What Can Non-Catholics and Nonbelievers Learn From the Pope’s Encyclical About the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change?

climate change moralpopeslaudato

I. Introduction

Can non-Catholics and nonbelievers learn anything from the Pope’s encyclical on climate change? Although, of course, the Pope holds positions on some issues that many non-Catholics and nonbelievers do not agree with, are there insights about climate change ethics that non-Catholics and even nonbelievers can learn from the Pope’s recent encyclical Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home?

This encyclical has gotten wide publicity largely because of its message that we have a moral responsibility to prevent climate change. Yet this 184 page document is about much more than climate change.

Although this entry will focus mostly on climate issues, it is important to understand that the encyclical calls for deep moral reflection on and response to many problems threatening the common good including poverty, staggering economic inequality, homelessness, lack of meaningful work, diminishing water supplies, loss of global biodiversity, as well as climate change. Furthermore, the encyclical argues that there is a common cause of these problems, namely a global economic system which produces wealth, an outcome which the encyclical acknowledges is a good thing, while destroying planetary common natural resources and failing to produce social and institutional structures necessary to achieve basic human dignity.

The encyclical contains a strong critique of the current form of capitalism. It is not, however, as claimed by many on the political right, a call for centralized government control of the economy but a call for a more regulated economy and economic investment in things needed to assure that all human beings can live in basic dignity. The encyclical makes a strong argument that government policies that call for strong economic growth alone will not protect the environment nor provide institutional mechanisms needed to assure social justice and human dignity.

The encyclical states that the environmental crisis facing the world is related to the social crises present throughout the world. More specifically the encyclical says:

We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the underprivileged, and at the same time protecting nature. (Laudato Si, 139)

Throughout the document, the encyclical grounds its moral conclusions in Catholic theology but also widely appeals to the Golden Rule which is recognized in one form or another by all of the world’s religions and is a major tenet of much of the most universally recognized foundations for secular ethics. Thus the encyclical is a call to protect our common home not just to Catholics but to all of the people in the world. Its ethical logic is supportable both by Catholic theology and mainstream secular ethics.

Most of the encyclical’s analyses of what needs to be done to solve the environmental and social crises facing the world is based on the need to protect the common good, a duty derivable from the Golden Rule, which the encyclical expressly recognizes as a foundational theory of social ethics. In this regard the encyclical says:

Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. (Laudato Si, 156). Because current injustices, the common good requires solidarity with and a preferential option for the poor(Laudato Si,  89) The notion of the common good also extends to future generations.(Laudato Si, 159)

The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and the first principle of the whole ethical and social order. (Laudato Si, 93).

II. The Practical Importance of Seeing Climate Change as a Moral Problem

The encyclical has received most attention for its claims about the moral responsibility to prevent climate change.  For reasons discussed on this website many times, if the Pope’s encyclical is successful in getting civil society to see climate change as essentially a moral and ethical issue, it is likely to have a profound practical importance for climate change policy making, in fact, it could radically transform how climate change policy has been debated for over 35 years. There are two reasons for this.

One, climate change more than any other environmental problem has features that scream for attention to see it fundamentally as a moral issue. In fact, climate change policy makers can’t think clearly about policy until they respond to several ethical questions.

Second, those who have opposed action on climate change for over 35 years have tricked citizens, including most members of environmental organizations, to argue about climate change policies in ways that ignore moral and ethical questions and in so doing have weakened the strongest arguments that can be made in response to arguments made by opponents of climate change policies.

The features of climate change that scream for attention to see climate change policy options through a moral lens include:

(1) It is a problem caused by high-emitting nations and people who are putting the world’s poorest nations and people at most risk who have done little to cause the problem;
(2) The harms to those most vulnerable are likely to be catastrophic including: deaths, sickness, destruction of ecological systems on which life depends and entire countries, and the numerous other harsh impacts caused by rising seas, more intense storms, heat waves, killer droughts, and floods, loss of glaciers that millions of people depend upon for drinking and agriculture, while the harshest impacts are most threatening to Africa, particularly the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa, to Southeast Asia from loss of water supply, drought, and rising seas, and to Small Island states whose very existence is now threatened by rising oceans and killer storms;
(3) Unlike other environmental problems those most vulnerable to climate change often are unable do anything to protect themselves, their best hope is that the high emitting nations and people will see that they not only have economic interests but have ethical responsibilities to stop doing what they are doing; and,
(4) Most importantly, there is almost no hope of preventing very dangerous climate change unless all nations urgently limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.

To understand the link between urgency and fairness, one must understand aspects of climate science.

The Earth’s climate will not respond to increased atmospheric concentrations of ghg by raising temperatures in proportion to how much ghg are added to the atmosphere. That is, the earth’s climate system does not respond to increased atmospheric concentrations of ghgs in the same way the sound on a radio turns up in proportion to how the volume dial is turned up. The climate system is known to have threshold switches in addition to dials which will cause global temperatures to escalate abruptly if certain thresholds are exceeded. For instance, we know about 50 million years ago ocean temperatures passed a threshold which quickly released large amounts of methane hydrates stored in the bottom of the ocean which then caused global temperatures to rapidly increase abruptly by 5 degrees C.

Because the scientific community believes that the probability increases significantly that the switches in the climate system which will cause abrupt climate change will be triggered if warming is allowed to increase by 2 degrees C or perhaps 1.5 degrees C above preindustrial temperature levels, every country in the world agreed in Copenhagen in 2009 to try and keep warming from rising more than 2 degrees C.

Because high emitting countries in particular have allowed the atmospheric concentration of CO2 to rise to 400 ppm from the preindustrial level of 280 ppm and at 450 ppm there is only approximately a 50 % chance of limiting the warming to 2 degrees C, the international community is rapidly running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming. In fact, if the international community wants to have a reasonable probability of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, the entire world must limit all ghg to approximately 350 GtC and given that the world is now emitting 10 GtC per year, even if the international community could stabilize current ghg emissions at existing levels, in about 30 years any additional emissions of ghg would exceed a carbon budget that may not be exceeded to give a reasonable chance of preventing catastrophic climate change.

Given this, the mainstream scientific community is screaming to the world that the international community is rapidly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.

Even more disturbing some of the climate triggers that cause abrupt changes are now starting to be visible, including Arctic sea ice disintegration and methane release from the Asian tundra.

Because of all of this, the most contentious issues in international climate negotiations are issues about what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. Given that some nations more than others have much higher per capita emissions and historical emissions and if all nations must reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, some nations more than others must reduce their emissions much faster than others.

At the top of the list of countries that justice would require a country to go much, much faster in reducing ghg emissions than most any other country is the United States. Although China now emits more ghg than the US, the US is much more responsible than China for elevating atmospheric concentrations to the current dangerous levels of 400 ppm CO2 because of its world-leading historical emissions and US per capita emissions are almost twice China’s emissions

For this reason issues of justice and fairness are at this moment the most contentious issues in international climate change negotiations not only in regard to what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions but who should pay for urgently needed adaptation measures in poor developing nations.

And so a nation cannot think clearly about what its climate policy goal should be without considering two ethical questions.

The first is what is the atmospheric ghg concentration that a nation’s climate policy is seeking to achieve, such as 450 ppm CO2. This is a moral issue at its core because it is a position on who the country believes it is OK to kill and what damages to ecological systems on which life depends are acceptable.

The second ethical issue that a nation must confront in setting national policy is what is the nation’s fair share of a safe global carbon budget for the entire world.

For these reasons, climate change policy makers must take positions on profound ethical and justice issues in setting climate policy, issues that governments can’t duck when determining national climate change policy because every national ghg emissions target is already implicitly a position on these ethical questions.

However, perhaps an even more important reason why seeing climate change as essentially a moral issue is so practically important for policy stems from the success of fossil fuel companies and other opponents of climate change policies to frame climate policy debates over the last 35 years so that the debates have almost exclusively focused on three issues that have ignored the moral issues .

In the United States, opponents of climate change policies have argued that the United States should not adopt climate change policies because:

First, the policies will impose unacceptable costs on the US economy or destroy jobs, or other economic reasons to oppose climate policies

Second, there is scientific uncertainty about whether humans are causing climate change and what the impacts will be

Third, for the US to act would be unfair or ineffective until China and India do so.

US citizens and environmental groups have unknowingly been tricked into responding to these arguments by making factual responses to these claims, such as climate change policies will increase jobs, despite the fact that each of these arguments contain hidden assumptions which clearly flunk minimum ethical scrutiny.

For example, as we have seen, opponents of climate change policies have frequently based their opposition to climate policies on the claim that climate change policies will destroy US jobs or the US economy.

The response of NGOs and citizens to this argument has largely been to assert that climate change policies will create jobs and boost the economy. Yet this response unknowingly implicitly supports the very dubious hidden normative assumption of the climate policy opponents’ argument, namely that the US should not adopt climate policies if the policies will hurt the US economic interests despite the fact that this argument is obviously wrong when viewed through an ethical lens because polluters not only have economic interests, they more importantly have moral responsibilities to not harm others.

As we have seen, almost all cultures agree with the Golden Rule which holds that someone should not be able to kill others because it would be costly to the killer to stop the killing behavior. Thus, the failure to respond to the opponents’ of climate change policies arguments on moral grounds is an astonishing oversight in light of the fact that the moral objection is very strong  to someone who claims that they can seriously harm others if their economic interests are threatened if they have to limit their harmful activities.

Such a claim violates the most non-controversial ethical rules including the Golden Rule and many well accepted provisions of international law based on the Golden Rule such as a rule called the “no harm principle” which asserts that all nations have a legal duty to prevent their citizens from harming people outside their jurisdiction.

If citizens who support climate policies ignore the ethical problems with the arguments made by opponents of climate policies on the grounds that climate policies will impose costs on those who are harming others, they are playing into the hands of those responsible for putting the planet at risk from climate change.

There are also deeply problematic ethical assumptions that have remained largely unchallenged when the opponents of climate change policies argue the US should not adopt climate change policies due to scientific uncertainty (See, The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty) and unfairness or ineffectiveness of US ghg reductions if the US acts and China and India don’t act.(See May Any Nation Such as the United States or China Make Its Willingness to Reduce Its GHG Emissions Contingent On What Other Nations Do?)

And so, for 30 years, the opponents of climate change policies have succeeded in framing the climate debate in a way that ignores obvious ethical and moral problems,  Surprisingly both environmental organizations and the US press have failed to bring attention to the obvious moral problems with the arguments made by opponents of US climate change policies

For this reason, the Pope’s claim that climate change must be understood as a moral problem has the potential to change the climate debate in the US although to give the Pope’s message power citizens must work to turn up the volume on the obvious ethical problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies.

Now the Pope’s encyclical claims that the failure of citizens to acknowledge moral obligations entailed by climate change to be a symptom of a larger problem, namely the dominance of an aggressive form of capitalism which is undermining the common good in other ways.

Opposition to climate change policies has been organized by corporations and free market fundamentalists foundations and think tanks who share an ideology that if every person works in his or her own self interest, the market will achieve the common good by virtue of the invisible hand. This is so despite the fact that even mainstream economists admit that markets will not internalize externalities, that is, take into account harms to those who do not participate in market transactions, nor produce distributive justice.

Market rationality also translates all values into commodity values which crowd out other values including respect for life while not acknowledging the need to set limits on human behavior consistent with limits of natural resources.

The aggressive economic capitalism that is now dominating most of the world is also corrupting democracies by the infusion of money into politics, funding public relations campaigns to manipulate democratic outcomes, placing people with loyalty to those with economic interests into government management positions, and preventing government investment policies needed provide humans with human dignity.

III. Conclusion

If we want to protect the common good, achieve social justice in the world, and avoid catastrophic climate change, we will need people around the world with courage to publicly challenge the assumptions of an unregulated capitalism on moral grounds.  As the Pope has said, public policy that exclusively focuses on increasing economic growth will not protect our common home or achieve social justice.

As we have seen, the Pope’s call to see climate change as essentially as a moral problem has profound practical policy significance, thus Catholics, non-Catholics, and nonbelievers should identify the moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies. In fact, when opponents of climate change oppose climate change policies on grounds of costs to those causing climate change, scientific uncertainty, or unfairness or ineffectiveness of national action if China or other nations don’t act, citizens should publicly engage opponents of climate change by asking questions of climate change policy opponents designed to expose the ethical and moral problems with the opponents’ arguments. Some of these questions have been identified on this website. See:

.a. If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on Unacceptable National Costs?

b. If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on Scientific Uncertainty?

c. If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on the Failure of Other Countries Like China to Act?

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener Commonwealth University Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

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If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on Scientific Uncertainty?

popeslaudatoostrrichheadinsandundercertainy

I. Introduction 

This is the second of three articles that makes recommendations on how NGOs and citizens should debate climate change policies if Pope Francis claim that climate change is essentially a moral problem is correct. The first of these three articles looked at how NGO’s should respond to arguments against climate change policies based on cost if climate change is a moral problem. This entry makes recommendations about how NGOs and citizens should respond to arguments based on scientific uncertainty. The third in this series will make recommendations on how to respond to arguments based on  the unfairness or ineffectiveness of a nation acting if China or India does not reduce their ghg emissions.

Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Future, is attracting high-level attention around the world for its claim that climate change is a moral problem which all people have a duty to prevent. If his claim that climate change is essentially and  fundamentally a moral problem is widely accepted, a conclusion that is also strongly supported by basic ethical theory as explained on this website many times,  it has the potential to radically transform how climate change has been debated in many nations around the world for the last twenty-five years because opponents of climate change policies have been very successful in framing the public debate so that it has focused on several issues almost exclusively. This framing has enabled the climate change debate to ignore ethical and moral issues that should have been part of the debate. The opponents of climate change policies have largely succeeded in opposing proposed climate change law and policy by claiming that government action on climate change should be opposed because: (1) it will impose unacceptable costs on national economics or specific industries and destroy jobs, (2) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant government action, or (3) it would be unfair and ineffective for nations like the United States to adopt expensive climate policies as long as China or India fail to adopt serious greenhouse gas emissions reductions policies. Common to these arguments is that they have successfully framed the climate change debate so that opponents and proponents of climate policies debate facts about costs, scientific uncertainty, or unfairness of one country acting while others don’t rather than the moral problems with these arguments.

This series argues  following the example of Pope Francis that NGOs, governments, and citizens should ask opponents of climate change policies questions designed to bring attention to the obvious ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies based on scientific uncertainty.  Each question is followed by a brief description of the moral problem that the question is designed to bring to light.

Some of the arguments against climate change policies based upon scientific uncertainty should and can be responded to on scientific grounds especially in light of the fact that many claims about scientific uncertainty about human-induced warming are great distortions of mainstream climate change science.  Yet in addition to the scientific responses to arguments made  against climate policies on scientific grounds, there are a host of ethical problems with these arguments which the following questions are designed to expose.

II. Questions to be Asked of Those Opposing Action on Climate Change on the Basis of Scientific Uncertainty.

When you argue that nations such as the United States or states, regional, or local governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions because of scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts:

1. On what specific basis do you disregard the conclusions of the United States Academy of Sciences, and numerous other Academies of Sciences around the World including the Royal Academy of the UK,  over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations whose membership includes those with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society,  and according to the American Academy of Sciences, 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change whose conclusions hold that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, that harsh impacts from warming are already being experienced in parts of the world, and that the international community is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming.

This question is designed to expose the ethical conclusion that nations who are put on notice by the most prestigious and responsible scientific organizations in the world that ghg emissions from their jurisdictions are causing great harm to vulnerable people around the world have an ethical duty to accept the burden of proof to prove that their ghg emissions are not causing harm. That is once there is a reasonable scientific basis for concluding that some nations or entities are causing great harm, the question of who should have the burden of proof is an ethical and not simply a scientific question. Thus the question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty of those who are engaged in risky behavior to produce credible scientific evidence that demonstrates with relatively high levels of proof that their behavior is not causing harm if they choose to persist in behaving in a way that might be dangerous.  That risky behavior is not acceptable because there is some uncertainty about the harm that will be caused by the behavior is clear from law around the world that makes dangerous behavior unacceptable and often criminal. For instance, it is not a defense to a charge of reckless driving that the police could not prove the driving would cause harm. Nations and people have a moral duty to not engage in behaviors that might cause harm if there is a reasonable basis that the behavior could cause harm.  Therefore opponents of climate change have a strong burden of proof to prove that human release of ghgs is not dangerous. For this reason, opponents of climate change policies have an ethical duty to explain the scientific basis for concluding that human activities are not causing dangerous climate change.

2. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are some remaining scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve uncertainties before action is taken will virtually guarantee that it will too late to prevent catastrophic human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems around the world?

This question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty to take action in the face of uncertainty if waiting until the uncertainties are resolved will produce greater harm particularly for problems like climate change that are predicted to cause catastrophic harms to some people and regions if strong action is not taken. 

3. Given that waiting until uncertainties are resolved will make climate change harms worse and the scale of reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change much more daunting, do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in any decision about whether a nation should wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change because of scientific uncertainty?

This question is designed to expose the ethical duty entailed by procedural justice to obtain consensus about waiting until uncertainties are resolved before taking action from those who will be harmed by any delay in taking action on the basis of uncertainty when delay will most likely increase the harms to those who are most vulnerable. 

4. Should a developed nation such as  the United States which has much higher historical and per capita emissions than other nations be able to justify its refusal to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty, given that if the mainstream science is correct, the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent warming above 2 degrees C, a temperature limit which if exceeded may cause rapid, non-linear climate change.

This question, following up on question one is designed to expose the ethical duty of high-emitting developed countries like the United States to refrain from further delay on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty given that the nation’s non-action on climate change is already responsible for putting the international community in great danger from climate change. 

5. If you claim that there is no evidence of human causation of climate change are you aware that there are multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies which point to human causation of observed warming?

This question, following up on question one, is designed to expose the fact that there is a strong ethical duty to assume human causation of climate change if there is reliable evidence of human causation and that those who seek to justify non-action on climate change because they claim that human causation has not been proven have a very strong ethical duty to demonstrate that humans are not causing climate change with high levels of proof. More specifically in regard to the question of human causation, opponents of climate change policies that deny human causation should be expected to specifically respond to the numerous “foot-print” and “attribution” studies that the international community has relied on to make conclusions about human causation.

6. When you claim that the United States or other nations emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven in peer reviewed scientific literature that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?

This question is designed to expose that those who seek to rely on scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change have a strong ethical duty to produce very credible scientific evidence that supports the conclusion that human activities releasing ghgs are not causing climate change and its impacts. 

7. If you concede that climate skeptics have not proven in peer-reviewed journals that human-induced warming is not a very serious threat to human health and ecological systems, given that human-induced warming could create catastrophic warming the longer the human community waits to respond to reduce the threat of climate change and the more difficult it will be to prevent dangerous warming, do you agree that those nations most responsible for rising atmospheric ghg concentrations have a duty to demonstrate that their ghg emissions are safe?

This question is designed to provoke express ethical reflection on the fact that those most responsible for dangerous atmospheric concentrations of ghg have a strong ethical duty to demonstrate that additional levels of ghg in the atmosphere are safe. 

8. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty? Article 3 states:

The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. (UNFCCC, Art 3)

This question is designed to bring attention to the fact that because all nations that ratified the UNFCCC agreed to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not reducing their ghg emissions, they have an ethical duty to keep their promises.

9. If a nation such as the United States which emits high-levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually seriously harms the health of tens of millions of vulnerable people around the world and ecological systems on which their life depends, should the nation be financially responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?

This question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty of nations to pay for damages that result from their delays in taking action on the basis of scientific uncertainty. 

10. Do you agree that if a government is warned by some of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world that activities within its jurisdiction are causing great harm to and gravely threatening hundreds of millions of people outside their government’s jurisdiction, government officials who could take steps to assure that activities of their citizens do not harm or threaten others should not be able escape responsibility for preventing harm caused by simply declaring that they are not scientists?

This question is designed to expose that those politicians who refuse to reduce their government’s ghg on the basis that they are not scientists cannot ethically justify non-action on climate change on this basis because once they are put on notice by respected scientific organizations that ghg from their government jurisdiction are harming others, they have a duty to prevent dangerous behavior or establish credible scientific evidence that the alleged dangerous behavior is safe. 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener Commonwealth University Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on Unacceptable National Costs?

pope's encyclical

I. Introduction 

Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Future, is attracting high-level attention around the world for its claim that climate change is a moral problem which all people have a duty to prevent. If his claim that climate change is essentially and  fundamentally a moral problem is widely accepted, a conclusion that is strongly supported by basic ethical theory as explained on this website many times,  it has the potential to radically transform how climate change has been debated in many nations around the world for the last twenty-five years because opponents of climate change policies have been very successful in framing the public debate so that it has focused on several issues almost exclusively. This framing has enabled the climate change debate to ignore ethical and moral issues that should have been part of the debate.

The opponents of climate change policies have succeeded in opposing proposed climate change law and policy by claiming that government action on climate change should be opposed because: (1) it will impose unacceptable costs on national economics or specific industries and destroy jobs, (2) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant government action, or (3) it would be unfair and ineffective for nations like the United States to adopt expensive climate policies as long as China or India fail to adopt serious greenhouse gas emissions reductions policies. Common to these arguments is that they have successfully framed the climate change debate so that opponents and proponents of climate policies debate facts about costs, scientific uncertainty, or economic benefits of climate change policies, rather the moral problems with these arguments.

However, if climate change is understood as essentially a moral and ethical problem it will eventually transform how climate change is debated because the successful framing by the opponents of climate change policies that have limited recent debate to these three arguments, namely cost, scientific uncertainty, and unfairness of reducing ghg emissions until another nation does so can be shown to be deeply ethically and morally flawed.

This article, the first of three in a series, proposes what NGOs, governments interested in stronger action on climate change, and citizens should do to expose the obvious and deep moral problems with the most common arguments made by opponents of climate change policies. This entry describes questions that should be asked of opponents of national action on climate change who make arguments against climate policies on the basis of unacceptable costs, economic impacts, or job loses. Although policy-makers need to consider some cost issues to make sure that ghg emissions reduction goals are achieved at minimum cost, cost arguments made in opposition to climate policies are often ethically unacceptable. Later entries in this series will identify questions that should be asked to counter arguments made against national climate change policies on the basis of scientific uncertainty and unfairness or ineffectiveness if China or another large ghg emitter nation do not act.

This series argues that NGOs, governments, and citizens should ask opponents of climate change policies questions designed to bring attention to the obvious ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies based on cost. Each question is followed by a brief description of the moral problem that the question is designed to bring to light.

II. Questions to be asked of those opposing government action on climate change on the basis of cost to the economy, cost to specific industries, job destruction, or other economic arguments that oppose adoption of climate change policies.

When you argue that governments should not adopt policies to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that climate policies will impose unacceptable costs on national economies, destroy specific industries, kill jobs, or prevent the nation from investing in other national priorities:

1. Do you deny high-emitting nations not only have economic interests but also duties and obligations to nations and people most vulnerable to climate impacts to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions?

This question is designed to expose a strong ethical and moral problem with those who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions on the basis of costs to them, a position that ignores that those harming others have strong ethical, moral, and legal responsibilities to not harm others. This strong ethical and moral responsibility is derivable both from the universally accepted moral principles including the widely accepted golden rule which requires people to treat others as they wish to be treated, and international law including, but not limited to: (a) the “no harm” rule which is a widely recognized principle of customary international law whereby a State is duty-bound to prevent, reduce and control the risk of environmental harm to other states, and a rule agreed to by all nations in the preamble to the UNFCCC, (b) the “polluter-pays principle” agreed to by almost all nations in the 1992 Rio Declaration, (c) human rights law which requires nations to assure that their citizens enjoy human rights, and (d) many other legal theories including tort law.  

2.  Do you agree that no nation has a right to kill other people or destroy the ecological systems on which life depends simply because reducing ghg emissions will impose costs on the high-emitting nation?

Like question one, this question is designed to expose more explicitly  that those nations who refuse to limit ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them alone are implicitly ignoring their very strong ethical duty to not kill or greatly harm others.

3. Do you deny that all high ghg emitting developed nations under the UNFCCC has a duty to adopt policies that prevent harms from climate change to human health and ecological systems on which life depends in other nations?

In addition to the ethical problems with cost arguments identified above in response to questions one and two, this question is also designed to expose the fact that a nation that refuses to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions is violating promises it made under the UNFCCC to adopt ” policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system.” 

4. Do you deny the applicability of the well-established international norm that polluters should pay for the harms caused by their pollution and that if a nation or entity refuses to reduce its ghg emissions it is responsible for any damages or harms caused by their ghg emissions?

This question is designed to more expressly expose the ethical issue identified in response to question one, namely that high-emitting nations are responsible for the harms they are causing to others under the “polluter pays” principle of international law. This rule is also a basis for concluding that high-emitting nations have a duty to pay for the damages caused by ghg emissions from their country that exceed their fair share of global emissions.

5. Do you agree that a nation that refuses to reduce its ghg emission to its fair share of safe global ghg emissions on the basis of cost to it is implicitly taking  a position on how high atmospheric concentrations of ghgs should be allowed to rise and that the higher atmosphere ghg concentrations rise the more people and the ecological systems will be harmed?.

This question is designed to expose that refusals of nations to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions is implicitly a position on acceptable levels of atmospheric ghg concentrations which is essentially a moral issue because a position on acceptable atmospheric ghg concentrations is a position on who shall be greatly harmed by human-induced climate change. 

6. Do you agree that a national ghg emissions target that is based on cost to it must be understood as implicitly a position on a global emissions reduction pathway necessary to stabilize atmospheric ghg concentrations at safe levels and that the longer a nation waits to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions the smaller is  the remaining carbon budget for the entire world that may not be exceeded to prevent dangerous climate change?

This question is designed to expose the fact that because delays in ghg emissions based on costs to the polluter makes the enormous threat of climate change much more difficult to solve and more likely that serious harms and damages will be experienced, therefore arguments for delays in reducing ghg emissions based upon cost raise moral and ethical issues because the delays are making the problem much worse, more difficult to solve, and great harms inevitable. 

7. Do you agree that nations which emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting vulnerable countries and individuals who have done little to cause climate change?

This question is designed to expose the fact that a nation’s refusal to lower its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of costs to it creates financial obligations to pay for resulting harms and damages.

8. Do you agree that all the costs of inaction on climate change must be considered by nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them?

This question is designed to expose that fact that a nation which refuses to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of costs to it have a strong duty to expressly consider the costs of damages created by inaction.  

9. Given that the United States and most other developed nations have  for over twenty-five years failed to adequately respond to climate change because of alleged unacceptable costs to each nation and that due to the delay ghg emissions reductions now needed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change are much steeper and costly than what would be required if these nations acted twenty five years ago, is it just for the United States or other developed nations  to now defend further inaction on climate change on the basis of cost to the narration?

This question is designed to expose the fact that previous unwillingness of a nations to reduce their ghg emissions has caused dangerous delays which should be understood to create moral obligations to delay no longer to reduce the nation’s ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions. 

10. Do you believe that a nation who desires to delay to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of costs to it, should have a responsibility to consult with those who will be harmed by the delay before the delay is initiated?

This question is designed to expose the fact that procedural justice requires that that those nations who seek to put others at greater risk on the basis of cost to themselves has a duty as a matter of procedural justice to seek consensus from those who will likely be most harmed by non-action. 

By: 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener Commonwealth University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com