New Paper: Step By Step Procedures that Nations Should Follow to Determine, Explain, and Evaluate their GHG Reduction Commitments Under the Paris Agreement


A.Urgent Need For Greater Understanding Among Nations and Civil Society of How Nations Should Formulate and ExplainTheir NDCs under the Paris Agreement.

Research conducted by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland concluded not surprisingly that when 24 governments identified greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets they ignored their legal duties to set a national target on the basis of preventing dangerous anthropogenic climate change, equity, and common but differentiated responsibilities in light of national circumstances under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement. In all cases, this research concluded that nations inappropriately took national economic self-interest into account in establishing their GHG reduction target. ( while not clearly explaining how their GHG reduction targets were formulated on the basis of what was required of nations under law. This conclusion was not surprising to the researchers. But what was very surprising was that the vast majority of NGOs in these countries appeared not to understand how a nation should quantitatively formulate a target in light of its nondiscretionary and discretionary duties under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. Without an understanding of how a nation should formulate and explain its GHG emissions reduction target, nations and civil society will not be able to effectively evaluate a nation’s NDC.

It is this writer’s view that the widespread ignorance around the world about how a nation should set a GHG target is attributable to the fact that although nations have been setting GHG targets for many years, only recently have they had to expressly respond to the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals and to in so doing take the equity requirements of the Paris Agreement seriously while at the same time being clear and transparent in how they responded to there  obligations under the Paris Agreement. Up until recently, a nation could set a GHG target without considering how much of a shrinking carbon budget that remains to achieve a warming limit goal the nation was going to allocate to itself on the basis of equity. Very few nations, if any, have expressly formulated their national GHG reduction targets on the basis of a carbon budget that remained to achieve a warming limit goal.

Because the Paris Agreement’s success depends on nations being clear and transparent in explaining how they formulated their Nationally Determined Contributions  (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, yet there is widespread ignorance around the world on how nations should formulate their NDCs to comply with their obligations under the Paris deal, there is an urgent need to help nations and civil society around the world understand how a nation should formulate its NDC to comply with their obligations under the Paris Agreement.

B. A New Paper Explains How Nations Should Formulate and Justify their NDCs under Paris Agreement

To meet this need, a new paper describes 4 steps in detail that all governments should follow to comply with their legal obligations under the Paris Agreement as well as the information that nations should  include with their NDCs about how they formulated their NDCs, which information is necessary to comply with the clarity and transparency  requirements of the Paris Agreement.

The paper is: A Four-Step Process for Formulating and Evaluating Legal Commitments Under the Paris Agreement. Donald A Brown, Hugh Breakey, Peter Burdon, Brendan Mackey, Prue Taylor, Carbon & Climate Law Review, Vol 12, (2018) Issue 2, Pags 98 – 108,

The four steps are:

(1) Select a global warming limit to be achieved by the GHG emissions reduction target. The description of this step also explains the need of nations to explain why it chose a warming limit goal greater than the 1.5 degree C goal but no less than 2.0 degree warming limit goal.

(2) Identify a global carbon budget consistent with achieving the global warming limit at an acceptable probability. The paper includes a description of how a nation should identify a carbon budget to achieve a warming limit goal and other considerations relevant to identifying a carbon budget on which the GHG reduction target will be based.

(3) Determine the national fair share of the global carbon budget based upon equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. This section of the paper does not resolve all controversies about how to interpret equity under the Paris Agreement, although it does identify principles identified by IPCC that nations should follow in applying equity to guide their GHG reduction target and information that nations should include with their NDC that explains how they applied discretion in determining what equity requires of the nation.

(4) Specify the annual rate of national GHG emissions Reductions on the pathway to net zero emissions.This section explains that because different amounts of shrinking carbon budgets will be consumed by how long it takes a nation to achieve a quantitative GHG emissions reduction amount, nations need to explain the nation’s reduction pathway over time to determine how much of a global budget available for the whole world the nation is allocating to itself.

The paper also explains why expressly following these steps is necessary to ensure that a nation’s NDC is sufficiently transparent to allow the Paris Agreement’s “stocktake” and “transparency mechanism” processes achieve their goal of increasing national ambition if necessary to achive the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.

In addition to describing the steps nations should follow in formulating their NDC, the paper includes a chart which summarizes information that should be supplied with their NDC when it transmits the NDC to UNFCCC, information necessary to make the Paris Agreement’s transparency requirementts work and information necessary to evaluate the adequacy of the NDC under the Paris Agreement.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School


Why Overcoming Instrumental Rationality In Climate Change Policy Controversies Is a First Order Problem Preventing Ethical Principles From Getting Traction to Guide Climate Change Policy Formation


I. The Failure of Ethical Principles to Get Traction in Climate Change Policy Formation.

This entry will explain why a type of rationality, referred to as instrumental rationality, both dominates policy formation on climate change around the world and is responsible for the failure of ethical principles to guide government responses to climate change.

As we have explained frequently on, climate change is a problem with features that particularly require that it be seen and responded to as an ethical problem even more than other environmental problems. These features include that: 

  • First, it is a problem that is being caused by some people in one part of the world who are putting others in other places who have often done little to cause the problem at great risk. 
  • Second, the harms to those at most risk are not mere inconveniences but potentially catastrophic harms to life and natural resources on which life depends.  In fact, unless humans adequately respond to climate change’s growing threats, most of life on Earth is threatened.
  • Finally climate change is a problem about which many of its greatest victims can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments for protection. The victims’ best hope is that the those high-emitting nations and people causing the problem will see that they have duties to climate change victims to avoid harming them.

The ethical dimensions of climate change are important to understand because unless those nations and individuals that are emitting high levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) reduce their emissions in accordance with their ethical obligations, climate change will  eventually cause great harm to all but particularly to those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts and who usually have done little to cause the great harm. 

There are many ethical principles that should, without controversy, guide national responses to climate change. These include, for instance:

  • Governments around the world have agreed under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) and agreements by parties under this treaty since then, including the Paris Agreement (Paris Agreement 2015), to adopt national climate change policies on the basis of several ethical principles including the duty to establish national policies in accordance with equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.1), to apply the precautionary principle that prohibits nations from using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking action to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.3), and the principle that developed countries have the obligation to take the lead on reducing the threat of climate change (UNFCCC,1992, Art 3.1), and to enact policies that limit warming to between 1.5 to 2.0 degrees C (United Nations, 2015 Art 2)
  • In addition there are numerous other non-controversial ethical norms that are understood to apply to nations as a matter of international law to global environmental problems such as climate change including the “no harm principle” which obligates nations to prevent people or entities within their jurisdiction from harming people and nations outside their borders (UNFCCC,1992, Preamble), and the “polluter pays principle” which requires those nations causing harm from pollution to pay for the damages they cause (Rio Declaration, 1992, Principle 16).

Yet most nations are completely ignoring these ethical obligations when they formulate policy responses to climate change (National Climate Justice. Lessons Learned).

A research project led by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland found that despite express national promises under the Paris Agreement to base national climate commitments known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reduce the threat of climate change to prevent warming as close as possible to 1.5°C but no more than 2°C, on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, all 24 nations studied actually set their NDCs on economic self-interest. Yet this conclusion was not determinable from the documents that nations submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat when the nations submitted their NDCs (National Climate Justice, Lessons Learned). The study also found that environmental NGOs in the country that supported national action on climate change did not seem to understand how to critique the failure of the nation to set its NDC on the basis of the nation’s ethical obligations including ethical obligations that the nation expressly agreed to.

Every national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GOHG) emissions, or NDC, is implicitly a position on two profound ethical questions among others. They are:

  • the amount of warming and associated harms the nation is willing to inflict on poor vulnerable people and nations, and
  • the nation’s fair share of global GHG emissions that may not be exceeded to keep global warming from exceeding a warming limit goal.

Yet nations around the world are setting their NDCs on economic self-interest and ignoring their ethical responsibilities on these issues.

Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity requires of nations to reduce their GHG emissions, national economic self-interest as a justification for their GHG reduction targets does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its fifth assessment report that despite ambiguity about what equity means:

There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014).

The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014).

And so ethical principles are failing to guide national climate change policy formation despite the uncontroversial applicability of several ethical principles that should guide national climate change policies.

The failure of ethical principles to get traction in guiding policy is a much broader problem than in regard to climate change policy formation alone.  Despite the emergence of the academic sub-discipline of environmental ethics in the late 1970s, ethical principles are failing to influence environmental policy-making for most environmental problems.

The claim that ethical principles are rarely guiding environmental policy formation is strongly supported by the comments of the founder of the journal Environmental Ethics, Eugene Hargrove, who in 2003 published an essay “What’s Wrong ? Who’s to Blame? (Hargrove, 2003). This essay invited reflection on why environmental ethics has not had an influence on environmental policy.  Just three years later, Robert Frodeman, in the  same journal in an article entitled “The Policy Turn in Environmental Ethics” also reflected on the huge failure of environmental ethics to achieve traction in environmental policy formation (Frodeman, 2006).

Since its inception in the late 1970s, academic environmental ethics has been mostly focused on theoretical issues while completely failing to help policy makers understand what is ethically wrong with specific arguments made by opponents of environmental policies who almost always use arguments derived from instrumental rationality which hide dubious unstated norms that are the justification for the arguments and which would often fail minimum ethical scrutiny if the norms were made express and critically reflected on.

One of the reasons why ethical principles have failed to affect environmental policymaking is the failure of the academic discipline of environmental ethics to pay attention to actual controversies that arise in environmental policymaking debates. Academic environmental ethics since its inception in the late 1970s has been almost exclusively focused on theoretical issues, such as how to ground a biocentric or ecocentric ethics, while completely failing to help policymakers understand what is ethically wrong with specific arguments made by opponents of environmental policies who almost always rely on arguments derived from instrumental rationality which hide or ignore dubious unstated norms on which the arguments are based. 

II. The Problem of Instrumental Rationality

This article now explains why a first order task that needs to be addressed before ethical principles can play their appropriate role in shaping environmental public policy is to open policymaking arguments on environmental issues including climate change to express ethical reflection. This is a first order task because throughout the world those responsible for environmental policymaking are following instrumental reason, a mode of reason which hides or ignores ethical questions, to determine the acceptability of environmental policies. It is a first order problem because before one can consider what ethical principles should guide policy formation, policymaking must be made open to ethical critique and reflection. If policymakers don’t see and respond to the ethical issues that are implicitly raised by arguments raised against proposed policies, they can’t apply the appropriate ethical rules.

Instrumental rationality is a mode of rationality that is exclusively concerned with the search for efficient means or scientific facts which, consequently, is not concerned with assessing the goals—or ends— that policies should pursue. This form of rationality has existed throughout history, but has become increasingly more dominant in post-Enlightenment liberal democratic capitalist societies (Cruickshank,2014).

Ethics rationality, on the other hand, is concerned about what the goals of society should be. Ethical reasoning seeks to determine what should be the goal of human behavior by examining what is right or wrong, what is permissible or impermissible, what actions are obligatory or non-obligatory, and how burdens of preventing harm should be justly distributed.

Instrumental rationality, because it focuses on means, usually ignores ethical questions about what the goals of policy should be despite the fact that every argument against a proposed environmental policy already contains an unstated norm.  For instance, a claim that a proposed climate change policy should not be adopted because it imposes unacceptable costs rests on the unstated norm that the government should not adopt policies that impose significant costs on the economy or specific industries.

Scientific and economic reasoning, which have increasingly dominated public policy-making from the beginning of the Enlightenment, almost always focuses on how to achieve goals, not on what goals or ends should be desired.

Economic rationality often focuses on how to maximize human preferences. Ethics asks a different question of economic activity, namely what preferences humans should have.

Scientific reasoning usually tests hypotheses to determine what “is.”  Moral philosophers believe that determining what “is,” which is the proper domain of science, cannot determine what “ought” to be, which is the domain of ethics.

Yet instrumental rationality that scientists and economists deploy in their search for scientific and economic facts has dominated public life and higher education for several centuries.

That instrumental rationality dominates environmental policy making is clear given that most government environmental agencies are staffed exclusively by engineers, scientists, economists, and lawyers but very infrequently by employees trained in ethics. This is huge problem because very few employees of environmental agencies or scientific organizations that make policy recommendations can spot problematic ethical issues that should be acknowledged in policy debates and particularly ethical issues that are ignored or hidden when instrumental rationality is deployed to make policy recommendations. Although employees of government agencies responsible for policy formation often understand they should apply policy rules entailed by relevant laws, many relevant laws do not contain clear rules on how to respond to economic and uncertainty arguments against proposed environmental policies.

Instrumental rationality dominates public policy formation for at least two reasons:

First, sociologists, including Max Weber, have predicted that instrumental rationality would over time crowd out ethical rationality in modern societies because increasingly complex human problems would be relegated to bureaucracies run by technical experts whose expertise depends on the use of instrumental rationality. Since the power of experts depends, in part, on maintaining the fiction that their expertise is the central key to solving modern problems, these experts are reluctant to acknowledge that their analytic tools for solving problems are often ethically inadequate and sometimes ethically inappropriate (Thomas, 2017). Moreover particularly in capitalist societies, wealthy interests are able to hire experts and frequently do so to fight government action which would reduce profits.

Second, opponents of proposed environmental policies usually frame opposition to these policies on the basis of excessive costs to governments or specific industries or lack of scientific certainty about harms the policy seeks to prevent. These arguments very frequently hide controversial normative assumptions implicitly embedded in the arguments. For instance, cost arguments made in opposition to environmental policies often rest on the very ethically dubious idea that any policy which creates significant cost to a nation, regional economy, or to a specific industry should not be adopted even when the problematic behavior causes serious harm to people or nations who have not consented to be harmed.  The public debate in response to these claims often narrowly focuses on the magnitude of the costs or whether the regulatory action will create jobs and in so doing ignores several serious ethical problems with these arguments.

In policy disputes about matters in which potential harms are acknowledged by opponents of proposed policies, the public debate about the acceptability of the harms is often limited to some form of “cost-benefit analysis”(CBA).

Yet CBAs frequently hide important ethical issues. If, for instance, a CBA concludes that government action to protect vulnerable people or ecological systems should not be taken because costs of taking action to reduce an environmental threat outweigh the economic value of harms avoided by the proposed regulation, controversial ethical assumptions may be hidden in factual assertions about the magnitude of the costs or value of benefits particularly if:

  • Potentially but not fully proven catastrophic harms were ignored in the CBA.
  • The costs of taking action would be imposed upon parties that are harming others, yet the victims of the harm have not consented to be harmed.
  • Things that were believed to be sacred by one culture are valued in the CBA as if they were commodities whose value can be measured adequately by “willingness-to-pay” monetary measures. CBAs usually commodify all human values and thus value is restricted to monetary value while ignoring other values including sacred value or beliefs that certain entities should not be for sale. Thus in CBAs, usually the value of things that could be harmed are measured by human preferences measured in monetary values. Yet ethics is concerned with what preferences people should hold, not simply what preferences people hold.
  • Human rights will be violated if regulatory action is not taken.
  • The proposed government action implements the ethical duty of people to not harm others on the basis of self-interest.
  • The CBA determined economic value of entities that might be harmed are determined without obtaining the consent of those who might be harmed.
  • The benefits of government action to protect the environment are discounted too greatly in calculations that seek to allow future benefits of action to be compared to current costs to those who must act to prevent harm (Brown, 2008).

Thus, if a decision to take no government action on a potential environmental problem is justified only as a matter of imbalance between costs and benefits, very dubious ethical assumptions are frequently hidden in the CBA calculations while ethical principles, including those that have been widely acknowledged as valid and applicable to government policy formation are often ignored.

In this writer’s experience, proponents of environmental policies also not only rarely identify the ethical problems with the use of CBAs or almost any cost-based argument made in opposition to proposed policies, they almost always respond to the cost-based arguments by making counter cost claims. And so public debate about proposed policies usually focuses on economic  “factual” claims while ignoring ethical principles.

Evidence of the utter dominance of instrumental rationality in the United State includes executive orders of several US presidents which require that any US proposed regulation must satisfy a CBA before it may be promulgated (Congressional Research Service, 2017).

This is so despite the fact that, as we have seen, a CBA used as a prescriptive guide to policymaking often hides many controversial ethical issues including, for instance, the duty of nations to not harm others on the basis of national economic self-interest.

Using cost to those causing harm to others as justification for failing to abate the harm also violates well-established principles of international environmental law including the “polluter pays principle” (Rio Declaration,1992, Principle 16 ) and the “no harm principle.” (UNFCCC,1992, Preamble)..

Yet the United States continues to very frequently base the acceptability of environmental regulations on the results of a CBA.

In 1997, while working as the Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of International Affairs, this author closely observed the US debate about whether the US should agree to the Kyoto Protocol under the UNFCCC. This debate focused exclusively on two different CBAs, one completed by the US EPA and the other by the US Department of Energy which reached slightly different conclusions about the magnitude of negative impacts on US GDP if the US agreed to be bound by the Protocol. Amazingly both CBAs examined costs and benefits to the United States alone if the United States ratified the Kyoto Protocol while completely ignoring potentially harsh climate impacts on poor people around the world and the most vulnerable nations. Yet no one in the US government nor NGOs participating in the debate about whether the US should ratify the Kyoto Protocol raised any ethical problems with the US reliance on CBAs that examined costs and benefits to the US alone as a tool to determine the appropriateness of US action on climate change.

In most Western capitalist countries, corporations and their industry associations have huge political power to frame public policy questions and don’t hesitate to exercise their power to prevent any government action that could lower corporate profits.  And so the public debate on proposed policies often focuses on economic “facts,” not ethical duties, despite the almost universally accepted ethical norm agreed to by almost all religions and nations that people should not harm others on the basis of self-interest.

Opposition arguments against proposed environmental policies often rest on the unstated very dubious norm that regulatory action limiting commercial activities should not be taken unless the harms are proven by the government with high degrees of scientific certainty even in cases where achieving high levels of certainty is scientifically difficult or very prohibitively expensive.

For over 30  years, opponents of US action on climate change have frequently based their opposition on scientific uncertainty about human-caused climate change harms despite the fact that the United States agreed to the “precautionary principle” when it agreed to the UNFCCC in 1992. (UNFCCC. 1992, Art 3.3) This principle says that governments will no longer fail to take action on the basis of scientific uncertainty. Yet advocates of national action on climate change in response to opponents’ scientific uncertainty arguments almost always simply claim that the scientific “facts” of harm have been sufficiently scientifically demonstrated not on the ethical rule that precaution is required once it is scientifically established that significant harm might be created by certain human activities.

If a government decides not to act to reduce the threat of environmental harm on the basis of lack of proof of harm, such a decision can hide important ethical questions particularly if:

  • The government assumes that the proponents of government action to prevent environmental harm should shoulder the burden of proof of demonstrating harm particularly in matters where proof is very expensive, difficult to demonstrate, or cannot be fully demonstrated before potential harms are experienced..
  • There is credible but uncertain evidence that the current activity may be approaching thresholds that could trigger very serious consequences.
  • If the government waits until all uncertainties are resolved it will be too late to prevent serious harm.
  • Some very serious potential harm is judged to be low probability just because the mechanism for causing serious harm is not completely understood so that the probability of the serious harm cannot be confidently evaluated.
  • The victims of potential harm have not consented to put at risk.

All of these considerations are relevant to climate change yet, the United States has failed to decisively act on climate change since international climate change negotiations began 30 years ago because opponents of US climate change policies have claimed that there is insufficient proof of human-induced climate change caused harms.

Although the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world including most national academies of science and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have concluded with high levels of confidence that humans are causing and threatening great harms from human-induced climate change, even conceding, for the sake of argument, that great harms from human induced climate change are not yet proven, ethical principles requires that action should be taken to reduce the threat of climate change. Yet the ethical basis for requiring action is almost never discussed in the US public debate about whether scientific uncertainty about human-induced climate change is an appropriate justification for US unwillingness to act on climate change.

Scientists employed by environmental agencies usually focus on understanding the environmental harms and risks of various human activities and whether proposed government action will acceptably reduce threats to human health and the environment. The goals of environmental regulatory action are usually given to them by law or regulation such as water pollution should be reduced to prevent unreasonable harm to humans or ecological systems. Yet, in the face of scientific uncertainty about whether human actions may cause harm, scientists cannot determine who should have the burden of proof or what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof by scientific methods alone because these are fundamentally ethical questions.

An understanding the ethical problems with instrumental rationality leads to an understanding of why nations often ignore even well-established ethical principles in policy formation such as the ethical principle that no nation should harm others outside their jurisdiction on the basis of national economic interest.

For this reason, a first-order problem on the road to a world which formulates policies guided by ethical principles is to open policy formation controversies to express consideration of ethical issues. This goal requires that those engaged in policy formation spot and identify the ethical issues frequently hidden in economic and scientific arguments against proposed policies that currently dominate policy formation controversies on environmental issues around the world.

Unfortunately most professionals engaged in environmental policy formation have no training that would help them identify the hidden ethical issues embedded in arguments made against environmental and sustainable development policies. Nor do those NGOs who participate in  controversies about these issues have the training to spot ethical problems made by opponents of proposed policies that are derived from various forms of instrumental rationality.


Brown, D. (2008) Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs,, accessed 16 Dec. 2017

Congressional Research Service (2014) Cost-Benefit and Other Analysis Requirements in the Rulemaking Process’,, accessed 18 Dec.,2017

Cruickshank, J., (2014) Democracy versus the domination of instrumental rationality: Defending Dewey’s argument for democracy as an ethical way of life, Humanities 3, 19–41; doi:10.3390/h3010019,, accessed 20 Dec.2017

Frodeman, R. (2006) A Policy Turn in Environmental Ethics, Environmental Ethics, 26

Hargrove, E., ‘(2003)  What’s Wrong? Who Is to Blame?, Environmental Ethics, 25 (1):3-4, [2003] 3-4

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2014) 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Chapter 4. Sustainable Development and Equity. Sec 4.6. 2.1, p 4., assessed , Dec 23, 2017

National Climate Justice, Research Project On Ethics and Justice in Formulating National Climate Policies, Lessons Learned,, accessed 24 Dec, 2017

Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, (Rio Declaration, 1992), accessed 24 Dec 2017,

Thomas. W. (2017) Max Weber on Rationality in Social Action, in Sociological Analysis in Modern Life, Rational Action,, accessed 22 Dec. 2017

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992), FCC/INFORMAL/84/Rev.1 GE.14-20481 (E), Preamble.

United Nations (2015), Paris Agreement, FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1,, accessed 23 Dec. 2017


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

An American at the Bonn Climate Change Negotiations.

To be an American at the Bonn 2017 climate negotiations felt very different than the 13 other times this writer has participated in the yearly efforts that almost every nation in the world has participated in with the hope of finding a global solution to climate change.

Shortly after entering the huge complex on the Rhine River at which every nation in the world was meeting to finalize the details of the 2015 Paris Accord, I ran into several acquaintances from other years who all remarked about the outrageousness of the US intention announced by President Trump of withdrawing from the global climate change deal.

The United States had a delegation at the Bonn talks that was telling other nations what they should do on an agreement about which the US president wants no part.  According to a representative from India, Dr. Vijeta Rattani, of the New Deli Center for Science and Environment, at the beginning of the Bonn talks the US was obstructing agreement on some issues that had wide support among most other nations.

The US’s main contribution was to host a panel which made a full-throated defense of coal while most of the rest of the world was trying to get an agreement that nations would phase out coal by 2030 because of the likely impossibility of keeping warming to non-catastrophic levels without phasing out of coal combustion.  According to a story in the New York Times before the Trump team could make its case on the benefits of fossil fuel, “the panel was disrupted for more than 10 minutes by scores of chanting and singing demonstrators. The protesters then walked out, leaving the room half empty. Throughout the remainder of the presentation, audience members shouted down and mocked White House officials who attempted to explain away President Trump’s stated view that global warming is a hoax.”

During the Bonn COP, 20 countries including  Angola, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, El Salvador, Fiji, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Marshall Islands, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Niue, Portugal and Switzerland agreed to phase out of coal combustion by 2030.

Throughout the Bonn talks, representatives of some of the most vulnerable nations to climate change pleaded with high-emitting nations to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in light of the current suffering of their citizens. Among others I talked to early during the Bonn talks was a representative from Seychelles, a nation of 115 islands about 900 miles East of the East African coast in the Indian Ocean, who was strongly disturbed by the US lack of response to climate change given that people on her island were already suffering from rising sea levels and drought which was making it more difficult for her island nation’s citizens to grow food.

I also talked to Africans working on climate issues who claimed that massive human suffering from drought is now visible in the sub-Sahara countries of Mali, Chad, and Niger, suffering which is responsible for the creation of waves of refugees who have been attempting to enter Europe often through Libya, many of whom have drown at sea while those of have made it to Europe are destabilizing European politics.

Throughout the Bonn negotiation complex, most nations mounted pavilions which included displays of climate change impacts already being experienced in their countries, adaptation responses which are underway, and mitigation efforts which they are undertaking.  Walking through the Bonn complex, participants could not escape the conclusion that adverse climate change impacts are not just a future menace but a troubling current reality in much of the world.  Although ten years ago, one could participate in the yearly climate negotiations and conclude that most nations thought that human-induced climate change was mostly a future threat, in November 2017 it is clear that most nations are already experiencing some adverse climate change impacts that they realize they and other nations need to respond to now.

In several Bonn events, representatives of the global scientific community created a mood of gloom and urgency by discussing the magnitude and speed of GHG reductions now necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change harms. One program put on by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) described the enormous gap between the GHG emissions reductions pledged so far by nations under the Paris Agreement and those that are required to limit warming to the Paris Accord’s goals of 1.5  to 2.0 degrees C.  A report by UNEP concluded that if the international community fully complied with its GHG emissions reduction pledges made so far, the gap between the pledges and what is needed to achieve the warming limits is “alarmingly high.” The report goes on to say that even if national pledges are fully complied with, the remaining carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to limit warming to 2.0 degrees C will be 80 % depleted by 2030 while by that year the remaining budget to achieve 1.5 degrees C warming limit goal will have been completely depleted. The report also says much more ambitious national pledges are now necessary by 2020, just over two years from now, to have any realistic hope of staying on a reduction pathway necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.

Other scientists during the Bonn negotiations alarmingly warned of the more rapid loss of Arctic ice than what was expected, increasing yearly larger rises of atmospheric CO2 concentration levels perhaps because forest and ocean sinks are starting to decrease, and greater than expected sea level rise.

 Some of the great anger about the United States that I witnessed in Bonn was somewhat muted by the presence of 16 US States and numerous American cities and businesses who had been organized by California governor Jerry Brown and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg under the America’s Pledge Campaign. This group which accounted for almost half the US economy had a large presence in Bonn including a large pavilion which showcased what many US sub-national governments and private sector entities were doing to reduce US GHG emissions. One German participant said to me that he had hope that the United States would eventually do the right thing on climate change despite the Trump’s administration indefensible position because of the presence of the defiant US states and local governments. However, he said since these entities only represented about half of the US GHG emissions, the Trump administration’s unwillingness to cooperate with the rest of the world was a major global abomination.

During the last event I went to in Bonn, a UNEP representative discussed the fact that even if every nation fully achieved GHG reductions at levels they committed to, the world was headed toward over a 3 degree C warming in this Century, a level of warming that is extremely dangerous particularly for some parts of the world.  He then exhorted the audience to work tirelessly to get every national, state, regional, and local government to set ambitious GHG reduction targets. The situation is ominous he said, we need “all levels of government, that is nations, regions, and local governments,  to immediately work toward achieving zero carbon emissions.”


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law,

Widener University Commonwealth Law School


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

May Any Nation Such as the United States or China Make Its Willingness to Reduce Its GHG Emissions Contingent On What Other Nations Do?


China US Green Spend

I. Introduction

In the United States and in several developed countries including Australia and Canada, for instance, opponents of national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions frequently have made several arguments in opposition to proposed climate change policies.  Most of these arguments have been of two types.

First, opponents of national climate policies have argued that there is insufficient scientific certainty about human causation of adverse climate impacts to warrant action because of the costs of reducing greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions might entail unnecessary expenditures if the mainstream scientific view on climate impacts turns out to be false.

Second proposed climate change policies are too costly. These cost arguments have taken several forms. They have included claims that the proposed ghg emissions reduction policies: (a) will unacceptably reduce national GDP, (b) will destroy jobs, (c) will destroy specific industries, (d) are not justified by cost-benefit analyses or other welfare maximization measurements, or (e) are just too costly.

Another very common argument made in opposition to national ghg emissions reductions policies that implicitly rests on claims of excessive costs is the frequent claim that it is unfair to the United States, or some other country, to be required to reduce its emissions as long as another country, e.g. China or India, is not willing to reduce its ghg emissions in similar ways.

This paper will examine whether a nation may make its willingness to reduce its ghg emissions contingent on what other nations do through an ethical lens after very briefly examining ethical problems with other cost justifications for a nation’s unwillingness to reduce it ghg emissions.

II. Ethical Problems with Cost Justifications for a Nation’s Unwillingness to Reduce its GHG Emissions.

As a matter of ethics all nations have clear duties reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of global emissions because nations have ethical duties to not harm other people and nations. These ethical duties can be derived both from various ethical theories and international law. For instance, as an example from climate law, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, nations agreed that nations have the:

 “responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” (UNFCCC, Preamble)

 In regard to the ethical basis for concluding that nations have duties to not harm others a recent conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is relevant

Common sense ethics (and legal practice) hold persons responsible for harms or risks they knowingly impose or could have reasonably foreseen, and in certain cases, regardless of whether they could have been foreseen. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 49)

Cost arguments are almost always arguments about self-interest that usually ignore duties and responsibilities to others.

Whether a nation or individual should act to prevent climate change is a matter of justice, not simply a matter of economic efficiency, national welfare maximization, or economic self-interest alone. This is so because some governments and individuals more than others are more responsible for climate change because they have much higher emissions of ghg in total tons, per capita levels, and historical contributions to elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations. Yet each nation must reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions because it has a duty to not harm others and some of the poorest people in the world who have done almost nothing to cause climate change are the most vulnerable to climate change. These people will suffer the most if governments and individuals refuse to reduce their emissions based upon “efficiency” or “welfare maximization” or national costs considerations alone. In addition, those most vulnerable to climate change have not consented to be harmed because costs to polluters of reducing their emissions are high.

In regard to these ethical limits of costs arguments, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Working Group III report recently confirmed these conclusions when it stated:

  • “Efficiency” and “welfare maximization” justifications unjustly sacrifice vulnerable people to the economic prosperity of high emitting nations and individuals. The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. …They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)
  • What ethical considerations can economics and justice can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, 2014.AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 25)
  • Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. (IPCC,2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3,pg. 24)

Yet, of course, what is any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions is a matter of distributive justice about which reasonable people may disagree. In fact, some very low emitting nation’s and people may be able to argue that they need not yet cut their ghg emissions because they have not yet exceeded their fair share of safe global emissions. Yet almost all nations are without doubt emitting at levels above their fair share of safe global emissions because total global emissions must be cut by as much as 95 percent by 2050 to prevent dangerous climate change. This is particularly true for all developed nations such as the United States which have very high per capita and historical emissions.

Although reasonable people may disagree on exactly what any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, this does not mean that any national articulation of what is fair passes ethical scrutiny.

In this regard, the recent IPCC report also agreed when it said:

  •  There is a basic set of shared ethical principles and precedents that apply to the climate problem…[and] such principles… can put bounds on the plausible interpretation of equity in the burden sharing context…[and] are important in establishing what may be reasonably required of different actors.  (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 48)

The recent IPPC report identified the considerations that have been discussed in the ethics literature as being relevant for determining what fairness requires in allocating national responsibility for national ghg emissions reductions. They include; (a) responsibility for causing the climate problem, that is historical levels of emissions, (b) capacity or ability to pay for ghg emissions reductions, (c) equality or giving each human being an equal right to use the atmosphere as a sink for ghg emissions, and (d) the right to development a concept which is usually understood to give poorer nations an exception from the obligations to reduce ghg emissions so that they can meet basic needs. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII pp 52-56)

And so ethics requires each nation to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions where what is fair must be based upon morally justifiable reasons for allocating national ghg emissions reductions’ burdens yet in determining what are morally relevant factors there are only a limited number of considerations that are recognized by ethicists to be morally relevant.  None of these considerations are costs to reduce ghg emissions of high-emitting nations or people.

III. The Ethics Of One Nation Making Its GHG Reductions’ Commitment Contingent Upon Other Nations Doing the Same.

All nations that are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to immediately reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do. This is so because climate change obligations are a matter of global justice, not national interest alone, and justice requires all nations to reduce their ghg emissions to levels that are distributively just and sufficient in magnitude to in combination with the reductions of other nations to prevent dangerous climate change.

The duty to cease activities that harm others is not diminished if others who are contributing to the harm fail to cease their harmful behavior. This is so because no nation or person has a right to continue destructive behavior on the basis that others who are contributing to the harm of others have not ceased their destructive behavior.

For example, it would be absurd for one of two factories that are poisoning people downstream by their discharges of toxic substances to argue that it has no obligation to reduce toxic discharges until the other factory agrees to reduce its toxic discharges. One of two persons beating up an innocent victim cannot defend his actions on the basis that he had no duty to stop the beating as long as the other person continued to assault the victim.

Yet climate change is an analogous problem because some very high-emitting countries are largely causing great harm to very low-emitting poor countries who can do little by themselves to protect themselves from the great harm. Those poor nations who are the most vulnerable victims of climate change are appropriately dismissive of arguments from high-emitting countries that justify their unwillingness to change the status quo on the basis that other high-emitting countries have not reduced their emissions.

May the United States, or other nation, refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions as long as another nation, for instance China, will not act accordingly? As a matter of ethics, for reasons stated above, no nation may refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions levels on the basis what other nations do.

May China, or other developing nation refuse to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis that another developed nation has refused to act according to levels required of them?

Any nation’s obligation, including China’s, to reduce its ghg emissions is terminated only when its ghg emission levels are  below levels required by fair global allocations that will prevent dangerous climate change. Although even if  a nation is emitting at levels below its fair share of safe global emissions an argument can be made that any nation that could reduce its ghg emissions further should do so to avoid catastrophic harm to others. This so because climate change is violating the human rights of poor people around the world and human rights theory requires governments that have the ability to prevent human rights violations should do so even if they are not at fault.

Without doubt as a matter of ethics, all nations, at a minimum, have a duty to keep ghg emissions below their fair share of safe global emissions independent of what other nations are doing.

Although as we have seen what fairness requires is a matter about which different ethical theories might reach different conclusions, a claim by almost any nation in the top 80 percent of global per capita emissions that it is already below its fair share of safe global emissions is highly unlikely to pass scrutiny on the basis of any conceivable ethically theory.

And so, the United States, along with other high-emitting nations, must act now because it cannot make a credible case that US ghg emissions are already below the US’s fair share of safe global emissions levels. This is true because most mainstream scientists have concluded that the world must reduce total global emissions by as much as 90 to 80 percent below existing levels to stabilize GHG atmospheric concentrations at minimally safe atmospheric ghg concentrations and most developed nations and China are very high emitters in both historical and per capita emissions. Therefore what is a fair reduction levels for these high-emitting countries will need to be reductions at greater levels than required of the entire world.

Yet, some very low-emitting developing countries might be able to make a credible case that their current ghg emissions levels are still below their fair share of safe global emissions. And so although some poor low-emitting nations might be able to substantiate a claim that their existing ghg emissions levels don’t yet trigger immediate emissions reductions obligations, the United States and all developed nations and China are not members of this group. For this reason, the US, developed nations, and even high-emitting developing nations have a duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and this obligation is an international responsibility that is unaffected by the actions of other nations.

In addition, it is ethically problematic for the United States or another developed nation to assert that other nations must reduce their emissions to levels commensurate with US reductions. In fact, for the United States to make any claim on any other nation that it must reduce its emissions in the same amount as the US emissions reductions, it would have to make the case that the nation was already exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions coupled with the claim that to achieve fair emissions levels the nation would have to reduce emissions to the same level committed to by the United States. But even then, as we have seen, the United States could not makes its emissions reduction commitments contingent on what another nation did.

A variation of the argument that a country like the United States need not reduce its ghg emissions unless other nations do so is the claim that it will not make a difference in the harms experienced by those vulnerable to climate change if the United States reduces its ghg emissions and others fail to do so.  Yet this claim is not factually true. Any nation which is emitting ghg emissions above its fair share is contributing to the harms of people and nations who are harmed by climate change. Although it is obviously true that unless all nations reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global ghg emissions, some nations and people will be harmed by climate change, yet these harms will be worse so long as each nation refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions. Although the most damaging harms may be caused by those nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share, all nations emitting ghgs above their fair share make the harms worse.

Countries like the United States are not being asked to reduce China’s fair share of safe global emissions, they are only expected to reduce the US ghg emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions. For this reason, also, the US may not as a matter of ethics fail to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions because other countries have failed to do so.

IV. Conclusion

In conclusion, nations have an ethical responsibility to reduce ghg emissions that harm others for as long as they are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. This duty exists regardless of efforts undertaken by other nations to reduce their ghg emissions.


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 1995, AR2, Working Group III, Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change,

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change,

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 1992, FCCC/INFORMAL/84. GE.05-62220 (E), accessed August 30, 2014



Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University School of Law