During his speech on August 31 in Alaska, President Obama not only spoke about the enormity of the climate change threat and the urgency of strong action, he also acknowledged that the United States has responsibility for causing the problem. He said:
I’ve come here today, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and its second largest emitter, to say that the United States recognizes our role in creating this problem, and we embrace our responsibility to help solve it.
He spoke in clear terms about the enormity of the climate change threat:.
Our understanding of climate change advances each day. Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we previously thought. The science is stark. It is sharpening. It proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present. But the point is that climate change is no longer some far-off problem. It is happening here. It is happening now. Climate change is already disrupting our agriculture and ecosystems, our water and food supplies, our energy, our infrastructure, human health, human safety — now. Today. And climate change is a trend that affects all trends — economic trends, security trends. Everything will be impacted. And it becomes more dramatic with each passing year.
But if those trend lines continue the way they are, there’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively. People will suffer. Economies will suffer. Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems. More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict.
If we were to abandon our course of action, if we stop trying to build a clean-energy economy and reduce carbon pollution, if we do nothing to keep the glaciers from melting faster, and oceans from rising faster, and forests from burning faster, and storms from growing stronger, we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair: Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields no longer growing. Indigenous peoples who can’t carry out traditions that stretch back millennia. Entire industries of people who can’t practice their livelihoods. Desperate refugees seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own. Political disruptions that could trigger multiple conflicts around the globe.
President Obama also acknowledged that because nations have delayed in taking meaningful climate action, the world is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming. More specifically he said:
On this issue, of all issues, there is such a thing as being too late. That moment is almost upon us.
And so President Obama admitted that: (a) climate change is a civilization challenging problem with dire potential consequences for nations and vulnerable people around the world, (b) the world is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming, and, (c) the United States has responsibility for causing the problem.
The United States is not only responsible for the current crisis because, as President Obama noted, it is the second highest emitter of ghg in the world behind China, it has historically emitted much more ghgs into the atmosphere than any other country including China, it is currently near the top of all nations in per capita ghg emissions, and the US has been responsible more than any other developed nation for the failure of the international community to adopt meaningful ghg emissions reduction targets from the beginning of international climate negotiations in 1990 until the Obama administration. (For a detailed description of the blocking role that the United States has played in international climate negotiations since 1990 until the Obama administration, See Brown, 2002, American Heat; Ethical Problems the US Response to Global Warming, and Brown, 2013, Climate Chang Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm)
As we have documented in numerous articles on the disinformation campaign on this website, although responsible scientific skepticism is necessary for science to advance, the climate change disinformation campaign has been involved not in the pursuit of responsible scientific skepticism but in tactics that are morally reprehensible including: (a) telling lies about mainstream climate scientific evidence or engaging in reckless disregard for the truth, (b) focusing on unknowns about climate science while ignoring settled climate change science, that is cherry-picking the evidence, (c) creating front groups and Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interest behind claims, (d) making specious claims about “good science”, (e) manufacturing science sounding claims about climate change by holding conferences in which claims are made and documents are released that have not been subjected to scientific peer-review, and (d) cyber bullying journalists and scientists. These tactics are not responsible scientific skepticism but disinformation.
In the late 1980s, the European Union proposed that all developed countries should accept binding ghg emissions reductions targets. These targets would have likely been agreed to in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change if the United States did not oppose them. The United States virtually standing alone prevented the inclusion of binding targets in the treaty which was finalized in 1992 and ratified by the US in that same year. During the next 20 years, the US continued to block a meaningful global solution to climate change while being one of only a handful of nations that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty in which most developed countries accepted a ghg reduction target.
During this time, the climate change disinformation campaign also successfully prevented enactment of meaningful US domestic climate change laws and policies.
For the last several decades, US media has largely failed to cover the fact that the longer the world waits to make significant reductions in ghgs, the more difficult the problem becomes to solve. In this regard, the staggering enormity of the current challenge to the world to prevent dangerous climate change is rarely commented on in the US media despite the fact the 25 year delay in facing this problem has now made the problem a civilization challenging problem. For instance, James Hansen in a recent affidavit submitted in a legal proceeding against the State of Oregon asserted that the world must now reduce ghg emissions at a rate of 6% per year to avoid dangerous climate change. Yet as Hansen notes, if the world began to phase out of fossil fuel in 2005 the rate of reductions needed would only be 3.5% while waiting until 2020 will require a 15% reduction per year. Thus the delay in confronting climate change that is attributable to a large extent to the climate change disinformation campaign and its political mercenaries has made the problem much more difficult to solve with the result that harsh climate change impacts are much more likely. Because the harshest impacts from climate change will likely be experienced by some of the world’s poorest people in Africa,Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world, the damage caused by the climate change disinformation campaign may become a global catastrophe.
And so the world is now facing a civilization challenging problem entailed by the need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gases to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Although President Obama has announced administrative measures that would begin to reduce US ghg emissions, these measures are now being intensely fought by the climate change disinformation campaign and its political representatives and the Obama commitments still don’t represent the US fair share of safe global ghg emissions. In fact, in his August 31 speech, President Obama said after describing his climate initiatives: “But we’re not moving fast enough.” And now it may be too late to prevent huge climate change induced harms because the world has lost 25 years in reducing the threat of climate change in no small measure due to the United States opposition to a meaningful global solution.
President Obama’s August 31 speech in Alaska implicitly acknowledged this conclusion. Yet the US media largely continues to fail to cover the enormous damage that has been caused by the delay in confronting human-induced warming .
Ethics and climate has explained in numerous articles on this site why climate change policy raises civilization challenging ethical issues which have practical significance for policy-making. This article identifies five common arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to proposed climate change laws and policies that cannot be adequately responded to without full recognition of serious ethical problems with these arguments. Yet the national debate on climate change and its press coverage in the United States and many other countries continue to ignore serious ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies. The failure to identify the ethical problems with these arguments greatly weakens potential responses to these arguments. These arguments include:
1. A nation should not adopt climate change policies because these policies will harm the national economy.
This argument is obviously ethically problematic because it fails to consider that high emitting governments and entities have clear ethical obligations to not harm others. Economic arguments in opposition to climate change policies are almost always arguments about self-interest that ignore strong global obligations. Climate change is a problem that is being caused mostly by high emitting nations and people that are harming and putting at risk poor people and the ecological systems on which they depend around the world. It is clearly ethically unacceptable for those causing the harms to others to only consider the costs to them of reducing the damages they are causing while ignoring their responsibilities to not harm others.
It is not only high emitting nations and corporations that are ignoring the ethical problems with cost-based arguments against climate change policies. Some environmental NGOs usually fail to spot the ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies based upon the cost or reducing ghg emissions to the emitters. Again and again proponents of action on climate change have responded to economic arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change by making counter economic arguments such as climate change policies will produce new jobs or reduce adverse economic impacts that will follow from the failure to reduce the threat of climate change. In responding this way, proponents of climate change policy action are implicitly confirming the ethically dubious notion that public policy must be based upon economic self-interest rather than responsibilities to those who will be most harmed by inaction. There is, of course, nothing wrong with claims that some climate change policies will produce jobs, but such assertions should also say that emissions should be reduced because high-emitters of ghgs have duties and obligations to do so.
2. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act to reduce their emissions because this will put the nation that reduces its emissions in a disadvantageous economic position.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies at the national level have argued that high emitting nations should not act to reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act accordingly. In the United States, for instance, it is frequently said that the United States should not reduce its ghg emissions until China does so. Implicit in this argument is the notion that governments should only adopt policies which are in their economic interest to do so. Yet as a matter of ethics, as we have seen, all nations have a strong ethical duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and national economic self-interest is not an acceptable justification for failing to reduce national ghg emissions. Nations are required as a matter of ethics to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions; they are not required to reduce other nations’ share of safe global emissions. And so, nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.
3. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions as long as other nations are emitting high levels of ghg because it will do no good for one nation to act if other nations do not act.
A common claim similar to argument 2 is the assertion nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until others do so because it will do no good for one nation to reduce its emissions while high-emitting nations continue to emit without reductions. It is not factually true that a nation that is emitting ghgs at levels above its fair share of safe global emissions is not harming others because they are continuing to cause elevated atmospheric concentrations of ghg which will cause some harm to some places and people than would not be experienced if the nation was emitting ghg at lower levels. And so, since all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, nations have a duty to reduce the harm that they are causing to others even if there is no adequate global response to climate change.
4. No nation need act to reduce the threat of climate change until all scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts are resolved.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies have argued that nations need not act to reduce the threat of climate change because there are scientific uncertainties about the magnitude and timing of human-induced climate change impacts. There are a host of ethical problems with these arguments. First, as we have explained in detail on this website under the category of disinformation campaign in the index, some arguments that claim that that there is significant scientific uncertainty about human impacts on climate have been based upon lies or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science. Second, other scientific uncertainty arguments are premised on cherry picking climate change science, that is focusing on what is unknown about climate change while ignoring numerous conclusions of the scientific community that are not in serious dispute. Third. other claims that there is scientific uncertainty about human induced climate change have not been subjected to peer-review. Fourth some arguments against climate change policies on the basis of scientific uncertainty often rest on the ethically dubious notion that nothing should be done to reduce a threat that some are imposing on others until all uncertainties are resolved. They make this argument despite the fact that if high emitters of ghg wait until all uncertainties are resolved before reducing their ghg emissions:
It will likely be too late to prevent serious harm if the mainstream scientific view of climate change is later vindicated;
It will be much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm if nations wait, and
The argument to wait ignores the fact that those who will be harmed the most have not consented to be put at greater risk by waiting.
For all of these reasons, arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change based upon scientific uncertainty fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
5. Nations need only set ghg emissions reduction targets to levels consistent with their national interest.
Nations continue to set ghg emissions reductions targets at levels based upon their self-interest despite the fact that any national target must be understood to be implicitly a position on two issues that cannot be thought about clearly without considering ethical obligations. That is, every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on : (a) a safe ghg atmospheric stabilization target; and (b) the nation’s fair share of total global ghg emissions that will achieve safe ghg atmospheric concentrations.
A position on a global ghg atmospheric stabilization target is essentially an ethical question because a global ghg atmospheric concentration goal will determine to what extent the most vulnerable people and the ecological systems on which they depend will be put at risk. And so a position that a nation takes on atmospheric ghg atmospheric targets is necessarily an ethical issue because nations and people have an ethical duty to not harm others and the numerical ghg atmospheric goal will determine how much harm polluting nations will impose on the most vulnerable.
Once a global ghg atmospheric goal is determined, a nation’s ghg emissions reduction target is also necessarily implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global ghg emissions, an issue of distributive justice and ethics at its core.
And so any national ghg emissions target is inherently a position on important ethical and justice issues and thus setting a national emissions reduction target based upon national interest alone fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
Because of the global scale and deepening urgency of problems like climate change, there is a growing consensus among many hard and behavioral scientists, ethicists, and international lawyers that there is a need for massive changes in the political, economic, and social systems that are the current dominant ideological frameworks for coordinating human behavior on Earth.
“Rebirth of the Sacred,” a new book by Robert Nadeau, includes important deeply interdisciplinary analyses of the causes of the human failures to protect the global environment ending with a call for a new synthesis of science, ethics, and religion that would form the basis for a world-wide social movement.
The book not only includes trenchant analyses of why current global economic and political systems are dysfunctional, it also contains very valuable explorations of many findings of contemporary physics, biology, and brain science which could form the basis of a new deeper understanding of the fact that all people around the world are part of one human community dependent upon the global environment. And so the book not only helps explain what is wrong with human affairs at a time of growing global environmental crises, it points to a way forward.
The book makes a very compelling argument about why neoclassical economic theory which is now dominating public policy prescriptions globally is based upon obsolete and scientifically disproven assumptions of 18th Century physics. As we have written about extensively on this website, there are numerous serious ethical problems with most economic analyses of climate change policy options which are based upon neoclassical economic assumptions. This new book, however, demonstrates that the neoclassical economic theory which both dominates global economic policy and often undermines climate change policy-making is not only deeply ethically flawed but also scientifically discredited. Thus the book’s explanation of the scientifically problematic assumptions of neoclassical economics is a valuable contribution to generating a better global understanding of what is wrong with the economic discourses that continue to be enormously influential in global affairs. For instance, the book explains why the widely held assumption that global markets, with a few minor government interventions, will solve pressing human problems is scientifically unsupportable.
Of particular value is the book’s explanation of recent brain science’s understanding of links between brain structure and human morality. In this regard the book concludes as follows which I now quote directly because of its potential importance:
There is now a growing consensus in both the hard and behavioral sciences that the human capacity to engage in spontaneous moral behavior is a product of evolution and is innate. And research in the behavioral sciences strongly suggest that the moral concepts and emotions associated with this behavior are universal in spite of the differences in standards for ethical behavior in diverse cultural contexts. For example, anthropologists Donald Brown (no relation to me) has compiled an impressively long list of these universal moral concepts and emotions, which includes distinctions between right and wrong; empathy; fairness; rights and obligations; prohibitions against murder, rape and other forms of violence; shame; taboos; and sanctions for wrongs against the community.
Studies done by anthropologists in existing hunter-gatherer tribes display a strong belief in fairness and reciprocity, a great capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a pronounced willingness to work cooperatively for the good of the entire community. And numerous studies done on both children and adults living in highly industrialized Western countries have revealed that a violation of the expectation that others will display a sense of fairness evokes feedbacks from the limbic system associated with outrage and indignation.
(Nadeau, 2013: 33)
And so the book argues that there are some moral universals which are consistent with scientific understanding of how the brain works and which can be appealed to to guide global behavior on serious global problems like climate change.
The book also describes important insights from brain science about the evolutionary development of some common universal moral responses by explaining differences in the brain structure that are responsible for nonverbal, spontaneous moral behavior triggered by mirror neurons and verbal, analytical responses to moral problems initiated in other parts of the brain. This distinction helps explain why some feelings of sympathy for others is felt at a deep level before rational cognition is experienced.
All of this is extraordinarily important for climate change ethics because it provides a scientific basis for the hope that appeals to morality and ethics can lead eventually to policy on climate change that is fair and just. That is, if these moral universals exist, then they can be used authoritatively to help people around the world see what is wrong with the dominant economic and political systems which are now structuring responses to global issues including climate change. This is extremely important because the dominant economic frames prescribing public policy outcomes pretend to be “value-neutral,” that is simply factual descriptions of the way the world works. To build social movements that change these frames, citizens around the world need to understand how these frames violate widely held ethical and moral values. For instance, the widely used justification for support of the existing global order is that markets will always lead to the best policy outcomes, yet not only is this claim dubious on scientific grounds as explained in this book, because unfettered markets can lead to unfair and unjust outcomes which are inconsistent with universally held ethical beliefs, an appeal to ethics and justice has the potential to generate wide-spread social opposition to using market ideology to solve serious global problems. If there is universal consensus on some moral issues, then generating wider understanding of how dominant discourses prevent attainment of these ethical and moral goals is a potent strategy for social change.
The book ends with a call for a new conversation between religion and science on the world’s most dangerous issues, a conversation in which religious sensibilities do not conflict with a scientific understanding of the evolution of the cosmos or moral sensibilities now understood by brain science. Yet an argument can be made that the first order problem is to achieve greater understanding of the moral bankruptcy of the dominant economic and political discourses which are leading to the current global crises. If this is true, all sectors of society, including religion and science, must help people understand how dominant economic and political discourses lead to ethically bankrupt outcomes.
Rebirth of the Sacred contains important insights about why dominant economic and political discourses lead to current global environmental crisis. Yet the best hope for changing the status quo may be if people armed with this understanding help others see why the status quo is morally bankrupt.
Nadeau, Robert, 2013, Rebirth of the Sacred, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law and Professor,
Widener University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Science and Technology,
As we have explained in a previous article in Ethicsandclimate, government officials who have responsibility for policies that may affect climate change may not rely on their own uninformed opinion on climate change science. They have an ethical duty, unlike ordinary citizens, to take positions on climate change that are informed by a scientifically sound understanding of human-induced warming. That is they have a responsibility to go beyond uninformed opinion on the science of climate change as long as mainstream scientists are claiming that people within their jurisdiction are greatly threatening others and ecological systems outside their jurisdiction. Ethics requires that they not engage in willful blindness or unexamined ignorance if mainstream scientists are concluding that their constituents are greatly harming others.
Despite a firestorm over comments he made about climate change, by a vote of 42-8 on December 11, 2013 the Pennsylvania Senate voted to confirm Christopher Abruzzo as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. (Philly.com 2013) Abruzzo touched off controversy last week when he told lawmakers during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was unaware of any “adverse impacts” of climate change on human beings or animals. (Cusick, 2013)
Abruzzo also told the committee that although he does believe climate change is occurring and that it seems to be at least partially attributable to human factors, he does not view it as harmful and sees no reason for Pennsylvania to adopt new policies to address it. He further said, “I think Pennsylvania’s already doing at least its fair share.” (Cusick, 2013)
Given that he will head the state agency responsible for protecting Pennsylvania’s environment, Mr. Abruzzo’s comments demonstrate astonishing ignorance about the science of climate change, Pennsylvania’s role in contributing to the problem, and the civilization challenging magnitude of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that the scientific community says are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.
Just last week, the US Academy of Sciences issued a new report about abrupt and potentially catastrophic events triggered by climate change. (US Academy, 2013) The report warned that the Earth is already seeing some abrupt changes like fast retreat of summer Arctic sea ice and that there is also a real risk that other rapid and drastic shifts could follow in the coming decades if the Earth keeps warming. These harsh impacts included widespread plant and animal extinctions and the creation of large “dead zones” in the ocean, the very kind of thing Mr. Abruzzo claimed to be unaware of.
Abruzzo’s blindness also appears to include ignorance of the civilization challenging magnitude of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that the scientific community has identified as necessary to prevent harsh climate change impacts. This September, for instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international organization created by the world’s governments to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate science, issued a report on this very subject. (IPCC, 2013) This report contained an emissions budget on total CO2 emissions for the entire world. If the international community does not emit greenhouse gases greater than the budget according to IPCC, there is 66% chance of preventing very dangerous warming. The IPCC said that for warming to remain below dangerous levels, the total amount of CO2 that may be emitted is 431 gigatons. This further means that the budget would be completely used up by current emissions by around 2044, just over 30 years from now. When other greenhouse gases that are being emitted around the world are taken into consideration, the remaining CO2 equivalent emissions budget is reduced to approximately 270 gigatons. (Carbon Briefing, 2013) This fact has led the climate scientists to strongly warn the international community that it is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and means the world will exceed the budget in 25 years at current emissions rates.
DEP Secretary designate Abruzzo is also staggeringly misinformed when he claimed that Pennsylvania is doing “its fair share.” According to a State DEP 2009 plan on climate change which was prepared at the end of the Rendell administration, Pennsylvania contributes a full 1 percent of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 4 percent of the United States contribution. (Pa DEP, 2009) The Pennsylvania population of approximately 12,742,886 is approximately 0.18 percent of global population of slightly over 7 billion people.
A strong case can be made that Pennsylvania should, as a matter of basic fairness, limit its emissions to achieve a greater percentage of greenhouse gas emissions reductions than required of the entire world to avoid dangerous climate change. This is so because, like all US states and most of the world’s developed nations, greenhouse emissions levels from Pennsylvania far exceed most of the world in per capita emissions, not to mention historical emissions that remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Because it has been determined that the entire world must reduce its emissions by over 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to prevent dangerous climate change, high-emitting nations or governments around the world, including US states, will need to reduce their emissions at levels greater than 80% on the basis of equity and fairness. To require each nation or government to reduce emissions by the same percentage amount would freeze into place unjust emission levels for high-emitting governments. For instance, if all nations need only reduce their emissions by equal percentage amounts, then a high emitting nation like the United States that emits CO2 at a rate of 17.3 tons per capita would be allowed to emit at a level 10 times more per capita than a country like Vietnam that emits 1.7 tons of GHG per capita. (World Bank, 2013)
An issue brief for New York State recently recognized the need of New York to set greenhouse gas emission targets on the basis of equity. (NY Statem When fairness is taken into account, the New York report acknowledged that New York must reduce its emissions by at least 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. And so, Pennsylvania is emitting climate change causing emissions far above its fair share of safe global emissions.
Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials, like Mr. Abruzzo, may not simply rely on their personal opinion as a matter of ethics. This is so because they have some power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions. That is, government officials have more responsibility than the average citizen to understand the state of climate change science because the government official can uniquely prevent harm that their constituents or governments are causing. And so when government officials, like Mr. Abruzzo, are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may hide behind willful blindness.
Yet, Mr. Abruzzo and the Corbett administration appear to have no interest in reducing Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions to meet Pennsylvania’s global obligations.
During the climate negotiations in Warsaw that concluded late Saturday, some of the most prominent US media institutions finally acknowledged that ethics and justice issues were at the very center of the most contentious issues in dispute.
For instance, the New York Times ran a story on November 16 entitled: Growing Clamor About Inequities of Climate Crisis. This article expressly acknowledged that growing demands about ethics and justice have become an emotionally charged flash point at the Warsaw climate negotiations
The Washington Post reported that: Hundreds of activists march for climate on sidelines of UN talks in Warsawand in this story there was acknowledgment that the ethics and justice issues were the central focus of unresolved issues on national ghg emissions reduction commitments and funding needed funding for poor, vulnerable nations for adaptation and climate change caused losses and damages.
This recent recognition of the importance of ethics and justice issues in international climate change negotiations marks a possible sea change in on how the US press has thus far covered international climate change issues. Yet it is too early to predict such a transformation will actually take place and reason to believe that the US media still does not understand the practical importance for US climate policy that an ethical focus on climate change entails. In fact there is no evidence that the US press understands the policy significance for the US if climate change is understood as a civilization challenging global distributive justice problem.
As we have frequently reported in EthicandClimate.org over the last several years, (See articles on the website on the US media in the Index), the US media has been utterly ignoring the climate change justice issues that increasingly have become the most contentious issues in dispute in the international search for a global solution to climate change.
Although there has been a US press presence at international climate negotiations since they began over 20 years, the US media reports on the climate negotiations has usually focused on the failures and small success of previous negotiations. Also, sometimes the US press also has reported on specific disagreements among nations on contentious issues in negotiations. And so, the US media has covered climate negotiations like they would a baseball game, that is they usually focus on the score, who batted in the runs, and who prevented runs from scoring.
In the meantime, during the debates about US domestic policy on climate change that have been taking place for almost thirty years, the US media has reported on climate issues almost exclusively by focusing on issues of scientific certainty about climate change impacts and economic cost to the US economy. This phenomenon is partly attributable to the fact that economic interests opposed to US climate change policies have skillfully and successfully framed the US climate change debate as a matter about which there is insufficient scientific evidence or too much adverse impact on the US economy to warrant action. And so, although climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice, the US media has largely ignored the justice issues particularly in regard to their significance for US policy. For instance, if the the US not only has economic interests in the climate change policies in political debate but also obligations and duties to poor vulnerable nations to not cause them great harm from US ghg emissions, the United States may not justify failure to act to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of economic cost to the US.
Yet now that the scientific community is telling the world that is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and that there is a very small amount of ghg emissions that can be admitted by the entire world if the international community seeks to have any reasonable hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, the ethics and justice issues are becoming undeniable and it is almost possible to ignore that the ethics and justice issues are at the very center of international disputes about how to structure a global climate solution. And so, cries about the justice issues will mostly likely continue to become louder in the future. This is so because if the entire global community must limit total global ghg emissions to a specific number of tons of ghgs and this number requires radical ghg emissions reductions from the entire global community, the obvious question becomes what is any nation’s fair share of allowable emissions. And so, issues of climate justice may no longer be ignored, in fact, the longer the world waits to arrive at a global solution to climate change the more important and visible the ethics and justice issues will become. For this reason, it will become more and more difficult for the US press to ignore the practical significance of ethics and justice questions.
At the center of the Warsaw negotiations was not only the question of what was each countries fair share of safe total allowable greenhouse gas submissions, but also what does justice require of high-emitting countries to both pay for the costs of climate adaptation and compensation for damages for poor vulnerable countries that have done very little to cause climate change.
And so this new interest in ethics and justice about climate issues could become a growing media focus. However, this recent new interest of the US media is not evidence that the US press has begun to pay attention to the implications of these issues for US climate change policy. In fact, there is no evidence that the US media has figured out how the ethics and justice issues will need to radically transform how domestic climate change policy is debated in the United States. We will know that the US media this is seriously paying attention to the ethical dimensions of climate change if it examines the following questions when it covers US climate change policy debates.
1. What is the ethical justification for any proposed US greenhouse gas reduction target in light of the fact the US has duty to reduce its emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions. In setting a ghg emissions reduction target, what ethical obligations to nations and people outside the US has it taken into account.
2. If the United States is a very large emitter of gigs compared to most other nations in terms of historical and per capita emissions, why doesn’t the United States have an ethical duty to fund reasonable climate change adaptation measures in and losses and damages of poor developing countries that have done little or nothing to cause human-induced warming.
3. If a US politician argues in opposition to proposed US climate policies on the basis of cost to the US economy, why doesn’t that politician acknowledge that in addition to US economic economic interests, that the United States has duties to people around the world and future generations to reduce ghg US emissions.
4. If United States actually has ethical duties for the rest of the world to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, why is there no national policy encouraging everyone in the United States including individuals and corporations to reduce unnecessary ghg emissions.
5. On what basis may the United States argue that it need not reduce US ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global missions because China or some other developing country has not yet adopted strong climate change policies, given that any US ghg emissions in excess of the US fair share of safe total omissions is harming hundreds of thousands of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,
Widener University School of Law
Visiting Professor, Nagoya University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology
This is the second in a series of papers which will examine the ethical and justice issues that are at the center of the Warsaw climate negotiations, often referred to as the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP-19). The first in the series can be found on Ethicsandclimate.org. This paper looks at the ethical issues entailed by the need for nations to dramatically increase their ghg emissions reductions commitments immediately, that is in the short-term, to levels that equity and justice would require of them.
Each year in international negotiations, pleas of vulnerable developing nations have become louder calling for developed nations to respond to climate change in ways that are consistent with their ethical obligations. For the most part, this had utterly failed to happen. Yet, up until a few years ago, nations could ignore their ethical responsibilities provided they made any commitments at all to reduce their ghg emissions. As a result, nations have failed to adopt climate change policies consistent with their equitable obligations despite the fact that all nations who are parties to the UNFCCC agreed, when they became parties, to reduce their emissions to levels required of them based upon “equity” to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
Although most nations have now made some commitments that have included ghg emissions reductions targets starting in the Copenhagen COP in 2009, almost all nations appear to be basing their national targets not on what equity would require of them but at levels determined by their economic and national interests. In fact, in many cases when governments have been asked why they have not made more ambitious commitments, they have cited national economic justifications or their unwillingness to make more stringent commitments until other nations do so, excuses which are also based upon national interest rather than national global obligations. And so, for the most part, nations have entered the international climate negotiations as if their commitments to an urgently needed climate change global solution can be based on national interest rather than global responsibilities.
However the longer nations have waited to respond adequately to climate change, the more difficult it has becomes to ignore what ethics and justice requires of them because climate science is telling the international community that it must immediately adopt a global approach to climate change which is much more ambitious than current national commitments will provide. And so despite the fact that some vulnerable nations have been screaming for climate justice for at least two decades, in the last few COPs equity and justice has moved to the center of the most contentious issues in dispute. Now there is no escaping the international community from reviewing national commitments through a justice lens. The smaller the available budget becomes to avoid dangerous climate change, the more obvious the justice issues become.
Nations must both increase emissions reductions commitments immediately to give the world any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change while also agreeing to an international framework on future ghg emissions which will limit global ghg emissions in the medium- and long-term. And so, some aspects of the Warsaw agenda are focused both on increasing ghg emissions commitments in the short-term while at the same time working toward a new climate change treaty which will include a framework for national ghg emissions reductions after 2020. This paper looks at the equitable aspects of the need for more ambition in national ghg emissions commitments in the short-term while the next entry will look at ethics and justice issues entailed by the need for a new climate change treaty that was agreed to in prior COPs and that is scheduled to come into effect in 2020.
An adequate global climate change solution will need to limit total global ghg emissions to levels which will prevent atmospheric concentrations of ghgs from accumulating to dangerous levels and to do this any solution will also need to allocate total global emissions levels among all nations. Therefore each nation must agree to limit is emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions both in the short- and longer-term. There is now no way of escaping this urgent reality.
Up until now, nations could pretend that baby steps toward a global solution were acceptable progress. The urgency of finding a global climate change solution now makes it clear that such pretense is foolish self-deception.
Since the last COP in Qatar last year, there have been two prestigious scientific reports that have made it even more abundantly clear that much greater ambition from nations on their previous ghg emissions reduction commitments based upon equity are urgently needed. In 2013, IPCC in its recent Working Group I Report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change and UNEP in its just released the Emissions Gap Report are advising the international community that the world is quickly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
The UNEP report is particularly relevant to the short-term situation given that the international community has agreed to limit future warming to prevent catastrophic warming to 2° C or perhaps 1.5° C if later studies demonstrate that a 1.5° C warming limit is necessary to prevent catastrophic harms.
The UNEP report found that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, ghg emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level that would provide a likely chance of remaining on the least-cost pathway.
To be on track to stay within the 2° C target and head off very dangerous climate change, the report says that emissions should be a maximum of 44 GtCO2e by 2020 to set the stage for further cuts needed keep warming from exceeding the 2° C target.
Since total global ghg emissions in 2010 already stood at 50.1 GtCO2e, and are increasing every year, reaching a 44 GtCO2e target by 2020 is extraordinarily daunting and much greater ambition is needed from the global community than can be seen in existing national ghg emissions reduction commitments.
UNEP pointed out in its report that the 44 GtCO2e target by 2020 is necessary to have any hope of achieving even greater cuts needed after 2020 when total emissions must be limited to sharply declining total emissions limitations. Moreover if the world continues under a business-as-usual scenario, which does not include pledges, 2020 emissions are predicted to reach 59 GtCO2e, which is 1 GtCO2e higher than was estimated in a UNEP report issued in 2012. Without doubt increasing the ambition of national ghg commitments is urgently needed to provide any reasonable hope of limiting warming to non-catastrophic levels.
The September, 2013, IPCC issued a report which contained a budget on total carbon emissions that the world needs to stay within to give a 66% chance of preventing more than the 2° C warming that attracted world attention despite the fact that it has been widely criticized as being overly optimistic. This budget is an upper limit on total human CO2 equivalent emissions from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the day we stop burning carbon. The IPCC said that for warming to remain below last 2° C warming limit, the total amount of CO2 must be less than 1000 billion tons.
The IPCC report estimated that we’ve already used 531 billion tons of that budget as of 2011 by burning fossil fuels for energy as well as by clearing forests for farming and myriad other uses. That means would mean that there is 469 tons left in the emissions budget. This further means that the budget would be completely used up by current emissions by around 2044, just over 30 years from now.
Yet, the IPCC budget is likely significantly overly optimistic because ghg emissions other than CO2 are being emitted which the IPCC recent budget did not take into account. Factoring in the other ghgs brings the overall cumulative budget down from 1 trillion tons of carbon to 800 billion tons.
With that in mind, the remaining budget is even smaller, leaving just 269 billion tons of carbon left. This figure screams for a radical increase in short-term and long-term ghg emissions national ghg emissions commitments. For this reason, climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice.
The IPCC report also said that a possible release of ghg thawing permafrost and methane hydrates — which are “not accounted for in current models” — would shrink the remaining budget even further.
So why is equity and justice considerations so vital to increasing national ambitions? There are several reasons for this. First some countries much more than others are contributing to global atmospheric ghg concentrations on a per capita and total tons basis. Other countries more than others have contributed much more historically to existing elevated ghg atmospneric concentrations as they pursued higher levels of economic growth. And some countries more than others should be allowed to increase energy use to emerge from grinding poverty especially since they have done almost nothing to cause the existing crisis. And so, climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice and no matter what ethical considerations are taken into account to define an arguably distributively just allocation of ghg emissions targets among nations, many national commitments utterly and obviously flunk any ethical test. Yet the international press is not covering this aspect of this civilization challenging problem.
Ethics and justice demand that high-emitting nations and individuals reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Furthermore, it is already a settled principle in international law that polluters should pay for their pollution, that nations should reduce their emissions to prevent dangerous climate change on the basis of ‘equity,’ not national interest, and that nations should prevent their citizens from doing harm to people outside their national jurisdictional boundaries. These rules collectively mean that nations may not base their climate change national strategies on national interest because they they have duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others that they must take into account when setting national climate change policy. Yet hardly any nations are explaining their national ghg emissions reductions commitments on the basis of how they are congruent with their equitable obligations and the international media for the most part is ignoring this vital part of this civilization challenging drama unfolding in Warsaw.
In addition, every national ghg emissions target is already implicitly a position on the nation’s appropriate fair share of safe global emissions because it is a global problem about which each nation must do its fair share. Any national ghg emissions reduction target is a statement about the nation’s commitment to solve a global problem which is putting hundreds of millions of existing people at risk and countless members of future generations.
Furthermore, practically the nations of the world are not likely to increase ghg emissions targets unless those nations who are already exceeding their global fair share agree to reduce their ghg emissions. And so national ghg emissions reductions based on ethics and justice are both required on the basis of morality and are urgently practically needed. The obvious place to look for increases in ambition in national commitments is from nations that are obviously above emissions reduction levels that equity would require of them.
As we shall see in the next paper on a longer-term framework for national emissions, there are several competing ethical frameworks for what constitutes any nations fair share of safe global emissions. However, that does not mean that any position on “equity” passes minimum ethical scrutiny. And without any doubt, national ghg emissions targets based upon national economic interest alone flunks any ethical analysis because climate change requires nations to take into account how their ghg emissions are gravely harming the hundreds of millions of people around the world who are vulnerable to climate change in setting national climate change policies. That is under any conceivable ethical theory, nations must set ghg targets based upon their duties to not harm others, not self-interest alone. High-emitting nations are therefore obviously failing to set ghg emissions targets based upon their ethical obligations. In fact, as we have seen, nations often have admitted that their targets have been based upon self-interest not global duties.
For this reason, a key issue on the Warsaw agenda is the ethical dimensions of short-term ghg emissions targets and the need for high-emitting nations in particular to increase their commitments.
However, unfortunately at this moment, it is unlikely that countries will increase their emission reduction proposals in Warsaw. In fact, in some countries recent national policy changes call into question their capability to reach even their inadequate 2020 targets. Along this line, for instance, a recent backwards step of Australia was announced that it intends to abolish its newly established carbon pricing mechanism.
This series will report on what happened in Warsaw on short-term ghg targets and equity at the conclusion of the Warsaw conference
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,
Windener University School of Law
Visting Professor, Nagoya University
Nanjing University of Science Information and Technology
Negotiations on the international climate regime have begun in Warsaw at a time when the scientific community, including the IPCC in its recent report on the Physical Basis for Climate Change Science and UNEP in its just released Emissions Gap Report, are advising the international community that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
The Warsaw agenda includes numerous topics that raise profound ethical and justice issues which not only must be faced to achieve a global climate change solution but which are also increasingly at the center of the most contentious issues in the international climate negotiations. Despite this fact, the international media, at least in most developed countries, is utterly failing to report on the ethical and justice dimensions of issues that are so central to achieving a favorable outcome in Warsaw. The failure of the media to continue to report on these issues almost guarantees that nations will continue to ignore their ethical obligations, a prospect which surely dooms the development of an adequate global climate regime.
This is the first entry in a multi-part series which will first examine the ethical dimensions of major issues under consideration in Warsaw and then, at the conclusion of COP-19, report on what was accomplished in Warsaw on these ethical issues.
Among Warsaw issues examined in this series through an ethical lens will be:
1. The extent to which nations make ghg emissions reductions commitments based upon “equity” rather than national interest alone.
2. The willingness of nations to agree to a new treaty that is to be completed in 2015 and that comes into effect in 2020 that includes a format for emissions reductions that takes equity and justice seriously.
3. The willingness of high-emitting nations to finance adaptation and climate change reduction strategies in vulnerable, developing counties.
4. The willingness of those nations most responsible for human-induced warming to agree to finance the value of losses and damages from climate change that can’t be avoided.
5. The extent to which some nations more than others are barriers to an urgently needed global climate change treaty.
6. The willingness of nations to accept a new climate change treaty that is sufficiently legally binding that it provides adequate sanctions for those who do not comply with their promises.
The next entry in the series will look at the ethical issues entailed by the need for national emissions reductions commitments to be based on “equity” and “justice”.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law
Visiting Professor, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University for Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China
Given the strength of the scientific evidence that the world is rapidly heading to a climate catastrophe, it is vitally important to ask what has gone so terribly wrong with the world’s political response to climate change. Understanding the cause of the utterly irresponsible and tragic political inaction on climate change provides some hope for changing course.
A a new well-written book by Paul Harris, What is Wrong with Climate Politics and How to Fix It,examines the failure of the global community to reduce the civilization challenging threat of human-induced warming. This book is an excellent, easily understood review of the sorry status of international cooperation to find a global solution to climate change. The book is valuable for its contribution to the growing literature on climate change policy particularly in regard to its clear description of the sorry history of international climate negotiations.
The main thesis of the book is that the international focus in these negotiations on the obligations of nation states, rather than on individual responsibility, is a major cause of what has gone wrong.
The book makes a compelling case that the almost exclusive national focus of climate change negotiations is problematic for two reasons.
First, nations have historically always engaged in international problems from the standpoint of national interest rather than global obligations.
Second, from the initiation of the climate negotiations, the international community has assumed that national responsibility will be apportioned largely according to two broad categories, namely developed and developing countries. This categorization is problematic because this classification into these two categories arguably made some limited sense when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for ratification in 1992, but it doesn’t now given that some of the countries that were initially classified as developing countries, including India and China, are quickly emerging as the among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases (ghg).
In addition, in almost all developing countries there is a growing middle and affluent class of high consumers. If developing nations understand that they have no responsibility to curb high consumption of their affluent citizens in regard to ghg, there is absolutely no hope for reducing global emissions to levels necessary to prevent catastrophic warming.
In addition, if high emitting consumers in developing nations assume that the duty to reduce ghg emissions is solely a national obligation, not a personal one, they will more likely continue to emit ghgs at high levels without being haunted by ethical or moral failure.
And so, Harris compellingly explains why a reliance on national responsibility alone in the global search for an adequate response to climate change will likely guarantee continuing international failure to reduce the enormous threat of climate change.
The book also reviews in some detail the mostly dysfunctional role that the United States and China have played in international negotiations for over two decades while at the same time describing the centrality of these two countries in maintaining hope for a global climate change solution.
Harris also provides strategies for changing the world’s response to climate change so that citizens around the world understand that they have individual responsibility.
The first recommendation is to expand the use of a “human-rights” approach to policies on climate change. Implicit in this strategy is the idea that if individuals understand that they are responsible for human rights violations, they may take their obligations to reduce their gig emissions more seriously.
There is little doubt that climate change is already preventing many people around the world from enjoying a host of human rights, a phenomenon that is sure to grow in the years ahead. Furthermore there are several practical reasons why an increased emphasis on human rights has considerable potential utility for improving the international response to climate change.
One is that a greater understanding of climate change as a human rights problem should lead to more widespread rejection of many justifications for non-action on climate change. For instance, some of the excuses often used to justify non-action on climate change by nations and others, such as it is not in their economic interest to adopt climate policies, are widely understood to be irrelevant to affecting human rights obligations.
However, although turning up the volume on the human rights significance of climate change is something that should undoutably be encouraged, it is not clear why an increased focus on human rights is likely to achieve a greater acceptance of individual responsibility. In fact, human-rights obligations are currently understood to be the responsibility of nations, not individuals, under existing international law. Thus non-state actors, including businesses, currently have no or very limited obligations under human rights regimes.
And so, although it is unquestionably true that a greater emphasis on human rights in climate change policy disputes has practical value, it is not clear how this will lead to the shift to a focus on individual responsibility appropriately called for by Harris.
Harris’s second strategy to achieve the needed shift to individual responsibility is a public movement to get individuals to understand that current unsustainable consumption patterns are disastrous. According to Harris, it is the unquestioned assumed benefits of the economic growth model that dominates the world that is a major cause of irresponsible consumption generating more and more ghg emissions.
On this issue, Harris is undoubtably correct that an economic growth model that is oblivious to the environmental destruction that it is causing is dominating international relations. What is not clear, however, is why a call for change in the growth model by itself will likely undermine the dominant discourse. A deeper understanding of the sociological forces that enable the current dominant capitalist development model to dominate international affairs is likely necessary to develop an effective strategy to dislodge this discourse.
In addition some explanation is necessary for why some developed nations (most of whom are in Northern Europe) have taken climate change more seriously than others if the problem is the international dominance of the economic growth model.
In this regard, Harris’s analysis leaves something of great importance off the table. Harris almost completely ignores the role that economically interested corporations and free-market fundamentalists foundations have had in undermining climate change policies in the United States for over two decades.
This campaign, through the use of sophisticated public-relations honed tactics, has successfully prevented political action on climate change in the United States for over two decades. It also has had some effect on the the United Kingdom and Australia but much less so in some other developed countries.
Therefore, the two strategies recommended by Harris to shift global understanding about who has duties to reduce ghg toward individual responsibility will likely not be successful without a direct, dramatic, and vigorous confrontation with the climate change disinformation campaign. In fact, as we have argued before in considerable detail, this climate change disinformation campaign should be understood as some new kind of crime against humanity.
The other failure not discussed by Harris worthy of considerable attention is the failure of the media in many parts of the world to report on several aspects of climate change that need to be understood to fully understand personal and national responsibility. They include, the nature of the scientific consensus position, the civilization challenge entailed by the quantity of emissions reduction necessary to stabilize ghg in the atmosphere at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change, the fact that one can not think about national or individual responsibility clearly without considering equity and justice questions, and the utter ethical bankruptcy of the scientific and economic justifications for non-action on climate change that have been the dominant excuses for non-action on climate change for 35 years. At least in the United States, the media has dramatically failed to help citizens understand these crucial features of climate change.
There is no doubt that Harris’s call for a shift to individual responsibility and away from national obligations alone is worthy of serious and expanded reflection. Therefore the book is recommended for anyone engaged seriously in climate change policy issues. However, to think strategically about how to generate a greater awareness of individual ethical responsibility, Harris’s book should be supplemented by additional strategic considerations. We have attempted to explain some of these considerations in the recent book: Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm.
Interest in tackling climate change in the United States has increased somewhat recently in response to global CO2 atmospheric concentrations reaching 400 ppm, although there is almost no hope of new federal legislation soon. Many claims have been made recently that increased use of natural gas is an important element in any US response to climate change. In this regard, the natural gas industry has made a considerable effort to convince citizens that natural gas from hydraulic fracking is part of the solution to climate change. As an example, the following is from a gas industry website.
Because carbon dioxide makes up such a high proportion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, reducing carbon dioxide emissions can play a pivotal role in combating the greenhouse effect and global warming. The combustion of natural gas emits almost 30 % less carbon dioxide than oil, and just under 45 % less carbon dioxide than coal.
One issue that has arisen with respect to natural gas and the greenhouse effect is the fact that methane, the principle component of natural gas, is itself a potent greenhouse gas. Methane has an ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. According to the Energy Information Administration, although methane emissions account for only 1.1 % of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they account for 8.5 % of the greenhouse gas emissions based on global warming potential. Sources of methane emissions in the U.S. include the waste management and operations industry, the agricultural industry, as well as leaks and emissions from the oil and gas industry itself. A major study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Gas Research Institute (GRI), now Gas Technology Institute, in 1997 sought to discover whether the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from increased natural gas use would be offset by a possible increased level of methane emissions. The study concluded that the reduction in emissions from increased natural gas use strongly outweighs the detrimental effects of increased methane emissions. More recently in 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University released “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas”, a report comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the Marcellus Shale region with emissions from coal used for electricity generation. The authors found that wells in the Marcellus region emit 20 percent to 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal used to produce electricity.
The interest in natural gas combustion as a potential solution to climate change has been gaining because US ghg emissions have fallen somewhat as natural gas from hydraulic fracturing technologies has been rapidly replacing coal in electricity sector generation. In this regard, for instance, Reuters recently reported in regard to recent drops in US ghg emissions that:
Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy use in the first quarter of this year fell to their lowest level in the U.S. in 20 years, as demand shifted to natural gas-fired generation from coal-fired electricity due to record low gas prices, the energy department said.
The US natural gas industry has often argued that a switch to natural gas will significantly reduce ghg emissions from the electricity sector because natural gas emits almost 50 % less CO2 per unit of energy produced than coal combustion. For this reason, natural gas is often referred to as a “bridge fuel.” (See, e.g, Kirkland)
The following chart shows the amount of pollutants including CO2 from natural gas, oil, and coal combustion.
As we can see from this chart, natural gas combustion as a source of electricity generation produces about 70 % of the CO2 as oil and 56 % of the CO2 compared to coal without including methane leakage amounts, a matter discussed below. Yet controversies remain about whether natural gas should be understood as a solution to climate change and if so to what extent. This article first identifies the controversies and then reviews these issues through an ethical lens.
II. The Controversies
Two controversies about the efficacy of switching from coal to natural gas combustion in the production of electricity need to be resolved before conclusions on the beneficial effects of natural gas in reducing ghg emissions can be made. These controversies are: (a) Lingering issues about methane leakage rates, and (b) The inability of current natural gas combustion technology to achieve the magnitude of ghg emissions required to prevent dangerous climate change particularly in the medium- to long-term.
A. Unresolved Methane Leakage Rates
Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent ghg. Natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing is known to leak methane. It is usually assumed that replacing coal with gas would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as long as the leakage of methane into the air from gas production does not exceed 3.6%. (Reuters, 2012) Yet significant controversies remain about actual methane leakage rates. In this regard recently there has been a flurry of conflicting papers about methane leakage rates from natural gas production. For instance, US EPA concluded that methane leakage was 2.4% of total natural-gas production in 2009. Other recent studies have found leakage rates of 4% and 9% from hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado and Utah. (Tollefson, 2013) As a result, no rational climate change action plan or ghg inventory should ignore controversies about methane leakage from hydraulic fracking operations. Until methane leakage rates are scientifically determined, any ghg inventory or projection of future emissions should identify the range of leakage rates that appear in the extant literature. In addition to leakage rates from natural gas production facilities, methane leakage is also known to occur in natural gas transmission lines as well as from vehicles powered by natural gas and other end uses of natural gas. Therefore, actual methane leakage rates into the atmosphere from natural gas need to be based on the sum of leakage from all of these sources that include production, transmission, and end use.
Because methane leakage rate controversies are not yet resolved, any climate change action plan must be transparent about the limitations of predicting ghg emissions from natural gas consumption and fully identify all uncertainties about leakage rates.
(b)The Need To Move Aggressively To Non-Fossil Renewable Energy Even If Natural Gas Proves to Be A Short-Term Bridge Fuel
To understand why natural gas combustion in the electricity sector is not likely be an adequate solution to climate change in the long-term, it is necessary to understand the scale of the problem facing the world. The international community agreed in climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 that the international community should limit warming to 2°C to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact, countries agreed to further assess whether the 2°C warming limit needs to be replaced by a more stringent 1.5°C warming limit to avoid dangerous climate change impacts. This conclusion was confirmed in climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010, in Durban in 2011, and in Doha in 2012. A 2°C warming limit was chosen because there is substantial scientific evidence that warming above 2°C could trigger rapid, non-linear climate change threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends. Even if rapid climate change is not triggered if the 2°C warming is exceeded, this amount of warming will create huge harms to some people and nations around the world. Stabilizing CO2 equivalent concentrations at 450 ppm would only result in a 50% likelihood of limiting global warming to 2°C, and that it would be necessary to achieve stabilisation below 400 ppm to give a relatively high certainty of not exceeding 2°C. (Report of the Scientific Steering Committee of the International Symposium on the Stabilization of Greenhouse Gases)
And so, the challenge facing the world to limit future warming to tolerable levels is extraordinarily daunting and will likely require a level of global cooperation far beyond any other previous human problem.
Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change requires immediate action. The entire world will need to peak its ghg emissions as soon as possible followed by emissions reductions at extraordinarily ambitious rates over the next 30 years. The longer it takes for world ghg emissions to peak and the higher ghg emissions levels are when peaking is achieved, the steeper global emissions reductions need to be to prevent dangerous levels of warming. The following chart shows the emissions reduction pathways that are needed in this century to give the world any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C, assuming global emissions continue to rise at current levels during the next few years.
And so it is clear that the later the peaking of total global emissions, the steeper the reduction pathways that are needed.
Further scientific analysis may reveal that methane leakage rates may be small enough to provide climate change emissions reduction benefits when coal combustion of electricity production is replaced by natural gas combustion. As we have seen this is an ongoing controversy about which further scientific analysis is needed. Still, as explained below, given the enormity of global reductions of ghg emissions that are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, natural gas is likely only to be a short-term bridge fuel. (IEA, 2012)
This is so because according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, natural gas can play at best a limited, very temporary role “if climate objectives are to be met.” That is, greater ghg emissions reductions are needed to prevent 2°C warming than those that can be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas combustion. And so most observers argue that the only viable response to the threat of catastrophic climate change is rapid deployment of existing carbon-free technology. (IEA, 2012) Even if natural gas combustion creates a 50 percent less CO2 per unit of energy produced, an amount which is beyond best case on ghg emission reductions, it will not produce the greater emissions reductions necessary in the next 30 years necessary to give any hope of restricting warming to potentially catastrophic levels. In short, natural gas combustion cant get us where we need to be just a few decades out. It might help in the short term, but we need massive investment in non-fossil technology as soon as possible.
In addition if coal combustion were to be replaced now by non-fossil fuel energy, it would help immediately much more than conversion of coal to natural gas combustion does with putting the world on an urgently needed ghg emissions reduction pathway that gives more hope of preventing catastrophic warming.
There are also other significant benefits of moving quickly to non-fossil fuels. For instance, according to IEA report, fuel savings from investment in non-fossil fuel technologies will pay for the investments. (IEA, 2012) Even if natural gas is a short-term bridge fuel, delay in investing in non-fossil fuel technologies may make it impossible to meet the emissions reductions targets needed to prevent dangerous climate change. For this reason, any climate action strategy must look at emissions reductions pathways beyond 2020 necessary to limit warming to 2oC and consider what amounts of non-fossil energy are needed through 2050. Because huge amounts of non-fossil energy will very likely be required to allow the United States and other developed nations reduce their carbon foot-print to levels required to meet their fair share of safe global emissions, the more rapid the ramp up of non-fossil energy the easier it will be to reach acceptable ghg emissions levels in the years ahead.
Furthermore, the IEA report makes it clear that abundant cheap natural gas could push renewables out of the market unless there is a price on carbon or aggressive economic support for non-fossil renewable energy. It is also possible that cheaper natural gas prices may lead to higher rates of consumption of electricity creating higher CO2 emissions. For this reason, any reliance on natural gas combustion as a method of reducing CO2 emissions must provide for ramped up commitments to non-fossil fuel sources of energy at levels needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Reliance on natural gas alone will not achieve the 80%-95% reductions required of developed nations to prevent dangerous climate change.
Barriers to much more aggressive use of non-fossil combustion appear to be a lack of political will coupled and arguments about prohibitively high costs of non-fossil energy. We will now examine these issues through an ethical lens.
III. Ethical Analysis of the Natural Gas and Climate Change Controversies
Natural gas hydraulic fracturing technologies have created issues about social and environmental impacts that are beyond the scope of this article. Here we more narrowly examine ethical questions raised by reliance on natural gas as a solution to climate change.
Depending on how the methane leakage controversy is resolved, switching from coal combustion to natural gas combustion could help lower ghg emissions from the electricity sector in the short term. Given that the United States has strong ethical responsibilities to rapidly reduce its carbon footprint, a matter examined extensively in Ethicsandclimate.org, one might initially conclude that as a matter of ethics switching to natural gas from coal combustion is ethically justifiable as a short-term strategy. Yet, undeniably replacement of coal combustion with non-fossil energy would create a much greater reduction in the long run in the US carbon footprint than a shift to natural gas from coal combustion would alone. As we noted above, objections to moving immediately to non-fossil energy are lack of political will and cost arguments. We now look at these political and cost arguments through an ethical lens.
A. The United States and Other High-Emitting Nations Have A Duty to Reduce Their Carbon Footprint As Rapidly and Dramatically As Reasonably Possible
No reasonable ethical theory could justify current US projected ghg emissions, including projected reductions that are expected to come from increased substitution of coal with natural gas at least in the medium to long term. This is so for many reasons including, first, as we have explained in considerable detail in the recent article on climate change equity, US emissions far exceed global averages in per capita emissions, the US is by far the largest contributor to historical emission which have raised atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from approximately 280 ppm to 400 ppm, and the world is now running out of time to limit warming to non-dangerous levels. Because, as we have demonstrated in the recent article on “equity” and climate change, there are approximately 50 ppm of CO2 equivalent atmospheric space that remain to be allocated among all nations to give the world approximately a 50% chance of avoiding a 2oC warming and developing nations that have done little to elevate atmospheric CO2 to current levels need a significant portion of the remaining atmospheric space , high emitting developed nations need to reduce their emissions as fast as possible to levels that represent their fair share of the remaining acceptable global budget. (See On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.) For this reason, high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to reduce their ghg emissions as fast as possible to their fair share of safe global emissions. Without doubt, this means that the United States has an ethical duty to reduce emissions both in the short and long run faster than switching to natural gas combustion from coal sector will allow by itself.
The actual amount of emissions reductions that are needed between now and 2020 is somewhat of a moving target depending on the level of uncertainty that society is willing to accept that a dangerous warming limit will be exceeded, the most recent increases in ghg emissions rates, and assumptions about when global ghg emissions peak before beginning rapid reduction rates.
One new study shows that we have to reduce emissions even more than scientists initially thought in order to avoid climate change’s worst impacts. A paper published in Energy Policy on February 20, 2013 by Michel den Elzen and colleagues examines new information on likely future emissions trajectories in developing countries. (Ezden, 2013) As a result, the report finds that developed countries must reduce their emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 2°C, thus preventing some of climate change’s worst impacts.
As we have seen above, to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change the entire world will need to peak its emissions in the next few years followed by emissions reductions at hard to imagine rates over the next 30 years.
No matter what reasonable assumptions are made about carbon budgets that need to guide the world’s response to avoid dangerous climate change, as a matter of ethics, the US has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions both in the short and long run to levels much greater than switching to natural gas combustion from coal will accomplish by iteslf.
Even if switching to natural gas in the short term reduces the US carbon footprint somewhat, it is still not sufficient by itself to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations without other policy interventions including putting a price on carbon or rapid ramp up of renewable energy. Given that the natural gas is likely to reduce costs of electricity production, there is also some risk that with lower costs demand for electricity will increase which will undermine both incentives for finding increases in efficiency while raising ghg emissions levels. For this reason, the United States needs to create an emissions reduction target consistent with its obligations to the world. (See, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.)
Although ethical reflection on benefits of short term switching to natural gas reveals the above ethical questions, long-term reliance on natural gas as a climate change solution raises greater issues of ethical concern. This is so because although switching to natural gas combustion from coal can reduce temporarily the US carbon footprint when coupled with the right policy measures, there is no hope that natural gas combustion alone can achieve the huge emissions reductions necessary to put the United States on an emissions reduction pathway that matches the US ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States urgently needs to adopt policies that will ramp up its use of non-fossil energy immediately. Investment in natural gas combustion could delay investment in non-fossil energy. Moreover the amount of non-fossil energy needed to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations requires the United States to begin immediately as a matter of ethics. The longer the United States waits to move more aggressively to increase the share of non-fossil energy, the more difficult, if not impossible, it will be to meet non-fossil energy needs a few decades from now. And so as a matter of ethics a strong case can be made that the United States needs immediately to adopt policies designed to aggressively increase levels of non-fossil energy.
And so if political will is a barrier to greater use of non-fossil energy, politicians resisting greater commitment to non-fossil energy are most likely supporting positions that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
The fact that much greater US commitments to renewable energy are feasible is demonstrated by looking at achievements of other nations. Germany, for instance, has set a goal of 100% renewable energy in its electricity sector by 2050. (The Gaurdian, 2010) Germany’s Environment Agency’s study found that switching to 100 % green electricity by 2050 would have economic advantages, especially for the vital export-oriented manufacturing industry (The Gaurdian, 2010) It would also create tens of thousands of jobs.
B. Ethical Analysis of Cost Arguments In Opposition to Non-Fossil Electricity Generation
There are many factual issues that could be contested in regard to any argument that switching to a non-fossil fuel future is cost-prohibitive. As we have seen, for instance, Germany claimd that an aggressive move to a non-fossil future has economic benefits. (For a good discussion of economic arguments for aggressive policies in support of renewable energy see, Germany Energy Transition, Henric Boll, 2012)
Cost arguments made in opposition to aggressive policies in support of a non-fossil future many not only be challenged on a factual basis but also on an ethical basis. There are several ethical issues raised by such cost arguments that have been extensively looked at in prior articles in EthicsandClimate.org. These ethical issues include
Cost arguments are often deeply ethically problematic because they ignore duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce ghg emissions. That is, cost arguments usually appeal to matters of self-interest and ignore responsibilities to others including the tens of millions of poor people around the world that are already suffering from climate change impacts or who are much more vulnerable to much harsher climate change impacts in the future than the United States is.
Cost arguments are ethically problematic if they fail to examine the costs of non-action and only consider the costs to high emitters of reducing ghg emissions. Given that most economists now believe that costs of non-action far exceed costs of reducing the threat of climate change, costs considerations that only consider costs to polluters are both deeply ethically troublesome and radically incomplete.
Costs arguments may not be made against climate change policies if greenhouse gas emissions lead to serious human rights violations of victims who have not consented to be put at risk.
Cost arguments often translate all values to economic values measured in markets and thereby transform some things that victims hold have sacred value into commodity value.
Cost arguments usually ignore questions of distributive justice while arguing that government policy should be based upon maximizing economic efficiency or utility. Distributive justice issues that are frequently ignored by the use of cost arguments to oppose climate policy include the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world that have done little to cause the problem
Cost arguments usually ignore issues of procedural justice including the right of victims to consent to being put at risk to climate change impacts.
Cost arguments alone usually ignore well settled norms of international law including the “polluter pays” and “no harm” principles that the United States and almost all other nations have agreed to in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In conclusion, we have identified strong ethical arguments that support the need to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion in the United States and other developed countries while implicitly acknowledging that there could be some short-term benefit if coal combustion is replaced by natural gas, a conclusion that only can be reached with better understanding of the methane leakage issues. Yet even if there is some short-term benefit from substituting natural gas for coal combustion, there is no ethical basis for doing this without simultaneously aggressively ramping up non-fossil fuel electricity combustion. We note that some in the natural gas industry and their political supporters continue to oppose policies designed to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion at the same time claiming that natural gas is a solution to climate change. Because the failure to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion Under the circumstances discussed in this article, such opposition is ethically problematic.
Donald A Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
This 11 minute video examines why politicians, unlike many ordinary citizens, may not rely upon their own uninformed opinion on climate change science as a basis for refusing to support climate change policies. The video argues that politicians have responsibilities that ordinary citizens do not have to protect others from harms that their constituents are causing others.
This video follows the last entry on this subject: