Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Future, is attracting high-level attention around the world for its claim that climate change is a moral problem which all people have a duty to prevent. If his claim that climate change is essentially and fundamentally a moral problem is widely accepted, a conclusion that is strongly supported by basic ethical theory as explained on this website many times, it has the potential to radically transform how climate change has been debated in many nations around the world for the last twenty-five years because opponents of climate change policies have been very successful in framing the public debate so that it has focused on several issues almost exclusively. This framing has enabled the climate change debate to ignore ethical and moral issues that should have been part of the debate.
The opponents of climate change policies have succeeded in opposing proposed climate change law and policy by claiming that government action on climate change should be opposed because: (1) it will impose unacceptable costs on national economics or specific industries and destroy jobs, (2) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant government action, or (3) it would be unfair and ineffective for nations like the United States to adopt expensive climate policies as long as China or India fail to adopt serious greenhouse gas emissions reductions policies. Common to these arguments is that they have successfully framed the climate change debate so that opponents and proponents of climate policies debate facts about costs, scientific uncertainty, or economic benefits of climate change policies, rather the moral problems with these arguments.
However, if climate change is understood as essentially a moral and ethical problem it will eventually transform how climate change is debated because the successful framing by the opponents of climate change policies that have limited recent debate to these three arguments, namely cost, scientific uncertainty, and unfairness of reducing ghg emissions until another nation does so can be shown to be deeply ethically and morally flawed.
This article, the first of three in a series, proposes what NGOs, governments interested in stronger action on climate change, and citizens should do to expose the obvious and deep moral problems with the most common arguments made by opponents of climate change policies. This entry describes questions that should be asked of opponents of national action on climate change who make arguments against climate policies on the basis of unacceptable costs, economic impacts, or job loses. Although policy-makers need to consider some cost issues to make sure that ghg emissions reduction goals are achieved at minimum cost, cost arguments made in opposition to climate policies are often ethically unacceptable. Later entries in this series will identify questions that should be asked to counter arguments made against national climate change policies on the basis of scientific uncertainty and unfairness or ineffectiveness if China or another large ghg emitter nation do not act.
This series argues that NGOs, governments, and citizens should ask opponents of climate change policies questions designed to bring attention to the obvious ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies based on cost. Each question is followed by a brief description of the moral problem that the question is designed to bring to light.
II. Questions to be asked of those opposing government action on climate change on the basis of cost to the economy, cost to specific industries, job destruction, or other economic arguments that oppose adoption of climate change policies.
When you argue that governments should not adopt policies to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that climate policies will impose unacceptable costs on national economies, destroy specific industries, kill jobs, or prevent the nation from investing in other national priorities:
1. Do you deny high-emitting nations not only have economic interests but also duties and obligations to nations and people most vulnerable to climate impacts to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions?
This question is designed to expose a strong ethical and moral problem with those who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions on the basis of costs to them, a position that ignores that those harming others have strong ethical, moral, and legal responsibilities to not harm others. This strong ethical and moral responsibility is derivable both from the universally accepted moral principles including the widely accepted golden rule which requires people to treat others as they wish to be treated, and international law including, but not limited to: (a) the “no harm” rule which is a widely recognized principle of customary international law whereby a State is duty-bound to prevent, reduce and control the risk of environmental harm to other states, and a rule agreed to by all nations in the preamble to the UNFCCC, (b) the “polluter-pays principle” agreed to by almost all nations in the 1992 Rio Declaration, (c) human rights law which requires nations to assure that their citizens enjoy human rights, and (d) many other legal theories including tort law.
2. Do you agree that no nation has a right to kill other people or destroy the ecological systems on which life depends simply because reducing ghg emissions will impose costs on the high-emitting nation?
Like question one, this question is designed to expose more explicitly that those nations who refuse to limit ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them alone are implicitly ignoring their very strong ethical duty to not kill or greatly harm others.
3. Do you deny that all high ghg emitting developed nations under the UNFCCC has a duty to adopt policies that prevent harms from climate change to human health and ecological systems on which life depends in other nations?
In addition to the ethical problems with cost arguments identified above in response to questions one and two, this question is also designed to expose the fact that a nation that refuses to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions is violating promises it made under the UNFCCC to adopt ” policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system.”
4. Do you deny the applicability of the well-established international norm that polluters should pay for the harms caused by their pollution and that if a nation or entity refuses to reduce its ghg emissions it is responsible for any damages or harms caused by their ghg emissions?
This question is designed to more expressly expose the ethical issue identified in response to question one, namely that high-emitting nations are responsible for the harms they are causing to others under the “polluter pays” principle of international law. This rule is also a basis for concluding that high-emitting nations have a duty to pay for the damages caused by ghg emissions from their country that exceed their fair share of global emissions.
5. Do you agree that a nation that refuses to reduce its ghg emission to its fair share of safe global ghg emissions on the basis of cost to it is implicitly taking a position on how high atmospheric concentrations of ghgs should be allowed to rise and that the higher atmosphere ghg concentrations rise the more people and the ecological systems will be harmed?.
This question is designed to expose that refusals of nations to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions is implicitly a position on acceptable levels of atmospheric ghg concentrations which is essentially a moral issue because a position on acceptable atmospheric ghg concentrations is a position on who shall be greatly harmed by human-induced climate change.
6. Do you agree that a national ghg emissions target that is based on cost to it must be understood as implicitly a position on a global emissions reduction pathway necessary to stabilize atmospheric ghg concentrations at safe levels and that the longer a nation waits to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions the smaller is the remaining carbon budget for the entire world that may not be exceeded to prevent dangerous climate change?
This question is designed to expose the fact that because delays in ghg emissions based on costs to the polluter makes the enormous threat of climate change much more difficult to solve and more likely that serious harms and damages will be experienced, therefore arguments for delays in reducing ghg emissions based upon cost raise moral and ethical issues because the delays are making the problem much worse, more difficult to solve, and great harms inevitable.
7. Do you agree that nations which emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting vulnerable countries and individuals who have done little to cause climate change?
This question is designed to expose the fact that a nation’s refusal to lower its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of costs to it creates financial obligations to pay for resulting harms and damages.
8. Do you agree that all the costs of inaction on climate change must be considered by nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them?
This question is designed to expose that fact that a nation which refuses to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of costs to it have a strong duty to expressly consider the costs of damages created by inaction.
9. Given that the United States and most other developed nations have for over twenty-five years failed to adequately respond to climate change because of alleged unacceptable costs to each nation and that due to the delay ghg emissions reductions now needed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change are much steeper and costly than what would be required if these nations acted twenty five years ago, is it just for the United States or other developed nations to now defend further inaction on climate change on the basis of cost to the narration?
This question is designed to expose the fact that previous unwillingness of a nations to reduce their ghg emissions has caused dangerous delays which should be understood to create moral obligations to delay no longer to reduce the nation’s ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions.
10. Do you believe that a nation who desires to delay to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of costs to it, should have a responsibility to consult with those who will be harmed by the delay before the delay is initiated?
This question is designed to expose the fact that procedural justice requires that that those nations who seek to put others at greater risk on the basis of cost to themselves has a duty as a matter of procedural justice to seek consensus from those who will likely be most harmed by non-action.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor
Widener Commonwealth University School of Law