UNESCO Examines the Urgency of and Strategy for Getting Traction for Ethical Guidance in Climate Change Policy Formation at Bangkok Program

  

The Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) of UNESCO organized a program on July 5th in Bangkok that examined:
  1. Whether compliance with their ethical obligations by those responsible for climate change is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate impacts, and
  2.  What can be done to assure that those responsible for climate change respond in accordance with their ethical duties and obligations?

In December of 2017, UNESCO adopted a set of Ethical Principles for ClimateChange. (UNESCO, 2017, Ethical Principles for Climate Change)

These principles included :

  • Prevention of harm
  • Precautionary approach
  • Sustainable development
  • Solidarity
  • Scientific knowledge and integrity in decision-making

These principles are in addition to numerous other ethical principles relevant to climate change, many of which have been expressly agreed to by governments under international law including, for instance, the duties of nations under the Paris Agreement to act to limit warming  to “well below 2 degrees C” and “pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C” and that such goals should  be achieved by governments in accordance with “equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” (Paris Agreement, 2015, Article 2)

I and two others, Professor Rainier Ibana of the University of Manila and Professor John Hattingh of the University of Stellenbosh in South Africa, were asked to examine the importance of implementation of ethical principles as guidance to climate change policy formation around the world.

In my Bangkok presentation I discussed three issues:

  1. Why getting those responsible for climate change to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate change harms?
  2.  Why ethical principles have largely failed thus far to get traction in the policy responses of governments, organizations, and individuals to climate change?
  3. What should organizations such as UNESCO, other concerned organizations, and citizens do to assure that those responsible for climate change respond as required by their ethical obligations?

I. Why getting those responsible for climate change to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid climate catastrophe.

Getting traction for the ethical obligations of governments, organizations, and individuals to guide their responses to climate change is indispensable to prevent climate catastrophe because:

  • The world is rapidly running out of time to prevent catastrophic climate change and therefore it is now urgent for all entities to act to reduce the threat of climate change in accordance with their ethical obligations.
  • The failure of the international community to prevent dangerous climate change is directly attributable to the failure of nations to comply not only with the ethical principles enumerated by UNESCO but, as we shall see, numerous other settled ethical principles under international law including, but not limited to, normative principles agreed to in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992), and the Paris Agreement. (UN Paris Agreement, 2015).
  • In addition, as we shall see, the most common arguments made by opponents of proposed climate change policies that have been responsible for the tragic failure of the international community to adequately respond to climate change for well over 30 years do not survive ethical scrutiny.
  • Although all nations have acknowledged their obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement to adopt policies and measures that would limit the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees C while pursuing efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees C by reducing their emissions to levels required of them by “equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances,” research on what 23 countries actually relied upon in setting their GHG reduction targets revealed that all 23 nations ignored these obligations and set their targets on national economic interest. (Brown, D.& Taylor, P., 2014)
  • Furthermore, NGOs in these countries did not appear to know how to effectively evaluate their government’s inadequate GHG reduction targets on the basis of their noncompliance with their ethical obligations. (Brown, D.& Taylor, P., 2014) This was likely the case because for several decades governments set their GHG reduction targets by completing a GHG inventory and then determining what reduction strategies were politically possible and then deriving the reduction target on the basis of the amount of reductions that the politically acceptable strategies would achieve. Thus, the GHG emissions reduction target setting process pursued by governments for the last 30 years has often ignored the need to structure GHG reduction targets at levels consistent with the government’s ethical obligations. They thus ignored, for instance, the principle expressly agreed to by nations who agreed to the 1992 UNFCCC that nations have a duty under the “no harm” principle, a normative principle stated in the Preamble of the UNFCCC, to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from harming others outside their national boundaries. (for a discussion of the normative effect of the “no harm” principle, see Voigt, C  (2008), State Responsibility for Climate Change Damages).
  • However, now that the international community is rapidly running out of time to prevent extraordinarily dangerous climate change, the failure of nations to reduce GHG emissions in compliance with their ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change is now obviously indefensible given the horrific harms to life on earth that are predicted if the international community is unable to limit warming to the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals. These harms include, for instance, deaths and social disruption to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people from unbearable heat stress, increases in tropical diseases, starvation in parts of the world that are increasingly unable to feed populations due to droughts, loss of water supply needed for drinking and agriculture, large increases in property damages from floods and sea-level rise, increasing social conflict triggered by millions of new refugees fleeing places which are no longer habitable, loss of forests from fires and bug infestation, losses of numerous plant and animal species and important ecosystems such as coral reefs, and many other climate-caused disasters that are now foreseeable in the decades ahead.
  • Although reasonable people may disagree on what “equity” specifically requires of nations to reduce their GHG emissions, national economic self-interest as a justification for a nation’s inadequate GHG reduction target does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny.  In this regard, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its 5th Assessment Report that despite some ambiguity about what equity means:

There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden-sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors……………. These principles are equality, historical responsibility, capacity, and right to sustainable development. (IPCC, AR5, WGIII, Chap 4, 2014,p. 317-318).

Thus citizens around the world need not agree on precisely what equity requires of nations to comply with their duty to adopt GHG emissions reduction targets to conclude that nations which base their targets on economic self-interest are not complying their ethical and legal duties to set their reduction targets on the basis of equity to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals. That is, it is not necessary to agree on what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. In addition, the economic reasoning that research has revealed has been the actual basis for many national responses to climate change cannot adequately deal with justice questions, as IPCC has expressly stated:

What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take into account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, AR5, 2014, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 224)

  • Climate change policymaking requires governments to make decisions on many issues that raise justice issues. They include:
    1. How much warming will be allowed by the nation’s emissions reduction target, a matter which is implicit when a nation makes a GHG emissions reduction commitment.
    2. Any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, matters which are referred to by the IPCC usually as burden-sharing or effort-sharing considerations.
    3. Any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those vulnerable nations and people who are most harmed by climate change.
    4. Responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations.
    5. How to evaluate the effects on and responsibilities to others of potentially harmful climate change technologies that are adopted in response to the threat of climate change, including, for instance, geo-engineering.
    6. Who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, an issue usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice.
    7. The policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change.
    8. The responsibility not only of nations but also of subnational governments, organizations, and individuals for climate change.
    9. How to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation.
    10. Who is responsible for climate refugees and what these responsibilities are.

 

 

The above chart demonstrates that national responses to climate change are implicitly positions on several crucial ethical questions including:

A. What amount of harm the nation believes is acceptable for it to inflict on the rest of the world.

B. The nation’s fair share of a rapidly shrinking carbon budget that the entire world must be constrained by to limit warming to any warming limit goal where the carbon budget is the total amount of emissions that the entire world may emit before the current atmospheric concentration of CO2e, represented by the middle blue line in the bathtub in the above chart, reaches the atmospheric concentration of CO2e that will cause temperatures to exceed a warming limit goal, represented by the upper blue line in the bathtub in the above chart.

C. The most common arguments made against proposed climate change policies do not survive minimum ethical scrutiny including: (a) cost to an entity emitting GHG above its fair share of safe global emissions, or (b) scientific uncertainty about human causation of climate change impacts.

Many nations justify their responses to climate change on the basis of economic reasoning. Economic rationality usually focuses on how to maximize human preferences. Ethics asks a different question of economic activity, namely what preferences humans should have given their ethical obligations.

  •  Scientific reasoning usually tests hypotheses to determine what “is” or what action causes what change. Moral philosophers believe that determining what “is,” which is the proper domain of science, cannot determine what “ought” to be, which is the domain of ethics.

  •  Nations agreed when they adopted the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that they would not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for complying with their obligations to prevent dangerous climate change (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.3) under the above principle. Yet, one of the two most common arguments made in opposition to proposed climate policies has been scientific uncertainty, a position which is not only ethically problematic but legally indefensible since the adoption of the 1992 UNFCCC treaty.
  • Another common justification for some nations’ non-compliance with their ethical obligations to reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions has been that policies necessary to do this would impose unacceptable costs on a national economy or to a domestic industry. Yet such justification also fails to withstand minimum ethical scrutiny for several reasons including the fact that nations are bound by the “no harm” principle, a provision of customary international law that was expressly agreed to by all nations when they agreed to the 1992 UNFCCC which  acknowledges the applicability of this rule in the treaty’s preamble. This principle holds that nations are duty-bound to prevent harm to those outside their jurisdiction once they are on notice that activities in their nation threaten people in other countries. (Voigt, 2008)
  • Basing GHG emission reduction targets on national economic interest also violates the “Polluter Pays Principle” a soft law norm of international environmental law stated in principle 16 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992. (UN Rio Declaration, 1992)
  • There are numerous other ethical problems with cost arguments made in opposition to policies proposed by governments to reduce the threat of climate change. These problems include cost arguments against climate change policies often ignore:
    • The enormous harms to others and ecological systems that will be created if policies necessary to reduce the threat of climate change are not adopted;
    • The views and interests of those who will be harmed by non-action on climate change;
    • The enormous costs to others caused by existing GHG atmospheric concentration levels from killer heat waves, floods, droughts, increases in tropical diseases, destruction of valuable ecosystems including coral reefs, forest fires, and the inevitability that these adverse impacts will get much worse unless existing GHG emission levels are reduced to net zero in a few decades;
    • That high-emitting developed nations have a legal duty under the UNFCCC to reduce their GHG emissions faster than lower-emitting nations because they agreed to protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. The provision of the UNFCCC stating this duty continues: “Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof. (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.1) Thus, although developed countries expressly agreed to reduce their GHG emissions faster than developing countries when they agreed to the UNFCCC and to help developing countries with mitigation and adaptation, most developed countries are not doing this.

  • The above chart demonstrates that If developed countries don’t reduce their GHG emissions at a rate faster than developing countries, developing countries will have to approach zero GHG emissions much faster than developed countries if the world is going to be constrained by carbon budget necessary to limit warming to the 1.5°C to 2°C agreed to by the international community in the Paris agreement. This, of course, is the opposite of what equity requires of developing countries that have done little to cause the current crisis. Thus, developed countries have a legal duty to reduce GHG emissions at a faster rate than developing countries which duty has a profound practical significance, namely if they don’t there is no hope that the global community will live within the relevant carbon budget for any warming limit goal.

II. Why have ethical principles largely failed to get traction in climate change policy formation?

There are at least four reasons why ethical considerations have not been influential in climate change policy formation. They include:

  1. The power of a climate change disinformation campaign to undermine the public’s confidence in the mainstream climate change science consensus view on the dangers of human-induced warming

The above illustration depicts, in a very abbreviated and sketchy form, that as the scientific evidence of the threat from human-induced climate change became stronger over a 40-year period (represented by the colored blocks on the left, each of which identifies an important scientific study that concluded with increasing levels of confidence that climate change was a serious threat to people and ecological systems) above the rising jagged red line depicting rising atmospheric CO2 levels) and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, highlights of this campaign are identified to the right of the chart, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 404 ppm.

A  recent book, Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Bruelle (Dunlap, R.,& Bruelle, 2015), describes how economically powerful interests originally working in the United States while influencing opponents of climate change policies in other nations successfully prevented government action on climate change. A  chapter in this book  by Dunlap and McCright, The Denial Countermovement (Dunlap. R., & McCright, 2015, Chap 10) documents a thirty-year climate science disinformation campaign, financed mostly by fossil fuel companies, their industrial organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations, which successfully worked to undermine citizens faith in the scientific consensus view on climate change.

The Dunlap/Bruelle book refers to the climate change disinformation campaign as a “countermovement.” A countermovement is a sociological term for a social movement that arises in response to another social movement that threatens the interests of those who form the countermovement.  The climate change countermovement arose when those corporations and organizations who were threatened by calls for governments to take action to reduce the threat of climate change organized themselves to protect their economic interests threatened by potential regulation of fossil fuels.

This book also explains how the denial countermovement evolved, changed, and expanded over the last quarter-century, changes that included new key actors, supporters, and tactics while the basic strategy of manufacturing scientific uncertainty expanded into creating public controversy about the reliability of climate science, an effort which has lasted until the present. (Dunlap, R. & McCright, A., 2015, p.309)

The book also identifies the major participants in the denial countermovement which included portions of the fossil fuel industry and corporate America, conservative think tanks, a relatively small number of contrarian scientists, front groups and Astroturf organizations, conservative politicians and media, and the denial blogosphere. (Ibid)

The book also describes how the denial countermovement which began in the United States was diffused internationally to countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and more recently into several European countries including France, Sweden, and the Netherlands. (Dunlap R. &  McCriight, A., 2015, p.316)

The book explains how the climate denial countermovement worked to undermine public faith in the “consensus” view on climate science that has been articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC), which was created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program with a mission of synthesizing for governments the peer-reviewed scientific, technical, and socio-economic literature on climate change. The IPCC has issued comprehensive reports on the climate change science of  in 1990, 1996, 2001, 2007,  and 2013 which concluded with increasing levels of scientific certainty that the planet is warming, that this warming is largely human-caused, and that under business-as-usual climate change may cause potentially catastrophic impacts for humans and the natural resources on which life depends. Furthermore, these harms are likely to be most harshly experienced by many of the Earth’s poorest people who have not consented to be put further at risk by rising GHG atmospheric concentration

Yet, inadequate responses from high-emitting nations have continued despite the fact that many nations most vulnerable to climate change have been pleading with those most responsible for causing climate change to take action for well over twenty-five years.

Every Academy of Science in the world has issued a report or statement supporting the consensus view including four reports by the US Academy of Science.

Well over 200 scientific organizations with expertise in climate science have also issued reports or statements in support of the conclusion humans are causing climate change (California, List of Scientific Organizations on Climate).

At least 97 % of all scientists who actually do research in climate science support the consensus view that humans are responsible for a dangerous warming of the planet. (NASA.,Scientfic Consensus)

The Dunlap/Bruelle book claims that organizations that worked to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty expanded over several decades to include think tanks, front groups, AstroTurf groups (that is groups pretending to be bottom-up citizen organizations), PR firm led campaigns financed by fossil fuel interests, and free-market fundamentalists organizations. Much of the funding support for all of these efforts came from some fossil fuel interests. (See Brown, An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?)

This website has argued that the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign, despite the undeniable value of scientific skepticism if skeptics abide by the rules of science, are deeply morally reprehensible strategies designed to undermine mainstream climate change science. The tactics have included:

(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science by making such obvious false claims that there is no evidence of human causation when there are numerous independent lines of evidence including fingerprint and attribution studies, isotope analyses of atmospheric carbon which have concluded that the carbon accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil carbon,  and many other lines of evidence which have led every country in the world to agree that the warming the Earth is experiencing is human caused

(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of well-settled climate change science,

(c) using think tanks to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty which claims were not been submitted to peer-review,

(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science,

(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science that are based on the dubious assumption that only fully proven claims are “good” science,

(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies, and

(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends. (Brown, supra)

Although skepticism in science is a good thing if skeptics play by the rules of science including publishing skeptical claims in peer-reviewed literature, in the United States and in a growing number of countries around the world these morally reprehensible tactics to undermine public faith in the mainstream scientific consensus view have been successful in undermining political support for proposed climate change policies that are required by governments’ ethical duties. (See Ethicsandclimate.org which contains 17 articles on the climate disinformation campaign which can be found under the index tab at the top of the page under “disinformation”)

Largely missing from the public debate about climate change has been serious analyses of which organizations and interests have been most responsible for the arguments made by the opponents of climate change, who funded these organizations, what tactics have they used, and what should be learned from the success of the climate disinformation campaign.

2. The dominance of “value-neutral” policy languages to frame policy issues.

Proponents of climate change policies have almost always responded to the arguments of opponents of climate change policies justified on the basis of scientific uncertainty or excessive costs by disputing the factual claims about scientific uncertainty or cost. And so, proponents of climate change policies have inadvertently allowed opponents of climate change policies to frame the public climate change debate so as to limit the public controversy to disputes about scientific and economic “facts.” Thus, largely missing from this three-decade debate has been analyses of why the arguments of climate change policy opponents are not only factually flawed but often deeply ethically and morally bankrupt. For instance, a claim made by opponent of a climate policy that the policy should be opposed because it would impose high costs on a domestic industry has usually been responded to in the United States by claims of proponents of climate policies that the policy will create new jobs, thus implicitly ignoring the fact that unless GHG emissions are reduced quickly, large parts of the world will suffer harshly, and in so doing implicitly validating the unstated assumption of the opponents’ of climate change claim that high costs of climate mitigation strategies are a valid justification for not taking action.

Although a climate change ethics and justice literature has been growing for several decades, the public debate about climate change policies has largely ignored the strong ethical and moral problems with the scientific and economic arguments that have been the consistent focus of policy public controversies about climate change policies. Thus, opponents of climate change policies have tricked proponents of policies to respond only with alternative economic and scientific “facts.”

Sociologists often seek to understand how self-interested minority groups within society who oppose proposed public policies frequently hide the ethical and moral problems with their arguments by framing the controversies in such a way that the ethical and moral problems raised by their arguments are hidden from public scrutiny. This framing works, for instance, by tricking the public to debate “factual” claims, such as those made by scientists or economists, as if there were no moral or ethical problems with these claims. As a result, in the case of climate change, rather than debating whether it is morally acceptable for some people to put large numbers of other people at great risk from catastrophic harm, the public debate has often been exclusively focused on such factual claims as whether the cost to a fossil fuel company that will follow if a government moves to renewable energy is too high. Reasoning about the “facts” of public policies in a way that ignores the ethical issues is referred to by philosophers as “instrumental reasoning.”

Every argument against a proposed climate change policy can be understood as a syllogism with the following form.

If A, B, C, D, E. than we should do F, (The major premise which is a normative claim)

We have A, B, C, D, E (minor premise which is a factual claim).

Therefore we should do F. (conclusion)

Instrumental reasoning usually focuses on facts of the minor premise and ignores the normative basis of the major premise. In fact, frequently opponents of proposed policies often don’t clearly state the normative assumptions of their arguments and must be questioned to uncover the actual normative assumption on which their argument rests. Therefor good critical thinking sometimes must begin by questioning opponents of policies to make the normative basis of their arguments express by asking, for instance, do I understand your position to be that any policy which economically threatens the oil industry should be rejected. In other words, proponents of climate policies which are opposed by economic or scientific arguments should seek to make the normative basis of the argument opposing a proposed climate policy express so that it can be subjected to ethical analysis.

The fossil fuel industry in many developed countries has been successful in limiting the public debate about climate change policies to economic and scientific “facts.” As a result, in the United States, ethical and moral problems with the scientific uncertainty and unacceptable cost arguments made for over three decades by opponents of climate change policies have very rarely appeared in the US public debate about climate change controversies nor been acknowledged by the media.

As a result, an argument can be made that a first-order problem to achieve traction for ethical principles in climate change policymaking is to open policymaking arguments to express ethical reflection and in so doing overcome “instrumental reasoning.” (See Brown, Why Overcoming Instrumental Rationality In Climate Change Policy Controversies Is a First Order Problem Preventing Ethical Principles From Getting Traction to Guide Climate Change Policy Formation) It is a first-order problem because before one can consider what ethical principles should guide policy formation, arguments against climate policies must be subjected to ethical critique and reflection. If policymakers don’t see and respond to the ethical issues that are implicitly raised by arguments raised against proposed climate change policies, they can’t evaluate the ethical issues nor apply the appropriate ethical rules. Yet instrumental arguments that opponents of climate policies often deploy have dominated public policy for many decades in some countries including the United States. That instrumental rationality dominates environmental policymaking is clear given that most government environmental agencies are staffed almost exclusively by engineers, scientists, economists, and lawyers but very infrequently by employees trained in ethics.

This is huge problem because very few employees of environmental agencies or scientific organizations that make policy recommendations on environmental issues can spot problematic ethical issues that should be identified in policy debates and particularly ethical issues that are ignored or hidden when instrumental reason is deployed to make policy recommendations.

Instrumental rationality dominates public policy formation for at least two reasons: First, sociologists, including Max Weber, have predicted that instrumental rationality would over time crowd out ethical rationality in modern societies because increasingly complex human problems would be relegated to bureaucracies run by technical experts whose institutional power depended, in part, on maintaining the fiction that their technical expertise is the central tool for analyzing and therefore resolving modern problems.

Moreover, particularly in advanced Western countries, wealthy businesses are able to hire technical experts to fight proposed government action which would reduce profits. These experts frequently formulate arguments against proposed government policies that are almost always claims about scientific facts or excessive costs

3. The failure of organizations that engage in issues relevant to climate change policy formation to have employees trained in spotting ethical issues.

Compounding the problem that governments and technical organizations that engage in climate change policy formation controversies are staffed almost exclusively by technically trained personnel is the growing problem that most university departments which teach or do research on environmental and natural resource issues focus on scientific, technical, and occasionally economic issues. In the United States, at least, training in ethical analyses that one might get in liberal arts programs has become less available as more colleges and universities have emphasized science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at a time when liberal arts programs have been diminished.

This is huge problem because very few employees of environmental agencies or scientific organizations that make policy recommendations can spot problematic ethical issues that should be acknowledged in policy debates and particularly those ethical issues that are ignored or hidden when instrumental reasons is deployed to effect policy recommendations.

In most Western countries, corporations and their industry associations have huge political power to frame public policy questions and don’t hesitate to exercise their power to prevent any government action that could lower corporate profits. And so the public debate on proposed policies often focuses on economic “facts,” not ethical duties, despite the almost universally accepted ethical norms agreed to by almost all peoples and nations such as the norm that people should not harm others on the basis of the harming party’s economic self-interest. One egregious example of this problem is that in 2016 US President Trump announced he was pulling the USA out of the Paris Accord because he was putting US economic interests first, a position that violated numerous well-accepted international norms. Yet the US media has paid no attention to the violations of numerous well-accepted, non-controversial international norms such as those that were violated when US President Trump announced that the US would pull -out of the Paris Agreement.

Unfortunately, most professionals engaged in environmental policy formation controversies have no training that would help them identify the hidden ethical issues embedded in arguments made against proposed climate change policies. Nor do most of those NGOs who participate in controversies about climate policy have the training to spot ethical problems made by the arguments of opponents of proposed policies. As a result, at least in this writer’s experience, even environmental NGOs usually miss serious ethical problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies.

4. The failure of academic ethics literature to focus on actual policy disputes in contention.  

The failures of environmental science and economics education to teach ethics could be remedied if students who were expd to ethics training relevant to the kinds of ethical issues that arise in climate change policymaking. Yet, a very large percentage of students taking environmental science and economics courses have no training in ethics of any kind, not to mention the type of ethical issues discussed in this paper that frequently arise in climate policy controversies.

Although many schools of higher education offer courses in environmental ethics usually as elective, many if not most students enrolled in environmental economics or scientific disciplines have no exposure to these courses. In addition, courses on environmental ethics frequently fail to include discussion of the ethical questions that arise when economics and science are applied to public policy. This is so because the major focus of academic environmental ethics has usually been to examine ethical questions about human and environmental relationships, not ethical questions that frequently arise in policy formation such as the ethical limits of economic arguments, or the ethical issues that arise when government officials must make decisions in the face of uncertainty.

Other ethical subjects have been much more focused on specific cases or applied ethics, such as biomedical ethics. In biomedical ethics, ethical analyses often begin with a specific patient with a specific disease. In other words, training in biomedical ethics is often case-based. Hospitals often employ ethicists to help the medical staff with thorny, concrete ethical issues. Yet, most of academic environmental ethics has rarely been “applied” to policy questions as they have unfolded.

As a result, environmental ethics literature has rarely been a factor in policymaking. In fact, in 2003, Eugene Hargrove, the editor and founder of the journal Environmental Ethics, acknowledged that this failure of environmental ethics to influence public policy is widespread. (Hargrove 2003). This admission is a remarkable conclusion from someone who has been at the very center of academic environmental ethics for many decades.

From this, it can be seen that one of the reasons why ethical considerations have not been influential in climate change policy-making is the failure of academic environmental ethics to engage with the issues that frequently arise in policy-making.

For this reason, if environmental ethics is going to be relevant to climate public policy it must become engaged in the economic and scientific issues that arise in specific policy issues. Therefore, in addition to teaching policymakers and citizens the policy consequences that different ethical theories entail for policy outcomes, environmental ethicists must become competent communicators in scientific, economic, and legal discourses that initially frame environmental policy problems such as climate change.

III. What should organizations such as UNESCO or other concerned organizations or citizens do to assure that those responsible for climate change respond in accordance with their ethical obligations?

At the Bangkok program, I recommended that to achieve greater implementation of ethical principles in climate change policy formation UNESCO should:

  •  Organize an international meeting designed to educate civil society about why compliance by those responsible for climate change with their ethical duties is indispensable to avoid climate catastrophe.
  • Design a strategy to educate the media about the crucial importance of achieving traction for ethical considerations in climate change policy responses around the world and the serious ethical failures of most governments and organizations to comply with their ethical duties.
  • Organize side events on these issues at the UNFCCC COPs.
  • Work with others to require that the transparency rules under the Paris Agreement requires nations to explain, as specifically as possible, how they have dealt with their express ethical duties to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, to do no harm to people and places outside their jurisdiction, and to assure that all people enjoy human rights.
  • Work with others to help citizens spot ethical issues raised by government responses to climate change.

In addition to these recommendations, in light of the causes of the failure of ethics to get traction in climate change policymaking discussed above, UNESCO and all concerned organizations and individuals should:

  • Pay attention to and educate others on how civil society’s understanding of climate change issues has been manipulated by powerful economic forces which have worked to undermine public confidence in mainstream climate change science while making ethically problematic arguments about unacceptable costs of proposed climate change policy responses.
  • Seek to turn up the volume on the moral abhorrence of the climate change disinformation campaign. This can be done by encouraging serious public reflection on the difference between responsible scientific skepticism and the morally reprehensible tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign. 
  • Follow the actual climate change debate in governments to identify ethical issues as they arise, and seek to identify ethical problems with arguments made by those opposing a just global solution to climate change while working to increase public and media understanding of these issues. 
  • After spotting the ethical problems with major arguments against policy action on climate change, seek to eliminate ethically problematic positions from contention by working with governments and civil society.to increase their understanding of these issues.  This could be done by requiring governments to expressly respond to questions designed to expose ethical problems with their policies as part of the transparency framework under the Paris Agreement. (For examples of questions that could be asked to expose ethical issues see Brown, Questions That Should Be Asked Of Politicians And Others Who Oppose National Action On Climate Change On The Basis Of Scientific Uncertainty Or Unacceptable Cost To The Economy Given That Climate Change Is A Profound Global Justice And Ethical Problem).
  • Encourage religious leaders and others interested in ethical and moral issues to help turn up the volume not only on the fact that climate change is a globally challenging ethical issue but also on the utter ethical bankruptcy of most of the arguments made by opponents of proposed climate change policies.
  • Educate policy-makers and citizens particularly about the ethical issues that are usually hidden in what appear to be value-neutral arguments about the science and economics of climate change policy formation controversies.
  • Encourage higher-education to sponsor programs designed to educate civil society and the media about ethical problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies in their nation.

References:

Brown, D. & Taylor, P.. (eds). (2014), Ethics and Climate Change, A Study of National Commitments, IUCN press, http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/iucn_eplp_86_advanced_copy.pdf

Brown, D., (2011) An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity? https://ethicsandclimate.org/2011/12/02/an_ethical_analysis_of_the_climate_change_disinformation_campaign_is_this_a_new_kind_of_assault_on_h/r

Brown, D., (2017) Why Overcoming Instrumental Rationality In Climate Change Policy Controversies Is a First Order Problem Preventing Ethical Principles From Getting Traction to Guide Climate Change Policy Formation, https://ethicsandclimate.org/2017/12/28/why-overcoming-instrumental-rationality-in-climate-change-policy-controversies-is-a-first-order-problem-preventing-ethical-principles-from-getting-traction-to-guide-climate-change-policy-formation/

California, Governor’s Office. List of Scientific Organizations on Climate, http://www.opr.ca.gov/facts/list-of-scientific-organizations.html

Dunlap, R. & Bruelle, R., (2015) Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, Oxford University Press, New York

Dunlap R.,& McCright, A.,(2015) Challenging Climate Change: the Denial Countermovement, in Dunlap.R.& Bruelle, R., eds, (ibid, Chap 10)

Hargrove, E., (2003)  What’s Wrong? Who Is to Blame?, Environmental Ethics, 25 (1):3-4, [2003] 3-4

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC), (2014).WG III, Ch. 3, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter3.pd

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC), (2014).WG III, Ch. 4, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

NASA., Scientific Consensus; The Planet is Warming, https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, (Rio Declaration, 1992) https://www.un.org/documents/ga/conf151/aconf15126-1annex1.htm,

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, (UNFCCC, 1992), FCC/INFORMAL/84/Rev.1 GE.14-20481 (E), Preamble.

United Nations (2015), Paris Agreement, FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1, https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf,

UNESCO, (2017), Ethical Principles for Climate Change, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/comest/ethical-principles/questions-and-answers

Voigt, C. (2008), State Responsibility for Climate Change Damages, Nordic Journal of International Law, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1145199

By

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Adjunct Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.co

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Natural Gas: Now A Bridge to Climate Catastrophe

Press coverage of natural gas fracking controversies in Pennsylvania and other places where natural gas fracking has boomed in the last few decades has mostly focused on disputed claims about gas development’s adverse environmental impacts to water, air, forests, and land, while largely ignoring natural gas’ continuing contribution to ominously rising atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations.

When the natural gas fracking boom began about two decades ago, proponents of natural gas combustion often sold it as a “bridge fuel” for climate change because natural gas combustion only emits only 53% of the CO2 emitted by coal combustion provided that methane leakage from the gas production and distribution system is less than 3% of the produced gas. Although the actual amount of methane leakage from gas production remains somewhat contentious, even if there is no methane leakage from gas production, because the international community has understood for at least a decade that the world must move toward zero carbon emissions within several decades to prevent climate catastrophe, government action to replace natural gas with non-fossil energy should have been an imperative at least throughout the last decade of natural gas fracking expansion to make the transition to non-fossil energy needed to avoid planetary disaster feasible.

The failure to move quickly to non-fossil energy in the last decade is partially responsible for the rise of atmospheric CO2 to reach 415 ppm, a concentration never experienced in human history. Because even modest amounts of additional warming above current global elevated temperatures create the risk that certain thresholds, or “tipping points,” in the climate system may be exceeded causing much more abrupt climate change, human-induced climate change creates grave threats to life on Earth. For this reason, every country in the world agreed in Paris in 2015 to act to limit additional warming as close as possible to 1.5 0C but no more than 2.00 C.  

Yet, to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals will require an “all hands on deck” by all governments at all levels to completely decarbonize their economies by 2045 to keep warming below 1.5 0C and by 2070 to achieve the 2.00 C limit. Making matters worse, when the 2.00 C goal was adopted in Paris, many scientists believed that achieving this warming limit would prevent abrupt climate change that would be caused if the Earth’s climate tipping points were exceeded. Yet, recent evidence has frightened many climate scientists because a few of the tipping points, including rapid increases in methane and CO2 emissions liberated when artic permafrost melts, are already beginning to appear, making the climate crisis a staggering global emergency.

Yet climate change is not only a horrific future calamity, the 1.1 0 C temperature rise the Earth has experienced since the beginning of the industrial revolution has already caused brutal suffering by causing increases in killer hurricanes, unprecedented flooding, droughts, forest fires, storm surges, climate refugees, increases in vector-borne and tropical diseases, killer heat stresses, loss of valued ecological systems including coral reefs around the world, and human conflict in Syria and parts of Africa. Because natural gas combustion has contributed to raising atmospheric GHG concentrations which is causing these horrors, nations have both a moral and legal duty under the “no harm principle,” a provision of customary international law agreed to by the United States in the 1992 United Nations climate convention to not harm citizens in other countries. Thus, all levels of government in the US must replace energy technologies which emit GHGs with technologies that don’t raise atmospheric GHG concentrations ASAP.

In addition, the two most compelling arguments that proponents of rapid natural gas expansion sometimes made in opposition to ambitious proposed policies that would replace fossil fuels with renewable energy are no longer viable if they ever were.  First, although at one time wind and solar energy were more expensive than gas, renewable energies are now competing favorably with fossil energy on cost. Second although renewable energies need backup sources of energy when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining, energy storage technologies including batteries, are rapidly improving in capacity while lowering price. This is the reason that growing numbers of national and local governments have set targets to achieve 100% renewable energy in the electricity sector and ambitious targets to replace fossil fuel powered vehicles with electrically powered transport in the next several decades.

For these reasons, Pennsylvania and other places where natural gas fracking has boomed must acknowledge that the only bridge that natural gas is now a bridge to is a bridge to world catastrophe and therefore must adopt policies to replace all fossil fuel technologies with technologies which don’t emit GHGs ASAP.

By.:

Donald A Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

 

New Book Identifies 1000 Tools to Decarbonize the US Economy

 Although the likely horrific climate change impacts to much of life on Earth and particularly to poor vulnerable people and nations are becoming scarier every day, just in the last year or so more people are appearing in the public sphere in the United States demanding emergency government action approaching the scale and speed demanded by the problem.  Yet, so far, at least in the United States, there is little political action on climate change needed by the scale of the emergency facing the world. However, if the burgeoning public demand for government action is successful in initiating an “all hands on deck” response to climate change by all levels of government, private organizations, and citizens so desperately needed to avoid climate catastrophe, civil society will need legal tools and strategies to achieve the rapid economy-wide decarbonization.

The Environmental Law Institute has just published a new important book that identifies over 1000 legal tools that the federal, state, and local governments, as well as private entities, could use to decarbonize the economy. The book, Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States, has been edited by Professors Michael Gerrard from Columbia Law School and John Dernbach from Widener University Commonwealth Law School. The book contains a “legal playbook” for deep decarbonization in the United States, identifying well over 1,000 legal options for enabling the United States to address the greatest problem facing humanity.

Legal Pathways contains 35 chapters written by 59 experts which cover energy efficiency and conservation, fuel switching, electricity decarbonization, fuel decarbonization, carbon capture, and negative emissions, non-carbon dioxide climate pollutants,  and a variety of cross-cutting issues. The legal options in the book focus on federal, state, and local law, as well as private governance.

A summary of the book is available at https://biotech.law.lsu.edu/blog/deep_decarb_summary_booklet_online.pdf

The book ends with organizing the tools that are identified earlier in the book by who the actor is identifying 333 tools for the US government and Congress, 20 tools for the US executive branch, 322 tools for the US federal agencies, 306 tools for US states and state governments, 53 tools for US state agencies, 97 tools for US state legislatures, 147 tools for companies, associations, NGOs, schools, individuals, and other private entities, 3 tools for US ports, 16 tools for public utilities, 6 tools for regional transportation organizations, 6 tools for independent system organizations, and 52 tools for public utility commissions, thus identifying 1513 tools that can be used by various actors.

Some of these tools will need additional legal drafting to be implemented in some jurisdictions. The authors of this book are working with a group of environmental lawyers who have committed to providing pro bono legal help with drafting legal documents necessary to implement the tools in the book. The project is in the process of constructing a website that will coordinate legal assistance. Questions about this can be directed to John Dernbach at jcdernbach@widener.edu.

The tools to achieve deep decarbonization of the US economy identified in this new book, along with the 541 strategies deployed by 44 cities identified in the prior entry on this site, The Enormous Potential of Cities to Reduce GHG Emissions, 571 Strategies Adopted by 44 Cities Around the World, demonstrate that despite the enormity of the challenge facing the world to prevent dangerous climate change, huge reductions in GHG emissions are achievable if the political will to do so arises.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

Climate Change Disinformation Comes to Pennsylvania

 

One day in September1997, while serving as Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US EPA Office of International Activities, I was sitting at the microphone representing the United States during negotiations of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development when an agenda item arose about whether governments were willing to stipulate that the global warming then already discernible as largely predicted by the peer-reviewed science, was human-caused rather than the result of natural forces. These natural climate drivers include, among others, several cyclical changes in the sun’s energy output that reaches Earth, changes in ocean circulation and chemistry, movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, and CO2 releases as the result of volcanic activity.

A few OPEC countries led by Saudi Arabia at the start of the negotiation on this matter balked at agreeing to language that concluded that human activities were responsible for the growing climate change threats. Yet when I pointed out that their scientific representatives had agreed to the very same language under discussion in a  meeting of climate scientists the year before, all countries finally agreed to stipulate that the growing global warming was led human-caused. Thus, every country in the world, including the world’s petroleum states which have consistently blocked global action on climate change, agreed more than two decades ago that the ominous climate changes the world has been experiencing are largely caused by rising levels of GHGs in the atmosphere which are attributable to human activities.

The reason for the universal international agreement among nations that humans are responsible for the climate change the world is experiencing is that the evidence of human causation is extraordinarily compelling despite the fact that the Earth has experienced warming and cooling cycles during Earth’s history in responses to natural forces. The confidence of human causation is very high because scientists: (1) can predict how the Earth will warm up differently if a layer of GHGs in the atmosphere warms the Earth compared to how our planet warms if the natural forces that have caused warming in the Earth’s historical heating and cooling cycles, (2) have known precisely since the mid-1880s the amount of energy a molecule of CO2 generates in watts per square meter, (3) have known that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil fuel combustion because of its chemical isotope, (4) have determined that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is directly proportional to the timing and amount of fossil fuel combustion around the world, (5) tested these lines of evidence  rigorously in computer model experiments since the 1960s.

Climate change is not only a terrifying future problem, it is already causing increasing devastation and human suffering to more and more parts of the world. Just in early March, Cyclone Idai devastated Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi killing over a 1000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands of others in Mozambique alone. The New York Times described the devastation as follows:

Nearly a week after southern Africa was hit by one of the worst natural disasters in decades, it was all rescue workers could do to try to reach the victims let alone count the dead. People were climbing to trees desperately waiting for some form of rescue. Around them, the remnants of homes sat in piles, collapsed as easily as if they had been houses of cards. Hundreds of thousands of people in Mozambique alone were displaced and everywhere there was a vast inland sea where once there had been land.

The 1.1 0C temperature rise the Earth has experienced since the beginning of the industrial revolution that the mainstream scientific community has attributed to human activities has already caused brutal suffering caused by increases in killer hurricanes, unprecedented flooding, droughts, forest fires, storm surges, climate refugees, increases in vector-borne and tropical diseases, killer heat stresses, loss of valued ecological systems including coral reefs around the world, and human conflict in Syria and parts of Africa.

Because even modest amounts of additional warming create the risk that certain thresholds, or “tipping points,” in the climate system may be exceeded causing much more abrupt climate change, human-induced climate change creates grave threats to life on Earth. These thresholds include ice sheet destabilization, methane leakage stored in permafrost and oceans, loss of the energy reflective properties of sea ice, and changes to the ocean heat circulation system among others. If some of these tipping points are triggered, the increased warming will subject some parts of the world, including many African states, large parts of the middle east, and hundreds of cities near oceans to multiple impacts including crop failures, deadly heat waves, expansion of tropical diseases, flooding, and drought. Thus, future devastation threatened by climate change is horrifying. For this reason, all the nations of the world in 2015 agreed to adopt policies that limited warming to as close as possible to 1.5 0C but no greater than 2.0 0C. Yet limiting the warming to these levels will require all nations and levels of government, including state and local governments, to act with a war-like coordinated effort to decarbonize the global economy.

Despite the universal agreement among nations that climate change is human-caused and very dangerous, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy invited Gregory Wrightstone on March 27 to testify on climate change issues. Mr. Wrightstone’s only qualifications to testify as an expert on climate change are bachelors and masters degrees in geology and some published research on geology including the geology of the Marcellus shale. Although Mr. Wrightstone acknowledged that he has never published in the peer-reviewed climate science literature, Mr. Wrightstone took issue with the conclusions of 97% of climate scientists who publish in peer-reviewed climate science literature and who support the consensus view on human causation of climate change and its potential catastrophic impacts to the human race from current climate change trends. The “consensus” view on climate science is also supported by 80 academies of science in the world, including the US Academy of Science, and at least 21 prestigious scientific organizations whose members engage in science relevant to climate change including the American Geophysical Union, the European Geosciences Union, the Geological Sciences of America and London, organizations whose members include geologists, Mr. Wrightstone’s discipline.

The consensus view of mainstream science has often been initially articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization created by the world’s governments and the United Nations at the suggestion of the United States in 1988 to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate change science and make recommendations to the world’s governments on climate change policies. IPCC does not do independent scientific research but approximately every five years examines the peer-reviewed scientific literature and draws conclusions which are further reviewed by climate scientists and approved by the experts from the governments of the world. The IPCC has issued five comprehensive assessments starting with the first assessment report in 1990 and several special reports. The 5th assessment was published in 2014 and was written by 861 climate scientists whose nominations were reviewed to determine whether they had expert qualifications in climate science. (IPCC, 2014)

Mr. Writestone’s testimony began with a statement that he would “undercut the notion that our changing climate is primarily caused by human-caused increases in greenhouse gases and those changes are having negative impacts on Earth’s ecosystems and on humanity.”

Skepticism in science is a good thing, in fact, it is the oxygen that allows science to make contributions to human understanding of how the world works. But skeptics, to be taken seriously, must abide by the rules of science which require that scientific claims be subjected to peer-review. Mr. Wrightstone’s claims about climate change made during the March 31 hearing not only have never been peer-reviewed, but they were also either dramatically inconsistent with peer-reviewed climate change science or were cherry-picked facts that although true on their face do not undermine the conclusions of peer-reviewed science. “Cherry-picking” means picking from possible facts only those facts that support a predetermined conclusion while ignoring other facts.  Examples of Mr. Wrightstone’s cherry-picked arguments made in his testimony to undermine the scientific consensus view that human activities were responsible for raising atmospheric CO2 to dangerous levels included that:

  • The current concentration of CO2 is very low compared to other levels in the historical record, ignoring the strong scientific consensus that current elevated CO2 levels are a human-caused and global catastrophe is likely unless there is an unprecedented international effort to rapidly reduce GHG emissions;
  • Earth’s ecosystems thrived when CO2 levels were much higher, ignoring the fact that when atmospheric CO2 levels got high enough, the resulting warming tripped dangerous positive feedbacks which led to abrupt warming increases that several times caused mass extinctions of much of life on Earth and mainstream scientists believe that the current rise in global temperatures is approaching levels which may trigger several of these positive feedback triggers which could cause abrupt very dangerous levels of warming;
  • CO2 is good because it promotes plant growth and prevents the Earth from getting too cold, ignoring the huge scientific literature that has identified enormous human suffering and damages that current levels of warming have already caused particularly harming the world’s poorest people and the potential to cause abrupt climate change which could cause mass extinction;
  • Current concentrations of CO2 are not unprecedented if one looks at the full history of the Earth’s atmosphere rather than the time span usually considered, ignoring the scientific evidence that that high CO2 levels in the Earth’s history were sometimes responsible for causing mass extinctions and conditions such as sea level rise which would now cause hard-to-imagine destruction especially to hundreds of the Earth’s most populated cities small island states, and poorest people and countries.

Several sociologists, including Dr. Robert Bruelle from Drexel University and  Riley Dunlap from Oklahoma State, among others, in many peer-reviewed sociological papers and in a recent book (Dunlap and McCright, 2015), have documented how some fossil fuel companies or their industrial organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute, and free market fundamentalists foundations and think tanks have funded and supported efforts to undermine the public’s faith in the consensus view of climate science similar to the way the Tobacco Industry supported disinformation about the health threats of smoking tobacco. One of the tools in this effort has been to financially support or publicize the claims of climate skeptics whose claims frequently have not been subjected to peer review.

Mr. Wrightsone’s claims, like many of the arguments made by climate skeptics supported by the fossil fuel industry, not only have not been subjected to peer-review, they were dramatically inconsistent with the large body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence.

I have no evidence that Mr.Wrightstone’s testimony was orchestrated by any members of the Pennsylvania fossil fuel industry or politicians that frequently represent their interests, however, his testimony was similar to the problematic claims of the skeptics supported by the fossil fuel industry organized climate science disinformation campaign.

Mr. Wrightstone also took issue with the frequent claim that the consensus climate science is supported by 97% of climate scientists by stating he was one of the 97% while ignoring that the full claim is that 97% of scientists who engage in “peer-reviewed” climate change science, a group he does not belong to, support the consensus view along with every academy of science in the world, including the US Academy of Science.

Mr.Wrightstone’s testimony included arguments against two proposals under consideration in Pennsylvania that would lower GHG emissions from the state. One, a petition before the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board to establish a Pennsylvania cap and trade program similar to programs in other states. The second proposal is known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative which is a proposed multi-state cooperative program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

His argument against these two programs was that the Governor and the House Committee should make recommendations on these two programs that were based on scientific facts, not on a politically driven narrative of coming planetary gloom. Yet the “facts” of science are established in constant testing through peer-review.

On May 1, the Senate Majority Policy Committee held a hearing about climate change at which Mr; Wrightstone along with climate change deniers David Legates (The Heartland Institute) and Joe Bastardi (WeatherBELL Analytics/frequent FOX News contributor) also testified making arguments that disagreed with the  enormous peer-reviewed science which has been synthesized by 861 climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s  and agreed to by every government in the world and every Academy of Science in the world. The testimony of all three of these skeptics took issue with elements of the scientific consensus view agreed to by every country in the world and their Academies of Science.

We have written extensively on this site under the category “disinformation” in the above index about why the fossil fuel disinformation campaign is some new heinous crime against humanity. (see index above under “disinformation”) Also see D. Brown, Is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity?

Yet, because the Pennsylvania state government  has done little so far to adopt aggressive climate change policies, but Pennsylvania Governor Wolf has announced his intention to begin to adopt Pennsylvania climate change policies that will significantly reduce Pennsylvania’s GHG emissions, the legislative hearings discussed in this article which have been devoted to publicizing the views of climate skeptics who have not published the claims made in the hearings in peer-review journals are likely only the beginning of more intense efforts to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate science.

Pennsylvania is the third largest emitter of GHGs among US states, behind only Texas and California. The Keystone state is responsible for 1 percent of global emissions yet has only 0.19 percent of the global population.

The Pennsylvania legislature and the Wolf administration have thus far failed to enact policies that will prevent activities in Pennsylvania from causing harsh climate impacts here and to hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable people around the world.  Although Governor Wolf in January took the welcome step of issuing Pennsylvania’s first executive order on climate change which included a goal of reducing GHGs by 26 percent reduction by 2025 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050, from 2005 levels, these targets are woefully short of Pennsylvania’s fair share of needed global action to achieve the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming as close as possible to 1.5 0C and no greater than 2.0 o C and nothing has yet been done to decarbonize the Pennsylvania economy as required of the world to by the Paris Agreement.

IPCC said in an October special report that to limit warming to 1.5 0C, total global CO2 emissions would need to fall by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero by 2050.  (IPCC, 2018) If Governor Wolf takes climate change seriously, it is very likely that members of the fossil fuel industry in Pennsylvania will try and undermine Pennsylvania citizens’ support for the consensus climate science position by among other tactics making arguments similar to those made by Mr. Wrightstone.

References:

Brown, D. (2010) Is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity? The  Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/cif-green/2010/nov/01/climate-science-disinformation-crime

Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change, The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC) AR5 (2014),https://www.ipcc.ch/assessment-report/ar5/

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC) (2018), https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

davbrown57@gmail.com

 

Six Things That Citizens Around the World Urgently Need to Know About Climate Change In Light of Several Recent Scientific Reports

This article identifies and explains six things that most citizens around the world, although particularly those in developed countries, need to understand about climate change in light of the most recent climate change science. These six things are:

  1. The enormous magnitude of GHG emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic warming.
  2. The speed of GHG emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic warming.
  3. No nation may either legally or morally use national self-interest alone as justification for their failure to fully meet their obligation under the UNFCCC.
  4. No nation may either legally or morally use scientific uncertainty as justification for their failure to fully meet their obligations under the UNFCCC.
  5. Developed countries must legally, morally, and practically more aggressively reduce their GHG emissions than developing countries
  6. Developed countries must legally, morally, and practically help finance mitigation and adaptation programs in poor developing countries.

The need for broad understanding among civil society of these issues follows from several recent scientific reports on climate change. For instance, on October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a Special Report on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures.  This landmark report, along with several additional recent scientific studies published in the last few months including a paper published by the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences on July 21, 2018, Trajectories of  the Earth System in the Anthropocene by Steffen et.al., and a paper published in mid-August of this year in Nature Communications by Anthony et. al., 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath, lead to the conclusion that the international community is facing an urgent existential crisis that threatens life on Earth. Preventing this catastrophe requires the entire international community at all levels of government (national, state, regional, and local) to engage immediately in an unprecedented effort to rapidly reduce GHG emissions to net zero in the next few decades.

Although the October IPCC report on 1.5 degrees C warming received some significant notice in the US media, the recent US elections on November 6th in which climate change played only a very minor role at best, demonstrates a startling lack of understanding about the enormity and urgency of the climate threat facing the international community. Because of the immense ramp-up of programs and efforts needed to reduce the staggering threat of climate change depends on broad understanding of the scale of the problem facing the human race, and given the apparent ignorance of most citizens about the magnitude and urgency of the climate change crisis and other issues discussed in this paper, concerned citizens need to mount an aggressive educational program to inform civil society about aspects of the climate change threat that appear to be poorly understood. These issues include the following:

1. The Immense Magnitude of GHG Reductions Urgently Needed to Prevent Catastrophic Warming

The IPCC Special Report concludes that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.  This is so because to limit warming to 1.5 C, CO2 emissions would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050 according to the IPCC Special Report. This means if global CO2 emissions have not fallen to net zero levels by 2050, any remaining emissions would need to balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

The Steffen et. al. paper also describes how the positive feedbacks depicted in the following graphic, once triggered could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions alone would not prevent additional warming until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over reducing disastrous warming.

The Steffen et.al paper also explains how human-induced warming of slightly over 1.0 degrees C is already rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positive climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves, droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world.

The Anthony et.al paper also explains that, contrary to common assumptions previously made by many in the international community that positive feedbacks in the climate system that could cause abrupt temperature increases would not likely be triggered if warming could be limited to below 2C above pre-industrial levels, positive feedbacks could be initiated between current temperatures which have risen slightly above 1.1C and 2C. Moreover, the additional warming caused by these feedbacks could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world, phenomena which threaten life on earth.

For these reasons, citizens around the world need to understand the urgent need to reduce GHG emissions to net zero as soon as possible.

2The Speed of GHG Reductions Needed to Prevent Catastrophic Warming.

Every day that nations fail to reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to achieve a warming limit goal such as 2 degrees C makes the problem worse because the carbon budgets for the whole world that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal shrink as emissions continue. Therefore, the speed that nations reduce their GHG emissions reductions is as important as the magnitude of the reductions identified by any national GHG reduction commitment. For this reason, any national commitment on climate change should not only identify the amount of GHG emissions that will be reduced by a certain date, but also the reduction pathway by which these reductions will be achieved.

The following illustration depicts two different GHG reduction pathways for reaching zero emissions by 2050. Although the curve on the top achieves zero GHG emissions at the same time as the curve on the bottom, total emissions during the period are much greater following the emissions reductions pathway under the top curve compared to total emissions under the bottom curve because the lower curve pathway more quickly reduces emissions. Citizens need to understand that waiting to reduce GHG emissions makes the problem worse because waiting consumes more of any shrinking carbon budget that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal.

3. No Nation may either Legally or Morally use National Self-interest Alone as Justification for Their Failure to Fully Meet Their Obligations under the UNFCCC.

Because GHG emissions from every country mix rapidly in the atmosphere, all nations’ emissions are contributing to rising atmospheric GHG concentrations thus harming people and ecological systems on which life depends all over the world. The above illustration depicts that the atmosphere is analogous to a bathtub in that it has limited volume and that all nations emitting GHGs are raising atmospheric concentration of GHGs to its current concentration of approximately 407 ppm CO2 (the second line from the bottom in the above bathtub) which level is already causing enormous harm in many vulnerable countries while threatening the entire world if the atmospheric GHG concentration is raised to levels which trip positive feedbacks discussed above (represented by the upper line in the above bathtub). Thus high-emitting countries such as the US may not formulate their climate change policies on the basis of costs and benefits to itself alone. Particularly those nations that are emitting high levels of GHGs must acknowledge and respond to the devastating climate change harms they are already contributing to in other countries and particularly harms to poor people and nations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts.  Thus in the United States, for instance, the Trump administration’s justification for withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement on the basis of “putting US interests first ” is ethically indefensible and tragic because of the damage the Trump climate change policy will cause outside the United States.

The following illustration depicts nations emitting high levels of GHG in red in the top half of the illustration while those countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts are indicated in red in the bottom half of the illustration.

For this reason, as a matter of law, given that nations under the UNFCCC agreed to stabilize GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. (UNFCCC, Art. 2), a nation may not fail to reduce its GHG emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions based on the cost to it because it has ethical and legal duties to other nations not to harm them.

4.  Scientific Uncertainty is Not a Legally or Morally Defensible Justification for Not Adopting Aggressive Climate Change Policy Responses.

Although opponents of climate change policies have justified their opposition on the basis of scientific uncertainty, and despite the fact that the most prestigious scientific organizations have expressly stated their conclusions about the enormous threat of climate change with increasingly higher levels of scientific probability for over 40 years, scientific uncertainty is not a justifiable response for any nation’s unwillingness to adopt climate change policies as a matter of law or morally.

Under international law, including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC,  Art. 3.3) which states in relevant part “where there  are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty may not be used as a reason for postponing such measures,” and the “no harm principle”, a principle of customary international law recognized in the Preamble to the UNFCCC, nations may not legally use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to take action to prevent dangerous climate change.

Also as we explained previously in 2008 in The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty, nations also have had a strong moral responsibility to take action to reduce the threat of climate change once it was scientifically understood that GHG emissions could cause serious harms even if the harms had not been proven with high degrees of scientific certainty.

Given, that numerous reputable scientific organizations beginning in the late 1970s,  including the US National Academies of Sciences, (See Early Climate Change Consensus at the National Academy) and five reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change beginning in 1990 (See IPCC report timeline)  have concluded with increasing levels of certainty that human activities are dangerously threatening people and ecological systems on which life depends, nations have been on strong notice for over four decades that human activities responsible for GHG emissions are dangerous to the human community, thus nations have been on notice about the dangers of climate change for over 40 years and therefore may not legally or morally use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to adopt climate change policies that will reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to prevent dangerous climate change.

5. High Emitting Developed Countries, Including the United States, Must Reduce GHG Emissions More Aggressively than Other Countries as a Matter of Law and Practically to Prevent Dangerous Climate Change.

Hiigh-emitting nations have a legal duty under the UNFCCC to reduce their GHG emissions faster than lower emitting nations because they agreed to:

[P]rotect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof. (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.1)

These principles were re-committed to in the Paris Agreement , Art 2.2 which  provides that:

This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.

Thus under law, hiigh emitting nations, such as the US, have a legal duty under the concept of “equity” to reduce its GHG emissions more rapidly than most other nations.  Although there is reasonable disagreement among nations about what “equity” requires of them,  formulate its ghg emissions reduction target on the basis of equity is not only required by its legal obligations under the UNFCCC, practically the US and other high emitting nations must reduce their GHG emissions by much greater amounts and faster than poor developing nations because if they don’t the poorer nations will have to reduce their GHG emissions almost immediately to near zero CO2 so that global emissions don’t exceed the carbon budget available to prevent a warming limit such as 2 degrees C from being exceeded,

  • There is a basic set of shared ethical principles and precedents that apply to the climate problem…[and] such principles… can put bounds on the plausible interpretation of equity in the burden sharing context…[and] are important in establishing what may be reasonably required of different actors.  (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg .317 )

The IPCC went on to say:

  •  these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, , AR5, WG III, Ch 4, p. 318).

As a matter of law, therefore, high-emitting countries such as the United States must reduce its GHG emissions to safe levels based on equity at faster levels than other countries as any reasonable interpretation of equity would require the US to make much larger and more rapid GHG reductions than almost all other nations given that the United States (under the concept of responsibility) emitted 5,011,687 metric kilotons (kt) of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2016, second only to China’s 10,432,741 kt CO2. (Netherlands Environmental Agency), also under the concept of responsibility the United States has emitted a greater amount of cumulative CO2 emissions, that is 29.3% of global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2002, while China emitted 7.6% during the same period, (WRI, Cumulative Emissions) making the US much more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to the current level of approximately 406 ppm than any country.  Also, under the concept of equality given the US is responsible for 15.56 metric tons per capita CO2 emissions which is more than twice as much as China’s 7.45 metric tons per capita in 2016 (World Bank), as a matter of equity the US must reduce its GHG emissions much more rapidly and steeply than almost all countries.

The following illustration demonstrates why high-emitting nations must also practically reduce emissions more aggressively than other nations because it can be seen that if the high emitting nations such as China, the EU, and USA, depicted near the bottom of the illustration, don’t reduce GHG emissions muchfaster than the rest of the world, and if the international community is going to be restrained by the emissions reduction pathway needed to achieve a warming limit goal, such as the 2 degee C pathway depicted in the illustration, then there is quickly nothing left for the rest of the world. Therefore, high-emitting nations must more aggressively reduce their emissions than lower emitting nations not only as a matter of law but also to retain any hope for the international community to achieve warming limit goals agreed to in the Paris Agreement of as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2 degrees C.

6. Developed Nations Have a Legal and Moral Duty to Provide Financial Resources to Assist Developing Nartions with both Mitigation and Adaptation Programs and this Financial Assistance is also Practically Indespensible to Prevent Climate-induced Harms in all Countries.

Under the UNFCCC, developed country Parties agreed to provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties in implementing the objectives of the Convention (UNFCCC, Article 4, §3). The Paris Agreement also provides that the developed countries shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention. (Paris Agreement, Art, 9.1)

Financial support of developing nation’s mitigation obligations under the UNFCCC  mitigations is not only legally required under the UNFCCC but also practically important because large-scale investments are required to significantly reduce emissions and dangerous climate change will not likely be avoided unless developing nations reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Financial support for developing nations by developed nations is also both legally and ethically required to meet the adaptation needs of developing countries, as significant financial resources are needed by many vulnerable countries to adapt to the adverse climate change.

Climate impacts, such as sea-level rise and more frequent droughts and floods, are already having devastating effects on communities and individuals in developing countries. These impacts on developing countries are already affecting developed nations because, for instance, between 2008 and 2011, approximately 87 million people were displaced due to extreme weather events which is causing a mass migration of refugees which is destabilizing many developed nations, particularly in Europe.(Climate Change in Developing Countries, Government of Canada)  According to the World Health Organization, climate change is expected to contribute to approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.(World Health Organization, Climate and Health) .

Developing countries are the most impacted by climate change. This is due to many factors, including the economic importance of climate-sensitive sectors for these countries (e.g. agriculture) and the limited financial and human capacity to respond to the impacts of climate change. (Climate Change in Developing Countries, Government of Canada). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that by 2030, up to 122 million more people could be forced into extreme poverty due to the effects of climate change—many of them women. (Conflicts Fueled by Climate Change, The Guardian.)

Because climate change is already destabilizing developed countries due to refugees who are fleeing vulnerable areas of poor developing nations that have become inhabitable due to climate change-induced droughts, floods, loss of drinking water, and rising seas, if developed nations do not help finance climate change adaptation programs in developing countries, they will experience growing conflict and stress caused by vulnerable people and refugees in developing countries who are both creating conflicts in their countries and in developed countries they have or are seeking to enter. . 

Image result for climate change refugees

The following illustration depicts the number of  refugees who are fleeing or who have fled climate change.

Image result for climate change refugees

Conflicts Fueled by Climate Change, The Guardian.

For this reason, developed country financing assistance for emissions reduction and adaptation programs in developing countries is not only legally required but practically necessary to reduce climate change-induced problems and conflicts in developed countries.

By;

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

New Evidence That Climate Change Poses a Much Greater Threat to Humanity Than Recently Understood Because the IPCC has been Systematically Underestimating Climate Change Risks: An Ethical Analysis

 

Three papers have been recently published that lead to the conclusion that human-induced climate change poses a much more urgent and serious threat to life on Earth than many have thought who have been relying primarily on the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This paper first reviews these papers and then examines the ethical questions by the issues discussed in these papers.

I. The Three Papers

On July 31, 2018, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which should create a shiver of fear in all humans everywhere. The paper, Trajectories of  the Earth System in the Anthropocene by Steffen et.al., explains how human-induced warming is rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positi climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves and droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, and acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world. This paper explains that, contrary to common assumptions made by many in the international community that positive feedbacks in the climate system that could cause abrupt temperature increases would not likely be triggered if warming could be limited to 20 C above pre-industrial levels, positive feedbacks could be initiated between current temperatures and 20 C. Moreover, once triggered the additional warming caused by these feedbacks could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (ghg) emissions alone would not prevent until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over preventing disastrous warming.

Another recent paper published in mid-August in Nature Communications by Anthony et. al., 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath Lakes, concludes that models used to predict climate impacts have failed to incorporate abrupt carbon feedback from permafrost decay that recent evidence has revealed is now possible. In fact, the paper claims that early stages of processes that lead to permafrost degradation are already underway, a phenomenon which leads to release of dangerous amounts of methane and CO2. This paper further concludes that carbon emissions from melting permafrost could increase soil carbon emissions by 125–190% compared to gradual thaw alone.

This paper summarizes major conclusions from a third recent paper which analyzes IPCC’s consistent underestimation of climate change impacts. This paper, What Lies Beneath: On the Understatement of Existential Climate Risk, (hereinafter “WLB”), recently published by the Breakthrough Institute, claims both that the risks posed by climate change are far greater than is evident from the conclusions of IPCC and examines why IPCC has frequently underestimated threats from climate change.

The WLB report also further concludes that climate change is now an existential risk to humanity, that is an adverse outcome that could either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and dramatically curtail its potential. (WLB, p.13)

Although the WLB report acknowledges IPCC has done “critical, indispensable work of the highest standard in pulling together a periodic consensus of what must be the most exhaustive scientific investigation in world history” however, the IPCC process suffers from all of the dangers of consensus-building in such a wide-ranging and complex arena. (WLB, p. 5) The report also attributes the overly conservative conclusions of the IPCC to the consensus building nature that IPCC must follow to get governments to approve IPCC final reports and to IPCC’s following scientific norms that condemn speculation. (WLB. p. 5) As a result, the report concludes that much of the climate research on which IPCC has relied has tended to underplay climate risks and as a result, IPCC has exhibited preferences for conservative estimates of climate change impacts. (WLB, p. 5)  This practice the WLB reports labels as “scholarly reticence.” (WLB, p. 5)

This WLB report further claims that climate science has succumbed to the norm followed by most physical sciences to refrain from any speculation that cannot be grounded in empirically determined probability calculations. This epistemic norm, the report claims, is not well-suited to guide predictions about very scientifically complex matters such as earth system dynamics. The report calls this approach the Probability Obsession of science which is not well suited to predict future states of complex systems about matters for which there are no historical antecedents. (WLB, p. 2)

The WLB report also notes that a conservative approach to climate science began to dominate and as a result, the planetary future has become a hostage to national economic self-interest. Thus, the paper claims it became “alarmist” to claim the climate change is an existential threat to life on earth. (WLB, p.4)

The report further notes that although “a fast emergency-scale transition to a post-fossil fuel world is absolutely necessary to address climate change…. yet this is excluded from consideration by policymakers because it is considered to be too disruptive.” And so the paper claims “we have a policy failure of epic proportions.”  (WLB, p. 4)

The WLB report further notes that although it has widely been reported that if the ghg emissions reductions commitments or Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs)  made by governments so far under the Paris Agreement are complied with, the Earth’s temperature is expected to rise to  3.40 C by 2100 without taking into account “long-term” carbon cycle feedbacks. (WLB, p.15) Yet if the positive feedbacks are fully considered, the temperature path defined by the NDCs could result in around 5° C of warming by 2100 according to a MIT study. (WLB, p.13) Yet, the report claims that even if warming reaches 3° C, most of Bangladesh and Florida would drown, while major coastal cities – Shanghai, Legos, Mumbai – would be swamped likely creating larger flows of climate refugees. Most regions of the world would see a significant drop in food production and an increasing number of extreme weather events, whether heat waves, floods or storms. (WLB, p.13)

The WLB report concludes warming of 4°C or more could reduce the global human population by 80% or 90%, and the World Bank reports “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C temperature rise would be possible.” Quoting Professor Kevin Anderson, the report claims a 4°C future “is incompatible with an organized global community and is likely to be beyond adaptation by the majority of people.” (WLB, p. 14)

The WLB report also claims that the often-quoted prediction of likely temperature increases if current NDCs are complied with of approximately 3° C rise does not take into account the considerable risk that self-reinforcing feedback loops could be triggered when certain thresholds are reached leading to an ever-increasing rise in temperature. These potential thresholds include the melting of the Arctic permafrost releasing methane into the atmosphere, forest dieback releasing carbon currently stored in the Amazon and boreal forests, with the melting of polar ice caps that would no longer reflect the light and heat from the sun. (WLB, p. 14)

The report cites a recent study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center found that if global temperature rose to 4° C that extreme heat waves with “apparent temperatures” peeking over 550 C (1310 F) will begin to regularly affect many densely populated parts of the world, forcing much activity in the modern industrial world to stop. (WLB, p.14)

The paper claims that one study found that even a 2° C warming “would double the land area subject to deadly heat and expose 48% of the population to deadly heat.” (WLB, p.14)

According to the WLB report, a 4° C warming by 2100 would subject 47% of the land area and almost 74% of the world population to deadly heat which could pose existential risks to humans and mammals alike unless massive adaptation measures are implemented. (WLB, p.14)

The WLB paper also explains how IPCC’s understatements of likely climate change impacts affect what is generally claimed among climate policy-makers about elements of climate science including climate models, climate tipping points, climate sensitivity, carbon budgets, permafrost and carbon cycles, arctic sea ice, polar ice-mass loss, and sea-level rise. The following summarizes some of the main paper’s conclusions on these matters, although we recommend that interested parties read the WLB’s full description of these issues. The full paper also should be consulted for footnote sources of the following conclusions.

Climate Models

Climate modeling is at the core of the work by IPCC, and in developing future emission and warming scenarios a 2007 report by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies Center for New American Security recognized the that: “Recent observations indicate the projections from climate models have been too conservative,” and  “the effects of climate change are unfolding faster and more dramatically than expected,” and, “multiple lines of evidence support the position that the 2007 IPCC reports’ projections of impacts are systematically biased low.” (WLB, p.18) For instance, the paper concludes:

The models used to project future warming either omit or do not account for uncertainty in potentially important positive feedbacks that could amplify warming (e.g., release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost, reduced ocean and terrestrial CO2 removal from the atmosphere, and there is some evidence that such feedbacks may already be occurring in response to the present warming trend. Hence, climate models may underestimate the degree of warming from a given amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere by human activities alone. Additionally, recent observations of climate system responses to warming (e.g. changes in global ice cover, sea level rise, tropical storm activity) suggest that IPCC models underestimate the responsiveness of some aspects of the climate system to a given amount of warming. (WLB, p.18)

Climate models simply omit emissions from warming permafrost, but we know that is the wrong answer because this tacitly assumes that these emissions are zero and we know that’s not right. (WLB, p.18)

The WLB report characterizes IPCC reports as presenting “detailed, quantified (numerical) modeling results-such as feedbacks that the models account for in a descriptive non-quantified form. Sea-levels, polar ice sheets, and some carbon-cycle are three examples. Because policymakers and the media are often drawn to the headline numbers, this approach results in less attention being given to the most devastating, high-end, non-linear and difficult to quantify outcomes.” (WLB, p. 19).

The WLB report concludes about this tendency: “The emphasis on consensus in IPCC reports has put the spotlight on expected outcomes which then become anchored via numerical estimates in the minds of policymakers.” (WLB, p. 19)

The WLB report also notes that one of the problems with IPCC is the strong desire to rely on physical models. (WLB, p. 20)

Tipping Points

A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate systems component – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system. (WLB, p. 21) Progress toward a tipping point is often driven by positive feedbacks, in which a change in the component leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic case is global warming is the ice-albedo feedback, or decreases in the area of polar ice change surface reflexivity, trapping more heat, producing further sea ice loss. (WLB, p. 21)

In some cases, passing one threshold will trigger further threshold events, for example, where substantial greenhouse gas releases from polar permafrost carbon stores increase warming, releasing even more permafrost carbon in a positive feedback, but also pushing other systems, such as polar ice sheets past their threshold point. (WLB, p. 21)

In a period of rapid warming, most major tipping points, once crossed are irreversible in human time frames, principally due to the longevity of atmospheric CO2 (a thousand years). (WLB, p. 21)

Climate models are not yet good at dealing with tipping points. (WLB, p.21) This is partly due to the nature of tipping points, where particularly complex confluence of factors abruptly change the climate system characteristics and drive it into a different state. (WLB, p.21) To model this, all the contributing factors and their forces have to be well identified, as well as their particular interactions, plus the interactions between tipping points. (WLB,  p.21)  Some researchers say that “complex, nonlinear systems typically shift between alternative states in an abrupt, rather than the smooth, changes, a challenge that the climate models have not yet been able to adequately meet. (WLB, p. 21)

Risks associated with tipping points increase disproportionately as temperature increases from 1° C to 2° C and become high above 3° C. Yet political negotiations have consistently disregarded the high-end scenarios that could lead to abrupt or irreversible climate change. (WLB, p. 21)

IPCC has published few projections regarding tipping-point thresholds, nor emphasized the importance of building robust risk-management assessments of them in absence of adequate quantitative data. (WLB, p. 210)

The world is currently completely unprepared to envision and even less deal with the consequences of catastrophic climate change. (WLB, p. 21)

Climate Sensitivity

Climate sensitivity is the amount by which the global average temperature will rise due to a doubling of atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, at equilibrium. IPCC reports a focus on what is generally called equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS). The 2007 IPCC report gave a best estimate of climate sensitivity of 3° C and said it is likely to be in the range 2° C to 4.5° C. (WLB, p. 22)

The 2014 IPCC report says that “no best estimate for equilibrium climate sensitivity can now be given, because of lack of agreement on values across lines of evidence and studies” and only gives a range of 1.5° C to 4.5° C. (WLB, p. 22)

The IPCC reports fail to mention that the ECS measure omits key “long-term” feedbacks that a rise in the planet’s temperature can trigger. (WLB, p. 22) These include the permafrost feedback, other changes in the terrestrial carbon cycle, a decrease in the ocean’s carbon-sink efficiency, and the melting of polar ice sheets creating a cold ocean-surface layer underneath that accelerates the melting of ice shelves and hastens the rate of ice-mass loss. (WLB, p. 22)

There is a wide range of literature that suggests that climate sensitivity which includes these feeedbacks-known as Earth System Sensitivity (ESS), is 4-6 0 C. (WLB, p. 22).

Long-term feedbacks have already begun to appear on short time frames, climate-carbon cycle coupling is expected to add carbon to the atmosphere as the climate warms, although the magnitude of feedback is uncertain. (WLB, p. 22)

Conclusions about climate sensitivity should take into account that:

  1. Biogeochemical feedbacks (such as less efficient land-ocean sinks, including permafrost loss) effectively increases carbon emissions to 2100 by about 20% and can enhance warming by up to 0.5°C, compared to the baseline scenario. (WLB, p. 23)
  2. Warming has been projected to increase methane emissions from wetlands by 0 – 100% compared with present-day wetland methane emissions. A 50% increase in wetland methane emissions by 2100 is expected in response to high-end warming of 4.1 – 5°C which could add at least another 0.5°C warming. (WLB, p. 23)
  3. It is important to use high-end climate sensitivity because some studies have suggested the climate models have underestimated three major positive climate feedbacks: positive ice albedo feedback from the retreat of Arctic sea ice; positive cloud albedo feedbacks from retreating storm track clouds in mid-latitudes, and positive albedo feedback by the next phase (water and ice) clouds. When these are taken into account the ECS is more than 40% higher than the IPCC mid-figure, at 4.5 to 4.7° C. (WLB, p. 23)

Some recent research concludes that climate sensitivity is higher in warmer, interglacial periods (such as present) and lower in colder glacial periods. Based on a study of glacial cycles and temperatures over the last 100, 000 years one study concludes that in warmer periods climate sensitivity is 4.88 0 C. (WLB, p. 23) The higher figure would mean that an atmospheric concentration 450 ppm CO2, a figure that current trends will reach in 5 years, would be around 30 C in rather than the 20 C number bandied about in policy making circles. (WLB, p. 23)

Carbon Budgets

A carbon budget is the estimate of the total future human-caused ghg emissions in tons of CO2 or CO2 equivalent, that would be consistent with limiting warming to a specific figure, such as

1.5 0 C or 20 C with a given risk of exceeding the target such as 50%, 33%, or a 10% chance. (WLB, p. 24)

Carbon budgets are usually based on mid-term climate sensitivity numbers of around 30 C. (WLB, p. 22)

Yet there are reasons to believe climate sensitivity is closer to 4C. In fact, as we have seen, climate sensitivity may be between 4-60 C. (WLB, p. 22)

Carbon budgets are routinely proposed that have a substantial and unacceptable risk of exceeding specified targets and hence entail large and unmanageable risks of failure., (WLB, p. 24)

Research in 2017 the compared role climate models used by IPCC with models that are “observationally informed” produce 15% more warming by 2100 than IPCC claims and therefore supports the conclusion that carbon budgets should be reduced by 15% for the 20C target. (WLB, p. 24)

The IPCC reports fail to say that once projected emissions from future food production and deforestation are taken into account there is no carbon budget for fossil-fuel emissions for a 20C target. (WLB, p. 24).

There are also problems with carbon budgets which incorporate “overshoot” scenarios, in which warming exceeds the target before being cooled by carbon drawdown. (WLB, p.24)  Pam Pearson, Dir. of International Cryo-sphere Climate Initiative, said that most cryo-sphere thresholds are determined by peak temperatures, and the length of time spent at the peak warning rather than “later decreasing temperatures after the peak are largely irrelevant, especially with higher temperatures and longer duration peaks.” Thus “overshoot scenarios” which are now becoming the norm in policymaking hold much greater risks. (WLB, p. 24)

Permafrost and the Carbon Cycle

The failure to adequately consider long-term feedbacks in IPCC models, and hence in projections of future warming, lies at the heart of the problem with the IPCC reporting process. (IPCC, p.25) Over century time-scales, amplifying feedbacks may ultimately contribute 28-68% of total warming, yet they comprise only 1-7% of current warming. (WLB, p. 25)

The land sink (storage capacity) for CO2 appears much smaller than is currently factored into some climate models. Thus future patterns of warming may be distinctly different from past patterns making it difficult to predict future warming by relying on past observations. (WLB, p. 25)

Soil Carbon. A 2016 study concluded that a soil carbon cycle feedback “has not been incorporated into computer models used to project future climate change, raising the possibility that such models are underestimating the amount of warming that is likely to occur. (WLB, p. 24) The projected loss of soil carbon from climate change is a potentially large but highly uncertain feedback to warming, however, there is likely to be strong carbon-climate feedbacks from colder northern soils. (WLB, p.24)

Forests. At the at the moment about one-third of human-caused CO2 emissions are absorbed by trees and other plants. But rapid climate warming and unusual rainfall patterns are jeopardizing many of the world’s trees, due to more frequent droughts, pest outbreaks, and fires. (WLB, p. 25) This is starting to have profound effects on the Earth’s carbon cycle. (WLB, p. 25)  In 2009 researchers found that 2° C of warming could cut in half the carbon sink of tropical rainforests. Some tropical forests – in the Congo and Southeast Asia – have already shifted to a net carbon source. The tropics are now a net carbon source with losses owing to deforestation and reductions in carbon density within standing forests being double that of gains resulting from forest growth. Other work has projected a long-term, self-reinforcing carbon feedback from mid-latitude forests to the climate system as the world warms. (WLB, p. 25)

There has been an observed decline in the Amazon carbon sink.  Negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern, and central Amazonia at 20 – 25% deforestation. Researchers say that severe droughts of 2005, 2010 and 2015-16 could well represent the first flickers of this ecological tipping point and say the whole system is oscillating. (WLB, p.25)

Permafrost. The world’s permafrost holds 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, more than twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. On land it covers an area of 15,000,000 km². The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere on earth, and some permafrost degradation is already occurring. Large-scale tundra wildfires in 2012 added to the concern, as have localized methane outbursts. (WLB, p. 25)

The 2007 IPCC assessment on permafrost did not venture beyond saying “changes in snow ice and frozen ground have with high confidence increase the number and size of glacial lakes, increased ground instability in mountain and other permafrost regions and led to changes in some Arctic and in Antarctic ecosystems. It reported with high confidence that methane emissions from tundra and permafrost have accelerated in the past two decades and are likely to accelerate further. It offered no projections regarding permafrost melts. (WLB, p.25).

The effect of the permafrost’s carbon feedback has not been included in the IPCC scenarios including the 2014 report. (WLB, p. 26). This is despite clear evidence that “the permafrost carbon feedback would change the Arctic from a carbon sink to a source after the mid-2020s and is strong enough to cancel 42 – 88% of the total global land sink. (WLB, p. 26)

In 2012, researchers found that, for the 2100 median forecasts, there would be a 0.23 – 0.27°C of extra warming due to permafrost feedbacks. Some researchers consider that 1.5°C appears to be something of a “tipping point” for extensive permafrost thaw. (WLB, p.26)

A 2014 study estimated that up to 205 billion tonnes equivalent of CO2 could be released due to melting permafrost, This would cause up to 0.5° C extra warming for the high mission scenario and up to 0.15° C of extra warming for the 2° C scenario. The authors say that; “climate projections in the IPCC Fifth Assessment report, and any emissions targets based on these projections, do not adequately account for emissions from thawing permafrost and the effect of the permafrost carbon feedback on global climate. (WLB, p.26)

Recently attention has turned to the question of the stability of large methane hydrate stores below the ocean floor on the shallow East Siberian Arctic shelf. (Methane hydrates are cage-like lattices of ice within which methane molecules are trapped). (WLB, p. 26)

These stores are protected from the warmer ocean temperatures above by a layer of frozen sub-sea permafrost. The concern is that warmer water could create taliks (areas of unfrozen permafrost) through which large-scale methane emissions from the hydrates could escape into the water column above and into the atmosphere. (WLB, p. 26)

A deceptively optimistic picture is painted when the potential impacts from the degradation of permafrost and methane hydrates are underplayed. (WLB, p. 26)

Arctic Sea-Ice

IPCC has consistently underestimated the rate of Arctic sea ice melt. (WLB, p.27)

Arctic sea ice is thinning faster than every IPCC climate projection, tipping points have been crossed for sea ice free summer conditions, and today scientists say an ice-free Arctic summer could be just years away, not many decades. (WLB, p. 27)

The loss of sea ice reduces the reflectivity of the planet and adds to warming but this feedback is not fully incorporated into models in circumstances where the rate of sea-ice loss is more rapid than expected in the models, as is occurring now. (WLB, p.27) To keep global temperature increase below 20 C, global CO2 emissions would need to reach zero 5-15 years earlier and the carbon budget would need to be reduced by 20-51% to offset this additional source of warming. (WLB, p. 27)

Because climate models are missing key real-world interactions and generally have been poor at dealing with the rate of Arctic sea ice retreat, expert elicitation’s play a role in considering whether the Arctic has passed a very significant and dangerous tipping point. But the IPCC has done none of this. (WLB, p.27)

Polar Ice-Mass Loss

2001 IPCC report said little change in Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet is expected over the next 50-100 years.  (WLB, p. 28)

Greenland Ice Sheet

The 2007 IPCC report said there were “uncertainties in the full effects of ice sheet flow” and a suggestion that “partial loss of ice sheet on polar land could imply meters of sea-level rise….Such changes are projected to occur over millennial time scales.” The reality is very different.” (WLB, p. 28)

IPCC said in 2007 that current models suggest virtually complete elimination of the Greenland ice sheet and a resulting contribution to sea-level rise of about 7 meters if global warming were sustained for millennia in excess of 1.9 to 4.60 C relative to pre-industrial values. (WLB, p. 28) This was despite that two 2006 studies found that the Greenland ice cap “may be melting three times faster than indicated by previous measurements, warning that we are close to being close to being committed to a collapse of the Greenland ice cap and reports that rising Arctic regional temperatures are already at “ the threshold beyond which glaciologists think the [Greenland] ice sheet may be doomed.” (WLB, p. 28)

In 2012 then NASA climate science chief James Hansen told Bloomberg that: “our greatest concern is that the loss of Arctic sea ice creates a great threat of passing over passing two other tipping points – the potential instability of the Greenland Ice Sheet and methane hydrates…These latter two tipping points would have consequences that are practically irreversible on time scales of relevance to humanity.’ On this very grave threat, IPCC is mute. (WLB, p. 29)

Antarctic Ice Sheet

The 2007 IPCC assessment proffered: “Current global model studies project that the Antarctic ice sheet will remain too cold for widespread surface melting and gain mass due to increased snowfall.” (WLB, p. 29) However, the net loss of ice mass could occur if dynamical ice discharge dominates the ice sheet mass balance. Reality and new research would soon undermine this one-sided reliance by IPCC on models with poor cryosphere performance. (WLB, p. 29)

By the 2014 IPCC assessment, the story was: “Based on current understanding from observations, physical understanding, and modeling, only the collapse of the marine-based sectors of the Antarctic ice sheet, if initiated could cause global mean sea level to be substantially above the likely range during the 21rst Century.” (WLB, p. 29) There is medium confidence that the additional contribution would not exceed several tenths of a meter of sea-level rise during the 21rst Century. And “abrupt and irreversible ice loss from the Antarctic is sheet is possible, but current evidence and understanding is insufficient to make a quantitative assessment.” This was another blunder. Observations of accelerating ice mass in West Antarctic were well established by this time. (WLB, p. 29) It is likely that the Amundsen Sea sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has already been destabilized. (WLB, p. 29) Ice retreat is unstoppable for current conditions, and no acceleration in climate change is necessary to trigger the collapse of the rest of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which comes with a 3-5 meter sea level rise. (WLB, p. 29), Such an event would displace millions of people worldwide. (WLB, p. 29)

In 2016, another significant study concluded that: “Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a meter of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 meters by 2500.” Compare this to the IPCC report, just a year earlier, that Antarctica’s contribution to sea levels “ would not exceed several tenths of a meter…during this century. ” (WLB, p. 29) As well, partial deglaciation of the East Antarctic ice sheet is likely for the current level of atmospheric CO2 contributing ten meters or more of sea-level rise in the longer run, and five meters in the first 200 years. (WLB, p. 29)

A 2018 study showed that ocean-driven melting has caused rates of ice-loss from West Antarctica to triple from 53 + or – 29 billion to 159 + or – 26 billion tons per year from 1992 to 2017. (WLB, p. 29) Forty percent of the total mass loss over that period has occurred in the last and five years, suggesting a recent and significant acceleration in the loss rate. (WLB, p. 29)

Over the same period, ice-shelf collapse had increased the rate of ice loss from the Antarctic Peninsula almost five-fold from 7 + or – 13 billion to 33 + or- 16 billion tonnes per year. (WLB, p. 29)

Sea Level Rise

In the 2001 assessment report, the IPCC projected a sea-level rise of 2 millimeters per year. By 2007, the researchers found that the range of the 2001 predictions were lower than the actual rise. Satellite data had shown that sea levels had risen by an average of 3.3 millimeters per year between 1993 and 2006. (WLB, p. 30) IPCC did not use this data to revise its projections. (WLB, p. 30) James Hansen warned of “scientific reticence” in regard to ice sheet stability and sea-level rise. (WLB, p. 30) In 2008, the US Geological Survey warned that sea-level rise could top 1.5 meters by the end of the century. And by the end of 2009, various studies offered drastically higher projections than IPCC. (WLB, p. 30) The Australian government identified research that estimated sea level rise range from 0.5 to 2.0 meters by 2100. (WLB, p. 30) Yet in 2014, IPCC reported a smaller figure (0.55 meters compared to 0.59 meters in 2007) despite mounting evidence of polar ice-mass loss. (WLB, p. 30) Noting inconsistent evidence, IPCC said that the probability of specific levels above the likely range cannot be evaluated. (WLB, p. 30)

An NOAA sea level report in August of 2017 recommends a revised worst-case sea level scenario of 2.5 meters by 2100, 5.5 meters by 2150 2150, and 9.7 meters by 2200. (WLB, p. 31)

Today the discussion among experts is for sea-level rise in this century of at least one meter, and perhaps in excess of two meters. (WLB, p. 31)

Goals Abandoned

The WLB report claims that the warming levels already reached at approximately 1.10 C are already “dangerous” and that future warming would need to be limited to 1.20 C to save the Great Barrier Reef. (WLB. p. 37) Therefore, the WLB report concludes that the UNFCCC process has already abandoned the goals of the UNFCCC of “preventing dangerous interference with the climate system.” The report also argues that other key goals of the UNFCCC including that “food production is not threatened’’ and “achieving reductions in a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change” have been abandoned for all practical purposes.”

Conclusion-Ethical Issues Raised by IPCC’s Consistent Underestimation of Climate Change Impacts.

A. Failure to Apply a Precautionary Science

As we have seen, the “What Lies Beneath” Report attributes IPCC’s consistent underestimation of climate change impacts to both the consensus process that IPCC follows in which governments must approve aspects of final IPCC reports and to IPCC’s following norms often followed by scientists which eschew making any claims that cannot be supported by empirically tested observations.

As we have claimed before in Ethicsandclimate.org, there is a potential conflict between IPCC’s mission to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate change scientific literature, which normally requires adequate levels of scientific proof before drawing conclusions, and the precautionary principle stated in article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which requires governments to act despite scientific uncertainties. A precautionary science would identify all scientifically plausible impacts, not only those impacts that can be identified with high levels of scientific certainty or impacts about which quantitative probability statements derived from empirical observations can be stated.  If the precautionary principle is to be taken seriously then decision-makers should be informed about all potentially dangerous impacts even if quantitative probability statements about these impacts can’t be derived from observations of how a physical system works.  Since the UNFCCC expressly adopted the precautionary principle, a strong case can be made that IPCC should identify all scientifically plausible impacts. If it were to do this, IPCC should, of course, be clear that some impacts are less certain than others.

Identifying all scientifically plausible climate impacts is also required as a matter of ethics once there is a reasonable basis for concluding that certain human behavior is dangerous to others.

Who should have the burden of proof and how much proof should be required to satisfy the burden of proof in the face of scientific uncertainty about dangerous behavior are fundamentally ethical questions, not ‘value-neutral’ scientific matters, yet scientists are rarely trained in ethical reasoning and very rarely spot the ethical issues raised by decisions about dangerous human behavior that must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty.  Given that the potential harms from climate change include an existential threat to life on Earth, as a matter of ethics, those who claim that scientific uncertainty is justification for not taking strong action to reduce the threat of climate change should have the burden of proof of demonstrating with very high levels of proof that ghg emissions levels are safe.

Ethics would require higher levels of proof of those who are engaged in dangerous behavior to prove their behavior is safe in proportion to how potentially dangerous the behavior is especially for harms to others who have not consented to be harmed and for behaviors that become more dangerous the longer one waits to reduce the uncertainty. Given that climate change actually threatens life on Earth including billions of people who have not consented to put at risk, and given that waiting to reduce ghg emissions makes the problem more threatening, ethics would shift the burden of proof to those who are most responsible for raising ghg emissions to prove with very high levels of proof that human emissions of ghg are safe even if there is some uncertainty about the amount of warming that different levels of ghg emissions will cause. For this reason, the problem created by IPCC’s underestimation of climate change impacts may not be exclusively the fault of IPCC.  The problem may also be the fault of policymakers who fail to respond to the enormous potential harms entailed by human-induced warming by demanding that opponents of climate change policies shoulder the burden of proof by demonstrating with high levels of proof that ghg emissions will not cause serious harms.

This website includes many articles which explain why policymakers and citizens have a strong duty to reduce ghg emissions in the face of some scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts. See, for example:

1. The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions the face of Scientific Uncertainty;

2. On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.

Policymakers have a vital need for scientists to explain all scientifically plausible harms that may result from human activities even if the magnitude and creation of potential harms are uncertain. In fulfilling these responsibilities, scientists may not ignore potential harms because they are unable to determine probabilities about the likelihood of their occurrence based on empirical observations. Yet because scientists often follow the epistemic norms of their science when engaged in scientific research which usually require adequate levels of proof before making causal claims, policymakers need to be clear when interacting with scientists that their policymaking responsibilities require that they, the policymakers, protect citizens from all plausible harms.  Therefore policymakers need scientists to identify all scientifically plausible harms. Because IPCC’s mission is to synthesize the existing peer-reviewed climate science, which very likely does not include scientific conclusions about plausible harms partly based on speculation, IPCC cannot fulfill the role of science that policymakers need when policymakers are seeking to protect citizens from all plausible harms, namely to inform humanity about all plausible climate change impacts. Thus, there is a basic conflict between IPCC’s mission of synthesizing peer-reviewed climate change science and providing policy-makers with information about all scientifically plausible climate change impacts.

This need of policy-makers to understand all plausible harms creates an enormous challenge for mainstream scientific institutions which usually rely on peer-review in which scientists normally review scientific claims by comparing claims to empirically tested observations which are the ground of the scientific enterprise. Yet, as Hans Jonas explained in The Imperative of Responsibility, In Search of an Ethics in a Technological Age, the power of modern technology to create catastrophic harms such as those harms now foreseeable from human-induced climate change, ethics requires that policy-makers approach these matters with a “heuristics of fear,” replacing the former “projections of hope” that traditionally guided policy (Jonas, 1984, p.x), Yet, mainstream science is often uncomfortable with conclusions not grounded in scientific observations. If this is so, ethics requires that IPCC’s mandate be amended to synthesize scientifically plausible conclusions about climate change outcomes.

B. The Ethical Bankruptcy of Arguments Which Demand High Levels of Certainty Before Taking Action to Reduce the Threat of Climate Change

The WLB report also claims that quoting a 2014 article in the Guardian increasing evidence ‘that policy summaries on climate impacts and mitigation by the IPCC were significantly “diluted under political pressure from some of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, including Saudi Arabia, China, Brazil, and the United States.” (WLB. p. 34)

The WLB report consistently argues that the remedy to IPCC’s tendency to underestimate climate impacts is to allow or require more speculation about uncertain but plausible climate impacts. However, those governments that seek to restrict discussion of all impacts to those that have been proven with relatively high levels of proof would likely argue that speculation could lead to an overstatement of climate impacts. Yet following a precautionary science that identifies all plausible climate change impacts including those that have been based on speculation can guard against overstating the seriousness of climate impacts by allowing those who claim that the plausible impacts have been overstated to provide reasons for their claims so that policymakers can judge whether some of the plausible but not fully proven impacts are arbitrary or without any plausible scientific support. This would place the burden of proving harm appropriately, as a matter of ethics, on the parties that seek to justify continuing dangerous behavior.

Nations which have demanded high levels of proof before reducing their contributions to climate change have failed to abide by their ethical and legal duties to not harm others and not abide by the ” precautionary principle” which they agreed to UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.

C. Ethical Problems with Economics Arguments Against Climate Change Policies

The WLB report also claims that some governments have advocated policies that would not be sufficient to achieve the goals of the UNFCCC to prevent dangerous climate change because they thought policies that achieve safer levels of warming ‘were too economically disruptive.” (WLB, p. 39). This report claims that in so doing,” policymakers are complicit today in destroying the very conditions which make life possible.” (WLB, p. 39) Further, the WLB report claims “There is no greater crime against humanity.” (WLB, p. 39)

An ethical analysis of those nations that refuse to adopt policies that may be necessary to prevent catastrophic harm on the basis of their economic interest would also strongly condemn these nations as deeply morally bankrupt.

References:

Anthony et. al., 2018, 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath Lakes, Nature Communications ,https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05738-9#author-information

Breakthrough Institute, 2018, What Lies Beneath, On the Understatement of Existential Climate Risk, https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/148cb0_a0d7c18a1bf64e698a9c8c8f18a42889.pdf

Jonas, H, 1984, The Imperative of Responsibility; In Search of an Ethics for a Technological Age, University of Chicago Press

Steffen et.al., 2018, Trajectories in the Earth System in the Anthropocene, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, http://macroecointern.dk/pdf-reprints/Steffen_PNAS_2018.pdf

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

Harrisburg, Pa.

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

What Americans Urgently Need to Understand About Climate Change In Light of an Alarming New Report Published By US Academy of Sciences

 

On July 31, 2018, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which should create a shiver of fear in all humans everywhere. The paper, Trajectories in the Earth System in the Anthropocene by Steffen et..al., explains how human-induced warming is rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positive climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves and droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world.

The Steffen et. al. paper also describes how the positive feedbacks depicted in the following graphic, once triggered could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (ghg) emissions alone would not prevent until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over reducing disastrous warming.

Image result for global map of tipping cascades

Steffen et. al,, supra pg. 4.

If this is not scary enough, the Steffen et. al. paper concluded some of these feedbacks could be triggered between 1 degree C to 3 degrees C, suggesting that the “risk of tipping cascades could be significant at a 2 degree C rise (Steffen at al p.7), the upper warming limit goal of the Paris Agreement which President Trump has announced the United States will withdraw from.

Given that even if temperature increases already baked into the system don’t trigger positive feedbacks until global temperatures rise by 2 degrees C and given the enormous challenge facing the world to achieve the 2 degrees C warming limit goal agreed to by the international community in Paris in 2015 requires the international community to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2070 (UNEP, Emissions Gap, 2016), the international community needs to immediately join forces to achieve extraordinarily ambitious international cooperation almost immediately to achieve the 2 degree C warming limit goal. However, given that the 2 degree C warming limit goal agreed to in Paris was selected because it was believed that if warming increases could be limited to 2 degrees C, triggering dangerous climate system positive feedbacks was unlikely, the conclusions of the Steffen et al paper that positive feedbacks could be triggered below 2 degrees C additional warming must be interpreted as a justification for a call for an unprecedented urgent global cooperative effort to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon sinks as rapidly as humanly possible.

Given that human-induced climate change is now widely understood to be an existential threat to life on Earth unless all nations rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) to net zero as fast as possible, Americans urgently need to understand certain features of the problem which have been infrequently mentioned in the US national climate change conversation including the following: 

  • There is growing evidence that even if global ghg emissions could be reduced to near zero rapidly, there is enough carbon already in the atmosphere that limiting warming to the then 2 degrees C warming limit goal by the end of this Century has only a 5% chance (Mooney, 2017).
  • Every day that nations fail to reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to achieve a warming limit goal such as 2 degrees C makes the problem worse because budgets available for the whole world that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal shrink as emissions continue. Therefore, the speed that nations reduce their GHG emissions reductions is as important as the magnitude of reductions identified by any national GHG reduction commitment. For this reason, any national commitment on climate change should not only identify the amount of ghg emissions that will be reduced by a certain date, but the reduction pathway by which these reductions will be achieved,
  • For reasons stated in the Seffen et.al. paper, climate change is an existential threat to life on Earth that requires the international community to rapidly take extraordinarily aggressive coordinated steps not only sufficient to prevent global temperatures from rising no than more than 2 degrees C, the upper warming limit agreed to by the international community in the 2015 Paris Agreement, but to minimize any additional warming as quickly as possible,
  • Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which the US ratified in 1992, the US has a legal duty under the concept of “equity” to reduce its GHG emissions more rapidly than most other nations, and although there is reasonable disagreement among nations about what “equity” requires of them, any reasonable interpretation of equity would require the US to make much larger and more rapid GHG reductions than almost all other nations given that the United States emitted 5,011,687 metric kilo tons (kt) of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2016, second only to China’s 10,432,741 kt CO2. (Netherlands Environmental Agency). The US also has an equitable duty to more aggressively reduce its emissions than most other countries because it has emitted a greater amount of cumulative CO2 emissions, that is 29.3% of global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2002, while China emitted 7.6% during the same period, (WRI, Cumulative Emissions) making the US much more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to the current level of 406 ppm than any country.  Also given the US is responsible for 15.56 metric tons per capita CO2 emissions which is more than twice as much as China’s 7.45 metric tons per capita in 2016 (World Bank), as a matter of equity the US must reduce its GHG emissions much more rapidly and steeply than almost all countries,
  • The US duty to formulate its ghg emissions reduction target on the basis of equity is not only required by its legal obligations under the UNFCCC, practically the US and other high emitting nations must reduce their GHG emissions by much greater amounts and faster than poor developing nations because if they don’t the poorer nations will have to reduce their GHG emissions almost immediately to near zero CO2 so that global emissions don’t exceed the carbon budget available to prevent a warming limit such as 2 degrees C from being exceeded,
  • Any US policy response to climate change such as a carbon tax must be structured to reduce US ghg emissions to levels and speeds required of the US to achieve its responsibilities to the rest of the world to prevent dangerous climate change. Thus, if the US were to pass a carbon tax, the imposition of a tax must either reduce US GHG emissions to the level and the speed required of it by its obligations or be supplemented by other policy responses such as, for instance, mandatory conversions of electric power generation from fossil fuel combustion to renewable energy by a date certain or mandatory requirements for electric vehicles,
  • Because GHG emissions from every country mix rapidly in the atmosphere, all nations emissions are contributing to rising atmospheric GHG concentrations thus harming people and ecological systems on which life depends all over the world. Thus, the US may not formulate its climate change policies only on the basis of costs and benefits to itself alone, it must acknowledge and respond to the devastating climate change harms the United States is already contributing to that are being experienced around the world and particularly by poor people and nations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. For this reason, the Trump administration’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on the basis of “putting US interests first” is deeply morally indefensible and tragic because of the damage it will likely cause to the world,
  • Because of the rapid speed required of the US to reduce its ghg emissions to net zero carbon emissions, the US urgently needs to put ghg emissions reductions on the equivalent of a wartime footing by not only adopting policy responses that can achieve ghg emission reduction goals required of it, but also by investing in research and development in new technologies that can facilitate and achieve the its ghg emission reduction obligations and increase carbon sinks that could reduce the rise in atmospheric ghg concentrations,
  • The United States needs to develop a strategy to achieve these objectives in the next two years and begin implementing the strategy immediately as quickly as possible.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

New Paper: Step By Step Procedures that Nations Should Follow to Determine, Explain, and Evaluate their GHG Reduction Commitments Under the Paris Agreement

Status

A.Urgent Need For Greater Understanding Among Nations and Civil Society of How Nations Should Formulate and ExplainTheir NDCs under the Paris Agreement.

Research conducted by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland concluded not surprisingly that when 24 governments identified greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets they ignored their legal duties to set a national target on the basis of preventing dangerous anthropogenic climate change, equity, and common but differentiated responsibilities in light of national circumstances under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement. In all cases, this research concluded that nations inappropriately took national economic self-interest into account in establishing their GHG reduction target. (Nationclimatejustice.org) while not clearly explaining how their GHG reduction targets were formulated on the basis of what was required of nations under law. This conclusion was not surprising to the researchers. But what was very surprising was that the vast majority of NGOs in these countries appeared not to understand how a nation should quantitatively formulate a target in light of its nondiscretionary and discretionary duties under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. Without an understanding of how a nation should formulate and explain its GHG emissions reduction target, nations and civil society will not be able to effectively evaluate a nation’s NDC.

It is this writer’s view that the widespread ignorance around the world about how a nation should set a GHG target is attributable to the fact that although nations have been setting GHG targets for many years, only recently have they had to expressly respond to the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals and to in so doing take the equity requirements of the Paris Agreement seriously while at the same time being clear and transparent in how they responded to there  obligations under the Paris Agreement. Up until recently, a nation could set a GHG target without considering how much of a shrinking carbon budget that remains to achieve a warming limit goal the nation was going to allocate to itself on the basis of equity. Very few nations, if any, have expressly formulated their national GHG reduction targets on the basis of a carbon budget that remained to achieve a warming limit goal.

Because the Paris Agreement’s success depends on nations being clear and transparent in explaining how they formulated their Nationally Determined Contributions  (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, yet there is widespread ignorance around the world on how nations should formulate their NDCs to comply with their obligations under the Paris deal, there is an urgent need to help nations and civil society around the world understand how a nation should formulate its NDC to comply with their obligations under the Paris Agreement.

B. A New Paper Explains How Nations Should Formulate and Justify their NDCs under Paris Agreement

To meet this need, a new paper describes 4 steps in detail that all governments should follow to comply with their legal obligations under the Paris Agreement as well as the information that nations should  include with their NDCs about how they formulated their NDCs, which information is necessary to comply with the clarity and transparency  requirements of the Paris Agreement.

The paper is: A Four-Step Process for Formulating and Evaluating Legal Commitments Under the Paris Agreement. Donald A Brown, Hugh Breakey, Peter Burdon, Brendan Mackey, Prue Taylor, Carbon & Climate Law Review, Vol 12, (2018) Issue 2, Pags 98 – 108, https://doi.org/10.21552/cclr/2018/2/

The four steps are:

(1) Select a global warming limit to be achieved by the GHG emissions reduction target. The description of this step also explains the need of nations to explain why it chose a warming limit goal greater than the 1.5 degree C goal but no less than 2.0 degree warming limit goal.

(2) Identify a global carbon budget consistent with achieving the global warming limit at an acceptable probability. The paper includes a description of how a nation should identify a carbon budget to achieve a warming limit goal and other considerations relevant to identifying a carbon budget on which the GHG reduction target will be based.

(3) Determine the national fair share of the global carbon budget based upon equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. This section of the paper does not resolve all controversies about how to interpret equity under the Paris Agreement, although it does identify principles identified by IPCC that nations should follow in applying equity to guide their GHG reduction target and information that nations should include with their NDC that explains how they applied discretion in determining what equity requires of the nation.

(4) Specify the annual rate of national GHG emissions Reductions on the pathway to net zero emissions.This section explains that because different amounts of shrinking carbon budgets will be consumed by how long it takes a nation to achieve a quantitative GHG emissions reduction amount, nations need to explain the nation’s reduction pathway over time to determine how much of a global budget available for the whole world the nation is allocating to itself.

The paper also explains why expressly following these steps is necessary to ensure that a nation’s NDC is sufficiently transparent to allow the Paris Agreement’s “stocktake” and “transparency mechanism” processes achieve their goal of increasing national ambition if necessary to achive the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.

In addition to describing the steps nations should follow in formulating their NDC, the paper includes a chart which summarizes information that should be supplied with their NDC when it transmits the NDC to UNFCCC, information necessary to make the Paris Agreement’s transparency requirementts work and information necessary to evaluate the adequacy of the NDC under the Paris Agreement.

By: 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

How to ask questions of opponents of climate change policies to expose ethical problems with cost and scientific uncertainty arguments

 

Most arguments against climate change laws and policies are based on claims of unacceptable costs or scientific uncertainty, arguments that hide or ignore ethical problems with these arguments, This video explains how to ask questions of those who oppose climate change policies on the basis of cost or scientific uncertainty which questions are designed to expose ethical problems with these arguments.

The list of questions referenced in the video follows:

Questions to be asked of those opposing government action on climate change on the basis of cost to the economy, cost to specific industries, or job destruction.

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

  1. Do you deny high-emitting nations not only have economic interests but also duties and obligations to nations and people most vulnerable to climate impacts to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions?
  2. Do you deny that a high emitting nation needs to take responsibility for the harms to human health and ecological systems on which life depends which the nation is causing in other nations
  3. Do you deny the applicability of the well-established international norm that polluters should pay for consequences of their pollution?
  4. Do you agree that a nation’s climate change policy is implicitly a position on how high atmospheric concentrations of ghgs should be allowed to rise?
  5. Do you agree that a national ghg emissions target must be understood as implicitly a position on a global emissions reduction pathway necessary to stabilize atmospheric ghg concentrations at safe levels?
  6. Do you agree that no nation has a right kill other people or destroy the ecological systems on which life depends simply because reducing ghg emissions will impose costs on the high-emitting nation?
  7. Do you agree that nations which emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting vulnerable countries and individuals who have done little to cause climate change?
  8. Do you agree that the costs of inaction on climate change must be considered by nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them?\
  9.  Given that the United States has for over twenty-five years failed to adequately respond to climate change because of alleged unacceptable costs to it and that due to delay ghg emissions reductions now needed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change are much steeper and costly than what would be required if the United States acted twenty-five years ago, is it just for the United States to now defend further inaction on climate change on the basis of cost

Questions to be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty.

  1. When you argue that nations such as the United States or states, regional, or local governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emission because of scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts:
  2. On what specific basis do you disregard the conclusions of the United States Academy of Sciences and over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations whose membership includes those with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and the Royal Society of the UK and according to the American Academy of Sciences 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change which conclusions holds that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are already being experienced in parts of the world, and that the international community is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming.
  3. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are some remaining scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve uncertainties before action is taken will virtually guarantee that it will too late to prevent catastrophic human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems around the world?
  4. Given that waiting until uncertainties are resolved will make climate change harms worse and the scale of reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change much more daunting, do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in any decision about whether a nation should wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change because of scientific uncertainty?
  5. Should a nation like the United States which has much higher historical and per capita emissions than other nations be able to justify its refusal to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty, given that if the mainstream science is correct, the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent warming above 2.Oo C, a temperature limit which if exceeded may cause rapid, non-linear climate change.
  6. If you claim that there is no evidence of human causation of climate change are you aware that there are multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies which point to human causation of observed warming?
  7. When you claim that the United States or other nations emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven in peer reviewed scientific literature that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?
  8. If you concede that climate skeptics have not proven in peer-reviewed journals that human-induced warming is not a very serious threat to human health and ecological systems, given that human-induced warming could create catastrophic warming the longer the human community waits to respond to reduce the threat of climate change and the more difficult it will be to prevent dangerous warming, do you agree that those responsible for rising atmospheric ghg concentrations have a duty to demonstrate that their ghg emissions are safe?
  9. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty? Article 3 states:The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. (UNFCCC, Art 3)
  10. Do agree if a government is warned by some of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world that activities within its jurisdiction are causing great harm to and gravely threatening hundreds of millions of people outside their government’s jurisdiction, government officials who could take steps to assure that activities of their citizens do not harm or threaten others should not be able escape responsibility for preventing harm caused by simply declaring that they are not scientists?
  11. If a nation such as the United States which emits high-levels of ghgs refuses to  reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that    is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually seriously harms the health of tens of millions of others and ecological systems on which their life depends, should the nation be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?

 

Comments are welcome.

 

 

By 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

Harrisburg Pa.

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

Ethical Issues with Relying on Pricing Carbon as a Policy Response to Climate Change.

I. Introduction.

This entry will examine ethical issues raised by relying on putting a price on carbon as a policy response to reduce the threat of climate change.

Establishing a price on carbon emissions as a response to reduce a government’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has received strong support around the world. One observer of global climate change policy developments has concluded:

Not only is there a robust consensus among economists, but they have been remarkably successful in spreading the gospel to the wider world as well. Climate activists, wonks, funders, politicians, progressives, and even conservatives (the few who take climate seriously) all sing from the same hymnal. It has become conventional wisdom that a price on carbon is the sine qua non of serious climate policy. (Roberts, 2016)

This article will identify potential ethical problems with relying on carbon pricing to reduce the enormous threat of climate change despite the widespread popularity of pricing carbon regimes. As we shall see, although a few ethicists have ethical problems with any carbon pricing scheme, many others approve of carbon pricing schemes provided that the regime design adequately deals with certain ethical issues that carbon pricing regimes frequently raise.

Climate pricing regimes vary greatly from the government to government and among different types of carbon pricing regimes. However, there are two basic methods for using a price on carbon to reduce greenhouse (GHG) emissions.

The first is to distribute carbon caps, often referred to as carbon allowances, to GHG emitters usually followed by a tightening of the cap over time to achieve desired GHG  emissions reduction goals.  Those who have more allowances than they need may sell allowances to those who do not have enough.  Thus carbon allowances may be bought and sold, a scheme that is often justified by economists by claiming that this approach leads to GHG reductions at the lowest cost thereby finding an efficient solution to climate change while the amount`of GHG emissions achieved by the scheme may be determined by the total amount of allowances permitted. This method is usually referred to as “cap and trade”

Many cap and trade regimes allow those who need additional allowances to reduce GHG emissions to levels required by the cap to fund GHG emissions reduction projects often anywhere in the world including in places without a cap and get credit for the amount of GHG reductions achieved by the funded project, which credit then can be applied to determine whether the cap has been achieved. Different trading regimes have different rules specifying where and under what conditions emissions credits can be obtained by funding projects in other places.

The other common carbon pricing scheme is for government to charge a price for carbon emissions, a method usually referred to as carbon taxing. The carbon tax works also to lower GHG emissions because it makes technologies which produce less GHG per unit of energy more attractive thereby creating strong incentives for energy users to switch to energy technologies which produce less GHG emissions per unit of energy produced.  A price on carbon also creates incentives for all those responsible for GHG emissions to do what they can to emit less GHGs, including, for instance, reducing their carbon footprints by driving less, walking more, lowering thermostats in the winter, adding insulation to buildings, etc.

For these reasons, putting a price on carbon emissions as a policy response to human-induced climate change has strong global support particularly among economists.

This article will identify ethical issues created by (a) any carbon pricing scheme, (b) cap and trade regimes, and (c) carbon taxing regimes. This analysis will be followed by several conclusions.

II. Ethical Issues Raised By Any Carbon Pricing Scheme.

Although many ethicists who have identified ethical issues raised by policy responses to climate change that rely on putting a price on carbon acknowledge that pricing schemes have shown to be effective in reducing GHG emissions often at lower costs than other regulatory approaches, some ethicists nonetheless oppose carbon pricing schemes because of certain ethical problems with these schemes. Many other ethicists who acknowledge potential ethical problems with carbon pricing schemes believe these problems can be adequately dealt with by appropriate carbon pricing regime design. Yet even if ethical problems raised by carbon pricing regimes can be averted through carbon pricing regime design, policymakers and citizens need to understand these ethical problems so that they can be mitigated in the design of the carbon pricing scheme.

An ethical approach to climate change would limit GHG emissions by law at levels necessary to prevent human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems. For instance, many governments have established legal requirements on the percentage of renewable energy required of electricity providers, a policy response that does no rely on pricing carbon. An ethical approach to climate change is based on different justifications for reducing change harms than some economic approaches. As Vanderhelen said:

An ethical approach to climate policy is based on different assumptions than economic-based policy assumptions. The ethical approach says we should act on climate change now, not because the future costs of inaction exceed those of mitigation, but because the failure to do so harms others. It is our ethical duty to avoid this. (Vanderhelen, 2011)

And so an ethical approach to climate change requires those who are responsible for human-induced climate change harms to comply with their duty to not harm others without regard to the economic value of costs and benefits of climate change policy responses. All national governments in the world have duties to take actions that reduce GHG emissions from their jurisdiction to the nation’s fair share of safe global GHG emissions under the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 
In addition, an ethical approach to climate change also identifies ethical issues raised by carbon pricing schemes including the following:

A.  Assuring the price will achieve GHG reductions at levels entailed by the government’s ethical obligations.

The amount and speed of GHG emissions reductions that government policies should achieve is fundamentally an ethical question that economic reasoning alone cannot determine. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its 5th Assessment Report:

  • How should the burden of mitigating climate change be divided among countries? It raises difficult questions of fairness, and rights, all of which are in the sphere of ethics. (IPCC, 2014, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 215).
  • The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg.224).
  • What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, 2014,.AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 225).
  • Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice (IPCC,2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3,pg. 225).
  • [I]t is morally proper to allocate burdens associated with our common global climate challenge according to ethical principles. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).

Thus, no carbon pricing scheme alone without consideration of ethical issues can determine what the magnitude and timing of a government’s GHG emissions reduction goals should be because a government’s GHG emissions reduction goals must be based on fairness, justice, and obligations to not harm others or the ecological systems on which life depends without the consent of those who will be harmed. These are essentially ethical matters that economic rationality alone cannot deal with. Proponents of carbon pricing schemes claim that pricing regimes allow those responsible for reducing GHG emissions to achieve reductions at the lowest cost, yet the amount of reductions that a nation is obligated to achieve is essentially an ethical matter.  So the goal of any pricing scheme should be designed to achieve ethically justified national GHG emissions reduction targets.

All nations in the world have agreed under the 2015 Paris Accord that they are duty bound to adopt policies that will enable the international community to limit warming to between 1.5 degrees C and 2.0 degrees C, the warming limit goal, on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in light of national circumstances, the ‘equity’ requirement under the Paris Agreement.(UNFCCC, Paris Agreement, 2015, Art 2.) And so all nations have an ethical duty to determine their GHG emissions reduction goals which at a minimum would limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C although no greater than 2.0 degrees C on the basis of what equity requires of it to achieve these warming limits. Equity is understood by philosophers as a synonym for distributive justice.

Although there are differences among ethicists about what equity requires,  “equity” may not be construed to mean anything that a nation claims it to mean, such as national economic self-interest. As IPCC said, despite ambiguity about what equity means:

there is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).

The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4,  pg 317)

As a result, because some pricing regimes will not reduce national GHG  emissions to levels required by their national obligations under the Paris Agreement even those nations that have adopted some kind of carbon pricing regime have had to enact other climate change policies to achieve the nation’s GHG reduction goals. For this reason and because some politicians have conditioned their support for a proposed carbon pricing scheme on acceptance of legal provisions that prohibit policy responses that are in addition to a carbon pricing scheme under consideration by a legislature, policymakers and citizens need to understand that any carbon pricing scheme must assure that a government’s emissions reduction policies will achieve the government’s ethically determined carbon emissions reduction obligations.  Thus they must oppose legislation that prohibits a government from supplementing carbon pricing schemes with other laws to reduce GHG emissions.

Thus the quantity of the price placed on carbon under a taxing scheme or the magnitude of allowances under a cap and trade regime should be established after express determination of the government’s ethically prescribed obligations to reduce GHG emissions to its fair share of adequately safe global emissions.

Every national GHG emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on two profound ethical questions among others. They are:

  • the amount of warming and associated harms the nation is willing to inflict on others including poor vulnerable people and nations, Since all nations have agreed under the Paris Agreement to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C and no greater than 2.0 degrees C, these warming limits should be the default assumptions of governments’ GHG reduction target formulation;
  • the nation’s fair share of total global GHG emissions that may not be exceeded to keep global warming from exceeding the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals of 1.5 degrees C to 2.0 degrees C

Thus, to make sense of the acceptability of any carbon pricing scheme, government’s should; (a) identify its GHG reduction target, (b) how the target achieves its GHG emissions reduction obligations in regard to warming limits and fairness, (c) the date by which the target will be achieved, and (e) the reduction pathway that will achieve the GHG reduction goal.

The date by which the GHG reductions will be achieved is ethically relevant because any delay in achieving required reductions affects the remaining carbon budget that is available to assure that any warming limit goal is achieved. Carbon budgets that must constrain global GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal such as the 1.5 degrees C to  2.0 degrees C warming limit goals under the Paris Agreement continue to shrink until total GHG emissions are reduced to levels that will stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations at levels that will not cause warming greater than the warming limit goal. Therefore both the magnitude of the government’s GHG emissions reduction goals and the time it takes to achieve the goal are relevant factors in regard to whether any government will achieve GHG reductions that represent its fair share of safe global emissions. In fact the reduction pathway by which the reduction goal will be achieved is also relevant to whether a government will reduce its GHG emissions to levels required of it by its obligations because pathways which produce rapid reductions early in any period will consume less of a shrinking carbon budget than pathways that achieve most of the reductions at later times in the relevant period.  This fact is depicted in this chart.

This chart demonstrates that different GHG reduction pathways may consume different amounts of any relevant carbon budget even if the percent amount of reductions, in this case, 100% reduction by 2050, is the same for the different pathways. The amount of the budget consumed by the two pathways is represented by the areas underneath the curves.

B. Intrinsic Ethical Problems With Any Carbon Pricing Scheme.

A few ethicists argue that relying on putting a price on carbon to achieve a government’s obligations is ethically problematic without regard to the details of the pricing scheme.

Ethicist Michael Sandel, for instance, in a 1967 OpEd in the New York Times entitled It’s Immoral to Buy the Right to Pollute identified the following ethical problems with pricing carbon after acknowledging that trading GHG emissions allowances could make compliance for the United States cheaper and less painful. (Sandel, 1967)

Turning pollution into a commodity to be bought and sold removes the moral stigma that is properly associated with it. If a company is fined by a government for spewing excessive pollutants into the air, the government conveys its judgment that the polluter has done something wrong. A fee, on the other hand, makes pollution just another cost of doing business, like wages, benefits, and rent. (Sandel, 1967)

The distinction between a fine and a fee for despoiling the environment is not one we should give up too easily. Suppose there was a $100 fine for throwing a beer can into the Grand Canyon, and a wealthy hiker decided to pay $100 for the convenience. Would there be nothing wrong with his treating the fine as if it were simply an expensive dumping charge?

Or consider the fine for parking in a place reserved for the disabled. If a busy contractor needs to park near his building site and is willing to pay the fine, is there nothing wrong with his treating that space as an expensive parking lot?

In effacing the distinction between a fine and a fee, emission trading is like a recent proposal to open carpool lanes on Los Angeles freeways to drivers without passengers who are willing to pay a fee. Such drivers are now fined for slipping into carpool lanes; under the market proposal, they would enjoy a quicker commute without opprobrium. (Sandel, 1967)

Some human behavior is so morally reprehensible that charging a price for the behavior to create a disincentive is widely seen as morally unacceptable. For instance, most societies would agree that a strategy to reduce child prostitution that relies on increasing the price of child prostitution or taxing a sexual transaction in which children are involved is morally unacceptable. Because some countries’ GHG emissions are far greater than any reasonable determination of their fair share of safe global emissions and these GHG emissions are already contributing to the killing or harming millions of people around the world while threatening tens of millions of others, allowing GHG emitters to continue to emit GHGs at unsafe levels if they are willing to pay the price required by a government rather then establishing a legally determined maximum emissions rate consistent with the emitter’s morally determined emissions limits can be argued to be as morally unacceptable as dealing with child prostitution by imposing a tax. Even though a tax might achieve the same amount of reductions as a legal limit implemented by an enforceable cap on GHG emissions amounts, applying a tax implicitly signals that it is morally permissible to continue emitting GHGs at current levels as long as the carbon tax is paid. Thus, the tax can diminish the moral stigma entailed by status quo levels of emissions.

Putting a price on carbon as a policy response to climate change is often justified by economists as a way to make sure that market transactions consider the value of harms caused by climate change that are unpriced in market transactions.  For instance, because the price of coal does not consider the value of the harms caused by the burning of coal that will be experienced by some people who are not participants in the sale of the coal, putting a price on carbon equivalent to the value of the harms caused by the burning of coal is a way of assuring that the value of the harms caused by the coal are considered in the market transaction. This addition to the price is referred to as a Pigovian tax or a tax on any market transaction that generates negative externalities, so that the value of the negative externalities is included in the market price.  Most economists recommend that the amount of the tax be based on the social cost of the negative externalities where the social costs are measured in dollars or other monetary units determined by the amount people would be willing to pay to prevent the harm. Once the cost the harms is determined and included in a tax, the market will be able to operate efficiently.

Economists thus justify a tax set in this way because it enables the market to maximize preferences. But ethics is interested not in maximizing preferences people have but in assuring that people’s preferences are those that people should have morally.  For ethicists, it is wrong to harm people without their consent, even if those causing the harm could pay victims money calculated by the market value of the harm. That is, according to most ethicists it is morally wrong to harm people or the ecological systems on which life depends even if those causing the harm are willing to compensate those harmed. Some ethicists therefore argue, putting a price on carbon as a policy response to climate change does not pass ethical scrutiny unless the price prevents all non-trivial harms to life, health, and ecological property that people have not consented to. Given that some human rights have already been demonstrated to be violated by climate change (UNHR, 2018), any price on carbon that allows human rights violations to continue does not pass ethical scrutiny.

And so putting a price on carbon does not pass ethical scrutiny as long as the price does not prevent the harms that people have right to object to without their consent.

Although the money from the carbon tax could be used to compensate people for harms caused by climate change, this potential use of the tax revenues does not ethically justify continuing the behavior which causes serious harms to others without the consent of those who are harmed. In addition, because those being harmed by GHG emissions are people all around the world, if the revenue from a tax is to be used to compensate those who will be harmed by the GHG emission, the revenues from a tax would have to be distributed worldwide.  At this time there is no such global revenue stream from national carbon pricing schemes.

Many citizens and institutions around the world including many colleges and universities have significantly reduced their carbon footprint because they believed they had a moral obligation to do so as long as their GHG emissions could contribute to harming people, animals, ecological systems on which life depends, or things of great value to people.  A sense of moral obligation, without doubt, motivates, at least some people and institutions, to do the right thing. Yet pricing carbon as a response to climate change does not create a legal prohibition to reduce GHG emissions but only an economic incentive to do so.  A government could always legally prohibit activities that create GHG emissions that create harms, an approach to changing behavior that was the dominant strategy in environmental law for many decades. Economists, however, have often objected to these “command and control’  approaches because they claim that market-based mechanisms can achieve needed reductions in a more efficient economic way, that is, at a price that includes consideration of the value of the harms created.

At least in the United States, many of the proponents of carbon pricing are failing to educate civil society about the moral obligations of all nations and people to reduce GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a concern particularly in light of the very limited time left to limit warming to non-catastrophic levels. These proponents often passionately advocate for the adoption of a carbon pricing scheme because they are accurately convinced that a price on carbon will reduce GHG emissions, yet ignore discussing the non-discretionary moral duty to reduce GHG emissions thus inadvertently leaving the impression that provided that those who are willing to pay a price placed on carbon they have no moral obligation to cease activities which are responsible for carbon emissions. 

Economists often justify their market-based solutions as a method for maximizing the enjoyment of human preferences.  They thus calculate the value of harms avoided by climate policies by determining a market value of the harm and if there is no market value they often determine the value of the harms by determining what people are willing to pay to prevent the harm. This allows the economists to compare the cost of reducing GHG emissions against the value of harms prevented through pricing and in so doing allows a policymaker to select a policy option which maximizes human preferences. Yet, as we have seen ethics is concerned not solely with efficiently achieving the preferences people have but with establishing what preferences people should have in light of their moral obligations.

Under an ethical approach to climate change based on an injunction against harming others, because any additional GHG are raising GHG atmospheric levels which are already increasing harms people are suffering from droughts, floods, intense storms, tropical storms, and heat waves among other causes of  climate-induced harms, an ethical argument can be made that any carbon pricing scheme should seek to achieve the lowest feasible GHG emissions levels as quickly as possible. Ethics refuses to define what is ‘feasible’ in terms of the balance of costs and benefits. Ethics requires that harm to innocent victims must be avoided, even when the cost of reducing pollution exceeds the monetary value of harms to life and ecological systems on which life depends. Not all economists, of course, argue that government policies should be based on cost-benefit analysis but many do.

An ethical approach to climate change also requires that polluters should pay for the harms and damages they create as well as the costs to them of reducing the pollution.  Many carbon pricing schemes ignore the duty of GHG emitters to compensate those who have been harmed by their GHG emissions and base the amount of the tax on the amount of money needed to reduce GHG emissions while ignoring any obligations to compensate those who have been harmed by their emissions. This problem could be remedied by basing any price on the amount of money needed to compensate those who have experienced loses and damages or by providing separate funds to compensate those who are harmed by climate change but most carbon pricing schemes fail to take these matters into consideration.

Ethicists also acknowledge that climate-related harms are more likely to affect the poor, not just those who are now being asked to contribute toward its mitigation. For this reason, many ethicists prefer laws that prohibit certain immoral behaviors over laws that allow people to continue their immoral behavior if they are willing to pay higher prices entailed by the value of the harms caused by their behavior.

Economists often support pricing schemes if the pricing leads to the market incentivizing the use of alternative technologies that don’t create the harms of concern. In such cases, the morality of the pricing scheme likely depends on whether the technical transformation created by the pricing scheme will take place soon enough to prevent the harms of concern.

However, even in these cases, many ethicists believe that human activities that create morally unacceptable levels of GHG emissions should be responded to as moral obligations and only support pricing schemes so long as the scheme will enable reducing GHG emissions to morally acceptable levels as rapidly as possible. However, even so, some ethicists warn against erasing the moral stigma entailed by morally unacceptable levels of GHG emissions that could occur by allowing some to continue to exceed their moral obligations if they are willing to pay to do so.

Pope Francis in Laudato Si, the papal encyclical released in July 2015, questions whether market capitalism can effectively protect the poor, and in one passage specifically criticized “the strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits.’ More specifically Laudato Si argues that:

The strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’ can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. (Laudato Si 171).

The Pope’s objection appears to be based in part on the fact that a carbon pricing scheme will allow those who can afford to continue emitting GHGs after paying the pricing fee to do so while those that are unable to afford to pay the fee will need to reduce the activities that create GHG emissions. Yet this problem can be somewhat ameliorated by carbon pricing regime design decisions on how revenues are distributed or how allowances to emit are allocated.  However, these decisions raise questions of distributive justice, that is questions about how burdens or benefits of public policy should be allocated to comply with what fairness requires. For this reason, carbon pricing schemes often raise serious questions of distributive justice.

In addition if revenues from pricing schemes are to be used to help compensate those who are most harmed by climate change, given that those who are most harmed are often very poor people in poor nations that usually have done little to cause climate change, the revenues would need to transferred to poor nations and people around the world. Yet no national carbon pricing schemes have yet proposed such international financial transfers.

III. Ethical Issues Raised by Cap and Trade GHG Emissions Reduction Schemes

This paper next examines the following ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes that are additional to those discussed in Section II.

A very detailed examination of some ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes by Simone Carey and Cameron Hepburn is entitled Carbon Trading: Unethical, Unjust, and Ineffective? The Carey/Hepburn paper discusses in detail the following ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes that are in addition to those discussed above. The following is a summary of issues discussed by the Carey/Hepburn paper.

A. Rights to use nature cannot be owned

Because GHG emitters that receive allowances or buy allowances from those that have excess allowances could under some trading mechanisms hold or bank these allowances, holders of allowances could be understood under some trading schemes to have a right pollute the atmosphere at levels entailed by the allowances they hold. However, most ethicists believe that no one should have a property right to pollute the atmosphere.  Because in absence of a rule that would prevent the owner of allowances to bank the allowances for use far into the future, the owners of the allowances could accumulate the right to pollute far into the future. As a result, some ethicists have argued that allowances should be limited to a specific time period and be understood to be revocable if the science changes and concludes that greater reductions are necessary then those that were understood to be necessary to prevent harm when the allowances were distributed.

B  Responsibilities to abate harms cannot be transferred to others

Some ethicists believe that some human responsibilities should not be allowed to be transferred to others. For instance, it is generally believed to be ethically unacceptable for those who are potentially subject to being drafted into the military to be able to buy their way out of this obligation by paying someone else to agree to take one’s place if he or she is drafted. For this reason, some ethicists claim that is ethically problematic for high GHG emitters to get a credit for reductions made by others while not requiring more of the high emitters to reduce their emissions.

C. Distributive justice issues with how allowances and revenues are allocated

Because those with the money to do so can buy scarce allowances, participants in a cap and trade regime can wind up with vastly unequal levels of allowances creating significant differences among participants in rights to emit GHGs. In addition, because rules determining who can get allowances and what is done with the money generated from allowance trading can create great imbalances, rules for allocating allowances and revenues from sales of allowances should be consistent with what distributive justice requires to assure fair burden and benefit sharing. Distributive justice requires that people should be treated equally unless there are morally relevant reasons for treating people differently. There is no reason in principle for allowance and revenue allocations to lead to a more unequal distribution of wealth. It will depend on how the cap and trade scheme is designed.

These issues are discussed in more detail by the Carey/Hepburn paper.

D. Ethical issues created by the fact that some cap and trade regimes allow high emitters of GHGs to count emissions reductions made by projects of others funded by the emitters in achieving the high emitters’ GHG reduction obligations.  

Some cap and trade regimes allow those with GHG emissions reduction obligations to count the reduction of GHG emissions made by others’ projects funded by the emitter as a credit in achieving the emitter’s cap obligations. Economists justify this feature of cap and trade because it allows emitters to achieve GHG reductions at a lower price, However, not all GHG reduction strategies will reduce GHG emissions with equal probabilities that GHG reductions made by the emitter would actually have achieved. For instance, an electricity supplier can commit to reducing its emissions to amounts that will be achieved with high levels of confidence by installing non-fossil energy but if the electricity supplier relies on funding a forestation project in a third world country to obtain a credit for its emissions reductions. the actual reductions to be achieved by the funded project are much more speculative because of problems in assuring that any forest project will keep GHG reductions achieved by photosynthesis of the forest out of the atmosphere forever. Thus funding a project to achieve GHG emissions credits raises issues about the reliability of achieving specific GHG emission reduction amounts that are more reliable if the person responsible for GHG emissions must assure that GHG emissions will actually be achieved.

Thus cap and trade regimes often also raise the following ethical problems which were discussed in more detail in a prior entry on this website. (Brown, Ethical Issues Raised By Carbon Trading, 2010).:

a. Permanence. Many proposed projects for carbon trading raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by a project will stay out of the atmosphere forever. Yet permanent storage of carbon is needed to assure equivalence between emissions reductions avoided if no credits were issued and atmospheric carbon reductions attributable to a project which creates carbon credits. This is so because emissions reductions should guarantee that some quantity of GHG will not wind up in the atmosphere, yet some projects which are used to substitute for emissions reductions at a source have difficulty in demonstrating that the quantities of carbon reductions projected will actually be achieved. For instance, carbon stored in forests, soils, or geological carbon sequestration projects could be released to the atmosphere under the certain conditions. For example, rapid temperature change could kill trees thus releasing back into the atmosphere carbon stored in the trees. This problem is usually referred to as the problem of “permanence” of carbon reduction projects. For this reason, only projects that assure permanent reduction of carbon in the atmosphere can be categorized as environmentally effective projects and should be used to offset activities which actually release carbon.

b. Leakage. Many proposed projects for carbon trading raise serious questions about whether carbon reduced by a project at one location will result in actual reductions in emissions because the activity which is the subject of the trade could be resumed at another location. For example, paying people to plant trees in location A is not environmentally effective if these same people that receive the money chop down trees at place B. This is the problem usually referred to as “leakage.” Forest and other kinds of bio-sequestration projects that sequester carbon in particular often create leakage challenges. Industrial projects can also create leakage problems if the industry gets credit for reducing carbon at one industrial plant while moving the carbon producing activities to another place. If leakage occurs, then the trade is not environmentally effective.

c.  Additionality. Getting a credit for a project which is used in a trade will also not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons. This is so because trading regimes usually assume that a GHG emitter should get credit because of their willingness to invest in projects that reduce carbon emissions that would not happen without the incentive to get credit for carbon reductions. If the project would happen without the investment of the emitter, then the investment in the project is not “additional” to business as usual. This is the problem usually referred to as the “additionality” problem.

d.  Enforcement of trading regimeA trading regime is environmentally ineffective if its conditions cannot be enforced. Although enforcement of trading regimes is sometimes practical when the project on which the trade is based is within the jurisdiction of the government issuing the allowances, enforcement is particularly challenging when the project is located outside of allowance issuing government. In such cases, enforcement must be “out-sourced” to other institutions or governments In addition, while many hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in setting up emissions trading schemes all over the world, virtually no resources are being channeled into their enforcement or verification. Although most cap and trade regimes have built-in carbon reduction verification steps, verification remains extremely difficult for many types of carbon reduction projects for which credits are being issued because of the lack of enforcement or long-term verification potential. This enforcement challenge is exacerbated when projects for which credits are issued are in poor countries without the technical capability to enforce or verify that reductions have been made. Because of this, a strong case can be made that those who desire to rely on projects that have dubious enforcement and verification potential should have the burden of demonstrating enforcement and verification potential before they may obtain credits generated from these projects.

 e. Distributive justice and internal allocation of a government-wide cap. How a cap is allocated among entities within a government creates many potential distributive justice problems. Governments sometimes distribute a cap they have by giving away allowances, auctioning allowances, and other ad hoc considerations that often take into account political feasibility. Each of these methods of distributing a cap raises distributive justice issues that are often ignored for political reasons. For instance, both auctioning allowances and giving away allowances could be significantly regressive, making higher-income households better off while making lower-income households worse off. Auctioning could also be regressive if the most wealthy get the most permits forcing those without the financial resources into non-polluting options. Sometimes governments choose to allocate the cap by placing caps on “upstream” carbon users such as coal and petroleum companies and ignoring “downstream” carbon emitters such as coal-fired industrial users. A decision to place a cap upstream makes the climate change regime easier to administer but could have regressive effects on those least able to afford increased fuel costs. An upstream cap also can create little incentives for those who can afford to waste energy to change behavior. In contrast, downstream caps puts the responsibility on energy users. There is no ethically neutral way to decide these design questions.

f. Distributive justice and revenue from allowancesWhen allowances are auctioned or otherwise purchased, governments must make decisions about how to use allowance revenues. These decisions raise a host of distributive justice issues that are often ignored for political reasons. Some governments have chosen, for instance, to use allowance revenues to fund climate change technology research, to meet international obligations to fund climate change adaptation projects in developing countries, to fund programs to reduce deforestation projects in developing countries, to buy off politically powerful opponents to climate change legislation, to help those least able to cope with rising energy costs, or to subsidize nuclear power, geologic carbon sequestration, or renewable energy.  Thus, decisions about how to allocate revenues from distributing allowances raise distributive justice issue

IV. Ethical Issues With Carbon Taxes.

In addition to the ethical issues that apply to all carbon pricing regimes identified in section II of this entry, carbon taxing regimes can raise the following additional ethical issues.

a. Distributive Justice and a Carbon Tax.  Carbon taxing regimes must decide who must pay the tax and just as is the case for cap and trade regimes in the allocation of allowances, taxing schemes may choose to apply the tax either to upstream producers of carbon fuels such as petroleum or coal companies that distribute fossil fuels or further downstream to entities such as electricity generators who consume the fossil fuels. Upstream taxation creates fewer taxable entities who have a huge tax burden. Therefore the decision on who to tax creates different winners and losers, an outcome which has political significance particularly in places where fossil energy is mostly produced. If the tax is based on the amount of CO2 per unit of energy, then some fossil fuel industries such as coal production will pay a much higher tax per unit of energy, a fact which most greatly affects those places and communities that produce fuels with higher CO2 emissions levels per unit of energy.  This fact creates heavy burdens from the tax for those who are dependent on the sale of fuel with higher CO2 production levels. And so a decision about who must pay a tax has distributive justice implications.

How the tax revenues are used by the government also has enormous political and distributive justice implications. Policymakers are faced with many competing ways of using tax revenues generated by putting a price on carbon.  Many parts of the world that have established a carbon tax use it primarily to subsidize technologies that produce lower amounts of GHG per unit of energy such as wind and solar power. Other governments use the revenues to ease the burden on those who are most affected by the tax, including poor people. Thus how the revenues of a carbon tax are distributed raises deep questions of distributive justice which also create issues of political feasibility.

b. Amount of the tax. 

As we have seen all carbon pricing schemes raise ethical issues about whether the price is sufficient to achieve GHG emissions reductions consistent with the government’s ethically determined obligations to reduce GHG emissions. A pricing  regime that is based on taxing carbon emissions raises more challenging questions about whether the tax is ethically stringent enough than cap and trade regimes because governments are able more easily assure that the cap is stringent enough than a regime based on taxing carbon because the size of the cap may be set directly on the magnitude of GHG reductions required for the government to achieve its ethically determined GHG emissions reductions obligations while the sufficiency of a tax must rely on economic modelling to determine the magnitude of reductions that will be achieved by different levels of the tax. Determining the amount GHG reductions that will be achieved by different levels of the tax is always somewhat of a guessing game due to the inherent imprecision of economic modeling to predict how entities and people will respond to different price signals. For this reason, taxing schemes that seek to assure that the government will reduce GHG emissions reductions levels congruent with the government’s ethically determined reduction obligations should include accelerator provisions that would increase the amount of the tax once it is determined that actual GHG reductions are not consistent with reductions pathways required to achieve ethically determined reductions obligations. However, because experience with carbon taxing programs around the world has demonstrated that political backlash will likely arise that undermines government support for continuing a carbon tax that is judged to be too high, governments which seriously seek to reduce their GHG emissions through imposing a tax alone may need to consider back up strategies rather than rapidly accelerating taxes if the original tax does not achieve the GHG reductions required of it by its ethical obligations.

c. Considering responsibility for prior emissions, an issue relevant to distributive  justice. 

Distributive justice supports an allocation of burden sharing obligations on the basis of who is most responsible for causing the current problem. Carbon tax regimes are usually forward-looking; in that most schemes make everyone pay the same price for using the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb CO2.    Thus the scheme ignores responsibility determined by looking backward at questions such as:

  • Who caused the problem?
  • Who benefited from past emissions?
  • Who is in the best position to fix the problem?

To deal with these questions, a carbon tax may need to be supplemented by additional policies, for example by tax credits for poor people or sharing of tax revenues with those who must pay the tax but who have done little to cause the current problem so that the tax scheme can consider the distributive justice implications of looking backward at who is most responsible for the current problem

V. Conclusions.

As we have seen carbon pricing schemes designed to reduce GHG emissions raise a host of ethical issues and problems.

Although many of these ethical problems can be dealt with by the pricing carbon regime design, given the enormous threat to life and ecological systems created by human-induced climate change, perhaps the most important ethical issue raised by carbon pricing regime is whether the carbon pricing regime will be successful in reducing a government’s GHG emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions.

Because there is limited political support for enacting carbon pricing schemes with sufficient pricing levels to achieve the enormous reductions in GHG emissions now necessary to prevent very dangerous climate change, carbon pricing schemes will likely require policy responses in addition to carbon pricing alone.

Because of the need to judge whether any carbon pricing scheme will achieve a government’s ethically determined GHG emissions reduction obligations, all proposed carbon pricing schemes should be clear and transparent on how the pricing scheme will achieve the government’s ethically determined GHG reduction goals. A pricing scheme could contribute to achieving a nation’s GHG reduction obligations either by establishing a price that will sufficiently reduce a government’s GHG emissions to achieve the nation’s GHG reduction obligations by itself or in combination with other GHG reduction policies. However, to judge the adequacy of the pricing scheme, governments should explain the role of any carbon pricing scheme in achieving its ethically determined GHG reduction obligations.

References: 

Brown, D. (2010, Ethical Issues Raised By Carbon Trading; https://ethicsandclimate.org/2010/06/15/ethical_issues_raised_by_carbon_cap_and_trade_regimes/

Carey, S.& C.Hepburn, (2011) Carbon trading: unethical, unjust and ineffective? http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/WP49_carbon-trading-caney-hepburn.pdf

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 1995, AR2, Working Group III, Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change, https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml#1

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

Pope Francis, (2015), Laudato Si http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

Roberts, D. (2016) Putting a price on carbon is a fine idea. It’s not the end-all be-all, Vox, https://www.vox.com/2016/4/22/11446232/price-on-carbon-fine.

Sandel, M. (1967) It’s Immoral to Buy the Right to Pollute, http//www.nytimes.com/1997/12/15/opinion/it-s-immoral-to-buy-the-right-to-pollute.html

UNFCCC, Paris Agreement2 (2015), https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf

UNHR, UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, (2018) Climate Change is a Human Rights Issue, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/ClimateChangeHumanRightsIssue.aspx

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence, Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

COMMENTS

The following comments on this entry were made by Eric Haites, an economic consultant for Margaree Consultants Inc, in Toronto

 

Ethical Issues Entailed by Pricing Carbon as a Policy Response to Climate Change confuses benefit-cost analysis with carbon pricing and criticizes carbon pricing on grounds that also apply to non-price policies.

Carbon pricing policies – cap and trade systems (CTSs) and carbon taxes – are regulatory measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by specified sources within a jurisdiction. They may be implemented in conjunction with or as substitutes for non-price regulations such as subsidies for non-carbon energy, minimum gasoline efficiency standards for vehicles, funding for affordable public transportation, requirements/incentives to increase the supply of renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for buildings.

Benefit-cost analysis of climate change compares the estimated costs of different levels of global emissions reductions with the estimated value of reduced global climate change damages associated with those emission reductions. Benefit-cost analysis of climate change is extremely complex conceptually and in practice. Since the analysis must span a century or more due to the long atmospheric lives of greenhouse gases, the calculations are very sensitive to the discount rate and have large uncertainty ranges.

A CTS or carbon tax can be implemented by a jurisdiction to help achieve its GHG reduction goal regardless of how that goal is established. A country that has a nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement can use carbon pricing and/or non-price policies to meet its commitment.

It is true that many economics textbooks suggest that the carbon tax be set at the level determined by benefit-cost analysis, but that is not necessary and is based on the implicit assumption that an emissions reduction goal has not been established by other means, such as international negotiations.

Many of the criticisms of carbon pricing policies do not specify an alternative policy. If emissions are to be reduced, the alternative is a set of non-price regulations including efficiency standards and increased reliance on renewable energy. In practice, neither carbon pricing nor non-price regulations cover all GHG emissions, so there are regulated emissions and exempt emissions under every policy.

Consider then the claim that it is immoral to buy the right to pollute. Before a regulation is implemented, the right to pollute in unlimited quantities is free. Regulations impose costs and/or quantity limits on the right to pollute. In the case of a carbon tax, there is a cost for each ton of GHGs emitted by specified sources. In the case of a CTS, total emissions by specified sources are capped. In the case of non-price regulations there is a compliance cost, but any remaining emissions are free and unrestricted. The cost of an efficient automobile is higher, but its emissions are not priced or restricted.

One of the arguments by Simone Carey and Cameron Hepburn cited by the paper is that the rights to nature can not be owned. Many CTSs explicitly state that the allowances are not property rights. Almost all of the CTSs have cancelled or greatly devalued surplus allowances.

In the paper, the discussion of the distinction between a fine and a fee is misleading for a CTS. Every CTS has penalties for non-compliance, so the correct comparison is the fine for a CTS and that for a non-price policy. The non-compliance penalty for most CTSs is a reduction in emissions equal to the exceedance plus a penalty. To use the analogy in the paper, a CTS requires the offender to pick up the beer can and pay a penalty. In contrast, a non-price regulation only imposes a fine.

The paper raises the concern that “the tax can diminish the moral stigma entailed by status quo levels of emissions.” Why would the moral stigma associated with residual emissions differ? Are the residual emissions by a source subject to a carbon tax morally less acceptable than those by the owner of a more efficient automobile. Sources subject to carbon pricing policies have a financial incentive to make emission reductions that cost less than the tax/allowance price. Sources subject to non-price policies have no incentive to reduce their emissions.[1]

Issues of distributive justice arise for all regulations; which sources are regulated, how stringent is the regulation, how should groups that are adversely affected by compensated? The paper clearly identifies these issues for CTSs and carbon taxes. But they apply equally to non-price regulations. Who pays for the more efficient vehicles and buildings, the public transit and the additional renewable energy? Those costs will be borne by specific groups or the government. Carbon pricing policies have the advantage that they generate revenue that can be used to help address distributive justice.

The paper argues that past emissions should be considered when addressing distributive justice. Presumably, this consideration applies to any policy, not just carbon pricing. In practice the ability to do this is limited due to lack of data and the long atmospheric lives of GHGs. Non-price regulations often differentiate between existing and new sources and CTSs address this concern through their allowance allocations.

In summary, carbon pricing can be implemented by a government to help meet its GHG emissions reduction target regardless of how that target is established. A CTS or carbon tax can be implemented alone, jointly or in combination with non-price policies. In practice all jurisdictions with a pricing policy also implement non-price policies. Many of the ethical criticisms of pricing policies apply to non-price policies as well. Price policies have the advantage of raising revenue that can be used to address distributive justice.

[1] Indeed, they may have a financial incentive to increase emissions. A more efficient vehicle may have a lower operating cost per km so the owner may drive more.

Resonse to comments

I agree that levels of GHG reductions achieved by a pricing scheme need not be determined by Cost-Benefit Analysis although some economists recommend this. In such cases the ethical issues discussed in this paper apply

Mr, Haite is correct that the articles criticism of carbon pricing schemes may also apply to other responses to climate change, However, if the level of reductions that constitute a nation’s GHG reduction target are based on a nation;s ethical obligations, then the problem entailed by some carbon pricing scheme’s allowing emitters to continue emit as long as they pay  a tax is not possible.