During his speech on August 31 in Alaska, President Obama not only spoke about the enormity of the climate change threat and the urgency of strong action, he also acknowledged that the United States has responsibility for causing the problem. He said:
I’ve come here today, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and its second largest emitter, to say that the United States recognizes our role in creating this problem, and we embrace our responsibility to help solve it.
He spoke in clear terms about the enormity of the climate change threat:.
Our understanding of climate change advances each day. Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we previously thought. The science is stark. It is sharpening. It proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present. But the point is that climate change is no longer some far-off problem. It is happening here. It is happening now. Climate change is already disrupting our agriculture and ecosystems, our water and food supplies, our energy, our infrastructure, human health, human safety — now. Today. And climate change is a trend that affects all trends — economic trends, security trends. Everything will be impacted. And it becomes more dramatic with each passing year.
But if those trend lines continue the way they are, there’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively. People will suffer. Economies will suffer. Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems. More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict.
If we were to abandon our course of action, if we stop trying to build a clean-energy economy and reduce carbon pollution, if we do nothing to keep the glaciers from melting faster, and oceans from rising faster, and forests from burning faster, and storms from growing stronger, we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair: Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields no longer growing. Indigenous peoples who can’t carry out traditions that stretch back millennia. Entire industries of people who can’t practice their livelihoods. Desperate refugees seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own. Political disruptions that could trigger multiple conflicts around the globe.
President Obama also acknowledged that because nations have delayed in taking meaningful climate action, the world is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming. More specifically he said:
On this issue, of all issues, there is such a thing as being too late. That moment is almost upon us.
And so President Obama admitted that: (a) climate change is a civilization challenging problem with dire potential consequences for nations and vulnerable people around the world, (b) the world is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming, and, (c) the United States has responsibility for causing the problem.
The United States is not only responsible for the current crisis because, as President Obama noted, it is the second highest emitter of ghg in the world behind China, it has historically emitted much more ghgs into the atmosphere than any other country including China, it is currently near the top of all nations in per capita ghg emissions, and the US has been responsible more than any other developed nation for the failure of the international community to adopt meaningful ghg emissions reduction targets from the beginning of international climate negotiations in 1990 until the Obama administration. (For a detailed description of the blocking role that the United States has played in international climate negotiations since 1990 until the Obama administration, See Brown, 2002, American Heat; Ethical Problems the US Response to Global Warming, and Brown, 2013, Climate Chang Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm)
As we have documented in numerous articles on the disinformation campaign on this website, although responsible scientific skepticism is necessary for science to advance, the climate change disinformation campaign has been involved not in the pursuit of responsible scientific skepticism but in tactics that are morally reprehensible including: (a) telling lies about mainstream climate scientific evidence or engaging in reckless disregard for the truth, (b) focusing on unknowns about climate science while ignoring settled climate change science, that is cherry-picking the evidence, (c) creating front groups and Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interest behind claims, (d) making specious claims about “good science”, (e) manufacturing science sounding claims about climate change by holding conferences in which claims are made and documents are released that have not been subjected to scientific peer-review, and (d) cyber bullying journalists and scientists. These tactics are not responsible scientific skepticism but disinformation.
In the late 1980s, the European Union proposed that all developed countries should accept binding ghg emissions reductions targets. These targets would have likely been agreed to in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change if the United States did not oppose them. The United States virtually standing alone prevented the inclusion of binding targets in the treaty which was finalized in 1992 and ratified by the US in that same year. During the next 20 years, the US continued to block a meaningful global solution to climate change while being one of only a handful of nations that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty in which most developed countries accepted a ghg reduction target.
During this time, the climate change disinformation campaign also successfully prevented enactment of meaningful US domestic climate change laws and policies.
For the last several decades, US media has largely failed to cover the fact that the longer the world waits to make significant reductions in ghgs, the more difficult the problem becomes to solve. In this regard, the staggering enormity of the current challenge to the world to prevent dangerous climate change is rarely commented on in the US media despite the fact the 25 year delay in facing this problem has now made the problem a civilization challenging problem. For instance, James Hansen in a recent affidavit submitted in a legal proceeding against the State of Oregon asserted that the world must now reduce ghg emissions at a rate of 6% per year to avoid dangerous climate change. Yet as Hansen notes, if the world began to phase out of fossil fuel in 2005 the rate of reductions needed would only be 3.5% while waiting until 2020 will require a 15% reduction per year. Thus the delay in confronting climate change that is attributable to a large extent to the climate change disinformation campaign and its political mercenaries has made the problem much more difficult to solve with the result that harsh climate change impacts are much more likely. Because the harshest impacts from climate change will likely be experienced by some of the world’s poorest people in Africa,Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world, the damage caused by the climate change disinformation campaign may become a global catastrophe.
And so the world is now facing a civilization challenging problem entailed by the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gases to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Although President Obama has announced administrative measures that would begin to reduce US ghg emissions, these measures are now being intensely fought by the climate change disinformation campaign and its political representatives and the Obama commitments still don’t represent the US fair share of safe global ghg emissions. In fact, in his August 31 speech, President Obama said after describing his climate initiatives: “But we’re not moving fast enough.” And now it may be too late to prevent huge climate change induced harms because the world has lost 25 years in reducing the threat of climate change in no small measure due to the United States opposition to a meaningful global solution.
President Obama’s August 31 speech in Alaska implicitly acknowledged this conclusion. Yet the US media largely continues to fail to cover the enormous damage that has been caused by the delay in confronting human-induced warming .
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.
This is the second in a three part series examining the ethical and justice issues discussed by the IPCC Working Group III in its 5th Assessment Report (AR5) . In the first entry in this series we concluded that although the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable improvement over prior IPCC reports in regard to identifying ethical and equity issues that should be considered in developing climate change policy, some criticisms are also warranted of how IPCC has articulated the significance and implications of the ethical, justice, and equity principles that should guide nations in developing climate change policies.
In short, we will argue improvement is possible in how IPCC deals with ethics, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change policy-making despite very significant improvements on these matters in the AR5 report compared to prior IPCC reports.
In this entry we will examine several preliminary ethical and justice issues raised by the new IPCC Working Group III Chapter 3, on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts. The last entry will continue the examination Chapter 3 and then turn to Chapter 4 on Sustainable Development and Equity.
As a preliminary matter, one of the challenges that IPCC faces in its mandate on of ethics and justice issues relevant to climate change policy-making is that it is not IPCC’s role to be prescriptive in deciding what governments should do. It’s mandate is to synthesize the extant social-economic and scientific literature for policy-makers. In this regard, the IPCC chapter on ethics said expressly:
This chapter does not attempt to answer ethical questions, but rather provides policymakers with the tools (concepts, principles, arguments, and methods) to make decisions. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 10)
And so it is not IPCC’s role to do ethical analyses of policy issues that raise ethical questions. IPCC can, however, distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive questions that arise in relevant socio-economic literature about climate policy-making, identify important ethical and justice issues that arise in this literature, where there is a consensus on ethics and justice issues in the relevant literature describe the consensus position, where there is no consensus on ethical and justice issues describe the range of reasonable views on these issues, and identify hard and soft law legal principles relevant to how governments should resolve ethical and justice issues that must be faced by policy-makers.
There are several subjects in climate change policy-making which raise important ethical and justice issues. They include policy judgements about:
how much warming will be tolerated, a matter which is implicit but rarely identified when nations make ghg emissions reduction commitments,
any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, matters which are referred to by the IPCC usually as burden-sharing or effort-sharing considerations and a matter taken up in chapter 4 of IPCC, Working Group III chapter on sustainability and equity,
any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those who are harmed by climate change,
when a nation is responsible for its ghg emissions given differences in historical and per capita emissions among nations,
responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations,
how to evaluate the effects on and responsibilities to others of climate change technologies that are adopted in response to the threat of climate change, including such technologies as geo-engineering or nuclear power, for instance,
who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, a topic usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice,
the policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change,
the responsibility of not only nations but subnational governments, entities, organizations, and individuals for climate change,
when economic analyses of climate change policy options can prescribe or limit national duties or obligations to respond to the threat of climate change,
ethical and justice implications of decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty,
whether action or non-action of other nations is relevant to any nation’s responsibility for climate change,
how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation,
when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science,
who is responsible for climate refugees and what their responsibilities are.
On some of these issues, the recent IPCC report included a good summary of the extant ethical literature, on other issues important gaps in IPCC’s analysis can be identified, and lastly on a few of these issues, IPCC Working Group III is silent. IPCC reports cannot be expected to be exhaustive on these matters and therefore gaps and omissions in the IPCC reports in regard to ethics and justice issues relevant to policy-making is not necessarily a criticism of IPCC and is here pointed out only for future consideration. In fact, IPCC’s work on the ethical limits of economic arguments is a particularly important contribution to the global climate change debate. What is worthy of criticism, however, is if IPCC’s conclusions on guidance for policy-makers is misleading on ethics and justice issues.
II. Ethical Issues Raised by Economic Arguments About Climate Policy
Perhaps the most important practical ethical and justice issues raised by Working Group III’s work on ethics is its conclusions on the ethical and justice limitations of economic analyses of climate change policy options. This topic is enormously practically important because nations and others who argue against proposed climate change policies usually rely on various economic arguments which often completely ignore the ethical and justice limitations of these arguments (In the case of the United States, see Brown, 2012.) Because most citizens and policy-makers have not been trained in spotting ethically dubious claims that are often hidden in what appear at first glance to be “value-neutral” economic arguments, IPCC’s acknowledgement of the ethical limitations of economic arguments is vitally important. It is also practically important because the first four IPCC reports, although not completely ignoring all ethical and justice problems with economic arguments about climate change policies, failed to examine the vast majority of ethical problems with economic arguments against climate change policies while making economic analyses of climate change policies the primary focus of Working Group III’s work thereby leaving the strong impression that economic analyses, including but not limited to cost-benefit analyses, is the preferred way to evaluate the sufficiency of proposed climate change policies. On this matter, the AR5 report has made important clarifications.
The AR5 III report included a section on this very issue entitled: Economics, Rights, and Dutieswhich we reproduce here it its entirety because of its importance to this discussion, followed by comments in bold italics:
Economics can measure and aggregate human wellbeing, but Sections 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 explain that wellbeing may be only one of several criteria for choosing among alternative mitigation policies.
Other ethical considerations are not reflected in economic valuations, and those considerations may be extremely important for particular decisions that have to be made. For example, some have contended that countries that have emitted a great deal of GHG in the past owe restitution to countries that have been harmed by their emissions. If so, this is an important consideration in determining how much finance rich countries should provide to poorer countries to help with their mitigation efforts. It suggests that economics alone cannot be used to determine who should bear the burden of mitigation.
What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take into account of justice and rights in general. However, distributive justice can be accommodated within economics, because it can be understood as a value: specifically the value of equality. The theory of fairness within economics (Fleurbaey, 2008) is an account of distributive justice. It assumes that the level of distributive justice within a society is a function of the wellbeings of individuals, which means it can be reflected in the aggregation of wellbeing. In particular, it may be measured by the degree of inequality in wellbeing, using one of the standard measures of inequality such as the Gini coefficient (Gini, 1912), as discussed in the previous section. The Atkinson measure of inequality (Atkinson, 1970) is based on an additively separable social welfare function (SWF), and is therefore particularly appropriate for representing the prioritarian theory described in Section 3.4.6 . Furthermore, distributive justice can be reflected in weights incorporated into economic evaluations as Section 3.6 explains.
Simply identifying the level of inequality using the Gini Index does not assure that the harms and benefits of climate change policies will be distributed justly. For that a theory of just distribution is needed. The Gini index is also at such a level of abstraction that it is very difficult to use it as a way of thinking about the justice obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change. Even if there is strong economic equality in a nation measured by the Gini index, one cannot conclude that climate change policies are distributively just.
Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. For example, a CBA might not show the drowning of a Pacific island as a big loss, since the island has few inhabitants and relatively little economic activity. It might conclude that more good would be done in total by allowing the island to drown: the cost of the radical action that would be required to save the island by mitigating climate change globally would be much greater than the benefit of saving the island. This might be the correct conclusion in terms of overall aggregation of costs and benefits. But the island’s inhabitants might have a right not to have their homes and livelihoods destroyed as a result of the GHG emissions of richer nations far away. If that is so, their right may override the conclusions of CBA. It may give those nations who emit GHG a duty to protect the people who suffer from it, or at least to make restitution to them for any harms they suffer.
Even in areas where the methods of economics can be applied in principle, they cannot be accepted without question (Jamieson, 1992; Sagoff, 2008). Particular simplifying assumptions are always required, as shown throughout this chapter. These assumptions are not always accurate or appropriate, and decision‐makers need to keep in mind the resulting limitations of the economic analyses. For example, climate change will shorten many people’s lives. This harm may in principle be included within a CBA, but it remains highly contentious how that should be done. Another problem is that, because economics can provide concrete, quantitative estimates of some but not all values, less quantifiable considerations may receive less attention than they deserve.
This discussion does not adequately capture serious ethical problems with translating all values into monetary units measured by willingness to pay or its surrogates nor that such transformation may greatly distort ethical obligations to do no harm into changes in commodity value.
The extraordinary scope and scale of climate change raises particular difficulties for economic methods (Stern, forthcoming). First, many of the common methods of valuation in economics are best designed for marginal changes, whereas some of the impacts of climate change and efforts at mitigation are not marginal (Howarth and Norgaard, 1992). Second, the very long time scale of climate change makes the discount rate crucial at the same time as it makes it highly controversial (see Section 3.6.2 ). Third, the scope of the problem means it encompasses the world’s extremes of wealth and poverty, so questions of distribution become especially important and especially difficult. Fourth, measuring non‐market values—such as the existence of species, natural environments, or traditional ways of life of local societies—is fraught with difficulty. Fifth, the uncertainty that surrounds climate change is very great. It includes the likelihood of irreversible changes to societies and to nature, and even a small chance of catastrophe. This degree of uncertainty sets special problems for economics. (Nelson, 2013) (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 12-13)
Again this discussion does not adequately describe the ethical problems with economic determinations of all values. In fact it leaves the impression that if non-market values can be discovered the problems of transforming all values to commodity values are adequately dealt with.
Chapter 3, also includes additional statements about the ethical limits of economic reasoning sprinkled throughout the chapter. They include:
1. Most normative analyses of solutions to the climate problem implicitly involve contestable ethical assumptions.(IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg.10)
2. However, the methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They can be based on ethical principles, as Section 3.6 explains. But they cannot take account of every ethical principle. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not to taking account of justice and rights (with the exception of distributive justice − see below), or other values apart from human wellbeing. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)
And so Chapter 3 of the IPCC report contains a number or clear assertions about the ethical limitations of economic arguments. However there are important gaps missing from this analysis. Also several sections of Chapter 3 that can be interpreted as claims that policy makers are free to choose economic reasoning as justification for climate policies. That is, some of the text reads as if a policy-maker is free to choose whether to base policy on economic or ethical and justice considerations, choosing between these two ways of evaluation is simply an option. Some of these provisions follow with responses in italics
Chapter 3 page 6 says:
Many different analytic methods are available for evaluating policies. Methods may be quantitative (for example, cost‐benefit analysis, integrated assessment modeling, and multi‐criteria analysis) or qualitative (for example, sociological and participatory approaches). However, no single best method can provide a comprehensive analysis of policies. A mix of methods is often needed to understand the broad effects, attributes, trade‐offs, and complexities of policy choices; moreover, policies often address multiple objectives (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)
Although economic analyses can provide policy-makers with valuable information such as which technologies will achieve ethically determined goals at lowest cost, thereby providing criteria for making remedies cost-effective, there are serious ethical problems with cost-benefit analyses used prescriptively to set emissions reductions targets. Some of these are alluded to in IPCC Chapters 3 and 4, others are not acknowledged. Because of the prevalence of cost-benefit justifications for climate change policies, future IPCC reports could make a contribution by identifying all of the ethical issues raised by cost-benefit analyses.
Any decision about climate change is likely to promote some values and damage others. These may be values of very different sorts. In decision making, different values must therefore be put together or balanced against each other. (IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)
This provision can be understood as condoning a consequentialist approach to climate policy that fails to acknowledge deontological limits. Since when any nation makes policy on climate change it affects poor people and vulnerable nations around the world, there are serious procedural justice issues which go unacknowledged in this section and, for the most part, all throughout Chapter 3. Nowhere does the chapter acknowledge that when a climate policy is under development at the national level, nations have no right to compare costs to them of implementing policies with the harms to others that have not consented to the method of valuation being used to determine quantitative value.
Ideally, emissions should be reduced in each place to just the extent that makes the marginal cost of further reductions the same everywhere. One way of achieving this result is to have a carbon price that is uniform across the world; or it might be approximated by a mix of policy instruments (see Section 3.8 ). (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)
This statement fails to acknowledge that emissions reductions amounts should be different in different places according to well accepted principles of distributive justice. Although other sections of the chapter acknowledge that responsibility for climate change is a matter of distributive justice, this section and others leave the impression that climate policy can be based upon economic efficiency grounds alone. The way to cure this problem is to continue to reference other sections that recognize ethical limits in setting policy on the basis of efficiency.
(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)
Since, for efficiency, mitigation should take place where it is cheapest, emissions of GHG should be reduced in many developing countries, as well as in rich ones. However, it does not follow that mitigation must be paid for by those developing countries; rich countries may pay for mitigation that takes place in poor countries. Financial flows between countries make it possible to separate the question of where mitigation should take place from the question of who should pay for it. Because mitigating climate change demands very large‐scale action, if put in place these transfers might become a significant factor in the international distribution of wealth. Provided appropriate financial transfers are made, the question of where mitigation should take place is largely a matter for the economic theory of efficiency, tempered by ethical considerations. But the distribution of wealth is amatter of justice among countries, and a major issue in the politics of climate change (Stanton, 2011). It is partly a matter of distributive justice, which economics can take into account, but compensatory justice may also be involved, which is an issue for ethics. (Section 3.3).(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)
There are a host of potential ethical problems with mitigation taking place in one part of the world to satisfy the ethical obligations of a nation in another part of the world which is emitting above its fair share of safe global emissions that are not mentioned in this article. Included in these problems are:
Environmental Sufficiency. There are many technical challenges in assuring that a project in one part of the world that seeks to reduce ghg by an amount that otherwise would be required of a polluter will actually succeed in achieving the reductions particularly when the method of reduction is reliant on biological removal of carbon.
Permanence. Many proposed projects for reducing carbon in one part of the world to offset reductions ethically required in another part of the world raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by the project will stay out of the atmosphere forever, a requirement that is required to achieve the environmental equivalence to ghg emissions reductions that would be achieved at the source.
Leakage. Many proposed projects used to offset emissions reductions of high-emitters raise serious questions about whether carbon reduced by a project at one location will result in actual reductions in emissions because the activity which is the subject of the offset is resumed at another location.
Additionality. A project that is proposed in another part of the world to offset emissions reductions of a high-emitting entity may not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons.
Allowing Delay In Investing In New Technology. The ability to rely on a cheaper emissions reductions project in another part of the world as a substitute of reducing emissions creates an excuse for high-emitting entities to delay investment in technologies that will reduce the pollution load. This may create a practical problem when emissions reductions obligations are tightened in the future.
Chapter 3 also treats other important ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. They include:
3.3 Justice, equity and responsibility,
3.3.1 Causal and moral responsibility
3.3.2 Intergenerational justice and rights of future people
3.3.4 Historical responsibility and distributive justice
3.3.5 Intra‐generational justice: compensatory justice and historical responsibility
3.3.6 Legal concepts of historical responsibility
3.3.7 Geoengineering, ethics, and justice
3.4 Values and wellbeing
3.4.1 Non‐human values
3.4.2 Cultural and social values
3.4.4 Aggregation of wellbeing
3.4.5 Lifetime wellbeing
3.4.6 Social welfare functions
3.4.7 Valuing population
III. Some Additional Gaps In Chapter 3
Some of the gaps in Chapter 3 on ethical issues raised by climate change policy-making include: (1) ethics of decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty, (2) whether action or non-action of other nations affects a nation’s responsibility for climate change, (3) how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation, (4) when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science, and (5) who is responsible to for climate refugees and what are their responsibilities.
The last entry in this series will continue the analyses of IPCC Chapter 3 on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts and Chapter 4 on Sustainability and Equity.
Brown, 2012, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change Ethics In Light of a Thirty-Five Year Debate, Routledge-Earthscan, 2012
On Monday June 2, the US press began to shine a spotlight on the predictable political warfare breaking out over the Obama administration’s new proposed climate change rules. Yet, there are at least four crucial facts about any US response to climate change that continue to be largely ignored by the US media coverage of this food fight. They include: (1) a 35 year US delay on climate action has made the problem extraordinarily challenging to solve, (2) US greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions are more than any country responsible for rise in atmospheric concentrations to present dangerous levels, (3) US ghg emissions not only threaten the US with climate disruption but endanger many of the poorest people around the world, (4) the Obama administration’s pledge to reduce ghg emissions is far short of the US fair share of safe global emissions.
For over 35 years the US Academy of Sciences has been warning Americans about the threat of climate change. In 1977, Robert M. White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote a report for the US Academy that concluded that CO2 released during the burning of fossil fuel could have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society. By the late 1980s, scientists around the world agreed that action by the world governments was needed to avoid the threat of climate change. In June in 1988, a conference of the world’s governments and scientists proposed that developed nations reduce their emissions by 20% by 2000. The US, virtually standing alone among developed countries, refused to commit to any emissions reductions targets citing scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy. The 35 year delay in taking significant action has made the task of avoiding dangerous climate change increasingly more challenging. In fact, most climate scientists are alarmed that the world is now running out of time to prevent very dangerous climate change. The 35 year delay has now created a need for extraordinarily steep ghg reductions worldwide. The longer the world waits, the more difficult and costly it will be to avoid dangerous climate change.
Opponents of US action on climate change loudly now argue that the US should not act until China commits to acts correspondingly siting that China is now the world’s largest emitter of ghg. Yet they conveniently ignore the fact that the United States is a much larger emitter of ghgs than China in per capita and historical emissions. The atmosphere is like a bathtub, it has a limited volume, and because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere it makes little difference where the emissions come from; the bathtub continues to fill. The US more than any other country has been responsible for filling the atmospheric bathtub with ghgs above levels that existed before the beginning of the industrial revolution to current dangerous levels. Given there is limited atmospheric space left before ghg concentrations exceed very dangerous levels, the international community expects the United States to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, it is not asking American to reduce China’s share.
The political fight in the United States often exclusively has focused on climate harms to the United States if it does not take climate action compared to the costs to the US of taking action. Such a framing ignores that it is tens of millions of poor people around the world who will be most harmed by climate change if high-emitting nations fail to reduce their emissions to their fair share 0f safe global emissions. For this reason, climate change raises civilization challenging questions of justice and fairness, a feature of climate change that the US press is largely ignoring while it focuses on harms and benefits to the United States alone. Climate change creates US obligations to poor people and places around the world that are most at risk.
In 2009, President Obama promised the world that the US would strive to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions by 2020. He did this knowing that the United States would need to adopt additional policies to achieve this very modest goal. Because the US Congress has refused to act, the Obama administration proposed the regulation this week that has triggered the political firestorm. Missing from the coverage of the proposed regulations, is that the Obama pledge on ghg emissions reductions falls far short of any reasonable judgment about what the US fair share of safe global emissions is. This is so because to have any reasonable hope of preventing dangerous climate change, the entire world must reduce its emissions by much greater amounts than the US 2009 commitment and the United States is at the high-end of national historical and per capita emissions. To having any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change the US and other high-emitting nations will need to reduce their emissions at much greater rates than the average for the rest of the world. Basic justice requires this.
Editor’s Note: The lead author of the following article on the climate contrarians is Dr. Robert Nadeau, Professor Emeritus, George Mason University. I am a minor contributing author. This article continues a series of 15 previous articles on the “Climate Change Disinformation Campaign” that can be found under that topic in the Index on this website.
Crimes Against Humanity: The Genocidal Campaign of the Climate Change Contrarians.
When scientists make presentations at meetings or conferences on the existing and projected impacts of climate change, they describe in jargon laden language and in emotionally neutral terms what their research has revealed about these impacts. But during informal conversations over a few beers during the evening or late at night, these scientists no longer feel obliged to divorce their scientific heads from their human hearts. On these occasions, they use colorful and often profane language to express their disdain and contempt for the small number of scientists known as global warming skeptics who are well compensated by conservative think tanks for misinterpreting and abusing scientific knowledge.
The scientists involved in these conversations also vent their anger toward the oil and energy companies that sponsor massive disinformation campaigns on radio and television designed to convince Americans that their security, peace and economic well-being are utterly dependent on the consumption of increasing amounts of “clean and plentiful” fossil fuels. They say unkind things about the mangers of the American news media for running endless stories about the human suffering and financial losses caused by extreme weather events and saying nothing about the fact that climate change is contributing to the frequency and intensity of these events. But if the conversation goes on long enough and the hour is late, one or more of these scientists will say what the others firmly believe but are reluctant to admit—the fate of the Earth is sealed by the ignorance, lack of compassion, and inexhaustible greed of its human inhabitants and life on this planet for our children and grandchildren will be little more than a brutal struggle for survival.
The reasons why these empirically oriented rational thinkers have come to this dire conclusion are abundantly obvious in recent scientific research on the existing and projected impacts of climate change. This research has not only shown that massive reductions in worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases over the next two decades will be required to prevent the most disastrous impacts of climate change. It has also revealed that if we fail, as now seems likely, to accomplish this feat, there is a high probability that life on this planet for our children and grandchildren will be little more than a brutal struggle for survival. (Hansen et al. 2013) But as the scientists involved in the late night conversations know all too well, this research is largely ignored by the mainstream media, rarely discussed by political leaders and economic planners, and conspicuously missing in the rancorous public debate about climate change.
The usual explanation why this insane situation exists, as climate scientist Michael Mann put it in a recent article in the New York Times, is that there is a “violent strain of anti-science” in this country which “infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on television.” (Mann, 2014) What Mann did not say in this article but knows very well is that the primary source of this infection is the well-financed, highly coordinated, and very effective campaign of the climate change contrarians.
The Campaign of the Climate Change Contrarians
This campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists that had been paid by the tobacco industry to challenge the scientific evidence that smoking is harmful to human health were hired by oil and energy companies to challenge the scientific evidence about climate change. (Oreskes and Conway, 2010) The campaign greatly expanded during the 1990s after some increasingly vocal scientists warned that the threats of climate change were menacingly real and government must regulate emissions of greenhouse gases. (Pooley, 2014) The intent of the new coalition of free market think tanks, corporations, right wing conservatives, and billionaires with vested interests in the fossil fuel business was to accomplish one mayor objective. The objective was to convince the American electorate, along with their representatives in government, that there is no scientific basis for believing that climate change is a serious problem caused by human activities.
The phrase that best describes how this case was made on advertisements on radio and television, conservative talk shows, op-eds in major newspapers and magazines, and in the allegedly expert testimony of a small number of “contrarian” scientists is “Big Lie.” The phrase was originally coined by Adolf Hitler in “Mein Kamp” to describe a lie so colossal that is impossible to believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so famously.” George Orwell later appropriated the phrase in Nineteen Eighty Four and redefined it to mean “to tell deliberate lies while believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient.”
Orwell also said that the tellers of Big Lies were capable of holding two contradictory truths in mind and believing in both of them. For example, the climate change contrarians repeatedly and earnestly claimed that they were great lovers of science, had enormous respect for scientists, and were only concerned about the uncertainties and lack of scientific rigor in climate science. And yet they launched a full scale attack on the personal and intellectual integrity of climate scientists, did everything possible to destroy their reputations and end their careers, and completely misrepresented and distorted their scientific research.
For example, the campaign launched a full scale assault on climate scientists associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) at the University of East Anglia in 2009 after their emails were hacked and widely distributed over the internet. Some of the emails in this “private” correspondence contained unkind words about research done by scientists in the employ of the petroleum industry and others contained statements that could be interpreted out of context as suppressing this research. But in the view of the climate change contrarians, these comments constituted sufficient evidence to charge all IPCC scientists with everything from professional misconduct to engaging in a conspiracy to suppress scientific research that was not in accord with their ideological and political agendas.
Also consider what occurred after two climate change contrarians claimed that IPPC scientists made two scientifically inaccurate predictions about the environmental impacts of global warming in their 2007 report. One of these predictions, the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, was made in a 738 page working paper and did not appear in the 2007 report. The other prediction about crop failures in North Africa did appear in the background information section of the 3,000 page report but had no bearing whatsoever on the conclusions drawn. Nevertheless, the lawyers for the prosecution in the campaign of the climate change contrarians accused the IPCC scientists of committing fraud and coined the term “climategate” to refer to an alleged conspiracy to cover up or suppress the truth about climate change.
The ability of the climate change contrarians to hold two contradictory truths in mind and believing in both of them was also apparent in an email written by Republican spin doctor Frank Lutz to the Bush administration in 2002: “The scientific debate is closing against us but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe the scientific issues are settled, their views will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” (Lutz, 2007)
During the years that followed, the campaign of the climate change contrarians realized this goal by contributing large sums to conservative think tanks and political action groups, funding institutes that produced studies which claimed that there was no scientific consensus about climate change, and lavishly compensating allegedly “independent” scientists who were willing to testify that this claim was valid before Congressional committees. The campaign also used its resources to generate numerous economic analyses which allegedly revealed that any attempts by government to curb emissions of greenhouse gases would have a devastating impact on the American economy. (Broder, 2010)
American Legislative Exchange Council
The unacknowledged legislators of the climate change agenda in the United States are members of an organization known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to the ALEC website, this organization is committed to “Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty” and “works to advance fundamental principles of free-enterprise, limited government and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.” (ALEC, 2014) What the website does not say is that ALEC provides a forum for corporations to collaborate with members of state legislatures to create model bills which the legislators will later introduce and lobby for in their own legislature. The website also fails to mention that the model legislation is almost entirely written by the corporations and introduced by the legislators without any mention of the source.
Also, nothing is said on this website about the fact that ALEC does not disclose its membership, meets in secret, and the general public are not told where the meetings are held and would be forcefully expelled if they tried to attend. It is also worth noting that the allegedly non-partisan members of state legislatures are right wing Republicans and that prominent and powerful right wing Republicans in both houses of Congress regularly attend the meetings of this secret organization. According the New York Times, special interests have “effectively turned ALEC’s lawmaker members into stealth lobbyists, providing them with talking points, signaling how they vote, and collaborating on bills effecting hundreds of issues.” (McIntire, 2012) -And the Guardian described ALEC as “a dating service for Republican legislators and big corporations, bringing them together to frame rightwing agendas in the form of model bills.” (Pilkington, 2013a)
In December of 2013, the membership of ALEC consisted of 1,801 members of state legislatures, more than 85 members of Congress, fourteen sitting or former governors considered alumni, and about 300 representatives of corporations, foundations, and think tanks. (Pinkelton and Goldberg, 2013) About 98% of the funding for ALEC comes from corporations, trade associations, and corporate foundations and the contributions of the corporations alone are estimated to be $6 million a year. Some of this corporate money is used to pay for “scholarships” that help to cover the costs of the family vacations that legislators take to ALEC conventions at posh resorts in August after their legislative sessions end. (PR Watch, 2011)
The state legislators who are members of ALEC introduce about 1000 pieces of model legislation each year and about 200 or more pass into law. One the first measures signed by then Governor of Texas George W. Bush was model legislation from ALEC that granted corporations immunity from prosecution if they told regulators about their violations of environmental law. Other model legislation from ALEC was designed to accomplish the following: obviate the decision by the Supreme Court to allow the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants; grant Congress the authority to block the enforcement of the Clean Air and Water Act; authorize state governments to open up federal lands to oil, gas and coal exploration; eliminate waste reduction and mandatory recycling laws; give legal protections to corporations against the victims of lead poisoning; eliminate federal regulations on coal combustion waste; call on the federal government to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and criminalize environmental activism. (Steinbruner et. al., 2013)
The Koch Brothers
The poster children of the campaign of the climate change contrarians are 78 years old Charles Koch and his 73 year old brother David Koch. The Koch brothers are American oligarchs who preside over a vast financial empire and know from experience that money is power and can buy elections and set the political agenda at all levels of government. According to Kenneth Vogel, the “billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are among the most dominant forces in American politics, rivaling even the official Republican Party in its ability to shape policy debates and win elections.”(Vogel, 2014) The brothers managed to accomplish this feat by creating a vast network of politically active non-profits that operate in concert and have a shared ideological agenda. This network is so vast that a detailed diagram of its organization and money flows took up half a page in the print edition of the Washington Post. (Washington Post, 2014) Some of the better known groups in this network are Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action for America, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Club for Growth.
Like most of the other billionaires who support the campaign of the climate change contrarians, the Koch brothers have vested interests in the fossil fuel business. The bothers are 85% owners of a multinational corporation, Koch Industries, whose core business is the refining and distribution of petroleum and the manufacture of chemicals, fiber, minerals, fertilizers, pulp and paper. Koch Industries also owns 2 million acres of land in Alberta, Canada which contains enormous quantities of tar sands oil. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from its source in the Boreal forest in Alberta to the Gulf Coast. If the pipeline is built, the Koch brothers and other billionaires in the fossil fuel business could realize billions of dollars in profits. Not surprisingly, the campaign of the climate change contrarians is doing everything possible to ensure that the pipeline will be approved by the State Department and President Obama.
The message conveyed to the American people in advertisements on radio and television sponsored by this campaign is that tar sands oil is a safe and reliable source of energy and the Keystone XL pipeline will create jobs, promote economic growth, and help to free the United States from dependence on foreign oil. The campaign has also used its considerable resources to dominate and control the public debate about the pipeline and to ensure that virtually nothing is said in this debate about the scientific research on its potential environmental impacts. For example, there has been no mention to my knowledge in the mainstream news media that scientific research has shown that the process of extracting, transporting, refining, and burning of tar sands oil results in significantly higher amounts of greenhouse gas emissions than for conventional oil. (Biello, 2013) And only a few passing mentions were made in the back pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post of the results of recent scientific studies on the environmental impacts of these emissions.
One of these studies was done by James Hansen, one of the best known and highly respected climate scientists. Hansen and his team calculated how many gigatons (billions of tons) of carbon dioxide is contained in the tar sands oil in the Boreal forest in Alberta. This calculation revealed that the number of gigatons of carbon dioxide contained in tars sands is twice that previously emitted by burning oil during the entire period in which oil has been a source of energy. They then calculated the amount of carbon dioxide that would be in the atmosphere if we fully exploit the tar sands oil and continue to burn the remaining supplies of oil, gas and coal. In this scenario, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be higher than in the Pliocene era more than 3.5 million years ago. Further increases in average Earth temperature would result in the rapid melting of the ice sheets, a sea level rise of at least 50 feet above current levels, and the extinction of twenty to fifty percent of the species on this planet. To put it bluntly, the price that could be paid for the use of all of these “safe and reliable sources of energy” would be an end to human civilization. As Hansen put it in language anyone can understand, “Game over for the climate.” (Hansen, 2012)
If the pipeline is built, the Koch brothers could potentially realize $100 billion in profits from the tar sands oil contained in the 2 million acres of land owned by Koch Industries in Alberta. The net worth of the brothers is now exceeded only by that of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison and ranks fourth in the world. Add the potential profits from the tar sand oil and the net worth of the Koch brothers would rank first in the world. The question here is why two impossible rich old men would feel compelled to become even richer by dumping enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to create an environmental disaster that would imperil the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The answer, if there is one, is that the Koch brothers, along with virtually all of the other members of their network of politically active groups and shadow government, are true believers in market fundamentalism.
In this quasi-religious belief system, there are two articles of faith that the true believers regard as transcendent and immutable truths. The first is that the dynamics of free market systems can resolve virtually all human problems, including the climate crisis, if they are not interfered with by government. The second is that the growth and expansion of free market systems lifts all boats and serves the greater good and the only legitimate role of government in the management of economic activities is to promote and enable this growth and expansion. This explains why the Koch brothers and the other participants in the campaign of climate change contrarians feel justified in buying elections and creating a shadow government that serves their vested interests and advances their ideological agenda. It also explains why they have no compunctions about subverting and violating the principles of democratic government and telling Big Orwellian Lies about the science of climate change.
There Ought to Be a Law
There are two definitions of crimes against humanity in international law that could apply to the campaign of the climate change contrarians. The first is “grave offences that are part of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population,” and the second is “inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical harm.” (Brown, 2013) -There is no doubt that the Big Lies told by the contrarians about climate science constitute a “widespread and systematic attack against” all of humanity. There is also no doubt that the contrarians were fully aware that they were misleading people in ways that could eventually result in “great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental and physical harm.” It is not possible for a variety of reasons to charge the Koch brothers and the other contrarians in their vast network with crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But we could at least begin to call them by a name that is more appropriate for those who have committed crimes against humanity.
The dictionary definition of a contrarian is a person who takes an opposing view. This implies that a climate change contrarian has a view of climate change that is opposed to and could be as valid as other views. My candidate for a more accurate and appropriate definition of climate change contrarian is as follows: “One who lies about the science of climate change and imperils the human future to protect and enhance his or her financial interests and has no regard for the principles of democracy or the welfare or will of the people of the United States.” But since this definition is too long to routinely use in descriptions of the activities of the contrarians, a better idea might be to add the word genocidal in all future references to their campaign. Hence the new name would be the “genocidal campaign of the climate change contrarians.”
One can hope that the Koch brothers and the members of their vast network will have a crisis of conscience and use their money, power and influence to prevent the ecological disaster they are now in the process of creating. But in the likely event that this does not happen, those of us who care about the human future must be prepared and willing to wage a war aptly described by the American philosopher William James: “What we need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be compatible with their spiritual selves as war proved itself to be incompatible.” (James, 1902)
The soldiers in the volunteer army that wages the moral equivalent of war must not only be prepared and willing to publicly challenge the Big Lies told by the contrarians about climate science and to expose and ridicule the motives of the tellers of these lies. They must also be prepared and willing to fight all the battles required to replace the Koch shadow government with a government that will work tirelessly to prevent an ecological disaster on a scope and scale that is virtually impossible to even imagine. The weapons that will be useful in fighting these battles are protests, rallies, town meetings, boycotts, and political campaigns promoted and organized with videos, documentaries, films and web-based communications networks.
Many people will be understandably reluctant for both personal and professional reasons to respond to this call to arms in a war compatible with their spiritual selves. But what is at stake in this war is not access to scarce national resources, the balance of power between nation-states, or the economic and political hegemony of the United States. It is a human future in which our children and grandchildren can live secure, rich and meaningful lives on a flourishing Earth. This is not merely the work of an age, but a work that could preserve the memory of all ages, and it hard to imagine that anyone could serve a greater good or answer to higher calling.
Hansen, J., Kharecha P., Sato M., Masson-Delmotte V., Ackerman F., et al.,2013, Assessing Dangerous Climate Change: Required Reductions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature,” PLoS One 8(12). Vermeer M., Rahmstorf S. (2009) Global Sea Level Rise Linked to Global Temperature, Proceedings National Academy Sciences USA PubMed NCBI Google Scholar; Grinsted A., Moore J., Jevrejeva S. (2010) Reconstructing Sea Rise from Paleo and Projected Temperature Rise, PubMed/NCBI Google Scholar; Liu J., Song M., Hu Y., Ren X. (2012) Changes in the Strength and Width of the Hadley Circulation, PubMed/NCBI Google Scholar; Parmesan C., Ecological and Evolutionary Response to Recent Climate Change, Annual Review of Ecology and Evolution of Systems 2006, 37: 637-639; 7: 2287-2312; Marshall J. and Soloman S., editors, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change., Climate Change 2007 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Final Report of Synthesis and Assessment Product,” 4.1, 4.2, 2.3, 1.2. U.S. Climate Change Science Program, avail from: http://www.usgcrp.gov;Rahmstorf S., Coumou D. (2011) Increase in Extreme Weather Events in a Warming World, Proceedings National Academy Sciences USA PubMed/NCBI Google Scho
Hansen, J., 2012, Game Over for the Climate,”New York Times, May 9. 2012.
James, W., 1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (New York: Longmans Green), p. 367.
Ethics and climate has explained in numerous articles on this site why climate change policy raises civilization challenging ethical issues which have practical significance for policy-making. This article identifies five common arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to proposed climate change laws and policies that cannot be adequately responded to without full recognition of serious ethical problems with these arguments. Yet the national debate on climate change and its press coverage in the United States and many other countries continue to ignore serious ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies. The failure to identify the ethical problems with these arguments greatly weakens potential responses to these arguments. These arguments include:
1. A nation should not adopt climate change policies because these policies will harm the national economy.
This argument is obviously ethically problematic because it fails to consider that high emitting governments and entities have clear ethical obligations to not harm others. Economic arguments in opposition to climate change policies are almost always arguments about self-interest that ignore strong global obligations. Climate change is a problem that is being caused mostly by high emitting nations and people that are harming and putting at risk poor people and the ecological systems on which they depend around the world. It is clearly ethically unacceptable for those causing the harms to others to only consider the costs to them of reducing the damages they are causing while ignoring their responsibilities to not harm others.
It is not only high emitting nations and corporations that are ignoring the ethical problems with cost-based arguments against climate change policies. Some environmental NGOs usually fail to spot the ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies based upon the cost or reducing ghg emissions to the emitters. Again and again proponents of action on climate change have responded to economic arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change by making counter economic arguments such as climate change policies will produce new jobs or reduce adverse economic impacts that will follow from the failure to reduce the threat of climate change. In responding this way, proponents of climate change policy action are implicitly confirming the ethically dubious notion that public policy must be based upon economic self-interest rather than responsibilities to those who will be most harmed by inaction. There is, of course, nothing wrong with claims that some climate change policies will produce jobs, but such assertions should also say that emissions should be reduced because high-emitters of ghgs have duties and obligations to do so.
2. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act to reduce their emissions because this will put the nation that reduces its emissions in a disadvantageous economic position.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies at the national level have argued that high emitting nations should not act to reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act accordingly. In the United States, for instance, it is frequently said that the United States should not reduce its ghg emissions until China does so. Implicit in this argument is the notion that governments should only adopt policies which are in their economic interest to do so. Yet as a matter of ethics, as we have seen, all nations have a strong ethical duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and national economic self-interest is not an acceptable justification for failing to reduce national ghg emissions. Nations are required as a matter of ethics to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions; they are not required to reduce other nations’ share of safe global emissions. And so, nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.
3. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions as long as other nations are emitting high levels of ghg because it will do no good for one nation to act if other nations do not act.
A common claim similar to argument 2 is the assertion nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until others do so because it will do no good for one nation to reduce its emissions while high-emitting nations continue to emit without reductions. It is not factually true that a nation that is emitting ghgs at levels above its fair share of safe global emissions is not harming others because they are continuing to cause elevated atmospheric concentrations of ghg which will cause some harm to some places and people than would not be experienced if the nation was emitting ghg at lower levels. And so, since all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, nations have a duty to reduce the harm that they are causing to others even if there is no adequate global response to climate change.
4. No nation need act to reduce the threat of climate change until all scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts are resolved.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies have argued that nations need not act to reduce the threat of climate change because there are scientific uncertainties about the magnitude and timing of human-induced climate change impacts. There are a host of ethical problems with these arguments. First, as we have explained in detail on this website under the category of disinformation campaign in the index, some arguments that claim that that there is significant scientific uncertainty about human impacts on climate have been based upon lies or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science. Second, other scientific uncertainty arguments are premised on cherry picking climate change science, that is focusing on what is unknown about climate change while ignoring numerous conclusions of the scientific community that are not in serious dispute. Third. other claims that there is scientific uncertainty about human induced climate change have not been subjected to peer-review. Fourth some arguments against climate change policies on the basis of scientific uncertainty often rest on the ethically dubious notion that nothing should be done to reduce a threat that some are imposing on others until all uncertainties are resolved. They make this argument despite the fact that if high emitters of ghg wait until all uncertainties are resolved before reducing their ghg emissions:
It will likely be too late to prevent serious harm if the mainstream scientific view of climate change is later vindicated;
It will be much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm if nations wait, and
The argument to wait ignores the fact that those who will be harmed the most have not consented to be put at greater risk by waiting.
For all of these reasons, arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change based upon scientific uncertainty fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
5. Nations need only set ghg emissions reduction targets to levels consistent with their national interest.
Nations continue to set ghg emissions reductions targets at levels based upon their self-interest despite the fact that any national target must be understood to be implicitly a position on two issues that cannot be thought about clearly without considering ethical obligations. That is, every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on : (a) a safe ghg atmospheric stabilization target; and (b) the nation’s fair share of total global ghg emissions that will achieve safe ghg atmospheric concentrations.
A position on a global ghg atmospheric stabilization target is essentially an ethical question because a global ghg atmospheric concentration goal will determine to what extent the most vulnerable people and the ecological systems on which they depend will be put at risk. And so a position that a nation takes on atmospheric ghg atmospheric targets is necessarily an ethical issue because nations and people have an ethical duty to not harm others and the numerical ghg atmospheric goal will determine how much harm polluting nations will impose on the most vulnerable.
Once a global ghg atmospheric goal is determined, a nation’s ghg emissions reduction target is also necessarily implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global ghg emissions, an issue of distributive justice and ethics at its core.
And so any national ghg emissions target is inherently a position on important ethical and justice issues and thus setting a national emissions reduction target based upon national interest alone fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
The National Academy of Sciences and its British counterpart, the Royal Society, have published Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, a very easy to understand primer on the science of greenhouse-driven global warming. Although there is not a lot new in this report as a matter of science, it makes the strong scientific consensus on human-induced climate change that has existed for some time clearer and more accessible for non-scientists particularly on the major issues that need to be understood by policy-makers and interested citizens. The report is written in simple language and filled with pictures and graphs which illustrate why almost all mainstream scientists actually engaged in climate change science are virtually certain that human activity is causing very dangerous climate change.
This report is ethically significant because:
a. It is a report of two of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, namely US National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. Because of the prestige of both of the institutions writing this report, those opposing actual climate change have an ethical duty to acknowledge that the scientific basis supporting action on climate change is entitled to respect. They cannot reasonably claim that there is no strong scientific basis for policy action on climate change or even worse that climate change science is a “hoax.” Which institutions have made claims that humans are engaged in dangerous behavior has ethical significance. If, for instance, someone is told by an expert in toxicology that chemicals he or she is discharging into a water supply will kill people, he or she has more of an ethical duty to stop discharging the chemicals until the issue of toxicology issues are resolved than they would if the claim about poisoning came from a religious leader or a tax accountant. When claims about danger are made by world-class scientific experts, as a matter of ethics, the burden of proof shifts to those potentially harming others to show that their behavior is not dangerous.
Skepticism in climate science should still be encouraged, but skeptics must play by the rules of science including: (a) subjecting all claims contradicting the mainstream scientific view on climate change to peer-review, (b) subjecting claims that humans are not causing dangerous climate impacts to review by scientific institutions that have sufficient broad interdisciplinary expertise among its members to review such claims against all the contrary evidence from all relevant scientific disciplines, and (c) acknowledging all the contradictory evidence. Given the enormity of harms to citizens around the world and future generations predicted by mainstream scientists, those who seek to undermine proposed climate change policies on scientific certainty grounds should be understood to have the burden of proof to show by high levels of proof that human-induced climate change is not dangerous.
b. The report includes clear explanations of the scientific evidence in regard to specific justifications for not taking action on climate change very frequently made by those who oppose climate change policies. These justifications and responses to them include, for instance:
Scientists don’t know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities?
Scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities from an understanding of basic physics, comparing observations with models, and fingerprinting the detailed patterns of climate change caused by different human and natural influences.
Direct measurements of CO₂ in the atmosphere and in air trapped in ice show that atmospheric CO₂ increased by about 40 percent from 1800 to 2012. Measurements of different forms of carbon reveal that this increase is because of human activities.
The recent slowdown of warming means that climate change is no longer happening?
No, recent weather is not evidence that warming is not happening. Since the very warm year 1998 that followed the strong 1997-1998 El Niño, the increase in average surface temperature has slowed relative to the previous decade of rapid temperature increases. Despite the slower rate of warming, the 2000s were warmer than the 1990s. A short-term slowdown in the warming of Earth’s surface does not invalidate our understanding of long-term changes in global temperature.
CO₂ is already in the atmosphere naturally, and so human emissions are not significant.
Human activities have significantly disturbed the natural carbon cycle by extracting long-buried fossil fuels and burning them for energy, thus releasing CO₂ into the atmosphere.
Variations in output from the sun have caused the changes in the Earth’s climate in recent decades.
The sun provides the primary source of energy driving Earth’s climate system, but its variations have played very little role in the climate-changes observed in recent decades. Direct satellite measurements since the late 1970s show no net increase in the sun’s output while, at the same time, global surface temperatures have increased.
If the world is actually warming, some recent winters and summers would not have been so cold?
Global warming is a long-term trend, but that does not mean that every year will be warmer than the previous one. Day-to-day and year-to-year changes in weather patterns will continue to produce some unusually cold days and nights, and winters and summers, even as the climate warms.
A few degrees of warming is not cause for concern.
Even though an increase of a few degrees in global average temperature does not sound like much, global average temperature during the last ice age was only about 4°C to 5°C (7 °F to 9 °F) colder than now. Global warming of just a few degrees will be associated with widespread changes in regional and local temperature and precipitation, as well as with increases in some types of extreme weather events.
These are only a few of the justifications that have been made by those denying responsibility to reduce the threat of climate change that are directly and clearly refuted in the report.
c. The report also has ethical significance because its so clear that policy makers cannot reasonably claim that there is no scientific evidence about the major issues of concern to the climate change scientific community. As we have explained on this website, policy-makers may not, as a matter of ethics, rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science once they are informed by respectable scientific organizations that people and organizations within their jurisdiction are likely harming others around the world. This responsibility to not rely upon their own uninformed opinions increases when there are easy to understand explanations from respected scientific institutions of the scientific basis for concluding that people within their jurisdiction are harming others. The new report from the US Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society is such a clear explanation. And so government officials have a strong duty to go beyond their 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 the interdisciplinary scientific issues that make up climate change science.
d. Because politicians have an affirmative duty to rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm until peer-reviewed science establishes that the mainstream view is erroneous, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand the limitations of any politician’s views that opposes action on climate change on scientific grounds particularly when there are easy to understand explanations of climate change science such as that in the new US National Academy and Royal Academy report. The new report will enable the press to fulfill its journalistic responsibilities by asking more precise and clearer questions of those who deny the mainstream scientific view.
For these reasons, the new report is ethically significant.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor
Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law,
As we have explained in a previous article in Ethicsandclimate, government officials who have responsibility for policies that may affect climate change may not rely on their own uninformed opinion on climate change science. They have an ethical duty, unlike ordinary citizens, to take positions on climate change that are informed by a scientifically sound understanding of human-induced warming. That is they have a responsibility to go beyond uninformed opinion on the science of climate change as long as mainstream scientists are claiming that people within their jurisdiction are greatly threatening others and ecological systems outside their jurisdiction. Ethics requires that they not engage in willful blindness or unexamined ignorance if mainstream scientists are concluding that their constituents are greatly harming others.
Despite a firestorm over comments he made about climate change, by a vote of 42-8 on December 11, 2013 the Pennsylvania Senate voted to confirm Christopher Abruzzo as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. (Philly.com 2013) Abruzzo touched off controversy last week when he told lawmakers during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was unaware of any “adverse impacts” of climate change on human beings or animals. (Cusick, 2013)
Abruzzo also told the committee that although he does believe climate change is occurring and that it seems to be at least partially attributable to human factors, he does not view it as harmful and sees no reason for Pennsylvania to adopt new policies to address it. He further said, “I think Pennsylvania’s already doing at least its fair share.” (Cusick, 2013)
Given that he will head the state agency responsible for protecting Pennsylvania’s environment, Mr. Abruzzo’s comments demonstrate astonishing ignorance about the science of climate change, Pennsylvania’s role in contributing to the problem, and the civilization challenging magnitude of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that the scientific community says are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.
Just last week, the US Academy of Sciences issued a new report about abrupt and potentially catastrophic events triggered by climate change. (US Academy, 2013) The report warned that the Earth is already seeing some abrupt changes like fast retreat of summer Arctic sea ice and that there is also a real risk that other rapid and drastic shifts could follow in the coming decades if the Earth keeps warming. These harsh impacts included widespread plant and animal extinctions and the creation of large “dead zones” in the ocean, the very kind of thing Mr. Abruzzo claimed to be unaware of.
Abruzzo’s blindness also appears to include ignorance of the civilization challenging magnitude of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that the scientific community has identified as necessary to prevent harsh climate change impacts. This September, for instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international organization created by the world’s governments to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate science, issued a report on this very subject. (IPCC, 2013) This report contained an emissions budget on total CO2 emissions for the entire world. If the international community does not emit greenhouse gases greater than the budget according to IPCC, 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 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. When other greenhouse gases that are being emitted around the world are taken into consideration, the remaining CO2 equivalent emissions budget is reduced to approximately 270 gigatons. (Carbon Briefing, 2013) This fact has led the climate scientists to strongly warn the international community that it is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and means the world will exceed the budget in 25 years at current emissions rates.
DEP Secretary designate Abruzzo is also staggeringly misinformed when he claimed that Pennsylvania is doing “its fair share.” According to a State DEP 2009 plan on climate change which was prepared at the end of the Rendell administration, Pennsylvania contributes a full 1 percent of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 4 percent of the United States contribution. (Pa DEP, 2009) The Pennsylvania population of approximately 12,742,886 is approximately 0.18 percent of global population of slightly over 7 billion people.
A strong case can be made that Pennsylvania should, as a matter of basic fairness, limit its emissions to achieve a greater percentage of greenhouse gas emissions reductions than required of the entire world to avoid dangerous climate change. This is so because, like all US states and most of the world’s developed nations, greenhouse emissions levels from Pennsylvania far exceed most of the world in per capita emissions, not to mention historical emissions that remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Because it has been determined that the entire world must reduce its emissions by over 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to prevent dangerous climate change, high-emitting nations or governments around the world, including US states, will need to reduce their emissions at levels greater than 80% on the basis of equity and fairness. To require each nation or government to reduce emissions by the same percentage amount would freeze into place unjust emission levels for high-emitting governments. For instance, if all nations need only reduce their emissions by equal percentage amounts, then a high emitting nation like the United States that emits CO2 at a rate of 17.3 tons per capita would be allowed to emit at a level 10 times more per capita than a country like Vietnam that emits 1.7 tons of GHG per capita. (World Bank, 2013)
An issue brief for New York State recently recognized the need of New York to set greenhouse gas emission targets on the basis of equity. (NY Statem When fairness is taken into account, the New York report acknowledged that New York must reduce its emissions by at least 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. And so, Pennsylvania is emitting climate change causing emissions far above its fair share of safe global emissions.
Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials, like Mr. Abruzzo, may not simply rely on their personal opinion as a matter of ethics. This is so because they have some power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions. That is, 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, like Mr. Abruzzo, are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may hide behind willful blindness.
Yet, Mr. Abruzzo and the Corbett administration appear to have no interest in reducing Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions to meet Pennsylvania’s global obligations.