This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19. This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.
Climate change has certain features that more than any other environmental problem scream for attention that it should be understood and responded to as an ethical problem. These features include that it is a problem that: (1) has mostly been caused by developed nations; (2) most threatens poor vulnerable people and nations which have done comparatively little to cause the problem; (3) creates harms to the most vulnerable that include potential catastrophic losses of life and damages to ecological systems on which life depends; (4) those people who are most vulnerable to it cannot depend on petitioning their governments for protection, their best hope is that those most responsible for raising atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations will respond to their ethical and moral duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions; and, (5) because GHGs from any country mix well in the atmosphere, they thereby are contributing to rising atmospheric concentrations which are responsible for harming people and ecological systems far beyond their boarders.
Yet nations, and even most environmental NGOs have largely ignored evaluating nations’ responses to climate change through an ethical lens but have usually simply responded to the arguments of opponents of climate change which largely have been claims that proposed policies on climate change are unsupportable because: (1) the policies would create unacceptable costs to the national economy or a specific national industry; or, (2) the policies were not justifiable because of scientific uncertainty about alleged adverse climate change impacts. And so, when opponents of climate change argued in opposition to proposed climate change policies on the grounds of unacceptable costs that the policy would create, proponents often responded by simply asserting responses to climate change would create jobs rather than helping citizens understand that behaviors that cause violations of human rights, kills others or destroys ecological systems on which life depends cant be justified on the grounds that the cessation of these destructive behaviors would impose costs on those engaged in the destructive behavior. In response to the scientific uncertainty arguments made by opponents of proposed climate change policies, proponents of climate policies usually simply make claims such as 97% of climate sciencentists support the consensus view while ignoring the fact that that every country in the world agreed in the 1992 climate threaty that scientific uncertainty should not be used as a excuse for taking protective action.
By not helping citizens see the morally indefensible problems with orguments made by opponents of climate change policies, proponents of climate change policies are failing to motivate those who are not motivated by the scientific and economic technical discoures which have dominated climate change policy controversies and which are not likely to mobilize public concern, strong emotion, or activism that fuel strong public social movements. (Wetts, 2019)
A recent paper by sociologist Rachel Wetts of Brown University found that of 1768 press releases about climate change issues only 3.4% attempted to motivate climate responses on the basis of moral obligations. (Wetts, 2019)
On December 12th at the Madrid COP 25 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNESCO, in cooperation with the Center for Environmental Ethics and Law, sponsored a panel on the urgency of getting nations to comply with their ethical obligations to respond to climate change. This panel On the Urgency of and Getting Traction for Ethical Principles to Guide National Responses to Climate Change was part of a UNESCO event entitled Changing Minds, Not the Climate, Science, Knowledge Systems, and Ethics for Enhanced Ambition and Resilience.
The ethics panel discussed numerous specific policy decisions on climate issues that raised important ethical issues, yet tragically the ethical problems with the arguments made by opponents of climate policies were rarely identified. Despite the fact that arguments made in opposition to the proposed climate policy issues would not survive minimum ethical scrutiny if they were subjected to ethical critique, the ethical problems with the arguments made against climate policies are rarely identified. Furthermore, unless citizens spotted the ethical problems with their nation’s response to climate change they could not effectively critique their nation’s response to climate change. For instance, every national GHG reduction target is implicitly a position of the national government on how much harm the government deems it is acceptable to impose on vulnerable people and nations because every ton of GHG emissions makes the harms worse, and every target is also implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of a carbon budget that the entire world must live within to prevent a warming limit goal from being exceeded. Yet these ethical problems with national climate change responses have been infrequently part of national climate debates. The speakers on the Madrid COP 25 panel on the urgency of getting traction for ethics in climate change policy formation were
Donald A. Brown, Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University Commonwealth Law School (USA) who explained the urgency of getting traction for ethical principles to guide government responses to climate change both to prevent climate catastophe and to critically evaluate the arguments of climate change policy opponents;
Kathryn Gwiazdon, J.D., Esq., Executive Director, Center for Environmental Ethics, and Law, Chicago (USA) who gave numerous examples of specific climate change policy controversies that raise obvious but often unacknowledged ethical issues;
Sébastien Duyck, Research Fellow, Institute of European and International Economic Law, University of Bern who explained efforts to get traction for human rights obligations in climate change policy formation; and,
Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Professor of Climatology and Environmental Sciences, “Université Catholique de Louvain” (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium), former IPCC Vice-Chair (2008-2015), member of the Royal Academy of Belgium who epained his experiences with getting the conclusions of IPCC which should trigger moral obligations accepted.
In December of 2017, UNESCO adopted the Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change, which sets out a number of important ethical principles to guide political decision-making and formulation of cross-cutting public policies around the world. Among the proclaimed six ethical principles, the Declaration emphasizes the links between justice, sustainability and solidarity that could support countries to scale their national commitments and coordinate action across cultures. The Madrid panel discussed why finding ways for getting nations to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate change, and explored strategies for getting traction for ethical principles in guiding national responses to climate change. Furthermore, the panel discussed that although there are other important and binding sources of international law containing many well settled ethical principles which are relevant to national responses to climate change such as the “no harm,” “precautionary,” and “polluter pays” principles, duties of nations to protect human rights, and adopt emissions reduction targets at levels to prevent dangerous climate change on the basis of “equity,” and common but differentiated responsibilities, nations are ignoring these principles in formulating national policies.
The UNESCO Madrid COP 25 panel reviewed evidence that most nations are still ignoring these ethical principles in national climate change policy formation. The UNESCO panel concluded by inviting individuals to submit ideas about how to get traction for ethics in national responses to climate change.
Until UNESCO sets up a website on these issues, individuals with ideas about how to get traction for ethical guidance for climate policy formation should submit comments to email@example.com for the time being.
On November 14, UNESCO in Paris honored me with the Avicenna Prize for my work on climate change ethics. The following is the UNESCO press release explaining this award.
The Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, today awarded the 2019 edition of the UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science to Professor Donald A. Brown, Scholar in Residence for Sustainability Ethics and Law at Widener University Commonwealth Law School (USA). This year’s Avicenna Prize, its 5th edition, was dedicated to the ethics of the environment.
Professor Brown is a world-renowned expert in environmental science and more specifically in the international climate change ethics movement. His book Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm (2013) provides an influential analysis of why ethical principles have been neglected and how to include them in the climate change conversation.
He has sought to ensure that applied ethics is central to climate change policy development both nationally and internationally. His compelling argument that limiting carbon emissions and mitigating climate change is the ethical imperative of our time resonates widely in the current discourse on climate change.
An independent international jury, composed of three members of UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), unanimously recommended the laureate for his sound scientific contribution to the ethics of science and technology, particularly the ethics of climate change and environmental sustainability, his unique qualities as a scientist, environmental lawyer, climate change educator, activist and opinion-leader, and his lifetime commitment to, and outstanding impact on the ethics of climate change science and policy-making.
Held at UNESCO, the Award Ceremony was attended by Ambassador Ahmad Jalali, Permanent Delegate of the Islamic Republic of Iran to UNESCO whose country initiated the establishment of the Prize in 2003.
The UNESCO Avicenna Prize is named after the renowned 11th century physician and philosopher of Persian origin known in Europe as Avicenna (980-1038). A healer and humanist, Avicenna developed an exemplary holistic approach that captures the essence of ethics in science and has thus come to serve as a source of inspiration for the promotion of this concern, which is of central importance to UNESCO. It rewards the activities of individuals or groups in the field of ethics in science with the gold Avicenna Medal, a certificate, and the sum of $50,000 as well as a one-week academic visit to the donor country.
The ethical issues raised by arguments raised against climate change policies often raise obvious ethical problems such as the claim that a country such as the United States need not adopt policies if they will impose unacceptable costs on the nation or an industry discussed in this video. There are, however, many other examples of strong ethical problems with arguments made against proposed climate change policies that are not discussed in this video that are discussed on this website, ethicsandclimate.org. See the “index and start here” tab above on this website for other topics.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
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:
Why getting those responsible for climate change to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate change harms?
Why ethical principles have largely failed thus far to get traction in the policy responses of governments, organizations, and individuals to climate change?
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:
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.
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.
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.
Responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations.
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.
Who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, an issue usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice.
The policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change.
The responsibility not only of nations but also of subnational governments, organizations, and individuals for climate change.
How to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 had largely been 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 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 potentially 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 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 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.
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
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:
The enormous magnitude of GHG emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic warming.
The speed of GHG emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic warming.
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.
No nation may either legally or morally use scientific uncertainty as justification for their failure to fully meet their obligations under the UNFCCC.
Developed countries must legally, morally, and practically more aggressively reduce their GHG emissions than developing countries
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 Reporton 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 Anthropoceneby 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 20 C above pre-industrial levels, positive feedbacks could be initiated between current temperatures which have risen slightly above 1.10 C and 20 C. 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.
2. The 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.
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. .
The following illustration depicts the number of refugees who are fleeing or who have fled climate change.
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.
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 Anthropoceneby 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 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)
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 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:
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)
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)
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)
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 40 C. 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)
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)
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:
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.