For over 35 years, opponents of climate change policies most frequently have made two kinds of arguments in opposition to proposed climate policies. First proposed climate policies should be opposed because there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action. Second climate policies should be opposed because of the adverse economic harms that the policies will cause. This kind of argument has taken several different forms such as, climate policies simply cost too much, will destroy jobs, harm the economy, or are not justified by cost-benefit analyses just to name a few cost-based arguments made frequently in opposition to climate change policies. .
For most of the 35 years, proponents of climate change policies have usually responded to these arguments by making counter “factual” claims such as climate policies will increase jobs or trigger economic growth. Although the claims made by opponents of climate change policies about excessive costs are often undoubtedly false and therefore counter factual arguments are important responses to these arguments of climate change opponents, noticeably missing from the climate change debate for most of the 35 years are explanations and arguments about why the cost-based arguments fail to pass minimum ethical and moral scrutiny. This absence is lamentable because the moral and ethical arguments about the arguments of those opposing climate policy are often very strong.
This video identifies questions that should be asked of those who oppose climate change policies on the basis of cost or adverse economic impacts to expose the ethical and moral problems with these arguments. The video not only identifies the questions, it give advice on how the questions should be asked. The questions in the video also can be found below.
We are interested in hearing from those who use these questions to expose the ethical problems with cost arguments made against climate change policies. Those who wish to share their experiences with these questions, please reply to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the first in a series of three posts that will identify important insights about the social causes of climate change in a new book that examines climate change through the lens of sociology. This new book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Bruelle, Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.
This book explains, among other things: (1) why sociological analyses of the causes of climate change as well as the identification of the serious ethical and moral problems with arguments of opponents of climate change policies have largely been missing from most climate change literature, (2) how certain corporations, industry organizations and free-market fundamentalist foundations have successfully prevented governments from adequately responding to climate change, and (3) how the failure to look at the causes of climate change through a sociological lens has partially blinded climate change policy advocates from a deeper understanding of the social causes of climate change and thereby prevented the development of potentially effective strategies to increase government responses to climate change
Before discussing the insights of this new important book, we note that many entries on this blog site have explained that for over 30 years opponents of climate change policies have mostly made two kinds of arguments in opposition to climate change policies. First, they have argued that proposed policies designed to lessen the threat of human-induced climate change should be opposed because there has been inadequate scientific support for the conclusion that human activities are causing climate change harms which are threatening humans and ecological systems on which life depends. Second, opponents of climate change policies have made a variety of economic arguments that proposed climate change policies were too expensive, would destroy jobs, decrease national GDP, or otherwise would impose unacceptable costs on the nation’s economy.
In the United States and in a growing number of countries around the world these scientific uncertainty and unacceptable economic impact arguments have dominated disputes about proposed climate change policies since the mid-1980s. Proponents of climate change policies have almost always responded to these claims by disputing the factual claims about scientific uncertainty or unacceptable cost made by climate change policy opponents. And so, proponents of climate change policies have inadvertently allowed opponents of climate change policies to frame the public policy debate so as to limit the public controversy about climate change to disputes about scientific and economic “facts.” Largely missing from this three decade debate have been analyses of why the arguments of climate change policy opponents are not only factually flawed but ethically and morally bankrupt. Although a climate change ethics and justice literature has been growing for over a decade, the public debate about climate change has largely ignored strong ethical and moral problems with the scientific and economic arguments that have been the consistent focus of the opponents of climate change policies.
Until the last few years, also largely missing from the public debate about climate change has been serious analyses of which organizations and interests have been most responsible for the arguments made by the opponents of climate change, who funded these organizations, what tactics have they used, and how can we understand that success of the climate change policy opposition in undermining serious responses to the growing threat of climate change. In other words, missing from the public discussion about climate change has been serious analyses of how the opponents of climate change policies have successfully blocked government responses to climate change despite increasingly louder and more intense calls from the mainstream scientific community that government urgently must act to prevent catastrophic harms from climate change. That is, largely missing from the climate change debate has been any sophisticated analyses of how self-interested corporations. organizations, and ideological foundations have been able to manipulate a democracy to prevent the government from responding to a huge potential threat, matters which are the domain of the discipline of sociology.
Sociologists often seek to understand how self-interested minority groups within society can frequently hide the ethical and moral problems with their arguments by framing important public controversies in such a way that the ethical and moral problems raised by their arguments are hidden from public scrutiny. This framing works to hide the ethical and moral problems with arguments made by the opponents of government action to solve social and environmental problems by tricking the public to debate “factual” claims, such as those made by scientists or economists, as if there were no moral or ethical problems with these claims. As a result, in the case of climate change, rather than debating whether it is morally acceptable for some people to put large numbers of other people at great risk from catastrophic harm on the basis that there’s some scientific uncertainty that the catastrophe will happen, the public is tricked into narrowly debating whether the catastrophe will happen with high levels of scientific certainty even in cases where waiting until all the uncertainties are resolved with high levels of confidence will likely make it too late to prevent the catastrophic harm. Rather than examining wether it is morally acceptable to delay action on climate change when delay will make the problem worse and the people most at risk have no say on whether to delay response action until scientific uncertainties are resolved, the public is tricked into debating the uncertainty. Rather than debating whether it is morally acceptable for one government to impose catastrophic harm on hundreds of millions of other people, citizens are tricked into arguing about the magnitude of the economic costs that will be experienced by the country causing the harm if response action is taken.
As a result, in the United States, ethical and moral problems with the scientific uncertainty and unacceptable cost arguments made for over three decades by opponents of climate change policies have very rarely appeared in the US public debate about climate change that has been followed by the media. Although there has been a growing literature on the ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies and agreement among most ethicists that the arguments of most opponents of climate change are morally bankrupt, the mainstream climate change literature has rarely looked at the arguments of opponents of climate change policies through a moral lens.
And so, one of the reasons why ethical problems with the arguments most frequently made by opponents of climate change policies have neither rarely appeared in the dominant climate change literature nor become part of the public debate about what a country like United States should do in response to the threat of climate change is because economically powerful opponents of climate change policies have successfully narrowly framed the issues that have been discussed in the public debate, a common problem in democracies recognized by sociologists.
Also, largely missing in the public debate about climate change until very recently, has been sociological analyses of how those opposed to climate change have successfully created a social context about climate change, that is a cultural understanding of the problem in which individuals form opinions, Sociologists understand that culture is not fixed and and can change over time often in response to powerful forces that seek to affect widespread cultural understanding of a problem. Because individuals make decisions in light of the information about the problem provided by their culture, individual decisions about problems are often influenced by those who have sought to change the cultural understanding of the problem.
Although sociologists have begun in the last decade to explain how a climate change countermovement, a sociological term which will be discussed in the next entry in this series, has successfully influenced the cultural understanding of climate change in the United States, very little of the sociological explanation of how this countermovement has succeeded in influencing the public’s understanding of climate change has appeared in the mainstream literature about climate change nor in media coverage of human-induced warming because the media also has largely reported on issues raised by opponents of climate change, namely, claims about scientific uncertainty and unacceptable costs of taking action.
The absence of sociological insights on how economic power has distorted the public’s understanding of climate change is most striking in the work of organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that study climate change primarily through a scientific lens although they also have responsibility for making policy recommendations to decision-makers and in so doing have obligations to synthesize the relevant socioeconomic literature that should be considered by decision-makers.
In its first four assessments in 1990 (IPCC, AR1), 1995 (IPCC, AR2) , 2001(IPCC, AR4), and 2007 (IPCC, AR4), IPCC in its summary of relevant socioeconomic literature relevant to climate change relied almost exclusively on economic analyses of policy issues, rather than on the ethics and justice and justice literature. In fact, in this regard, in the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report in 2014 (IPCC, AR5), in a new chapter on the Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts, IPCC admitted expressly that in prior IPCC Reports “ethics has received less attention than economics, although aspects of both are covered in AR2.” (IPCC, AR5, Working Group III, Chapter 3, pg. 10) Yet the treatment of ethics in IPCC Working Group III in AR2, was hardly a serious consideration of the implications of ethical and justice principles that should guide climate change policy given that the vast majority of text in this report was focused on traditional economic analyses which assumed that climate policy should maximize efficiency rather than assign responsibility for reducing the threat of climate change or pay for harm to those poor most vulnerable countries that have done little to cause climate change on the basis of justice. In fact, the AR2 report includes many statements that would lead policy-makers to conclude that it is perfectly permissible to determine the amount of ghg emissions reductions any nation should be required to achieve solely on economic considerations. For instance, AR 2 says expressly that: “there is no inherent conflict between economics and most conceptions of equity.” (IPCC, 1995, AR2, Working Goup III, pg. 87) Moreover. any fair reading of prior IPCC reports would conclude that policymakers were encouraged by IPCC to base policy on economic considerations such as those determined in cost-benefit analyses. Yet, as we have explained many times on this website. cost-benefit analysis used as a prescriptive tool for policy-making on climate change raise many serious ethical problems. (See, for example, Brown, 2008, Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs )
Why has economics and psychological literature dominated the work of IPCC whose mission includes synthesizing the relevant socioeconomic literature for policy-makers? The new Dunlap/Brulle book attributes the dominance of economics and psychology literature in the work of IPCC to the fact that the major focus of IPCC is science. Organizations like IPCC which are dominated by scientists after determining what needs to be done scientifically to reduce the environmental harm look to disciplines that offer advice on how to motivate individuals including economics and psychology to enact the responses to the problems that scientists have described need to be implemented (Brulle, R., & Dunlap, R., 2015, p. 8-9). And so the discipline of economics, which often assumes that individuals can be motivated to act by appealing to their economic self-interest, and psychology, which also focuses on how individuals can be motivated to change their individual behavior by appropriate messaging, have dominated the social science literature on climate change because scientific organizations like IPCC have turned to disciplines that offer potential strategies for motivating individual behavioral change after the scientific organizations explore precisely what needs to be done. These disciplines do not examine how powerful groups in society frame public policy issues in a way that hides ethical problems with status quo approaches to societal problems nor how economically dominant groups shape government’s and civil society’s potential responses to societal problems by changing the cultural understanding of the problem, concerns which in the social sciences are the domain of sociology. Because the vast majority of climate change social science literature is focused on motivating individual behavioral change, ethical criticisms of economic rationality and analyses of how “value-neutral” discourses including economics have come to dominate approaches to solving climate change have played a very small role in the social science literature that IPCC has attempted to synthesize.. Explaining this phenomenon Brulle, R. & Dunlap, R. (2015), p. 8 conclude that:
An analysis of the social science literature finds that economics is the most widely represented social science discipline in climate research. Fundamental to economic analysis of climate change is the “rational actor” model embedded in the discipline. The object of the analysis is the individual and the decisions and principles that each individual brings to the marketplace. Given the widespread societal influence of economics, it comes as no surprise that it has been highly influential in climate change research.
For these reasons it is not surprising why IPCC has allowed economic considerations to dominate much of its analyses of to reduce climate change’s great threat in its first four assessments.
IPCC’s work initially defines what needs to be done scientifically to prevent climate change’s jharm and it should be expected that it would turn to the two disciplines that claim they understand how to motivate individuals to do what needs to be done, namely economics and psychology. Yet these disciplines have little to offer about how the cultural understanding of climate change has been deeply influenced by those with strong economic interests in maintaining the status quo nor invite citizens around the world to examine responses to climate change from the lens of ethics and morality.
Although, IPCC has made some improvement in covering ethics and justice in its 5th Assessment, much improvement is still needed (Brown, 2014).
The next entry in this series will examine the insights from the Dunlap/ Brulle book about how the climate change denial countermovement influenced the cultural understanding of climate change initially in the United States and later in other parts of the world.
Brulle, R., & Dunlap, R., (2015) Sociology and Climate Change, Introduction, in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR5) (2014), 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/
This article explains the first two of several issues that citizens need to understand to evaluate appropriate national responses to climate change after the Paris Agreement. Although the mainstream media in the United States and other developed countries has widely reported on some aspects of the Paris Agreement, this series will describe important issues that are largely being ignored by press coverage of the Paris deal.
The first issue is why a 25-year delay in responding to increasingly stronger scientific warnings of the danger of human-induced climate change has made the problem much more threatening. The second is the urgency of the need for hard-to-imagine action to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions at all scales, that is globally, nationally, and locally, but particularly in high-emitting nations such as the United States in light of the limited amount of ghgs that can be emitted by the entire world before raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to very dangerous levels and in light of the need to fairly allocate ghg emissions reductions obligations around the world.
Media in the US has accurately reported on some positive aspects of the Paris deal including:
a. 186 nations have made commitments to reduce the threat of climate change although nations conceded in Paris that current commitments need to be upgraded to prevent dangerous climate change.
b. All nations agreed to limit the increase in global average temperatures to “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” – the level beyond which scientists believe the Earth will likely begin to experience rapid global warming and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”, a warming amount which may also cause serious global harms particularly to many poor, vulnerable nations. Also the Paris Agreement says by the second half of this century, there must be a balance between the emissions from human activity such as energy production and farming, and the amount that can be captured by carbon-absorbing “sinks” such as forests or carbon storage technology.
c. All countries agreed to submit updated plans that would ratchet up the stringency of emissions by 2020 and every five years thereafter.
d. Nations agreed to report to each other and the public on how well they are doing to implement their targets and to track progress towards the long-term goal through a robust transparency and accountability system.
e. Developed countries agreed to provide funding to help developing countries make the costly shift to green energy and shore up their defenses against climate change impacts like drought and storms and rich nations must report every two years on their finance levels — current and intended. The document refers $100 billion a year that rich countries had previously pledged to muster by 2020 as a “floor”. Under the new agreement the amount must be updated by 2025.
The Paris Agreement has been widely and accurately portrayed in the mainstream media as creating a policy framework that has the potential to reduce the threat of climate change if nations greatly step up to what they have committed to do. (This framework could have been tightened by including more specific language on several issues proposed by some countries but rejected by others on such matters as human rights, losses and damages, legal effect of the agreement, and financing of adaptation among others, yet the framework includes provisions that these issues can be considered in the years ahead.) However, the enormity of the challenge facing humanity from climate change and the special responsibilities of high-emitting developed nations in particular has not been covered in the mainstream press at least in the United States.
II. The Urgency and Enormity of the Need to Reduce GHG Emissions
Although the mainstream media has widely reported on the fact that the national ghg emissions reductions that were made before the Paris COP are not sufficient to limit warming to 2 degrees C, the media, at least in the United States, has been largely failing to report on the urgency and enormity of the need to rapidly reduce ghg emission globally and how further delays in taking action will dramatically make the problem much more threatening.
Looking at the delay caused by the climate change policy opposition in the United States is illustrative of the harm caused by political opposition to climate change policies worldwide.
The above illustration depicts, in a very abbreviated and sketchy form, that as the scientific evidence of the threat from human-induced climate change became stronger over a 40-year period and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 400 ppm. (For a much more rigorous analysis of the role of the climate change policy opposition in US climate policy formation see Brown 2002, chap 2 and Brown 2012, chap 2 and numerous articles on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign.”)
The rise in atmospheric CO2 levels is, of course, not only attributable to the US ghg emissions, yet the United States has played a major blocking role in preventing international action on climate change up until the recent more constructive role of the Obama administration which recently made commitments before the December Paris meeting to reduce US CO2 emissions by 26% to 28 % by 2025 below 2005 levels. However these new US commitments have not yet been implemented in the United States, and even if fully implemented still don’t represent the US fair share of safe global emissions (see report on US INDC. The US commitment, because it is based on a 2005 baseline, masks the fact that is only a mere 13-15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025, the baseline used by most of the world. For a discussion of the problems with the Obama administration commitment see report Captain America)
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s commitments still face strong opposition from the US climate change political opposition and are very likely to be rejected if a Republican becomes the next US President in 2016. Furthermore as long as US ghg emissions are exceeding the US fair share of safe global emissions, US ghg emissions are making the already very perilous climate change threat worse.
A detailed description of the climate change disinformation campaign that is responsible for much of the political opposition that has been largely responsible for the over 25-year US delay in responding to the scientific warnings about the threat of climate change is beyond the scope of this article but has been extensively discussed on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign.”
To fully understand the nature of the harm caused by this delay it is necessary to understand the policy implications of a “carbon budget” that must limit global emissions to avoid dangerous warming levels. .
To understand the policy implications of a carbon budget it is helpful to see the atmosphere as like a bathtub to the extent that it has limited volume and has been filling up with ghg so that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have been rising in proportion to human activities which release ghgs.
CO2 levels remained relatively stable for 10,000 years before the beginning of the industrial revolution at approximately 280 ppm (the lower line in the bathtub). Human activities have been responsible from elevating CO2 atmospheric concentration levels to the current concentration of approximately 400 ppm (the second line from the bottom of the tub). Although there is considerable scientific evidence that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is necessary to prevent very dangerous warming, a fact implicit in the recent Paris Agreement in which nations agreed to work to keep warming as close as possible from exceeding 1.5 degrees C additional warming, if the international community seeks to limit warming to 2 degrees C it must assure that global emissions do not exceed the number of tons of CO2 emissions that will raise atmospheric concentrations to levels that will cause warming of 2 degrees C. This number, that is the number of tons of CO2 emissions that can be emitted before atmospheric concentrations exceed levels that will cause dangerous climate change, is what is meant by a carbon budget.
This illustration, using figures from the most recent 2014 IPCC report, depicts that because only 800 gigatons of CO2 can be emitted by humanity before creating a 66% probability that a 2 degree C warming limit will be exceeded and humans have by 2011 already emitted 530 gigatons of CO2, there are only 270 gigatons of CO2 that may be emitted after 2011 to limit warming to 2 degrees C. (For a more detailed explanation of these figures see, Pidcock 2013)
The enormity of the challenge for the international community to keep warming from exceeding dangerous level can be understood by the fact that the remaining carbon budget is so small, that is approximately 270 gigatons of CO2, and current global ghg emissions are in excess of 10 gigatons per year and still rising, which means that even if the international community could stabilize global CO2 emissions levels there would be nothing left to allocate among all nations in 23 years. This grim fact is even bleaker if the international community concludes that it should limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, a conclusion that might become more obvious if current levels of warming start to make positive feedbacks visible in the next few years such as methane leakage from frozen tundra or more rapid loss of arctic ice.
The concept of the carbon budget explains why waiting to reduce ghg emissions levels to a certain percentage in the future is more harmful than rapid reductions earlier because the longer it takes to reduce emissions the more the remaining budget is consumed. For this reason, a joint research project between Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland recommended in Paris that national climate commitments be stated in tons of emissions over a specific period rather than percent reductions by a given date because waiting to the end of specific period to achieve percent reductions will cause the total tons of ghg emitted to be higher than if reductions are made earlier.
The enormous significance of the carbon budget can be seen from the following chart prepared by the Global Commons Institute.
The illustration depicts the enormity and urgency of global emissions reductions that would be necessary to limit warming to 1.5 or 2.0 degrees C given the steepness of the reductions curves necessary to limit warming to 2.0 degrees C with a 50% probability (the red dotted line), 2.0 degrees C with a 66% probability (the blue dotted line), and 1.5 degrees C (the green dotted line). The steepness of these curves superimposed on actual national ghg emissions levels is an indication of the enormity of the challenge for the international community because the emissions reduction curves are much steeper than reductions that can be expected under projections of what current national commitments are likely to achieve if fully implemented. The steepness of these reductions curves is somewhat controversial because any calculation of a carbon budget which determines the steepness of the the needed reduction curve must make assumptions about when positive feedbacks in the climate system will be triggered by rising temperatures, yet these controversies are reflected in giving different probabilities about the likelihood of achieving a specific warming limit. Yet even carbon budgets which have been discussed in the carbon budget literature which have assumed lower amounts of positive feedback yield very. very steep reduction curves.
The enormous increase in the magnitude of the challenge that has been caused by delay given the limited carbon budget can be seen from a recent statement of Jim Hansen who said that “the required rate of emissions reduction would have been about 3.5% per year if reductions had started in 2005 and continued annually thereafter, while the required rate of reduction, if commenced in 2020, will be approximately 15% per year. Without doubt every delay in reducing ghg emissions makes the problem more difficult and more expensive to solve. For this reason, all nations should aim to reduce ghg emissions as quickly as possible and any nation which opposes doing so on the basis of scientific uncertainty should be asked if the nation is willing to take full legal and financial responsibility for harms caused by any delay.
III. On the Additional Need to Make National GHG Emissions Allocations on the Basis of Equity
The above chart also helps explain the gross unfairness of requiring all nations to reduce by the same percentage reduction rates to achieve the globally needed emissions reductions because some nations are emitting at vastly higher per capita rates and some nations are responsible much more than others for raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to current dangerous elevated levels which are now in excess of 400 ppm CO2. .If each nation had to reduce their ghg emissions only to conform to the rates described in the reduction curves in the above chart despite their steepness, it would lead to grossly unfair results because of great differences among countries in per capita and historical emissions levels and urgent needs to increase energy consumption to escape grinding poverty in poor developing countries.
Per capita carbon levels by nations
The above chart gives some indication of huge differences in nations in per capita ghg emissions. If nations must reduce their ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, then such an allocation will freeze into place huge differences in per capita rights to emit ghg emissions into the atmosphere. If, for instance, the United States and India are required to reduce ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, for instance 90%, then the US per capita emissions of approximately 20 tons CO2 per capita would allow US citizens to emit CO2 at the rate of 2 tons per capita while the current India per capita emissions of approximately 1.8 tons per capita would mean that the Indian citizens could emit only at the rate 0.18 tons per capita even though India needs to dramatically increase its energy use to assure that hundreds of millions of people economically rise out of grinding poverty and India has comparatively done little to cause the existing problem. This result is clearly grossly unfair particularly in light of the fact that India has emitted far less tons of CO2 than most developed countries and therefore is less responsible for causing the existing problem than many developed nations. If some consideration for historical responsibility is not taken into account in allocating national responsibility for ghg emissions reductions, then those poor nations which have done very little to create the current threat of climate change will be required to shoulder a greater burden of needed global ghg emissions obligations than would be required of them if responsibility for the existing problem is not taken into account. As a result, although there are reasonable differences of opinion among nations about how to consider historical national ghg emission in determining national ghg emissions reductions allocations, including when, for instance, historical responsibility should be measured, almost all equity frameworks agree that prior levels of ghg emissions must have some consideration in national ghg allocations.There is also reasonable disagreement in the equity literature about what weight should be given to other matters that are widely considered to be valid considerations in determining fairness including the economic capability of rich countries to pay for ghg emissions reductions technologies and per capita considerations.
Yet unless fairness is taken into account in allocating national ghg targets necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, those nations who are mostly responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations will not be held responsible for their past ghg emissions while nations who have done almost nothing to cause the rise of atmospheric concentrations will be held equally responsible for lowering emissions.
From the above illustration it can be seen that the United States and the EU are more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations to current dangerous levels than than the rest of the world combined.
Many opponents of climate change policies argue that countries like the United States should not have to reduce their ghg emissions until China reduces its emissions by comparable amounts because China is now the largest emitter of all nations in terms of total tons, yet such an argument usually ignores the historical responsibility of countries like the United States which the following illustration reveals is more than twice as responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations than China is. (For a discussion of the fact that there are both a strong ethical and legal arguments that explain why no nation may use the claim that it need not reduce its ghg emissions until other nations do so, see, Brown 2012 p 214 )
Although there is a difference of opinion in the “equity” literature about how to consider valid equity considerations including per capita, historical emissions levels, and the economic capabilities of nations to fiance non-fossil energies, all nations agree that national commitments about ghg emissions reductions must consider fairness.
For this reason the Paris Agreement calls for nations to reduce their ghg emissions “to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” (Paris Agreement, Article 2)
In other words, the international community has agreed that national ghg emissions reductions commitments must be based on “equity” or “fairness.”
And so as a matter of international law under the Paris Agreement, national commitments to reduce ghg emissions must be based on achieving a warming limit as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2 degrees C, a requirement often referred to as the level of “ambition” but national commitments also must be based on “equity” or “fairness.” Although there are some reasonable disagreements among many engaged in climate policy debates about what “equity” or “fairness” requires, all nations have agreed that their obligations to reduce ghg emissions must consider equity or fairness principles.
However, if high-emitting nations take the “equity” and “fairness” requirement seriously, they will need to not only reduce ghg emissions at very, very rapid rates, a conclusion that follows from the steepness of the remaining budget curves alone, but also they will have to reduce their ghg emissions much faster than poor developing nations and faster than the global reductions curves entailed only by the need to stay within a carbon budget.
Source, Global Commons Institute
The above illustration prepared by the Global Commons Institute shows that even if only one equity consideration is taken into account, in this case per capita fairness, the USA ghg emissions reductions must be much faster than the rest of the world. Other organizations who have made calculations of the US fair share of the remaining carbon budget using different equity factors have concluded that the US fair share of safe global emissions is even smaller than that depicted in the above chart. For instance the following illustration prepared by EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that the US fair share of global emissions, making what the authors of the report claim are moderate assumptions of what equity requires, demonstrates that equity not only requires the US to reduce its emissions to zero quickly almost immediately but that US obligations to prevent a 2 degree C rise requires the US to substantially fund ghg emissions reductions in other countries by 2025 despite achieving zero emissions by 2020.
The above illustration, following the assumptions about what equity requires made by the authors of the report about how to determine US emissions reductions obligations, leads to the conclusion not only does the United States need to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2020, the US must reduce its emissions by -141% from 1990 levels by 2025. National Fair Shares. p 18. This is to be achieved, according to the report, by US financial support for reductions in developing countries .
Although national ghg emissions reductions commitments that have been evaluated by different organizations which have made different assumptions about how to calculate what equity requires of nations have come to different conclusions, most evaluations of national commitments made through an equity prism done before Paris concluded that even if they high emitting nations achieve net zero emissions by 2050, they will need, as a matter of equity and justice, to help pay the costs of emissions reductions in poor developing countries or finance technologies that will remove carbon from the atmosphere. The reasons for this are that the remaining carbon budget is so small, the per capita and historical emissions of high-emitting developed nations are so large compared to poor developing countries, and the financial resources of developed countries are so large compared to poor developing countries that equity considerations demand that the high-emitting nations financially help developing nations achieve their targets.
Without doubt, if nations reduce their ghg emissions to levels required of them by ambition, that is levels required by conformance with a carbon budget necessary to assure that future warming is limited to 2 degrees C or 1.5 degrees C adjusted to also consider equity and fairness, the international community is faced with an extraordinarily daunting challenge. Moreover, any delay in meeting this challenge will make the problem worse.
The Paris Agreement created a framework for solving the climate problem, yet the post-Paris media has poorly covered the implications for nations of what sufficient ambition and fairness should be required of nations when they formulate national climate policies if very dangerous climate change is to be avoided. As a result, there appears to be little awareness of the huge damage that will likely be caused by further delay. The research report of Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland has revealed that there appears to be little awareness around the world about what ambition and equity requires of nations when they formulate national climate change policies. As a result the international community is not likely to respond with sufficient urgency and ambition unless greater awareness of the policy implications of the need to live within a carbon budget at levels required of nations because of equity and fairness considerations.
Because of this, perhaps the most important immediate goal of climate change policy proponents is to help educate civil society and governments about the need to move urgently to make extremely rapid decreases in ghg emissions whereever governments can and to the maximum extent possible in light of the policy implications of limiting national ghg emissions to levels constrained by a carbon budget and in response to what fairness requires of nations. .
Brown. D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems with the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman Littelfield, Lantham Maryland
Brown. D. (2012) Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Routledge/Earthscan, Oxon, England
A joint research project of the University of Auckland and Widener University Commonwealth Law School has concluded that when most nations have formulated national climate change policies not only the nations, but also the NGOs and media in these nations, have failed to seriously consider equity, ethical, and justice considerations that should guide national climate change policy.
The project enlisted the support of 23 researchers from around the world to examine how 23 nations actually considered or ignored equity, ethics, and justice in formulating national climate change commitments. Each researcher answered the same 10 questions which sought to determine how equity, ethics, and justice considerations affected national policy formation on greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets and commitments and on funding adaptation, l,osses and damages in vulnerable developing countries. The nations studied in this project are: Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, Fiji , India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mauritius, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, Samoa, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, Uganda, United States of America, and Zimbabwe.
The research project has been motivated by the fact that climate change is a threat that screams for attention to be understood essentially as a problem of ethics and justice, an understanding which has profound significance for national climate change policy development but a fact which our research has concluded is largely being ignored by most nations.
The research project seeks to help deepen reflection by nations and civil society on national responses to climate change by examining national climate change policies through an equity, ethical and justice lens.
If nations fail to base their climate change policies on what equity, ethics, and justice require of them on mitigation of their greenhouse gas emissions and funding for adaptation, losses, and damages, then the global response to climate change will not likely be ambitious enough to avoid catastrophic climate impacts while deepening existing injustices in the world.
Although several organizations have created metrics to evaluate the national voluntary climate commitments, known as Independent Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), on the basis of equity, ethics and justice, this research project, by examining what actually happened at the national level when nations formulated their INDCs has uniquely identified important lessons about how equity, ethics and justice were actually considered or ignored that are the basis of recommendation to improve national compliance with what equity, ethics, and justice require of them. For instance, by looking at what actually happened at the national level in formulating INDCs, the project concluded, among other things, that:
(a) Almost all nations have actually based their INDC at least in part on economic self-interest rather than global ethical responsibility.
(b) Not only have most nations ignored equity, ethics, and justice in domestic development of INDCs, national media and NGOs in most countries have not criticized inadequate INDCs on the basis of equity, ethics and justice.
(c) Even nations that have given lip service to the need to develop INDCs that represent the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, these nations have not explained how ethics and justice quantitatively influenced the formulation of the INDC and in most cases the INDC has actually been based on national economic self-interest.
(d) National explanations of their INDC often hide the actual basis for the weakness of the INDC and to determine the actual basis for the INDC one must understand the domestic forces which opposed more ambitious INDCs.
(e) In most countries there appears to be little understanding among civil society about what equity, ethics, and justice would require of the country in formulating its INDC particularly in regard to the practical implications of living within a carbon budget that would constrain global emissions so that atmospheric ghg concentrations remain below dangerous levels, and the need for the nation to limit its ghg emissions to its fair share of a carbon budget.
These are only a few of the lessons learned from the project. Following is a complete list of the 37 lessons learned and 21 recommendations that have been derived from the research project:
The following lessons have been learned by the project so far.
1. Some high-emitting nations have expressly stated that they will not adopt climate change policies that harm their economy – thus ignoring their obligations to others as a matter of ethics, justice, and international law. These nations include Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
2. Any national ghg emissions reduction commitment is implicitly a position on two ethical questions, namely, first, what safe atmospheric ghg concentration level the commitment aims to achieve and, second, what equity framework or principles of distributive justice the percent reduction is based on. Despite this, no nation has explained quantitatively how its commitment is related to an atmospheric carbon budget or an equity framework.
3. Although some nations acknowledge that their climate policies should be guided by ethical principles, for instance, South Africa and Japan, even these nations have not expressly explained quantitatively how their commitments were guided by ethical principles and appear to have based their commitments on economic self-interest at least in part.
4. A few nations have acknowledged that their ghg emissions commitments need to limit warming to 2°C and be derived from a fair and equitable framework, yet even these nations have not explained how their specific emissions reduction commitments can be understood to be consistent with an emissions reduction pathway that will limit warming to 2°C. In fact, despite the almost universal acceptance by nations of the 2°C warming limit, the actual ghg emission targets and timetables chosen by almost all nations do not meet the levels of emissions reductions specified by IPCC as necessary to keep atmospheric concentrations below 450 ppm and thereby achieve the 2°C warming limit. As a result the world is currently on target to hit warming of 3.7°C by 2100.
5. Those developed nations that have acknowledged that they should act to limit warming to 2°C have not adopted emissions reduction targets at levels the IPCC recently concluded would be necessary to limit warming to 2°C – namely, of 25% to 40% by 2020.
6. All nations, including those nations that acknowledge that their policies must be based upon a fair share of a safe global emissions, appear to have actually based their emissions reduction commitment at least in part on national economic self-interest rather than global responsibility.
7. In some nations it is not possible to determine the actual normative basis for the +government’s commitment simply by examining what the national government claims is its normative justification. Instead, one must understand the arguments made against stronger national climate change policies made by those who have successfully opposed stronger climate action. For instance, the United States commitment is based upon what is currently achievable under existing law. In Russia references to international obligations are mere lip service as the national INDC has been based almost exclusively on national economic interest. In the United States, because stronger laws have been successfully blocked by opponents of strong climate change policies on the basis that stronger laws will harm the US economy, destroy specific industries, and destroy jobs, the actual US climate change policies are based upon US economic interests, a fact not clear from examining the statements of the US federal government alone.
8. Some non-Annex 1 countries including China and Mauritius claim that their non-Annex 1 status is justification for making no binding commitments to reduce their ghg emissions even though a substantial percentage of their population has very high income and high per capita emissions. For instance, China per capita emissions are 7.1 tons while the US is 16.4 tons per capita. However, 10% of Chinese have ghg per capita are well above 10 % of US citizens ghg per capita. China has more than 1.1 million millionaires and more people with wealth over 50 million than any country except USA. By 2018 China is expected to have 2.1 million millionaires. There is a huge consuming class in China on which the government is creating no expectations. One of the ethical issues raised by these facts is whether nations which may have much smaller national emissions reductions commitment obligations for the nation derived from an acceptable equity framework should nevertheless be expected to limit activities of individuals causing high levels of ghg emissions.
9. Some nations, including Australia and New Zealand, have expressly made their commitments to reduce climate change policies contingent on the willingness of other nations to make commensurate commitments thus implicitly claiming they have no obligation to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions unless other nations do so. The justification for this approach is not stated in the national commitments and is ethically dubious.
10. NGOs who support stronger climate change policies in many nations, including those in Australia, Canada, and the United States, are failing to frame climate change issues on the basis of ethics, justice, and equity.
11. Several developing nations, including Bolivia, have asserted that they have no obligation to make commitments to reduce ghg emissions unless the costs of reductions are funded by developed nations without identifying an equity framework which justifies this conclusion. South Africa and other developing nations have made commitments while also claiming that some of their commitments are contingent on funding from developed nations without explaining why some of the commitments should be funded according to an equity framework to justify which part of their climate change policies must be funded by developed nations. For this reason developing nations need to take a position on an equity framework that would apply to all developing countries.
12. Bolivia claims that funding for mitigation and adaptation in developing nations should be understood as the climate “debt” of developed countries in response to their historical, high-level per capita, and failure to fund adaptation but has not offered an equity framework to operationalize this claim. Bolivia draws strongly and explicitly upon ethical justifications for requiring deep cuts in national ghg emissions by other nations, together with financial contributions and holistic mitigation and adaptation measures, capable of both reducing poverty and vulnerability to climate change – yet has not identified an equity framework that could be applied at the global scale.
13. Several countries, including Bolivia, Fiji, South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda, have asserted that domestic justice issues need to be considered to reduce domestic poverty in setting national climate policies although they have not offered an equity framework to operationalize this idea at the global scale. Their positions appear to argue that domestic justice obligations can trump global responsibilities.
14. Several developing countries have primarily considered ethics and justice issues in regard to how climate policies affect domestic justice considerations rather than global justice issues.
15. Bolivia has claimed that 6% of GDP of developed nations should be devoted to funding climate change needs in developing nations but has not explained the equity framework that supports this conclusion.
16. Most developing countries, including Bolivia, strongly support a “loss and damages” mechanism while some developed nations oppose this mechanism. The United States denies any responsibility for losses and damages in other countries.
17. Several countries, including Canada have made commitments to reduce ghg emissions but not adopted the regulatory programs needed to achieve their commitments.
18. Several governments including Canada, have domestic legal obligations to protect vulnerable minorities from climate change which they are not fulfilling.
19. Although meaningful local and regional climate change programs and strategies can be found in many nations, many national governments have done little or nothing to encourage local or regional governments to adopt policies that will limit ghg emissions even though for some
activities that cause ghg emissions in the nation only regional and local governments have legal authority to require lower emissions. For instance in the United States, local and state governments regulate aspects of transportation and land use not regulated by the federal government. Some national governments including Australia that have made weak INDCs for the nation, nevertheless contain local governments that have made aggressive ghg emissions reductions commitments.
20. Most nations have not created programs to encourage individuals to greatly reduce their carbon footprint.
21. Some developing countries have set meaningful ghg emissions targets including Mauritius and South Africa but depend on funding from developed nations to achieve some of the climate goals. South Africa, despite being a non-Annex 1 developing country, has acknowledged its status as the highest ghg emitter on the African continent and announced a voluntary emissions reduction target, the objective of which is to make a ‘fair contribution’ to keep global concentrations within the range required to keep within the 2°C warming limit. South Africa openly acknowledges the need to voluntarily respond to climate change despite being a poor developing country. Yet the actual emissions reduction target identified by South Africa does not explain how it is quantitatively linked to an atmospheric concentration goal that will achieve a warming limit or why its emissions reduction target represents South Africa’s fair share of safe global emissions. In fact, the South African target, because it is a commitment only to reduce emissions below business as usual expansion, allows for large increases in South African ghg emissions by 2020 and 2025 without explaining how these increases are consistent with a specific understanding of what equity requires.
22. No developed country has explained how their contributions to the major climate funds relate in any quantitative way to their obligations under the UNFCCC for adaptation, mitigation, or losses and damages.
23. Almost all nations need to increase awareness among citizens and the press of the policy significance of the ethical and justice dimensions of climate change.
24. In some high-emitting developed nations, including the United States, the media is utterly failing to cover the ethics and justice dimensions of national climate change commitments.
25. In the case of EU member states, the collective decision making process of the EU does not seem to have led to any greater ethical analysis at the national level for individual EU nations, including the Netherlands and Italy, when these nations set their emissions reduction targets.
26. A few developing nations , including South Africa and Uganda, recognize the need to take positive action on climate change because they recognize the need and the responsibility toward their own nationals.
27. Two national reports revealed some reference to the concept of contraction and convergence, but no nation is implementing this approach.
28. No developed nations deny responsibility for funding adaptation and loses and damages in poor vulnerable nations, but no nation has made an express link between their ethical responsibility for supporting adaption and compensation for losses and damages and what funds have been committed`. Adaptation contributions seem to be left to the largess or interests of individual nations, leaving them free to withdraw. Including Australia, or determine the scale and nature of contributions. Even when a nation is a major contributor to adaptation (e.g., Japan), its activity is not explicitly linked to its own emissions targets.
29. There was a noticeable absence of explicit use of the concept of climate justice by developed nations. In contrast, Bolivia is using the concept of climate debt to mean liability for historic and continuing emissions and failure to take mitigation and adaptation actions. As the Bolivian report details, Bolivia is the champion on climate justice with a highly developed and multi-faceted concept that includes demands for a compensation mechanism beyond provision for adaptation of developing states.
30. Some developing nations, for instance, Brazil have committed to increase resilience and adaptation responses.
31. Some developing nations including Brazil have encouraged local and regional climate change plans and strategies.
32. Some developing countries including Bolivia, for instance, have made significant commitments to increase non-fossil energy.
33. Bolivia has advocated the ‘Climate Justice Index’ which calculates each country’s ‘fair share’ of atmospheric space according to their; 1) historical responsibility since 1750; 2) ecological footprint; 3) development capacity; and 4) technological capacity. According to this methodology, Bolivia asserts that non-Annex I (developing) countries should have 89% of the remaining atmospheric budget, leaving Annex I (developed) countries with just 11%. However, Bolivia does not go into details about how the 89% of atmospheric space reserved for non-Annex I countries should be divided, nor what types of commitments each country would be responsible for given their positioning on the index.
34. Some national level NGOs (including several in India) have expressly examined national INDCs on the basis of ethics and justice but most have not.
35. In some countries (e.g., Australia), even when media coverage of INDCs considers justice, this coverage misleads citizens by comparing commitments to other nations without any analyses of how equity and justice considerations would allow differences between national commitments.
36. Some countries (including Australia) argue for the need to take economic considerations into account by arguing about the future demand for coal without fully explaining why larger investments in non-fossil fuel sources are impossible.
37. Some nations’, including Australia’s, commitments to the Green Fund have been taken from existing foreign aid budgets – thus providing no new funds that would represent the nation’s satisfaction of it is obligations to fund adaptation and resilience in vulnerable developing countries.
Recommendations on how to improve consideration of ethics and justice in policy formation in light of these lessons learned include:
1. All nations should be required to explain quantitatively how their emissions reductions commitments will achieve an acceptable warming limit and on what equity framework or principles of distributive justice their percent emissions reductions is based. For this reason, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) should identify: (1) tonnes of CO2eq emissions reduced rather than a percent reduction from a baseline year, (b) the temperature limit and associated carbon budget that the INDC is seeking to achieve, (c) the equity principles that the nation relied on to assure the justice of its INDC, and (d) For Annex 1 countries, ghg emissions in 1990, the common baseline year.
2. There is an urgent need in most nations to raise public awareness of the ethical and justice issues entailed by climate change policymaking in general and ghg emissions commitments in particular. Along this line there are several issues in particular about which greater awareness is needed including greater public understanding of the ethical implications of any nation’s ghg emissions reduction commitment in regard to an atmospheric stabilization goal the commitment is seeking to achieve and the coherence or lack there of the national commitment to an acceptable equity framework.
3. An international mechanism under the UNFCCC is urgently needed that helps other nations and civil society to understand the lack of conformity of national ghg emissions targets with principles of ethics and justice. This mechanism should provide that any government’s positions on their climate change commitments can be questioned by other governments and NGOs in regard to the adequacy of the commitment to achieve a warming limit and the fairness of the reductions. This mechanism must also require governments to respond to these questions.
4. The media, NGOs, education institutions, academia, businesses and other social actors must all become involved in lifting both public awareness of the ethical and justice implications of national climate policy. In this regard media coverage that compares national commitments with other nations’ commitments without acknowledging that equity and justice considerations could lead to morally different emissions reductions should be avoided because these comparisons are potentially misleading
5. NGOs should justify their policy analyses and action recommendations on ethical grounds.
6. Nations should be required to explain how their commitments to fund adaptation and losses and damages in poor vulnerable nations link to their ethical obligations to provide funding. A mechanism to fund losses and damages in vulnerable countries is necessary.
7. Training for policy-makers, national politicians, and NGOs on the ethical issues inherent in climate change policy is urgently needed. Training is particularly needed to help all engaged in climate change policy formation to understand the links between INDCs, a warming limit, and an equity framework
8. Developing nations should adopt programs that will create ghg emissions limitations for high-emitting individuals and organizations even if equity and justice considerations don’t require that nations significantly reduce national ghg emissions.
9. National media need to significantly increase their coverage of how ethics, justice, and equity considerations should affect national climate change policies.
10. Developing nations that make commitments based upon funding from developed nations should be required to explain the equity framework that led to the claim for the contribution.In this regard claims of ecological debt should include explanation of the equity framework on which the equitable debt claim is based.
11. Nations who claim that duties for domestic justice trump global responsibilities should explain quantitatively how they reached this conclusion.
12. Nations who make ghg emissions reduction commitments should identify (to the extent practical) the regulatory programs or policies that will achieve the reductions.
13. Nations should develop a program encouraging local and regional governments to adopt climate change emissions reductions programs.
14. All governments should adopt programs that encourage individuals to reduce their carbon footprints to fair levels.
15. Where national commitments have been deduced from collective decision making – such as the case in the EU – nations should be required to explain the equity and justice basis for its national commitment.
16. Nations should explain domestic programs they have adopted on adaptation and resilience.
17. Developing countries that claim certain amounts of atmospheric space should be allocated to developing countries should explain their reasoning.
18. All nations should provide transparent processes to consult with citizens on national climate policies
19. Nations should be required to explain the fairness of their current and projected per capita emissions levels.
20. Nations who justify lower INDCs on the inevitability of the need for continuing fossil fuel use (including coal) should be required to explain what economic or technical consideration were assumed in implicit claims that greater uses of non-fossil fuel is impossible.
21. If a developed nation’s contribution to climate funds such as the Green fund are simply a shift of money from existing foreign aid funds, they should expressly admit to this while explaining why they have no ethical obligations to increase funding for adaptation and response in vulnerable nations.
Donald A. Brow
Scholar In Residence and Professor Deputy Director
Widener University Commonwealth Law School
When US President Obama announced revised regulations on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from US power plants on August 3, 2015 in a laudable speech supporting the new rules, as he predicted opponents of US climate change policy strongly attacked the new rules on grounds that they would wreck the US economy, destroy jobs, and raise electricity prices. Although President Obama defended the new rules on the basis that they were necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, that time was running out to do so, and that the rules would protect human health of US citizens, the speech failed to develop some of the obvious profound implications for climate policy of the conclusion that climate change is a moral problem, although President Obama did assert twice in the speech that climate change is a moral problem.
Although the Obama speech has rightly been praised by those who believe the US must take strong action on climate change, his speech did not acknowledge that:
US ghg emissions are harming and seriously threatening hundreds of millions of people outside the United States. There was no mention in the speech how US ghg emissions were harming others around the world.
Those who are most vulnerable to climate change have done almost nothing to cause the existing threats to them.
Those who are most vulnerable to climate change can do little to protect themselves, their best hope is that high emitting nations, sub-national governments, organizations, entities, and individuals will respond to their moral responsibilities to reduce the threat of climate change.
If climate change is a moral problem, the US may not base its climate change policies on US interests alone, it must respond to its obligations to not harm others outside the United States. Therefore costs to the US economy alone may not be used to justify failure to reduce US ghg emissions.
The United States must reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, a fact which leads to the conclusion that the new rules for power plants are still not stringent enough in light of the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that developed countries must reduce their ghg emissions by a minimum of 25% to 40% by 2020 to prevent dangerous climate change and the new rule will only achieve 32% reduction by 2030 coupled with the added fact that any reasonable interpretation of what equity requires of the United States would require the US to be closer to the 40% reduction by 2020 and surely reduce US ghg emissions well in excess of 40% by 2030.
One of the reasons the world is now running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change is because fossil fuel companies and their allies in the US Congress has prevented the United States from taking serious action on climate change since 1992 when the George H. W Bush administration agreed in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that the United States should adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference on climate change on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities. Thus the United States, more than any other developed country, has been responsible for the disastrous 30 year delay in formulating a serious global response to climate change, while delays make the problem harder and more expensive to solve and increase the likelihood of triggering dangerous climate change.
The United States is more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas concentrations to 400 ppm CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere than any country and has among the highest per capita ghg emissions as any country in the world.
The climate change opposition in the United States has successfully prevented the United States from adopting policies that would have significantly reduced US emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty despite the fact that the United States agreed in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not reducing its ghg emissions to safe levels.
Those nations who have consistently emitted ghgs above their fair share of safe global ghg emissions are responsible for the reasonable adaptation costs and damages of poor nations and people who have not caused climate change.These responsibilities are required both by basic ethics and justice and international law. These financial obligations will far exceed hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
The international press has widely reported recently on some of the most dire conclusions of the 5th Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These warnings have included that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and that rapid and unprecedented cooperation among countries is urgently needed to avoid climate catastrophe. Yet, there has been little media coverage of an enormously important topic that is sprinkled throughout the recent Working Group III report as well as being the major focus of two new chapters largely dedicated to the topic. This is the issue of the extent to which national responses to climate change must be consistent with obligations entailed by ethics and justice rather than economic rationality and self-interest alone; matters which have profound practical significance for the acceptability of national climate change policies.
Given that most nations have been setting national ghg reduction targets on the basis of national economic interest rather than global ethical obligations, if the new IPCC chapters, one on ethics and a second one on equity in the IPCC Working Group III report, are taken seriously by governments, this could transform national responses to climate change. These chapters should also be of value to civil society in criticizing inadequate national ghg emissions reductions commitments.
This is the first in a multi-part series that will examine the ethical and justice issues embedded in and raised by the recent IPCC reports.
Although this series will conclude that the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable for more clearly identifying ethical issues with the ways governments, some international organizations, and NGOs have often discussed, debated, and made recommendations on climate change policies, the series will also make some criticisms of how IPCC has articulated the significance of the ethical, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change.
As we have explained frequently in EthicsandClimate.org, climate change is a problem that has unique features that demand that it be understood essentially and fundamentally as a civilization challenging moral problem. These features include the fact that human-induced warming is a problem that: (1) is being caused mostly by high-emitting nations, peoples, and entities that are putting low emitting nations and peoples at greatest risk who are often among the world’s poorest nations and people and who have done little to cause the problem, (2) the harms to those most vulnerable to climate change are not mere inconveniences but are often existential threats to life and the ecological systems on which life depends, and (3) those most vulnerable to climate changes’ harshest impacts can often do little to protect themselves from climate change’s harshest impacts. In fact, the victims’ best hope is that high-emitting nations and peoples will see that they have duties and responsibilities to climate change’s victims to greatly reduce their ghg emissions.
We have also frequently explained why an understanding of the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change has extraordinarily important practical significance for climate change policy formation particularly in regard to: (1) setting national ghg emissions reduction targets, (2) taking a position on adequate greenhouse gas (ghg) atmospheric concentrations, (3) determining who should be responsible for paying the costs of necessary adaptation and compensating those who suffer climate change damages, and, (4) deciding who should participate in decisions on proposed climate change policies that must be made in the face of some uncertainty about climate change impacts.
II. IPCC and Ethics, Justice, and Equity
In its first four assessments in 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2007, IPCC relied almost exclusively on economic analysis of policy alternatives, rather than ethics and justice, in its guidance to policy-makers on how to develop climate law and policy. In fact, in this regard, the AR 5 in the new chapter on the Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts, IPCC admits expressly that in prior IPCC Reports “ethics has received less attention than economics, although aspects of both are covered in AR2. (IPCC, AR5, Working Group III, Chapter 3, pg. 10) Yet the treatment of ethics in IPCC Working Group III in AR2, is hardly a serious consideration of the implications of ethical and justice principles that should guide climate change policy because the vast majority of text in this report is focused on traditional economic analysis which assumes that climate policy should maximize efficiency rather than assign responsibility for reducing the threat of climate change, allocate emissions reductions among nations, determine who should pay for needed adaptation or compensate victims for climate damages on the basis of ethical principles. In fact, the AR2 report includes many statements that would lead policy-makers to conclude that it is perfectly permissible to determine the amount of ghg emissions reductions any nation should be required to achieve solely on economic considerations. For instance, AR 2 says expressly that: “there is no inherent conflict between economics and most conceptions of equity.” (IPCC, 1995, AR2, Working Goup III, pg. 87) Moreover. any fair reading of prior IPCC reports would conclude that policymakers were encouraged by IPCC to base policy on economic considerations such as those determined in cost-benefit analyses.
In light of this, the tendencies of national governments to adopt climate change policies on the basis of economic considerations that frequently ignore ethical obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change impacts is not surprising. In fact, a strong case can be made that the IPCC in its first four assessment reports failed to adequately identify ethics and justice principles that should guide the formation of national climate change policy.
In this respect, AR5 contains some important breaks from the past. For instance, the new chapter on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts says:
How should the burden of mitigating climate change should be divided among countries? It raises difficult questions of fairness, and rights, all of which are in the sphere of ethics. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
Indeed, ethical judgements of value underlie almost every decision that is connected with climate change, including decisions by public, and private organizations, governments, and groupings of governments. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
If justice requires that a person should not be treated in a particular way–uprooted by her home by climate change, for example –than the person has a right not to be treated that way. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
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)
In addition, the Working Group III AR5 report also has a new chapter on Sustainable Development and Equity which also contains a number of conclusions that have important ethical and justice implications. They include:
Conventional climate policy analysis that is based too narrowly on traditional utilitarian or cost-benefit frameworks will neglect critical equity issues. These oversights include human rights implications and moral imperatives; the distribution of costs and benefits of a given set of policies, and the further distributional inequities that arise when the poor have limited scope to influence policies. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 8)
Given the disparities evident in consumption patterns, the distributional implications of climate response strategies are critically important. (IPCC, 2014, AR5,WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 9)
[I]t is morally proper to allocate burdens associated with our common global climate challenge according to ethical principles. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 16)
Equitable burden sharing will be necessary if the climate change challenge is effectively met. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 16)
[T]he eventual effectiveness of a collective action regime may hinge on equitable burden sharing, the absence of actors who are powerful enough to coercively impose their preferred burden sharing arrangements, the inapplicability of standard utilitarian methods of calculating costs and benefits, and the fact that regime effectiveness depends on long-term commitments of members to implement its terms. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 17)
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)
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)
[T]here is now a consensus that methods of cost-benefit analysis that simply add up monetary-equivalent gains and issues are consistent and applicable only under very specific assumptions…which are empirically dubious and ethically controversial. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 54)
And so the new AR5 IPCC Working Group III report by including statements which conclude that self-interested economic justifications for national climate change policies are ethically problematic is both a profound shift from prior IPCC guidance on how nations should set climate change policies and could form the basis for strong criticisms of national ghg emissions reductions commitments.
In addition to the above provisions, the IPCC AR5 Working Group III report examines throughout the report many other climate change policy issues that raise important ethical questions. Sometimes the IPCC treatment of the ethical dimensions of these issues is acceptable and other times inadequate.
These other issues include: (a) an acceptable basis for burden sharing by nations to limit warming to tolerable levels, (b) temperature levels that could trigger abrupt climate change, (c) the unique vulnerability to climate change impacts of many of the world’s poorest people, (e) whether national ghg emissions reductions targets should be set on the basis of ghg emissions released within a national territory or on the basis of products consumed in that nation which have embedded ghgs created by their manufacture in other places, (f) the fact that extraordinary degrees of irreversible damage and harm from climate change are now distinct possibilities, (g) various frameworks for equitable burden sharing, (h) gross disparities in per capita emissions around the world, (i) whether national ghg emissions targets should be legally binding, (j) various issues entailed by a growing number of climate refugees, (k) fairness issues by nations that seek to create boarder adjustments or monetary penalties on nations that have no comparable emissions reductions targets, (l) funding for adaptation and damages in poor vulnerable nations, (m) the role of trading flexibility mechanisms in an international climate regime, (n) the remaining global ghg emissions budget that all nations must live within to prevent dangerous climate change, and (o) the human rights implications of national climate policies.
We will explain in future entries in this series that how IPCC has handled the ethical issues entailed by these issues has sometimes been unacceptable or incomplete despite being improvements from prior IPCC reports.
One common problem with IPCC’s treatment of the ethical dimensions of climate change policy making is that the text often leaves the impression that while policymakers should consider ethical questions in developing climate change policies they are free to ignore what ethics requires of nations. Particularly in some places, the text does not adequately communicate that were strong ethical duties for nations to not greatly harm others or the ecological systems on which life depends exist, they are not free to follow national economic self-interest in setting climate change policies. The text often reads as if ethics is an optional consideration along with economic self-interest when formulating climate policy. We will examine this problem in more detail in future entries on this subject on this site.
If climate change is a world challenging ethical and justice problem, what can we learn from the state of recognition of this fact from the recently concluded Warsaw climate negotiations?
The 19th Conference of the Parties (COP-19) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 9th Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (MOP-9) completed its work on Saturday 23, 2013 in Warsaw. COP-19/COP 9 was seen by most observers as another in a series of extraordinarily serious failures of the international community to find a global solution to climate change, a tragic outcome in light of the hard-to-imagine global greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions that the mainstream scientific community is now saying are urgently needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Yet the November meeting did produce a few very, very modest results that managed to keep the slim hope alive that an adequate global solution to climate change will be worked out in 2015.
We here review the outcomes of Warsaw through an ethical lens to determine and draw attention on the ethical issues that need to be emphasized as the world approaches the next negotiations in Lima, Peru in December.
A major hope for the Warsaw COP was to make significant progress on negotiation of new treaty which is to be completed in 2015 in Paris as agreed to in climate talks in Durban, South Africa in 2011. (UNFCCC, 2011 ) The Durban COP decided to create a global climate agreement applicable to all parties by 2015—known as the Durban Platform—with the goal of keeping average global temperature rise to 2° C, the level that scientists claim is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. A main task for the parties in Warsaw was to establish a process and timetable for creating the new agreement to be finalized by 2015.
Other major issues in Warsaw included whether the international community would make progress on: (a) implementing past promises for funding needed climate adaptation in developing countries, (b) creating an institutional response to nations and peoples who suffer losses and damages from climate change, and (c) creating an institutional response to forest degradation and destruction.
At the center of the most contentious issues at COP-19/MOP-9 were conflicts about what justice and equity require of nations to respond to climate change.
A. Pathway to An Adequate New Climate Change Agreement.
The agreement to be completed in 20I5 under the Durban Platform will take the form of a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force,” and will be applicable to all Parties.
An adequate global climate change treaty will need to limit total global ghg emissions to levels which will prevent atmospheric ghg concentrations from accumulating to dangerous levels and to do this any solution will also need to allocate total global emissions levels among all nations. Therefore nations must agree to commit to limit their emissions to their share of safe global emissions if there is any hope of preventing harsh climate impacts.
Since COP-18 in Qatar last year, there have been two prestigious scientific reports that have made it clear that much greater ambition from nations on their previous ghg emissions reductions commitments is urgently needed. In September of this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change and in November the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released its Emissions Gap Report. Both reports contain information that lead to the conclusion that the international community is quickly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
The UNEP report is particularly relevant to the short-term situation that was the focus of the Warsaw meeting given that the international community has agreed to limit future warming to prevent catastrophic warming to 2° C or perhaps 1.5° C if studies that are now underway demonstrate that a 1.5° C warming limit is necessary to prevent catastrophic harms. The UNEP report found that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, ghg emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level that would provide a reasonable chance of avoiding the 2° C warming limit.
To be on track to stay within the 2° C target and head off very dangerous climate change, the report concluded that emissions should be a maximum of 44 GtCO2e by 2020 to set the stage for further huge cuts needed to keep warming from exceeding the 2° C target.
Since total global ghg emissions in 2010 already stood at 50.1 GtCO2e, and are increasing every year, reaching a 44 GtCO2e target by 2020 is extraordinarily daunting and much greater ambition is needed from the global community than can be seen in existing national ghg emissions reduction commitments.
Moreover if the world continues under a business-as-usual scenario 2020 emissions are predicted to reach 59 GtCO2e. And so increasing the ambition of national ghg commitments is urgently needed to provide any reasonable hope of limiting warming to non-catastrophic levels. For this reason there was some hope before Warsaw that some nations would make significant increases in their previous ghg emissions reduction commitments. This did not happen. Not one single country increased its previous emissions reductions commitments in Warsaw and Australia and Japan announced they were lowering prior promises.
There is a growing consensus among many observers of international negotiations that the international community will fail to increase ghg emissions reductions commitments to levels that will avoid dangerous climate change unless nations take their ethical obligations to other nations and vulnerable people seriously. Nations continue to enter climate negotiations as if only their own economic interests count. And so, most nations are continuing to ignore their responsibilities to other nations and people when making national commitments on ghg emissions reductions.
To change this, the UNFCCC should require that when nations make emission reduction commitments they must explain three things. First, what ghg atmospheric concentration level is their target designed to achieve. Second, what is their assumption about the remaining ghg emissions budget that the entire international community must stay within to avoid dangerous climate change. Third on what equitable principle is their national target based to that would achieve the safe atmospheric ghg concentration level. In short, nations should be required to explain expressly how their emissions reduction target has been developed in consideration of equity and distributive justice.
The September IPCC report contained an emissions budget on total CO2 emissions for the entire world. If the international community limits ghg emissions to the budget amounts, there is 66% chance of preventing very dangerous warming. The IPCC said that for warming to remain below dangerous levels, the total amount of CO2 equivalent that may be emitted is 431 gigatons. This further means that the budget would be completely used up by current emissions by around 2044, just over 30 years from now. If ghgs other than CO2 that are being emitted around the world are taken into consideration, the remaining CO2 equivalent emissions budget is reduced to approximately 270 gigatons. This fact has led many climate scientists to strongly warn the international community that it is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change because the world will exceed the budget in 25 years at current emissions rates.
In light of these reports, UNFCCC Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC Christiana Figueres said at the beginning of COP-19 that: “Global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak this decade, and get to zero net emissions by the second half of this century.
In addition to increasing national ghg emissions reductions commitments in the short-term there was some hope that Warsaw would put into place initial elements of an emissions reduction framework that would be included in the new treaty to be completed in 2015. Yet this did not happen either.
The only positive outcome of COP-19 in regard to adequate ghg emissions reductions commitments was a decision that all nations would submit their new ghg emissions reduction commitments by the “first quarter of 2015” in time for consideration during the final treaty negotiations in Paris that year.
There was intense disagreement in Warsaw about whether levels of historical emissions should be taken into consideration in allocating national emission ghg reductions levels under the new treaty. The U.S. and European Union blocked a proposal supported by 130 nations including Brazil and China that would use pollution levels dating back to the industrial revolution to help set limits on emissions in the future. According to a November 16th New York Times report, discussions on equity and justice became an emotionally charged flash point in Warsaw.
No nation should be able to escape explaining the ethical principles on which its ghg emissions reduction commitment is based. In a previous entry in Ethics and Climate we explained why strong ethical claims can be made that nations have clear duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.
B. Funding for Adaptation.
In 2009, developed countries committed to annually mobilize $100 billion from public and private sources for climate mitigation and adaptation by 2020 in developing countries. Countries also agreed to the creation of the Green Climate Fund, or GCF, which would provide a significant portion of the $100 billion commitment.
For the most part promises to provide specific amounts of funding have not materialized. As a result the Group of 77 developing nations and China unsuccessfully pushed in Warsaw for specific funding pledges for the period before 2020.
Although there were several countries in Warsaw that made small new pledges for funding for adaptation, for the most part the developed nations have failed to identify specific amounts of funding consistent with prior promises. A decision was made that simply requests that developed countries to submit specific pledges at workshops to be convened on the issue and asks developing nations to submit ideas for a high-level ministerial dialogue on climate finance every two years, starting in 2014 and ending in 2020.
COP-19 also approved a decision urging the fledgling GCF to ensure it is operational in time to begin receiving funds next year. The decision calls for “ambitious and timely contributions” by developed countries to the fund before the next round of high-level talks in Peru.
All high-emitting nations must be required to explain, as a matter of ethics and distributive justice, why they are not responsible for their equitable share of adaptation costs for vulnerable developing nations. In so doing they should be forced to explain whether they disagree with the “polluter pays” principle.
In a previous entry in Ethics and Climate we explained the basis for concluding that high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to fund reasonable adaptation measures in vulnerable poor countries.
C. Loss and Damages
During COP-18 in Doha, Qatar last year, the parties agreed to establish at COP 19 in Warsaw institutional arrangements to address loss and damage in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change
Issues entailed by discussions on creating an institutional response to losses and damages from human-induced climate change were particularly contentions in Warsaw. High-emitting developed nations have been particularly concerned about creating an institution that would act as a mechanism to compensate nations and peoples who are harmed by human-induced climate change.
Two questions in particular about the prospective mechanism caused controversy in Warsaw. The first was whether a new mechanism would be an independent entity within the UNFCCC, which already contains two semi-independent institutions on mitigation and adaptation. Negotiators from low-lying islands and other developing countries argued that devastating human-induced climate change damages are now visible around the world and therefore a new separate loss and damages mechanism under the UNFCCC is needed.
Some developed countries supported the creation of a mechanism but opposed the creation of a new independent funding institution and argued that losses and damages funding should fall under the adaptation framework.
A Warsaw decision established an entity called the “Warsaw Mechanism,” which would fall under the adaptation framework. However, in a concession to vulnerable nations, the decision included a provision to reassess the mechanism after three years. Most of the details of the. role, funding, and makeup of this mechanism await future likely very contentious negotiations
The United States and other nations have resisted discussing responsibilities for loss and damages from climate change for several reasons including the fact that assigning specific responsibility for harms is a difficult question about which reasonable people may disagree. These countries should be required to explain why they are ignoring the “polluter pays” principle and ethical responsibility that is entailed by basic principles of distributive justice. In a previous entry in Ethics and Climate we explained the basis for concluding that high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to compensate losses and damages from human-induced climate change particularly in vulnerable poor countries.
D. Preventing Deforestation and Degradation, REDD+
Since 2005, UNFCCC negotiations have worked on establishing a program on reducing emissions for deforestation and degradation of forests usually referred to as REDD+. Conquering deforestation is an important element in a global solution to climate change as emissions from loss of forests represents approximately 20 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
Establishing REDD+ has been challenging for several reasons including establishing credible quantitative measures for measuring precisely the amount of emissions saved from programs that prevent emissions from deforestation, assuring that the emissions saved by funded REDD+ projects are permanent, and determining how investments in deforestation programs might work with other market mechanisms under the UNFCCC.
Warsaw made considerable progress on for REDD+ issues that included a series of seven decisions that outline issues relating to payments to developing countries implementing REDD+ projects, a framework for establishing a formal REDD+ mechanism, some rules for creating performance-based financing mechanisms, and forest monitoring systems, and establishing forest reference levels among other issues.
Because all high-emitting nations have clear ethical responsibilities to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, high-emiting nations should be required to explain how they will reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions if they do not financially support programs that reduce forest degradation.
The next COP will be held in Lima, Peru in December of 2014 which will mostly focus on the details of the new international climate agreement that is scheduled to be completed in 2015.
Ethics and justice issues were central to the most contentious disputes in Warsaw particularly in regard to ghg emissions reduction commitments and funding for adaptation and loss and damages. This fact was recognized by the international media covering Warsaw more frequently than ever before as we have explained in a previous entry here on Ethicsandclimate.org. Yet neither nations or the press covering Warsaw appear to be recognizing the significance for climate policy of the equity, ethics, and justice issues. For this reason, there is a continuing urgent need to increase awareness around the world of the practical significance of the ethics and justice issues for policy.
UNFCCC Decision, 2013, Approaches To Address Loss And Damage Associated With Climate Change Impacts In Developing Countries That Are Particularly Vulnerable To The Adverse Effects Of Climate Change To Enhance Adaptive Capacity FCCC/CP/2012/L.4/Rev.1, http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2012/cop18/eng/l04r01.pdf (lasted visited December 17, 2013)
Negotiations on the international climate regime have begun in Warsaw at a time when the scientific community, including the IPCC in its recent report on the Physical Basis for Climate Change Science and UNEP in its just released Emissions Gap Report, are advising the international community that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
The Warsaw agenda includes numerous topics that raise profound ethical and justice issues which not only must be faced to achieve a global climate change solution but which are also increasingly at the center of the most contentious issues in the international climate negotiations. Despite this fact, the international media, at least in most developed countries, is utterly failing to report on the ethical and justice dimensions of issues that are so central to achieving a favorable outcome in Warsaw. The failure of the media to continue to report on these issues almost guarantees that nations will continue to ignore their ethical obligations, a prospect which surely dooms the development of an adequate global climate regime.
This is the first entry in a multi-part series which will first examine the ethical dimensions of major issues under consideration in Warsaw and then, at the conclusion of COP-19, report on what was accomplished in Warsaw on these ethical issues.
Among Warsaw issues examined in this series through an ethical lens will be:
1. The extent to which nations make ghg emissions reductions commitments based upon “equity” rather than national interest alone.
2. The willingness of nations to agree to a new treaty that is to be completed in 2015 and that comes into effect in 2020 that includes a format for emissions reductions that takes equity and justice seriously.
3. The willingness of high-emitting nations to finance adaptation and climate change reduction strategies in vulnerable, developing counties.
4. The willingness of those nations most responsible for human-induced warming to agree to finance the value of losses and damages from climate change that can’t be avoided.
5. The extent to which some nations more than others are barriers to an urgently needed global climate change treaty.
6. The willingness of nations to accept a new climate change treaty that is sufficiently legally binding that it provides adequate sanctions for those who do not comply with their promises.
The next entry in the series will look at the ethical issues entailed by the need for national emissions reductions commitments to be based on “equity” and “justice”.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law
Visiting Professor, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University for Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China
This 11 minute video examines why politicians, unlike many ordinary citizens, may not rely upon their own uninformed opinion on climate change science as a basis for refusing to support climate change policies. The video argues that politicians have responsibilities that ordinary citizens do not have to protect others from harms that their constituents are causing others.
This video follows the last entry on this subject:
Marco Rubio, a US Senator from Florida, recently said that he was not sure the climate change was human caused. This is one of the reasons why he’s unwilling to support US government action to reduce the threat of climate change. Many other US politicians have also recently said they will not support legislation to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions because they are not convinced that climate change happening or is human-caused. In fact, 7 out of 8 Republican candidates for the US presidency proclaimed they didn’t believe that climate change was a problem. (Skeptical Science) When these politicians are asked about the basis for their positions on climate change, they almost always respond by saying such things as they “have heard that there is a disagreement among scientists” or similar responses that strongly suggest they have informed an opinion on climate change science without any understanding of the depth of the scientific evidence on which the scientific consensus view 0f climate change has been based. For instance, US politicians frequently assert that it is an open question whether humans are causing the undeniable warming that the Earth is experiencing, thus exposing ignorance of dozens of lines of independent robust evidence of human causation including attribution studies, finger print analyses, strong evidence that correlates fossil fuel use to rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and other physical and chemical evidence.
Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials who have the power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not as a matter of ethics justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions on climate science. This is so because government officials, unlike ordinary citizens, have the power to prevent or minimize great harms to millions of people around the world that mainstream scientists have concluded that their constituents or governments that they represent are causing or contributing to. That is, a government officials have more responsibility than the average citizen to understand the state of climate change science because the government official can uniquely prevent harm that their constituents or governments are causing. And so, when government officials with the power to enact climate change policies are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may not appeal to their uninformed opinion on climate science as justification for not taking action.
The government official is like the railroad official who has been told by employees who are in a position to know the location of the company’s trains that there is a runaway train hurtling toward a bus full of children that is stuck on the track, when the official has the ability to divert the train onto a track on which no humans will be harmed.
In the case of climate change, government officials should know that 97 of every 100 scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science research and in the United States by the most prestigious scientific organizations including the US National Academy of Sciences that greenhouse gases coming from his constituents threaten catastrophic harm not only to his constituents but to millions of people around the world, most of whom have done little to cause climate change.
In the case of climate change, the US politician not only has the power, working with colleagues, to prevent great harm caused by his or her constituents, he or she has the responsibility to prevent his or her constituents from harming others outside United States. This responsibility was expressly agreed to by the United States when it ratified the United Nations Convention on Climate Change which contains the following acknowledgment of the US governments responsibility to prevent harm to those outside the United States in the convention’s Preamble:
Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.(UNFCCC Preamble)
In the case of climate change, the people that will be harmed (those in our metaphorical bus) are not only the constituents of the politician but hundreds of millions of people around the world that have done little or nothing to cause climate change.
The vast majority of climate scientists and over 100 scientific organizations whose members have climate science expertise have concluded that humans are causing climate change and human-induced climate change creates catastrophic threats for the human race and particularly for hundreds of millions of poor people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Although there are some differences among some mainstream scientists about some of the details of the consensus view, an open letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s which was endorsed by 18 of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the United States summed up the nature of the scientific consensus as follows:
As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer- reviewed science. (AAAS 2009)
Though scientific consensus must always be open to responsible skepticism given: (a) the strength of the consensus on this topic, (b) the enormity of the harms predicted by the consensus view, (c) an approximately 30 year delay in taking action that has transpired since a serious climate change debate began in the United States in the early 1980s, (d) a delay that has made the problem worse while making it more difficult to achieve ghg emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change because of the steepness of reductions now needed, no politician can ethically justify his or her refusal to support action on climate change based upon a personal opinion that is not supported by strong scientific evidence that has been reviewed by scientific organizations with a wide breadth of interdisciplinary scientific expertise. Because any further delay will make the climate change threat worse, US politicians have a duty to support policies that will reduce the threat of climate unless they can produce strong scientific evidence that has been fully vetted by respectable scientific institutions that climate change is not the threat entailed by the scientific consensus view.
In this situation the government official has a strong duty to go beyond his or her own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions that have the breadth of expertise to consider one study in the context of thousands of other studies in climate change science. And so, government officials may not justify their refusal to act simply on the basis of their personal opinion.
Because politicians have an affirmative duty to initially rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand any politician’s views that oppose action on climate change policies on scientific grounds. The US press has almost always failed to probe the justifications of those opposing action on climate change on scientific grounds. For this reason, journalists should ask politicians that claim there is not sufficient scientific support for government action climate change the following questions:
1. What specific scientific references and sources do you rely upon to conclude that there is a reasonable scientific dispute about whether human actions are causing dangerous climate change?
2. Are you aware that the United States Academy of Sciences and almost all respected scientific organizations whose membership includes scientists with expertise relevant to climate change science support the scientific consensus view that holds has that the planet is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual?
3. On what basis do you disregard the conclusions that humans are causing dangerous climate change held by the United States Academy of Sciences, over a hundred scientific organizations whose membership includes experts with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, and 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?
4. When you claim that the United States 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 that human-induced climate change will not create adverse impacts on human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?
5. When you claim that the United States should not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse 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 all scientific uncertainties before action is taken will very likely make it too late to prevent dangerous human-induced climate change harms according to the consensus view?
6. Do you deny that those who argue that they should be allowed to continue to emit greenhouse gases at levels that may be dangerous should assume the burden of proof that their actions are safe given the strength of the consensus view on climate change science?
7. Do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in a decision about whether to act to reduce the threat of climate change in the face of scientific uncertainty?
8. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the Untied States in 1992 agreed to the following under Article 3, 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?
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.
9. If you claim that the climate change impacts predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have not reached a level of scientific certainty that warrants action, do you agree that climate change impacts predicted by IPCC could be wrong in both directions, potentially leading to even harsher adverse impacts than those predicted?
10. Given that for over 20 years since international climate change negotiations began, the United States has refused to commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions based upon the justification that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms the health and ecological systems on which life depends of others, should the United States be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?