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.
Because of the global scale and deepening urgency of problems like climate change, there is a growing consensus among many hard and behavioral scientists, ethicists, and international lawyers that there is a need for massive changes in the political, economic, and social systems that are the current dominant ideological frameworks for coordinating human behavior on Earth.
“Rebirth of the Sacred,” a new book by Robert Nadeau, includes important deeply interdisciplinary analyses of the causes of the human failures to protect the global environment ending with a call for a new synthesis of science, ethics, and religion that would form the basis for a world-wide social movement.
The book not only includes trenchant analyses of why current global economic and political systems are dysfunctional, it also contains very valuable explorations of many findings of contemporary physics, biology, and brain science which could form the basis of a new deeper understanding of the fact that all people around the world are part of one human community dependent upon the global environment. And so the book not only helps explain what is wrong with human affairs at a time of growing global environmental crises, it points to a way forward.
The book makes a very compelling argument about why neoclassical economic theory which is now dominating public policy prescriptions globally is based upon obsolete and scientifically disproven assumptions of 18th Century physics. As we have written about extensively on this website, there are numerous serious ethical problems with most economic analyses of climate change policy options which are based upon neoclassical economic assumptions. This new book, however, demonstrates that the neoclassical economic theory which both dominates global economic policy and often undermines climate change policy-making is not only deeply ethically flawed but also scientifically discredited. Thus the book’s explanation of the scientifically problematic assumptions of neoclassical economics is a valuable contribution to generating a better global understanding of what is wrong with the economic discourses that continue to be enormously influential in global affairs. For instance, the book explains why the widely held assumption that global markets, with a few minor government interventions, will solve pressing human problems is scientifically unsupportable.
Of particular value is the book’s explanation of recent brain science’s understanding of links between brain structure and human morality. In this regard the book concludes as follows which I now quote directly because of its potential importance:
There is now a growing consensus in both the hard and behavioral sciences that the human capacity to engage in spontaneous moral behavior is a product of evolution and is innate. And research in the behavioral sciences strongly suggest that the moral concepts and emotions associated with this behavior are universal in spite of the differences in standards for ethical behavior in diverse cultural contexts. For example, anthropologists Donald Brown (no relation to me) has compiled an impressively long list of these universal moral concepts and emotions, which includes distinctions between right and wrong; empathy; fairness; rights and obligations; prohibitions against murder, rape and other forms of violence; shame; taboos; and sanctions for wrongs against the community.
Studies done by anthropologists in existing hunter-gatherer tribes display a strong belief in fairness and reciprocity, a great capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a pronounced willingness to work cooperatively for the good of the entire community. And numerous studies done on both children and adults living in highly industrialized Western countries have revealed that a violation of the expectation that others will display a sense of fairness evokes feedbacks from the limbic system associated with outrage and indignation.
(Nadeau, 2013: 33)
And so the book argues that there are some moral universals which are consistent with scientific understanding of how the brain works and which can be appealed to to guide global behavior on serious global problems like climate change.
The book also describes important insights from brain science about the evolutionary development of some common universal moral responses by explaining differences in the brain structure that are responsible for nonverbal, spontaneous moral behavior triggered by mirror neurons and verbal, analytical responses to moral problems initiated in other parts of the brain. This distinction helps explain why some feelings of sympathy for others is felt at a deep level before rational cognition is experienced.
All of this is extraordinarily important for climate change ethics because it provides a scientific basis for the hope that appeals to morality and ethics can lead eventually to policy on climate change that is fair and just. That is, if these moral universals exist, then they can be used authoritatively to help people around the world see what is wrong with the dominant economic and political systems which are now structuring responses to global issues including climate change. This is extremely important because the dominant economic frames prescribing public policy outcomes pretend to be “value-neutral,” that is simply factual descriptions of the way the world works. To build social movements that change these frames, citizens around the world need to understand how these frames violate widely held ethical and moral values. For instance, the widely used justification for support of the existing global order is that markets will always lead to the best policy outcomes, yet not only is this claim dubious on scientific grounds as explained in this book, because unfettered markets can lead to unfair and unjust outcomes which are inconsistent with universally held ethical beliefs, an appeal to ethics and justice has the potential to generate wide-spread social opposition to using market ideology to solve serious global problems. If there is universal consensus on some moral issues, then generating wider understanding of how dominant discourses prevent attainment of these ethical and moral goals is a potent strategy for social change.
The book ends with a call for a new conversation between religion and science on the world’s most dangerous issues, a conversation in which religious sensibilities do not conflict with a scientific understanding of the evolution of the cosmos or moral sensibilities now understood by brain science. Yet an argument can be made that the first order problem is to achieve greater understanding of the moral bankruptcy of the dominant economic and political discourses which are leading to the current global crises. If this is true, all sectors of society, including religion and science, must help people understand how dominant economic and political discourses lead to ethically bankrupt outcomes.
Rebirth of the Sacred contains important insights about why dominant economic and political discourses lead to current global environmental crisis. Yet the best hope for changing the status quo may be if people armed with this understanding help others see why the status quo is morally bankrupt.
Nadeau, Robert, 2013, Rebirth of the Sacred, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law and Professor,
Widener University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Science and Technology,
A new peer-reviewed study by Dr. Robert Brulle from Drexel University documents how the funding of the climate change disinformation campaign has shifted in the last few years from corporations and some politically conservative foundations to pass-through 501(c) (3) foundations like Donors Trust and Donors Capital, whose funders cannot be traced.
Ethics and Climate Change has explained in great detail in 13 separate articles available in the Start Here and Index tab on this site under “Disinformation Campaign and Climate Ethics” why the climate change disinformation campaign is ethically abhorrent, and, in fact, is some new kind of crime or assault against humanity, gross human rights violation, or other kind of villainy. This is so, as explained in these articles, because although skepticism in science should be encouraged, the climate change disinformation campaign has engaged in tactics which can’t be understood as responsible skepticism. These tactics have included: (1) lying or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science, (2) cherry-picking climate science, (3) making specious claims about “bad” science, (4) focusing on what is unknown while ignoring what is not in dispute about climate change science, (5) using think tanks, front groups, and AstroTurf organizations to hide the real parties in interest, (6) manufacturing bogus science in conferences or publishing in non peer-reviewed journals, (7) hiring public relations firms to convince citizens that there is no basis for mainstream scientific conclusions about climate change, and (8) cyber-bullying climate scientists and journalists. These tactics are not responsible skepticism but morally abhorrent misinformation.
The new study reviews the sociological literature on the climate change disinformation campaign while examining what is known about funding for this phenomenon. Major conclusions of the study include:
Conservative foundations have bank-rolled denial. The largest and most consistent funders of organizations orchestrating climate change denial are a number of well-known conservative foundations, such as the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation. These foundations promote ultra-free-market ideas in many realms.
Koch and ExxonMobil have recently pulled back from publicly visible funding. From 2003 to 2007, the Koch Affiliated Foundations and the ExxonMobil Foundation were heavily involved in funding climate-change denial organizations. But since 2008, they are no longer making publicly traceable contributions.
Funding has shifted to pass through untraceable sources. Coinciding with the decline in traceable funding, the amount of funding given to denial organizations by the Donors Trust has risen dramatically. Donors Trust is a donor-directed foundation whose funders cannot be traced. This one foundation now provides about 25% of all traceable foundation funding used by organizations engaged in promoting systematic denial of climate change.
Most funding for denial efforts is untraceable. Despite extensive data compilation and analyses, only a fraction of the hundreds of millions in contributions to climate change denying organizations can be specifically accounted for from public records. Approximately 75% of the income of these organizations comes from unidentifiable sources..
The new study also concludes that the climate change disinformation campaign is what is known in the sociological literature as a “counter-movement.” Social movements such as that which has arisen to reduce the threat of climate change are often opposed by a “counter-movement” which seeks to undermine the goals of the social movement. Social movements usually seek to frame public policy issues as matters requiring government action while counter-movements work to frame the issue in the mind of the public to undermine the case for government action. This creates cultural contests over the appropriate frame for the public advocated by social movements and counter-movements.
Counter-movements are “networks of individuals and organizations that share many of the same objects of concern as the social movements that they oppose. They make competing claims on the state on matters of policy and politics and vie for attention from the mass media and the broader public. Counter-movements seek to maintain the currently dominant frame and thus maintain the status quo by opposing, or countering, the efforts of movements seeking change. Significantly, counter-movements typically originate as the social change movement starts to show signs of success in influencing public policy, and threatening established interests. These counter-movements typically represent economic interests directly challenged by the emergent social movement.”
According to Brulle, the climate change disinformation campaign is a well-funded and organized counter-movement effort to undermine public faith in climate science and block action by the U.S. government to regulate emissions. This counter-movement involves a large number of organizations, including conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, trade associations and conservative foundations, with strong links to sympathetic media outlets and conservative politicians.
The new study also identifies the level of funding to the major organizations engaged in the climate change disinformation campaign and the amount of funding being provided to these organizations. The study ranks these organizations as follows with funding amounts in millions:
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, $86.7, 16%
Heritage Foundation, $76.4, 14%
Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, $45.4, 8%
Manhattan Institute Policy Research, $33.1, 6%
Cato Institute, $30.6, 5%
Hudson Institute, $25.5, 5%
Altas Economic Research Foundation, $24.5, 4%
Americans for Prosperity Foundation, $22.7, 4%
John Locke Foundation, $18.0, 3%
Heartland Institute, $16.7, 3%
Reason Foundation, $15.0, 3%
Media Research Center, $14.5, 3%
Mercatus Center, $14.3, 3%
National Center for Policy Analysis, $13.9, 3%
Competitive Enterprise Institute, $12.5, 2%
State Policy Network, $12.0, 2%
Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, $11.4, 2%
Independent Womens Forum, $7.4, 1%
Landmark Legal Foundation, $7.0, 1%
FreedomWorks Foundation, $5.3, 1%
49 Other Organizations < 1%, $63.7, 11%
The new report also identifies foundation funding source of these organizations and ranks them as follows in millions:
Donor Trust/Donors Capital Fund, $78.8, 14%
Scaife Affiliated Foundations, $39.6, 7%
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, $29.6, 5%
Koch Affiliated Foundations, $26.3, 5%
Howard Charitable Foundation, $24.8, 4%
John William Pope Foundation, $21.9, 4%
Searle Freedom Trust, $21.7, 4%
John Templeton Foundation, $20.2, 4%
Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking, $13.7, 2%
Smith Richarson Foundation, Inc., $13.5, 2%
Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, $13.1, 2%
The Kovner Foundation, $12.8, 2%
Annenberg Foundation, $11.3, 2%
Lily Endowment Inc., $10.3, 2%
The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, $10.0, 2%
ExxonMobil Foundation, $7.2, 1%
Brady Education Foundation, $6.8, 1%
The Samuel Roberts Foundation, Inc., $6.7, 1%
Coors Affiliated Foundations, $6.2, 1%
Lakeside Foundation, $5.8, 1%
Herrick Foundation, $5.7, 1%
118 Others < 1%, $170.4, 31%
Because much of the funding for the climate change disinformation campaign has shifted to organizations that prevent tracing the actual donors who are receiving a tax deduction for their contributions, a case can be made that tax payers are paying for the disinformation campaign. The new funding scheme also prevents citizens from knowing where the funding is coming from, facts which are necessary to understand who the parties in interest are behind the counter-movement. Because the tactics of the disinformation are so ethically reprehensible, the new funding scheme most likely shields large funders from public scrutiny that would reveal ethically abhorrent behavior.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School Of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University School of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China
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.
On June 25th, President Obama gave a major speech on climate change in which he announced what his administration would do to reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions in the United States. Although the US Congress has continued to fail to act on climate change since climate negotiations began in 1990, President Obama identified administrative actions that he would take that did not depend upon US congressional action. As we shall see, the speech was significant for some of the ethical issues touched upon in the speech.
As expected some US politicians vigorously attacked the speech on the basis that the announced actions would destroy jobs and the US coal industry. We now look at this speech, the political response to it, and the US media reaction through an ethical lens.
In light of the US’s strong moral duty to take action to reduce the threat of climate change that has been virtually ignored by most previous US leaders. many parts of this important speech are worthy of praise.
President Obama promised to use this authority under the federal Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gases from electric power plants. He also dismissed climate change skeptics as Flat Earthers and urged US citizens at all levels to take steps to reduce climate change causing emissions and push back against those who would work to undermine US policy to reduce the threat of climate change. He further announced plans to double wind and solar power while increasing the use of renewable energy in federal facilities to 20 % in 7 years. He also identified a number of policy responses to reduce energy demand with the goal of significantly reducing the waste of energy.
In response to climate skeptics he said:
So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They’ve acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.
He also acknowledged some US responsibility to help developing nations transition to clean energy and announced a number of policy initiatives in support of this goal.
In regard to the the ethical responsibility of the United States to reduce the threat of climate change, President Obama said:
[A]s the world’s largest economy and second-largest carbon emitter, as a country with unsurpassed ability to drive innovation and scientific breakthroughs, as the country that people around the world continue to look to in times of crisis, we’ve got a vital role to play. We can’t stand on the sidelines. We’ve got a unique responsibility.
This statement is very significant for its ethical implications. In fact, this is the strongest statement of any US President in regard to acknowledging that US policy on climate change can not solely be based upon US interests alone. That is, it is notable for its recognition of US responsibility to act on climate change. Thus, in addition to US interests in climate change policies, President Obama acknowledged that the United States has obligations, responsibilities, and duties to act. This fact has profound significance for US climate change policy. It means, that the US must consider its obligations to others not to harm them through our ghg emissions. Yet, as we have seen over and over again, US climate change policies are usually debated in the United States as if only US interests count.
This speech also acknowledged that it is probably too late to avoid the need of nations to adapt to climate change’s adverse impacts.This is so because even if aggressive action it taken on climate change around the world, some adverse climate change impacts are inevitable. Notable in this regard was the speech’s acknowledgement that:
We’re going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition — not just here in the United States but around the world.
And so, President Obama seems thus to acknowledge US obligations to help developing nations to adapt to climate change.
Another part of the speech with ethical significance is remarks about a new climate change treaty that was agreed to in Durban, South Africa that is to be completed in 2015 and come into effect in 2020. In this regard, President Obama said:
Two years ago, we decided to forge a new agreement beyond 2020 that would apply to all countries, not just developed countries. What we need is an agreement that’s ambitious — because that’s what the scale of the challenge demands. We need an inclusive agreement -– because every country has to play its part. And we need an agreement that’s flexible — because different nations have different needs.
This statement is of considerable ethical significance because it acknowledges that different nations have different responsibilities and needs in regard to climate change policies. This idea was agreed to by the United States but has largely been ignored. In ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 under then president George H. W. Bush, the United States promised to reduce its ghg emissions based upon “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities” to prevent dangerous climate change. This idea, which entails looking at the US response to climate change through the lens of distributive justice, has been almost completely ignored by the US Congress and former US presidents. It is also an idea that entails that the United States must reduce its emissions more aggressively than developing nations that have done significantly less to cause increasing atmospheric ghg concentrations.
This statement also implicitly acknowledges that all nations. including the United States, have an ethical duty to increase the ambitiousness of its ghg emissions reductions commitments in climate negotiations that are under discussion until 2015.
President Obama also acknowledged our ethical responsibility to future generations to reduce the threat of climate change when he said:
Our founders believed that those of us in positions of power are elected not just to serve as custodians of the present, but as caretakers of the future. And they charged us to make decisions with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of our own political careers. That’s what the American people expect. That’s what they deserve.
And so as a matter of ethics, President Obama acknowledged that the US has a special responsibility to act on climate change in response to our ethical obligations, not our national interests alone , in proportion to our responsibility as a matter of distributive justice and our obligations to future generations while at the same time assisting vulnerable developing nations to adapt to the inevitable adverse climate impacts that now can not be avoided.
President Obama also ended his speech with a call to recognize the sacred importance of protecting Earth by recalling the astonishment of the astronauts when they saw the Earth from outer space as they came around the moon for the first time.
For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.
“It makes you realize,” that astronaut said all those years ago, “just what you have back there on Earth.” And that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface, containing everything we hold dear — the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity — that’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, I’m absolutely sure we’ll succeed.
And so as, a matter of ethics, Obama’s speech was laudable and historically significant in many respects. That is not to say, however, that the Obama speech cannot be criticized for some omissions in regard to the US’s ethical obligations for climate change. These omissions included: (a) the lack of recognition that dependence on natural gas as a bridge fuel for reducing the US carbon footprint raises several ethical questions, a matter reviewed here in detail, (b) acknowledgment of the US special responsibility for climate change for its unwillingness to take action on climate change for over 20 years since it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, see, The World Waits In Vain For US Ethical Climate Change Leadership As the World Warms, and, (c) failing to communicate the extreme urgency of quickly and significantly reducing ghg emissions in the next few years to give the world any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, see, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity. In this regard, Obama’s speech utterly failed to acknowledge the magnitude of the ghg emissions reductions that are ethically required of the United States in the next decade.
And so, all in all, the Obama speech can be praised for its express recognition of many of the ethical ethical obligations entailed by climate change despite some quibbles about a few ethical issues not covered well.
As was expected, the political opposition in the US to the speech was rapid and intense. For instance Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that Obama’s plan on climate change was was a “war on coal” and on jobs.
Senator Joe Manchin, D-WV, went further saying that the Obama climate plan was not just a “war on jobs” and a “war on West Virginia,” but also, a “war on America.”
Senator James Inhofe, R-Ok, who has consistently claimed that the mainstream scientific view on climate is a “hoax,” said the Obama plan will cost the US economy $400 billion a year while ranting about other aspects of the Obama climate plan.
The most frequent justifications for the strong opposition to the Obama climate plan have been the claimed severe economic harms to the US economy, lack of scientific certainty on adverse climate impacts, and the inability of the United States acting alone to prevent climate change.
As we have explained in considerable detail before, these excuses utterly fail to withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.
Economic harm arguments made in opposition to Obama’s climate plan, for instance, even if true, both fail to recognize the ethical obligations that the United States has to not harm others through our ghg emissions and to acknowledge the costs of not acting. US climate policy cannot be based upon US interests alone. The United States has obligations to others. In addition, economic arguments for not acting on climate change ignore obligations that nations have if they are creating human rights violations and duties entailed by distributive justice. These are only a few of the ethical problems with economic arguments made in opposition to US climate change policies. For a detailed ethical analyses of economic arguments made in opposition to US climate change policies, see Ethicsandclimate.orgindex under Economics and Climate Ethics.
Scientific certainty arguments made in opposition to climate change fail as a matter of ethics for a host of reasons including the fact that almost all of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world and the vast majority of scientists that do peer-reviewed science support the consensus view that has concluded that climate change is a growing civilization challenging threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends around the world, uncertainty in these situations raises ethical questions about burdens and quantity of proof, those most vulnerable to climate change have not consented to be put at risk from climate change, and the longer the world waits to reduce the threat of climate change the worse the problem becomes. For detailed ethical analysis of scientific uncertainty arguments made in opposition to climate change, see Ethicsandclimate.org index under Scientific Uncertainty and Climate Ethics.
And so, the arguments made in opposition to the Obama speech fail to withstand ethical scrutiny.
The US media response to the Obama speech and the political response thereto has once again completely ignored the ethical problems with the strong political opposition to the speech. As we have noted over and over again in regard to the US media coverage of the US response to climate change, the US press is utterly failing to cover ethical issues entailed by opposition to climate change policies in the United States. This is particularly true of economic and scientific uncertainty arguments made in opposition to proposed US climate change policies. Nor is the US press covering ethical issues entailed by the urgency and magnitude of the need to reduce ghg emissions given that the world is likely running out of time to prevent warming of 2 degrees C, a warming amount which is widely believed could create rapid, non-linear climate change. For a discussion of this issue, see: On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To What Equity Requires of Them In Their Responses to Climate Change.
One might ask why the US media is failing to cover the obvious ethical questions raised by climate change issues given that the ethical issues have profound consequences for climate change policy and climate change raises obvious civilization challenging ethical issues. We might ask why the US press is failing to cover the ethical and justice issues entailed by climate change given that vulnerable countries around the world have been screaming for developed nations including the United States to respond in accordance with their ethical obligations. Is the US press so connected to the economic interests of the United States, that it is blind to the US ethical obligations for climate change? If the US press has not been corrupted by the economic interests of the United States, the only plausible explanation for the US media’s failure to cover the ethical issues raised by climate change is that the reporter’s covering climate change don’t understand the civilization challenging ethical issues raised by climate change. If this is the explanation, there is a huge practical need to demand that the US press turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.
Marco Rubio, a US Senator from Florida, recently said that he was not sure the climate change was human caused. This is one of the reasons why he’s unwilling to support US government action to reduce the threat of climate change. Many other US politicians have also recently said they will not support legislation to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions because they are not convinced that climate change happening or is human-caused. In fact, 7 out of 8 Republican candidates for the US presidency proclaimed they didn’t believe that climate change was a problem. (Skeptical Science) When these politicians are asked about the basis for their positions on climate change, they almost always respond by saying such things as they “have heard that there is a disagreement among scientists” or similar responses that strongly suggest they have informed an opinion on climate change science without any understanding of the depth of the scientific evidence on which the scientific consensus view 0f climate change has been based. For instance, US politicians frequently assert that it is an open question whether humans are causing the undeniable warming that the Earth is experiencing, thus exposing ignorance of dozens of lines of independent robust evidence of human causation including attribution studies, finger print analyses, strong evidence that correlates fossil fuel use to rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and other physical and chemical evidence.
Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials who have the power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not as a matter of ethics justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions on climate science. This is so because government officials, unlike ordinary citizens, have the power to prevent or minimize great harms to millions of people around the world that mainstream scientists have concluded that their constituents or governments that they represent are causing or contributing to. That is, a government officials have more responsibility than the average citizen to understand the state of climate change science because the government official can uniquely prevent harm that their constituents or governments are causing. And so, when government officials with the power to enact climate change policies are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may not appeal to their uninformed opinion on climate science as justification for not taking action.
The government official is like the railroad official who has been told by employees who are in a position to know the location of the company’s trains that there is a runaway train hurtling toward a bus full of children that is stuck on the track, when the official has the ability to divert the train onto a track on which no humans will be harmed.
In the case of climate change, government officials should know that 97 of every 100 scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science research and in the United States by the most prestigious scientific organizations including the US National Academy of Sciences that greenhouse gases coming from his constituents threaten catastrophic harm not only to his constituents but to millions of people around the world, most of whom have done little to cause climate change.
In the case of climate change, the US politician not only has the power, working with colleagues, to prevent great harm caused by his or her constituents, he or she has the responsibility to prevent his or her constituents from harming others outside United States. This responsibility was expressly agreed to by the United States when it ratified the United Nations Convention on Climate Change which contains the following acknowledgment of the US governments responsibility to prevent harm to those outside the United States in the convention’s Preamble:
Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.(UNFCCC Preamble)
In the case of climate change, the people that will be harmed (those in our metaphorical bus) are not only the constituents of the politician but hundreds of millions of people around the world that have done little or nothing to cause climate change.
The vast majority of climate scientists and over 100 scientific organizations whose members have climate science expertise have concluded that humans are causing climate change and human-induced climate change creates catastrophic threats for the human race and particularly for hundreds of millions of poor people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Although there are some differences among some mainstream scientists about some of the details of the consensus view, an open letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s which was endorsed by 18 of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the United States summed up the nature of the scientific consensus as follows:
As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer- reviewed science. (AAAS 2009)
Though scientific consensus must always be open to responsible skepticism given: (a) the strength of the consensus on this topic, (b) the enormity of the harms predicted by the consensus view, (c) an approximately 30 year delay in taking action that has transpired since a serious climate change debate began in the United States in the early 1980s, (d) a delay that has made the problem worse while making it more difficult to achieve ghg emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change because of the steepness of reductions now needed, no politician can ethically justify his or her refusal to support action on climate change based upon a personal opinion that is not supported by strong scientific evidence that has been reviewed by scientific organizations with a wide breadth of interdisciplinary scientific expertise. Because any further delay will make the climate change threat worse, US politicians have a duty to support policies that will reduce the threat of climate unless they can produce strong scientific evidence that has been fully vetted by respectable scientific institutions that climate change is not the threat entailed by the scientific consensus view.
In this situation the government official has a strong duty to go beyond his or her own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions that have the breadth of expertise to consider one study in the context of thousands of other studies in climate change science. And so, government officials may not justify their refusal to act simply on the basis of their personal opinion.
Because politicians have an affirmative duty to initially rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand any politician’s views that oppose action on climate change policies on scientific grounds. The US press has almost always failed to probe the justifications of those opposing action on climate change on scientific grounds. For this reason, journalists should ask politicians that claim there is not sufficient scientific support for government action climate change the following questions:
1. What specific scientific references and sources do you rely upon to conclude that there is a reasonable scientific dispute about whether human actions are causing dangerous climate change?
2. Are you aware that the United States Academy of Sciences and almost all respected scientific organizations whose membership includes scientists with expertise relevant to climate change science support the scientific consensus view that holds has that the planet is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual?
3. On what basis do you disregard the conclusions that humans are causing dangerous climate change held by the United States Academy of Sciences, over a hundred scientific organizations whose membership includes experts with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, and 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?
4. When you claim that the United States need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven that human-induced climate change will not create adverse impacts on human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?
5. When you claim that the United States should not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken will very likely make it too late to prevent dangerous human-induced climate change harms according to the consensus view?
6. Do you deny that those who argue that they should be allowed to continue to emit greenhouse gases at levels that may be dangerous should assume the burden of proof that their actions are safe given the strength of the consensus view on climate change science?
7. Do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in a decision about whether to act to reduce the threat of climate change in the face of scientific uncertainty?
8. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the Untied States in 1992 agreed to the following under Article 3, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?
The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost.
9. If you claim that the climate change impacts predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have not reached a level of scientific certainty that warrants action, do you agree that climate change impacts predicted by IPCC could be wrong in both directions, potentially leading to even harsher adverse impacts than those predicted?
10. Given that for over 20 years since international climate change negotiations began, the United States has refused to commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions based upon the justification that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms the health and ecological systems on which life depends of others, should the United States be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?
This is the second in a series looking at how to classify the climate change disinformation campaign given that it is some new kind of assault on humanity, yet not easily classifiable into existing categories of behaviors that cause great harm. Part One of this series identified four prior articles and three videos that Ethicsandclimate.org has previously produced on this subject as well as looking at whether this effort to undermine the mainstream scientific view about climate change can be classified as a crime against humanity or a tort under common law. These previous articles distinguished the tactics of the disinformation campaign from responsible skepticism and the acceptable exercise of free speech after explaining what is meant by the “climate change disinformation campaign” and how it operated.
I. Is The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign A Human Rights Violation?
A very strong case can be made that human-induced climate change triggers human rights violations because of the destructive nature of climate change damages. If human rights are to be understood to be recognition of those norms that are necessary to protect human dignity, inadequate climate change policies must be understood to trigger human rights violations because climate change will not only make human dignity impossible for millions of people around the world, including countless members of future generations but also directly threaten life itself and resources necessary to sustain life. And so, as we shall see, climate change causing activities create human rights violations because of the enormity of harm to life, health, food, property, and inviolability of the right of all people to enjoy the places where they live.
Yet finding legal remedies under human rights legal theories for the the destructive role that the disinformation campaign has played in preventing or delaying solutions to climate change will require finding at a minimum: (a) a specific human right under and an existing human rights regime that has been violated by climate change, (b) a human rights regime that has the jurisdiction and legal authority to grant the requested remedy in the specific human rights controversy before it, (c) a legal theory supporting the claim that non-state actors, not just governments, responsible for the violations of human rights have duties to prevent human rights, and (d) a legal justification to link the duties of non-state actors to prevent human rights violations to the activities of the disinformation campaign.
B. Which human rights are violated by climate change and do human rights fora have the authority to adjudicate claims based upon the tactics of the disinformation campaign?
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is usually viewed to be the foundational document in modern international human rights law. (UN, 1948). The UDHR is a non-binding ‘soft-law’ agreement among nations that over time has been complemented by a series of legally binding international treaties while retaining its status as customary international law. Because it is customary international law it could be relevant to damage claims made in civil litigation requesting damages in cases before international courts such as the International Court of Justice.
The two most important global human rights treaties in addition to the UDHR often stated to be the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change:
(a) Life, liberty, and security of person. (Article 1)
(b) Right to an effective remedy by national tribunals for violations of fundamental or constitutionals rights. (Article 8)
(c) Full equality to a fair public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of a person’s rights and obligations. (Article 10)
(d) Freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence. (Article 12)
(e) Freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of property. (Article 17)
(f) Right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (Article 25)
(g) Rights to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms can be fully recognized. (Article 28) (UN1948)
The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections relevant to climate change protections:
(a) The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent. (Article 11)
(b) The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:
a. To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;
b. Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.
(c) The right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health… The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for:… (c) prevention, treatment and control of epidemic, endemic, and occupational and other diseases. (Article 12)
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change protections:
(a) Inherent Right to Life. This right shall be protected by law. (Article 5)
(b) Right to be protected from arbitrary and unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home…. (Article 15)
A strong case can be made that climate change prevents people all around the world from enjoying the above rights.
These three documents i.e. the UDHR, the ICESCR, and the ICCPR are often considered to be the foundational documents that comprise an international bill of rights. Yet not all nations have adopted all three documents. Although the UDHR has been accepted by most nations of the world, the ICPCR and ICCPR have been less widely so. In fact the ICESCR has not been ratified by the United States and therefore may be inapplicable to climate change caused human rights violations in the United States. To date, these two treaties have been ratified by about 75 percent of the world’s countries. The UDHR is a “soft-law” document which has normative, but not legal force in the international system. The ICESCR and ICCCPR were the first of many treaties that have been enacted to give the protections identified in the UDHR the force of law.
A country ratifying a UN human rights treaty agrees to respect and implement within domestic law the rights the treaty covers. It also agrees to accept and respond to international scrutiny and criticism of its compliance. It does not necessarily agree to make the human rights norm directly enforceable in domestic courts. That usually requires implementing legislation.
Treaty enforcement is accomplished within the UN often with the creation of a body to monitor states’ performance, and to which member states are required to submit periodic reports on compliance. For instance, the ICCPR is implemented through the Human Rights Committee (HRC) which was created to promote compliance with its provisions. The HRC frequently expresses its views as to whether a particular practice is a human rights violation, but it is not authorized to issue legally binding decisions. Other treaties and bodies exist within the UN system with varying enforcement and implementation powers and duties to implement human rights goals. For the most part, these enforcement powers are weak and improvements in human rights violations are best achieved through holding offending nations to the court of international opinion rather than law.
In addition, several regional human rights regimes have been enacted that promote human rights in particular parts of the world. These regions include Europe, the Americas, and Africa which have their own declarations and conventions for enforcement of human rights on a regional basis.
Thus far no one has successfully brought a human rights claim for climate change caused damages although the Inuit Peoples filed such a claim in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Before a successful human rights claim can be brought in an existing legal forum in regard to climate change, several potential legal hurdles need to be overcome that have little to do with whether a nation or an individual has committed a human rights violation. These hurdles include jurisdictional, issues, questions of proof, and authority of the relevant forum. For this reason, the failure to successfully bring legally recognized human rights claims may have little to do with whether the offending behavior has created a violation of the protected right but more with the limitation of the existing legal regime. And so, the failure to bring a successful action against the climate change disinformation campaign in an existing human rights forum does not mean the disinformation campaign is not responsible for human rights violations.
Examining climate change through a human rights lens has the benefit of providing potential access to legal fora that have been created to adjudicate aspects of human rights violations. Given that there are no obvious legal fora to bring civil actions against those who have participated in the climate change disinformation campaign, pursuing remedies for human rights violations caused by climate change has the advantage of being able to file legal claims in existing judicial fora.
Potential fora include, at the global level, the Human Rights Committee established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights established by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Regional tribunals include the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, claims could potentially be pursued in national courts–for example, in the United States under the Alien Tort Statute.
Yet each of these fora have different jurisdictional limits on bringing legal actions on human rights basis. In this regard, a case brought on behalf of the Inuit Peoples in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sought to find that the United States was responsible for international human rights violations is illustrative of potential road blocks to bringing successful cases for human rights violations in existing legal rights fora.
The petition detailed the effects of rising Arctic temperatures on the ability of the Inuit to enjoy a wide variety of human rights, including the rights to life (melting ice and permafrost make travel more dangerous), property (as permafrost melts, houses collapse and residents are forced to leave their traditional homes) and health (nutrition worsens as the animals on which the Inuit depend for sustenance decline in number). The petition connected the rising temperatures to increasing levels of greenhouse gases, and in particular, to the failure by the United States to take effective steps to reduce its emissions.
In November 2006, the Commission informed the petitioners
that it had determined that “it will not be possible to process your
petition at present.” The IACHR did not explain its reasoning, stating only that “the information provided does not enable us to determine whether the alleged facts would tend to characterize a violation of [protected human] rights.” The Commission did hold a hearing on the connection between climate change and human rights in March 2007, but it has taken no further action.
It would appear that IACHR did not believe it had the legal authority to order the specific relief requested by the petitioners, namely to issue an order to the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And so the IACHR did not decide the case on the merits of the underlying claim that the United States had contributed to human rights violations of the Inuit people, it appeared to decline to act on the basis of legal issues about its own authority.
(B) Do the duties to prevent human rights violations bind non-state actors including corporations?
It is not clear as of yet the extent to which human rights regimes create duties for individuals and corporations, that is non-state actors. Bodansky summarizes the current state of this legal question.
[A] crucial question is whether the duties to respect, protect and fulfill apply to private actors as well as states. International criminal law demonstrates that international law can in some case impose duties directly on individuals, and some have proposed that corporations have duties to respect human rights. So, at least in theory, human rights law could impose a duty on private actors to respect human rights by limiting their emissions of greenhouse gases. But generally, human rights law – like international environmental law – imposes duties on states rather than on corporations. If this is true of climate change,then human rights law limits the activities of non-state actors only to the extent that states have a duty to protect against climate change by regulating private activities.
And so, it is not clear whether the corporations that have participated in the disinformation campaign can be sued in the various human rights tribunals, yet nations may have a duty to regulate emissions from those corporations participating in the climate change disinformation campaign under human rights theories.
(C) Are the participants in the disinformation campaign liable for contributing to human rights violations?
A final issue that needs to be overcome to successfully bring a legal action against the participants in the disinformation campaign for violating civil rights of people around the world is identifying a legal basis for concluding that the disinformation campaign unlawfully caused the violation of civil rights. Because most of the participants in the disinformation campaign are corporations that are also emitters of greenhouse gases, these corporations like all greenhouse gas emitters arguably have duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to levels that in combination with other emitters do not deprive people around the world from enjoying legally protected rights. Yet it is not clear, that the tactics of the disinformation campaign alone make the participants in the disinformation campaign responsible for human rights violations by themselves.
However, most governments make it a crime for individuals to conspire to deprive people of their human rights. For instance, under US law it is a crime for persons to conspire to deprive another of the rights of an individual that has been secured by the individual through the United States Constitution or through any other laws of the United States. Although this specific law has not been tested in regard to climate change, it is generally viewed to be a breach of civil and sometimes criminal law to conspire to deprive people of their rights. As we saw in Part One of this series, the Plaintiffs in the case of Kivalina versus ExxonMobil et al asserted that the fossil fuel companies that have been part of the disinformation campaign conspired to harm the residents of Kavalina. And so there may be sufficient facts about the disinformation campaign that could form the basis of a claim that if proven could be the basis for finding responsibility for individuals participating in the climate change disinformation campaign yet only an actual case will test this possibility.
(D) Conclusions in regard to classifying the disinformation campaign as a violation of human rights.
There is little question that the more than 20 year delay in taking action on climate change in the United States for which the disinformation campaign is at least partially responsible for has prevented people around the world from enjoying a host of human rights that are now recognized in a variety of human rights regimes around the world. Yet, as was the case in categorizing the disinformation as a crime against humanity or a common law tort, there may be no existing legal remedy under existing human rights law that can be deployed to deal with the harms created by those participating in the disinformation campaign. And so once again, there may be serious deprivations of human rights caused by the disinformation campaign without legal remedies. Only time will tell whether those who have been harmed by climate change will be able to successfully bring a legal action against those engaged in the disinformation campaign for damages.
II. What Kind of Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing is The Behavior of the Disinformation Campaign?
We have seen thus far from the previous analysis in this two part series that there may be no legal remedy under existing law relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights law for the harms caused by the climate change disinformation campaign. Yet the harms attributable to the disinformation campaign are so potentially catastrophic to hundreds of millions of people around the world that laws relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, and human rights should be amended to provide legal sanctions under these legal theories for at least for the more egregious tactics that have sometimes been deployed by some participants in this campaign.
Yet there is no doubt that some of the tactics deployed by the disinformation campaign, to be distinguished from responsible skepticism that should be encouraged, constitute some kind of malfeasance, transgression, villainy, or wrongdoing. To understand the full moral abhorrence of the disinformation campaign, a complete description of the tactics employed by the disinformation campaign is necessary and how the moral abhorrence of these tactics can be distinguished from the reasonable exercise of free speech, the right of individuals to express opinions, and the benefits to society from skeptical inquiry. Ethicsandclimate.org reviewed these issues in four articles and three videos. These prior articles explained what is meant by the disinformation campaign, distinguished the tactics of the campaign from responsible scientific skepticism which should be encouraged, and described how the disinformation campaign was funded and organized.
This video explains how destructive the disinformation campaign has been in preventing or delaying government action to reduce the threat of climate change.
In summary, at least some of the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are some new kind of assault on humanity which could be dealt with under expanded legal theories about crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights.
The philosopher Hans Jonas argued that the potential of new technologies to create great good and great harm creates the need to establish new social norms about how to deal with scientific uncertainty. Following Jonas’ logic, the enormity of potential harms from a problem like climate change creates the need to establish new norms about the need to be extraordinarily careful about claims that there is no danger threatened by certain human activities. We have examined in the last of the four articles above, what these new norms might look like given the need to encourage responsible skepticism yet assure that assertions that there is no danger are made responsibly. Because the climate change disinformation campaign deployed tactics that were designed to undermine the scientific basis that supported taking policy action to reduce the threat of climate change and in so doing used tactics that are ethically abhorrent, the climate change disinformation campaign should be used to develop new legal and moral norms about the need to be responsible when discussing very dangerous human activities. Just as it would be morally abhorrent for someone to tell a girl who is lying on a railroad track that she can continue to lie there because no train is coming when that person did not have reliable knowledge that no train was coming while having an economic interest in the girl staying on the track, so it is deeply ethically troublesome for those engaged in the disinformation campaign to tell the US people that there is no evidence that fossil fuels are causing climate change without subjecting their claims to the rigor of peer-review.
This is the sixth in a series of articles that examines tragic communications failures of the US media about climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization-challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. EthicsandClimate.org has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change that can be found at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/
II. The US Media Failure to Educate American Citizens About The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign
For over 30 years, there has been a debate about climate change that most Americans are at least dimly aware of. In this debate, sometimes those opposed to action on climate change are characterized as climate “skeptics.” Skepticism is the oxygen and catalyst of science and should be encouraged. Yet most Americans are completely unaware that a well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign has been operating for over two decades that has used tactics which cannot be classified as responsible skepticism. In fact, this campaign has been engaged in tactics that are deeply ethically abhorrent. To the extent that the US mainstream press has covered this controversy, it has reported on disputes between mainstream climate scientists and scientific skeptics and in so doing ignoring the ethically abhorrent tactics of the disinformation campaign discussed in this article and at the same time giving opposition to climate change policy legitimacy that the disinformation campaign does not deserve because its tactics cannot be understood as responsible skepticism. Also, as we have described in considerable detail in a prior entry, the mainstream press has utterly failed to cover the strength of the climate change scientific consensus position on climate change.
This disinformation campaign has largely been responsible that the United States failure to enact comprehensive climate change policies. Given the enormity, harshness, and destructiveness of climate change impacts, the duties that high-emitting countries like the United States have to not harm hundreds of millions of people around the world who are vulnerable to climate change, and the fact that the world has now lost several decades in finding a solution to climate change at a time when the world may be running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the failure of the US media to report on the nature of this campaign to the American people is a grave, tragic, and profound failure.
There is a growing peer-reviewed sociological literature on the disinformation campaign which describes this phenomenon as a counter-movement. (See, for example, McCright and Dunlap 2000: 559) A counter-movement is a social movement that has formed in reaction to another movement. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 504.) The climate change disinformation campaign can be understood to be a continuation of the counter-movements that arose among US political conservatives in reaction to the environmental, civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements that arose in the 1960′s in the United States. And so, the climate change disinformation campaign’s methods and processes can be understood to be an extension of strategies that had already been developed among some, although not all, conservatives to counter the environmental movement that had developed in the late 1960s and 1970s around other environmental issues such as air and water pollution, safe disposal of waste and toxic substances, and protection of wetlands and endangered species.
Yet the emergence of global warming as an issue in the 1980s with its potential for large-scale social change needed to ameliorate its threat was seen as more threatening to conservatives in regard to industry, prosperity, life-style, and the entire American-way of life, than were traditional pollution problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 503) In other words, climate change directly threatened the central values of the US conservative movement even more than other environmental problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 505) As a result climate change has become the key environmental focus of the US conservative movement.
In addition there have been some American industries whose welfare depends upon fossil fuel use have also participated in the disinformation campaign by funding this effort. The climate change disinformation movement can be understood to be comprised of many organizations and participants including conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, conservative media, and individuals. This disinformation campaign frequently has used certain tactics to convince people and politicians that the science supporting climate change policies is flawed. The central claims of the climate change disinformation movement have been:
• There is no warming.
• Its not caused by humans.
• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will cause more harm than good.
(McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)
To support these claims, the climate denial machine frequently has made claims that: (a) mainstream climate scientists are corrupt or liars, (b) descriptions of adverse climate change impacts are made by “alarmists,” (c) scientific journals that publish climate related research are biased against skeptics, and (d) mainstream climate science is “junk” science. The climate change disinformation machine also has made frequent ad hominem attacks on those who produce climate change science and sometimes has cyber-bullied both climate scientists and journalists. In summary, the climate change disinformation campaign has engaged in these tactics and others identified in this paper that may not be classified as responsible skepticism, yet the US media has covered this campaign as if it was the output of reasonable scientific skepticism.
The climate change disinformation campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists and organizations that fought government regulation of tobacco began to apply the tactics perfected in their war on the regulation of tobacco to climate change. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215). According to Pooley the disinformation campaign began “spinning around 1988 in response to the increasingly outspoken scientific community…” (Pooley 2010: 39) For almost 25 years this campaign has been waged to undermine support for regulation of greenhouse gases.
To say that the campaign has been “waged” is not to claim that it has been a tightly organized, completely coordinated effort by a few groups or individuals or that all participants have the same motives. In fact different participants may have radically different motives including the fact that some may be sincere, some appear to be motivated by protecting free markets without government intervention, and many appear to believe that no restriction on fossil fuel use can be justified without very high levels of proof of harms. Yet, these different participants, according to Newsweek, since the 1990s for the most part have acted in a well-coordinated campaign among contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry to create a fog of doubt around climate change. (Begley 2007) They have accomplished this through the production of advertisements, op-eds, lobbying, books, media attention, and quotations from skeptical scientists often associated with conservative think tanks. They have argued first that the world is not warming, measurements that indicate otherwise are flawed, any warming is natural, that is not caused by human activities, and if warming does occur it will be miniscule and harmless. (Begley 2007)
Different groups created this counter-movement often acting independently of each other, yet connected through the internet to create a denial machine that has effectively responded to any public pronouncement by scientists or journalists that have asserted that human-induced climate change is a serious problem. (Begley 2007) Conservative activists wrote hundreds of documents (including policy briefs, books, press releases, and op-eds), held numerous policy forums and press conferences, appeared regularly on television and radio programs, and testified at congressional hearings on global warming. (Dunlap and McCright 2008)
As a result of the internet communication between participants in this campaign, charges by one of the participants have been quickly transmitted to others creating an echo chamber of counter-claims made in opposition to the mainstream scientific view of climate change.
The disinformation campaign’s most important participants have been conservative think tanks according to the sociological literature. (Jaques et al 2008) As we shall see, these think tanks developed the ideas, communications and media strategies, literature and press releases that have been widely deployed in rhetorical strategies to defend conservative interests by creating doubt about mainstream climate change scientific claims.
Initially most of the funding for this disinformation campaign came from fossil fuel interests and corporations whose products produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. On October 21, 2010, John Broder of the New York Times reported that:
“the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” (Broder 2010)
According to Broder, the fossil fuel industry has:
“created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.” (Broder 2010)
Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel industry funded many of the initial efforts to prevent adoption of climate change policies. Both individual corporations such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, as well as industry associations such as American Petroleum Institute, Western Fuels Associations, and Edison Electric Institute provided funding for individual contrarian scientists, conservative think tanks active in climate change denial, and a host of front groups that we will discuss below. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:148)
Although the initial funding in the campaign may have come from certain corporations, McCright and Dunlap argue that recently conservative, free-market, and anti-regulatory ideology and organizations have been the main forces fueling the denial machine first and foremost. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)
According to Dunlap and McCright the glue that holds the elements of the climate disinformation campaign together is a shared hatred for government regulation of private industry. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so, a staunch commitment to free markets and a disdain for government regulation are the ideas that most unite the climate denial community. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)
The mainstream conservative movement, embodied in conservative foundations and think tanks, quickly joined forces with the fossil fuel industry (which recognized very early the threat posed by recognition of global warming and the role of carbon emissions) and wider sectors of corporate America to oppose the threat of global warming, not as an ecological problem, but as a problem for unbridled economic growth. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so the disinformation campaign has been a movement that has been waged both by conservative organizations and some corporations.
To use the word “campaign” is not meant to connote an organized conspiracy led by one or a few entities who coordinate all actors, but rather a social movement that creates widespread, predictable, and strong opposition to climate change policy and that consistently uses scientific uncertainty arguments as the basis of its opposition. This movement is a campaign in the sense that it is a systematic response of aggressive actions to defeat proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions even though no one organization is coordinating all other organizations or individuals that participate in responses. And although some of the actors may be sincere, the tactics discussed in this article are, as we shall see, ethically reprehensible.
Those engaged in this disinformation campaign can be distinguished from responsible climate skeptics because the climate change denial campaign is a collective social movement run by professional advocacy working to discredit climate change.” (Hoffman 2011: 5) As such, this movement is not engaged in reasonable scientific skepticism but advocacy that stresses scientific uncertainty. In fact McCright and Dunlap summarize the disinformation machine as having been engaged on misrepresenting, manipulating, and suppressing climate change research results. (McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)
Although almost all of the disinformation campaign led opposition to climate change policies has been on the basis of inadequate scientific grounding for action, scientific arguments are usually coupled with economic arguments such as claims that climate change policies will destroy jobs, hurt specific industries, lower GDP, or are not justified by cost-benefit analysis.
Although these economic arguments often have their own ethical problems, a series on Ethicsandclimate.org has examined in considerable detail the ethical problems with tactics used by the disinformation campaign that rely on scientific uncertainty arguments.
The original organizations that sought to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty have expanded to include ideological think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups (i.e. groups organized by industry that pretend to be a legitimate grassroots organization), and PR firm-led campaigns. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215)
The tactics deployed by this campaign are now all well documented in the books and peer-reviewed sociological literature identified in the Appendix to this article. The tactics used by the climate change disinformation campaign have included the following ethically abhorrent tactics:
Lying or reckless disregard for the truth
Cherry picking the science
Cyber-bullying and ad hominem attacks on scientists and journalists
Manufacturing bogus, non-peer-reviewed science in fake conferences and publications
The use of ideological think tanks
The use of front groups that hide the real parties in interest
The use of fake grass-roots organizations known as Astroturf groups
Specious claims about “bad science” that are based upon the dubious assumption that no conclusions in science can be made until everything is proven with high levels of certainty.
EthicsandClimate.org has described this in a four part paper series and a three part video series that has demonstrated that these tactics are ethically abhorrent.
Although the mainstream US media has sometimes but infrequently covered the disinformation campaign, missing from their coverage has been:
(a) A stronger sense of the strength of the consensus view on climate change, (every academy of science in the world supports the consensus view, over a hundred scientific organizations whose members have relevant scientific expertise support the consensus view, much of the science that should have been the basis for US action on climate change was settled 150 years ago, and there are clear qualitative differences between peer-reviewed science and the manufactured, non-peer reviewed science usually relied upon by the disinformation campaign),
(b) A description of the tactics of the disinformation campaign which cannot be understood as responsible skepticism, such as: (1) making claims that not only have not been peer-reviewed but are at odds with well-settled science, (2) cherry picking the science, (3) treating one study as undermining the entire body of climate science even though the issue in contention is not consequential in regard to the major mainstream scientific conclusions, (4) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists that publish statements that climate change is a significant threat, (5) making completely false claims that are either lies or reckless disregard for the truth such as the claim that the entire scientific basis for action is a hoax when every academy of science supports the consensus view, and (6) the use of front groups and Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interest behind the disinformation campaign, namely fossil fuel companies and free-market fundamentalist foundations.
(c) The fact that it already too late to prevent climate-change caused grave suffering for some people in some parts of the world and that the world has lost over twenty years during which action could have been taken to reduce the now enormous threat,
(d) The fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s worst threats have never consented to be put at risk while the United States waits for absolute certainty.
(e) The fact that for each year the United States has waited to take action, the problem has become worse.
Given what is at stake from climate change, the failure of the US media to cover the disinformation campaign is a tragic, profound, and grave error. The mainstream US media has not only failed to cover this campaign, it has treated it as if it was reasonable scientific skepticism giving it a legitimacy that has increased its influence.
Boycoff, J. and M. Boycoff (2004) Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias
Creating Controversy Where Science Finds Consensus Fair, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1978
Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2008) A Widening Gap: Republican and Democratic Views on Climate Change. Environment 50 (September/October):26-35.
Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2010) Climate Change Denial: Sources, Actors and Strategies Pp. 240-259 in Constance Lever-Tracy (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society London: Routledge.
Hoffman, Andrew J. (2011) Talking Past Each Other? Cultural Framing of Skeptical and Convinced Logics in the Climate Change Debate, Organization & Environment 24:3-33.
Jacques, Peter, Riley E. Dunlap, and Mark Freeman (2008) The Organization of Denial: Conservative Think Tanks and Environmental Skepticism, Environmental Politics 17:349-385.
McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2000) Challenging Global Warming as a Social Problem: An Analysis of the Conservative Movement’s Counter-Claims, Social Problems 47:499-522.
McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2010) Anti-Reflexivity: The American Conservative Movement’s Success in Undermining Climate Science and Policy, Theory, Culture and Society 26:100-133.
Oreskes, Naiomi and Erik Conway (2010) Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloosmbury Press, New York.
Pooley, E. (2010) Climate Wars, True Believers, Power Broakers and The Fight to Save the Earth, Hyperion, New York
This is the fourth entry in a series that is examining grave communications failures of the US media in regard to climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. EthicsandClimate.org has recently developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/
Subsequent posts will examine the following additional communication failures of the US media:
The consistent barrier that the United States has been in developing a global solution on climate change for over 20 years.
The nature of the climate change disinformation campaign in the United States.
II. Significance of Understanding Climate Change as A Civilization Challenging Ethical Issue.
There has been almost no coverage in the American press about the ethical duties of governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals to reduce the threat of climate change other than occasional general assertions by some activists or members of a religious groups referring to climate change as a moral issue. When substantive issues about climate change policies have been debated in the United States, there has not been a whimper in the US press about the ethical dimensions of climate change in general or the ethical implications for specific issues under consideration.
The evidence for this widespread failure to understand the practical significance of seeing climate change as a moral issue includes the almost universal failure of the press or advocates of climate change policies to ask businesses, organizations, or individuals who oppose national climate change policies on the grounds of economic cost alone, whether they deny that, in addition to economic interests, nations must comply with their obligations, duties, and responsibilities to prevent harm to millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world. In the United States and other high-emitting nations there is hardly a peep in the US media about the practical consequences of seeing climate change as a world-challenging ethical problem.
If climate change is understood as essentially an ethical problem, several practical consequences for policy formation follow. Yet it is clear that there has been widespread failure of those engaged in climate change policy controversies to understand the enormous practical significance for policy formation of the acknowledgement that climate change is a moral issue.
Given the growing urgency of the need to rapidly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and the hard-to-imagine magnitude of global emissions reductions needed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at reasonably safe levels, the failure of many engaged in climate change controversies to see the practical significance of understanding climate change as an ethical problem must be seen as a huge human tragedy.
Without doubt, there are several reasons why climate change must be understood essentially as a civilization challenging ethical problem. yet very few people appear to understand what practical difference for policy formation follows if climate change is understood as an ethical problem.
Why is climate change fundamentally an ethical problem?
First, climate change creates duties, responsibilities, and obligations because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries or rich people in developed and developing countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who have done little to cause the immense threat to them.
Second, climate-change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world. Climate change harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat, and intense storms, damages to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. In fact, climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are potentially catastrophic. Yet there is growing evidence that greenhouse gas levels and resulting warming may be approaching thresholds that could lead to losing control over rising emissions.
Third, climate change must be understood to be an ethical problem because of its global scope. If other problems are created at the local, regional, or national scale, citizens can petition their governments to protect them from serious harms. But at the global level, no government exists whose jurisdiction matches the scale of the problem. And so, although national, regional and local governments have the ability and responsibility to protect citizens within their borders, they have no responsibility to foreigners in the absence of international law. For this reason, ethical appeals are necessary to motivate governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.
Although a few people have acknowledged that climate change must be understood as an ethical problem, the practical significance for policy formation that follows from this recognition appears to be not widely understood. The following are ten practical consequences, among many others, for policy formation that flow from the acknowledgement that climate change is an ethical problem. Although there are some climate change ethical issues about which reasonable ethical principles would reach different conclusions about what ethics requires, the following are conclusions about which there is a strong overlapping consensus among ethical theories. The ethical basis for these claims have been more rigorously worked out in prior articles on Ethicsandclimatge.org and are not repeated here.
If climate change is an ethical problem, then:
1. Nations or sub-national governments may not look to their domestic economic interests alone to justify their response to climate change because they must also comply with their duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to prevent climate-change caused harms.
2. All nations, sub-national governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Although different theories of distributive justice would reach different conclusions about what “fairness” requires quantitatively, most of the positions taken by opponents of climate change policies fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny given the huge differences in emissions levels between high and low emitting nations and individuals and the enormity of global emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. Any test of “fairness” must look to principles of distributive or retributive justice and must be supported by moral reasoning.
3. No nation may refuse to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that some other nations are not reducing their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. All nations must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.
4. No national policy on climate change is ethically acceptable unless it, in combination with fair levels of greenhouse gas emissions from other countries, leads to stabilizing greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations at levels that prevent harm to those around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change. This is so because any national position on climate change is implicitly a position on adequate global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration stabilization level and all nations have a duty to prevent atmospheric greenhouse concentrations from exceeding levels that are harmful to others.
5. Because it has been scientifically wellestablished that there is a great risk of catastrophic harm from human-induced change (even though it is acknowledged that there are remaining uncertainties about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts), no high-emitting nation, sub-national government, organization, business, or individual of greenhouse gases may use some remaining scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts as an excuse for not reducing its emissions to its fair share of safe global greenhouse gas emission on the basis of scientific uncertainty. The duty to prevent great harm to others begins once a person is on notice that they are potentially causing great harm, not when the harm is absolutely proven.
6. Those nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals that are emitting greenhouse gases above their fair share of safe global emissions have obligations, duties, and responsibilities for the costs of adaptation or damages to those who are harmed or will be harmed by climate change.
7. Given the magnitude of potential harms from climate change, those who make skeptical arguments against the mainstream scientific view on climate change have a duty to submit skeptical arguments to peer-review, acknowledge what is not in dispute about climate change science and not only focus on what is unknown, refrain from making specious claims about the mainstream science of climate change such as the entire scientific basis for climate change that has been completely debunked, and assume the burden of proof to show that emissions of greenhouse gases are benign.
8. Those nations or entities that have historically far exceeded their fair share of safe global emissions have some responsibility for their historic emissions. Although the date at which responsibility for historic emissions is triggered is a matter about which different ethical theories may disagree, at the very least nations have responsibility for their historical emissions on the date that they were on notice that excess greenhouse gas emissions were dangerous for others, not on the date that danger was proven.
9. In determining any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, the nation must either assume that all humans have an equal right to use the atmosphere as a sink for greenhouse gases, or identify another allocation formula based upon morally relevant criteria. All nations have an ethical duty to explain why any deviation from per capita greenhouse gas emissions is ethically justified.
10. Some economic tools frequently used to evaluate public policy on climate change such as cost-benefit analysis that doesn’t acknowledge responsibility for allocating the burdens for reducing the threat of climate change on the basis of distributive justice are ethically problematic.
Given that climate change is obviously an ethical problem, and that if climate change is understood as an ethical problem it has profound significance for climate policy, the utter failure of the US media to cover climate change as an ethical problem is an enormous practical error and tragedy.
This is the third entry in a series that is examining grave communications failures of the US media in regard to climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. EthicsandClimate.org has recently developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/
This is the second paper that examines in more detail the issues briefly examined in the video. In the last entry we examined the failure of the US media to communicate about the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change. In this post we look at the failure of the US press to communicate about the enormous magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent harsh climate change impacts.
Subsequent posts will examine the following additional communication failures of the US media:
The consistent barrier that the United States has been in developing a global solution on climate change for over 20 years.
The fact that climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical problem, an understanding that is of profound significance for climate change policy formation.
The nature of the climate change disinformation campaign in the United States.
II. Communication Failures On The Magnitude Of The GHG Emissions Reductions Necessary To Prevent Dangerous Climate Change
Most Americans are completely unaware of the magnitude of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change. If US citizens don’t understand the size and scope of the problem, they will almost certainly refuse to support legislation and policies necessary to put the UnitedStateson an emissions reduction pathway that represents the US fair share of safe global emissions. Because, as we discussed in the last entry, the scientific consensus is so strong that the world is headed to harsh and dangerous impacts, the US media’s failure to communicate clearly about the magnitude of the problem facing the world is a serious, grave, and tragic lapse.
No US national climate change strategy makes any sense unless it is understood to implicitly be a position on the US fair share of a global greenhouse gas emissions reductions pathway capable of preventing dangerous climate change. Yet when US federal climate change legislation was under consideration between 2009 and 2010, there was almost no public discussion about whether proposed US climate change legislation would reduce US greenhouse gas emissions to levels that represent the US fair share of safe global emissions.
To understand the urgency for civilization challenging emissions reductions it is necessary to understand: (a) what temperature increases will likely trigger harsh climate change impacts, (b) what atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will cause specific temperature increases that are of concern, and (c) what quantities of greenhouse gas emissions will exceed atmospheric greenhouse target concentrations. Only then can one understand the amount of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions from business as usual that are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.
A. Dangerous Temperature Increases
The international community agreed at a meeting of the conference of the parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 that the world must work together to limit warming to an additional 2oC to avoid rapid non-linear impacts from climate change. The 2oC warming limit was agreed to because there is widespread agreement among the vast majority of mainstream scientists that warming of more than 2oC significantly increases the probability of harsh climate impacts.
However, catastrophic harms, at least for some parts of the world, could be triggered by additional warming of less than 2oC because there is uncertainty about how the Earth will respond to different increases in temperatures. (Athanasiou and Bear 2002) The 2oC upper temperature limit is quite controversial scientifically because, as we shall see, some scientists believe that lower amounts of additional warming could set into motion rapid climate changes that could greatly harm people around the world and increases of as little as 1oC will likely greatly harm some people in some regions.
A report, “Assessment of Knowledge on Impacts of Climate Change,” prepared by the Potsdam Institute to examine the meaning of “dangerous” climate change under the UNFCCC supported the 2°C danger limit after a rigorous analysis of climate change impacts at various temperatures concluding:
Above 2°C the risks increase very substantially involving potentially large extinctions or even ecosystem collapses, major increases in hunger and water shortage risks as well as socio-economic damages, particularly in developing countries. (Hare 2003: 89)
Yet, even this report identified very serious global and regional impacts below 2°C. In fact, this report concluded that temperature increases below 1°C threaten highly vulnerable ecosystems and between 1°C and 2 °C increase the risks of damage for all ecosystems and particularly for some regional ecosystems. (Hare 2003: 89)
There is substantial scientific evidence that even a 1.5°C temperature limit would not be sufficient to protect those most vulnerable to climate change. For instance, a recent paper by Jim Hansen and seven other authors concluded that additional warming should be limited to 1°C warming to prevent serious harms. (Hansen et al 2008) To do this, existing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 must not only not be allowed to rise the small amount to 450 ppm CO2 from current levels of 394 ppm CO2 but must be reduced below existing levels to 350 ppm CO2. (Hansen et al. 2008) According to this paper, the world has likely already shot past the level of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations that will lead to dangerous climate change for many. According to Hansen and his collaborators, the world has already used up all of the assimilative capacity of the atmosphere and biosphere that has been available to buffer against dangerous climate change. As a result, this paper asserts that to prevent dangerous climate change the world must not only reduce its emissions but reduce existing greenhouse gas CO2 atmospheric concentrations from the current 394 ppm to 350 ppm CO2 to avoid dangerous climate change.
And so, although the international community agreed in Copenhagen to limit future warming to 2°C, this could prove to be a limit that is too high to protect millions around the world. As one observer recently noted:
We feel compelled to note that even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8 °C of warming so far, calling 2°C a danger limit seems to us pretty cavalier.
(Real Climate 2009)
In thinking about an upper temperature limit, many scientists are concerned with avoiding runaway climate change. That is, they fear that global temperatures will exceed a tipping point that will trigger a release of stored carbon from the biosphere, an event that would cause further rapid climate change. Runaway climate change would mean that governments would lose the ability to control future climate change that they would otherwise have through reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. That is, runaway climate change means that human action would be unable to stop significant temperature increase without massive geo-engineering. (Washington and Cook 2011: 30-31) This is so because, among other things, there are vast amounts of methane stored in permafrost, methane hydrates on the ocean floor, and carbon in the forests that could be released as the world warms. If the world warms too much, increased temperatures could cause huge amounts of carbon to be released that would overwhelm the quantities of carbon being released through fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. This is known to be a possibility, because such releases of stored carbon have happened in Earth’s history and caused rapid non-linear Earth temperature changes.
And so, the magnitude of greenhouse gas reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change is understood to be the reductions from business-as-usual that will allow atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to be stabilized at levels that will limit warming to between 1 to 2°C with prudence calling for a 1°C limit. We now turn to what atmospheric greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations levels are understood to prevent warming above these amounts.
B. Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Stabilization Goal
The amount of warming that will be experienced from different greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations is usually referred to as the issue of “climate sensitivity.” Climate sensitivity is somewhat uncertain as there are remaining scientific uncertainties about the magnitude of the positive and negative feedbacks in the climate system.
Climate sensitivity is usually defined to mean the amount of warming that the Earth will experience if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 reach 560 ppm of CO2 equivalent, where CO2 equivalent is the metric which translates other greenhouse gases into an equivalent level of CO2 . The IPCC in its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) concluded that climate sensitivity is likely to be in the range 2 to 4.5 °C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5 °C. (IPCC 2007) The IPCC also noted that climate sensitivity values substantially higher than 4.5 °C cannot be excluded. And so the temperature change that the consensus view believes is likely if all of the greenhouse gases rise to 560 ppm carbon equivalent is somewhere between 2 °C and 4.5 °C with even higher temperatures possible. The current concentration of CO2 is 394 ppm. (CO2 Now 2012)
To operationalize an upper temperature limit, the international community must set an atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration stabilization limit. Since there is scientific uncertainty about how much warming will be experienced by different atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration levels, there is significant scientific controversy about what the greenhouse gas atmospheric stabilization target should be to achieve any warming limit.
Making the calculation of emissions reductions needed at any one time is complicated by the fact that how rapidly greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced is a problem that depends upon when global emissions reductions begin. The longer the international community waits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the steeper the necessary emissions reductions pathway becomes. It is relatively easy to calculate the amount of additional tons of emissions that can be allowed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at a certain level such as 450 ppm CO2 but this number will depend upon when emissions reductions begin. At any time it is therefore possible to create a budget that identifies the total tons of emissions that can be allowed before a specific atmosphere concentration is exceeded but the longer the international community waits to begin to reduce emissions, the steeper the reductions must be.
The magnitude of the challenge entailed by the need to set a greenhouse gas atmospheric concentration target becomes evident after looking at the probability of exceeding 2°C if CO2 equivalent targets are set at specific levels such as 450 or 550 ppm. In the following chart the colored lines represent emissions reduction pathways that would stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide equivalents at various levels. The yellow line is a pathway that would stabilize at 550 ppm. The red line is a reduction pathway that could stabilize carbon dioxide equivalent at 450 ppm. The numbers on the boxes on these two lines specify the probability of exceeding 2°C if atmospheric concentration levels are stabilized at these levels.
From this chart we therefore see that if atmospheric carbon dioxide is stabilized at 550 ppm there is between a 75% and 99% chance that the world will experience temperatures in excess of 2°C. Looking at the red line we see that even at a stabilization level of 450 ppm there is between a 45% and 86% chance that the world experience increases in temperature greater than 2°C. Because CO2 levels are already approaching 395 ppm and other greenhouse gases make current carbon dioxide equivalent levels in the vicinity of 430 ppm it becomes evident that the world is running out of time to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the atmospheric concentrations that would limit warming to 2°C. Because as we have seen it is possible that temperature increases as small as 1°C will create harsh impacts for some people in some parts of the world it becomes apparent that the need to reduce greenhouse gases aggressively, and dramatically, and urgently.
C. Percentage Reductions From Business As Usual Required To Stabilize Atmospheric Concentrations Of Greenhouse Gases
The startling magnitude of the challenge to the world from climate change becomes apparent upon reflection that the world is currently increasing greenhouse gas emissions during the last decade of an average annual increase of 2.7%. (PBL 2012) Yet to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations at about 450 ppm by 2050, global emissions will have to decline by about 60% from current levels. (Hossol 2011). Because developing countries need to expand economic activity to escape grinding poverty according to one US White House paper, industrial countries greenhouse gas emissions would have to decline by about 80% by 2050. (Hossol 2011)
Given that greenhouse emissions are increasing year to year and that the entire world will need to reduce emissions by as much as 60% by 2050 to give any hope of remaining below 2°C, the challenge to the world is staggering. One observer sums up the situation as following:
The growth of emissions is making the task ahead more and more difficult. The longer we wait to start shrinking emissions, the faster we’ll have to shrink them to stay under budget. Here’s a visualization of what that means — some sample reduction curves with varying peak years (the four different lines are based on the four main IPCC scenarios):
(citing Anderson, K. 2011)
As you can see, if we delay the global emissions peak until 2025, we pretty much have to drop off a cliff afterwards to avoid 2 degrees C. Short of a meteor strike that shuts down industrial civilization, that’s unlikely.
This, then, is the brutal logic of climate change: With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2°C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever — we will have no chance.
Although the challenge of achieving sufficient global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent 2°C is extraordinarily daunting, as we have explained above a 2°C warming limit may not prevent catastrophic harm because temperature increases more than 1°C may cause great harm.
International climate negotiations have sought to find a global solution to climate change since they began in 1990 and have struggled since then to reach a global deal among most countries to prevent dangerous climate change. Because global emissions continue to rise rather than decrease after 20 years since climate change negotiations began, the international community has lost several decades in finding a way to prevent dangerous climate change. And so, the human race may be running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change. Yet most Americans are unaware of the seriousness and urgency of the staggering problem we are facing. The US media has utterly failed to sound the alarm about the magnitude of the threat of climate change.