Part 1 explained that climate change is already creating millions of refugees and threatens to create many millions more.
Part 2 will cover why relevant international law on causation of trans-boundary harms is consistent with the creation of a mechanism for financing loss and damages from climate change induced harms and thus why developed nations should support the creation of such a mechanism.
V. International Law On Compensation for Loss and Damages (L & D) Caused by Trans-boundary Caused Harms.
Nations agreed under the 1992 UNFCCC pro Preamble:
Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UNFCCC, 1992, Preamble) .
Thus governments expressly agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC that they had a duty to abide by the “no harm” rule which required them to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from harming others beyond their borders. Yet they were already bound by the “no harm” principle because it is a principle of customary international law. In international law, customary law refers to the Law of Nations, or the legal norms that have developed through customary exchanges between states over time.
The history of L&D in climate negotiations dates back to 1991 when the Alliance of Small Island States called for a mechanism that would compensate countries affected by sea level rise. The concept of loss and damage made it into a climate decision coming out of a climate negotiations when in 2010 the so-called loss and damage work program was initiated at COP16, which finally lead to the establishment at COP19 in 2013 of a body to deal specifically with issues relating to loss and damage: the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage (or WIM for short). With the inclusion of Article 8 of the Paris Agreement in 2015, loss and damage has now become firmly installed as a thematic pillar under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Under Article 8 of the Paris Agreement, all nations agreed;
1. Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.
2. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts shall be subject to the authority and guidance of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Agreement and may be enhanced and strengthened, as determined by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Agreement.
3. Parties should enhance understanding, action and support, including through the Warsaw International Mechanism, as appropriate, on a cooperative and facilitative basis with respect to loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.
UN Paris Agreement, 2015, Art 8
Determining a nation’s responsibility for specific climate change caused harms can be challenging because climate change damages are the result of a multitude emitters, emitting activities, and emitted gases. It is, thus, evident that the question of how to determine responsibility among nations when allocating responsibility for climate harms and damages is a challenge which cries for a negotiated set of rules that enable rational comparison among nations that failed to prevent activities in their nations from harming others beyond their borders.
In common and civil law the principle of joint and several liability is recognized as a method for allocating responsibility among multiple defendants. But no such rule exists in international law.
Yet human induced climate change has scientific features that could provide the basis for negotiating rules for allocating responsibility for climate harms. The amount of harm caused by climate change is a function of atmospheric GHG concentrations and background climate conditions which change seasonally. Atmospheric CO2 has features that are different than other air polluting substances that have pofound policy implications. CO2 mixes well in the atmosphere and is very long lived. Although approximately 80% of CO2 emissions are removed by carbon sinks in 100 years, some stay in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years contributing to climate change harms everywhere for a very long time.
As we have seen earlier in this discussion, climate change has features that other environmental problems dont have which has profound implications for policy including the fact that all CO2e emissions contribute to atmospheric Co 2 concentrations globally and are long lived in the atmosphere thus contributing to harms everywhere.
See Seven Features of Climate Change That Citizens and the Media Need to Understand To Critically Evaluate a Government’s Response to This Existential Threat and the Arguments of Opponents of Climate Policies.
In determine whether climate harms are attributable to the failure of a nation to comply with its responsibility to prevent activities within its jurisdiction from harming others, historical experience could be used to link projected climatic shifts with their probable physical, economic, social and human impacts (e.g., the probable impacts of temperature increase or excessive rainfall on ecosystems, populations and agricultural productivity, or probable impacts of sea level rise on coastal land area and infrastructure).
Baseline information might include, for example, average number of days of drought over a period of years, average annual or seasonal rainfall over a period of years, or average frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
VI. National Legal Responsibility for Breach of the No Harm Rule
The no harm rule is understood to be an obligation of a nation to prevent foreseeable harm beyond a nation which has been interpreted to require nations to act to prevent harm when nations have;
(i) the opportunity to act to prevent harm:
(ii) foreseeability or knowledge that a certain activity could lead to transboundary
(iii) have taken proportionate measures to prevent harm or minimize risk.,
WWF-UK-2008, Beyond Adaptation, (2008:18)
VII. The Opportunity to Act has Long Existed
A State can only fail to exercise due diligence with respect to a specific prevention duty if it does not act where it otherwise could have. In the framework of climate change damage, almost every State has had the opportunity to take measures to prevent damage or to minimize the risk of damage. Each ton of a GHG not emitted, and every carbon sink preserved in the long term reduces the risk of further damage.
IX. Proportionate Measures Were Not Taken
In order to determine whether any nation took proportionate measures to avoid climate caused harms that created refugees ideally. any critical analysis would have to consider the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases that triggered the harm and then consider whether that nation took steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their “equitable” share of global missions that were responsible for the atmospheric concentrations that caused the harm. Such analysis would likely lead to the conclusion that zero global emissions were necessary to avoid the climate change induced har that caused the transboundary harm. . Yet as we have seen in this first part of this discussion zero greenhouse gas emissions have been necessary to achieve the Paris agreement’s warning limit goals of 1.5°C but no greater then 2°C. In addition, the world needs to reduce global emissions to net zero to avoid destabilizing several climate “tipping points” several of which are already showing alarming signs of destabilization. Whatever the atmospheric concentration is deemed adequate to prevent the harms that will minimize the suffering of climate caused refugees, and to determine any nation’s equitable share, governments have to grapple with what “equity” requires of the nation.
Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity expressly requires of a nation to reduce its GHG emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its 5th Assessment report that despite some ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden-sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4.pg 317).
The IPCC went on to say that;
(T)hese equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality, and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4, pg 317).
Nations were already required under the Paris agreements “transparency” mechanism to explain periodically how they determined what equity requires of them when they established their NDC. Yet a 2015 study of 15 nations NDCs revealed that nations nor their NGOs demonstrated an understanding of what “equity” required of them.. (IUCN, 2015).For this reason, any mechanism to fund loss and damages will have to grapple with what equity requires of it, a matter which will be raised in any mechanism for loss and damages.
X. Why Developed Nations Should Support A Mechanism for a Adaptation and Loss and Damages Funding For Harms that Affect and Cause Refugees .
Nations have not only agreed to be bound by the no harm principle, they have agreed that they have a duty to cooperate to develop rules regarding compensation and liability.
States shall develop national law regarding liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage. States shall also cooperate in an expeditious and more determined manner to develop further international law regarding liability and compensation for adverse effects of environmental damage caused by activities within their jurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction. Rio Declaration, 1992` Principle 13,
The harms suffered by refugees may require negotiations for recovery for both economic and non-economic damages including rights to adequate temporary housing, access to adequate health care, and food,
Why would Parties ratify liability and compensation schemes? Attaching clear liability and responsibility for the transboundary consequences of environmental pollution helps to enforce regulatory regimes established to protect the environment. Participation in liability and compensation regimes reduces uncertainty for States which might otherwise have to cover loss and damage caused by their citizens and incurred by citizens of other States when adequate compensation cannot be obtained from the responsible parties. These regimes also reduce uncertainty for potential victims, by ensuring the availability of a certain minimum level of compensation and elaborating procedures for making claims. Finally, these regimes reduce risk for those investing in business operations that engage in activities associated with risk, by defining limits of liability.
As the preceding Section V explains, there is a sound legal basis under customary international law and the UNFCCC for States seeking compensation for damage and loss resulting from the impacts of climate change. Nevertheless, each individual case would meet with a number of challenges under existing law, among them the apportionment of responsibility between the various countries that have acted in breach of the no-harm rule. They would also be likely to require specially-commissioned scientific investigations with attendant costs, for in relation to causation and damage assessment. These cases could proceed in an forum, with good prospects of success, adding to the potential liability and litigation risk uncertainty that already exists with respect to private claims and possible tort actions.
Such individual cases should not, however, be the path of choice. International law is based on the notion of cooperation and the avoidance of adjudication – where possible – in favor of diplomatic solutions. Cumbersome individual cases should not be necessary, given that the climate regime is based on the notion of cooperation and good faith. The view has been expressed by international law scholars that States even have a legal duty to provide negotiated solutions where environmental damage is expected to occur, so that prompt and adequate compensation can be obtained in practice.
Although the issues of who pays what, to whom, and when, will be challenging to resolve, and ratification of such an instrument could face substantial domestic hurdles, a negotiated treaty to address the unavoided and unavoidable loss and damage is likely to be the only appropriate and practical solution to addressing climate change damage. The ‘AOSIS Proposal’ of 1991 provides a glimpse of what could be conceivable – not least as it only covers one type of damage.. International law principles and precedent provide support for the negotiation of a compensation instrument, as a necessary and appropriate response to this regulatory gap. The current negotiations leave room to begin this discussion.
Nations should also support financing adaptation and mechanisms to compensate those outside their borders for harms created by activities within their borders because, as the 2008 US Army War College report concluded, such harms are likely to cause social disruptions including violence against those who caused climate induced suffering. (Pumphery, 2008) The Army War College also concluded after describing in detail the higher levels of conflict and chaos that expected increases in unplanned population movements will cause, the US support for a mechanism which deals with the human and political turbulence will be viewed as a public good that is necessary in order to cope with the looming consequences of climate change. (Pumphrey, 2008, 112)
XII. The Moral Case for a Loss and Damage Mechanism under International Law
Although some moral claims are controversial, a claim that nations who cause harm and suffering to places and people living beyond their boarders have a moral duty to compensate those that they have been harmed without their consent is consistent with the golden rule, a moral obligation acknowledged by almost all the world religions. This rule says that people cant harm others because of benefits to them. Furthermore, almost all nations agreed that they had a moral duty to compensate for damages if they harmed others when they adopted the 1992 Rio Declaration which provides:
National authorities should endeavor to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment. (Rio Declaration, 1992. Principle 16)
The creation o f a Loss and Damage mechanism will raise both tricky procedural and distributive justice issues.
Already some opposed to the mechanism are warning of the mischief that developing countries may do if the fund is created. For instance, opponents of the mechanism are claiming developing countries may seek compensation for comparatively trivial harms. All of these concerns can be minimized through negotiation of the rules.
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This post will raise issues that are very controversial to some. As I tell students and audiences I have talked to around the world, I am not asking you to accept the claims I make, nor will I necessarily hold it against you if you disagree. I do this to provoke critical thinking amongst us all about why climate change remains an existential threat to life on earth and why these issues are also relevant to making democracies work for the common good on other issues. I have very frequently benefited from discussions with others who disagreed with me but who engaged with me in critical interchange. This post will be very critical of some corporations’ and affiliated entities’ tactics to undermine democracy’s efforts to achieve the common good. While acknowledging the contributions of free-markets, and the private sector for what they can contribute to economic growth, technical innovation, and private sector employment, this analysis demonstrates the indispensable need for appropriate government constraints on the corrosive power of money in politics to prevent corporate and financial interests from using their enormous wealth to undermine what citizens in a democracy decide in deliberations about how to achieve the common good. This post will be critical of the United States for its failure to control the power of the fossil fuel industry to spread misinformation about climate change. This ruthless scheming of some elements of the private sector was actually predicted by Adam Smith who also convinced civil society of the benefits of the free market. This strong criticism in this paper is believed to be in response to the duty of citizens to fix the flaws of democracies as long as there is the possibility to do so, particularly when the flaws are seriously harming others. As the second verse of Kathrine Lee Bates song America the Beautiful says: ” America, America, God Mend Thine Every Flaw, Confirm Thine Soul in Self-control, Thy Liberty in Law. But as this post points out, research concludes that this is also a problem in other countries which have economies with strong fossil fuel sectors. As a result this, getting traction for ethical principles that nations have already agreed to or have negotiated is a challenge for democracies with strong economic interests which are threatened by legislation or treaty making that seeks to achieve the common good. This paper was originally initiated in response to UNESCO’s interest in getting traction for ethics in international cooperative efforts to protect the international community from several growing threats that cant be solved at the national level. Because the author had concluded most Americans would have no idea of why global cooperative efforts to solve growing global threats must grapple with ethical issues, section 1. of this paper explains the indispensable need of countries seeking to work cooperatively to solve global threats to grapple with ethical issues in treaty making and other global responses to growing global threats.
Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.
This paper takes the unusual step of listing the conclusions of this entry first to help readers judge how much of this paper they want to read although readers should read and critically consider the relevant analysis below before accepting any conclusions uncritically.
This paper deals with the failure to get traction for ethical principles in all claims about what governments should do to achieve the common good, given all such claims implicitly have the form:
A. Because of facts A. B, and C (Factual Premise)
B. Governments should do D ( Normative/Ethical Conclusion). Here normative means right or wrong, ethical duty, or prescriptive conclusion in light of facts. We will in this article refer to the conclusion of arguments about what governments should do as the normative or ethical conclusion. Notice the normative/ethical conclusion is already part of any claim about what a government should do given certain facts.
This paper will examine why normative rules that all countries including the US had already agreed to under international environmental law failed to get traction in national climate responses. This analysis will be particularly focused on the failure to get traction for the ‘no harm’, ‘precautionary’. and ‘equity’ principles natiions had agreed to be bound by in the 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreementt. The United States also agreed to human rights protections for its citizens which have also been ignored in public debates about climate change. These principles are focused on in this paper because they completely undermine the validity of the scientific uncertainty and excessive cost arguments that the publically visisble climate debate has focused on for thirty years due to the successul framing of the debate by fossil fuel intersts, Because there is shockingly little public discussion about “normative” or “ethical” conclusions of claims made by opponents of climate change policies in the US public climate debate, this paper examines why the ethical principles that nations had already agreed should guide their responses to climate change were rarely discussed in US debates about climate change policies by examining what actually happened.
a. The primary cause of the failure to get traction for key ethical principles that the US government had already agreed would guide its climate policy formation is that a well-funded, sophisticated spread of misinformation that began in a focused way in the US in 1971 with the Powell memo, discussed below, created a widely accepted unquestionable cultural narrative that included the claim that the government is the problem not the solution to many of society’s most troubling problems. Cultural narratives often become so accepted that many citizens become afraid to challenge them.The tactics of the Powell memo were expanded in the climate change disinformation campaign, discussed below, which were designed from the beginning to undermine citizens faith in mainstream climate science not to get the science right. This website has previously argued that the disinformation campaign is a new kind of crime against humanity despite the indispensable role of skeptictism in science and the right of free speech. Therefore a major challenge for getting traction for ethics in climate policy formation, is to get traction for truth in climate change policy making disputes to undermine lies and misinformation sophisticatedly spread throughout the government’s population by increasingly powerful computer tools and other techniques. Poltical Scientist Hannah Arendt described in her paper Truth and Power, that politicians whose power is threatned have throughout human history responded with lies, and so getting traction for truth in the climate debate is not a new political challange but is nevertheless much more challanging now given the effectiveness of the computer tools to spread the disinformation that targets people who will be most receptive.
An example of this which hasn’t been widely reported, while serving as the US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations, I was invited in 1997 to participate in war games being conducted by the Army War College that considered risks from parts of the world that would that may be destabilized by climate change. During this session the Army identified Syria, parts of the Sahil area of Africa, and as I rember three countries in Central America which were drought prone and potential places where refugees would create social disruption. In 2001, a multi-year drought began in Syria which eventually caused 1000000 refugees who destabilized large parts of the world and continue to be a source of social unrest.
The US army also predicted over 20 years ago that three countries in Central America were vulnerable to drought and therefore likely to produce refugees. Yet this aspect of the refugee problems that are causing social disruption and unspeakable suffering is rarely commented on in the the US media while discussing refugee problems from Syria and Central America. While at the same time prominent US politicans are spreading misinformation about climate change such as climate science is a hoax, climate law is unfair to the United States, climate change cant be real because it snowed in parts of the United States, and numberous false claims that havent been subjected to peer review and other techniques described in the climate change disinformation campaign entries referenced below.
The Army War College in a more recent 2008 report assessing climate threats predicted horrific impacts to the United States and around the world leading to social disruption and conflict. Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/6
While the Army College’s 2008 threat assessment became increasing confirmed by droughts, floods, diseases, increasingly damaging tropical storms, and refugees, many American politicians continued to claim that human-induced climate change was a ‘hoax’. I particularly paid attention to these claims because while serving as the US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations I was asked by the State Department in June 1997 to cochair with a colleague from the Energy Department a negotiation that would ask governments to agree as governments to the IPCC conclusion that the balance of the evidence demonstrates a discernable human influence on the climate system.
2. The United States has failed to achieve the common good because it ignored the warning of Adam Smith who although convinced civil society of the value of the free market through its invisible hand but also lesser known he predicted that merchants would sometimes ruthlessly scheme against the common good . (Sagar, Paul, Adam Smith and the conspiracy of the merchants: Global Intellectual History: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com) Thus governments need to establish rules to make democracies work for the common good that anticipate the very likely behavior of some economically powerful interests to undermine what democratic processes want to determine the common good while acknowledging the benefit of free markets and private sector institutions for some purposes in a democracy. .
3. Some US founding fathers claimed that the goal of democracy was to achieve the common good which according to Thomas Paine and others was essentially justice. They anticipated this would create disagreements among contending parties about factual claims and normative conclusions which are implicitly present in any claim about what a government should do to achieve the common good. Thus some founding fathers recommended that citizens be educated in skills to help them evaluate factual disputes namely science, history, among others, and ethics and other subjects to help citizens critically evaluate disagreements about justice.
4. The goals of higher education have increasingly shifted its major empasis from teaching skills needed by citizens to participate in a democratic processes to achieve the common good to teaching skills to make students attractive to potential employers such as science, engineering, and technology. (The support for this claim wil be the subject of the next entry on this website). Although claims about what governments should do to achieve the common good have both factual premises and normative conclusions, this shift in higher education’s major focus has increased the power of opponents of environmental policies to frame the public debate on disputes about facts which usually ignore very relevant ethical considerations including ethical principles that governments have previously agreed should guide their policy formation. For instance, all governments in the 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change agreed to be bound by the “precautionary,” “no harm” and adopt GHG emmission reductin targets to levels required of itin accordance with ‘equity ” which principles expressly undermine the excessive costs and scientific uncertainty arguments made by opponents of climate change. Yet proponents of climate policies usually ignore critically evaluating the normative conclusions of the arguments made by opponents of policies while focusing on counter factual claims about uncertainty and cost.
5. Why a global solution to climate change requires a national response consistent with its ethical and legal obligations to not harm others is not apparent to most US citizens in my experience until one understands certain features of climate change which are different than other environmental problems that don’t raise these urgent ethical problems. These features include all CO2e emissions mix well in the atmosphere raising atmospheric CO2e concentrations globally and thus increasing harms globally, because although 80% of CO2e emissions are removed feom the atmosphere by carbon sinks in 100 years, some remain for tens of thousands of years thus contributing to future harms everywhere including atmospheric concentrations that trigger abrupt climate change, the most vulenerable countries are usually least responsible for the harms, delays by a nation in reducing its emissions makes it more difficult and expensive for the whole world to achieve any warming limit goal, the setting of any national GHG emissions target implicitly takes a position on four ethical questions. (the warming limit goal the nation is seeking to achieve, the carbon budget it is basing its reduction amount on given different budgets with different probabilities are options, the equitablle basis it has used to calculate the nation’s fair share, and date by which the reduction will be achieved which effects the amount of carbon budget available for the whole world. For a discussion of these issues see:
Seven Featuresu of Climate Change That Citizens and the Media Need to Understand To Critically Evaluate a Government’s Response to This Existential Threat and the Arguments of Opponents of Climate Policies.
6. This article will examine what can be learned from the failure to get traction in national responses to climate change for several ethical principles that nations had already agreed should guide their obligations under the 1992 climate treaty.
7. As we have explained in many entries, for 30 years the fossil fuel industry has been successful in framing the major focus of the public debate in United States so that it has focused largely on issues related to scientific uncertainty and excessive costs. This is so despite the fact that the international community including the United States under G.H. Bush had agreed in 1992 to be guided in their response to climate change by the “precautionary principle” which make’s scientific uncertainty an illegitimate excuse for a nation’s failing to achieve their legal obligations, and the ‘no harm’ principle which makes governments responsible for harms to others caused by activities within their borders without regard to scientific uncertainty or cost to them once they are on notice that activities within their jurisdiction are threatening others.
8. The article explains why the need in international cooperative efforts to solve serious growing threats that cant be solved at the local level frequently raise questions of fairness and justice between nations that are usually worked out through negotiations among nations about what is fair.
The goals of this post are ambitious as it examines several different crucial topics necessary to understand the enormous importance of getting traction for ethics in global cooperatiive efforts to respond to emerging threats that cant be adequately dealt with at the national level. This is a concept that I have discovered NGOs passionately involved in finding a solution to climate change have little understanding of why this is important, nor how one resolves disputes about ethical principles, and as several sociologists have predicted technical experts will sometimes be traumatized by the mere suggestion that their work be supplemented by ethical considerations.
Because the article is long, the reader may want to skip topics without reading the entire paper. The paper gets into detail about several ethical principles that all nations have agreed upon in the 1992 UNFCCC should guide their responses to climate change but which have been largely ignored in the public debate about national responses to climate change. Some detail is included on these issues because getting traction on these principles is still crucial to getting nations to comply with their obligations under the climate change regime while opponents of climate policies have spread false claims about these issues which are still frequently repeated in media coverage without comment.
The sections of this paper are:
1 Why governments must practically grapple with justice issues when developing rules about threats that cant be solved at the national level.
2. Why opposition to international rules developed for the common interest are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the international common good.
3. The failure of higher education to educate students in skills necessary to evaluate the normative conclusions made in claims about what government should do to achieve the common good given certain facts
4. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs at the international level seeking to achieve the global common good.
I . Why governments at the national and internation level have to grapple with justice issues in developing and applying law or rules seeking to achive the global common good.
Several enlightenment philosophers and US founding fathers, believed that achieving the common good was the essential role of government and the essence of the common good is justice. Although international negotiations often focus on other issues in international environmental negotiations, the most time consuming issues are usually over differences between developed and developing nations about what fairness requires. Also in the last 20 years corporate interests which are economically threatened by issues under consideration have been successful in generating political opposition at the national level often by the dissemination of sophisticated disinformation on issues most consequential to the global community including poor developing nations.
Thomas Paine among other US founding fathers believed that the purpose of democracy was to achieve the common good which usually cant be achieved without grappling with justice questions among others.
Getting traction for justice in government affairs has become more urgent since the 1970s when well organized, aggressive, sophisticated efforts have undermined governments central role in ordering society for the common good, Sociologists attribute the organized beginning of this phenomenon in the US to a 1972 memo from Lewis Powell who was then vice president of the US Chamber of Commerce which began with a claim that the free market is under attack citing the successful social and environmental movements in the 1960s. This is deeply ironic because the very reason why many in the world saw hope for the world in the US system was because the US democracy in the 1960s successfully found remedies for the racial, voting, woman’s rights and many more justice issues. Yet the Powel memo construed these very victories on rights and injustice as a threat to the corporate power. The Powell memo also criticized corporations for their lack of vigor in responding to the challenges to free enterprise that were growing in the beginning of the 1970s. Powell thus called for a much more aggressive response from the business community that the memo claims is needed to protect free enterprise from criticism from college campuses, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. Two months after the Powell memo was released, President Nixon nominated him to the US Supreme Court where he served for 15 years.
He recommended 10 things that businesses should do, all of which have been well funded and aggressively pursued. See, The Seeds of the Corporate Funded Climate Disinformation Campaign, the 1971 Lewis Powell Memo,
The success of the propaganda to get American citizens to support less government regulation for the common good was already evident when US President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in his 1981 inaugural speech proclaimed that government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem. Amazingly, although I believe most people would acknowledge benefits of free markets while agreeing that government is sometimes the problem, it is absurd to conclude that the private sector alone will provide pubic goods that most people want, such as affordable health care, protection from environmental threats, towns designed to promote social interaction, affordable high quality education for all, affordable housing for all, and among other things protection from the scheming of some merchants and despots throughout history who have sometimes ruthlessly schemed against the public good as Adam Smith warned. This scheming is inevitable when the solution to growing global threats requires the regulation of new technologies that have admitted value but dangerous potential for harm. Curent potentially beneficial technologies of concern include, for example, artificial intelligence and bioengineering.
While I worked for EPA on UN international environmental issues, I saw corporate interests lobby EPA to oppose provisions of the biodiversity treaty and climate law that other countries were pushing for. Most Americans including NGOs seem to be unaware that the United States is, in my experience having worked at the UN and taught or lectured in 38 countries, is increasingly internationally widely viewed as an obstructionist on many global environmental issues although many non-nationals believe there is still hope that US can make democracy work for the common good. The 2008 Army War College Threat Assessment in fact concludes that the failure of the US to adequately respond to climate change may result in more violence against the US.
I have been shocked how much our democracy in the last decade has made it easier for money to dominate politics by removing limits on corporate donations, voter suppression, gerrymandering, allowing donors to hide who make donations to entities who are involved in political issues, while other countries have often made it easier to vote in ways that initially shocked me. By law, for instance, Australian citizens have a duty to vote which my Australian colleagues say is enforced with a routine fine. While teaching in Japan I was told political money is not allowed to be used on television, which explains why one hears political messages on loud speakers in trucks all the time. I offer these examples to encourage research on their truth and to suggest that others do research on these kinds of issues. Of course these issues will create disagreements among citizens, a matter that democracies should resolve according to the supporters of the role of democracies by making arguments about what is fair
The process of international environmental treaty making usually requires governments to grapple with important and sometimes thorny justice issues that are indispensable to accomplish the goals of the treaty. For instance those drafting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) had to grapple with what rules would govern each countries GHG emissions reduction target in light of the fact that some nations more than others are responsible for the current problem. Although the treaty negotiations that ended in the 1992 UNFCCC established very general rules about national responsibilities to adopt policies to prevent dangerous climate change, the international negotiations were unable to agree on how to allocate responsibility among nations for emissions except in the most general and abstract terms. This is so despite the fact that climate change is a problem that necessarily required some guidance on how to allocate responsibility among nations for reducing national GHG emissions. Some nations have been pushing for more clarity on these issues for decades. The best the initial round of negotiations could agree on is that the developed countries should take the lead on reductions and each country should reduce GHG emissions to levels required to achieve any warming limit goal in accordance with “equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.” Most international environmental governance processes have gotten bogged down in strong differences between developed and developing states with differences not fully resolved in the initial negotiations. Thus many treaties initial text coming out of the first international negotiations resolves the conflict often between rich and poor countries with “weasel words” or words which give no clear guidance, in the hope that further negotiations in yearly Conference of Parties (COPs) will resolve important but ambiguous language on crucial issues. The UNFCCC is still full of such weasel words despite 25 COPs since 1992 on the meaning of central terms such as “equity.” Despite almost thirty years of negotiations which often sought to resolve these ambiguities, the UNFCCC implementation has been plagued by the lack of clarity about several key concepts.
During the international negotiations each year, energy industry lobbyists have been well represented along with US congressmen usually mostly from US fossil fuel states closely monitoring the US position on issues important to them and often arguing that the US should make no commitment on issues the energy industry believes will hurt their interests.
An additional challenge to getting traction for ethics is since the 1980s neoliberal ideas have gotten traction around the world. Since the central idea of neoliberal ideology is not obvious but is usually understood as market processes should order society for the common good through the operation of the market’s invisible hand, early proponents of neoliberal ideology claimed there was no or at least a greatly reduced need for the government to develop rules and regulations to achieve the common good based on justice. As a result justifications for government regulation on environmental issues that existed in the first 20 years of the modern environmental movement, such as that regulation was needed to adequately protect human health and the environment, or protect the environment for future generations were gradually replaced over several decades by cost-benefit analyses or other economic criteria.
An example, while I was working as the US Program Manager to UN Organizations during the Clinton administration while the US was considering ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, much of the policy talk in the agency centered on which of two different cost-benefit analysis that had been prepared by different government agencies should guide the US decision about whether to join the Protocol. During this time, the Global Climate Coalition, an international lobbying group of businesses who opposed action to reduce GHG emissions were waging an intense national campaign in opposition to the US ratification of the Kyoto Deal which observers attributed to President Clinton’s decision after negotiating a deal in Kyoto acceptable to the United States, he never submitted it to Congress for ratification. I have learned that the way power often works is to spread a narrative through a culture that becomes so accepted that citizens are afraid to challenge it. That is power often works by scaring people to not discuss certain things. But we have Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and the lesser known Hannah Arendt who have implied we citizens have a duty to call out injustice when we see it, although violence is never justifiable morally and will also undermine the credibility of the moral claim.
During my career I watched the United States fall precipitously from the position of undisputed international environmental leader at the beginning of the 1980s and be replaced by the European Union (EU) after that. For over a decade the US environmental law and policy was an inspiration for the rest of the world after being given birth by Rachel Carson’s vision and other successes on justice issues in the late 1960s. A recent book, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power by investigative reporter Mark Shapiro documents how developing nations no longer go to Washington for advice on environmental policy; they now go to Brussels.[i] The European Union is now widely viewed to be the global leader on environmental programs. Shapiro explains how this shift in power has not only been bad for human health and the environment in the United States but also for American business in a world increasingly moving toward a greener global economy. The 2008 Army War College Threat Assessment Report on Climate Change not only draws the same conclusion about diminishing respect around the world for a country which was once more widely thought of as the shining city on the hill but may generate more violence against US interests from parts of the world increasingly stressed by water shortages.
In addition getting nations to appropriately comply with their ackowleged obligations to base their GHG target on equity, one of the ethical principles nations have agreed to would guide their policy, it is still practically crucial to preventing gross harms to the world as the following chart demonstrates,
Notice this chart shows the GHG emissions reduction needed for the whole world to have any hope of achieving the Paris Agreement warming limit goal of 2C is depicted by the top line. You can see if the high emitting nations don’t reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them by equity, the lesser emitting developing nations must go to zero immediately if there is any hope of achieving any warming limit goal.
2. Why opposition to rules developed for the common good are likely to be aggressively opposed by those whose economic interests are threatened by rules designed to achieve the common good.
Although Adam Smith is widely praised around the world for convincing much of the global community of the benefits of free market. Lesser known, however, is he also warned that the merchant class would sometimes conspire against the public interest and in so doing predicted that the merchants would sometimes be ruthless and effective in manipulating policymakers and legislatures by influencing the public’s understanding of issues that must be addressed to achieve the common good. (Sagar, Paul, Adam Smith and the conspiracy of the merchants: Global Intellectual History: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com)
Some of the tactics used by the fossil fuel industry has been to spread disinformation . This has been accomplished by morally ruthless tactics that will be explored in the next section.
Another tactic which has been used with increasing effectiveness is the use of what I call false intimidating manipulative smears (FIMS), that are aimed at anyone who appears in the media who challanges the cullurally unchallengable narrative. Currrent frequently used FIMS hurled against anyone challenging the hegemonic cultural narrative are the person is an “alarmist.” “socialst,” or recently believers in “entitlements.’ Because most people dont know how to respond to these FIMS, false intimidating smears, a future entry will critically evaluate the dominent FIMS.
3. What we can learn from climate change about the problems of getting traction for ethics in developing and implementing programs under consideration at the international level to achieve global common good.
I have learned from academics and climate change NGOS working on climate issues who I have often sincerely publicly praised for their technical work on climate change that they have no idea about how to spot nor critically evaluate ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. This is one of the reasons why they frequently shun discussing supplementing their technical conclusions with ethical considerations.
I have have rarely met US climate activists or academics engaged in climate science or economics that are aware that philosophers believe that even on ethical issues that reasonable people disagree on what justice requires, most reasonable people will agree that certain proposals on interpreting and applying ethical principles flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. They explain this phenomenon by saying people don’t need to know what justice requires to get agreement that some claims about justice flunk minimum ethical scrutiny. For instance, any proposal which allows someone to hurt others because of economic benefit to them violates the most basic ethical principle, the golden rule that says I cant harm others because of benefits to myself. It also violates the ” no harm” principle which the US agreed to in the UNCCC which requires nations to prevent activities within their boundaries from harming others even if the harms are not fully proven. A crucial example from climate law, although there are differences among ethicists about what equity requires, most ethicists agree “equity” may not be construed to mean anything that a nation claims it to mean, such as national economic self-interest. As IPCC said, despite ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).
In the 1980s I was invited to join the Editorial Board of the Journal of Environmen Ethics whose authors rarely contributed to conflicts about what ethics required on issues that arose in actual environmental controversies while for several decades focused almost exclusively on how to put a non-anthropocentric based value of nature. I had through my experience concluded that there were many important issues arise in other environmental policy conflct that need the help of ethical analysis which must be considered to protect people and animals including some for which the ethical rule appropriate to policy had already been agreed to. So just spotting the implicit ethical issue is often all that is needed because some ethical issues that arise in policy are often surprising easy to resolve once spotted.
Academic environmental ethics focus on resolving theoretical conflicts is a tragic mistake because ethicists are needed to help civil society evaluate untruths about unfairness claims that have been circulated by US opponents of climate change policy continue to frequently circulate, for instance, a recent example is that unless China reduces GHG emissions at levels required of the US, it is unfair to the US although the US has significantly higher historical and per capita emissions than China. According to IPCC’s to description of reasonable considerations for determining equity, the US percentage reductions should be greater than China although like all claims about what distributive justice requires, for instance, which happens frequently in US environmental law cases where there are multiple defendants who must find away to apportion hundreds of millions of damages among, the court system works out how to apportion the damages. This is a common problem on allocating damage awards in hazardous waste cleanup litigation in the US . In cases I have been involved with there were as many as 200 defendants fighting about how damages would be distributed. US courts are face*d with kind of problem frequently.
Notice in the charts below, US historical emissions are much higher than China’s as well as US per capita emissions even though China’s current emissions lead the world.
The enormous damage to the world that has already been caused by a large sector of US civil society’s acceptance of arguments made by the fossil fuel industry about excessive cost and scientific uncertainty despite all governments having agreed that these excuses do not justify the failure of governments to comply with their agreed to obligation’s under the UNFCCC. See discussions of “precautionary principle” and “no harm” rule on this website.
The United States is not the only country in the world that has let its powerful fossil fuel industries interfere with their legal climate change obligations. See NationalClimateJustice.org, although there is some evidence that the climate disinformation campaign organized originally in the US has been used by fossil fuel interests in other countries. I have also recently discovered that neoliberal ideology has gotten traction around the world, a fact of concern to many national leaders. See also Ethics And Climate Change, A Study of National Commitments, Brown D. Taylor, P, (IUCN, Press-
Since climate negotiations began in the 1990s which resulted in the 1992 Convention on Climate Change, I have witnessed from a front row seat while representing US EPA at the UN on environmental issues and for a few years as staff person lead for Pennsylvania DER on climate change how fossil fuel interests have successively fought proposed government climate action largely by framing the public debate so that it has narrowly focused on scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy and circulating false claims about unfairness. This is so, despite all nations had agreed to be guided by principles in their climate change policy formation that made scientific uncertainty and excessive national cost illegitimate excuses for a nation’s failing to comply with their climate obligations. Yet I have seen no press coverage of this phenomenon. I have also experienced that with a little ethical reasoning, people agree that these rules are ethically justified.
The article will argue this US failure to abide by principles they have agreed has been caused by the economically powerful forces’ successful framing the arguments that have dominated the visible climate debates in the US so the debate has largely focused on facts about uncertainty and facts about high costs with the absence of critical reflection on the normative conclusions made by opponents about these facts.
3. The Failure of Higher Education
This problem has also been caused in part by the major failure of US higher education to educate citizens in skills needed to critically evaluate the normative conclusions of claims made in democracies about what should be done to achieve the common good. Despite all such claims have both factual premises and normative conclusions, citizens almost always only engage in critically evaluating the factual premises of arguments about what governments should do to achieve the common good. Citizens in a democracy need to be educated in subjects that facilitate crital evaluation factual premises and normative conclusions in claims about the common good, an assumption made by enlightenment philosophers and some US founding fathers. But as we will see, US higher education is increasingly part of the problem as many schools have shifted their primary goals to develop skills that will make students marketable for jobs, not competent citizens seeking to achieve the common good. (This claim will be the focus of the next entry on this website) Also, academics, as well as citizen activists often become preductively engaged in responses to climate change that they judge have some potential to make a difference given the political status quo. The focus of their energy thus is often responses to climate change that they believe have a chance of working given the acceptance of cultural narratives about excessive cost is an enormous urgent need to reduce GHG emissions to net zero ASAP a topic I argue should be mentioned in every discussion of a response to climate change. It is also an understandable tactic to justify climate policies solely on the basis policy will create jobs because it implicitly confirms the unreasonableness of the claim if this policy causes some job loss the policy should not be adopted. A more enlightened use of the jobs argument would be we must reduce GHG emissions immediately because they are causing and threatening enormous harms around the world, a byproduct of this policy will be some job creation but job creation is not why we should do this.
After Paris Agreement in 2015, I convened meetings of the leaders of the 5 largest environmental groups in Pennsylvania to explain and document that that the 1.5 C and 2.0 C warming limit goals required the whole world to achieve net zero emissions by 2045 and 2070 yet all five leaders who I greatly respect said they would not publicly talk about it because they would be labelled as ‘alarmists.’ Thus confirming the power of developing an unquestionable cultural narrative coupled with the widespread use of false,intimidating, manipulative smears FIMS discussed above.
Some climate activists have claimed they dont know how to spot the ethical issues that arguments against climate policies raise. This is remarkable because almost all claims about what governments should do given certain facts are already part of the claim in the normative conclusion. This criticism does not diminish, in my view that many academic climate change scientists should be publically honored for the courage they displayed in correcting the misinformation on climate science that was undermining the political will to reduce national GHG emission.
That US higher education has done such a horrible job in educating students in environmental sciences on how to critically evaluate the normative conclusions in claims about the common good became clear in a three-year study at Penn States revealed that undergraduate students in environmental sciences could not identify which part of a claim about what governments should do was the normative claim without training. This is truly frightening because it explains how vulnerable citizens are to bogus claims made by economically powerful entities and why proponents of climate policy frequently focus on the factual issues in a claim and ignore critically reflecting on the normative conclusions of claims made about what governments should do to achieve the common good.
Almost all claims about what a government should do in response to climate change implicitly have the above form but many climate scientists and environmental activists whose technical work I have sincerely publicly honored have admitted to me that they were not aware that if they cant draw conclusions about the magnitude of climate impacts because of the complexity of the climate system, the inability to describe physical elements of the climate system needed to quantify risk assessments or do not have enough time to develop a risk assessment, they are expected to engage in precautionary science. Most American climate scientists I have talked to have admitted they were unaware of the arguable duty of governments who have a responsibility to protect human health and the environment have a responsibility to engage in “precautionary science” when reaching certainty about harms can’t be accomplished for practical purposes.
Scientists failure to understand the ethical duty to develop a process to implement precautionary science when normal scientific procedures are unable to do so when engaged in research on the harms from some potentially dangerous problems is a enormous practical problem because part of the tactics of the morally outrageous of climate change disinformation have been to call all scientific conclusions that have not been based upon the epistemic norms of science that have been established to prevent a false positive or a type 1, statistical error, “junk science”.
Most American scientists and students in environmental studies in my experience are aware that some EU countries have already created procedures to apply precautionary science when scientific norms designed to prevent false positives prevent timely descriptions of dangerous risks. Nor that this has been done in the in the United States for determining a few threats like the cancer risk of low doses of tox substances. Yet this failure in assessing the risk of harms from GHG atmospheric concentrations through precautionary science may turn out to be the most catastrophic policy failure in environmental law history. It may explain why earlier conclusions of IPCC underestimated climate impacts it described in its few first assessments, an issue worthyy of further research.. In other words this may be a failure with profound implications for the human race.
Another troubling area of ignorance among most climate activists is that the failure of nations to timely adopt a policy to achieve a warming limit goal makes the global challenge for everyone more expensive and more difficult because the delay reduces the carbon budget that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal. Therefore their reassurance that ‘we have time’ is greatly misleading in a number of ways
In 1992, under the UNFCCC all nations agreed to be bound by the ” no harm” principle which stipulated that that nations have a duty to adopt climate change policies that prevent activities from within their jurisdiction from harming others outside their jurisdiction. A nation’s duty to adopt policies that will prevent climate change caused harms is not diminished under the “no harm” rule because these policies will be costly to the nation or the harms haven’t been fully proven. The reasons there is widespread acceptance of the precautionary principle is that is not difficult to get people to agree that once there is credible evidence that an activity is potentially very harmful to others, the person in control of the activity can’t continue to put others at risk because the potentially harmed person has not proven they will be harmed.
Some European nations deal with this issue by shifting the burden off proof from government to the entity in control of the risky matter to determine risk and safety.
Yet most US climate activists and academics engaged in climate usually respond to opponents claims about scientific uncertainty or cost by making counter factual claims about certainty and cost. My advice to them is that they continue to do their good work but they should publicly acknowledge that some scientific uncertainty is not a legitimate excuse for a government to fail to comply with their obligations to reduce the threat of climate change as all countries agreed when the adopted the precautionary principle in the 1992 UNFCCC.
I also urge that activists who are pushing for an economically based solutions couple this to a legally enforceable government deadline for achieving zero GHG emissions because market-based solutions that admittedly could be a productive tool to reduce emissions will likely have to be supplemented by other legal tools to achieve zero GHG emissions needed ASAP and market-based tools implementation will not likely be quick enough by themselves. Around the world countries that adopted carbon taxes or cap an trade regimes had to supplement them with other legal tools to achieve net zero reduction goals in a timely matter. Therefore the laudable efforts of many climate activists to get carbon taxes and cap and trade regimes into law should be acknowledged for helping create a helpful tool to achieve a legally enforceable target. But this tool needs to be supplemented with other legal tools to get to zero emissions ASAP.
In addition, because climate change is now violating the most basic human rights including the rights to life and health, and national responsibilities to protect human rights are not excused because of high costs to a government responsible for preventing human rights violations, nations may not refuse to adopt climate strategies necessary to prevent predicted climate impacts that violate basic human rights on the basis of cost to the nation. Yet this is a missiing subject in the American conversation about climate change
A 2019 Special Report of the UN General Assembly found that climate change was already causing 150,000 premature deaths, a number which is sure to increase as temperature rises (UN General Assembly, 2019). So US emissions are already contributing to human rights violations but rarely is this brought up in US public discussions of climate issues in the nation that instituted international human rights law although the US is now behind many parts of the world in adopting procedural rights to bring human rights claims that continue to be hurdles to enforcements of some human rights largely because of difficult standing hurdles in US LAW
Climate change is also expected to increase infectious diseases through greater transmissions by bugs including mosquitoes and ticks whose numbers and ranges are expected to increase in a warming world. Climate change is also expected to cause numerous other health problems and deaths to the world’s population in many additional ways including the increase in pandemics and vector borne diseases.It is already causing massive health problems including loss of life from intense storms, droughts, floods, intense heat, and rising seas and the current numbers of these health problems will surely rise in a warming world. Predicted warming is also already creating international chaos and conflict from the over million refugees that have had to flee their homes due to the loss of water supplies needed for drinking and agriculture.
As horrific as these climate impacts, even modest amounts of additional warming threatens to surpass levels that will trigger various ” tipping points. or positive feedbacks that that could very dangerously speed up the warming. A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate system – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system. Progress toward triggering a tipping point is often driven by energizing positive feedbacks, in which a change in one component of the climate system leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic global warming example is the ice-albedo feedback which happens when melting ice sheets cause more heat energy to warm the Earth rather than the ice reflecting the heat energy from the sun out into space.,
To defend itself against charges that climate programs needed to implement the Kyoto Protocol were too costly, the Clinton Administration in July of 1998 prepared a CBA that showed that costs to the United States of complying with Kyoto would not be great.[i]
The Clinton Administration’s analysis concluded that these costs were justified because damages from a doubling of pre-industrial concentrations of greenhouse gases would cost the United States economy about 1.1 percent of GDP per year, that is $8.9 billion per year.[iii] In so doing the Clinton Administration seemed to acknowledge the validity of climate change counter-movement’s basic argument that domestic action should be limited to actions justifiable by CBA. That is, at no time did the Clinton Administration assert that the logic of CBA that supported the position of the opponents to Kyoto was ethically problematic; the Clinton Administration simply asserted that the CBA calculations of those that opposed Kyoto were overly pessimistic.
The Clinton administration did not acknowledge any of the specific ethical problems with CBAs applied to environmental problems discussed on this website. In fact, remarkably there was no discussion in EPA or in the US media’s coverage of the Kyoto Protocol about the use of CBA to determine the acceptability of climate change raised the following ethical problems.
- If climate change is an ethical problem, nations may not determine the acceptability of national climate change policies on the basis of national interest alone; they must acknowledge the duty to not harm others who have not consented to be harmed. Yet the debate in the US about the Kyoto commitment remarkably only focused on harms and benefits to the United States alone. The fact that US ghgs were harming and threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world was not considered or even commented on in my experience when the Clinton administration CBA on the Kyoto Protocol was discussed inside the government.
- The Clinton administration CBA did not acknowledge the duty of high-emitting nations to compensate those who are greatly harmed by climate change, despite the fact the US had agreed to the “polluter pays” principle in the Rio Declaration in the in 1992. [iv]
- The Clinton administration CBA did not acknowledge that the duty of the United States to not cause human rights violations despite the fact that the least contentious human rights, including the right to life and security, will be violated by climate change.
- The Clinton administration CBA treated all harms to human health and the environment form climate change as commodities whose value could be determined in markets or by asking people what they are willing to pay for the entity harmed.
- The Clinton administration CBA failed to acknowledge that those who might be harmed or killed by US ghg emissions had a right to consent to be harmed thus violating principles of procedural justice.
In response to the Clinton CBA, opponents of Kyoto argued that the Clinton Administration’s analysis understated the costs to the United States economy. The fossil fuel industry and others continued to oppose ratification of the Kyoto Protocol mostly on the basis that costs to the United States compliance with the Protocol would exceed benefits.
The most morally repugnant tactics of merchant class schemes that I have seen that have undermined the public good, a behavior predicted by Adam Smith, is likely the climate change disinformation campaign, see numerous articles and videos on the climate change disinformation campaign on this website.
I have struggled to express my view of the depth of the moral depravity of the climate change disinformation campaign which sociologists have well documented who paid for it, how it was organized, and how it operated. See, Is climate science disinformation a crime against humanity. While fully acknowledging the importance of skepticism to science, skeptics must play by the rules of science including subjecting their claims to peer review. Ethically this is mandatory particularly when the skepticism is circulated to the public with the express goal of undermining the peer-reviewed science for the sole purpose of undermining public support for regulatory action that the most prestigious scientific organizations and Academies of Sciences have claimed government action is necessary to prevent catastrophic harm.
Nor can this be excused on the ground of free speech, a defense that the opponents of climate policies often make when they are confronted by the damage they have done in supporting the climate change disinformation campaign.
Why Exxon’s and Other Fossil Fuel Companies’ Funding of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Cannot be Excused As an Exercise in Free Speech but Must be Understood as Morally Reprehensible Disinformation.
Climate change is an environmental problem about which a little reflection reveals cant be solved at the national level because CO2 emissions from all countries mix well in the atmosphere, and raise atmospheric concentrations globally and thus are partly responsible for the horrific harms around the world including droughts, floods, more intense storms. In other words US GHG emissions increase climate harms everywhere which is often ignored while the press limits coverage to time left to achieve a Paris warming limit goal. Because, no other environmental problem known to me has this characteristic , I have concluded that the failure of competent people in their discipline to give informed advice on several important policy issues is because there are scientific aspects of climate change that are different than other more common environmental problems that require different policy responses that need to consider input from different disciplines.
The fact that excessive GHG emissions from any country are contributing to environmental harms globally because they mix well in the atmosphere raising atmospheric concentrations everywhere is never discussed in the US media in my experience, which is even more startling when the media extensively covers the migrant problem on the Mexican Texas border.
Recently the US media covered the claim of some Republicans that the refugee crisis serge on the Mexican Border was caused by the Democrats while not connecting this to predictions made by the Army War College in 1997 during war games and that i attended and later described in more detail in the 2008 Army War College report referenced above that drought would create migrants in many parts of the world that would cause social disruption and conflict.
In I997, while serving as US EPA Program Manager for UN Organizations, I was invited to participate in war games at the Army War College which were examining risks from climate change that could cause social conflict. One of the security risks the army examined that day was from refugees in Syria which had a large farming area that was vulnerable to drought. In 2001 a three year drought began in Syria which caused 1,000,000 refugees who are still destabilizing large parts of Europe.
The US army also predicted over 20 years ago that three countries in Central America were vulnerable to drought and therefore likely to produce refugees. Yet this aspect of the refugee problems that are causing social disruption is rarely commented on in the media while discussing refugee problems from Syria and Central America.
The Army War College in a more recent 2008 report assessing climate threats predicted horrific impacts to the United States and around the world leading to social disruption and conflict. Pumphrey, Carolyn Dr., “Global Climate Change National Security Implications” (2008). Monographs. 65.
Yet, I cant stress enough the moral unacceptability of using violence or property damage as a tactic to respond to injustice as Martin Luther King stressed He also claimed that it will undermine the credibility of the protestor’s moral claim.
Having written a book in 2002 called “American Heat, Ethical Problems with the US response to Global Warming,” I was greatly surprised in March 2009 when the George W. Bush State Department invited me to speak to the Scottish Parliament about ethical issues raised by climate-change policies as they were debating an aggressive climate-change law in Edinboro.
Before I spoke, a Scottish Parliamentarian made an argument that I have never heard any US politician make nor American climate activist. He argued that Scotland should adopt the new aggressive legislation under consideration because the Scots had an obligation to the rest of the world to do so. This justification is remarkably enlightened compared to the Trump’s deeply morally bankrupt justifications for getting the US out of the Paris Agreement on the basis of putting America First. He also gave several other justifications for leaving the deal which were factually wrong such as the Paris Agreement was unfair to the US. The UNFCCC a allows nations to decide what equity requires of them.
In the coverage of Trump’s decision to get out of the Paris deal all commentators that I have heard ever mentioned that US delay makes achieving the Paris warming limit goal more difficult because the available budget for the world that must constrain the entire world to achieve any warming limit goal has gotten smaller have never mentioned in the press discussion of Trump’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Deal.
Trump’s America First and claims that the Paris Deal is unfair to the US justification for leaving Paris are based upon obvious easily falsifiable crazy assumptions yet the US media has largely focused public attention on the fact that the US could rejoin which Biden has decided to do.
I noticed during my career as an environmental lawyer in government which started soon after the first Earth day in 1970 that the value of the environment became understood to be more and more its commodity value, while Rachel Carson claimed that the environment should be preserved for the benefit of future generations. This phenomenon of making the value of everything its commodity value is consistent with the ideology of neoliberalism that continued to gain force beginning in the late 1970s. One of the neoliberalism’s central ideas is that government’s regulatory decisions should be based on market valuation not ethical logic. This is inconsistent with so many universally accepted ethical principles such as the golden rule that are the basis for much of international law.
By the miid-1980s both Democrats and Republicans used with increasing frequency cost-benefit analysis to determine whether a law or regulation was appropriate. And so by 1997, while the Clinton administration was debating internally whether it should decide to join the Kyoto Protocol on the basis of two cost-benefit analyses both of which had commodified the costs and benefits by looking looking at US impacts of climate change alone, nor consulted with those who who were most vulnerable to climate impacts, nor considered that under the ‘no harm’ rule that the US had agreed to the US is morally if not legally enforceable responsible for harms they contributed to in other countries.
About a decade ago, John Broom, a respected English economist/philosopher was giving a lecture at the University of Delaware, when during a break in his presentation he casually asked the audience a question. “Do you know how to calculate the value of climate caused harms if climate change kills all the people in the world?” I experienced this question as a Monty Python moment. This is the kind question that a comic would ask to show the obvious absurdity of a claim.
It is amazing to me that many ethical problems with cost benefit analysis are rarely discussed in the US media, despite obvious ethical problems with its use to determine justice. CBA can be productively useful as a tool to determine efficiency of policy options, but as IPCC said economic conclusions by themselves cant determine justice. .
This is another example of the dismal failure of higher educations to teach critical thinking skills needed to effectively evaluate normative conclusions already present in claims about what a government should do given certain facts. For identification of ethical issues raised by climate change policy making relying on cost-benefit analysis, see Brown, D. (2008) Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Program, https://ethicsandclimate.org/2008/06/01/ethical-issues-in-the-use-of-cost-benefit-analysis-of-climate-change-programs/,
In 1997, I was asked by the US State Department while serving as US EPA Program Manger to the UN to co-chair for the US in a UN negotiation that was considering a document in which all governments, not IPCC scientists, would be asked to agree that the elevated warming the Earth was already experiencing was human caused. By the end of the negotiation all approximately 155 nations agreed to a stipulate that the balance of the evidence supported human causation. Yet 30 years later, all Republican presidential candidates and some democratic politicians would not agree that climate change is human caused. Given the destruction to human health, property, and ecological systems on which life depends, this is a failure of monumental tragic significance. Many scientists and academics usually respond to issues about models. In addition to the models being able to usually predict future temperatures and when run backward usually describe prior warming, other evidence that deepen the moral duty to take action is the for me,is finger prints evidence and attribution studies that test whether natural forces that have driven Earth’s natural heating an cooling cycles are extraordinary strong evidence that warming is very likely human caused more than enough to crate moral responsibility to act in most peoples views.
Enlightenment philosophers and several US founding fathers claimed that the purpose of a democracy was to achieve the common good. Because of this, and aware that some economically powerful entities or people might try and make the government work for their economic interests, they advised that citizens should be educated in science and other disciplines that would help them critically evaluate factual claims and ethics to enable them to critically evaluate disputes about justice.
In the next post we will describe the overall failure of higher education to educate civil society with critical thinking skills needed to evaluate contentious normative conclusions in claims that arise in government’s efforts to achieve the common good. We will see that some of these problems are also attributable to academic philosophy departments which have mostly focused on theoretical philosophical issues, not on helping training students to spot and resolve ethical issues that arise in policy controversies. Unfortunately and tragically, many universities also have changed their major focus to training students in skills needed in the market economy not to make government work for the common good. And why this has happened has also been the subject of social research that we will write about next
The next entry on this topic will cover in more detail why higher education is partially responsible for US and other country failures to get traction for ethics in response to national responses to climate change despite the continuing need to praise some academics for their courage in helping civil society understand the validity of mainstream science. To say that higher education is part of the problem should not be interpreted to demean the academics who are making valient contributions but to explain why the US universities ever increasing focus on technical issues is lamentable.
There over 200 entries on these issues on ths website which can be found in the search bar.
Because global cooperation is needed to solve other emerging global threats that cant be solved at the national level, global cooperation will require getting traction for ethics in international negotiations on these additional threats. Thus problems discussed here are relevant to other emerging needs for nations to cooperate on global governance
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence,
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University Commonwealth Law School
Winner of the UNESCO prize for excellence in ethics in science
Climate change has certain features that other environmental problems don’t have that citizens and the media need to understand to effectively evaluate both any government’s response to this enormous menace and arguments made by opponents of government climate change policies.
Opponents of climate change policies have effectively framed the debates that the public climate controversy has focused on by claiming that nations should not adopt climate policies because of scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts or excessive costs to the national economy of proposed climate policies. While proponents of climate policies have usually responded to the scientific uncertainty arguments and the excessive cost claims of the opponents of climate policies for over 40 years by calling on scientists, economists, or other technical experts. These technical experts have usually made counterclaims about the strength of mainstream climate science and the economic costs of moving away from fossil energy. In so doing, the public debate has usually ignored several ethical/legal principles that the international community agreed in 1992 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) should guide national responses to climate change despite the fact, as we will see, that these principles undermine the validity of the scientific uncertainty and excessive economic cost arguments that have successfully prevented or delayed adequate national responses to climate change for many decades.
As we will also see climate change has certain scientific features that make government delays in meeting their responsibilities under law potentially catastrophic. Therefore before discussing the issues that citizens need to understand to effectively evaluate climate change policy controversies, this article will begin with a brief description of some climate change scientific features that citizens need to understand to grasp the importance of the seven issues that are the focus of this article.
The seven issues discussed in this article are:
1. Because of certain features of climate change, many policy-making issues raise ethical/fairness questions that are practically significant for global prospects of preventing catastrophic climate harms.
2. Issues that arise in four steps that the setting of a national GHG emissions reduction target Implicitly takes a position on.
3. Because all CO2e emissions are diminishing the carbon budget that must constrain world emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, the speed of reducing GHG emissions as well as the magnitude of emissions reductions are crucial for achieving any warming limit goal.
4. Although the consensus scientific position on climate change is extraordinarily strong, no nation may fail to comply with its obligations under the 1992 UNFCCC on the basis of scientific uncertainty because all nations expressly agreed under the 1992 treaty to be bound by the precautionary principle.
5. No developed nation may fail to comply with Its obligations to reduce Its GHG emissions to Its fair share of safe global emissions under the UNFCCC on the basis of cost to the nation.
6. Cost-benefit analysis is not an ethically acceptable tool for limiting a government’s climate change responsibilities.
7. Developed nations under the 1992 UNFCCC acknowledged a duty to assist developing nations with financing their adaptation and mitigation costs and have a moral/legal responsibility to help compensate developing nations for their climate change caused losses and damages.
- Nations have duties to adopt policies to prevent dangerous climate change and to take steps toward stabilization of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system (UN 1992: Art 2).
Although the 1992 UNFCCC did not define dangerous climate change, under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 197 nations agreed to adopt policies to keep global temperature rise in this century well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C (Paris Agreement, 2015).
Nations also agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC that:
States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UNFCCC, Preamble).
This principle is referred to as the “no harm” principle.
This paper now identifies seven issues that citizens and the media need to understand to critically evaluate both any nation’s response to climate change and the most frequent arguments made by opponents of government climate change policies.
- Some nations are more responsible than others for the rise of atmospheric concentrations of GHGs.
- The countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts are among the nations least responsible for the rise of atmospheric GHG concentrations.
- The potential harms to the most vulnerable are not mere inconveniences but include potential catastrophic harms to health, life, and ecological systems on which life depends.
- Those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts usually can’t petition their governments for protection. Their best hope is that the countries that are most responsible for climate change will comply with their duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions while complying with several other principles expressly agreed to in the UNFCCC which are discussed in this paper.
Because of this, climate change policy-making raises a host of ethical or fairness issues that arise in specific policy-making steps that have important practical significance for global prospects of preventing dangerous climate impacts. Yet these ethical issues have frequently been ignored in the technical scientific and economic debates which have largely dominated climate change controversies visible to the public.
2. Issues that arise in four steps that the setting a national GHG emissions reduction target Implicitly takes a position on.
Every national GHG emissions reduction target adopted by a nation under the UNFCCC commonly referred to as a Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC, implicitly takes a position on four issues that raise ethical or fairness questions that have profound implications for policy-making. Almost all nations thus far have failed to identify their justification for their positions on these four issues (Brown and Taylor, 2015). Yet under the goals of the enhanced transparency mechanism of the Paris Agreement, nations should explain their justification for their positions on these issues because a nation’s NDC implicitly takes a position on these issues when they develop an NDC. Because some developed nations including the United States successfully resisted making the Paris Agreement enforceable in 2015, requiring nations to explain their justifications for their NDCs under the transparency mechanism under the Paris Agreement is the only tool under the Paris Agreement to put pressure on governments to improve their compliance with the Paris Agreement goals. For a more detailed discussion of the four steps , see (Brown et. al, 2018).
The four issues arise in four steps that all NDC policy formation processes must implicitly take a position on:
(1) Identify a global warming limit goal to be achieved by the GHG emissions reduction target or NDC.
Because under the Paris Agreement nations pledged to take best efforts to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 C but no greater than 2.0 C, nations have some discretion to adopt NDCs that will achieve a global warming goal in the 1.5 C to 2.0 C. Yet because a nation’s position on any warming limit goal is implicitly a position on how much harm to others the nation deems acceptable, this decision raises questions of fairness and justice which are usually referred to under the term “equity,” a concept which nations expressly agreed would guide their GHG policies under the UNFCCC and a concept which this article will examine below. Because there remains some scientific uncertainty about what temperatures will cause the most feared climate impacts that may be caused if temperatures trigger numerous “tipping points” or positive feedbacks that will accelerate the warming, the warming limit goal that the NDC seeks to achieve also raises profound questions of fairness to those nations and people most vulnerable to climate change impacts particularly if warming triggers any of the tipping points.
(2) Identify a global carbon budget that must constrain the international community’s GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal.
IPCC and other scientific organizations have identified different carbon budgets with different probabilities, usually expressed in gigatons of CO2e, available to achieve any warming limit goal. Because carbon budgets are usually arranged in probabilities of achieving a warming limit goal and some countries are much more vulnerable than others to climate harms, the selection of a carbon budget from among others that have different probabilities of achieving warming limits goals raises issues of fairness to the nations who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. In this writer’s experience, governments very frequently rely on carbon budgets that were calculated at least several years before that have not been adjusted to reflect the shrinking of the budget that has occurred due to emissions since the date at which the budget was calculated. For a discussion of how to identify a carbon budget that reflects the considerations that ideally should relied upon in selecting a carbon budget see, Brown et al, 2018.
(3) Determine the national fair share of the global carbon budget based on equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities as agreed to in the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement.
Although what “equity” requires is an issue that ethicists have different opinions on, there is widespread agreement among ethicists that some claims nations have made about what equity requires of them in setting their NDC that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard, ethicists often claim one need not know what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. For instance, in response to some nations who argued that their high costs of reducing GHG emissions was relevant to what equity required of them, IPCC concluded that:
The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the well-being of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg.224).
A claim made by US President Trump for his justification for removing the US from the Paris Agreement was that the Paris deal was unfair to the United States is obviously false because the Paris Agreement allows nations to determine what equity requires of the nation in achieving the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.
To determine any nation’s fair share of any carbon budget is essentially a question of what “equity” requires of the nation in achieving any warming limit goal. Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity expressly requires of a nation to reduce its GHG emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its 5th Assessment report that despite some ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden-sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4.pg 317).
The IPCC went on to say that;
(T)hese equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality, and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4, pg 317).
Responsibility is understood to mean historical responsibility for the current problem not emissions levels per year.
(Columbia University, 2019)
This chart demonstrates that the US historical emissions are much greater than China’s despite China surpassing the US in total tons of yearly CO2 emissions several decades ago. Frequent claims have been made by opponents of climate change policies that because China is currently the largest emitter of GHG in respect to tons of emissions, it is unfair to require a nation such as the United States to make significant emissions reductions without acknowledging that this is not true in respect to historical emissions which are more relevant to determine which countries are more responsible for the current warming problem.
Another variable that IPCC concluded is a legitimate consideration for determining what equity requires of a nation in determining its NDC is per capita emissions. The following chart depicts that the US has among the highest per capita emissions among countries.
The other two factors that IPCC concluded are relevant to a nation’s determination of what equity requires of it in formulating its NDC are “economic capacity” and “rights of developing nations to sustainable development.” These variables support the arguments of poor vulnerable countries that developed countries such as the United States should adopt more aggressive emissions reductions than poor vulnerable nations.
The following chart demonstrates that unless high emitting nations including the EU and the USA base their emissions reduction targets on what equity requires of it to reduce their GHG emissions, there is no hope that the international community will achieve any warming limit goal. The upper line in the chart represents the emissions reduction pathway that must constrain the entire world to achieve a 2C warming limit goal. The reduction curves of the four largest national emitters represent reduction pathways that these countries’ NDC would achieve.
Thus unless high emitting nations base their emission reduction target or NDC on their equitable share of any carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, there will be nothing left of the remaining carbon budget for lower-emitting developing countries to allocate to themselves when they establish their NDC and they will thus have to achieve zero emissions quicker than the higher emitting developed nations. Therefore requiring nations to base their NDC on their equitable share of a remaining carbon budget is both required by principles of fairness and practically indispensable for the international community to achieve any warming limit goal.
These two different curves of different pathways to achieve zero emissions by 2050 demonstrate that different pathways to the same reduction target will consume more of the available remaining carbon budget to achieve any global warming limit goal.
Although citizens around the world have learned the importance of being able to visualize whether governments are flattening the COVID-19 infection curve to judge the effectiveness of policies to minimize the risks of the pandemic, such a curve of a government’s GHG emissions reductions is even more important to help citizens track and evaluate the effectiveness of a government’s climate policies because, among other reasons, any failure to reduce GHG emissions as planned in its emissions reduction pathway makes the global problem more difficult and expensive to solve as we will see below. The speed at which GHG reductions are made is extraordinarily relevant to evaluate a nation’s reduction policy because delay makes the carbon budget available for the world to use smaller and, as will see, makes the possibility of achieving any global warming goal more expensive and difficult to achieve.
The hourglass on the left represents the available carbon budget for any warming limit goal at any point in time. Yet because all GHG emissions are reducing the available budget, the top half the hourglass on the right is meant to visualize the relevant carbon budget sometime in the future. For climate change policy, doing nothing or delaying to reduce emissions makes the problem worse for the world. Thus the delays by the United States in adopting policies necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals since they were established in 2015 has already made it more difficult for the international community to achieve the Paris warming limit goals. In addition, US President Trump’s justification for US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement of “putting America first” is indefensible because the US agreed under the UNFCCC that it had a duty to adopt policies that will stabilize GHG atmospheric concentrations at safe levels and US GHG emissions are making the problem more difficult for the world to achieve any warming limit goal,
3. Because all CO2e emissions are diminishing the carbon budget that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, the speed of reducing GHG emissions as well as the magnitude of emissions reduction are crucial for achieving any warming limit goal.
Much of the public debate about climate change policies in the United States has focused on the quantify of GHG emissions needed by a date certain, such as 80% by 2050, without any acknowledgment that the speed of achieving the reduction target must be understood to evaluate the acceptability of how much of the remaining carbon budget the policies which will implement the reduction goal target will allocate to the nation.
In 2016, the United Nations “Bridge the Gap Report” found that to achieve the 1.5 C warming limit goal with a 50% probability, the world needed to reduce CO2e emissions to net-zero by 2045 (UNEP, 2016). To achieve the 2.0 warming limit goal with a 66% probability, UNEP also claimed in 2016 the world needed to reduce CO2e emissions to net-zero by 2070 (UNEP, 2016). Given these estimates were based on carbon budgets available for the entire world before 2016 and did not include adjustments for equity that are particularly practically important for developed countries to do to determine their fair share of the available remaining carbon budget, developed nations would need to reduce their emissions to net-zero even earlier than these dates.
In 2019, UNEP published another “Bridge the Gap Report” which quantified the profound policy implications of delaying global emissions reduction programs necessary to achieve the 1.5C warming limit goal. On achieving the 1.5C warming limit goal the report said:
Thus a mere six-year delay of waiting from 2019 until 2025 to implement policies needed to achieve the 1.5 C warming limit goal increases the needed necessary global reduction rate for the whole world from 7.6 % to 15.5%. Yet, in this writer’s experience, there has been little media coverage of the consequences of governments’ delay in reducing GHG emissions to levels required of them to meet the Paris agreement’s warming limit goals. Although the US media occasionally comments on President Trump’s intention to remove the US from the Paris Agreement, I have never heard anyone from the US media comment on the harm to the world caused by the Trump decision to move out the Paris Agreement.
4. No nation may fail to comply with its obligations under the 1992 UNFCCC on the basis of scientific uncertainty because all nations expressly agreed to be bound by the precautionary principle.
More specifically the treaty in Article 3 of 1992 UNFCCC said:
The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost (UNFCCC, 1992, Article 3.3).
From the standpoint of ethics, those who engage in risky behavior are not exonerated because they did not know for sure that their behavior would actually cause harm once there is a reasonable scientific basis for concluding that an activity is dangerous. In fact, many ethicists hold that those who are engaged in dangerous behavior should shoulder the burden of proof to demonstrate that their behavior is safe before being permitted to continue the dangerous behavior. Hans Jonas, a highly respected philosopher on ethical issues that arise in policy-making that must face scientific uncertainty, has said in responding to scientifically plausible dangerous human activities in policy-making, that prophesies of gloom should be given priority over prophecies of bliss (Jonas, 1984).
In this writer’s experience, many, if not most scientists and engineers, don’t know that who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof in regard to responses to activities that create scientifically credible concerns of dangerous impacts is an ethical issue, not a value-neutral scientific issue. This ignorance is compounded by the fact that most scientific disciplines usually follow epistemic norms or rules that determine when causal claims can be made which are designed to prevent a false positive, or a premature conclusion claiming the cause of an effect has been demonstrated. This phenomenon is referred to by scientists that scientific procedures are designed to prevent a “Type1 statistical error” Although many, if not most scientists, in this writer’s experience, are aware that the epistemic rules of their discipline have been established to prevent a false positive, they are infrequently aware that when human activity is already creating a scientifically plausible risk of harm, but because the complexity of the problem, such as the case in determining the cancer risk of mixtures of carcinogenic substances, prevents a government from determining the magnitude of the risk of the dangerous behavior before exposure to the risk can be prevented, ethics requires governments to follow a “precautionary science” approach to determine the nature of the harm. For a discussion of these issues see on this website “On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.”
A recent paper by the Breakthrough Institute claimed that IPCC has been underestimating the speed that some of the most worrisome climate tipping points could be triggered, including methane from permafrost, because the models on which IPCC relied could not integrate empirically-based permafrost risk melting rates because the melting was taking place from the bottom of the permafrost land mass up to 50 miles inland. (WLB, 2018) If this was the case, ethics would require that scientists develop a precautionary approach to estimating the speed of the methane leakage which would rely on reasonable speculation of the timing of the methane leakage from the permafrost rather than ignoring the risk.
Some issues in environmental policy-making have relied on a “precautionary science” including the development of cancer risk levels for very low doses of known carcinogenic substances because of practical limitations of determining the carcinogenicity of substances at very low dose levels.
In addition to the express inclusion of the “precautionary principle” in the 1992 treaty, as we have seen, nations agreed under the “no harm” principle that they have duties to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from harming others beyond their borders. This principle of customary international law has been interpreted by courts to assign responsibility to governments to protect others beyond their borders not only when a nation knew for sure that an activity within its jurisdiction would cause harm beyond its borders but legal responsibility is triggered when the nation could envision that certain harms to others could result from the activities within its jurisdiction (Voight, 2008)
As a matter of ethics, those engaged in scientifically plausible dangerous activities about which for practical reasons the uncertainties cant be resolved quickly enough for the government to take precautionary action should have the burden of proof to determine that the activity is safe. For this reason, a strong ethical argument can be made that opponents of climate change have had the duty to demonstrate following normal scientific epistemic norms in peer-reviewed journals that the world’s increasing GHG emissions and resultant atmospheric concentrations are safe.The scientific skeptic community have always had the option of publishing their claims in peer-reviewed journals but rarely have.
Scientific uncertainty argument has continued to dominate the debate about climate change policy adoption for almost 40 years despite the mountain of scientific evidence of human causation that began slowly in the early 19th Century and began significantly speeding up after measurements that began in 1958 by Charles Keeling on Mona Loa, Hawaii demonstrated rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
One day in September1997, while serving as Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US EPA Office of International Activities, this writer was tasked by the US State Department during negotiations of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to co-chair for the United States a negotiation on whether governments were willing to stipulate that the global warming, then already discernible, was human-caused rather than the result of natural forces. These natural climate drivers included, among others, several cyclical changes in the sun’s energy output that reaches Earth, due to changes in the sun’s orbit, wobble on its axis, and changes in radiation levels, ocean circulation and chemistry, movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, and CO2 releases as the result of volcanic activity.
A few OPEC countries led by Saudi Arabia at the start of the negotiation on this matter balked at agreeing to language that concluded that human activities were responsible for the growing climate change threats. Yet when I pointed out that their scientific representatives had agreed to the very same language under discussion in a meeting of IPCC climate scientists the year before, all countries finally agreed to stipulate that the balance of scientific evidence supported that the increasing global warming the world was experiencing was human-caused. Although scientists from around the world in IPCC meetings had agreed to human causation, this negotiation was the first time the world’s governments agreed to state that science supported human causation of change. Thus, every country in the world, including the world’s petroleum states which had consistently blocked global action on climate change, agreed more than two decades ago that the ominous climate changes the world has been experiencing have been primarily caused by rising levels of GHGs in the atmosphere which are attributable to human activities. Yet opponents of climate change policies including some fossil fuel countries and related industries continue to support witnesses in public fora considering proposed climate legislation who claim that human activities are not causing climate change.
The reason for the universal international agreement among nations that humans are responsible for the climate change the world is experiencing is that the evidence of human causation is extraordinarily compelling despite the fact that the Earth has experienced warming and cooling cycles during Earth’s history in responses to natural forces. The confidence of human causation is very high because scientists: (1) can predict how the Earth will warm up differently if a layer of GHGs in the atmosphere warms the Earth compared to how the planet warms if the natural forces that have caused warming in the Earth’s historical heating and cooling cycles, these differences are referred to as “human footprints”,(2) have compared the temperature forcing of human GHGs to forcing of the natural causes of climate variations in “attribution studies,” and have concluded that only the forcing from human sources can explain the rise in global temperatures, (2) have known precisely since the mid-1880s the amount of forcing a molecule of CO2 generates in watts per square meter, (3) have known that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil fuel combustion because of its chemical isotope, (4) determined that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is directly proportional to the timing and amount of fossil fuel combustion around the world, (5) tested these lines of evidence rigorously in computer model experiments since the 1960s, (6) these models have not only accurately predicted future warming, they have been run backward and accurately described past temperature regimes, .
The way the atmosphere heats up is one of ten lines of evidence referred to as fingerprints that support human causation of experienced warming. For instance, if a layer of GHGs is causing the observed warming, the lower atmosphere warms as the upper atmosphere cools. If variations in the sun’s energy reaching Earth are causing the warming, the upper and lower atmosphere warm at a similar rate. This has been tested and the conclusions support atmospheric GHG are causing the warming.
This chart compares the warming expected from human activities in red, to the warming expected by natural forcing in blue, to the actual observed warming in black. Thus this comparison is strong evidence for attributing recent warming to human forces.
The scientific confidence in the consensus view of climate change is also extraordinarily strong because, in 1988, the World Health Organization and the UN Environment Program Created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) whose mission is to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate science and socio-economic literature on climate change and make recommendations to the international community. Approximately every five years, starting in 1990, thousands of scientists, most of whom had been recommended by member governments for their scientific expertise, produce comprehensive three volume IPCC reports. The IPCC does not do research, it synthesizes the published scientific literature.
This chart depicts that IPCC’s conclusions about human causation of climate change increased in confidence in every report with the last report claiming that human cause of climate change was virtually certain, meaning at least a 95% probability,
IPCC has issued 5 Reports since 1990.The Reports are produced in three different working groups, WGI synthesizes the physical climate science literature, WGII synthesizes the science on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, and WGIII which focuses on mitigation. This writer was a contributing author on a new IPCC Chapter in Working Group III in the IPCC 5th assessment on ethics and sustainability.
Scientific uncertainty arguments have continued to generate political opposition to government action on climate change despite the overwhelming strength of the evidence of human causation, that every Academy of Science in the world, and over 100 scientific organizations with expertise in climate science have issued statements in support of the consensus view, and at least 97 % of all scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science support the consensus view, and as we have seen, every government in the world agreed that climate change is human caused. . ,
In “The Denial Countermovement” sociologists Riley Dunlap and Araon McCright describe how some fossil fuel companies, corporations that depend on fossil fuel, business organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations successfully prevented government action on climate change by funding the climate change disinformation campaign which they explain sought to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream science (Dunlap, R., & McCright, A., 2015. p. 300).
On October 21, 2010, the John Broder of the New York Times, http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html?sort=newest&offset=2, reported, that “the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” According to the New York Times article, the fossil fuel industry has ” created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.”
Without doubt, those telling others that there is no climate danger heading their way have a special moral responsibility to be extraordinarily careful about such claims. For instance, if someone tells a child laying on a railroad tracks that they can lie there all day because there is no train coming and has never rigorously checked to see if a train is actually coming would be obviously guilty of reprehensible behavior.
This website includes 17 entries including three videos on the climate change disinformation campaign which both explain many aspects of this campaign and importantly distinguish the tactics of this campaign from legitimate climate skepticism (See, “Start Here and Index” Tab above under “Disinformation Campaign”). Just as screaming fire in a crowded theater when no fire exists is not construed to be a justifiable exercise of free speech because the claim of fire will likely lead to recklessly damaging behavior, climate change science disinformation cannot be justified on free speech grounds and must be understood as the morally indefensible behavior of many fossil fuel companies, some corporations, industry organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations that have funded the climate change disinformation campaign because inaction will cause atmospheric CO2 concentrations to rise and remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, likely cause great harm, and perhaps make it impossible to prevent catastrophic damages to human health and ecological systems on which life depends.
On this website, we have consistently acknowledged that skepticism is the oxygen of the scientific method and should be encouraged even on climate change issues. On the other hand, the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are deeply morally reprehensible strategies designed to undermine mainstream climate change science. For a summary of why the tactics are immoral see on this website:Insights from a New Book on Sociology and Climate Change: The Heinous Denial Countermovement
The immoral tactics have included:
(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth on some climate change science claims;
(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of settled climate change science;
(c) using think tanks to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty which have not been submitted to peer-review;
(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science;
(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science;
(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies; and
(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends.
We have frequently explained on this website that although skepticism in science a good thing, ethical considerations require that those making claims that conflict with a large body of peer-reviewed science should play by the rules of science by subjecting their claims to peer review. This conclusion is particularly strong when the scientific claim is about activities which are potentially very harmful.
5. No nation may fail to comply with Its obligations under the UNFCCC due to high economic cost to the national economy.
As we have seen, all nations in 1992 when they agreed to be bound by the ” no harm” principle acknowledged that they had a duty to adopt climate change policies that would keep climate change from harming others outside their jurisdiction. A nation’s duty to adopt policies that will prevent climate change caused harms is not diminished under the “no harm: rule because these policies will be costly to the nation or a national industry.
In addition, because climate change is now violating the most basic human rights including the rights to life and health, and national responsibilities to protect human rights are not excused because of high costs to a government responsible for preventing human rights violations, nations may not refuse to adopt climate policies necessary to prevent predicted climate impacts that violate basic human rights on the basis of cost to the nation.
A 2019 Special Report of the UN General Assembly found that climate change was already causing 150,000 premature deaths, a number which is sure to increase as temperature rises (UN General Assembly, 2019).
Climate change is also expected to increase infectious diseases through greater transmissions by bugs including mosquitoes and ticks whose numbers and ranges are expected to increase in a warming world. Climate change is also expected to cause numerous other health problems and deaths to the world’s population in many additional ways. It is already causing massive health problems including loss of life from intense storms, droughts, floods, intense heat, and rising seas and the current numbers of these health problems will surely rise in a warming world. Predicted warming is also already creating international chaos and conflict from the over million refugees that have had to flee their homes due to the loss of water supplies needed for drinking and agriculture.
As horrific as these climate impacts, even modest amounts of additional warming threatens to surpass levels that will trigger various ” tipping points” that could very dangerously speed up the warming. A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate system – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system (WLB, 2018). Progress toward triggering a tipping point is often driven by positive feedbacks, in which a change in one component of the climate system leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic global warming example is the ice-albedo feedback which happens when melting ice sheets cause more heat energy to warm the Earth rather than the ice reflecting the heat energy from the sun out into space.
Although the upper warming limit goal of 2 C in the Paris Agreement was based on an informal scientific consensus in 2015 that the tipping point feedbacks would not likely be triggered until warming exceeded 2 C, recently there has been some evidence that several tipping points of concern are showing signs of destabilization including methane permafrost (Anthony et al, 2018), arctic summer ice sheets are predicted to disappear in the coming decade, and the Greenland ice sheet has already past a point of no return (Morgan McFall-Johnson, 2020). These tipping points could trigger a domino effect tipping other feedbacks creating an existential crisis for much of life on Earth (Leahy, S. 2019).
Cost is also not an acceptable justification for a nation’s refusal to adopt climate policies necessary to prevent horrific climate impacts because nations agreed to the ” polluter pays” principle under the Rio Declaration in 1992 which says:
National authorities should endeavor to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment. (Rio Declaration, 1992, Principle 16)
6. Cost-benefit analysis is not an ethically acceptable analytical tool for limiting a government’s climate change responsibilities.
Many opponents of proposed climate change policies have argued that a nation’s response to climate change must satisfy cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Cost-benefit analysis can be a useful tool to determine how to maximize human preferences, but ethics ask a different question. Ethics asks us to consider which preferences are acceptable to have.
CBA can be a useful tool to determine economic efficiency but cannot determine what justice requires of our choices. As a result, for example, few people would propose the government use CBAs to determine whether the government should decriminalize child prostitution or when rape is acceptable.
CBA also requires that government policy-making translate all values into commodity value. Using CBA to determine the acceptability of climate change policies requires the policy process to compare the costs of implementing policies to reduce GHG emissions to the economic value of harms avoided by the implementation of the policies, including the economic value of people who might be killed by climate impacts, the economic value of health free of diseases that will be avoided by climate change policies, the economic value of treasured ecological systems, plants and animals and many other things that ethical theory holds should not be valued only for their commodity value. Although, for instance, some plants and animals are sacred in some cultures, such as cows in India and Elephants in Thailand, using a willingness to pay to determine the value of climate harms avoided requires transforming sacred value into commodity value. Given that GHG emissions harm people and governments around the world, using CBA to determine the acceptability of costs to a government of reducing GHG emissions requires that the economic value of avoiding the harms everywhere that will be avoided by the implementation of the climate policies be quantified, a concept often referred to as the “social cost of carbon.”. This is usually calculated by governments without the acceptance of those whose interests will be harmed by determining the “willingness to pay” for protecting things that will be harmed that have no market value and by determining the present value of things that will be harmed in the future by discounting the values of things harmed in the future by judging what discount rate should apply, a decision for which there is no value-neutral way of proceeding.
Since as we have seen, CO2 will last in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, and because climate change is capable of killing much of life on Earth particularly if a tipping point causes a cascade of tipping points, CBA used in climate change policy-making needs to face incredibly difficult challenges in determining what future harms will be created by GHG emissions and how to value these harms.
A question posed by a well-known economist to the audience at a conference I recently attended I thought demonstrated the absurdity of using commodity value to quantify the value of all potential climate harms. The economist asked the audience if they had any ideas about how to put a value on all human life if climate change killed all human life on Earth.
Support of CBA has been sometimes justified by some economists on the basis of utilitarian ethical theory which claims that society should develop policies that maximize human preferences although most philosophers hold that maximizing utility is not an ethically supportable justification for violating human rights.
There are numerous other ethical problems with the use of CBA to determine the acceptability of climate policies. See, Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Program.
Many subnational governments, including Pennsylvania for example, have used CBA to determine whether proposed climate policies are justified by comparing the costs of the policies to the economy of the government implementing the policy, such as Pennsylvania, to the economic value of the harms avoided by the policy only in the sub-national government. Yet this approach is ethically problematic because such comparison ignores the harms to the rest of the world that will be caused by the GHG emissions from the sub-national government.
7. Developed nations under the 1992 UNFCCC acknowledged a duty to assist developing nations with financing adaptation and mitigation and have a moral and perhaps legal responsibility to help compensate developing nations for their climate losses and damages.
The arguments made by opponents of climate change policies based on the cost to a government of adopting climate policies ignore the fact that under the UNFCCC, developed country Parties agreed to provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties in implementing the objectives of the Convention through, that is their mitigation costs (UNFCCC, Art. 4, 3). The developed countries also agreed under the UNFCCC that they have the responsibility to assist the developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in meeting their costs of needed adaptation to adverse effects (UNFCCC, Art 4, 4). The Paris Agreement also provides that the developed countries shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention (Paris Agreement, Art. 9.1). Yet the arguments made by opponents of climate change based on excessive costs to a nation of needed climate policies have not considered the costs that developed countries may be responsible for if they must contribute to financing the mitigation and adaptation costs of climate change to poor developing countries.
The “no harm” principle recognized in the UNFCCC also makes nations responsible for climate losses and damages to other nations caused by activities within their jurisdiction. Yet the fact that all nations have contributed to rising atmospheric CO2 levels and there is an absence of legal rules in the international legal system that prescribe how the value of damages should be allocated among all nations responsible for the climate change harms makes it unlikely that a court will find any country financially legally liable for a specific amount of loses or damages in any country (Voight, 2008) Nevertheless because nations have agreed in the UNFCCC that they have a duty to prevent activities in their jurisdiction from harming countries and people beyond their borders, many of the most vulnerable countries have been pushing for the creation of a financial mechanism under the UNFCCC that would compensate vulnerable countries for climate losses and damages that adaptation cant remediate.
.At the 2012 Doha Conference of the Parties under the UNFCCC, the international community agreed to establish a formal mechanism for compensation for losses and damages which is known as the “Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damages (WMLD)” Article 8 of the 2015 Paris Agreement made the WMLD an official negotiating body of the UNFCCC. Since the beginning of negotiations of the WMLD, negotiations have gotten bogged down over how to finance compensation for losses and damages in developing countries as developed nations have stressed that any agreement on compensation should not be understood as establishing legal liability for the developed nations to compensate for losses and damages. Although developed nations will likely prevail in avoiding any language that could be construed as establishing their clear legal liability for losses and damages in developing nations, in this writers opinion, developed nations will eventually likely agree to create some mechanism, such as an insurance fund, to compensate vulnerable developing countries for some kinds of losses and damages in developing countries which developed countries will be expected to provide financing for. .
Financial support of developing nation’s mitigation obligations under the UNFCCC is not only legally required under the UNFCCC but also practically important because large-scale investments by developing countries are required to significantly reduce their emissions and very dangerous climate change will not likely be avoided unless developing nations reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Financial support for developing nations by developed nations is also both legally and ethically required to meet the adaptation needs of developing countries.
Climate impacts, such as sea-level rise and more frequent droughts and floods, are already causing devastating effects to communities and individuals in developing countries. These impacts to developing nations are already affecting developed nations because, for instance, between 2008 and 2011, approximately 87 million people were displaced due to extreme weather events which have caused mass migration of refugees which are already destabilizing many developed nations, particularly in Europe (Brookings, 2019). Since 2014 serious drought in and severe weather in Central America has caused large migrations of refugees which have put pressure on the US southern border, (Wernick, 2018). Because climate change caused refugees are already destabilizing developed countries who have been fleeing vulnerable areas of poor developing nations that have become inhabitable due to climate change-induced droughts, floods, loss of drinking water, and rising seas, developed nations have a strong practical incentive to assist developing nations with adaptation. If developed countries do not help finance adaptation needs in developing countries, they will experience growing conflict and stress caused by vulnerable people’s problems including the 150 million refugees that the World Bank predicts will be created by a 2C temperature rise by the end of this Century, a temperature rise that now appears to be almost inevitable (World Bank, 2018).
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This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19. This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.
Climate change has certain features that more than any other environmental problem scream for attention that it should be understood and responded to as an ethical problem. These features include that it is a problem that: (1) has mostly been caused by developed nations; (2) most threatens poor vulnerable people and nations which have done comparatively little to cause the problem; (3) creates harms to the most vulnerable that include potential catastrophic losses of life and damages to ecological systems on which life depends; (4) those people who are most vulnerable to it cannot depend on petitioning their governments for protection, their best hope is that those most responsible for raising atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations will respond to their ethical and moral duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions; and, (5) because GHGs from any country mix well in the atmosphere, they thereby are contributing to rising atmospheric concentrations which are responsible for harming people and ecological systems far beyond their boarders.
Yet nations, and even most environmental NGOs have largely ignored evaluating nations’ responses to climate change through an ethical lens but have usually simply responded to the arguments of opponents of climate change which largely have been claims that proposed policies on climate change are unsupportable because: (1) the policies would create unacceptable costs to the national economy or a specific national industry; or, (2) the policies were not justifiable because of scientific uncertainty about alleged adverse climate change impacts. And so, when opponents of climate change argued in opposition to proposed climate change policies on the grounds of unacceptable costs that the policy would create, proponents often responded by simply asserting responses to climate change would create jobs rather than helping citizens understand that behaviors that cause violations of human rights, kills others or destroys ecological systems on which life depends cant be justified on the grounds that the cessation of these destructive behaviors would impose costs on those engaged in the destructive behavior. In response to the scientific uncertainty arguments made by opponents of proposed climate change policies, proponents of climate policies usually simply make claims such as 97% of climate sciencentists support the consensus view while ignoring the fact that that every country in the world agreed in the 1992 climate threaty that scientific uncertainty should not be used as a excuse for taking protective action.
By not helping citizens see the morally indefensible problems with orguments made by opponents of climate change policies, proponents of climate change policies are failing to motivate those who are not motivated by the scientific and economic technical discoures which have dominated climate change policy controversies and which are not likely to mobilize public concern, strong emotion, or activism that fuel strong public social movements. (Wetts, 2019)
A recent paper by sociologist Rachel Wetts of Brown University found that of 1768 press releases about climate change issues only 3.4% attempted to motivate climate responses on the basis of moral obligations. (Wetts, 2019)
On December 12th at the Madrid COP 25 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNESCO, in cooperation with the Center for Environmental Ethics and Law, sponsored a panel on the urgency of getting nations to comply with their ethical obligations to respond to climate change. This panel On the Urgency of and Getting Traction for Ethical Principles to Guide National Responses to Climate Change was part of a UNESCO event entitled Changing Minds, Not the Climate, Science, Knowledge Systems, and Ethics for Enhanced Ambition and Resilience.
The ethics panel discussed numerous specific policy decisions on climate issues that raised important ethical issues, yet tragically the ethical problems with the arguments made by opponents of climate policies were rarely identified. Despite the fact that arguments made in opposition to the proposed climate policy issues would not survive minimum ethical scrutiny if they were subjected to ethical critique, the ethical problems with the arguments made against climate policies are rarely identified. Furthermore, unless citizens spotted the ethical problems with their nation’s response to climate change they could not effectively critique their nation’s response to climate change. For instance, every national GHG reduction target is implicitly a position of the national government on how much harm the government deems it is acceptable to impose on vulnerable people and nations because every ton of GHG emissions makes the harms worse, and every target is also implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of a carbon budget that the entire world must live within to prevent a warming limit goal from being exceeded. Yet these ethical problems with national climate change responses have been infrequently part of national climate debates. The speakers on the Madrid COP 25 panel on the urgency of getting traction for ethics in climate change policy formation were
- Donald A. Brown, Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University Commonwealth Law School (USA) who explained the urgency of getting traction for ethical principles to guide government responses to climate change both to prevent climate catastophe and to critically evaluate the arguments of climate change policy opponents;
- Kathryn Gwiazdon, J.D., Esq., Executive Director, Center for Environmental Ethics, and Law, Chicago (USA) who gave numerous examples of specific climate change policy controversies that raise obvious but often unacknowledged ethical issues;
- Sébastien Duyck, Research Fellow, Institute of European and International Economic Law, University of Bern who explained efforts to get traction for human rights obligations in climate change policy formation; and,
- Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Professor of Climatology and Environmental Sciences, “Université Catholique de Louvain” (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium), former IPCC Vice-Chair (2008-2015), member of the Royal Academy of Belgium who epained his experiences with getting the conclusions of IPCC which should trigger moral obligations accepted.
In December of 2017, UNESCO adopted the Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change, which sets out a number of important ethical principles to guide political decision-making and formulation of cross-cutting public policies around the world. Among the proclaimed six ethical principles, the Declaration emphasizes the links between justice, sustainability and solidarity that could support countries to scale their national commitments and coordinate action across cultures. The Madrid panel discussed why finding ways for getting nations to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate change, and explored strategies for getting traction for ethical principles in guiding national responses to climate change. Furthermore, the panel discussed that although there are other important and binding sources of international law containing many well settled ethical principles which are relevant to national responses to climate change such as the “no harm,” “precautionary,” and “polluter pays” principles, duties of nations to protect human rights, and adopt emissions reduction targets at levels to prevent dangerous climate change on the basis of “equity,” and common but differentiated responsibilities, nations are ignoring these principles in formulating national policies.
The UNESCO Madrid COP 25 panel reviewed evidence that most nations are still ignoring these ethical principles in national climate change policy formation. The UNESCO panel concluded by inviting individuals to submit ideas about how to get traction for ethics in national responses to climate change.
Until UNESCO sets up a website on these issues, individuals with ideas about how to get traction for ethical guidance for climate policy formation should submit comments to email@example.com for the time being.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence,
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University Commonwealth Law School
Wetts, Rachel, 2019. “Models and Morals: Elite-Oriented and Value-Neutral Discourse Dominates American Organizations’ Framings of Climate Change.” Social Forces. Published online: https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soz027
On November 14, UNESCO in Paris honored me with the Avicenna Prize for my work on climate change ethics. The following is the UNESCO press release explaining this award.
The Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, today awarded the 2019 edition of the UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science to Professor Donald A. Brown, Scholar in Residence for Sustainability Ethics and Law at Widener University Commonwealth Law School (USA). This year’s Avicenna Prize, its 5th edition, was dedicated to the ethics of the environment.
Professor Brown is a world-renowned expert in environmental science and more specifically in the international climate change ethics movement. His book Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm (2013) provides an influential analysis of why ethical principles have been neglected and how to include them in the climate change conversation.
He has sought to ensure that applied ethics is central to climate change policy development both nationally and internationally. His compelling argument that limiting carbon emissions and mitigating climate change is the ethical imperative of our time resonates widely in the current discourse on climate change.
An independent international jury, composed of three members of UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), unanimously recommended the laureate for his sound scientific contribution to the ethics of science and technology, particularly the ethics of climate change and environmental sustainability, his unique qualities as a scientist, environmental lawyer, climate change educator, activist and opinion-leader, and his lifetime commitment to, and outstanding impact on the ethics of climate change science and policy-making.
Held at UNESCO, the Award Ceremony was attended by Ambassador Ahmad Jalali, Permanent Delegate of the Islamic Republic of Iran to UNESCO whose country initiated the establishment of the Prize in 2003.
The UNESCO Avicenna Prize is named after the renowned 11th century physician and philosopher of Persian origin known in Europe as Avicenna (980-1038). A healer and humanist, Avicenna developed an exemplary holistic approach that captures the essence of ethics in science and has thus come to serve as a source of inspiration for the promotion of this concern, which is of central importance to UNESCO. It rewards the activities of individuals or groups in the field of ethics in science with the gold Avicenna Medal, a certificate, and the sum of $50,000 as well as a one-week academic visit to the donor country.
The ethical issues raised by arguments raised against climate change policies often raise obvious ethical problems such as the claim that a country such as the United States need not adopt policies if they will impose unacceptable costs on the nation or an industry discussed in this video. There are, however, many other examples of strong ethical problems with arguments made against proposed climate change policies that are not discussed in this video that are discussed on this website, ethicsandclimate.org. See the “index and start here” tab above on this website for other topics.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University Commonwealth Law School
- Whether compliance with their ethical obligations by those responsible for climate change is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate impacts, and
- What can be done to assure that those responsible for climate change respond in accordance with their ethical duties and obligations?
In December of 2017, UNESCO adopted a set of Ethical Principles for ClimateChange. (UNESCO, 2017, Ethical Principles for Climate Change)
These principles included :
- Prevention of harm
- Precautionary approach
- Sustainable development
- Scientific knowledge and integrity in decision-making
These principles are in addition to numerous other ethical principles relevant to climate change, many of which have been expressly agreed to by governments under international law including, for instance, the duties of nations under the Paris Agreement to act to limit warming to “well below 2 degrees C” and “pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C” and that such goals should be achieved by governments in accordance with “equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” (Paris Agreement, 2015, Article 2)
I and two others, Professor Rainier Ibana of the University of Manila and Professor John Hattingh of the University of Stellenbosh in South Africa, were asked to examine the importance of implementation of ethical principles as guidance to climate change policy formation around the world.
In my Bangkok presentation I discussed three issues:
- Why getting those responsible for climate change to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate change harms?
- Why ethical principles have largely failed thus far to get traction in the policy responses of governments, organizations, and individuals to climate change?
- What should organizations such as UNESCO, other concerned organizations, and citizens do to assure that those responsible for climate change respond as required by their ethical obligations?
I. Why getting those responsible for climate change to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid climate catastrophe.
Getting traction for the ethical obligations of governments, organizations, and individuals to guide their responses to climate change is indispensable to prevent climate catastrophe because:
- The world is rapidly running out of time to prevent catastrophic climate change and therefore it is now urgent for all entities to act to reduce the threat of climate change in accordance with their ethical obligations.
- The failure of the international community to prevent dangerous climate change is directly attributable to the failure of nations to comply not only with the ethical principles enumerated by UNESCO but, as we shall see, numerous other settled ethical principles under international law including, but not limited to, normative principles agreed to in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992), and the Paris Agreement. (UN Paris Agreement, 2015).
- In addition, as we shall see, the most common arguments made by opponents of proposed climate change policies that have been responsible for the tragic failure of the international community to adequately respond to climate change for well over 30 years do not survive ethical scrutiny.
- Although all nations have acknowledged their obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement to adopt policies and measures that would limit the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees C while pursuing efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees C by reducing their emissions to levels required of them by “equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances,” research on what 23 countries actually relied upon in setting their GHG reduction targets revealed that all 23 nations ignored these obligations and set their targets on national economic interest. (Brown, D.& Taylor, P., 2014)
- Furthermore, NGOs in these countries did not appear to know how to effectively evaluate their government’s inadequate GHG reduction targets on the basis of their noncompliance with their ethical obligations. (Brown, D.& Taylor, P., 2014) This was likely the case because for several decades governments set their GHG reduction targets by completing a GHG inventory and then determining what reduction strategies were politically possible and then deriving the reduction target on the basis of the amount of reductions that the politically acceptable strategies would achieve. Thus, the GHG emissions reduction target setting process pursued by governments for the last 30 years has often ignored the need to structure GHG reduction targets at levels consistent with the government’s ethical obligations. They thus ignored, for instance, the principle expressly agreed to by nations who agreed to the 1992 UNFCCC that nations have a duty under the “no harm” principle, a normative principle stated in the Preamble of the UNFCCC, to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from harming others outside their national boundaries. (for a discussion of the normative effect of the “no harm” principle, see Voigt, C (2008), State Responsibility for Climate Change Damages).
- However, now that the international community is rapidly running out of time to prevent extraordinarily dangerous climate change, the failure of nations to reduce GHG emissions in compliance with their ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change is now obviously indefensible given the horrific harms to life on earth that are predicted if the international community is unable to limit warming to the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals. These harms include, for instance, deaths and social disruption to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people from unbearable heat stress, increases in tropical diseases, starvation in parts of the world that are increasingly unable to feed populations due to droughts, loss of water supply needed for drinking and agriculture, large increases in property damages from floods and sea-level rise, increasing social conflict triggered by millions of new refugees fleeing places which are no longer habitable, loss of forests from fires and bug infestation, losses of numerous plant and animal species and important ecosystems such as coral reefs, and many other climate-caused disasters that are now foreseeable in the decades ahead.
- Although reasonable people may disagree on what “equity” specifically requires of nations to reduce their GHG emissions, national economic self-interest as a justification for a nation’s inadequate GHG reduction target does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its 5th Assessment Report that despite some ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden-sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors……………. These principles are equality, historical responsibility, capacity, and right to sustainable development. (IPCC, AR5, WGIII, Chap 4, 2014,p. 317-318).
Thus citizens around the world need not agree on precisely what equity requires of nations to comply with their duty to adopt GHG emissions reduction targets to conclude that nations which base their targets on economic self-interest are not complying their ethical and legal duties to set their reduction targets on the basis of equity to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals. That is, it is not necessary to agree on what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. In addition, the economic reasoning that research has revealed has been the actual basis for many national responses to climate change cannot adequately deal with justice questions, as IPCC has expressly stated:
What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take into account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, AR5, 2014, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 224)
- Climate change policymaking requires governments to make decisions on many issues that raise justice issues. They include:
- How much warming will be allowed by the nation’s emissions reduction target, a matter which is implicit when a nation makes a GHG emissions reduction commitment.
- Any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, matters which are referred to by the IPCC usually as burden-sharing or effort-sharing considerations.
- Any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those vulnerable nations and people who are most harmed by climate change.
- Responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations.
- How to evaluate the effects on and responsibilities to others of potentially harmful climate change technologies that are adopted in response to the threat of climate change, including, for instance, geo-engineering.
- Who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, an issue usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice.
- The policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change.
- The responsibility not only of nations but also of subnational governments, organizations, and individuals for climate change.
- How to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation.
- Who is responsible for climate refugees and what these responsibilities are.
The above chart demonstrates that national responses to climate change are implicitly positions on several crucial ethical questions including:
A. What amount of harm the nation believes is acceptable for it to inflict on the rest of the world.
B. The nation’s fair share of a rapidly shrinking carbon budget that the entire world must be constrained by to limit warming to any warming limit goal where the carbon budget is the total amount of emissions that the entire world may emit before the current atmospheric concentration of CO2e, represented by the middle blue line in the bathtub in the above chart, reaches the atmospheric concentration of CO2e that will cause temperatures to exceed a warming limit goal, represented by the upper blue line in the bathtub in the above chart.
C. The most common arguments made against proposed climate change policies do not survive minimum ethical scrutiny including: (a) cost to an entity emitting GHG above its fair share of safe global emissions, or (b) scientific uncertainty about human causation of climate change impacts.
Many nations justify their responses to climate change on the basis of economic reasoning. Economic rationality usually focuses on how to maximize human preferences. Ethics asks a different question of economic activity, namely what preferences humans should have given their ethical obligations.
- Scientific reasoning usually tests hypotheses to determine what “is” or what action causes what change. Moral philosophers believe that determining what “is,” which is the proper domain of science, cannot determine what “ought” to be, which is the domain of ethics.
- Nations agreed when they adopted the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that they would not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for complying with their obligations to prevent dangerous climate change (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.3) under the above principle. Yet, one of the two most common arguments made in opposition to proposed climate policies has been scientific uncertainty, a position which is not only ethically problematic but legally indefensible since the adoption of the 1992 UNFCCC treaty.
- Another common justification for some nations’ non-compliance with their ethical obligations to reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions has been that policies necessary to do this would impose unacceptable costs on a national economy or to a domestic industry. Yet such justification also fails to withstand minimum ethical scrutiny for several reasons including the fact that nations are bound by the “no harm” principle, a provision of customary international law that was expressly agreed to by all nations when they agreed to the 1992 UNFCCC which acknowledges the applicability of this rule in the treaty’s preamble. This principle holds that nations are duty-bound to prevent harm to those outside their jurisdiction once they are on notice that activities in their nation threaten people in other countries. (Voigt, 2008)
- Basing GHG emission reduction targets on national economic interest also violates the “Polluter Pays Principle” a soft law norm of international environmental law stated in principle 16 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development of 1992. (UN Rio Declaration, 1992)
- There are numerous other ethical problems with cost arguments made in opposition to policies proposed by governments to reduce the threat of climate change. These problems include cost arguments against climate change policies often ignore:
- The enormous harms to others and ecological systems that will be created if policies necessary to reduce the threat of climate change are not adopted;
- The views and interests of those who will be harmed by non-action on climate change;
- The enormous costs to others caused by existing GHG atmospheric concentration levels from killer heat waves, floods, droughts, increases in tropical diseases, destruction of valuable ecosystems including coral reefs, forest fires, and the inevitability that these adverse impacts will get much worse unless existing GHG emission levels are reduced to net zero in a few decades;
- That high-emitting developed nations have a legal duty under the UNFCCC to reduce their GHG emissions faster than lower-emitting nations because they agreed to protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. The provision of the UNFCCC stating this duty continues: “Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof. (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.1) Thus, although developed countries expressly agreed to reduce their GHG emissions faster than developing countries when they agreed to the UNFCCC and to help developing countries with mitigation and adaptation, most developed countries are not doing this.
- The above chart demonstrates that If developed countries don’t reduce their GHG emissions at a rate faster than developing countries, developing countries will have to approach zero GHG emissions much faster than developed countries if the world is going to be constrained by carbon budget necessary to limit warming to the 1.5°C to 2°C agreed to by the international community in the Paris agreement. This, of course, is the opposite of what equity requires of developing countries that have done little to cause the current crisis. Thus, developed countries have a legal duty to reduce GHG emissions at a faster rate than developing countries which duty has a profound practical significance, namely if they don’t there is no hope that the global community will live within the relevant carbon budget for any warming limit goal.
II. Why have ethical principles largely failed to get traction in climate change policy formation?
There are at least four reasons why ethical considerations have not been influential in climate change policy formation. They include:
- The power of a climate change disinformation campaign to undermine the public’s confidence in the mainstream climate change science consensus view on the dangers of human-induced warming
The above illustration depicts, in a very abbreviated and sketchy form, that as the scientific evidence of the threat from human-induced climate change became stronger over a 40-year period (represented by the colored blocks on the left, each of which identifies an important scientific study that concluded with increasing levels of confidence that climate change was a serious threat to people and ecological systems) above the rising jagged red line depicting rising atmospheric CO2 levels) and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, highlights of this campaign are identified to the right of the chart, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 404 ppm.
A recent book, Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Bruelle (Dunlap, R.,& Bruelle, 2015), describes how economically powerful interests originally working in the United States while influencing opponents of climate change policies in other nations successfully prevented government action on climate change. A chapter in this book by Dunlap and McCright, The Denial Countermovement (Dunlap. R., & McCright, 2015, Chap 10) documents a thirty-year climate science disinformation campaign, financed mostly by fossil fuel companies, their industrial organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations, which successfully worked to undermine citizens faith in the scientific consensus view on climate change.
The Dunlap/Bruelle book refers to the climate change disinformation campaign as a “countermovement.” A countermovement is a sociological term for a social movement that arises in response to another social movement that threatens the interests of those who form the countermovement. The climate change countermovement arose when those corporations and organizations who were threatened by calls for governments to take action to reduce the threat of climate change organized themselves to protect their economic interests threatened by potential regulation of fossil fuels.
This book also explains how the denial countermovement evolved, changed, and expanded over the last quarter-century, changes that included new key actors, supporters, and tactics while the basic strategy of manufacturing scientific uncertainty expanded into creating public controversy about the reliability of climate science, an effort which has lasted until the present. (Dunlap, R. & McCright, A., 2015, p.309)
The book also identifies the major participants in the denial countermovement which included portions of the fossil fuel industry and corporate America, conservative think tanks, a relatively small number of contrarian scientists, front groups and Astroturf organizations, conservative politicians and media, and the denial blogosphere. (Ibid)
The book also describes how the denial countermovement which began in the United States was diffused internationally to countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and more recently into several European countries including France, Sweden, and the Netherlands. (Dunlap R. & McCriight, A., 2015, p.316)
The book explains how the climate denial countermovement worked to undermine public faith in the “consensus” view on climate science that has been articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC), which was created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program with a mission of synthesizing for governments the peer-reviewed scientific, technical, and socio-economic literature on climate change. The IPCC has issued comprehensive reports on the climate change science of in 1990, 1996, 2001, 2007, and 2013 which concluded with increasing levels of scientific certainty that the planet is warming, that this warming is largely human-caused, and that under business-as-usual climate change may cause potentially catastrophic impacts for humans and the natural resources on which life depends. Furthermore, these harms are likely to be most harshly experienced by many of the Earth’s poorest people who have not consented to be put further at risk by rising GHG atmospheric concentration
Yet, inadequate responses from high-emitting nations have continued despite the fact that many nations most vulnerable to climate change have been pleading with those most responsible for causing climate change to take action for well over twenty-five years.
Every Academy of Science in the world has issued a report or statement supporting the consensus view including four reports by the US Academy of Science.
Well over 200 scientific organizations with expertise in climate science have also issued reports or statements in support of the conclusion humans are causing climate change (California, List of Scientific Organizations on Climate).
At least 97 % of all scientists who actually do research in climate science support the consensus view that humans are responsible for a dangerous warming of the planet. (NASA.,Scientfic Consensus)
The Dunlap/Bruelle book claims that organizations that worked to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty expanded over several decades to include think tanks, front groups, AstroTurf groups (that is groups pretending to be bottom-up citizen organizations), PR firm led campaigns financed by fossil fuel interests, and free-market fundamentalists organizations. Much of the funding support for all of these efforts came from some fossil fuel interests. (See Brown, An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?)
This website has argued that the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign, despite the undeniable value of scientific skepticism if skeptics abide by the rules of science, are deeply morally reprehensible strategies designed to undermine mainstream climate change science. The tactics have included:
(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science by making such obvious false claims that there is no evidence of human causation when there are numerous independent lines of evidence including fingerprint and attribution studies, isotope analyses of atmospheric carbon which have concluded that the carbon accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil carbon, and many other lines of evidence which have led every country in the world to agree that the warming the Earth is experiencing is human caused
(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of well-settled climate change science,
(c) using think tanks to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty which claims were not been submitted to peer-review,
(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science,
(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science that are based on the dubious assumption that only fully proven claims are “good” science,
(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies, and
(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends. (Brown, supra)
Although skepticism in science is a good thing if skeptics play by the rules of science including publishing skeptical claims in peer-reviewed literature, in the United States and in a growing number of countries around the world these morally reprehensible tactics to undermine public faith in the mainstream scientific consensus view have been successful in undermining political support for proposed climate change policies that are required by governments’ ethical duties. (See Ethicsandclimate.org which contains 17 articles on the climate disinformation campaign which can be found under the index tab at the top of the page under “disinformation”)
Largely missing from the public debate about climate change has been serious analyses of which organizations and interests have been most responsible for the arguments made by the opponents of climate change, who funded these organizations, what tactics have they used, and what should be learned from the success of the climate disinformation campaign.
2. The dominance of “value-neutral” policy languages to frame policy issues.
Proponents of climate change policies have almost always responded to the arguments of opponents of climate change policies justified on the basis of scientific uncertainty or excessive costs by disputing the factual claims about scientific uncertainty or cost. And so, proponents of climate change policies have inadvertently allowed opponents of climate change policies to frame the public climate change debate so as to limit the public controversy to disputes about scientific and economic “facts.” Thus, largely missing from this three-decade debate has been analyses of why the arguments of climate change policy opponents are not only factually flawed but often deeply ethically and morally bankrupt. For instance, a claim made by opponent of a climate policy that the policy should be opposed because it would impose high costs on a domestic industry has usually been responded to in the United States by claims of proponents of climate policies that the policy will create new jobs, thus implicitly ignoring the fact that unless GHG emissions are reduced quickly, large parts of the world will suffer harshly, and in so doing implicitly validating the unstated assumption of the opponents’ of climate change claim that high costs of climate mitigation strategies are a valid justification for not taking action.
Although a climate change ethics and justice literature has been growing for several decades, the public debate about climate change policies has largely ignored the strong ethical and moral problems with the scientific and economic arguments that have been the consistent focus of policy public controversies about climate change policies. Thus, opponents of climate change policies have tricked proponents of policies to respond only with alternative economic and scientific “facts.”
Sociologists often seek to understand how self-interested minority groups within society who oppose proposed public policies frequently hide the ethical and moral problems with their arguments by framing the controversies in such a way that the ethical and moral problems raised by their arguments are hidden from public scrutiny. This framing works, for instance, by tricking the public to debate “factual” claims, such as those made by scientists or economists, as if there were no moral or ethical problems with these claims. As a result, in the case of climate change, rather than debating whether it is morally acceptable for some people to put large numbers of other people at great risk from catastrophic harm, the public debate has often been exclusively focused on such factual claims as whether the cost to a fossil fuel company that will follow if a government moves to renewable energy is too high. Reasoning about the “facts” of public policies in a way that ignores the ethical issues is referred to by philosophers as “instrumental reasoning.”
Every argument against a proposed climate change policy can be understood as a syllogism with the following form.
If A, B, C, D, E. than we should do F, (The major premise which is a normative claim)
We have A, B, C, D, E (minor premise which is a factual claim).
Therefore we should do F. (conclusion)
Instrumental reasoning usually focuses on facts of the minor premise and ignores the normative basis of the major premise. In fact, frequently opponents of proposed policies often don’t clearly state the normative assumptions of their arguments and must be questioned to uncover the actual normative assumption on which their argument rests. Therefor good critical thinking sometimes must begin by questioning opponents of policies to make the normative basis of their arguments express by asking, for instance, do I understand your position to be that any policy which economically threatens the oil industry should be rejected. In other words, proponents of climate policies which are opposed by economic or scientific arguments should seek to make the normative basis of the argument opposing a proposed climate policy express so that it can be subjected to ethical analysis.
The fossil fuel industry in many developed countries has been successful in limiting the public debate about climate change policies to economic and scientific “facts.” As a result, in the United States, ethical and moral problems with the scientific uncertainty and unacceptable cost arguments made for over three decades by opponents of climate change policies have very rarely appeared in the US public debate about climate change controversies nor been acknowledged by the media.
As a result, an argument can be made that a first-order problem to achieve traction for ethical principles in climate change policymaking is to open policymaking arguments to express ethical reflection and in so doing overcome “instrumental reasoning.” (See Brown, Why Overcoming Instrumental Rationality In Climate Change Policy Controversies Is a First Order Problem Preventing Ethical Principles From Getting Traction to Guide Climate Change Policy Formation) It is a first-order problem because before one can consider what ethical principles should guide policy formation, arguments against climate policies must be subjected to ethical critique and reflection. If policymakers don’t see and respond to the ethical issues that are implicitly raised by arguments raised against proposed climate change policies, they can’t evaluate the ethical issues nor apply the appropriate ethical rules. Yet instrumental arguments that opponents of climate policies often deploy have dominated public policy for many decades in some countries including the United States. That instrumental rationality dominates environmental policymaking is clear given that most government environmental agencies are staffed almost exclusively by engineers, scientists, economists, and lawyers but very infrequently by employees trained in ethics.
This is huge problem because very few employees of environmental agencies or scientific organizations that make policy recommendations on environmental issues can spot problematic ethical issues that should be identified in policy debates and particularly ethical issues that are ignored or hidden when instrumental reason is deployed to make policy recommendations.
Instrumental rationality dominates public policy formation for at least two reasons: First, sociologists, including Max Weber, have predicted that instrumental rationality would over time crowd out ethical rationality in modern societies because increasingly complex human problems would be relegated to bureaucracies run by technical experts whose institutional power depended, in part, on maintaining the fiction that their technical expertise is the central tool for analyzing and therefore resolving modern problems.
Moreover, particularly in advanced Western countries, wealthy businesses are able to hire technical experts to fight proposed government action which would reduce profits. These experts frequently formulate arguments against proposed government policies that are almost always claims about scientific facts or excessive costs
3. The failure of organizations that engage in issues relevant to climate change policy formation to have employees trained in spotting ethical issues.
Compounding the problem that governments and technical organizations that engage in climate change policy formation controversies are staffed almost exclusively by technically trained personnel is the growing problem that most university departments which teach or do research on environmental and natural resource issues focus on scientific, technical, and occasionally economic issues. In the United States, at least, training in ethical analyses that one might get in liberal arts programs has become less available as more colleges and universities have emphasized science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at a time when liberal arts programs have been diminished.
This is huge problem because very few employees of environmental agencies or scientific organizations that make policy recommendations can spot problematic ethical issues that should be acknowledged in policy debates and particularly those ethical issues that are ignored or hidden when instrumental reasons is deployed to effect policy recommendations.
In most Western countries, corporations and their industry associations have huge political power to frame public policy questions and don’t hesitate to exercise their power to prevent any government action that could lower corporate profits. And so the public debate on proposed policies often focuses on economic “facts,” not ethical duties, despite the almost universally accepted ethical norms agreed to by almost all peoples and nations such as the norm that people should not harm others on the basis of the harming party’s economic self-interest. One egregious example of this problem is that in 2016 US President Trump announced he was pulling the USA out of the Paris Accord because he was putting US economic interests first, a position that violated numerous well-accepted international norms. Yet the US media has paid no attention to the violations of numerous well-accepted, non-controversial international norms such as those that were violated when US President Trump announced that the US would pull -out of the Paris Agreement.
Unfortunately, most professionals engaged in environmental policy formation controversies have no training that would help them identify the hidden ethical issues embedded in arguments made against proposed climate change policies. Nor do most of those NGOs who participate in controversies about climate policy have the training to spot ethical problems made by the arguments of opponents of proposed policies. As a result, at least in this writer’s experience, even environmental NGOs usually miss serious ethical problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies.
4. The failure of academic ethics literature to focus on actual policy disputes in contention.
The failures of environmental science and economics education to teach ethics could be remedied if students who were expd to ethics training relevant to the kinds of ethical issues that arise in climate change policymaking. Yet, a very large percentage of students taking environmental science and economics courses have no training in ethics of any kind, not to mention the type of ethical issues discussed in this paper that frequently arise in climate policy controversies.
Although many schools of higher education offer courses in environmental ethics usually as elective, many if not most students enrolled in environmental economics or scientific disciplines have no exposure to these courses. In addition, courses on environmental ethics frequently fail to include discussion of the ethical questions that arise when economics and science are applied to public policy. This is so because the major focus of academic environmental ethics has usually been to examine ethical questions about human and environmental relationships, not ethical questions that frequently arise in policy formation such as the ethical limits of economic arguments, or the ethical issues that arise when government officials must make decisions in the face of uncertainty.
Other ethical subjects have been much more focused on specific cases or applied ethics, such as biomedical ethics. In biomedical ethics, ethical analyses often begin with a specific patient with a specific disease. In other words, training in biomedical ethics is often case-based. Hospitals often employ ethicists to help the medical staff with thorny, concrete ethical issues. Yet, most of academic environmental ethics has rarely been “applied” to policy questions as they have unfolded.
As a result, environmental ethics literature has rarely been a factor in policymaking. In fact, in 2003, Eugene Hargrove, the editor and founder of the journal Environmental Ethics, acknowledged that this failure of environmental ethics to influence public policy is widespread. (Hargrove 2003). This admission is a remarkable conclusion from someone who has been at the very center of academic environmental ethics for many decades.
From this, it can be seen that one of the reasons why ethical considerations have not been influential in climate change policy-making is the failure of academic environmental ethics to engage with the issues that frequently arise in policy-making.
For this reason, if environmental ethics is going to be relevant to climate public policy it must become engaged in the economic and scientific issues that arise in specific policy issues. Therefore, in addition to teaching policymakers and citizens the policy consequences that different ethical theories entail for policy outcomes, environmental ethicists must become competent communicators in scientific, economic, and legal discourses that initially frame environmental policy problems such as climate change.
III. What should organizations such as UNESCO or other concerned organizations or citizens do to assure that those responsible for climate change respond in accordance with their ethical obligations?
At the Bangkok program, I recommended that to achieve greater implementation of ethical principles in climate change policy formation UNESCO should:
- Organize an international meeting designed to educate civil society about why compliance by those responsible for climate change with their ethical duties is indispensable to avoid climate catastrophe.
- Design a strategy to educate the media about the crucial importance of achieving traction for ethical considerations in climate change policy responses around the world and the serious ethical failures of most governments and organizations to comply with their ethical duties.
- Organize side events on these issues at the UNFCCC COPs.
- Work with others to require that the transparency rules under the Paris Agreement requires nations to explain, as specifically as possible, how they have dealt with their express ethical duties to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, to do no harm to people and places outside their jurisdiction, and to assure that all people enjoy human rights.
- Work with others to help citizens spot ethical issues raised by government responses to climate change.
In addition to these recommendations, in light of the causes of the failure of ethics to get traction in climate change policymaking discussed above, UNESCO and all concerned organizations and individuals should:
- Pay attention to and educate others on how civil society’s understanding of climate change issues has been manipulated by powerful economic forces which have worked to undermine public confidence in mainstream climate change science while making ethically problematic arguments about unacceptable costs of proposed climate change policy responses.
- Seek to turn up the volume on the moral abhorrence of the climate change disinformation campaign. This can be done by encouraging serious public reflection on the difference between responsible scientific skepticism and the morally reprehensible tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign.
- Follow the actual climate change debate in governments to identify ethical issues as they arise, and seek to identify ethical problems with arguments made by those opposing a just global solution to climate change while working to increase public and media understanding of these issues.
- After spotting the ethical problems with major arguments against policy action on climate change, seek to eliminate ethically problematic positions from contention by working with governments and civil society.to increase their understanding of these issues. This could be done by requiring governments to expressly respond to questions designed to expose ethical problems with their policies as part of the transparency framework under the Paris Agreement. (For examples of questions that could be asked to expose ethical issues see Brown, Questions That Should Be Asked Of Politicians And Others Who Oppose National Action On Climate Change On The Basis Of Scientific Uncertainty Or Unacceptable Cost To The Economy Given That Climate Change Is A Profound Global Justice And Ethical Problem).
- Encourage religious leaders and others interested in ethical and moral issues to help turn up the volume not only on the fact that climate change is a globally challenging ethical issue but also on the utter ethical bankruptcy of most of the arguments made by opponents of proposed climate change policies.
- Educate policy-makers and citizens particularly about the ethical issues that are usually hidden in what appear to be value-neutral arguments about the science and economics of climate change policy formation controversies.
- Encourage higher-education to sponsor programs designed to educate civil society and the media about ethical problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies in their nation.
Brown, D. & Taylor, P.. (eds). (2014), Ethics and Climate Change, A Study of National Commitments, IUCN press, http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/iucn_eplp_86_advanced_copy.pdf
Brown, D., (2011) An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity? https://ethicsandclimate.org/2011/12/02/an_ethical_analysis_of_the_climate_change_disinformation_campaign_is_this_a_new_kind_of_assault_on_h/r
Brown, D., (2017) Why Overcoming Instrumental Rationality In Climate Change Policy Controversies Is a First Order Problem Preventing Ethical Principles From Getting Traction to Guide Climate Change Policy Formation, https://ethicsandclimate.org/2017/12/28/why-overcoming-instrumental-rationality-in-climate-change-policy-controversies-is-a-first-order-problem-preventing-ethical-principles-from-getting-traction-to-guide-climate-change-policy-formation/
California, Governor’s Office. List of Scientific Organizations on Climate, http://www.opr.ca.gov/facts/list-of-scientific-organizations.html
Dunlap, R. & Bruelle, R., (2015) Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, Oxford University Press, New York
Dunlap R.,& McCright, A.,(2015) Challenging Climate Change: the Denial Countermovement, in Dunlap.R.& Bruelle, R., eds, (ibid, Chap 10)
Hargrove, E., (2003) What’s Wrong? Who Is to Blame?, Environmental Ethics, 25 (1):3-4,  3-4
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC), (2014).WG III, Ch. 3, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter3.pd
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC), (2014).WG III, Ch. 4, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/
NASA., Scientific Consensus; The Planet is Warming, https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/
Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, (Rio Declaration, 1992) https://www.un.org/documents/ga/conf151/aconf15126-1annex1.htm,
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, (UNFCCC, 1992), FCC/INFORMAL/84/Rev.1 GE.14-20481 (E), Preamble.
United Nations (2015), Paris Agreement, FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1, https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf,
UNESCO, (2017), Ethical Principles for Climate Change, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/comest/ethical-principles/questions-and-answers
Voigt, C. (2008), State Responsibility for Climate Change Damages, Nordic Journal of International Law, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1145199
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Adjunct Professor
Widener University Commonwealth Law School
Press coverage of natural gas fracking controversies in Pennsylvania and other places where natural gas fracking has boomed in the last few decades has mostly focused on disputed claims about gas development’s adverse environmental impacts to water, air, forests, and land, while largely ignoring natural gas’ continuing contribution to ominously rising atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations.
When the natural gas fracking boom began about two decades ago, proponents of natural gas combustion often sold it as a “bridge fuel” for climate change because natural gas combustion only emits only 53% of the CO2 emitted by coal combustion provided that methane leakage from the gas production and distribution system is less than 3% of the produced gas. Although the actual amount of methane leakage from gas production remains somewhat contentious, even if there is no methane leakage from gas production, because the international community has understood for at least a decade that the world must move toward zero carbon emissions within several decades to prevent climate catastrophe, government action to replace natural gas with non-fossil energy should have been an imperative at least throughout the last decade of natural gas fracking expansion to make the transition to non-fossil energy needed to avoid planetary disaster feasible.
The failure to move quickly to non-fossil energy in the last decade is partially responsible for the rise of atmospheric CO2 to reach 415 ppm, a concentration never experienced in human history. Because even modest amounts of additional warming above current global elevated temperatures create the risk that certain thresholds, or “tipping points,” in the climate system may be exceeded causing much more abrupt climate change, human-induced climate change creates grave threats to life on Earth. For this reason, every country in the world agreed in Paris in 2015 to act to limit additional warming as close as possible to 1.5 0C but no more than 2.00 C.
Yet, to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals will require an “all hands on deck” by all governments at all levels to completely decarbonize their economies by 2045 to keep warming below 1.5 0C and by 2070 to achieve the 2.00 C limit. Making matters worse, when the 2.00 C goal was adopted in Paris, many scientists believed that achieving this warming limit would prevent abrupt climate change that would be caused if the Earth’s climate tipping points were exceeded. Yet, recent evidence has frightened many climate scientists because a few of the tipping points, including rapid increases in methane and CO2 emissions liberated when artic permafrost melts, are already beginning to appear, making the climate crisis a staggering global emergency.
Yet climate change is not only a horrific future calamity, the 1.1 0 C temperature rise the Earth has experienced since the beginning of the industrial revolution has already caused brutal suffering by causing increases in killer hurricanes, unprecedented flooding, droughts, forest fires, storm surges, climate refugees, increases in vector-borne and tropical diseases, killer heat stresses, loss of valued ecological systems including coral reefs around the world, and human conflict in Syria and parts of Africa. Because natural gas combustion has contributed to raising atmospheric GHG concentrations which is causing these horrors, nations have both a moral and legal duty under the “no harm principle,” a provision of customary international law agreed to by the United States in the 1992 United Nations climate convention to not harm citizens in other countries. Thus, all levels of government in the US must replace energy technologies which emit GHGs with technologies that don’t raise atmospheric GHG concentrations ASAP.
In addition, the two most compelling arguments that proponents of rapid natural gas expansion sometimes made in opposition to ambitious proposed policies that would replace fossil fuels with renewable energy are no longer viable if they ever were. First, although at one time wind and solar energy were more expensive than gas, renewable energies are now competing favorably with fossil energy on cost. Second although renewable energies need backup sources of energy when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining, energy storage technologies including batteries, are rapidly improving in capacity while lowering price. This is the reason that growing numbers of national and local governments have set targets to achieve 100% renewable energy in the electricity sector and ambitious targets to replace fossil fuel powered vehicles with electrically powered transport in the next several decades.
For these reasons, Pennsylvania and other places where natural gas fracking has boomed must acknowledge that the only bridge that natural gas is now a bridge to is a bridge to world catastrophe and therefore must adopt policies to replace all fossil fuel technologies with technologies which don’t emit GHGs ASAP.
Donald A Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor,
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University Commonwealth Law School