts, and heavy precipitation. (IPCC 2012). And so, the US press coverage of Hurricane Sandy can be criticized for not helping Americans understand links between their greenhouse gas emissions and other extreme weather damages around the world. High levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are harming others around the world through extreme weather events.
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.