What Advocates of Strong Government Action on Climate Change Should Learn from Sociology

 

sociology and climate

This is the 3rd entry in a series that has been examining the practical significance for climate change policy formation of insights of sociologists about the failure of governments to respond to the enormous threat of climate change.

This series is reviewing a new book about the social causes of climate change. The book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Brulle, eds., Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.

In the first entry in the series, we described why sociological explanations for the success of the opponents of climate change policies and identification of deep ethical and moral problems with arguments made by climate change policy opponents largely have been missing from mainstream climate change literature and the media coverage of human-induced warming issues.

In the second entry in this series, we looked at the insights from sociology about the morally reprehensible climate change disinformation countermovement.

We now review what advocates of strong government action on climate change should learn from sociologists.  We note that the Dunlap/ Brulle book contains many other issues about the sociology of climate change than those discussed in this series. However, advocates of climate change policy should:

1. Pay attention to and educate others on  how civil society’s understanding of climate change issues has been manipulated by powerful forces, that is, help citizens see the wizard behind the curtain who has been projecting a false understanding of climate change matters.

wizard

In the first entry in this series, we reviewed the conclusions of sociologists summarized in the Dunlap/Brulle book about why most of the climate change literature relevant to relevant to changing the dangerous path the world was on assumed that the primary challenge was to motivate individuals to respond to the danger of climate change described by scientists. Therefore, many of not  most climate policy advocates focused on how to improve messaging about climate change policies or how to we incentivize individual behavioral change through the use of economic incentives.

We also explained that for over 30 years, proponents of action on climate change mostly focused on responding to the arguments made by opponents of climate change that government action on climate change was unjustifiable due to scientific uncertainty and high costs of proposed climate policies.

Because motivating individual behavior to engage in activities that don’t produce GHGs was assumed to be the major challenge to improve government responses to climate change, proponents of climate change policies have largely relied on the disciplines of economics and psychology, two disciplines which claim expertise on how to motivate individual behavior, to make policy recommendations on how to change individual responses to climate change. Yet sociologists warn that individuals almost always make decisions in response to the cultural understanding of the problem of concern. Therefore, large scale individual behavioral change on climate change is not likely as long as many people are influenced by the cultural narrative pushed by the opponents of climate change that climate change science is uncertain and that proposed responses to climate change will create great unacceptable damage to a nation’s economy.

Therefore, those working to improve government and individual responses to climate change should adjust their tactics to respond to the insights of sociologists that have concluded that citizens need to understand how the cultural understanding of climate change has been shaped by powerful actors who have used sophisticated tactics to achieve support for their position that climate change policies should be opposed on the basis of scientific uncertainty and unacceptable costs to the economy. It is not enough for proponents of climate change policies to simply make counter scientific and economic “factual” arguments to the scientific and economic claims of  the climate change policy opponents,  advocates for climate policies need to help citizens understand what interests are responsible for the disinformation that is the basis for the  false arguments made by opponents of climate change policies, why the tactics used the opponents of climate change policies are morally reprehensible, and why the arguments of those opposing climate change policies will continue to create huge injustices and immense suffering in the world.

As we explained in on this website many times, although skepticism in science is a good thing, opponents of climate change participating in the denial countermovement have engaged in a variety of morally reprehensible tactics that have included:

(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth of climate change science,

(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 and front groups to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty about climate science which have 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,

(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.

These tactics do not constitute responsible scientific skepticism, but morally reprehensible disinformation (For a discussion of these tactics and why they are morally reprehensibility, see, An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?)

The United States and some other countries are nations where a culture of individualism dominates, cultural understanding which often hides the role that politically powerful actors play in formulating  public policy. On this issue, the new book on sociology and climate change states:

Psychological and economic perspectives on climate change can easily be misused to reinforce the societal tendency to focus on individuals as both the primary cause of, and solution to climate change. (Brulle, R. and Dunlap, R., 2015. p. 10 ) …..These disciplines  assume that addressing the human dimensions of climate change is in essence a matter of incentivizing, persuading and encouraging individuals to do their bit and to quit the habit of excessive resource consumption. This approach leads to an emphasis on addressing climate change by changing individual behavior via financial incentives or disincentives or through various communications efforts aimed at promoting lifestyle changes that reduce carbon emissions. (Brulle, R. and Dunlap, R., 2015, p. 10 )

The notion of autonomous individuals responsible for their personal choices is widely held among US policymakers, the media and the general public and is of course quite compatible with the assumptions of economics and psychology. But simply pursuing strategies to motivate individual behavioral change without helping citizens understand how the cultural understanding of climate change was manufactured by morally indefensible strategies, does little to change the cultural understanding of the problem held by many.

Proponents of climate change policies need to help citizens see who is the wizard behind the screen which has over and over again been making false claims about the lack of  scientific grounding for the conclusions that humans are responsible for creating huge climate change threats. Proponents of climate change policies need to achieve greater understanding of and focus on who is funding the false claims of the opponents of climate change policies, and how they are organized and communicate, what tactics they have and continue to use to propagate a false narrative, and how the actions of politicians who resist action on climate change are linked to the the climate change denial countermovement.

web of denial

In the last month,19 US Senators led by Senator Sheldon Whitehorse have begun to publicize the role of fossil fuel coal companies in misleading citizens on climate change (See Web of Denial).  This political effort has been made possible by the sociological work of Dunlap, Brulle, and McCritte, among others.  And so there is a growing body of sociological work that is now available to help citizens understand how the cultural understanding of climate change has been manipulated at the federal level in the United States and in several other countries.  However, additional sociological analysis is needed to better understand how opponents of climate change policies have  successfully manipulated the government response to climate change at the State and local level in the United States and other countries, matters which the Dunlap/Brulle book acknowledges.

Simply improving messaging in accordance with recommendations of psychologists  or following the recommendations of economists to create economic incentives to engage in less GHG producing behavior will not likely create strong citizen support for climate change policies unless citizens better understand that the narrative created by opponents of climate change policies about high levels of scientific uncertainty and unacceptable harm to the economy from the adoption of climate policies is not only false but has been manufactured by fossil fuel companies and other entities which have economic interests in continuing high levels of fossil fuel consumption. Advocates of climate policies need to help citizens understand that the wizard behind the curtain has been the fossil fuel industry, their industry organizations, free-market fundamentalists foundations, and the politicians who represent the interests of and are often funded by these groups.

As we have seen, in the first two entries in this series, the new book edited by sociologists  Dunlap and Brulle includes information  on how participants in the denial countermovement have prevented governments from responding to climate change by undermining the scientific basis on which claims about the urgent need to take action. The participants in the countermovement have attacked climate models, paleoclimatic data on which warming trends are based, modern temperature records, mainstream scientists who have claimed there is an urgent need to act, and manufactured bogus non-peer-reviewed climate science claims which they have then widely publicized in books and pamphlets, and then widely circulated the publications to journalists and politicians, tactics which have succeeded in getting the disinformation propaganda  widely distributed by friendly media. (Dunlap, R., and McCright, 2015, p. 306–307).

The climate denial countermovement has also blocked critical reflection on and  serious debate about climate change through other strategies which seek to promote the idea that civil society will be better off if climate change policies are not adopted. These strategies have included funding politicians that will promote the interests of participants in the climate change denial countermovement, placing people sympathetic to the interests of the fossil fuel industry in positions of authority in government institutions with regulatory authority, limiting the budgets of government environmental agencies in ways that prevent government action on climate change, orchestrating political opposition to climate change legislation through funding campaigns and lobbying efforts, and stroking the fear of individuals about adverse economic effects of climate change legislation (Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., 2015, p. 306–307).

As we have seen in the first entry in this series, opponents of climate change policies have also successively tricked proponents of climate change policies and the media covering climate change issues to focus on “factual” scientific and economic arguments while ignoring the deep moral and ethical problems with these arguments.

Advocates of climate change policies need to better educate civil society about how opponents of climate change policies are actually preventing government action on climate change. On these issues. sociological research can be helpful in explaining what has happened to prevent government action on climate change..

Sociologists can help citizens understand how the concentrated wealth of the opponents of climate change policies  have created an enormous inequality in the ability of different groups to participate in public decisions about climate change. For this reason, advocates of climate change policies need to publicize the details of how the opponents of climate change use the political processes open them to achieve their goals and why the opportunity for citizen involvement in climate change policy formation is often hindered by institutional structure and processes.

 2. Help civil society better understand the ethical and moral limits of the economic narrative discourses which are dominating civil society’s understanding of the acceptability of climate change policies.

The Dunlap/Brulle book explains how the discourse of neoliberal economic ideology has dominated political approaches to society’s problems.(Dunlap, R. and McCright, A. 2015, p. 304) This ideology holds that civil society is better off if market capitalism is left alone and unimpeded by regulations that interfere with the generate of wealth. Advocates of  neoliberal ideology value individual rights. private property, laissez-faire capitalism, and free enterprise (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A. 2015, p. 302). Because neoliberal ideology has dominated political life in many countries including the United  States, many if not most proponents of climate change policies have advocated for “market” based solutions to climate change such as carbon taxes or cap and trade programs. Yet market ideology often ignores moral and ethical questions such as on what justice and fairness considerations should the burdens of reducing GHG emission be allocated. Yet questions of distributive justice about which nations should bear the major responsibility for most GHG reductions at the international level have and continue to block agreement in international climate negotiations, as well as questions about which countries should be financially responsible for adaptation costs and damages in poor countries that are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest climate impacts and who have done little to cause the problem.

The failure of nations to consider act on what equity and justice requires of them to reduce the threat of climate change has been at the very center of the most contentious disputes in international climate negotiations (See, Brown, 2013, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity).

Many proponents of strong climate change policies that advocate for market based solutions have largely ignored the many obvious ethical and equity questions raised by climate change and as result the mainstream press has largely ignored these issues despite the fact that these issues are at the center of international disputes over climate change.  Also despite the fact that the positions that the United States and several other countries have frequently taken in Internationale climate negotiations have clearly flunked minimum ethical scrutiny, the US media has largely ignored the ethical and justice issues raised by the US response to climate change. (See Brown, 2012, A Video: Even Monkeys Get Climate Change Justice. Why Don’t Governments and the Press?)

The Dunlap/Brulle book acknowledges that the dominant scientific and economic discourses framing the climate debate “reinforces the existing socio-politico-economic status quo” and “removes moral and political considerations from the discussion” (Brulle. R., and Dunlap. R. 2015, p.12). Yet, unless the ethical and justice issues raised by climate change are seriously considered by nations when they formulate their international emissions reductions commitments under the UNFCCC, the international community is not likely to find a global solution to prevent potential enormous damages from human-induced warming (See, On The Practical Need To Examine Climate Change Policy Issues Through An Ethical Lens)

For these reasons, proponents of strong climate change policies should expressly integrate ethical and moral considerations into their analyses of climate change policies. Ignoring these issues will likely continue to be responsible for the lack of media coverage of these issues, despite the fact that there is an enormous need  at the international level for nations to respond to climate change at levels consistent with what justice requires of them if a global solution to climate is become viable.

In addition, every national GHG emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore, nations must face the question of what does fairness and justice require of it when formulating national climate policy, yet issues of justice and fairness are virtually absent from US media coverage of US climate policy. Also, the magnitude of GHG emissions reductions committed to by a nation is implicitly a position on how much warming damage a nation is willing to inflict on others around the world, a matter which is a moral issue at its core.

The failure to identify the ethical and moral dimensions of a nation, state, or regional governments GHG reduction target an invitation to hide profound moral and ethical issues behind scientific “factual” matters thus preventing public debate about what justice and morality require of governments.

3. Educate civil society about climate change issues in ways that will promote and sustain a social movement about climate change. 

Sociology studies how large scale social change is produced by social movements (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, 2015, p. 235). Given the civilization challenging nature of climate change, many observers of the failure of governments to respond to the threat of climate change have concluded that creating a strong social movement on climate change is the best hope of preventing catastrophic harm from human-induced warming given the enormity of the challenge facing the world. For this reason, proponents of strong climate change policies should work consciously to build and sustain a social movement to aggressively reduce GHG emissions mindful of what works to make social movements arise, become effective, and be sustained..

Sociology has developed an extensive and robust literature on the process of social change driven by citizen mobilization, including the development and advocacy of alternative policy perspectives, the creation of new organizations, how these organizations can affect both corporate actions and public policy (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, S.. 2015, p. 235).

The most basic way that social movements change the social landscape is by framing grievances in ways that resonate with members of civil society (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz,S., 2015, p.237).  Because a high percentage of the arguments made by most proponents of climate change policy have been focused on adverse climate impacts that citizens will experience where they live, while ignoring the harms to hundreds of millions of vulnerable poor people around the world that are being affected by GHG emissions from all-high emitting nations, along with claims that mainstream climate science is credible and has been undermined by morally reprehensible tactics, there is a need to make more people aware of:

(a) the catastrophic harm that their GHG producing activities are imposing on others around the world;

(b) that government action to reduce the threat of climate change has been consistently blocked by the disinformation created by the fossil fuel industry;

(c) that the campaigns of politicians who support the fossil fuel industry have often been funded significantly by fossil fuel money;

(d) that the fossil fuel industry funded disinformation campaign has resulted in almost a 30 year delay which has now made it much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm; and,

(e)  and that every day that action is not taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it makes the problem more difficult to solve.

Proponents of climate change policies need to stress the enormous damages that the fossil fuel industry is inflicting on poor people around the world and the gross unfairness of high-emitting nations such as the United States on international climate issues because  an understanding of basic unfairness will help build and sustain a social movement on  climate change

Social movements focus members of civil society on particular dimensions of social problems of concern and provide their publics with clear definitions of those problems, along with arguments regarding who is at fault and what options exist for solving their social grievances. (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, S., 2015, p.237)  For this reason,  proponents of climate change policies should seek to widely educate civil society about who has funded the numerous participants in the climate change countermovement and the morally reprehensible tactics that they have used.

Although sociologists have now documented which corporations, corporate industry groups, and free-market fundamentalists foundations and institutions have been most responsible for the spread of climate change disinformation at the national level in the United States and a few other countries, knowledge about who  is blocking climate change action at the state and local level has not yet widely been developed. Proponents of climate change policies should seek to assure that civil society understands what corporations, institutions, and foundations have been responsible for climate change disinformation and which politicians have advanced the interests of these groups at the national level and seek to better understand, perhaps working with sociologists, entities and politicians most responsible for resistance to climate change policies at the state and regional level.

To create and sustain a social movement on climate change, it is not enough for advocates of climate change policies to counter the false scientific and economic claims of climate change policy opponents, they must constantly seek to educate civil society about the causes of the grave injustices that climate change is causing if they seek to build and sustain a social movement on climate change.

References:

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

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

Caniglia, B., S., Bruelle, R., Szasz,A., (2015). Civil Society, Social Movements, and Climate Change, in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainable Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

Insights from a New Book on Sociology and Climate Change: The Heinous Denial Countermovement

head in sand

This is the second entry in a three part series on sociological insights about the social causes of climate change in a new book on sociology and climate change. The book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Brulle, eds., Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.

In the first entry in this series, we described the new book’s contributions to understanding why a sociological understanding of the cause of climate change and reflection on the deep ethical and moral problems with the arguments of the opponents of climate change policies are mostly missing from the dominant climate change literature and the media coverage of global warming. This entry looks at the books conclusions of how mainstream climate change science has been undermined by opponents of climate change policies and thereby changed the cultural understanding of climate change, initially in the United States, and later, in other countries.

damage-done-by-republicans1

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 and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 400 ppm.  (For a much more rigorous analysis of the role of the climate change policy opposition in US climate policy formation see, Brown 2002, chap 2 and Brown 2012, chap 2 and numerous articles on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign” and Chapter 10 of Dunlap and Brulle, 2015)

Before reviewing the contributions of the new book to understanding how powerful interests undermined proposed national responses to climate change through the creation of a countermovement, we note the enormity of the damage that has been caused by the over three decade delay in responding to climate change which is attributable to the success of this climate denial countermovement.

Now that: (a) atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are in excess of 403 ppm, (b) the world agreed to try and limit warming to 1.5 degrees C in Paris at COP21 under the UNFCCC to prevent potentially catastrophic harm to hundreds of millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world and the ecosystems on which they depend,  (c) to stay within the 1.5 degrees C warming limit will require rapid civilization challenging GHG emissions reductions in most countries, and (d) these needed reductions are so steep that it may be impossible to stay within a carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to prevent warming from exceeding the limit, the denial countermovement discussed in this the book is likely responsible for enormous amount of harm around the world particularly to those poor people who are most vulnerable to rising seas, storm damage, drought, floods, vector borne disease, killer heat waves and,acidifying oceans. For this reason, the denier countermovement is not just a morally and ethically reprehensible phenomenon, but a heinous global tragedy.

Although the new book on sociology and climate change contains many insights about how economically powerful entities have changed the cultural understanding of climate change and thereby prevented the United States and some other countries from responding to the growing threat of climate change, one chapter, in particular, titled Challenging Climate Change, The Denial Countermovement describes how some fossil fuel companies, corporations that depended on fossil fuel, business organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations successfully prevented government action on climate change (Dunlap, R., & McCright, A., 2015. p. 300).

Before describing this chapter’s contribution to understanding how the climate disinformation campaign accomplished its goals of preventing the regulation of fossil fuel, we note that this website includes 17 entries on the climate change disinformation campaign which both explain many aspects of this campaign and importantly distinguish the tactics of this campaign from legitimate climate skepticism (See, Start Here and Index Tab above under Disinformation Campaign and Climate Ethics).

On this website, we have consistently noted that scientific skepticism is the oxygen of the scientific method and should be encouraged even on climate change issues. On the other hand, the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign 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 of climate change science,

(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 about climate science which have 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,

(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.

As we have explained in many articles on this website, these tactics are not responsible skepticism but morally reprehensible disinformation. (See for instance, An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?)

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 that would be threatened by regulation of fossil fuels. The climate denial countermovement is often identified as an extention of an anti-environmental countermovement that began to form after Earth Day in 1970 when some corporations and free-market fundamentalists foundations reacted to the large number of environmental laws that were passed in the early 1970s at the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

The chapter in the new Dunlap/Brulle book on the climate denial countermovement both reviews some previously published sociological analyses of this countermovement and contains new information on how powerful economic interests have undermined government policy-making on climate change.

The Dunlap/Brulle book asserts that efforts to deny climate change began to get organized in the United States shortly after James Hansen testified in the US Senate in 1988 that climate change was already visible, testimony which put climate change squarely on the US public agenda (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p. 300). The book further claims that organized denial continued to grow and reached an unprecedented level in 2009 when the newly elected Obama administration and the Democratically controlled Congress increased the likelihood of US action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the result that no climate change legislation was enacted. The book claims that these efforts have continued relatively unabated since then (Dunlap, R. and McCriight, A., 2015, p.300). Further, climate change denial has become a virtual “litmus test“ for Republican politicians, strongly enforced by elements of the conservative movement (Dunlap, R. and  McCriight, A., 2015, p. 300).

The book outlines the historical and cultural conditions that have provided fertile soil for the climate denial countermovement including the rise of the anti-government sentiment in the United States that grew with the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. This analysis attributes the displacement of Keynesian  economics from the late 1940s until the 1970s by the anti-regulatory economics of  neoliberalism as responsible for a fundamental shift in governing philosophy that significantly reduced constraints on capital accumulation and growth. This created a “global growth imperative” that was hostile to the kind of government regulation required to reduce the threat of climate change (Dunlap R., and McCright, A., 2015, p 303).The authors stress that an understanding of the success of the denial countermovement requires some understanding of the growth of the global economic system and its ideological grounding by conservative politicians (Dunlap, R. and McCright,  A., 2015, p. 303).

The chapter asserts that  leading fossil fuel corporations (most notably  ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, industry associations (e.g. for example American Petroleum Institute and Western Fuels) initially led efforts to deny climate change. (Dunlap R. and McCright, A., 2015, p 310). These fossil fuel actors were joined by a wide range of other corporations and business associations to fund climate science deniers and Conservative Think Tanks and various groups promoting climate change science denial  (Dunlap R. and McCright, A., 2015, p. 310).

The book explains some corporations and their allies viewed the rise of the environmental movement in the1970s with alarm and as a result opposition to environmental programs developed particularly in the American West where battles over access to natural resources raged and became a component of a wider conservative countermovement that was born in the 1970s in reaction to the progressivism of the 1960 (Dunlap, R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p 304).

The chapter also notes that the international environmental policy agenda in the early 1990s, symbolized by the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit,” greatly threatened conservatives’ and industries’ neoliberal agenda and unfettered global markets (Dunlap. R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p. 305).

The book claims that conservatives in the United States learned from the Reagan administration’s experience that it was unwise to attack environmental protection directly, given that Americans were generally supportive environment protection (Dunlap, R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p.306). As a result, the book claims the conservatives and their industry allies learned to prevent the implementation of government policies that might threaten their political and economic interests by undermining the scientific foundations of environmental policy proposals (Dunlap R.and  McCriight, A., 2015, p.306). As result conservatives seized upon the strategy of “manufacturing uncertainty” that had been previously effectively employed for several decades by corporations and entire industries, most notably the tobacco industry in efforts to protect their products from regulations and lawsuits by questioning the scientific adequacy of claims that their products were hazardous (Dunlap, R. and  McCright, A., 2015, p.306).  As a result, conservatives began labeling  science supporting the need to regulate industry to protect the environment as “junk science.” This strategy became the favored tactic employed by conservatives and their industry allies when government showed interest in expanding environmental regulation and the major focus of attempts to prevent the adoption of climate change policies in the early 1990s (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p.306).

The book explains that participants in the denial movement undermined the public’s confidence in climate change science by attacking the validity of climate models, the use of paleoclimate data to establish climate trends, attacked individual climate scientists and scientific institutions, published  dubious non-peer reviewed climate science reports, funded self-proclaimed climate scientists exporters,  and many other tactics that manufactured scientific uncertainty.

The book explains why the complexity of climate change science made it particularly vulnerable to a strategy of manufacturing uncertainty designed to defeat proposed government regulation of industry and to create public controversies about the science (Dunlap, R. and McCriight, A., 2015, p.309).

The book also explains how the denial countermovement has evolved, changed, and expanded over the past quarter-century, changes that included new key actors, supporters, and tactics while the basic strategy of manufacturing uncertainty has expanded into manufacturing public controversy about climate science up until the present (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A., 2015, p.309).

The book also identifies the major participants in the denial countermovement which include 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 (Dunlap, R. and  McCriight, A., 2015, p.309).

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 recently into several European countries including France, Sweden, and the Netherlands (Dunlap R. &  McCriight, A., 2015, p.316)

The chapter on the denial countermovement ends with an acknowledgment that further sociological research is necessary to better study the evolving countermovement’s components, strategies, and tactics not only within individual nations but also across nations to better understand how this phenomenon has become a full-fledged global advocacy network.

The last post in this series will identify the importance of sociological insights about government responses to  climate change for advocates of climate change policies.

References:

Brown, D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems With the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman and Littlefield.

Brown, D.  (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Change Ethics, Routledge/Earthscan.

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

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

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University, Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

Obama Implicitly Acknowledges the Enormous Damage Caused By the Fossil Fuel Corporate Funded Climate Change Disinformation Campaign and Its Political Mercenaries

obama alaska

During his speech on August 31 in Alaska, President Obama not only spoke about the enormity of the climate change threat and the urgency of strong action, he also acknowledged that the United States has responsibility for causing the problem. He said:

I’ve come here today, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and its second largest emitter, to say that the United States recognizes our role in creating this problem, and we embrace our responsibility to help solve it. 

He spoke in clear terms about the enormity of the climate change threat:.

Our understanding of climate change advances each day.  Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we previously thought.  The science is stark.  It is sharpening.  It proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present. But the point is that climate change is no longer some far-off problem.  It is happening here.  It is happening now.  Climate change is already disrupting our agriculture and ecosystems, our water and food supplies, our energy, our infrastructure, human health, human safety — now.  Today.  And climate change is a trend that affects all trends — economic trends, security trends.  Everything will be impacted.  And it becomes more dramatic with each passing year. 

But if those trend lines continue the way they are, there’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively.  People will suffer.  Economies will suffer.  Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems.  More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict.

If we were to abandon our course of action, if we stop trying to build a clean-energy economy and reduce carbon pollution, if we do nothing to keep the glaciers from melting faster, and oceans from rising faster, and forests from burning faster, and storms from growing stronger, we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair:  Submerged countries.  Abandoned cities.  Fields no longer growing.  Indigenous peoples who can’t carry out traditions that stretch back millennia.  Entire industries of people who can’t practice their livelihoods.  Desperate refugees seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own.  Political disruptions that could trigger multiple conflicts around the globe.

President Obama also acknowledged that because nations have delayed in taking meaningful climate action, the world is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming. More specifically he said:

On this issue, of all issues, there is such a thing as being too late. That moment is almost upon us.

And so President Obama admitted that: (a) climate change is a civilization challenging problem with dire potential consequences for nations and vulnerable people around the world, (b) the world is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming, and, (c) the United States has responsibility for causing the problem.

The United States is not only responsible for the current crisis because, as President Obama noted, it is the second highest emitter of ghg in the world behind China,  it has historically emitted much more ghgs into the atmosphere than any other country including China, it is currently near the top of all nations in per capita ghg emissions, and the US has been responsible more than any other developed nation for the failure of the international community to adopt meaningful ghg emissions reduction targets from the beginning of international climate negotiations in 1990 until the Obama administration. (For a detailed description of the blocking role that the United States has played in international climate negotiations since 1990 until the Obama administration, See Brown, 2002, American Heat; Ethical Problems the US Response to Global Warming, and Brown, 2013,  Climate Chang Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm)  

climate change ethics navigatingamercan heat

In the Alaska speech, President Obama did not discuss the forces in the United States that have successfully undermined proposals for serious US climate change policies, matters which have been extensively discussed here under the category of “climate change disinformation campaign.”  Since the mid-1980s a well-funded  climate change disinformation campaign has successfully fought against US climate change policies. (For a discussion of the climate change disinformation campaign see, for example: The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part One: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Crime Against Humanity or A Civil Tort? ) This campaign has largely been funded by fossil fuel companies and free-market fundamentalists foundations although recently it has been difficult to track the funding. (See, New Study Concludes That Tracking Funding Of The Ethically Abhorrent Climate Disinformation Campaign Is Now Impossible)

As we have documented in numerous articles on the disinformation campaign on this website, although responsible scientific skepticism is necessary for science to advance, the climate change disinformation campaign has been involved not in the pursuit of responsible scientific skepticism but in tactics that are morally reprehensible including: (a) telling lies about mainstream climate scientific evidence or engaging in reckless disregard for the truth, (b) focusing on unknowns about climate science while ignoring settled climate change science, that is cherry-picking the evidence, (c) creating front groups and Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interest behind claims, (d) making specious claims about “good science”, (e) manufacturing science sounding claims about climate change by holding conferences in which claims are made and documents are released that have not been subjected to scientific peer-review, and (d) cyber bullying journalists and scientists. These tactics are not responsible scientific skepticism but disinformation.

In the late 1980s, the European Union proposed that all developed countries should accept binding ghg emissions reductions targets. These targets would have likely been agreed to in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change if the United States did not oppose them. The  United States virtually standing alone prevented the inclusion of binding targets in the treaty which was finalized in 1992 and ratified by the US in that same year. During the next 20 years, the US continued to block a meaningful global solution to climate change while being one of only a handful of nations that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty in which most developed countries accepted a ghg reduction target.

During this time, the climate change disinformation campaign also successfully prevented enactment of meaningful US domestic climate change laws and policies.

For the last several decades, US media has largely failed to cover the fact that the longer the world waits to make significant reductions in ghgs, the more difficult the problem becomes to solve. In this regard, the staggering enormity of the current challenge to the world to prevent dangerous climate change is rarely commented on in the US media despite the fact the 25 year delay in facing this problem has now made the  problem a civilization challenging problem.  For instance, James Hansen in a recent affidavit submitted in a legal proceeding against the State of Oregon asserted that the world must now reduce ghg emissions at a rate of 6% per year to avoid dangerous climate change. Yet as Hansen notes, if the world began to phase out of fossil fuel in 2005 the rate of reductions needed would only be 3.5% while waiting until 2020 will require a 15% reduction per year. Thus the delay in confronting climate change that is attributable to a large extent to the climate change disinformation campaign and its political mercenaries has made the problem much more difficult to solve with the result that harsh climate change impacts are much more likely. Because the harshest impacts from climate change will likely be experienced by some of  the world’s poorest people in Africa,Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world, the damage caused by the climate change disinformation campaign may become a global catastrophe.

And so the world is now facing a civilization challenging problem entailed by the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gases to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Although President Obama has announced administrative measures that would begin to reduce US ghg emissions, these measures are now being intensely fought by the climate change disinformation campaign and its political representatives and the Obama commitments still don’t represent the US fair share of safe global ghg emissions. In fact, in his August 31 speech, President Obama said after describing his climate initiatives: “But we’re not moving fast enough.”   And now it may be too late to prevent huge climate change induced harms because the world has lost 25 years in reducing the threat of climate change in no small measure due to the United States opposition to a meaningful global solution.

President Obama’s August 31 speech in Alaska implicitly acknowledged this conclusion. Yet the US media largely continues to fail to cover the enormous damage that has been caused by the delay in confronting human-induced warming  .

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

Four Tragic Omissions From US Media’s Coverge Of Obama’s Climate Proposals.

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On Monday June 2, the US press began to shine a spotlight on the predictable political warfare breaking out over the Obama administration’s new proposed climate change rules. Yet, there are at least four crucial facts about any US response to climate change that continue to be largely ignored by the US media coverage of this food fight. They include: (1) a 35 year US delay on climate action has made the problem extraordinarily challenging to solve, (2) US greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions are more than any country responsible for rise in atmospheric concentrations to present dangerous levels, (3) US ghg emissions not only threaten the US with climate disruption but endanger many of the poorest people around the world, (4) the Obama administration’s pledge to reduce ghg emissions is far short of the US fair share of safe global emissions.

For over 35 years the US Academy of Sciences has been warning Americans about the threat of climate change. In 1977, Robert M. White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote a report for the US Academy that concluded that CO2 released during the burning of fossil fuel could have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society. By the late 1980s, scientists around the world agreed that action by the world governments was needed to avoid the threat of climate change. In June in 1988, a conference of the world’s governments and scientists proposed that developed nations reduce their emissions by 20% by 2000. The US, virtually standing alone among developed countries, refused to commit to any emissions reductions targets citing scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy. The 35 year delay in taking significant action has made the task of avoiding dangerous climate change increasingly more challenging. In fact, most climate scientists are alarmed that the world is now running out of time to prevent very dangerous climate change. The 35 year delay has now created a need for extraordinarily steep ghg reductions worldwide. The longer the world waits, the more difficult and costly it will be to avoid dangerous climate change.

nw book advOpponents of US action on climate change loudly now argue that the US should not act until China commits to acts correspondingly siting that China is now the world’s largest emitter of ghg. Yet they conveniently ignore the fact that the United States is a much larger emitter of ghgs than China in per capita and historical emissions. The atmosphere is like a bathtub, it has a limited volume, and because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere it makes little difference where the emissions come from; the bathtub continues to fill. The US more than any other country has been responsible for filling the atmospheric bathtub with ghgs above levels that existed before the beginning of the industrial revolution to current dangerous levels. Given there is limited atmospheric space left before ghg concentrations exceed very dangerous levels, the international community expects the United States to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, it is not asking American to reduce China’s share.

The political fight in the United States often exclusively has focused on climate harms to the United States if it does not take climate action compared to the costs to the US of taking action. Such a framing ignores that it is tens of millions of poor people around the world who will be most harmed by climate change if high-emitting nations fail to reduce their emissions to their fair share 0f safe global emissions. For this reason, climate change raises civilization challenging questions of justice and fairness, a feature of climate change that the US press is largely ignoring while it focuses on harms and benefits to the United States alone. Climate change creates US obligations to poor people and places around the world that are most at risk.

In 2009, President Obama promised the world that the US would strive to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions by 2020. He did this knowing that the United States would need to adopt additional policies to achieve this very modest goal. Because the US Congress has refused to act, the Obama administration proposed the regulation this week that has triggered the political firestorm. Missing from the coverage of the proposed regulations, is that the Obama pledge on ghg emissions reductions falls far short of any reasonable judgment about what the US fair share of safe global emissions is. This is so because to have any reasonable hope of preventing dangerous climate change, the entire world must reduce its emissions by much greater amounts than the US 2009 commitment and the United States is at the high-end of national historical and per capita emissions. To having any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change the US and other high-emitting nations will need to reduce their emissions at much greater rates than the average for the rest of the world. Basic justice requires this.

 

 By: 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

Sunita Narain: Change of climate in the US

14629045_sunita_narain_250_rOb47_16613Editor’s note: The following entry is by a guest blogger Sunita Narain who writes widely on justice issues and for the Business Standard in India. This peace is a reflection on climate change policy in the United States after the recent climate change national assessment of climate change impacts on the United States was issued in May. Although it is before the new Obama administration regulations that were issued this Monday, June 2nd, that proposed to reduc ghg emissions by 30 % below 2005 by 2030 for coal fired power plants. As we will explain in a future entry, the US commitments is still far short of what equity and justice would require of the United States despite reasonable disagreements on which equity framework should be followed by high-emitting nations. We look forward to Ms Narain’s reflections and others on how the most recent proposed US EPA regulations comport with justice  Notice of rule-making was issued on Monday, June 2, 2014, This article formerly was published in the Business Standard. 

 Sunita Narain: Change of climate in the US 

Climate change has a surprising new follower: the president of the United States. The US government has been the biggest hurdle in climate change negotiations. Since discussions began on the issue in the early 1990s, the US has stymied all efforts towards an effective and fair deal. It has blocked action by arguing that countries like China and India must first do more. Worse, successive governments have even denied that the threat from a changing climate is real, let alone urgent. US President Barack Obama, who came to power in his first term with the promise to deal with climate change, was noticeably coy about the issue in recent years.

However, in May this year, the US government released its National Climate Assessment, which puts together carefully peer-reviewed scientific information on the impact of climate change in the US. It makes clear that even the US is not immune to the dangers of climate change. In fact, many trends are visible and the country is already hurting.

It is important to understand what this assessment concludes and why its findings are important for the rest of the world. One, it makes clear that the increase in temperature is now established; the rise in temperature is the highest in the poles, where snow and ice cover has decreased. As the atmosphere warms, it holds more water, which leads to more precipitation. Add to this the fact that the incidence of extreme heat and heavy precipitation is increasing – more heat and more rain. This makes for a deadly combination.

In the US, the incidence of heatwave has increased. In 2011 and 2012, the number of heatwaves was almost triple the long-term average. The assessment also finds that in areas where precipitation has not gone down, droughts occur. The reason is that higher temperatures lead to increased rates of evaporation and loss of soil moisture. In Texas in 2011 and then again in large parts of the Midwest in 2012, prolonged periods of high temperatures led to severe droughts.

In addition, now it does not just rain but pours. The heaviest rainfall events have become more frequent. Moreover, the amount of precipitation on the heavy rainfall days has also increased. Many parts of the country have already seen flooding, and the assessment is that these risks are significant in the future. This is combined with the fact that the intensity, frequency, duration and the number of strongest (category four and five) storms and hurricanes have increased since the 1980s, the period for which high-quality data are available.

epa_logoTherefore, the news is not good for even a rich and temperate country like the US. For a long time, there was an unwritten agreement that climate change would benefit such countries. It was believed that they would become warmer, with the result that crop-growing periods would increase – which, in turn, would benefit their economies. The National Climate Assessment makes it clear that even if specific regions benefit from climate change, this will not be sufficient or durable. The net result will be economic disruption and disaster.

The other welcome change in the report is its clear assertion – something that needed to be stated bluntly to the American people – that climate change is caused by human activity. It cannot be dismissed any more as natural weather variability. Not only has there been an unprecedented build-up in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases resulting from the use of fossil fuels, fingerprinting studies can also attribute observed climate change to particular causes. Even as the stratosphere – the higher atmospheric layer – is cooling, the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere are warming. This is clearly the result of an increase in heat-trapping gases released from fossil fuels that countries burn to drive economic growth.

The message is clear: the time for complacency is over. The gases in the atmosphere have hit dangerous levels, which is hurting the US economy. The effort must include adapting, and building flood- and drought-resistant agriculture and infrastructure. However, this won’t add up to much unless emissions from burning fossil fuels are cut fast and drastically.

This is where the report is the weakest. It says the current US contribution to annual global emissions is 18 per cent, but accepts that the country’s contribution to cumulative emissions is much higher. Importantly, it also accepts that it is this stock of emissions that determines the extent of global climate change. Till now, the US position on historical emissions has been a stumbling block in negotiations.

Thenew book description for website-1_01 question is: what needs to be done? The US still does not have a plan to cut its emissions based on its contribution to the problem. Its stated voluntary target is to reduce emissions by 17 per cent over the 2005 levels. This is too little, too late – in fact, meaningless.

 

For the moment, we should accept that the elephant in the room has been acknowledged. This itself should lead to change.

By;

Sunita Narain

Visuallizing Why US National and US State Governments’ GHG Reductions Commitments Are Now Woefully Inadequate in Light Of Recent Science.

Several charts produced by the Global Commons Institute vividly demonstrate the woeful inadequacy of both the US federal government’s and US states’ commitments on climate change in light of the most recent climate change science.

These charts are extremely important because there is virtually no discussion in the US press of the utter and undeniable inadequacy of commitments on climate change made by the US federal and state governments.

These charts help visualize complex information that is not well understood by the vast majority of US citizens, yet these facts  must be understood to comprehend the utter inadequacy of the US federal government and US state governments response to climate change. Thus, these charts help explain both why the US commitment to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 as well as targets that have been set by even those US states which have shown some leadership on climate change must now be understood as utterly inadequate in light of the most recent climate change  science.

As we shall see below, in setting a government target for ghg emissions two clusters of issues need to be considered which have largely been ignored when US policy makers have set ghg emissions targets. One is the issue of global carbon budgets for the entire world needed to prevent dangerous climate change. We will call this the carbon budget issue. The second is the unquestionable need of all governments to set a target in light of that government’s fair share of safe global emissions. This is required by distributive justice. We will call this the equity or justice issue. All ghg emissions targets are implicitly a positions on the carbon budget issue and the equity and justice issue, yet policy makers rarely discuss their implicit positions on these issues and the US media is largely not covering the budget and justice issues implicit in any US policy on climate change. Any entities identifying a ghg emissions reduction target must be expected to expressly identify their assumptions about what remaining carbon budget and justice and equity consideration were made in setting the target.

I. The First Chart-US States’ Emissions Reductions Commitments Required to Prevent Dangerous Climate Change and Adjusted  To Take Equity Into Account.

The following chart depicts what US states emissions commitments should be to prevent dangerous climate change in light of the most recent climate change science and the need to take justice into account in setting ghg emissions targets. This chart can be examined in more detail on the Global Commons Institute website at http://www.gci.org.uk/images/Don_Brown_All_State_draft_[complete].pdf Clinking on this URL should access a pdf file that will allow for a closer inspection of this chart which can  be further enhanced by using the zoom function.

US states and federal reductions

What is most notable about this chart is that the US federal government and US state g0vernments will need to reduce their ghg emissions extraordinarily steeply in the next few decades, far beyond what has been committed to.  This chart, in combination with the next chart, helps visualize why the current commitments of even those US states which have demonstrated some considerable leadership on climate change need to be increased to levels that represent the state’s  fair share of safe global emissions.

a. The Carbon Budget Issue

These steep reductions commitments are needed in light of the most recent scientific understanding of the climate problem facing the world. A carbon emissions budget for the entire world is needed to prevent dangerous climate change and was identified by IPCC in 2013. This budget is of profound significance for national and state and regional ghg emissions reductions targets yet it is infrequently being discussed in global media and has virtually been completely ignored by the US media. To give the world an approximately 66% chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees C, the entire global community must work together to keep global ghg emissions from exceeding approximately 250 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. The 250 metric gigatonne budget figure has been widely recognized as a reasonable budget goal by many scientists and organizations including most recently the International Geosphere Biosphere Program. The 250 metric ton number is based upon IPCC’s original budget number after adjusting for carbon equivalence of non-CO2 gases that have already been emitted but were not considered initially by IPCC. The practical meaning of this budget is that when the 250 gigtatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions have been emitted the entire world’s ghg emissions must be zero to give reasonable hope of limiting warming to the 2 degrees C. Since the world is now emitting carbon dioxide equivalent emissions at approximately 10 metric gigatons per year, the world will run out of emissions under the budget in approximately 25 years at current emissions rates. This is a daunting challenge for the world particularly in light of the fact that global emissions levels continue to increase.

A 2 degree C warming limit was agreed to by almost every nation in the world in international climate change negotiations in 2009 in Copenhagen because it is widely believed by the majority of  mainstream scientists that warming greater 2 degree C will create very harsh climate impacts for the world. In fact many scientists believe that the warming limit should be lower than 2 degree C to prevent dangerous climate change and as a result the international community has also agreed to study whether the warming limit should be lowered to 1.5 degree C. The report on whether a 1.5 degree C  warming limit should be adopted  is to be completed in 2015. In addition, some scientists, including former NASA scientist James Hansen who is now at Columbia University, believe that atmospheric concentrations are already too high and that atmospheric concentrations of ghg should actually be lowered from their current levels of approximately 400 ppm CO2 to 350 ppm CO2 to prevent dangerous climate impacts. If, of course, there is a consensus that the current warming limit should be lower than 2 degrees C, the slopes in the above chart would need to be even steeper.  (For a good introduction to the implications of the 2 degree C warming limit see the short video by International Geosphere Biosphere Programme)

Although there has been some very limited discussion of this in the US press, the staggering global challenge entailed by keeping global emission within a roughly 250  gigaton budget, not to mention a budget premised on 1.5 degrees C,  does not take into account the additional undeniable need of  high-emitting nations, states, and regional governments to take equity and distributive justice into account in setting ghg emissions reduction targets is not being covered in US media hardly at all.

b. The Justice or Equity Issue

Under any reasonable interpretation of what equity and justice requires, high-emitting nations and regions (including the United States federal government and US states) will need to reduce their ghg emissions at significantly greater rates than lower emitting government entities because of: (1) significantly higher per capita emissions in developed nations (2) the dramatically higher historical emissions of most developed countries compared to poorer countries, and (3) the need of poor countries to be able to aspire to economic growth rate that will get them out of grinding poverty. If equity is not taken into account in setting national ghg targets, poor countries will have their much lower per capita emissions levels frozen into place if national governments set targets based upon equal percentage reduction amounts. And so there are at least three very strong reasons why any target of a high emitting nation or state government must take justice into account in setting its emissions reduction target:

(1) Allocating emissions among nations to achieve a global target is inherently a problem of distributive justice. To not take justice into account in quantifying ghg emissions targets guarantees an unjust global response to climate change.

(2) All nations including the United States have already agreed to reduce their emissions based upon “equity,” not national self-interest when they ratified the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change.

(3) To not consider justice when a developed nation sets a ghg reduction target would be extraordinarily and obviously unfair to poor, low emitting nations, many of which are most vulnerable to the harshest climate change impacts and have done little to cause the existing problem.

The numbers in the above chart are based upon an equity framework known as Contraction and Convergence (C&C).  The C&C framework consists of reducing overall emissions of ghg to a safe levels from all nations (contraction) and each nation bringing its emissions eventually to equal per capita levels for all countries (convergence). Although justification of the C&C framework is beyond the scope of this entry, we will argue in a future article that it is the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks receiving international attention and therefore should be adopted by the international community as it can be adjusted to take other distributive justice issues into account not expressly initially considered in the C&C framework such as historical emissions and the need of poor-developing countries to grow economically. Because nations can negotiate the convergence date in the C&C framework, it is also a good tool to negotiate a global solution to climate change. It is therefore the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks under serious consideration by the international community although there are other equity frameworks that have some supporters including the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework (GDR). (We will explain our position on these issues in much more detail in a future entry.)

Yet, for the purposes of showing the utter inadequacy of existing US federal government and US state commitments, the C&C framework is very useful because other equity frameworks which have received some attention and respect in international discussions of what equity requires of nations would require even steeper reductions for the US and US state governments. For instance the GDR framework would require the US to be carbon negative by between 2025 and 2030. The C&C framework is therefore a very non-controversial way of demonstrating the utter inadequacy of developed nations ghg emissions reductions commitments because other equity frameworks would require even greater reductions from developed countries.

The above  chart demonstrates the implications of this recent science for US states as well as the inadequacy of the US federal government commitment in light of a total global budget limitation of approximately 250 gigatons of carbon equivalent emissions.. The steepness of the curves in this chart are driven both by the limitations of the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget and the need to take equity into account. (The Global Commons Institute has  a computer graphic tool on its web site, the Carbon Budget Accounting Tool, that allows those who would like to consider alternatives to the 250 gigaton budget to visualize the effects of other budget numbers on the shape of the ghg  reductions pathways needed, the differences in environmental impacts, and  many other policy considerations.)

Like any attempt to determine what a ghg national target should be, the above  chart makes a few assumptions, including but not limited to, about what equity requires not only of the United States but of individual states, when global emissions will peak, and what the carbon emissions budget should be to avoid dangerous climate change. Although different assumptions would lead to different slopes of the emissions reductions pathways that are needed to remain below the 250 gigaton global carbon limitation, the chart depicts very reasonable assumptions about what needs to be done to stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget while taking equity into account. And so, without doubt the US government and US state’s targets are woefully inadequate. To stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget, total US emissions which will be comprised of emissions from all states must achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Even the most aggressive US state targets are woefully short of this goal. In addition most US states have no emissions reduction target at all. The US will need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and this national requirement will will require US states to work together to achieve carbon neutrality. The US government could achieve the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 by relying on different approaches in different states, yet the individual states must assume they have a duty to limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions and in the absence of a federal plan that would allow them to do otherwise, states must achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the above chart is a good example of what is required of them in total.

 II. The Second Chart-US States Existing Commitments Compared to an 80% Reduction By 2050. 

A few states have set ghg emissions reduction targets of 80 %  by 2050. The next chart shows the quantify of reductions that each state would need to achieve to reach an 80% reduction by 2050 although we have already established above that the most recent science would require each state to achieve carbon neutrality by 2o50.

states 80 percent

This chart can be examined in higher resolution on the Global Commons Institute website at: http://www.gci.org.uk/images/Emissions_Cuts_States_by_State.pdf

What is notable about this chart is that most US states have made no ghg emissions reductions commitments at all, only a few have made a commitment of an 80% reduction by 2050 which is still not stringent enough to meet the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and that some states such as Texas need to achievehuge emissions reductions if the US is going to do its fair share of staying within the 250 metric gigaton carbon equivalent budget.

III. Conclusions

These charts help visualize the enormity of the challenge facing the United States federal government and US state governments in light of the challenge facing the world as understood by the vast majority of mainstream scientists. There has been almost no coverage of this reality in the US media.

As explained above, there are two kinds of issues that need to be understood to comprehend what governments must do when setting ghg emissions targets. The first is the need to set any target in light of a total global ghg emissions limitation or budget entailed by the need to limit ghg emissions to levels that will not cause dangerous climate change. This, as we have seen,  is sometimes referred to as the carbon budget issue. The second is the need of governments to set their emissions target only after considering what distributive justice requires of them. This sometimes referred to as the equity or justice issue.  Any propose ghg emissions target must take positions on

these two clusters of issues in fact they implicitly do this. Yet government rarely explain what assumptions about the carbon budget and equity and justice issues they have made when setting their target.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law

Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Nanjing China

dabrown57@gmail.com

US Media Finally Acknowledges That Ethics and Justice Issues Are At the Center of Contention in Climate Change Negotiations, Yet Has Not Caught On to the Significance of This for US Policy.

 

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During the climate negotiations in Warsaw that concluded late Saturday, some of the most prominent US media institutions  finally acknowledged that ethics and justice issues were at the very center of the most contentious issues in dispute.

For instance, the New York Times ran a story on November 16 entitled: Growing Clamor About Inequities of Climate Crisis. This article expressly acknowledged that growing demands about ethics and justice have become an emotionally charged flash point at the Warsaw climate negotiations

The Washington Post reported that: Hundreds of activists march for climate on sidelines of UN talks in Warsaw and in this story there was acknowledgment that the ethics and justice issues were the central focus of unresolved issues on national ghg emissions reduction commitments and funding needed funding for poor, vulnerable nations for adaptation and climate change caused losses and damages.

Bloomsberg News also ran a story entitled:  U.S., EU, Reject Brazilian Call for Climate Equity Metric. This story described great disagreements among nations on how to allocate national emissions targets on the basis of equity.

This recent recognition of the importance of ethics and justice issues in international climate change negotiations marks a possible sea change in on how the US press has thus far covered international climate change issues. Yet it is too early to predict such a transformation will actually take place and reason to believe that the US media still does not understand the practical importance for US climate policy that an ethical focus on climate change entails. In fact there is no evidence that the US press understands the policy significance for the US if climate change is understood as a civilization challenging global distributive justice problem.

As we have frequently reported in EthicandClimate.org  over the last several years, (See articles on the website on the US media in the Index), the US media has been utterly ignoring the climate change justice issues that increasingly have become the most contentious issues in dispute in the international search for a global solution to climate change.

movbilization for clima justice

Although there has been a US press presence at international climate negotiations since they began over 20 years, the US media reports on the climate negotiations has usually focused on the failures and small success of previous negotiations. Also, sometimes the US press also has reported on specific disagreements among nations on contentious issues in negotiations. And so, the US media has covered climate negotiations like they would a baseball game, that is they usually focus on the score, who batted in the runs, and who prevented runs from scoring.

In the meantime, during the debates about US domestic policy on climate change that have been taking place for almost thirty years, the US media has reported on climate issues almost exclusively by focusing on issues of scientific certainty about climate change impacts and economic cost to the US economy.  This phenomenon is partly attributable to the fact that economic interests opposed to US climate change policies have skillfully and successfully framed the US climate change debate as a matter about which there is insufficient scientific evidence or too much adverse impact on the US economy to warrant action. And so, although climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice, the US media has largely ignored the justice issues particularly in regard to their significance for US policy. For  instance, if the the US not only has economic interests in the climate change policies in political debate but also obligations and duties to poor vulnerable nations to not cause them great harm from US ghg emissions, the United States may not justify failure to act to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of economic cost to the US.

Yet now that the scientific community is telling the world that is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and that there is a very small amount of ghg emissions that can be admitted by the entire world if the international community seeks to have any reasonable hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, the ethics and justice issues are becoming undeniable and it is almost possible to ignore that the ethics and justice issues are at the very center of international disputes about how to structure a global climate solution. And so, cries about the justice issues will mostly likely continue to become louder in the future. This is so because if the entire global community must limit total global ghg emissions to a specific number of tons of ghgs and this number requires radical ghg emissions reductions from the entire global community, the obvious question becomes what is any nation’s fair share of allowable emissions.  And so, issues of climate justice may no longer be ignored, in fact, the longer the world waits to arrive at a global solution to climate change the more important and visible the ethics and justice issues will become. For this reason, it will become more and more difficult for the US press to ignore the practical significance of ethics and justice questions.

new book description for website-1_01At the center of the Warsaw negotiations was not only the question of what was each countries fair share of safe total allowable greenhouse gas submissions, but also what does justice require of high-emitting  countries to both pay for the costs of climate adaptation and compensation for damages for poor vulnerable countries that have done very little to cause climate change.

And so this new interest in ethics and justice about climate issues could become a growing media focus. However, this recent new interest of the US media is not evidence that the US press has begun to pay attention to the implications of these issues for US climate change policy. In fact, there is no evidence that the US media has figured out how the ethics and justice issues will need to radically transform how domestic climate change policy is debated in the United States. We will know that the US media this is seriously paying attention to the ethical dimensions of climate change if it examines the following questions when it covers US climate change policy debates.

1. What is the ethical justification for any proposed US greenhouse gas reduction target in light of the fact the US has duty to reduce its emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions. In setting a ghg emissions reduction target, what ethical obligations to nations and people outside the US has it taken into account.

2. If the United States is a very large emitter of gigs compared to most other nations in terms of historical and per capita emissions, why doesn’t the United States have an ethical duty to fund reasonable climate change adaptation measures in and losses and damages of poor developing countries that have done little or nothing to cause human-induced warming.

3. If a US politician argues in opposition to proposed US climate policies on the basis of cost to the US economy, why doesn’t that politician acknowledge that in addition to US economic economic interests, that the United States has duties to people around the world and future generations to reduce ghg US emissions.

4. If United States actually has ethical duties for the rest of the world to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, why is there no national policy encouraging everyone in the United States including individuals and corporations to reduce unnecessary ghg emissions.

5. On what basis may the United States argue that it need not reduce US ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global missions because China or some other developing country has not yet adopted strong climate change policies, given that any US ghg emissions in excess of the US fair share of safe total omissions is harming hundreds of thousands of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,

Widener University School of Law

Harrisburg, Pa.

Visiting Professor,  Nagoya University School of Law

Nagoya, Japen

Part-time Professor,  Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology

Nanjing, China

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

US Media Fails to Educate The Public About Links Between Greater Natural Gas Use and Climate Change

methaneleakageThe New York Times and the Wall Street Journal  today reported on a new study by the University of Texas that found leakage rates of methane from natural gas fracking operations are lower than previously stated by US EPA. This report found that direct measurements of methane emissions from  190 onshore natural gas sites in the United States indicate that methane emissions from completed wells are are  lower than commonly thought although the report also acknowledged that emissions from pneumatic controllers and other equipment associated with natural gas production facilities were higher than previously estimated.

The report also concluded that taking into account the lower emissions from completed wells and the higher emissions from other equipment, actual methane emissions are most likely 20% lower than previously estimated.

This report has created a large buzz on the internet because at issue is whether natural gas is a bridge fuel to lower the threat of climate change. If the methane leakage rate is less than 3.6%, then it is widely assumed that natural gas is better than coal.  That is, if leakage levels are below this level it is generally assumed that switching to natural gas lowers the US carbon footprint and therefore greater natural gas production should be supported by citizens concerned about climate change. As a result the methane leakage rate issue has gathered enormous interest in climate change policy discussions.. Studies of methane leakage rates have reached widely different conclusions about actual leakage rates in part because different studies have used different: measurement methodologies, types of wells measured, portions of the the entire natural gas production process, and assumptions about leakage in the gas distribution process. The recent University of Texas study acknowledges that there are elements of the natural gas production to consumption cycle that were not fully considered.  And so, it is likely that scientific conclusions about methane leakage rates will continue to change from study to study in the next few years.

Because natural gas may produce less CO2 equivalent per unit of energy produced, natural gas companies are pushing natural gas as at least a short- to medium-term solution to climate change

Yet, as we have written about before, there is one extraordinary important issue about the link between natural gas production and climate change that is rarely being reported on in the US press nor is it usually part of the US debate about natural gas fracking and its impact on climate change.

The methane leakage debate usually assumes if the methane leakage rate is low enough, switching from coal to natural gas as fuel should be welcomed by proponents of action on climate change. Yet what is notably missing in the media discussion of this issue is the urgency of moving to non-fossil fuels or energy technologies that produce very, very low carbon emissions to give the world any hope of prevent catastrophic climate change.

We explained the  urgency of moving quickly to non-fossil energy in considerable detail in the recent entry on this website in  Ethical Issues with Relying on Natural Gas as a Solution  to Climate Change

Even if natural gas combustion creates approaching 50 percent less CO2 equivalent per unit of energy produced, an amount which is well beyond best case on ghg emission reductions,  it will not create the much greater emissions reductions necessary in the next 30 years to give any hope of  limiting warming from exceeding levels that will cause catastrophic impacts.  In short, natural gas combustion can’t produce the the emissions reductions that are needed just a few decades to put the world on a safe ghg emissions pathway.  Also investment in natural gas facilities may delay the needed rapid switch to non-fossil fuels. Although natural gas switching might help reduce the threat of climate change threat if  methane leakage rates are at the lower end of the range discussed  in the scientific literature in the very short term, the world needs massive investment in non-fossil technology as soon as possible.

In addition if coal combustion were to be replaced now by non-fossil fuel energy, it would help immediately much more than conversion of coal to natural gas combustion does in putting the world on an urgently needed ghg emissions reduction pathway needed to prevent catastrophic warming.

nw book advIn addition, large investments in natural gas combustion facilities will likely make it harder to switch to non-fossil energy because these investors will likely demand a return on their investment in the natural gas plants before they are shut down.

Large investment in cheaper natural gas may also increase energy demand to levels that result in greater total releases of ghgs even assuming that natural gas produces less CO2 equivalent on a BTU basis than coal.

It is simply irresponsible for the US media to report on the methane leakage issue without explaining the urgency of moving to non-fossil energy.

Of great concern, some natural gas companies are on the one hand claiming that natural gas is better for the climate change while they fight legislation to increase the US share of renewable energy.  A strong ethical case can be made that any political support for natural gas as a short-term bridge fuel  should be conditioned on the natural gas industry promising to stop lobbying against rapid scale up of renewable energy programs.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law,
Widener University School of Law
Visiting Professor, Nogoya University, Nogoya. Japan

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

Ethical Issues with Relying on Natural Gas as a Solution to Climate Change

natural gas

 

Is Natural Gas Electricity Combustion A Solution to

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I. Introduction

Interest in tackling climate change in the United States has increased somewhat recently in response to global CO2 atmospheric concentrations reaching 400 ppm, although there is almost no hope of new federal legislation soon.  Many claims have been made recently that increased use of natural gas is an important element in any US response to climate change. In this regard, the natural gas industry has made a considerable effort to convince citizens that natural gas from hydraulic fracking is part of the solution to climate change. As an example, the following is from a gas industry website.

Because carbon dioxide makes up such a high proportion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, reducing carbon dioxide emissions can play a pivotal role in combating the greenhouse effect and global warming. The combustion of natural gas emits almost 30 % less carbon dioxide than oil, and just under 45 % less carbon dioxide than coal.

One issue that has arisen with respect to natural gas and the greenhouse effect is the fact that methane, the principle component of natural gas, is itself a potent greenhouse gas. Methane has an ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. According to the Energy Information Administration, although methane emissions account for only 1.1 % of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they account for 8.5 % of the greenhouse gas emissions based on global warming potential. Sources of methane emissions in the U.S. include the waste management and operations industry, the agricultural industry, as well as leaks and emissions from the oil and gas industry itself. A major study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Gas Research Institute (GRI), now Gas Technology Institute, in 1997 sought to discover whether the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from increased natural gas use would be offset by a possible increased level of methane emissions. The study concluded that the reduction in emissions from increased natural gas use strongly outweighs the detrimental effects of increased methane emissions.  More recently in 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University released “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas”, a report comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the Marcellus Shale region with emissions from coal used for electricity generation.  The authors found that wells in the Marcellus region emit 20 percent to 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal used to produce electricity.

(Naturalgas. org, 2013)

The interest in natural gas combustion as a potential solution to climate change has been gaining because US ghg emissions have fallen somewhat as natural gas from hydraulic fracturing technologies has been rapidly replacing coal in electricity sector generation.  In this regard, for instance, Reuters recently reported in regard to recent drops in US ghg emissions that:

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy use in the first quarter of this year fell to their lowest level in the U.S. in 20 years, as demand shifted to natural gas-fired generation from coal-fired electricity due to record low gas prices, the energy department said.

 (Reuters, 2012)

The US  natural gas industry has often argued that a switch to natural gas will significantly reduce ghg emissions from the electricity sector because natural gas emits almost 50 % less COper unit of energy produced than  coal combustion.  For this reason, natural gas is often referred to as a “bridge fuel.” (See, e.g, Kirkland)

The following chart shows the amount of pollutants including CO2 from natural  gas, oil, and coal combustion.

coalandnaturalgas

As we can see from this chart, natural gas combustion as a source of electricity generation produces about 70 % of the CO2 as oil and 56 % of the CO2 compared to coal without including methane leakage amounts, a matter discussed below. Yet controversies remain about whether natural gas should be understood as a solution to climate change and if so to what extent. This article first identifies the controversies and then reviews these issues through an ethical lens.

II. The Controversies

Two controversies about the efficacy of switching from coal to natural gas combustion in the production of electricity need to be resolved before conclusions on the beneficial effects of natural gas in reducing ghg emissions can be made. These controversies are: (a) Lingering issues about methane leakage rates, and (b) The inability of current natural gas combustion technology to achieve the magnitude of ghg emissions required to prevent dangerous climate change particularly in the medium- to long-term.

A. Unresolved Methane Leakage Rates

Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent ghg. Natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing is known to leak methane. It is usually assumed that replacing coal with gas would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as long as the leakage of methane into the air from gas production does not exceed 3.6%. (Reuters, 2012)  Yet significant controversies remain about actual methane leakage rates. In this regard recently there has been a flurry of conflicting papers about methane leakage rates from natural gas production. For instance, US EPA concluded that methane leakage was 2.4% of total natural-gas production in 2009. Other recent studies have found leakage rates of 4%  and 9% from hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado and Utah. (Tollefson, 2013)  As a result, no rational climate change action plan or ghg inventory should ignore controversies about methane leakage from hydraulic fracking operations. Until methane leakage rates are scientifically determined, any ghg inventory or projection of future emissions should identify the range of leakage rates that appear in the extant literature.  In addition to leakage rates from natural gas production facilities, methane leakage is also known to occur in natural gas transmission lines as well as from vehicles powered by natural gas and other end uses of natural gas. Therefore, actual methane leakage rates into the atmosphere from natural gas need to be based on the sum of leakage from all of these sources that include production, transmission, and end use.

Because methane leakage rate controversies are not yet resolved, any climate change action plan must be transparent about the limitations of predicting ghg emissions from natural gas consumption and fully identify all uncertainties about leakage rates.

(b) The Need To Move Aggressively To Non-Fossil Renewable Energy Even If Natural Gas Proves to Be A Short-Term Bridge Fuel

To understand why natural gas combustion in the electricity sector is not likely be an adequate solution to climate change in the  long-term, it is necessary to understand the scale of the problem facing the world. The international community agreed in climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 that the international community should limit warming to 2°C to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact, countries agreed to further assess whether the 2°C warming limit needs to be replaced by a more stringent 1.5°C warming limit to avoid dangerous climate change impacts. This conclusion was confirmed in climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010, in Durban in 2011, and in Doha in 2012. A 2°C warming limit was chosen because there is substantial scientific evidence that warming above 2°C could trigger rapid, non-linear climate change threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends. Even if rapid climate change is not triggered if the 2°C warming is exceeded, this amount of warming will create huge harms to some people and nations around the world. Stabilizing CO2 equivalent concentrations at 450 ppm would only result in a 50% likelihood of limiting global warming to 2°C, and that it would be necessary to achieve stabilisation below 400 ppm to give a relatively high certainty of not exceeding 2°C.  (Report of the Scientific Steering Committee of the International Symposium on the Stabilization of Greenhouse Gases)

Limiting warming to 2°C or less will require reductions in global ghg emissions below current emissions by as much as 80 percent by mid-century for the entire world and as we explained in the a recent article on “equity” at even greater reduction levels for most developed countries. (see On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.) 

And so, the challenge facing the world to limit future warming to tolerable levels is extraordinarily daunting and will likely require a level of global cooperation far beyond any other previous  human problem.

Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change requires immediate action. The entire world will need to peak its ghg emissions as soon as possible followed by emissions reductions at extraordinarily ambitious rates over the next 30 years. The longer it takes for world ghg emissions to peak and the higher ghg emissions levels are when peaking is achieved, the steeper global emissions reductions need to be to prevent dangerous levels of warming. The following chart shows the emissions reduction pathways that are needed in this century to give the world any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C, assuming global emissions continue to rise at current levels during the next few years.

three reductions pathways

(Anderson, 2012)

And so it is clear that the later the peaking of total global emissions, the steeper the reduction pathways that are needed.

Further scientific analysis may reveal that methane leakage rates may be small enough to provide climate change emissions reduction benefits when coal combustion of electricity production is replaced by natural gas combustion. As we have seen this is an ongoing controversy about which further scientific analysis is needed.  Still, as explained below, given the enormity of global reductions of ghg emissions that are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, natural gas is likely only to be a short-term bridge fuel. (IEA, 2012)

This is so because according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, natural gas can play at best a limited, very temporary role “if climate objectives are to be met.” That is, greater ghg emissions reductions are needed to prevent 2°C warming than those that can be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas combustion. And so most observers argue that the only viable response to the threat of catastrophic climate change is rapid deployment of existing carbon-free technology. (IEA, 2012) Even if natural gas combustion creates a 50 percent less CO2 per unit of energy produced, an amount which is beyond best case on ghg emission reductions,  it will not produce the greater emissions reductions necessary in the next 30 years necessary to give any hope of restricting warming to potentially catastrophic levels.  In short, natural gas combustion cant get us where we need to be just a few decades out. It might help in the short term, but we need massive investment in non-fossil technology as soon as possible.

In addition if coal combustion were to be replaced now by non-fossil fuel energy, it would help immediately much more than conversion of coal to natural gas combustion does with putting the world on an urgently needed ghg emissions reduction pathway that gives more hope of preventing catastrophic warming.

There  are also other significant benefits of moving quickly to non-fossil fuels. For instance, according to IEA report, fuel savings from investment in non-fossil fuel technologies will pay for the investments. (IEA, 2012)  Even if natural gas is a short-term bridge fuel, delay in investing in non-fossil fuel technologies may make it impossible to meet the emissions reductions targets needed to prevent dangerous climate change. For this reason, any climate action strategy must look at emissions reductions pathways beyond 2020 necessary to limit warming to 2oC and consider what amounts of non-fossil energy are needed through 2050. Because huge amounts of non-fossil energy will very likely be required to allow the United States and other developed nations reduce their  carbon foot-print to levels required to meet their fair share of safe global emissions, the more rapid the ramp up of non-fossil energy the easier it will be to reach acceptable ghg emissions levels in the years ahead.

Furthermore, the IEA report makes it clear that abundant cheap natural gas could push renewables out of the market unless there is a price on carbon or aggressive economic support for non-fossil renewable energy.  It is  also possible that cheaper natural gas prices may lead to higher rates of consumption of electricity creating higher CO2 emissions. For this reason, any reliance on natural gas combustion as a method of reducing CO emissions must provide for ramped up commitments to non-fossil fuel sources of energy at levels needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Reliance on natural gas alone will not achieve the 80%-95%  reductions required of developed nations to prevent dangerous climate change.

Barriers to much more aggressive use of non-fossil combustion appear to be a lack of political will coupled and arguments about prohibitively high costs of non-fossil energy. We will now examine these issues through an ethical lens.

III. Ethical Analysis of the Natural Gas and Climate Change Controversies

Natural gas hydraulic fracturing technologies have created issues about social and environmental impacts that are beyond the scope of this article. Here we more narrowly examine ethical questions raised by reliance on natural gas as a solution to climate change.

Depending on how the methane leakage controversy is resolved, switching from coal combustion to natural gas combustion could help lower ghg emissions from the electricity sector in the short term.  Given that the United States has strong ethical responsibilities to rapidly reduce its carbon footprint, a matter examined extensively in Ethicsandclimate.org, one might initially conclude that as a matter of ethics switching to natural gas from coal combustion is ethically justifiable as a short-term strategy. Yet, undeniably replacement of coal combustion with non-fossil energy would create a much greater reduction in the long run in the US carbon footprint than a shift to natural gas from coal combustion would alone.  As we noted above, objections to moving immediately to non-fossil energy are lack of political will and cost arguments. We  now look at these political and cost arguments through an ethical lens.

A. The United States and Other High-Emitting Nations Have A Duty to Reduce Their Carbon Footprint As Rapidly and Dramatically As Reasonably Possible

No reasonable ethical theory could justify current US projected ghg emissions, including projected reductions that are expected to come from increased substitution of coal with natural gas at least in the medium to long term. This is so for many reasons including, first, as we have explained in considerable detail in the recent article on climate change equity, US emissions far exceed global averages in per capita emissions, the US is by far the largest contributor to historical emission which have raised atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from approximately 280 ppm to 400 ppm, and the world is now running out of time to limit warming to non-dangerous levels. Because, as we have demonstrated in the recent article on “equity” and climate change, there are approximately 50 ppm of CO2 equivalent atmospheric space that remain to be allocated among all nations to give the world approximately a 50% chance of avoiding a 2oC warming and developing nations that have done little to elevate atmospheric CO2 to current levels need a significant portion of the remaining atmospheric space , high emitting developed nations need to reduce their emissions as fast as possible to levels that represent their fair share of the remaining acceptable global budget. (See On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.) For this reason, high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to reduce their ghg emissions as fast as possible to their fair share of safe global emissions.  Without doubt, this means that the United States has an ethical duty to reduce emissions both in the short and long run faster than switching to natural gas combustion from coal sector will allow by itself.

As we have previously explained in EthicsandClimate.org there is now a scientific consensus that developed countries must limit their ghg emissions by as much as 25% to 40 % below 1990 emissions levels by 2020 and between 80% and 95% below1990 levels by 2050 to have any reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous climate change which would require atmospheric ghg concentrations to be stabilized at 450 ppm. (IPCC, 2007: 776)   (Also see, What You Need To Know to Understand the Scale of the Climate Change Problem and The Continuing US Press Failure to Report on the Urgency of this Civilization Challenging Threat) 

The actual amount of emissions reductions that are needed between now and 2020 is somewhat of a moving target depending on the level of uncertainty that society is willing to accept that a dangerous warming limit will be exceeded, the most recent increases in ghg emissions rates, and assumptions about when global ghg emissions peak before beginning rapid reduction rates.

One new study shows that we have to reduce emissions even more than scientists initially thought in order to avoid climate change’s worst impacts. A paper published in Energy Policy on February 20, 2013 by Michel den Elzen and colleagues examines new information on likely future emissions trajectories in developing countries.  (Ezden, 2013) As a result, the report finds that developed countries must reduce their emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 2°C, thus preventing some of climate change’s worst impacts.

As we have seen above, to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change the entire world will need to peak its emissions in the next few years followed by emissions reductions at hard to imagine rates over the next 30 years.

As we have also explained in EthicsandClimate. org, US reductions need to be much greater than average reduction levels required of the entire world as a matter of equity because the United States emissions are among the world’s highest in terms of per capita and historical emissions and there is precious little atmospheric space remaining for additional ghg emissions if the world is serious about avoiding dangerous climate change.  (See, What You Need To Know to Understand the Scale of the Climate Change Problem and The Continuing US Press Failure to Report on the Urgency of this Civilization Challenging Threat)

No matter what reasonable assumptions are made about carbon budgets that need to guide the world’s response to avoid dangerous climate change, as a matter of ethics, the US has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions both in the short and long run to levels much greater than switching to natural gas combustion from coal will accomplish by iteslf.

Even if switching to natural gas in the short term reduces the US carbon footprint somewhat, it is still not sufficient by itself to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations without other policy interventions including putting a price on carbon or rapid ramp up of renewable energy. Given that the natural gas is likely to reduce costs of electricity production, there is also some risk that with lower costs demand for electricity will increase which will undermine both incentives for finding increases in efficiency while raising ghg emissions levels. For this reason, the United States needs to create an emissions reduction target consistent with its obligations to the world. (See,  On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.)

Although ethical reflection on benefits of short term switching to natural gas reveals the above ethical questions, long-term reliance on natural gas as a climate change solution raises greater issues of ethical concern. This is so because although switching to natural  gas combustion from coal can reduce temporarily the US carbon footprint when coupled with the right policy measures, there is no hope that natural gas combustion alone can achieve the huge emissions reductions necessary to put the United States on an emissions reduction pathway that matches the US ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States urgently needs to adopt policies that will ramp up its use of non-fossil energy immediately. Investment in natural gas combustion could delay investment in non-fossil energy. Moreover the amount of non-fossil energy needed to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations requires the United States to begin immediately as a matter of ethics. The longer the United States waits to move more aggressively to increase the share of non-fossil energy, the more difficult, if not impossible, it will be to meet non-fossil energy needs a few decades from now. And so as a matter of ethics a strong case can be made that the United States needs immediately to adopt policies designed to aggressively increase levels of  non-fossil energy.

And so if political will is a barrier to greater use of non-fossil energy, politicians resisting greater commitment to non-fossil energy are most likely supporting positions that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

The fact that much greater US commitments to renewable energy are feasible is demonstrated by looking at achievements of other nations.  Germany, for instance, has set a goal of 100% renewable energy in its electricity sector by 2050. (The Gaurdian, 2010) Germany’s Environment Agency’s study found that switching to 100 % green electricity by 2050 would have economic advantages, especially for the vital export-oriented manufacturing industry (The Gaurdian, 2010) It would also create tens of thousands of jobs.

B. Ethical Analysis of Cost Arguments In Opposition to Non-Fossil Electricity Generation

There are many factual issues that could be contested in regard to any argument that switching to a non-fossil  fuel future is cost-prohibitive. As we have seen, for instance, Germany claimd that an aggressive move to a non-fossil future has economic benefits. (For a good discussion of economic arguments for aggressive policies in support of renewable energy see, Germany Energy Transition, Henric Boll, 2012)

Cost arguments made in opposition to aggressive policies in support of a non-fossil future many not only be challenged on a factual basis but also on an ethical basis.  There are several ethical issues raised by such cost arguments that have been extensively looked at in prior articles in EthicsandClimate.org. These ethical issues include

  •  Cost arguments are often deeply ethically problematic because they ignore duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce ghg emissions. That is, cost arguments usually appeal to matters of self-interest and ignore responsibilities to others including the tens of millions of poor people around the world that are already suffering from climate change impacts or who are much more vulnerable to much harsher climate change impacts in the future than the United States is.
  •  Cost arguments are ethically problematic if they fail to examine the costs of non-action and only consider the costs to high emitters of reducing ghg emissions. Given that most economists now believe that costs of non-action far exceed costs of reducing the threat of climate change, costs considerations that only consider costs to polluters are both deeply ethically troublesome and radically incomplete.
  • Costs arguments may not be made against climate change policies if greenhouse gas emissions lead to serious human rights violations of victims who have not consented to be put at risk.
  • Cost arguments often translate all values to economic values measured in markets and thereby transform some things that victims hold have sacred value into commodity value.
  • Cost arguments usually ignore questions of distributive justice while arguing that government policy should be based upon maximizing economic efficiency or utility.  Distributive justice issues that are frequently ignored by the use of cost arguments to oppose climate policy include the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world that have done little to cause the problem
  • Cost arguments usually ignore issues of procedural justice including the right of victims to consent to being put at risk to climate change impacts.
  • Cost arguments alone usually ignore well settled norms of international law including the “polluter pays” and “no harm” principles that the United States and almost all other nations have agreed to in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In conclusion, we have identified strong ethical arguments that support the need to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion in the United States and other developed countries while implicitly acknowledging that there could be some short-term benefit if coal combustion is replaced by natural gas, a conclusion that only can be reached with better understanding of the methane leakage issues. Yet even if there is some short-term benefit from substituting natural gas for coal combustion, there is no ethical basis for doing this without simultaneously aggressively ramping up non-fossil fuel electricity combustion.  We note that some in the natural gas industry and their political  supporters continue to oppose policies designed to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion at the same time claiming that natural gas is a solution to climate change. Because the failure to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion Under the circumstances discussed in this article,  such opposition is ethically problematic.

By:

Donald A Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

A video: Why Politicians May Not Rely On Their Own Uninformed Opinion On Climate Change Science.

https://ethicsandclimate.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/slide4.jpgThis 11 minute video examines why politicians, unlike many ordinary citizens,  may not rely upon their own uninformed opinion on climate change science as a basis for refusing to support climate change policies. The video argues that politicians have responsibilities that ordinary citizens do not have to protect others from harms that their constituents are causing others.

 

This video follows the last entry on this subject:

Why Politicians May Not Ethically Rely on Their Own Uninformed Opinion About Climate Science and 10 Questions That The Press Should Ask Politicians About Climate Science In Light of This Responsibility.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com