The Grave US Media Failure to Communicate About The Consistent Barrier That The United States Has Been To Finding A Global Solution to Climate Change.

I. Introduction

This is the fifth in a series of articles that examines grave communications failures of the US media about climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change that can be found at:

This is the fourth paper that examines in more detail the issues briefly examined in the video. In previous entries we examined the failure of the US media to communicate about: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change, (b) the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change, and (c) the practical significance for policy that follows from understanding climate change as essentially an ethical problem.  In this paper we look at the failure of the US media help educate US citizens about the consistent barrier that the US has been in international climate negotiations that have sought for over twenty years to find a global solution to prevent harsh climate change impacts.

The last paper in the series will examine the failure of the US media to help Americans understand the well-organized, well-financed climate change disinformation campaign.

II. The World Waits In Vain For US Leadership On Climate Change.

Most Americans are completely unaware that the United States has consistently been a barrier to achieving a global solution to climate change despite the fact that the United States is an indispensable party to a global climate change solution. To understand the importance of the US solving the global climate change problem, one must keep in mind that: (a) the United States is by far the largest historical emitter of global greenhouse gases that have caused the existing problem, (b) the United States is near the top of national greenhouse gas emitters on a per capita basis, (c) the United States is second only to China in total tons of greenhouse gases emitted, and (d) the United States has the worst record among developed countries in making commitments to a global climate change solution.

Although the United States is an indispensable participant in solving climate change because of the size of the US contribution to the global problem, the United States has a dismal record in over twenty years of international efforts to achieve a global solution to this civilization-challenging global problem. In American Heat, Ethical Problems With the United States Response To Global Warming, (Brown, 2002), this writer documented in detail the negative role in achieving a global approach to climate change that the United States played in the first decade of climate change negotiations from the late 1980s through the year 2000. Among other things during the negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) between 1990 and 1992, the United States, virtually standing alone, successfully prevented the UNFCCC from including enforceable national emissions reductions targets for developed nations.

In a book to be published this month, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Ethics, this writer documents in detail the failure of the United States to be a leader since the conclusions of the UNFCCC negotiations in 1992, (Brown 2012).

Among other things, since the UNFCCC negotiations:

  • The United States has been the only developed country in the world to fail to ratify to the Kyoto Protocol and thereby commit itself to a binding interim emissions reduction target.
  • George W. Bush announced that the United States was not only unwilling to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it was withdrawing the United States from the Kyoto Treaty all together.
  • When President Obama was elected, there was wide-spread hope the United States would change course on climate change. Yet, the United States under President Obama has approached climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, Cancun in 2010, and South Africa making only a voluntary commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions levels by 2020 thereby making the US promise: (a) the weakest of all of the developed country commitments, and (b) far short of what is required of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.
  • Although there is evidence that President Obama hope to make the United States, for the first time, a responsible participant in an adequate global approach to climate change, since the Republicans took over the US House of Representatives in November of 2010, the United States hast been unable to make meaningful national commitments on climate change and will not likely to be able to do so until well into 2013 at the very earliest.
  • There is no evidence that the United States is willing to make commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to  levels consistent with what the world needs to do to prevent dangerous climate change, a matter discussed in the second paper in this series.

Although there are several countries that have frequently failed to respond to what justice would require of them to reduce the threat of climate change, the United States, more than any other country, has consistently failed to respond to its ethical duties to reduce its emissions to the its fair share of safe global emissions during the over two decades that the world has been seeking a global agreement on how to respond to climate change.

Because the United States is such a vital player in any global solution to climate change, the United States response to its obligations to reduce the global threat of climate change has been an immense impediment to an urgently needed global climate change solution. And so the world continues to wait for ethical leadership from the United States on climate change as significant damages are becoming more visible around the world. As the world is running out of time to prevent significant climate change, the United States continues to ignore its global obligations. Yet coverage of climate change debates in the US media rarely mention the negative role the United States has been playing in developing a global solution.

The world awaits US leadership on climate change at a time when human-induced climate change harms are becoming more obvious. Yet there is little evidence that US citizens understand their obligations to poor people around the world for climate change damages and the United States has been significantly responsible for delays in reaching a global solution to climate change.  This is both a tragic failure of  domestic leadership and a failure of the US press to help educate Americans about the negative role the US has played in finding a global solution to climate change.


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

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


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

The Ethical Abhorrence of The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 2


This is the second in a three part video series on why the climate change disinformation campaign is so utterly ethically offensive. The fist video in this series looked at the how the campaign was responsible for allowing greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations to rise from 320 ppm when warnings of the harsh impacts of climate change were articulated in the scientific community in the 1960s to 395 ppm now. This series distinguishes between scientific skepticism which is good and should be encouraged from the tactics of the disinformation campaign which are shown to be ethically odious.


This  second video  in the series looks at several of the tactics of the disinformation campaign in more depth and contrasts them with responsible skepticism.



A third video in the series will be posted soon that continues the examination of disinformation campaign tactics and then examines these tactics through an ethical lens. A detailed four part written series on the disinformation campaign can be found on under the category “climate disinformation.”



Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail. com

New Book Describes Ways To Accelerate US Transition To Sustainability-Including A Greater Emphasis On Ethics.

As the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro in June in an attempt to make global course corrections needed to move the world to sustainable future, a new book was published that rigorously examines what has happened and failed to happen on sustainability in the United States. In Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, Professor John Dernbach, with the input from 51 contributing authors, including this author, after looking closely at US sustainability successes and failures, deduces from this experience a strategy to rapidly improve US sustainability performance. (Dernbach et al, 2012)

The idea of sustainable development was placed on the front burner internationally at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. As most educated citizens know, this concept called for the integration of economic, environmental, and social justice goals in policy formation and human practices at international, national, regional, and local scales around the world. The idea of sustainable development was a positive step forward in human history because humans frequently have pursued either economic, environmental, or social goals individually in isolation from each other. That is, for instance, governments at all scales have frequently pursued economic development without regard to how new economic activity might affect the environment or social justice. The great wisdom of the concept of sustainable development is this insight that pursuit of economic, environmental, or social justice goals in isolation from each other will likely have adverse impacts on the goals not considered.

Acting As If Tomorrow Matters rigorously describes what has happened or failed to happen in the United States in the 20 years since the idea of sustainability got widespread international attention at Rio. To seriously examine what needs to be done to move the world on a sustainability path there is no shortcut to a thorough, ambitious, and rigorous analysis of what has happened and failed to happen. This is particularly true of a concept like sustainable development that creates immense policy challenges because of the ambitiousness of this idea’s scope. And so, if one wants to know what has happened on sustainability, there is no escaping the need to go deep on matters that are both wide ranging and complex and that have been unfolding for 20 years.

Because of the sheer complexity of the idea of sustainable development any serious analysis of progress must rely on experts and analysis beyond the disciplinary kens of most individual human beings. One of the most significant contributions of this new book is to make even veteran sustainability watchers aware of sustainability developments in areas that they have not been following. No one person can be an expert on even the major developments in environmental protection, economic development, and human flourishing. There is simply too much to follow. And so, another virtue of this book is that Professor Dernbach has obtained the cooperation of 51 renowned experts to compile the synthesis of US sustainability successes and failures.

This new book examines progress in such diverse policy subjects as: (a) links between environmental protection and public health outcomes, (b) relationships between consumption and population, (c) connections between poverty and unemployment, (d) links between the built environment and sustainability outcomes, (e) national, regional, and local governments successes on sustainability, and (f)  achievements in sustainability education, just to name a few.

Even sustainability experts, including myself, who  have been deeply been immersed in sustainable development issues since the Earth Summit in 1992 will learn from this book about sustainability progress and failures of which they were unaware .  Therefore, perhaps the greatest contribution of this new book is to make those working to make sustainability a reality aware for the first time of achievements, failures, and case studies relevant to sustainability’s future progress. I, for instance was unaware of many sustainability developments discussed in this book such as: (a) the fact that some US states now require that climate change impacts be described in any environmental impact study, (b) the impressive number of programs or projects on sustainability at the local government level in the United States, (c) that 1000 US mayors have joined a mayors’ climate change prevention program, and (d) that the city of Chicago has over 400 green roofs.  And so even the most experienced sustainability expert will get ideas from this book about how to improve the US sustainability performance.

Acting As If Tomorrow Matters not only describes progress on sustainability, it makes it clear that US performance on many sustainability issues has been a dismal failure on some matters. In fact, another virtue of this book is that in describing obstacles to sustainability it does not pull punches. The book makes clear that despite modest success on some sustainability issues, the US has failed to adequately implement the concept because of some persistent obstacles that have been blocking US progress. In this regard, the book discusses the following barriers to US progress: habits, lack of urgency, confusion about sustainability options, unsupportive law and governance, and perhaps most importantly strong political opposition to sustainability policy proposals.

The book also makes recommendations on how to overcome these obstacles including developing better sustainability choices, improving law for sustainability, and perhaps most importantly, the need for a new sustainability social movement.

Woven throughout the book are implicit and express claims that sustainable development must be understood essentially as an ethical and moral matter because what is at stake is the very future of the quality of life on earth. Sprinkled throughout the book are references to morality and ethics including discussions of  religious and moral leaders who have been provoking wider public discussion of the ethical dimensions of sustainability.   This inclusion of ethics in what is otherwise a policy book makes it unique among serious analyses of sustainability achievements and failures.

The importance of seeing sustainability problems as ethical matters becomes apparent when one considers the comments of some observers that have criticized the very idea of sustainable development because there is no precise definition of the idea that would allow for its unambiguous implementation when there are conflicts between environmental, economic, and social goals. Yet this is where ethics and morality become so very important.

In this regard, one minor suggestion for improvement of the conclusions in this excellent book is to call for even greater acknowledgement of the need to stress the importance of the ethical dimensions of sustainability. This is so because the implementation of the concept of sustainable development needs to look to other ethical principles to resolve conflicts among environmental, economic and social goals.  For instance:

  •  During a 30 year debate about climate change policy action the United States’ opponents of domestic legislative action have objected on the grounds that new climate change policies will unacceptably increase costs to some industries, reduce US GDP,  or make US industry non-competitive compared to other global players. Yet these arguments completely ignore US ethical obligations to the victims of climate change to refrain from harming them, creating human rights violations, or destroying ecological systems on which life depends. To resolve conflicts between increased economic costs of climate change policies and protection of the most vulnerable, ethical principles need to be consulted.
  • When questions of scientific uncertainty have arisen in opposition to sustainability policymaking ethical considerations about who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof need to be considered. Yet policy debates have almost always ignored these ethical questions about scientific uncertainty that policy-makers must face in decision-making.
  •  Cost-benefit analyses of sustainability programs almost always ignore questions of distributive and procedural justice that are particularly important for poor, vulnerable people around the world. Ethics demands that these justice issues be considered in policy-making.


And so, in some controversial sustainability matters, ethical considerations have been the key missing element in policy disputes. For this reason, applied ethical analyses should be at the tip of the spear of the new sustainability social movement called for in this book.  Any sustainability social movement should follow actual concrete sustainability issues to identify the ethical issues that need to be considered to move forward on the sustainability path.

And so Acting As If Tomorrow Matters makes a significant contribution to moving the United States forward on the path toward sustainable development. Following perhaps the key recommendation in this book, interested sustainability advocates should work together to create a new social movement on sustainability armed with what we can learn from the sustainability successes and failures discussed in this book.

Those interested in the book can find more information at the book’s website:


 Dernbach, J. (2012) Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, Environmental Law Institute Press, Washington, D.C.



Donald A. Brown,

Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law