To be an American at the Bonn 2017 climate negotiations felt very different than the 13 other times this writer has participated in the yearly efforts that almost every nation in the world has participated in with the hope of finding a global solution to climate change.
Shortly after entering the huge complex on the Rhine River at which every nation in the world was meeting to finalize the details of the 2015 Paris Accord, I ran into several acquaintances from other years who all remarked about the outrageousness of the US intention announced by President Trump of withdrawing from the global climate change deal.
The United States had a delegation at the Bonn talks that was telling other nations what they should do on an agreement about which the US president wants no part. According to a representative from India, Dr. Vijeta Rattani, of the New Deli Center for Science and Environment, at the beginning of the Bonn talks the US was obstructing agreement on some issues that had wide support among most other nations.
The US’s main contribution was to host a panel which made a full-throated defense of coal while most of the rest of the world was trying to get an agreement that nations would phase out coal by 2030 because of the likely impossibility of keeping warming to non-catastrophic levels without phasing out of coal combustion. According to a story in the New York Times before the Trump team could make its case on the benefits of fossil fuel, “the panel was disrupted for more than 10 minutes by scores of chanting and singing demonstrators. The protesters then walked out, leaving the room half empty. Throughout the remainder of the presentation, audience members shouted down and mocked White House officials who attempted to explain away President Trump’s stated view that global warming is a hoax.”
During the Bonn COP, 20 countries including Angola, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, El Salvador, Fiji, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Marshall Islands, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Niue, Portugal and Switzerland agreed to phase out of coal combustion by 2030.
Throughout the Bonn talks, representatives of some of the most vulnerable nations to climate change pleaded with high-emitting nations to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in light of the current suffering of their citizens. Among others I talked to early during the Bonn talks was a representative from Seychelles, a nation of 115 islands about 900 miles East of the East African coast in the Indian Ocean, who was strongly disturbed by the US lack of response to climate change given that people on her island were already suffering from rising sea levels and drought which was making it more difficult for her island nation’s citizens to grow food.
I also talked to Africans working on climate issues who claimed that massive human suffering from drought is now visible in the sub-Sahara countries of Mali, Chad, and Niger, suffering which is responsible for the creation of waves of refugees who have been attempting to enter Europe often through Libya, many of whom have drown at sea while those of have made it to Europe are destabilizing European politics.
Throughout the Bonn negotiation complex, most nations mounted pavilions which included displays of climate change impacts already being experienced in their countries, adaptation responses which are underway, and mitigation efforts which they are undertaking. Walking through the Bonn complex, participants could not escape the conclusion that adverse climate change impacts are not just a future menace but a troubling current reality in much of the world. Although ten years ago, one could participate in the yearly climate negotiations and conclude that most nations thought that human-induced climate change was mostly a future threat, in November 2017 it is clear that most nations are already experiencing some adverse climate change impacts that they realize they and other nations need to respond to now.
In several Bonn events, representatives of the global scientific community created a mood of gloom and urgency by discussing the magnitude and speed of GHG reductions now necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change harms. One program put on by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) described the enormous gap between the GHG emissions reductions pledged so far by nations under the Paris Agreement and those that are required to limit warming to the Paris Accord’s goals of 1.5 to 2.0 degrees C. A report by UNEP concluded that if the international community fully complied with its GHG emissions reduction pledges made so far, the gap between the pledges and what is needed to achieve the warming limits is “alarmingly high.” The report goes on to say that even if national pledges are fully complied with, the remaining carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to limit warming to 2.0 degrees C will be 80 % depleted by 2030 while by that year the remaining budget to achieve 1.5 degrees C warming limit goal will have been completely depleted. The report also says much more ambitious national pledges are now necessary by 2020, just over two years from now, to have any realistic hope of staying on a reduction pathway necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.
Other scientists during the Bonn negotiations alarmingly warned of the more rapid loss of Arctic ice than what was expected, increasing yearly larger rises of atmospheric CO2 concentration levels perhaps because forest and ocean sinks are starting to decrease, and greater than expected sea level rise.
Some of the great anger about the United States that I witnessed in Bonn was somewhat muted by the presence of 16 US States and numerous American cities and businesses who had been organized by California governor Jerry Brown and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg under the America’s Pledge Campaign. This group which accounted for almost half the US economy had a large presence in Bonn including a large pavilion which showcased what many US sub-national governments and private sector entities were doing to reduce US GHG emissions. One German participant said to me that he had hope that the United States would eventually do the right thing on climate change despite the Trump’s administration indefensible position because of the presence of the defiant US states and local governments. However, he said since these entities only represented about half of the US GHG emissions, the Trump administration’s unwillingness to cooperate with the rest of the world was a major global abomination.
During the last event I went to in Bonn, a UNEP representative discussed the fact that even if every nation fully achieved GHG reductions at levels they committed to, the world was headed toward over a 3 degree C warming in this Century, a level of warming that is extremely dangerous particularly for some parts of the world. He then exhorted the audience to work tirelessly to get every national, state, regional, and local government to set ambitious GHG reduction targets. The situation is ominous he said, we need “all levels of government, that is nations, regions, and local governments, to immediately work toward achieving zero carbon emissions.”
When Pope Francis in May of 2015 issued his Laudata Si encyclical which called climate change a moral issue, it got global attention. Yet despite extensive international media coverage of worldwide condemnation of President Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris agreement, there has been relatively little coverage of why the Trump decision should be understood not only as a dangerous break with the international community but as a profoundly immoral choice.
Climate change has certain features that more than any other global environmental problem call for responding to it as a moral problem. First, it is a problem caused mostly by high-emitting developed countries that are putting relatively low emitting developing countries most at risk. Second, the potential harms to the most vulnerable nations and people are not mere inconveniences but include catastrophic threats to life and the ecological systems on which life depends. Third, those people and nations most at risk can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments to shield them; their best hope is that high-emitting nations will respond to their obligations to not harm others. Fourth CO2 emissions become well mixed in the atmosphere so that CO2 atmosphere concentrations are roughly the same around the world regardless of the source of the emissions. Therefore unlike other air pollution problems which most threaten only those nations and communities located within the pollution plume, greenhouse gas emissions from any one country are threatening people and other countries around the world. This means that US greenhouse gas emissions are causing and threatening enormous harm all over the world.
Under the 2015 Paris accord, 195 nations agreed to cooperate to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5°C and no more than 2.0°C. Even nations that have historically opposed strong international action on climate change, including most of the OPEC countries, agreed to this warming limit goal because there is a broad scientific consensus that warming above these amounts will not only cause harsh climate impacts to millions around the word, but could lead to abrupt climate change which could create great danger for much of the human race. The international community’s condemnation of the Trump decision is attributable to the understanding that achieving the Paris agreement’s warming limit goals will require the cooperation of all nations and particularly high emitting nations including the United States to adopt greenhouse gas reduction targets more ambitious than nations have committed to thus far. For this reason, most nations view the Trump decision as outrageously dangerous.
Trump justified his decision by his claim that removing the United States from the Paris agreement was consistent with his goal of adopting policies that put America first. According to Trump staying in the Paris Agreement would cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025 including 440,000 fewer manufacturing jobs. This claim was based on a dubious study by National Economic Research Associates which was funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Council for Capitol Formation. This study has been widely criticized for several reasons including that it neither counted the number of jobs which would be created in the renewable energy industry in a transformed energy sector nor the economic benefits of preventing climate change caused harms.
Yet it is the Trump assertion that the United States can base its energy policy primarily on putting US economic interests first while ignoring US obligations to not harm others that most clearly provokes moral outrage around the world. The moral principle that people may not harm others on the basis of self-interest is recognized by the vast majority of the world’s religions and in international law under the “no harm principle”. The “no- harm’ rule is a principle of customary international law whereby a nation is duty-bound to prevent, reduce, and control the risk of environmental harm to other nations caused by activities within the nation For these reasons, the Trump decision on the Paris Agreement is a moral travesty.
This article explains the first two of several issues that citizens need to understand to evaluate appropriate national responses to climate change after the Paris Agreement. Although the mainstream media in the United States and other developed countries has widely reported on some aspects of the Paris Agreement, this series will describe important issues that are largely being ignored by press coverage of the Paris deal.
The first issue is why a 25-year delay in responding to increasingly stronger scientific warnings of the danger of human-induced climate change has made the problem much more threatening. The second is the urgency of the need for hard-to-imagine action to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions at all scales, that is globally, nationally, and locally, but particularly in high-emitting nations such as the United States in light of the limited amount of ghgs that can be emitted by the entire world before raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to very dangerous levels and in light of the need to fairly allocate ghg emissions reductions obligations around the world.
Media in the US has accurately reported on some positive aspects of the Paris deal including:
a. 186 nations have made commitments to reduce the threat of climate change although nations conceded in Paris that current commitments need to be upgraded to prevent dangerous climate change.
b. All nations agreed to limit the increase in global average temperatures to “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” – the level beyond which scientists believe the Earth will likely begin to experience rapid global warming and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”, a warming amount which may also cause serious global harms particularly to many poor, vulnerable nations. Also the Paris Agreement says by the second half of this century, there must be a balance between the emissions from human activity such as energy production and farming, and the amount that can be captured by carbon-absorbing “sinks” such as forests or carbon storage technology.
c. All countries agreed to submit updated plans that would ratchet up the stringency of emissions by 2020 and every five years thereafter.
d. Nations agreed to report to each other and the public on how well they are doing to implement their targets and to track progress towards the long-term goal through a robust transparency and accountability system.
e. Developed countries agreed to provide funding to help developing countries make the costly shift to green energy and shore up their defenses against climate change impacts like drought and storms and rich nations must report every two years on their finance levels — current and intended. The document refers $100 billion a year that rich countries had previously pledged to muster by 2020 as a “floor”. Under the new agreement the amount must be updated by 2025.
The Paris Agreement has been widely and accurately portrayed in the mainstream media as creating a policy framework that has the potential to reduce the threat of climate change if nations greatly step up to what they have committed to do. (This framework could have been tightened by including more specific language on several issues proposed by some countries but rejected by others on such matters as human rights, losses and damages, legal effect of the agreement, and financing of adaptation among others, yet the framework includes provisions that these issues can be considered in the years ahead.) However, the enormity of the challenge facing humanity from climate change and the special responsibilities of high-emitting developed nations in particular has not been covered in the mainstream press at least in the United States.
II. The Urgency and Enormity of the Need to Reduce GHG Emissions
Although the mainstream media has widely reported on the fact that the national ghg emissions reductions that were made before the Paris COP are not sufficient to limit warming to 2 degrees C, the media, at least in the United States, has been largely failing to report on the urgency and enormity of the need to rapidly reduce ghg emission globally and how further delays in taking action will dramatically make the problem much more threatening.
Looking at the delay caused by the climate change policy opposition in the United States is illustrative of the harm caused by political opposition to climate change policies worldwide.
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.”)
The rise in atmospheric CO2 levels is, of course, not only attributable to the US ghg emissions, yet the United States has played a major blocking role in preventing international action on climate change up until the recent more constructive role of the Obama administration which recently made commitments before the December Paris meeting to reduce US CO2 emissions by 26% to 28 % by 2025 below 2005 levels. However these new US commitments have not yet been implemented in the United States, and even if fully implemented still don’t represent the US fair share of safe global emissions (see report on US INDC. The US commitment, because it is based on a 2005 baseline, masks the fact that is only a mere 13-15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025, the baseline used by most of the world. For a discussion of the problems with the Obama administration commitment see report Captain America)
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s commitments still face strong opposition from the US climate change political opposition and are very likely to be rejected if a Republican becomes the next US President in 2016. Furthermore as long as US ghg emissions are exceeding the US fair share of safe global emissions, US ghg emissions are making the already very perilous climate change threat worse.
A detailed description of the climate change disinformation campaign that is responsible for much of the political opposition that has been largely responsible for the over 25-year US delay in responding to the scientific warnings about the threat of climate change is beyond the scope of this article but has been extensively discussed on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign.”
To fully understand the nature of the harm caused by this delay it is necessary to understand the policy implications of a “carbon budget” that must limit global emissions to avoid dangerous warming levels. .
To understand the policy implications of a carbon budget it is helpful to see the atmosphere as like a bathtub to the extent that it has limited volume and has been filling up with ghg so that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have been rising in proportion to human activities which release ghgs.
CO2 levels remained relatively stable for 10,000 years before the beginning of the industrial revolution at approximately 280 ppm (the lower line in the bathtub). Human activities have been responsible from elevating CO2 atmospheric concentration levels to the current concentration of approximately 400 ppm (the second line from the bottom of the tub). Although there is considerable scientific evidence that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is necessary to prevent very dangerous warming, a fact implicit in the recent Paris Agreement in which nations agreed to work to keep warming as close as possible from exceeding 1.5 degrees C additional warming, if the international community seeks to limit warming to 2 degrees C it must assure that global emissions do not exceed the number of tons of CO2 emissions that will raise atmospheric concentrations to levels that will cause warming of 2 degrees C. This number, that is the number of tons of CO2 emissions that can be emitted before atmospheric concentrations exceed levels that will cause dangerous climate change, is what is meant by a carbon budget.
This illustration, using figures from the most recent 2014 IPCC report, depicts that because only 800 gigatons of CO2 can be emitted by humanity before creating a 66% probability that a 2 degree C warming limit will be exceeded and humans have by 2011 already emitted 530 gigatons of CO2, there are only 270 gigatons of CO2 that may be emitted after 2011 to limit warming to 2 degrees C. (For a more detailed explanation of these figures see, Pidcock 2013)
The enormity of the challenge for the international community to keep warming from exceeding dangerous level can be understood by the fact that the remaining carbon budget is so small, that is approximately 270 gigatons of CO2, and current global ghg emissions are in excess of 10 gigatons per year and still rising, which means that even if the international community could stabilize global CO2 emissions levels there would be nothing left to allocate among all nations in 23 years. This grim fact is even bleaker if the international community concludes that it should limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, a conclusion that might become more obvious if current levels of warming start to make positive feedbacks visible in the next few years such as methane leakage from frozen tundra or more rapid loss of arctic ice.
The concept of the carbon budget explains why waiting to reduce ghg emissions levels to a certain percentage in the future is more harmful than rapid reductions earlier because the longer it takes to reduce emissions the more the remaining budget is consumed. For this reason, a joint research project between Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland recommended in Paris that national climate commitments be stated in tons of emissions over a specific period rather than percent reductions by a given date because waiting to the end of specific period to achieve percent reductions will cause the total tons of ghg emitted to be higher than if reductions are made earlier.
The enormous significance of the carbon budget can be seen from the following chart prepared by the Global Commons Institute.
The illustration depicts the enormity and urgency of global emissions reductions that would be necessary to limit warming to 1.5 or 2.0 degrees C given the steepness of the reductions curves necessary to limit warming to 2.0 degrees C with a 50% probability (the red dotted line), 2.0 degrees C with a 66% probability (the blue dotted line), and 1.5 degrees C (the green dotted line). The steepness of these curves superimposed on actual national ghg emissions levels is an indication of the enormity of the challenge for the international community because the emissions reduction curves are much steeper than reductions that can be expected under projections of what current national commitments are likely to achieve if fully implemented. The steepness of these reductions curves is somewhat controversial because any calculation of a carbon budget which determines the steepness of the the needed reduction curve must make assumptions about when positive feedbacks in the climate system will be triggered by rising temperatures, yet these controversies are reflected in giving different probabilities about the likelihood of achieving a specific warming limit. Yet even carbon budgets which have been discussed in the carbon budget literature which have assumed lower amounts of positive feedback yield very. very steep reduction curves.
The enormous increase in the magnitude of the challenge that has been caused by delay given the limited carbon budget can be seen from a recent statement of Jim Hansen who said that “the required rate of emissions reduction would have been about 3.5% per year if reductions had started in 2005 and continued annually thereafter, while the required rate of reduction, if commenced in 2020, will be approximately 15% per year. Without doubt every delay in reducing ghg emissions makes the problem more difficult and more expensive to solve. For this reason, all nations should aim to reduce ghg emissions as quickly as possible and any nation which opposes doing so on the basis of scientific uncertainty should be asked if the nation is willing to take full legal and financial responsibility for harms caused by any delay.
III. On the Additional Need to Make National GHG Emissions Allocations on the Basis of Equity
The above chart also helps explain the gross unfairness of requiring all nations to reduce by the same percentage reduction rates to achieve the globally needed emissions reductions because some nations are emitting at vastly higher per capita rates and some nations are responsible much more than others for raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to current dangerous elevated levels which are now in excess of 400 ppm CO2. .If each nation had to reduce their ghg emissions only to conform to the rates described in the reduction curves in the above chart despite their steepness, it would lead to grossly unfair results because of great differences among countries in per capita and historical emissions levels and urgent needs to increase energy consumption to escape grinding poverty in poor developing countries.
Per capita carbon levels by nations
The above chart gives some indication of huge differences in nations in per capita ghg emissions. If nations must reduce their ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, then such an allocation will freeze into place huge differences in per capita rights to emit ghg emissions into the atmosphere. If, for instance, the United States and India are required to reduce ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, for instance 90%, then the US per capita emissions of approximately 20 tons CO2 per capita would allow US citizens to emit CO2 at the rate of 2 tons per capita while the current India per capita emissions of approximately 1.8 tons per capita would mean that the Indian citizens could emit only at the rate 0.18 tons per capita even though India needs to dramatically increase its energy use to assure that hundreds of millions of people economically rise out of grinding poverty and India has comparatively done little to cause the existing problem. This result is clearly grossly unfair particularly in light of the fact that India has emitted far less tons of CO2 than most developed countries and therefore is less responsible for causing the existing problem than many developed nations. If some consideration for historical responsibility is not taken into account in allocating national responsibility for ghg emissions reductions, then those poor nations which have done very little to create the current threat of climate change will be required to shoulder a greater burden of needed global ghg emissions obligations than would be required of them if responsibility for the existing problem is not taken into account. As a result, although there are reasonable differences of opinion among nations about how to consider historical national ghg emission in determining national ghg emissions reductions allocations, including when, for instance, historical responsibility should be measured, almost all equity frameworks agree that prior levels of ghg emissions must have some consideration in national ghg allocations.There is also reasonable disagreement in the equity literature about what weight should be given to other matters that are widely considered to be valid considerations in determining fairness including the economic capability of rich countries to pay for ghg emissions reductions technologies and per capita considerations.
Yet unless fairness is taken into account in allocating national ghg targets necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, those nations who are mostly responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations will not be held responsible for their past ghg emissions while nations who have done almost nothing to cause the rise of atmospheric concentrations will be held equally responsible for lowering emissions.
From the above illustration it can be seen that the United States and the EU are more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations to current dangerous levels than than the rest of the world combined.
Many opponents of climate change policies argue that countries like the United States should not have to reduce their ghg emissions until China reduces its emissions by comparable amounts because China is now the largest emitter of all nations in terms of total tons, yet such an argument usually ignores the historical responsibility of countries like the United States which the following illustration reveals is more than twice as responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations than China is. (For a discussion of the fact that there are both a strong ethical and legal arguments that explain why no nation may use the claim that it need not reduce its ghg emissions until other nations do so, see, Brown 2012 p 214 )
Although there is a difference of opinion in the “equity” literature about how to consider valid equity considerations including per capita, historical emissions levels, and the economic capabilities of nations to fiance non-fossil energies, all nations agree that national commitments about ghg emissions reductions must consider fairness.
For this reason the Paris Agreement calls for nations to reduce their ghg emissions “to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” (Paris Agreement, Article 2)
In other words, the international community has agreed that national ghg emissions reductions commitments must be based on “equity” or “fairness.”
And so as a matter of international law under the Paris Agreement, national commitments to reduce ghg emissions must be based on achieving a warming limit as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2 degrees C, a requirement often referred to as the level of “ambition” but national commitments also must be based on “equity” or “fairness.” Although there are some reasonable disagreements among many engaged in climate policy debates about what “equity” or “fairness” requires, all nations have agreed that their obligations to reduce ghg emissions must consider equity or fairness principles.
However, if high-emitting nations take the “equity” and “fairness” requirement seriously, they will need to not only reduce ghg emissions at very, very rapid rates, a conclusion that follows from the steepness of the remaining budget curves alone, but also they will have to reduce their ghg emissions much faster than poor developing nations and faster than the global reductions curves entailed only by the need to stay within a carbon budget.
Source, Global Commons Institute
The above illustration prepared by the Global Commons Institute shows that even if only one equity consideration is taken into account, in this case per capita fairness, the USA ghg emissions reductions must be much faster than the rest of the world. Other organizations who have made calculations of the US fair share of the remaining carbon budget using different equity factors have concluded that the US fair share of safe global emissions is even smaller than that depicted in the above chart. For instance the following illustration prepared by EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that the US fair share of global emissions, making what the authors of the report claim are moderate assumptions of what equity requires, demonstrates that equity not only requires the US to reduce its emissions to zero quickly almost immediately but that US obligations to prevent a 2 degree C rise requires the US to substantially fund ghg emissions reductions in other countries by 2025 despite achieving zero emissions by 2020.
The above illustration, following the assumptions about what equity requires made by the authors of the report about how to determine US emissions reductions obligations, leads to the conclusion not only does the United States need to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2020, the US must reduce its emissions by -141% from 1990 levels by 2025. National Fair Shares. p 18. This is to be achieved, according to the report, by US financial support for reductions in developing countries .
Although national ghg emissions reductions commitments that have been evaluated by different organizations which have made different assumptions about how to calculate what equity requires of nations have come to different conclusions, most evaluations of national commitments made through an equity prism done before Paris concluded that even if they high emitting nations achieve net zero emissions by 2050, they will need, as a matter of equity and justice, to help pay the costs of emissions reductions in poor developing countries or finance technologies that will remove carbon from the atmosphere. The reasons for this are that the remaining carbon budget is so small, the per capita and historical emissions of high-emitting developed nations are so large compared to poor developing countries, and the financial resources of developed countries are so large compared to poor developing countries that equity considerations demand that the high-emitting nations financially help developing nations achieve their targets.
Without doubt, if nations reduce their ghg emissions to levels required of them by ambition, that is levels required by conformance with a carbon budget necessary to assure that future warming is limited to 2 degrees C or 1.5 degrees C adjusted to also consider equity and fairness, the international community is faced with an extraordinarily daunting challenge. Moreover, any delay in meeting this challenge will make the problem worse.
The Paris Agreement created a framework for solving the climate problem, yet the post-Paris media has poorly covered the implications for nations of what sufficient ambition and fairness should be required of nations when they formulate national climate policies if very dangerous climate change is to be avoided. As a result, there appears to be little awareness of the huge damage that will likely be caused by further delay. The research report of Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland has revealed that there appears to be little awareness around the world about what ambition and equity requires of nations when they formulate national climate change policies. As a result the international community is not likely to respond with sufficient urgency and ambition unless greater awareness of the policy implications of the need to live within a carbon budget at levels required of nations because of equity and fairness considerations.
Because of this, perhaps the most important immediate goal of climate change policy proponents is to help educate civil society and governments about the need to move urgently to make extremely rapid decreases in ghg emissions whereever governments can and to the maximum extent possible in light of the policy implications of limiting national ghg emissions to levels constrained by a carbon budget and in response to what fairness requires of nations. .
Brown. D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems with the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman Littelfield, Lantham Maryland
Brown. D. (2012) Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Routledge/Earthscan, Oxon, England
This is the third article in a three part series that makes recommendations to NGOs and citizens on how to respond to opponents of climate change policies if Pope Francis’ claim that climate change is fundamentally a moral problem is correct. The first in this series made recommendations on how to respond to arguments against climate change policies based on cost if climate change is a moral problem. The second made recommendations on how to respond to arguments made against climate change policies based on scientific uncertainty. This entry makes recommendations on how to respond to arguments against climate policies based on claims that it would be unfair or ineffective if a nation makes significant reductions in ghg emissions if other nations such as China or India does not act,
Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Future, is attracting high-level attention around the world for its claim that climate change is a moral problem which all people have a duty to prevent. If his claim that climate change is essentially and fundamentally a moral problem is widely accepted, a conclusion that is strongly supported by basic ethical theory as explained on this website many times, it has the potential to radically transform how climate change has been debated in many nations around the world for the last twenty-five years because opponents of climate change policies have been very successful in framing the public debate so that it has focused on several issues almost exclusively. This framing has enabled the climate change debate to ignore ethical and moral issues that should have been part of the debate. The opponents of climate change policies have succeeded in opposing proposed climate change law and policy by claiming that government action on climate change should be opposed because: (1) it will impose unacceptable costs on national economics or specific industries and destroy jobs, (2) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant government action, or (3) it would be unfair and ineffective for nations like the United States to adopt expensive climate policies as long as China or India fail to adopt serious greenhouse gas emissions reductions policies. Common to these arguments is that they have successfully framed the climate change debate so that opponents and proponents of climate policies debate facts about costs, scientific uncertainty, or economic harms to nations that act while other large emitters don’t act rather the moral problems with these arguments.
However, if climate change is understood as essentially a moral and ethical problem it will eventually transform how climate change is debated because the successful framing by the opponents of climate change policies that have limited recent debate to these three arguments, namely cost, scientific uncertainty, and unfairness of reducing ghg emissions until China does so can be shown to be deeply ethically and morally problematic.
This series argues that NGOs, governments, and citizens should ask opponents of climate change policies questions designed to bring attention to the obvious ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies. Each question is followed by a brief description of the moral problem that the question is designed to bring to light.
II. Questions to be asked of those opposing government action climate change on the basis that other nations such as China and India have not reduced their ghg emissions.
When you argue that nations such as the United States need not reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions because other nations such as China or India have not taken action,
1. Are you claiming that no nation has a duty to reduce its ghgs emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until all other nations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions accordingly?
This question is designed to expose the ethical duty of all nations to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions regardless of what other nations do because any nation emitting ghg emissions above its fair share of safe global emissions is contributing to elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations which are harming and threatening others.
2. If you claim that the US or other developed nation has no duty to act on climate change until China acts, do you agree that economic competitors such has China have no duty to reduce their ghg emissions until the United States does so?
This question is designed to bring attention to the fact if the United States or other high-emitting nation has no duty to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until other nations do the same, no nation has a duty to act until the US responds to its obligations, a patently absurd conclusion.
3. Are you aware that the claim frequently made by opponents of US and other national action on climate change that if the country acts to reduce its ghg emissions and China or other developing country does not act it will make no difference because climate change will still happen is not true because ghg emissions from nations exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions are responsible for rising atmospheric concentrations of ghgs?
This question is designed to correct the false claim that as long as a country such as China does not act, any action by a high-emitting nation such as the United States to reduce its ghg emissions makes no difference. This is factually not true because as long as a developed nation’s ghg emissions are above its fair share of safe global emissions they are contributing to rising atmospheric concentrations of ghgs.
4. Are you aware that the United States agreed when it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 to adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and that developed nations agreed to take the lead in reducing the threat of climate change?
This question is designed to bring attention to the fact that the United States and other developed nations have promised to take action to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions regardless of what other nations do under the UNFCCC.
6. Are you aware that all nations have a duty under customary international law to prevent harm by ensuring that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction?
This question is designed to expose the ethical duty of the United States and other high-emitting nations under international law to prevent its citizens from engaging in activities which cause climate change damages as a matter international law without regard to what other nations do.
7. Are you aware that the United States is much more responsible for elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations than any other country including China because of US historical and per capita emissions?
This question is designed to expose the strong ethical obligation of the United States and many other high-emitting nations to reduce their ghg emissions without regard to what other nations do because they are more responsible for dangerous elevated atmospheric levels of ghgs than any countries.
Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Future, is attracting high-level attention around the world for its claim that climate change is a moral problem which all people have a duty to prevent. If his claim that climate change is essentially and fundamentally a moral problem is widely accepted, a conclusion that is strongly supported by basic ethical theory as explained on this website many times, it has the potential to radically transform how climate change has been debated in many nations around the world for the last twenty-five years because opponents of climate change policies have been very successful in framing the public debate so that it has focused on several issues almost exclusively. This framing has enabled the climate change debate to ignore ethical and moral issues that should have been part of the debate.
The opponents of climate change policies have succeeded in opposing proposed climate change law and policy by claiming that government action on climate change should be opposed because: (1) it will impose unacceptable costs on national economics or specific industries and destroy jobs, (2) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant government action, or (3) it would be unfair and ineffective for nations like the United States to adopt expensive climate policies as long as China or India fail to adopt serious greenhouse gas emissions reductions policies. Common to these arguments is that they have successfully framed the climate change debate so that opponents and proponents of climate policies debate facts about costs, scientific uncertainty, or economic benefits of climate change policies, rather the moral problems with these arguments.
However, if climate change is understood as essentially a moral and ethical problem it will eventually transform how climate change is debated because the successful framing by the opponents of climate change policies that have limited recent debate to these three arguments, namely cost, scientific uncertainty, and unfairness of reducing ghg emissions until another nation does so can be shown to be deeply ethically and morally flawed.
This article, the first of three in a series, proposes what NGOs, governments interested in stronger action on climate change, and citizens should do to expose the obvious and deep moral problems with the most common arguments made by opponents of climate change policies. This entry describes questions that should be asked of opponents of national action on climate change who make arguments against climate policies on the basis of unacceptable costs, economic impacts, or job loses. Although policy-makers need to consider some cost issues to make sure that ghg emissions reduction goals are achieved at minimum cost, cost arguments made in opposition to climate policies are often ethically unacceptable. Later entries in this series will identify questions that should be asked to counter arguments made against national climate change policies on the basis of scientific uncertainty and unfairness or ineffectiveness if China or another large ghg emitter nation do not act.
This series argues that NGOs, governments, and citizens should ask opponents of climate change policies questions designed to bring attention to the obvious ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies based on cost. Each question is followed by a brief description of the moral problem that the question is designed to bring to light.
II. Questions to be asked of those opposing government action on climate change on the basis of cost to the economy, cost to specific industries, job destruction, or other economic arguments that oppose adoption of climate change policies.
When you argue that governments should not adopt policies to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that climate policies will impose unacceptable costs on national economies, destroy specific industries, kill jobs, or prevent the nation from investing in other national priorities:
1. Do you deny high-emitting nations not only have economic interests but also duties and obligations to nations and people most vulnerable to climate impacts to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions?
This question is designed to expose a strong ethical and moral problem with those who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions on the basis of costs to them, a position that ignores that those harming others have strong ethical, moral, and legal responsibilities to not harm others. This strong ethical and moral responsibility is derivable both from the universally accepted moral principles including the widely accepted golden rule which requires people to treat others as they wish to be treated, and international law including, but not limited to: (a) the “no harm” rule which is a widely recognized principle of customary international law whereby a State is duty-bound to prevent, reduce and control the risk of environmental harm to other states, and a rule agreed to by all nations in the preamble to the UNFCCC, (b) the “polluter-pays principle” agreed to by almost all nations in the 1992 Rio Declaration, (c) human rights law which requires nations to assure that their citizens enjoy human rights, and (d) many other legal theories including tort law.
2. Do you agree that no nation has a right to kill other people or destroy the ecological systems on which life depends simply because reducing ghg emissions will impose costs on the high-emitting nation?
Like question one, this question is designed to expose more explicitly that those nations who refuse to limit ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them alone are implicitly ignoring their very strong ethical duty to not kill or greatly harm others.
3. Do you deny that all high ghg emitting developed nations under the UNFCCC has a duty to adopt policies that prevent harms from climate change to human health and ecological systems on which life depends in other nations?
In addition to the ethical problems with cost arguments identified above in response to questions one and two, this question is also designed to expose the fact that a nation that refuses to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions is violating promises it made under the UNFCCC to adopt ” policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system.”
4. Do you deny the applicability of the well-established international norm that polluters should pay for the harms caused by their pollution and that if a nation or entity refuses to reduce its ghg emissions it is responsible for any damages or harms caused by their ghg emissions?
This question is designed to more expressly expose the ethical issue identified in response to question one, namely that high-emitting nations are responsible for the harms they are causing to others under the “polluter pays” principle of international law. This rule is also a basis for concluding that high-emitting nations have a duty to pay for the damages caused by ghg emissions from their country that exceed their fair share of global emissions.
5. Do you agree that a nation that refuses to reduce its ghg emission to its fair share of safe global ghg emissions on the basis of cost to it is implicitly taking a position on how high atmospheric concentrations of ghgs should be allowed to rise and that the higher atmosphere ghg concentrations rise the more people and the ecological systems will be harmed?.
This question is designed to expose that refusals of nations to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions is implicitly a position on acceptable levels of atmospheric ghg concentrations which is essentially a moral issue because a position on acceptable atmospheric ghg concentrations is a position on who shall be greatly harmed by human-induced climate change.
6. Do you agree that a national ghg emissions target that is based on cost to it must be understood as implicitly a position on a global emissions reduction pathway necessary to stabilize atmospheric ghg concentrations at safe levels and that the longer a nation waits to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions the smaller is the remaining carbon budget for the entire world that may not be exceeded to prevent dangerous climate change?
This question is designed to expose the fact that because delays in ghg emissions based on costs to the polluter makes the enormous threat of climate change much more difficult to solve and more likely that serious harms and damages will be experienced, therefore arguments for delays in reducing ghg emissions based upon cost raise moral and ethical issues because the delays are making the problem much worse, more difficult to solve, and great harms inevitable.
7. Do you agree that nations which emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting vulnerable countries and individuals who have done little to cause climate change?
This question is designed to expose the fact that a nation’s refusal to lower its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of costs to it creates financial obligations to pay for resulting harms and damages.
8. Do you agree that all the costs of inaction on climate change must be considered by nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them?
This question is designed to expose that fact that a nation which refuses to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of costs to it have a strong duty to expressly consider the costs of damages created by inaction.
9. Given that the United States and most other developed nations have for over twenty-five years failed to adequately respond to climate change because of alleged unacceptable costs to each nation and that due to the delay ghg emissions reductions now needed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change are much steeper and costly than what would be required if these nations acted twenty five years ago, is it just for the United States or other developed nations to now defend further inaction on climate change on the basis of cost to the narration?
This question is designed to expose the fact that previous unwillingness of a nations to reduce their ghg emissions has caused dangerous delays which should be understood to create moral obligations to delay no longer to reduce the nation’s ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions.
10. Do you believe that a nation who desires to delay to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of costs to it, should have a responsibility to consult with those who will be harmed by the delay before the delay is initiated?
This question is designed to expose the fact that procedural justice requires that that those nations who seek to put others at greater risk on the basis of cost to themselves has a duty as a matter of procedural justice to seek consensus from those who will likely be most harmed by non-action.
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)
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 .
When US President Obama announced revised regulations on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from US power plants on August 3, 2015 in a laudable speech supporting the new rules, as he predicted opponents of US climate change policy strongly attacked the new rules on grounds that they would wreck the US economy, destroy jobs, and raise electricity prices. Although President Obama defended the new rules on the basis that they were necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, that time was running out to do so, and that the rules would protect human health of US citizens, the speech failed to develop some of the obvious profound implications for climate policy of the conclusion that climate change is a moral problem, although President Obama did assert twice in the speech that climate change is a moral problem.
Although the Obama speech has rightly been praised by those who believe the US must take strong action on climate change, his speech did not acknowledge that:
US ghg emissions are harming and seriously threatening hundreds of millions of people outside the United States. There was no mention in the speech how US ghg emissions were harming others around the world.
Those who are most vulnerable to climate change have done almost nothing to cause the existing threats to them.
Those who are most vulnerable to climate change can do little to protect themselves, their best hope is that high emitting nations, sub-national governments, organizations, entities, and individuals will respond to their moral responsibilities to reduce the threat of climate change.
If climate change is a moral problem, the US may not base its climate change policies on US interests alone, it must respond to its obligations to not harm others outside the United States. Therefore costs to the US economy alone may not be used to justify failure to reduce US ghg emissions.
The United States must reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, a fact which leads to the conclusion that the new rules for power plants are still not stringent enough in light of the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that developed countries must reduce their ghg emissions by a minimum of 25% to 40% by 2020 to prevent dangerous climate change and the new rule will only achieve 32% reduction by 2030 coupled with the added fact that any reasonable interpretation of what equity requires of the United States would require the US to be closer to the 40% reduction by 2020 and surely reduce US ghg emissions well in excess of 40% by 2030.
One of the reasons the world is now running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change is because fossil fuel companies and their allies in the US Congress has prevented the United States from taking serious action on climate change since 1992 when the George H. W Bush administration agreed in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that the United States should adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference on climate change on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities. Thus the United States, more than any other developed country, has been responsible for the disastrous 30 year delay in formulating a serious global response to climate change, while delays make the problem harder and more expensive to solve and increase the likelihood of triggering dangerous climate change.
The United States is more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas concentrations to 400 ppm CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere than any country and has among the highest per capita ghg emissions as any country in the world.
The climate change opposition in the United States has successfully prevented the United States from adopting policies that would have significantly reduced US emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty despite the fact that the United States agreed in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not reducing its ghg emissions to safe levels.
Those nations who have consistently emitted ghgs above their fair share of safe global ghg emissions are responsible for the reasonable adaptation costs and damages of poor nations and people who have not caused climate change.These responsibilities are required both by basic ethics and justice and international law. These financial obligations will far exceed hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
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.
Opponents 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.
Editors Note: The following entry has been written by guest bloger, Michael Hoexter. This entry was first published on the Web Site New Economic Perspectives on February 27, 2014. We republish this article with permission of the author because it contains a number of excellent points about the ethical dimensions of climate change particularly in regard to who should be understood to be responsible for the failure of the United States to take adequate action on climate change. This analysis concludes that different parties should be differentially responsible for inaction on climate change. In addition, the article makes several compelling arguments for the urgent practical need to understand climate change as an ethical and moral problem. The article also explains why government action on climate change is indispensable to an adequate climate change solution, that is, why market solutions such as cap and trade or even carbon taxes will not alone create an adequate US response to climate change.
Degrees of Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
The climate crisis is an event with such profound personal and broadly social moral implications that many shy away from discussing the crisis itself let alone its ethical aspects. Via our society’s use of fossil fuels we are, if our combustion of these fuels remains unchecked and in addition we further destroy the carbon fixing capacity of natural systems, destroying almost all wealth, the likelihood of their being future civilizations, and even the possibility for existence for future generations. To continue ignoring climate change and effective climate action is definitely an après moi le deluge stance, an expression of callousness and self-absorption unsupportable by moral justification. Morality and ethics is here not an exotic preoccupation of a select group but a basic reality-check: does what we are doing make sense and promote the general ends to which these activities are devoted? How do we assess our own agency and role and those of others, in events that are occurring around us and will with very high likelihood exacerbate in the future?
In addition to the lulling effects of the organized climate denial industry as well as propaganda for fossil fuels broadcast in all media channels, one of the difficulties facing climate change activism is that, taking effective, durable action is not primarily an individual phenomenon but a massive group enterprise, ideally with full participation and leadership by governments. It is difficult for people to understand how a sense of personal ethical obligation, which people may or may not feel, can translate into effective action, given the uncertainties and variability of the participation of others and of the varying, non-existent, or contrary commitments of social institutions to the necessary changes in our energy system. With some justification, people on the ground believe they are, in their isolation, too small and insignificant to remake the energy basis of society and the economy.
Also, because the way to effective climate action is not clearly in mind, people who do not feel themselves to be in positions of power or influence might resent people pointing out, as I am doing now, their role, moral or otherwise, regarding climate change. We are living in an age where people feel that ethical appeals, more generally, are felt to be a hindrance to living one’s life unencumbered by obligations to others, that ethics competes with and impedes the light sense of freedom that is one of the sought-after states of mind in our time. Often this sense of freedom is defined by many throughout the developed and developing world as a choice of a variety of consumer goods for immediate or near-term consumption. The attachment to near-term pleasures can even turn into a form of climate nihilism, a philosophical rejection of ethics in favor of sensuous pleasure über alles. Nihilism’s formal severance from ethical considerations in turn leads ultimately to an acceptance or enactments of varying degrees of psychopathy/sociopathy and eventually to the collapse of civilization.
As of late, the North American climate action movement and outspoken climate scientists such as Michael Mann have focused on counteracting the massive propaganda and obfuscation campaign that has delayed climate action. Fingers have been pointed at the fossil fuel industries and their role in creating clouds of doubt and confusion around the findings of climate science, while continuing to profit from climate change denial and or fossil fuel addiction. The climate movement is pointing out that unconventional fossil fuel extraction techniques (fracking, tar sands excavation, deep-water drilling, mountaintop removal coal mining) are leaving or will leave toxic wastes and scars on the landscape as the fossil fuel industry gouges and lacerates the earth in search of combustible fossil resources. The freight rail network in North America is being turned into a conduit for crude oil from the landlocked Canadian tar-sands and the Bakken Shale, as construction timelines and permitting decisions are awaited for new pipelines. It appears that conventional oil has reached its peak and is, as well, controlled by sovereign oil companies not the oil majors.
Local groups and national environmental organizations are attempting to combat fracking operations, pipeline build-out and crude-by-rail programs either by reference to their local damages and risks, or too little, in my opinion, via reference to the impact of these activities on global warming. I am active in groups that are focused on halting the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industries including the Keystone XL pipeline and yet the climate movement is still figuring out how a focus on local damages and pollution translate to action on the global long-term issue. The phrase “leave it in the ground” has started to gain currency, though it appears not have yet become the central demand of any national campaign. Recently, activists in our area have created the slogan “NIMBY => NOPE” (“’Not in My Back Yard’ to ‘Not on Planet Earth’”).
While some of the defenders of the fossil fuel industries deny climate change, there are others like President Obama and those who support his energy policy, who simultaneously admit that climate change is a problem and continue encouraging the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and therefore its ongoing use. The MSNBC commentator Ed Schultz, known as a progressive, has voiced support for the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline as does his frequent guest, the supposed progressive and would-be challenger to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for President in 2016, former Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana. Schultz, to his credit, has been devoting considerable time on his air to the issue of the pipeline, and may be reconsidering his stance. As another MSNBC commentator, Chris Hayes, points out, the stance of Obama and others, that they are against global warming but for the building of new pipelines, are the protestations of fossil fuel addicts, who haven’t yet confronted their addiction.
And it is and will be very difficult for us, particularly here in North America, to confront our fossil fuel addiction as well as lessen our impact on the climate more generally, individually and also as a society as a whole. We are, all of us, in various positions along a continuum of lesser to greater individual or family climate virtue, whether by intention, by pre-existing preference, or by level of means, though in the developed societies, we are as individuals and families bunched towards the less virtuous end of the spectrum in terms of the stability of the climate. However, as many people know, individual and familial efforts even if all of us were paragons of climate virtue within our various means, do not add up to the systemic changes required to cut emissions on a grand scale across the economy. The vision of climate action as simply the accumulation of individual and familial choices overlooks the importance of public goods like infrastructure and the design and locations of cities and towns, which can only be changed by government action or other coordinated collective means. This fact alone reveals that market-based instruments (either cap and trade or carbon taxes) are more likely auxiliary policies rather than the central policy structure to transform our societies. Carbon pricing instruments, at least in the form of a gradually escalating carbon price, are “nudges” when we are needing in many areas a reversal of direction and a major concerted push, or time will have run out on our best intentions.
Chicken and Egg: Demand- vs. Supply-Focused Campaigns
Among those who have taken some interest in addressing climate change, there have over the last decade or so been discussions about whether a focus on curtailing the activities of the fossil fuel industries or a focus on reducing demand for fossil fuels is the right single or leading method to move society into a transition away from fossil energy. Economics is divided on the subject of what is the primary cause of business activity in general, though strangely in the area of curtailing fossil fuel use, almost everybody is a “Keynesian” in the sense of theorizing a demand-led business cycle. Keynes is the most influential economist who challenged the old dogma of Say’s Law that states that supply creates its own demand; i.e. “build it and they will come”. With, in theory, supply no longer controlling the business cycle, Keynes advocated stimulation of demand via government spending and/or tax cuts as a cure for economic depressions caused by what turned out to be a collapse in demand.
With fossil fuels, a large majority of economists that contemplate climate action advocate a price on carbon, either a tax or a permit to emit, which would reduce demand for the fuels without restricting supply. By contrast, this is the reverse of the current right-leaning consensus among policymakers regarding what to do about unemployment, which prescribe, almost exclusively, supply-side solutions. The unemployed or youth are said to lack the proper skills, so the focus is on skills training and educational reform would supposedly create jobs. Meanwhile few economists are advocating curtailing the activities of the fossil fuel industry or rationing fuel, both supply-side measures, to meet the challenge of global warming. This could be seen as a tribute to the relative political power of the fossil fuel industries and high-consumers of fossil energy (large corporations and the affluent) versus the power of the unemployed and youth; the former are treated, if at all, with gentle “nudges” while the latter are viewed as “clay to be molded” by elites.
Demand and supply-side interventions have different ethical implications, with ethics being the social discourse about how we manage our own agency or agencies (our “doing”) in the light of what is best or better for us or for a greater community or some combination thereof. Policy focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels starts from the premise that we are not able by internalizing legal-ethical mandates/strictures, foresight, and rational planning to change our behavior. Only after incurring a succession of monetary losses or anticipated losses from the “sin” tax or increased price do “appetites” for fossil fuel use diminish: consumers, as they have limited monetary resources, figure out for themselves the trade-off in monetary terms of one set of appetites for another and start choosing the higher benefit-to-cost satisfactions. The process of choosing between those appetites, or the restriction of the satisfaction of other appetites because of a lack of funds, leads eventually, in some, to a waning of interest in the targeted product or service. A supply-side restriction, such as rationing or cutting off certain types of fossil fuel supply (reducing overall supply), assumes that people are able to rein in their appetites via either their own internalized moral compass, or they accept the legitimacy of the external moral instance of government or the community to regulate their usage of, in this case, fossil fuels
The divide between supply- and demand-side policies is a byproduct of mainstream economic assumptions and academic disputes that some heterodox economists criticize, yet have not yet presented an alternative causal model of business and sectoral development. Presented in current contretemps between self-identified Keynesians and anti-Keynesians as an “either/or”, a longer view look at economic history suggests that the causal role of supply and demand are historical and sectoral snapshots of the complex unfolding of the actual economy. Due to the rapidity of energy transition required for human civilization to survive as well as the need for a change in energy systems, a combination of supply- and demand-side measures are required, together applied with as much force and speed as possible and effective. Supply-side restrictions of fossil fuels, for instance, would create a feedback loop where a restriction of supply will for instance act as a virtual “carbon tax” as oil companies charge more for their scarcer product. This should be seen as intentional rather than accidental, if one is advocating that both supply and demand be simultaneously curtailed. At the same time, government needs to supply or help design and subsidize the building of many of the connective pieces of a zero-carbon infrastructure. A new source or switch of suppliers is not well theorized by the supply-demand framework.
Even the institution and maintenance of an effective demand-side policy, advertised as the more moderate and “reasonable” solution, would in reality require a high degree of ethical commitment by the polity to effective climate action, more than the neoclassical economic fantasy of what constitutes the human being could accommodate. A behavior-changing carbon price (a tax or fee) of perhaps $150-200 per metric tonne CO2-equivalent emissions (with or without a refundable tax credit, sometimes called a dividend to blunt its regressivity) would require sacrifice differentially among economic sectors and groups, as well the need to change comfortable habits and ways of life. Such sacrifice would need to be openly acknowledged beforehand, requiring people, as citizens beyond their roles as consumers, to develop an ethical commitment to the large-scale task of preventing climate catastrophe.
Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
A political campaign on climate that focuses its anger and claims of responsibility only on the role of the fossil fuel industries and their political surrogates is naïve: their power is sustained by the number of paying customers available for their products, as well as their accumulated wealth from a 225-year history of fueling industrial growth via fossil energy. On the other hand, campaigns that focus only on demand-side policy, on the population’s demand for cheap, polluting fuel, tend to overlook the effects of the massive political-economic disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industries and their political surrogates on laming climate action once human-caused climate change was recognized internationally as a problem around 25 years ago. The assumption of demand-side policy is that our “appetite” for the products and services that fossil fuels enable is the driving force and therefore a wide-swath of the developed world is culpable for climate catastrophe.
Holding ordinary consumers in the developed world responsible on an individual basis for the continued dominance of fossil fuels either implicitly or explicitly is unfair and unrealistic. Some combination of an appeal to the moral sense of each individual as well as an appeal to macroethical justice for those who have delayed climate action and profit from climate inaction is required for climate action to be both heart-felt by many and also politically and economically astute.
Furthermore, there is a third category of people who have neither made executive decisions nor consumption/purchasing decisions that have had significant climate impacts. Some of these people live in poverty in the developing world or are too young now to have made significant decisions about how to live their lives yet. These people will pay the price of the decisions of others yet are or will become responsible for protecting the climate from further negative change and devastation of a conducive life-world for them and humanity more generally. Their responsibilities then start now or lie in the future.
I am proposing then that we subdivide responsibility into three categories or levels with regard to climate change, though this type of subdivision may be applicable with other large scale societal institutions and events. In delaying action on climate, some people have had a much greater role than others in prolonging our addiction to fossil fuels. As a parallel example, many legal jurisdictions, for instance, assign a higher culpability to drug pushers/dealers than to drug addicts, though unfortunately the latter group is in the United States subject to excessive legal penalties for non-violent drug offenses. The dealer/user distinction found in many legal codes should be carried over to the politics and ethics of global warming.
Around global warming then, at the current juncture in history, we can say that there are those who have primary moral responsibility for causing climate catastrophe, a much larger group of those who have secondary ethical responsibility for climate catastrophe, and a still larger group who are bystanders in terms of causality of global warming to date but will need to assume some responsibility in solving the climate crisis. The growth of a political movement will be in part by determined by how these relative responsibilities as we will see below will be addressed by climate politics and climate policies.
Historical Responsibility and Present-Day Responsibility
With large-scale complex systems such as energy infrastructure, an industrial economy, or an entire civilization, it is fair to distinguish between historical responsibility and ethical responsibility. The socially-constructed complex systems we live in are the product of generations of decisions and actions by our ancestors as well as those now living, some of whom may be retired from positions of power and authority. There are those who set up and reinforced the fossil-fuel-dependent industrial base of our civilization who were and are responsible but cannot be said, because of their lack of awareness of global warming and the continued dominance of fossil energy up to the present to be ethically responsible for global warming. John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Moses, Dwight D. Eisenhower and many others made crucial decisions in the design of American civilization. The American model of development remains one of the primary models for many developed and developing industrial cultures from early 20th Century onward that, of course, require a large supply of fossil energy with current infrastructure. These historical figures and others hold historical responsibility but they cannot be held ethically responsible for global warming as they were not made aware of the consequences of their actions at the time. We then can only discuss the ethical responsibilities for global warming of those in the current generation because a crucial piece of that ethical responsibility is having been made aware, in this case, by the geosciences and in particular climate science, of the consequences of maintaining the status quo in these complex large-scale systems.
Global warming emerged as a very strong hypothesis in the then-obscure scientific discipline of climate science in the 1980’s with mounting empirical data supporting the human role in increases in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide. The climate science community alerted policymakers to the danger in the late 1980’s with among other events, James Hansen’s dramatic testimony to Congress during the heatwave of 1988. From these interactions and subsequent meetings between policymakers, there eventually emerged in 1997 the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with the Kyoto Protocol and its emissions-trading (cap and trade) instrument selected as the general policy tool to reduce emissions worldwide. Emissions trading is an implementation of the economic idea of carbon pricing, the idea that an escalating carbon price will shape economic behavior to emit less greenhouse gases, while supposedly being able to meet an overall “cap” in quantity of emissions, set by policymakers. While the Kyoto Protocol had already been set into place as the primary solution to climate change, the historian of science Stuart Weart marks the point at the year 2001 where climate scientists had actually reached a consensus that human activity was warming the planet via GHG emissions and land-use changes, the former largely from fossil fuel use.
Having been alerted of an impending catastrophe in 2001, perhaps in terms that were soft pedaled at the time and filtered through the politics of national governments, it can be said in theory that all adults in the world were at that point informed enough to know that they had an ethical responsibility as citizens and consumers to address climate change. Even if the emissions trading instrument chosen by the UN was and is opaque and faulty, as it turned out to be, theoretically it was then and is now incumbent upon people as citizens to correct or amend climate policy.
However, in reality, a number of trends and events have intervened that make it unreasonable to have conferred responsibility upon all adults in 2001 when the climate science consensus was formed. Unfortunately, it has required a real degradation in the climate and a series of failures of the cap and trade instrument before it is reasonable to assume that ethical responsibility has been fully transferred, in varying degrees, to all adults in the world. In the intervening time between 2001 and today, the international and various national policy communities, outside of a few nations like the US and China, were claiming that it was on the road to “solving” the climate issue with emissions trading. I have devoted a good portion of my writing over the past decade to showing how insufficient and ineffective emission trading is and also a diversion from leaders’ and citizens’ primary ethical duties to act on climate change. It may be that the transmission of ethical responsibility is not yet complete until it is made abundantly clear that:
It is incumbent on everyone to act in some way to save the climate.
Existing solutions and actions are insufficient to address climate.
There must be a search for new solutions on political and economic levels to climate.
These new solutions must be implemented until such time as we see radical reductions in the emissions of warming gases.
This document is part of this transmission of responsibilities.
The climate change denial industry acts as an effort to delay the realization and transmission of ethical obligations as well as deflect accusations of immoral behavior or deficient character on those who continue to drive us toward climate catastrophe. By attacking the level of certainty that people may hold with regard to either the existence of or human causation of global warming, climate change denial has attractions for those outside the inner circle of beneficiaries from the fossil fuel industry who do not want to reckon with either changes in their own lifestyle or with the increased role of government required by effective climate action. Climate denial functions to blunt either the pangs of internal conscience or to deflect accusations of climate destruction or sluggish inaction.
As hinted at above, ethical responsibility with regard to taking action on climate is not discharged simply by committing to a putative or first-offered greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan, but effectively seeing through the execution of that plan. If the plan first selected is ineffective or not sufficient effective, either via prima facie analysis based on its highly likely outcomes or by empirical results, then continued subscription to the initial reduction plan becomes itself as unethical as inaction. One’s ethical responsibilities in this case are discharged by effective actions, not by expressions of good intention or commitments to climate virtue in the future.
Primary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
As discussed above, responsibilities and therefore accusations of culpability with regard to the impending climate catastrophe should not be equally distributed. Responsibilities are differentially distributed in society already by the different levels of power that people exert in relationship, largely, to their roles in the social institutions relevant to a given phenomenon. A fire chief is more responsible for extinguishing fires throughout a town than a baker or for that matter a trainee in the fire department. Now, 13 years after 2001 and 22 years after the 1992 Rio Summit that initiated international action on global warming, we can determine with a high degree of certainty that some people bear primary responsibility for at least the last decade if not the longer 22 year delay in substantive climate action. To bear primary responsibility means to have been exposed to the overwhelming scientific data and analysis on anthropogenic global warming and willfully and misleadingly denied or acted in ignorance of that consensus. Additionally primary responsibility for climate catastrophe falls on those who bear substantial responsibility by dint of economic positioning, scientific obfuscation, political patronage, political influence or political position as to the direction of our political-economic system, where that system effects our society’s energy and land use and therefore climate impacts.
The following categories of people then bear primary responsibility for the impending climate catastrophe, if they do not soon change their course by attempting to radically change the course of the institutions they are involved in (which is not always possible), agitate in the public sphere for immediate and thoroughgoing climate action and/or to publicly leave those institutions, transferring a substantial portion of their financial gains to investments in or contributions to effective climate action. Though they are primarily responsible for the continuance and acceleration of global warming, those primarily responsible for the disaster should not expect to be responsible for the solutions, though they should at least get out of the way of those solutions, for their sake, the sake of their children, and for the sake of humanity more generally. Some individuals will fit more than one category of the following:
1) “Denier-Leaders” – Political leaders that over the past 13 years to the present have promoted denial or unscientific doubt of anthropogenic global warming and its highly likely negative effects or have promoted, voted for, passed into law or administered local, regional or national government’s transport, land use and energy policy as if there were no ongoing catastrophic, human-caused global warming trend. Much of the current U.S. Republican Party leadership and Congressional delegation as well as the leadership of other right-wing parties in a number of countries including Canada and Australia are thus primarily responsible for the continuation of our global warming trend. These politicians can be viewed as spokespeople for the fossil fuel industries of their countries. The slightly more respectable “doubter” position has similar effects to “denial” in sensitive positions where the critically important instrument of government is either put to work to change the energy system or in the case of denier-leaders, used to reinforce the fossil energy status quo.
2) “Lip-Service Leaders”- Political leaders on the local, regional, national or UN levels that acknowledge human-caused global warming exists and is a problem but either a) support the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industries as they veer into “extreme” extraction techniques, b) support “fig-leaf” or ineffective climate policies such as most existing emissions trading schemes, c) continue to subscribe to the fiction that natural gas is a “bridge” fuel to a greener future or d) some combination a) , b) and c). Many of the center and left-leaning political party leaders and political representatives in the US and around the world fit into this category. Barack Obama is a leading example of category “d)”. Likewise the leadership of fossil fuel exporting nations such as Russia that acknowledge climate change but are sluggish to implement effective policies are similarly primarily responsible for global warming. The weakness of the policy proposals and leadership on climate of this group is a reflection of compromises that these groups make with climate deniers, with the power of the fossil fuel lobbies, and with the dominance over the past 30 years of neoliberal theories of government’s fallibility and the market’s infallibility. However their stance and the policy infrastructure they have erected are, in many ways, a dangerous diversion of attention from designing and implementing more effective and timely climate action that involves both direct investment by government as well as regulation of markets via rule-making and tax policy/direct carbon pricing. Both “Lip-Service Leaders” and “Denier Leaders” are avoiding the difficult though necessary confrontation with both the fossil fuel industries and with their own political constituencies. These leaders have turned away from the task of preparing their constituents to wean themselves off or pay more for fossil-dependent conveniences available in developed nations. Additionally these leaders have avoided providing their constituents with the public funding and programmatic guidance to enable them to devote themselves to remaking the energy and transportation basis of our societies for their and for future generations’ benefit.
3) “Climate Destruction Sponsors” – There are some extremely wealthy people, most of which have or have had substantial investments in fossil fuel extraction and sales who have funded climate science denial efforts by institutions such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute as a means of delaying action on climate change. These are the funders of the odd collection of scientists that Naomi Oreskes has termed “the Merchants of Doubt”. The Koch Brothers and the corporate leadership of Exxon/Mobil are the most famous of these funders, who also have almost their entire business empires devoted to fossil fuels. There are also a large tranches of funding that are donated as “dark money” via Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund directed in the direction of delay of climate action. These sponsors (who may also be profiteers from delay of effective climate action) cloak their activities in the rhetoric of “freedom” or the fictions of free market economics, distracting themselves from the physical consequences of our emissions trajectory as well as distracting others from their often substantial financial interests in climate destruction.
4) “Climate Destruction Profiteers” – There is substantial overlap between the “sponsors” group and those who profit from the destruction of the climate but what I am calling the “sponsors” have shrouded themselves in the ideological mantle of the dominant neoliberal political philosophy that idealizes markets. The Koch Brothers are of course also profiteers on the destruction of the climate as are major stockholders and share owners of large and medium-size fossil fuel companies. There are others, high level employees and strategists of major oil companies, who are driving the business of fossil fuel extraction and can no longer take the defense that they were just following orders. The same goes for passive fossil fuel investors, who have become the target of the “Go Fossil Free” fossil fuel divestment campaign. At some point, at lower level employees or small service businesses within the oil, gas and coal industries, the argument can be made that the existential needs of their families keep them in the business, rather than the accumulation of profits. At these lower levels of the organization or market segment, it can be no longer said that they bear primary responsibility for climate catastrophe and their work or business would simply be replaced if they withdrew bids for business, if they quit, or would be fired if they sought to change the terms of their work.
5) “Media Deniers/Equivocators” – Newspapers, magazines, television, and Internet journalism play key roles in telling people what they should think about and how they should think about it. While there are obvious prominent owners of right-leaning media, like Rupert Murdoch of Fox News and News Corporation who are climate change deniers or “doubters”, the media in general in the United States and other key countries has suppressed or downplayed the story of global warming, delegating it to obscure web-only blogs or leaving it out entirely of their offerings. Instead of a steady drumbeat of stories reminding people of the present danger, media outlets have tended to reflect the “comfort zone” of a political spectrum where one side is devoted to half-measures and lip service while the other is militantly against the idea of human-caused global warming because it contradicts their political-economic ideology. Many media outlets for too long have seen their work as trying to “split the difference” between two opposed sides on a number of issues, including global warming, rather than investigate the terrifying facts, report those facts as well as who is representing those facts more truthfully. In the United States, a critical role has been played by among others by environmental reporter Andrew Revkin, who at a critical point turned over his blog at the New York Times to largely serve as a forum for doubt and contrarianism about basic climate science. It cannot be underestimated how much the doubt sowed by supposed environmental journalists has distracted readers from the critical questions of how to deal with impending climate catastrophe.
6) “Characterological Contrarians/Merchants of Doubt” – The fodder for much media coverage of climate change has been supplied by the self-styled courageous “skeptics” that claim to challenge the climate science consensus that human activity is driving global warming on supposedly scientific grounds. Using scant data and ignoring most findings that suggest warming, these “merchants of doubt” have attempted to suggest that political motivations and/or sloppy science has led to the what would amount to a massive “conspiracy” of climate scientists to assert that humans are causing global warming. While in science, true skepticism is welcome, the climate “skeptics” play primarily to a political and media audience and some have received funding from the “Climate Destruction Sponsors”. While some deniers may be driven by a psychological compulsion towards contrarianism, this also leads to the “reward” for some of enjoying a great deal of attention as well as some financial support. Whether paid or simply driven to contradict for psychological reasons, this group has with the aid of the media and their sponsors, helped humanity continue on its destructive path vis-à-vis the climate, providing reassurance to the ill-informed and to those with more malevolent or destructive intentions.
7) “Fossil-Dependent Electric Utility Executives & Large Shareholders” – One of the prime consumers of coal and natural gas is the electricity generation industry, which consumes almost all of the coal produced in the world, and a high percentage of the natural gas. While many electric utilities have built their capital intensive infrastructure around the availability of fossil energy to drive their generators, utilities have had the choice to lead the transition to a zero net emissions energy system via the use of renewable and nuclear energy to generate electricity. Electric utilities have for the most part only under the duress of regulators moved towards renewable energy and energy efficiency. Some have made gestures towards acknowledging that we live in a carbon-constrained world, only to continue on with the fossil fueled status quo. New nuclear generation has not been an option in many areas, as there have been prohibitive technical, environmental and political challenges associated with building and operating new nuclear plants. Many utilities continue to undermine the spread of renewable energy, in part because it has meant a loosening of their monopoly on electricity generation. Unfortunately this has also meant with few exceptions that they remain prime supporters of the coal and natural gas industries.
8) “Propagandists of Neoliberalism/Neoliberal Government, Corporate and Financial Elites” – The discovery of global warming and attempts at concerted climate action have occurred within the neoliberal era, (1978 to the present). Neoliberalism is a political-economic philosophy derived from neoclassical economic dogmas and “Austrian” political philosophy that persistently holds up the idealized construct of “free markets” as infallible (and supposedly real or about-to-be-realized) and government as the nexus of fallibility in society. Neoliberalism’s over-praising of markets has supported an idealization of an increasingly deregulated private financial sector among political elites who came to believe that finance should lead the economy and was a magical fountain of wealth. Subsequently, economies in the last 30 years have become financialized, de-industrialized at the geographic metropolitan “center” where political and economic power is concentrated, highly economically unequally, and burdened down with mountains of private (corporate, financial and household) debt. Neoliberalism is the overarching current political-economic philosophy of elites, and some of these elites may believe that global warming is a problem (some are “Lip-service Leaders” or the corporate equivalent) but their neoliberal philosophy makes actual effective government action on climate to seem “beyond the pale” to them. Beyond these elites steeped in neoliberal dogma, the economists and pundits that continue to reinforce and reproduce the dogma of neoliberalism are equally responsible for removing the most important tool in the fight against climate catastrophe from the table, i.e. government committed to the public good. The following are the real effects of neoliberal governance and corporate policy that lead its propagandists and practitioners to be primarily responsible for climate catastrophe:
In the first 20 years of carbon policy, as noted above, policymakers’ almost exclusive focus on “market-based” policy rather than the combined political-economy as a whole including direct public investment and utilizing the policy space available to monetarily sovereign government in the area of fiscal policy more generally.
In turn, the choice of a market regulation that relies on a financialized concept (emissions trading) rather than a binding tax obligation. Emissions trading systems have been intentionally riddled with loopholes to enable companies to postpone cutting emissions as well as mute the carbon price signal that would favor the lower-emitting products or services on the market.
The politically- or philosophically-motivated devaluation of the reputation of government by neoliberal academics, business leaders and government officials has made much more difficult the effective deployment of government to address climate change. Governments not markets, particularly monetarily sovereign national governments, are the central institution to transform the energy and systems and social practices that require fossil fuel inputs.
The ballooning of private debt in step with worldwide ballooning of real estate/asset bubbles is a product of a financialized political economy that has shunned public provision of financial assets via government spending in favor of debt issuance by banks. Mounting private debt claims a portion of nominal economic growth for debt service and therefore increased emissions that contributes only to the welfare of the credit issuers, mostly large financial institutions or speculative traders and not to overall social welfare or, on average, net incomes of the borrowers.
9) “Austerity-Mongers” – A subset of neoliberals and the latest iteration of the neoliberal philosophy after the 2007-2008 financial crisis are the advocates of fiscal austerity, which is a hyperaggressive campaign of sabotaging government functions from within by arbitrary restriction of government spending, leading to the giveaway of public functions and assets to supposedly more efficient “market” actors, i.e. private corporations. The pretext for this fire-sale of the public sector is the intellectual and/or politically-motivated confusion in mainstream economics of financially-constrained local, regional, and Euro-Zone nations that do not control their currencies and the governments of countries like the US, Great Britain, Japan and many others that issue their own currencies. Austerity-mongers claim that all public entities are “running out of money” for social programs and public spending projects, when the latter can at will create more currency units to pay for necessary projects. Austerity advocates are knowingly or unknowingly the useful idiots of the bloated financial sector, as artificially limiting government expenditure and giveaways to public assets, makes more room for and dependence upon private debt issuance. While some austerity mongers, like David Cameron in Britain, claim to care about global warming and may believe that the fictional shortage of government money he promotes is a stand-in for the real shortage of atmospheric assets of the earth, the overall effect of austerity is to, as with neoliberalism more generally, to undermine the critically important instrument of government at exactly the time when it is needed most. One leader of the U.S. austerity drive, Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson, seems to have no position on climate change but nevertheless continues on his quest to hand financial dominion over the economy to Wall Street and scuttle the power of government to mobilize real assets by public spending for public purposes. The timing of this drive for power by the private financial sector, cloaked in the rhetoric of fiscal prudence, could not come at a more inopportune time for the collective good of the current and future generations.
10) “Leaders of Large Organizations without a Low-/Zero-Carbon Strategy” – Besides electric utilities, much fossil energy or electricity generated by combusting fossil fuels is consumed by large corporations, non-profit organizations, and departments/ministries of various governments throughout the world. These large organizations are some of the major customers for oil companies, gas and electric utilities, sustaining demand for fossil energy. While a high-enough carbon tax/fee would provide a financial incentive for organizations to transition off carbon-based energy, it makes sense for many to anticipate this move by starting an energy transition before it is a requirement. Those organizations that move sooner will have greater advantages and also contribute less to emissions overall. For some sectors this is much more difficult than others and therefore the obligation is greater for leaders of organizations in sectors where technological or organizational process choices already exist.
Secondary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
Those primarily responsible for accelerating and exacerbating the degradation of the climate do not generally make decisions in isolation about energy policy or the course of our society but as part of larger social systems in which there are many participants, workers, co-beneficiaries and counter-parties. The use of fossil fuels has made the physical lives of many in these countries much easier, as human labor is either aided or replaced by mechanical work fueled largely by fossil fuels. While these fuels may have brought into the production process primarily to increase profits for the owners of a business, the mechanical work of machines has had secondary benefits for workers especially with the advent of consumer durables and Fordism, the ability of those in the lower middle and working classes to afford major energy using devices like automobiles.
The powers and convenience conferred on poor, working-class, and middle-class individuals by participation in a majority fossil fueled energy system are great in comparison to the existence of those in “Dickensian” early industrial society and in comparison to those in underdeveloped societies currently. Much of the relative physical ease of those in developed nations would be much sought-after by those who must do hard physical labor to enjoy just a basic and uncertain subsistence in those underdeveloped societies. Most residents of the wealthier OECD countries (Western Europe, North America, Australia, Japan) and many of the wealthier residents of the less wealthy OECD (Eastern Europe, Mexico) and developing countries have secondary responsibility for impending climate catastrophe.
It is patronizing and fatalistic to assume that people in positions of relative but not absolute powerlessness, who nevertheless benefit from a high carbon-emitting society, are entirely bereft of the ability to chose and therefore of power. With that power comes moral responsibility, especially as their/our activities and choices lead to durable “memorials in the sky” in the form of carbon emissions.
So while there are those with primary responsibility for the ongoing climate catastrophe, who have had a central decision-making role, there are largely passive beneficiaries who can additionally be used as ideological cover by those with primary responsibility. The benefits that the services that this broader swath of the population enjoys from our energy- and carbon-intensive society can be put forward as a quasi-sacred duty, by those who defend the energy status quo. And many who enjoy these conveniences agree that these are indeed valuable goods or services offered by our energy-intensive society.
However, that these enjoyments are leading to a negation of all of our work and our desires to build a future for our family and loved ones should give us all pause. The question for each remains: “Which is more valuable: our current satisfactions or the satisfactions of many future generations?” It is this, what I am calling “secondary”, moral responsibility that can be the basis of action as citizens and consumers start upon the road of transforming societies and economies. Without recognizing this secondary moral responsibility, a movement for climate action will be inconsequential and unserious.
Prospectively, the movement for climate solutions draws from those who are secondarily responsible for climate change as political activists and leaders. This process involves recognizing one’s own agency and choices, an ethical process, and fomenting a broader discussion and subsequent actions that remedy to some degree the damages done to the viability of the earth for human life and civilization.
Tertiary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
Furthermore, there are many people in the world, mostly the billions of poor in the developing and underdeveloped world, who may wish to enjoy the ease and benefits of a supplementary-energy powered society but have not yet enjoyed them. Or they may be satisfied with some version of their own current lifestyle with or without the addition of some of the conveniences offered by supplementary-energy powered technology. While they have had very little of the benefits of fossil fuel use, there are still matters of choice and moral agency which are entirely their prerogative, as the climate catastrophe sweeps the globe.
Those with tertiary moral responsibility, who aspire to a better life, have a choice to pursue a more or less carbon-intensive lifestyle and development path, even as they are by international agreements entitled to pollute more than those who pollute less. Secondly, as the effects of climate change mount, it is incumbent on them, as it is every individual, to help protect their families and their nation more generally from the effects of climate chaos. They could become powerful political agents and world political leaders, which is a process that involves moral choices, in favor of climate solutions that makes the earth more habitable for all.
Degrees of Responsibility Counteracts Psychological “Splitting”
While the notion of degrees of responsibility may seem obvious, this is a departure from the assumption of a “perpetrator-victim” or “transgressor-transgressed” model for relationships assumed by many who discuss the relative blame or varying moral rights with regard to underdevelopment and climate change. In politics and in other stress-ridden domains of life, there are tendencies for people to engage in milder and more severe forms of the psychological defense mechanism called “splitting”. In “splitting”, a defense that emerges in early childhood, children imagine that some people or things are “all-good” and some are “all-bad”. They are “split” because the child cannot see “shades of grey” in goodness and badness. Many of the fairy-tales of childhood are built around children’s attachment to “all-good” and fear of “all-bad” characters.
There are contexts in adult life where splitting is a cultural norm though one could argue it also has deleterious effects. The adversarial process in legal proceedings as well as political conflicts between parties are two of the main cultural institutions where a polarization of good and bad is encouraged in peacetime and in wartime or international conflicts, there is often a tacit acceptance of jingoism in public discourse. In many parts of popular culture particular in action and suspense movies, television and games, the polarization of good and bad becomes the prelude to various forms of combat and dehumanization of antagonists.
Splitting is particularly unrealistic in dealing with the differential responsibilities for climate catastrophe. The entire developed world is implicated by its dependence upon fossil fuels to function yet some have over the past few decades struggled valiantly to change this while others have fought to keep the status quo. Some who have fought for what they thought were climate solutions, have in my opinion and given the trajectory of emissions, been fighting for ineffective instruments and with the wrong allies (the finance sector). Even if we have been fighting for the most effective and appropriate tools to reduce emissions, we are still to some degree morally responsible for the impending climate catastrophe. On the other side, those who are primarily responsible are not necessarily “all-bad” but they still are primarily responsible for causing grievous harm to the climate that has been favorable to human growth and civilization.
Meeting the Evolutionary Challenge of the Anthropocene
Already a different animal than co-evolved species, humanity has initiated as a byproduct of its activity over the last several decades, if not before, a new geological era that scientists are calling the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene means that what marks this era in terms of geologic phenomena are the traces of human activity on the biosphere, the atmosphere, and even the geosphere, of which the mining and burning of fossil fuels is one of the most powerful agents. But human-caused climate change is only the most critical of a number of ways in which humanity is putting its imprint on the planet, having effects that are largely unintended by people with feedbacks that are out of the immediate control of humanity.
This places humanity in an unprecedented situation as a species. While many different animal and plant species can be said to shape their various ecosystems by activity “pre-programmed” by their genomes, no single species until human beings has had its own future within its voluntary control via the outsized impacts it has had through its tool creation and use and through the ability to coordinate social activity, think alone and deliberate together via the use of language. Humanity is both endangering its own future and has the potential to secure, within the limits of untoward events occurring in the universe or an upsurge in violent geological activity, its own future.
In order to meet the evolutionary challenge of an environment that no longer will accept the byproducts of human activity without destroying our future, we will have to care enough about ourselves and future generations to institute new systems and sets of rules that coordinate nationally and internationally our use of the environment, starting with the concentration of warming gases in the atmosphere. A recognition of our agency (our “ability to do”) and our ethical choices in the immediate past, now and in the future, is an important starting place for this evolutionary journey.
The 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.
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.
In 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.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law,
Widener University School of Law
Visiting Professor, Nogoya University, Nogoya. Japan