Climate change must be understood and responded to as a profound problem of global justice and ethics. This is so because: (a) it is a problem mostly caused by some nations and people emitting high-levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) in one part of the world who are harming or threatening tens of millions of living people and countless numbers of future generations throughout the world who include some of the world’s poorest people who have done little to cause the problem, (b) the harms to many of the world’s most vulnerable victims of climate change are potentially catastrophic, (c) many people most at risk from climate change often can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments; their best hope is that those causing the problem will see that justice requires them to greatly lower their ghg emissions, (d) to protect the world’s most vulnerable people nations must limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions, and, (e) climate change is preventing some people from enjoying the most basic human rights including rights to life and security among others. Because climate change is a profound problem of justice those causing the problem may not use self-interest alone as justification for their policy responses to human-induced warming, they must respond in ways consistent with their responsibilities and duties to others. In light of this the following questions should be asked of those who oppose national action on climate change on the basis of excessive costs to the national economy or scientific uncertainty.
Questions that should be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of cost to the national economy:
1. When you claim that a government emitting high levels of ghgs need not reduce its ghg emissions because the costs to it of so doing are too high, do you deny that high-emitting governments not only have economic interests in climate change policies but also duties and obligations to tens of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest impacts?
2. If you argue that high costs to a nation of reducing its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global ghg emissions justify non-action, how have you considered the increased harms and risks to poor vulnerable people and nations that will continue to grow as atmospheric ghg concentrations continue to rise? In other words how have you considered the harms to others that will be caused by government inaction on climate change?
3. If the justification for a nation to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions is that costs to it are too high, yet inaction causes loss of life and great harm to people outside the nation’s borders, is the use of a cost justification by a nation for non-action morally supportable?
4. Do you agree that those nations and people around the world who will most be harmed by climate change have a right to participate in a decision by a nation that chooses to not adopt climate change policies because costs to it are deemed unacceptable?
5. Do you agree that nations that emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting countries and individuals that have done little to cause climate change?
6. If you disagree that all nations have a duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to cost to it, do you also deny the applicability of the well-established international legal norm that almost all nations have agreed to in 1992 in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development called the “polluter pays” principle which holds that polluters should pay for consequences of their pollution?
7. Do you agree that nations that have very high per capita and historical ghg emissions compared to other nations and so have contributed more than other nations to the rise of atmospheric concentrations of ghgs to dangerous levels have a greater duty to reduce their ghg emissions than nations that have done comparatively little to create the current threat of human-induced warming?
8. If you argue that the United States should not adopt climate change policies on the basis that economic competitors such as China have not adopted climate change policies, are you claiming that no nation has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until all other nations reduce their ghg emissions accordingly?
9. In arguing that the United States or other high-emitting nations need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions based on cost, how have you considered, if at all, that all nations have agreed in international climate negotiations to take steps to limit warming to 2 degree C because warming greater than this amount will not only create harsh impacts for tens of millions of people but runs the risk of creating rapid non-linear warming that will outstrip the ability of people and nations to adapt?
Questions that should be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty:
1. When you argue that a nation emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts, are you arguing that a nation need not take action on climate change until scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken may very likely make it too late to prevent catastrophic climate change harms to millions of people around the world?
2. 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 wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change to them because of scientific uncertainty?
3. Given that mainstream climate change scientific view holds that the Earth could experience rapid non-linear climate change impacts which outstrip the ability of some people and nations to adapt, should this fact affect whether nations which emit high levels of ghgs should be able to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for non-action on climate change?
4. 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 observable climate change and are you aware of the multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies that very strongly point to human causation?
(Fingerprint studies draw conclusions about human causation that can be deduced from: (a) how the Earth warms in the upper and lower atmosphere, (b) warming in the oceans,(c) night-time vs day-time temperature increases,(d) energy escaping from the upper atmosphere versus energy trapped, (e) isotopes of CO2 in the atmosphere and coral that distinguish fossil CO2 from non-fossil CO2, (f) the height of the boundary between the lower and upper atmosphere, and (g) atmospheric oxygen levels decrease as CO2 levels increase. “Attribution” studies test whether the energy differences from those natural forces which have changed the Earth’s climate in the past such as changing radiation from the sun are capable of explaining observed temperature change.)
5. On what specific basis do you disregard the mainstream scientific view that holds that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual, conclusions supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United States Academy of Sciences and over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world whose membership includes scientists with expertise relevant to the science of climate change including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and the Royal Society of the UK and according to the American Academy of Sciences 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?
6. When you claim that a nation such as the United States which emits high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse human-induced 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 harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their lives often depend and if so what is that proof?
7. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States and almost every country in the world in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?
(Article 3 states:)
The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost
8. If a nation emitting high levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms the health and ecological systems on which life depends for tens of millions of others, should that nation be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?
Donald A. Brown
Widener University School Of Law