This is part II of a series on: Why Nations Should Support Mechanisms For Financing Needed Adaptation and Loss and Damages From Climate Harms That Create Climate Change Refugees.
Part 1 explained that climate change is already creating millions of refugees and threatens to create many millions more.
Part 2 will cover why relevant international law on causation of trans-boundary harms is consistent with the creation of a mechanism for financing loss and damages from climate change induced harms and thus why developed nations should support the creation of such a mechanism.
V. International Law On Compensation for Loss and Damages (L & D) Caused by Trans-boundary Caused Harms.
Nations agreed under the 1992 UNFCCC pro Preamble:
Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UNFCCC, 1992, Preamble) .
Thus governments expressly agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC that they had a duty to abide by the “no harm” rule which required them to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from harming others beyond their borders. Yet they were already bound by the “no harm” principle because it is a principle of customary international law. In international law, customary law refers to the Law of Nations, or the legal norms that have developed through customary exchanges between states over time.
The history of L&D in climate negotiations dates back to 1991 when the Alliance of Small Island States called for a mechanism that would compensate countries affected by sea level rise. The concept of loss and damage made it into a climate decision coming out of a climate negotiations when in 2010 the so-called loss and damage work program was initiated at COP16, which finally lead to the establishment at COP19 in 2013 of a body to deal specifically with issues relating to loss and damage: the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage (or WIM for short). With the inclusion of Article 8 of the Paris Agreement in 2015, loss and damage has now become firmly installed as a thematic pillar under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Under Article 8 of the Paris Agreement, all nations agreed;
1. Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.
2. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts shall be subject to the authority and guidance of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Agreement and may be enhanced and strengthened, as determined by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Agreement.
3. Parties should enhance understanding, action and support, including through the Warsaw International Mechanism, as appropriate, on a cooperative and facilitative basis with respect to loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.
UN Paris Agreement, 2015, Art 8
Determining a nation’s responsibility for specific climate change caused harms can be challenging because climate change damages are the result of a multitude emitters, emitting activities, and emitted gases. It is, thus, evident that the question of how to determine responsibility among nations when allocating responsibility for climate harms and damages is a challenge which cries for a negotiated set of rules that enable rational comparison among nations that failed to prevent activities in their nations from harming others beyond their borders.
In common and civil law the principle of joint and several liability is recognized as a method for allocating responsibility among multiple defendants. But no such rule exists in international law.
Yet human induced climate change has scientific features that could provide the basis for negotiating rules for allocating responsibility for climate harms. The amount of harm caused by climate change is a function of atmospheric GHG concentrations and background climate conditions which change seasonally. Atmospheric CO2 has features that are different than other air polluting substances that have pofound policy implications. CO2 mixes well in the atmosphere and is very long lived. Although approximately 80% of CO2 emissions are removed by carbon sinks in 100 years, some stay in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years contributing to climate change harms everywhere for a very long time.
As we have seen earlier in this discussion, climate change has features that other environmental problems dont have which has profound implications for policy including the fact that all CO2e emissions contribute to atmospheric Co 2 concentrations globally and are long lived in the atmosphere thus contributing to harms everywhere.
In determine whether climate harms are attributable to the failure of a nation to comply with its responsibility to prevent activities within its jurisdiction from harming others, historical experience could be used to link projected climatic shifts with their probable physical, economic, social and human impacts (e.g., the probable impacts of temperature increase or excessive rainfall on ecosystems, populations and agricultural productivity, or probable impacts of sea level rise on coastal land area and infrastructure).
Baseline information might include, for example, average number of days of drought over a period of years, average annual or seasonal rainfall over a period of years, or average frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
VI. National Legal Responsibility for Breach of the No Harm Rule
The no harm rule is understood to be an obligation of a nation to prevent foreseeable harm beyond a nation which has been interpreted to require nations to act to prevent harm when nations have;
(i) the opportunity to act to prevent harm:
(ii) foreseeability or knowledge that a certain activity could lead to transboundary
(iii) have taken proportionate measures to prevent harm or minimize risk.,
WWF-UK-2008, Beyond Adaptation, (2008:18)
VII. The Opportunity to Act has Long Existed
A State can only fail to exercise due diligence with respect to a specific prevention duty if it does not act where it otherwise could have. In the framework of climate change damage, almost every State has had the opportunity to take measures to prevent damage or to minimize the risk of damage. Each ton of a GHG not emitted, and every carbon sink preserved in the long term reduces the risk of further damage.
IX. Proportionate Measures Were Not Taken
In order to determine whether any nation took proportionate measures to avoid climate caused harms that created refugees ideally. any critical analysis would have to consider the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases that triggered the harm and then consider whether that nation took steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their “equitable” share of global missions that were responsible for the atmospheric concentrations that caused the harm. Such analysis would likely lead to the conclusion that zero global emissions were necessary to avoid the climate change induced har that caused the transboundary harm. . Yet as we have seen in this first part of this discussion zero greenhouse gas emissions have been necessary to achieve the Paris agreement’s warning limit goals of 1.5°C but no greater then 2°C. In addition, the world needs to reduce global emissions to net zero to avoid destabilizing several climate “tipping points” several of which are already showing alarming signs of destabilization. Whatever the atmospheric concentration is deemed adequate to prevent the harms that will minimize the suffering of climate caused refugees, and to determine any nation’s equitable share, governments have to grapple with what “equity” requires of the nation.
Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity expressly requires of a nation to reduce its GHG emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its 5th Assessment report that despite some ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden-sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4.pg 317).
The IPCC went on to say that;
(T)hese equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality, and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4, pg 317).
Nations were already required under the Paris agreements “transparency” mechanism to explain periodically how they determined what equity requires of them when they established their NDC. Yet a 2015 study of 15 nations NDCs revealed that nations nor their NGOs demonstrated an understanding of what “equity” required of them.. (IUCN, 2015).For this reason, any mechanism to fund loss and damages will have to grapple with what equity requires of it, a matter which will be raised in any mechanism for loss and damages.
X. Why Developed Nations Should Support A Mechanism for a Adaptation and Loss and Damages Funding For Harms that Affect and Cause Refugees .
Nations have not only agreed to be bound by the no harm principle, they have agreed that they have a duty to cooperate to develop rules regarding compensation and liability.
States shall develop national law regarding liability and compensation for the victims of pollution and other environmental damage. States shall also cooperate in an expeditious and more determined manner to develop further international law regarding liability and compensation for adverse effects of environmental damage caused by activities within their jurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction. Rio Declaration, 1992` Principle 13,
The harms suffered by refugees may require negotiations for recovery for both economic and non-economic damages including rights to adequate temporary housing, access to adequate health care, and food,
Why would Parties ratify liability and compensation schemes? Attaching clear liability and responsibility for the transboundary consequences of environmental pollution helps to enforce regulatory regimes established to protect the environment. Participation in liability and compensation regimes reduces uncertainty for States which might otherwise have to cover loss and damage caused by their citizens and incurred by citizens of other States when adequate compensation cannot be obtained from the responsible parties. These regimes also reduce uncertainty for potential victims, by ensuring the availability of a certain minimum level of compensation and elaborating procedures for making claims. Finally, these regimes reduce risk for those investing in business operations that engage in activities associated with risk, by defining limits of liability.
As the preceding Section V explains, there is a sound legal basis under customary international law and the UNFCCC for States seeking compensation for damage and loss resulting from the impacts of climate change. Nevertheless, each individual case would meet with a number of challenges under existing law, among them the apportionment of responsibility between the various countries that have acted in breach of the no-harm rule. They would also be likely to require specially-commissioned scientific investigations with attendant costs, for in relation to causation and damage assessment. These cases could proceed in an forum, with good prospects of success, adding to the potential liability and litigation risk uncertainty that already exists with respect to private claims and possible tort actions.
Such individual cases should not, however, be the path of choice. International law is based on the notion of cooperation and the avoidance of adjudication – where possible – in favor of diplomatic solutions. Cumbersome individual cases should not be necessary, given that the climate regime is based on the notion of cooperation and good faith. The view has been expressed by international law scholars that States even have a legal duty to provide negotiated solutions where environmental damage is expected to occur, so that prompt and adequate compensation can be obtained in practice.
Although the issues of who pays what, to whom, and when, will be challenging to resolve, and ratification of such an instrument could face substantial domestic hurdles, a negotiated treaty to address the unavoided and unavoidable loss and damage is likely to be the only appropriate and practical solution to addressing climate change damage. The ‘AOSIS Proposal’ of 1991 provides a glimpse of what could be conceivable – not least as it only covers one type of damage.. International law principles and precedent provide support for the negotiation of a compensation instrument, as a necessary and appropriate response to this regulatory gap. The current negotiations leave room to begin this discussion.
Nations should also support financing adaptation and mechanisms to compensate those outside their borders for harms created by activities within their borders because, as the 2008 US Army War College report concluded, such harms are likely to cause social disruptions including violence against those who caused climate induced suffering. (Pumphery, 2008) The Army War College also concluded after describing in detail the higher levels of conflict and chaos that expected increases in unplanned population movements will cause, the US support for a mechanism which deals with the human and political turbulence will be viewed as a public good that is necessary in order to cope with the looming consequences of climate change. (Pumphrey, 2008, 112)
XII. The Moral Case for a Loss and Damage Mechanism under International Law
Although some moral claims are controversial, a claim that nations who cause harm and suffering to places and people living beyond their boarders have a moral duty to compensate those that they have been harmed without their consent is consistent with the golden rule, a moral obligation acknowledged by almost all the world religions. This rule says that people cant harm others because of benefits to them. Furthermore, almost all nations agreed that they had a moral duty to compensate for damages if they harmed others when they adopted the 1992 Rio Declaration which provides:
National authorities should endeavor to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment. (Rio Declaration, 1992. Principle 16)
The creation o f a Loss and Damage mechanism will raise both tricky procedural and distributive justice issues.
Already some opposed to the mechanism are warning of the mischief that developing countries may do if the fund is created. For instance, opponents of the mechanism are claiming developing countries may seek compensation for comparatively trivial harms. All of these concerns can be minimized through negotiation of the rules.
Brown, D., Breakey, H., Burdon, P., Mackey B., Taylor, P (Brown et al., 2018) A Four-Step Process for Formulating and Evaluating Legal Commitments Under the Paris
Agreement, Carbon ; Climate Law Review, Vol 12, (2018) Issue 2, Pg 98 –
Center for Science Education, Sea Level Change in Bangladesh
Ceasar L, et al, 2022, Current Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation Weakest in Last Millennium, Nature GeoScience
Current Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation Weakest in Last Millennium | Nature Geoscience,
Climate change has certain features that other environmental problems don’t have that citizens and the media need to understand to effectively evaluate both any government’s response to this enormous menace and arguments made by opponents of government climate change policies.
Opponents of climate change policies have effectively framed the debates that the public climate controversy has focused on by claiming that nations should not adopt climate policies because of scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts or excessive costs to the national economy of proposed climate policies. While proponents of climate policies have usually responded to the scientific uncertainty arguments and the excessive cost claims of the opponents of climate policies for over 40 years by calling on scientists, economists, or other technical experts. These technical experts have usually made counterclaims about the strength of mainstream climate science and the economic costs of moving away from fossil energy. In so doing, the public debate has usually ignored several ethical/legal principles that the international community agreed in 1992 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) should guide national responses to climate change despite the fact, as we will see, that these principles undermine the validity of the scientific uncertainty and excessive economic cost arguments that have successfully prevented or delayed adequate national responses to climate change for many decades.
As we will also see climate change has certain scientific features that make government delays in meeting their responsibilities under law potentially catastrophic. Therefore before discussing the issues that citizens need to understand to effectively evaluate climate change policy controversies, this article will begin with a brief description of some climate change scientific features that citizens need to understand to grasp the importance of the seven issues that are the focus of this article.
The seven issues discussed in this article are:
1. Because of certain features of climate change, many policy-making issues raise ethical/fairness questions that are practically significant for global prospects of preventing catastrophic climate harms.
2. Issues that arise in four steps that the setting of a national GHG emissions reduction target Implicitly takes a position on.
3. Because all CO2e emissions are diminishing the carbon budget that must constrain world emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, the speed of reducing GHG emissions as well as the magnitude of emissions reductions are crucial for achieving any warming limit goal.
4.Although the consensus scientific position on climate change is extraordinarily strong, no nation may fail to comply with its obligations under the 1992 UNFCCC on the basis of scientific uncertainty because all nations expressly agreed under the 1992 treaty to be bound by the precautionary principle.
5. No developed nation may fail to comply with Its obligations to reduce Its GHG emissions to Its fair share of safe global emissions under the UNFCCC on the basis of cost to the nation.
6. Cost-benefit analysis is not an ethically acceptable tool for limiting a government’s climate change responsibilities.
7. Developed nations under the 1992 UNFCCC acknowledged a duty to assist developing nations with financing their adaptation and mitigation costs and have a moral/legal responsibility to help compensate developing nations for their climate change caused losses and damages.
To understand the issues discussed in this article, the following very simplified image of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will help visualize several scientific features of climate change that will be discussed in more detail later in this paper. This simplified image ignores other GHGs including methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and water vapor which are sometimes included in the concept of CO2e or carbon dioxide equivalent.
The bottom ring in the bathtub depicts the approximate atmospheric concentration of CO2 (approximately 280 ppm) that existed before the mid-19th Century when increasing fossil fuel use began to raise atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
The middle ring in the tub is meant to visualize the current CO2 concentration which was 414 ppm CO2 in July 2020 (NOAA, 2020).
The top ring depicts the CO2e level at which atmospheric CO2e concentration levels must be stabilized to achieve any warming limit goal.
The space between the middle ring and the top ring is meant to visualize the amount of additional CO2e emissions that can be added to the atmosphere before the upper atmospheric stabilization goal is reached. This concept is referred to as the “carbon budget” or the number of tons of CO2e (all GHG emissions expressed in the common unit of CO2) that must constrain total global emissions if the international community will be able to successfully achieve any warming limit goal by stabilizing atmospheric CO2e concentrations at a level that will prevent warming greater than the warming limit goal.
This idea alone, as we shall see, and because GHGs and particularly CO2 are long-lived in the atmosphere, suggests an enormous challenge for climate change policy-making that is not a problem with other air pollution problems. Namely, before the atmospheric CO2e stabilization level goal is reached, global CO2e emissions must approach zero if any warming limit goal will be achieved.
The multiple lines into the faucet are meant to depict that different nations have been more responsible than others for raising the atmospheric concentration of CO2e.
The following chart depicts the long-lived retention of CO2 in the atmosphere, a fact which has a profound significance for policy-making. Although approximately 80% of the CO2 emissions are removed by the ocean, forests, and other global carbon sinks in about 100 years, some of the emitted CO2 persists for tens of thousands of years . (Yale Climate Connections, 2010).
(Yale Climate Connections, 2010)
A carbon sink is any reservoir, natural or constructed, of carbon that absorbs more carbon than it releases. Globally the most important carbon sinks are vegetation, the ocean, and soils. Because the health of carbon of sinks affects the atmospheric concentration of CO2e and because carbon sinks can become less effective sinks or carbon sources in a warming world or upon a government’s failure to protect sinks, a government’s management of carbon sinks is an important element of its climate change response.
Critically Evaluating a Nation’s Response to Climate Change or Arguments Made By Opponents of Climate Change Policies
Under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change nations agreed that:
Nations have duties to adopt policies to prevent dangerous climate change and to take steps toward stabilization of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system (UN 1992: Art 2).
Although the 1992 UNFCCC did not define dangerous climate change, under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 197 nations agreed to adopt policies to keep global temperature rise in this century well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C (Paris Agreement, 2015).
Nations also agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC that:
States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UNFCCC, Preamble).
This principle is referred to as the “no harm” principle.
This paper now identifies seven issues that citizens and the media need to understand to critically evaluate both any nation’s response to climate change and the most frequent arguments made by opponents of government climate change policies.
1. Because of certain features of climate change, many climate change policy issues raise ethical/fairness questions which are practically significant for global prospects of preventing catastrophic climate harms.
Certain features of climate change require it to be understood and responded to as a moral and ethical problem. These features are:
Some nations are more responsible than others for the rise of atmospheric concentrations of GHGs.
The countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts are among the nations least responsible for the rise of atmospheric GHG concentrations.
The potential harms to the most vulnerable are not mere inconveniences but include potential catastrophic harms to health, life, and ecological systems on which life depends.
Those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts usually can’t petition their governments for protection. Their best hope is that the countries that are most responsible for climate change will comply with their duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions while complying with several other principles expressly agreed to in the UNFCCC which are discussed in this paper.
Because of this, climate change policy-making raises a host of ethical or fairness issues that arise in specific policy-making steps that have important practical significance for global prospects of preventing dangerous climate impacts. Yet these ethical issues have frequently been ignored in the technical scientific and economic debates which have largely dominated climate change controversies visible to the public.
2. Issues that arise in four steps that the setting a national GHG emissions reduction target Implicitly takes a position on.
Every national GHG emissions reduction target adopted by a nation under the UNFCCC commonly referred to as a Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC, implicitly takes a position on four issues that raise ethical or fairness questions that have profound implications for policy-making. Almost all nations thus far have failed to identify their justification for their positions on these four issues (Brown and Taylor, 2015). Yet under the goals of the enhanced transparency mechanism of the Paris Agreement, nations should explain their justification for their positions on these issues because a nation’s NDC implicitly takes a position on these issues when they develop an NDC. Because some developed nations including the United States successfully resisted making the Paris Agreement enforceable in 2015, requiring nations to explain their justifications for their NDCs under the transparency mechanism under the Paris Agreement is the only tool under the Paris Agreement to put pressure on governments to improve their compliance with the Paris Agreement goals. For a more detailed discussion of the four steps , see (Brown et. al, 2018).
The four issues arise in four steps that all NDC policy formation processes must implicitly take a position on:
(1) Identify a global warming limit goal to be achieved by the GHG emissions reduction target or NDC.
Because under the Paris Agreement nations pledged to take best efforts to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 C but no greater than 2.0 C, nations have some discretion to adopt NDCs that will achieve a global warming goal in the 1.5 C to 2.0 C. Yet because a nation’s position on any warming limit goal is implicitly a position on how much harm to others the nation deems acceptable, this decision raises questions of fairness and justice which are usually referred to under the term “equity,” a concept which nations expressly agreed would guide their GHG policies under the UNFCCC and a concept which this article will examine below. Because there remains some scientific uncertainty about what temperatures will cause the most feared climate impacts that may be caused if temperatures trigger numerous “tipping points” or positive feedbacks that will accelerate the warming, the warming limit goal that the NDC seeks to achieve also raises profound questions of fairness to those nations and people most vulnerable to climate change impacts particularly if warming triggers any of the tipping points.
(2) Identify a global carbon budget that must constrain the international community’s GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal.
IPCC and other scientific organizations have identified different carbon budgets with different probabilities, usually expressed in gigatons of CO2e, available to achieve any warming limit goal. Because carbon budgets are usually arranged in probabilities of achieving a warming limit goal and some countries are much more vulnerable than others to climate harms, the selection of a carbon budget from among others that have different probabilities of achieving warming limits goals raises issues of fairness to the nations who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. In this writer’s experience, governments very frequently rely on carbon budgets that were calculated at least several years before that have not been adjusted to reflect the shrinking of the budget that has occurred due to emissions since the date at which the budget was calculated. For a discussion of how to identify a carbon budget that reflects the considerations that ideally should relied upon in selecting a carbon budget see, Brown et al, 2018.
(3) Determine the national fair share of the global carbon budget based on equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities as agreed to in the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement.
Although what “equity” requires is an issue that ethicists have different opinions on, there is widespread agreement among ethicists that some claims nations have made about what equity requires of them in setting their NDC that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard, ethicists often claim one need not know what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. For instance, in response to some nations who argued that their high costs of reducing GHG emissions was relevant to what equity required of them, IPCC concluded that:
The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the well-being of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg.224).
A claim made by US President Trump for his justification for removing the US from the Paris Agreement was that the Paris deal was unfair to the United States is obviously false because the Paris Agreement allows nations to determine what equity requires of the nation in achieving the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.
To determine any nation’s fair share of any carbon budget is essentially a question of what “equity” requires of the nation in achieving any warming limit goal. Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity expressly requires of a nation to reduce its GHG emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its 5th Assessment report that despite some ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden-sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4.pg 317).
The IPCC went on to say that;
(T)hese equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality, and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4, pg 317).
Responsibility is understood to mean historical responsibility for the current problem not emissions levels per year.
(Columbia University, 2019)
This chart demonstrates that the US historical emissions are much greater than China’s despite China surpassing the US in total tons of yearly CO2 emissions several decades ago. Frequent claims have been made by opponents of climate change policies that because China is currently the largest emitter of GHG in respect to tons of emissions, it is unfair to require a nation such as the United States to make significant emissions reductions without acknowledging that this is not true in respect to historical emissions which are more relevant to determine which countries are more responsible for the current warming problem.
Another variable that IPCC concluded is a legitimate consideration for determining what equity requires of a nation in determining its NDC is per capita emissions. The following chart depicts that the US has among the highest per capita emissions among countries.
The other two factors that IPCC concluded are relevant to a nation’s determination of what equity requires of it in formulating its NDC are “economic capacity” and “rights of developing nations to sustainable development.” These variables support the arguments of poor vulnerable countries that developed countries such as the United States should adopt more aggressive emissions reductions than poor vulnerable nations.
The following chart demonstrates that unless high emitting nations including the EU and the USA base their emissions reduction targets on what equity requires of it to reduce their GHG emissions, there is no hope that the international community will achieve any warming limit goal. The upper line in the chart represents the emissions reduction pathway that must constrain the entire world to achieve a 2C warming limit goal. The reduction curves of the four largest national emitters represent reduction pathways that these countries’ NDC would achieve.
(Global Carbon Project, 2019)
Thus unless high emitting nations base their emission reduction target or NDC on their equitable share of any carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, there will be nothing left of the remaining carbon budget for lower-emitting developing countries to allocate to themselves when they establish their NDC and they will thus have to achieve zero emissions quicker than the higher emitting developed nations. Therefore requiring nations to base their NDC on their equitable share of a remaining carbon budget is both required by principles of fairness and practically indispensable for the international community to achieve any warming limit goal.
(4) Specify the annual rate of national GHG emissions reductions on a pathway to achieve any warming limit goal.
These two different curves of different pathways to achieve zero emissions by 2050 demonstrate that different pathways to the same reduction target will consume more of the available remaining carbon budget to achieve any global warming limit goal.
Although citizens around the world have learned the importance of being able to visualize whether governments are flattening the COVID-19 infection curve to judge the effectiveness of policies to minimize the risks of the pandemic, such a curve of a government’s GHG emissions reductions is even more important to help citizens track and evaluate the effectiveness of a government’s climate policies because, among other reasons, any failure to reduce GHG emissions as planned in its emissions reduction pathway makes the global problem more difficult and expensive to solve as we will see below. The speed at which GHG reductions are made is extraordinarily relevant to evaluate a nation’s reduction policy because delay makes the carbon budget available for the world to use smaller and, as will see, makes the possibility of achieving any global warming goal more expensive and difficult to achieve.
The hourglass on the left represents the available carbon budget for any warming limit goal at any point in time. Yet because all GHG emissions are reducing the available budget, the top half the hourglass on the right is meant to visualize the relevant carbon budget sometime in the future. For climate change policy, doing nothing or delaying to reduce emissions makes the problem worse for the world. Thus the delays by the United States in adopting policies necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals since they were established in 2015 has already made it more difficult for the international community to achieve the Paris warming limit goals. In addition, US President Trump’s justification for US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement of “putting America first” is indefensible because the US agreed under the UNFCCC that it had a duty to adopt policies that will stabilize GHG atmospheric concentrations at safe levels and US GHG emissions are making the problem more difficult for the world to achieve any warming limit goal,
3. Because all CO2e emissions are diminishing the carbon budget that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, the speed of reducing GHG emissions as well as the magnitude of emissions reduction are crucial for achieving any warming limit goal.
Much of the public debate about climate change policies in the United States has focused on the quantify of GHG emissions needed by a date certain, such as 80% by 2050, without any acknowledgment that the speed of achieving the reduction target must be understood to evaluate the acceptability of how much of the remaining carbon budget the policies which will implement the reduction goal target will allocate to the nation.
In 2016, the United Nations “Bridge the Gap Report” found that to achieve the 1.5 C warming limit goal with a 50% probability, the world needed to reduce CO2e emissions to net-zero by 2045 (UNEP, 2016). To achieve the 2.0 warming limit goal with a 66% probability, UNEP also claimed in 2016 the world needed to reduce CO2e emissions to net-zero by 2070 (UNEP, 2016). Given these estimates were based on carbon budgets available for the entire world before 2016 and did not include adjustments for equity that are particularly practically important for developed countries to do to determine their fair share of the available remaining carbon budget, developed nations would need to reduce their emissions to net-zero even earlier than these dates.
In 2019, UNEP published another “Bridge the Gap Report” which quantified the profound policy implications of delaying global emissions reduction programs necessary to achieve the 1.5C warming limit goal. On achieving the 1.5C warming limit goal the report said:
Thus a mere six-year delay of waiting from 2019 until 2025 to implement policies needed to achieve the 1.5 C warming limit goal increases the needed necessary global reduction rate for the whole world from 7.6 % to 15.5%. Yet, in this writer’s experience, there has been little media coverage of the consequences of governments’ delay in reducing GHG emissions to levels required of them to meet the Paris agreement’s warming limit goals. Although the US media occasionally comments on President Trump’s intention to remove the US from the Paris Agreement, I have never heard anyone from the US media comment on the harm to the world caused by the Trump decision to move out the Paris Agreement.
4.No nation may fail to comply with its obligations under the 1992 UNFCCC on the basis of scientific uncertainty because all nations expressly agreed to be bound by the precautionary principle.
More specifically the treaty in Article 3 of 1992 UNFCCC said:
The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost (UNFCCC, 1992, Article 3.3).
From the standpoint of ethics, those who engage in risky behavior are not exonerated because they did not know for sure that their behavior would actually cause harm once there is a reasonable scientific basis for concluding that an activity is dangerous. In fact, many ethicists hold that those who are engaged in dangerous behavior should shoulder the burden of proof to demonstrate that their behavior is safe before being permitted to continue the dangerous behavior. Hans Jonas, a highly respected philosopher on ethical issues that arise in policy-making that must face scientific uncertainty, has said in responding to scientifically plausible dangerous human activities in policy-making, that prophesies of gloom should be given priority over prophecies of bliss (Jonas, 1984).
In this writer’s experience, many, if not most scientists and engineers, don’t know that who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof in regard to responses to activities that create scientifically credible concerns of dangerous impacts is an ethical issue, not a value-neutral scientific issue. This ignorance is compounded by the fact that most scientific disciplines usually follow epistemic norms or rules that determine when causal claims can be made which are designed to prevent a false positive, or a premature conclusion claiming the cause of an effect has been demonstrated. This phenomenon is referred to by scientists that scientific procedures are designed to prevent a “Type1 statistical error” Although many, if not most scientists, in this writer’s experience, are aware that the epistemic rules of their discipline have been established to prevent a false positive, they are infrequently aware that when human activity is already creating a scientifically plausible risk of harm, but because the complexity of the problem, such as the case in determining the cancer risk of mixtures of carcinogenic substances, prevents a government from determining the magnitude of the risk of the dangerous behavior before exposure to the risk can be prevented, ethics requires governments to follow a “precautionary science” approach to determine the nature of the harm. For a discussion of these issues see on this website “On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.”
A recent paper by the Breakthrough Institute claimed that IPCC has been underestimating the speed that some of the most worrisome climate tipping points could be triggered, including methane from permafrost, because the models on which IPCC relied could not integrate empirically-based permafrost risk melting rates because the melting was taking place from the bottom of the permafrost land mass up to 50 miles inland. (WLB, 2018) If this was the case, ethics would require that scientists develop a precautionary approach to estimating the speed of the methane leakage which would rely on reasonable speculation of the timing of the methane leakage from the permafrost rather than ignoring the risk.
Some issues in environmental policy-making have relied on a “precautionary science” including the development of cancer risk levels for very low doses of known carcinogenic substances because of practical limitations of determining the carcinogenicity of substances at very low dose levels.
In addition to the express inclusion of the “precautionary principle” in the 1992 treaty, as we have seen, nations agreed under the “no harm” principle that they have duties to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from harming others beyond their borders. This principle of customary international law has been interpreted by courts to assign responsibility to governments to protect others beyond their borders not only when a nation knew for sure that an activity within its jurisdiction would cause harm beyond its borders but legal responsibility is triggered when the nation could envision that certain harms to others could result from the activities within its jurisdiction (Voight, 2008)
As a matter of ethics, those engaged in scientifically plausible dangerous activities about which for practical reasons the uncertainties cant be resolved quickly enough for the government to take precautionary action should have the burden of proof to determine that the activity is safe. For this reason, a strong ethical argument can be made that opponents of climate change have had the duty to demonstrate following normal scientific epistemic norms in peer-reviewed journals that the world’s increasing GHG emissions and resultant atmospheric concentrations are safe.The scientific skeptic community have always had the option of publishing their claims in peer-reviewed journals but rarely have.
Scientific uncertainty argument has continued to dominate the debate about climate change policy adoption for almost 40 years despite the mountain of scientific evidence of human causation that began slowly in the early 19th Century and began significantly speeding up after measurements that began in 1958 by Charles Keeling on Mona Loa, Hawaii demonstrated rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
One day in September1997, while serving as Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US EPA Office of International Activities, this writer was tasked by the US State Department during negotiations of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to co-chair for the United States a negotiation on whether governments were willing to stipulate that the global warming, then already discernible, was human-caused rather than the result of natural forces. These natural climate drivers included, among others, several cyclical changes in the sun’s energy output that reaches Earth, due to changes in the sun’s orbit, wobble on its axis, and changes in radiation levels, ocean circulation and chemistry, movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, and CO2 releases as the result of volcanic activity.
A few OPEC countries led by Saudi Arabia at the start of the negotiation on this matter balked at agreeing to language that concluded that human activities were responsible for the growing climate change threats. Yet when I pointed out that their scientific representatives had agreed to the very same language under discussion in a meeting of IPCC climate scientists the year before, all countries finally agreed to stipulate that the balance of scientific evidence supported that the increasing global warming the world was experiencing was human-caused. Although scientists from around the world in IPCC meetings had agreed to human causation, this negotiation was the first time the world’s governments agreed to state that science supported human causation of change. Thus, every country in the world, including the world’s petroleum states which had consistently blocked global action on climate change, agreed more than two decades ago that the ominous climate changes the world has been experiencing have been primarily caused by rising levels of GHGs in the atmosphere which are attributable to human activities. Yet opponents of climate change policies including some fossil fuel countries and related industries continue to support witnesses in public fora considering proposed climate legislation who claim that human activities are not causing climate change.
The reason for the universal international agreement among nations that humans are responsible for the climate change the world is experiencing is that the evidence of human causation is extraordinarily compelling despite the fact that the Earth has experienced warming and cooling cycles during Earth’s history in responses to natural forces. The confidence of human causation is very high because scientists: (1) can predict how the Earth will warm up differently if a layer of GHGs in the atmosphere warms the Earth compared to how the planet warms if the natural forces that have caused warming in the Earth’s historical heating and cooling cycles, these differences are referred to as “human footprints”,(2) have compared the temperature forcing of human GHGs to forcing of the natural causes of climate variations in “attribution studies,” and have concluded that only the forcing from human sources can explain the rise in global temperatures, (2) have known precisely since the mid-1880s the amount of forcing a molecule of CO2 generates in watts per square meter, (3) have known that the CO2accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil fuel combustion because of its chemical isotope, (4) determined that the CO2accumulating in the atmosphere is directly proportional to the timing and amount of fossil fuel combustion around the world, (5) tested these lines of evidence rigorously in computer model experiments since the 1960s, (6) these models have not only accurately predicted future warming, they have been run backward and accurately described past temperature regimes, .
The way the atmosphere heats up is one of ten lines of evidence referred to as fingerprints that support human causation of experienced warming. For instance, if a layer of GHGs is causing the observed warming, the lower atmosphere warms as the upper atmosphere cools. If variations in the sun’s energy reaching Earth are causing the warming, the upper and lower atmosphere warm at a similar rate. This has been tested and the conclusions support atmospheric GHG are causing the warming.
This chart compares the warming expected from human activities in red, to the warming expected by natural forcing in blue, to the actual observed warming in black. Thus this comparison is strong evidence for attributing recent warming to human forces.
The scientific confidence in the consensus view of climate change is also extraordinarily strong because, in 1988, the World Health Organization and the UN Environment Program Created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) whose mission is to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate science and socio-economic literature on climate change and make recommendations to the international community. Approximately every five years, starting in 1990, thousands of scientists, most of whom had been recommended by member governments for their scientific expertise, produce comprehensive three volume IPCC reports. The IPCC does not do research, it synthesizes the published scientific literature.
This chart depicts that IPCC’s conclusions about human causation of climate change increased in confidence in every report with the last report claiming that human cause of climate change was virtually certain, meaning at least a 95% probability,
IPCC has issued 5 Reports since 1990.The Reports are produced in three different working groups, WGI synthesizes the physical climate science literature, WGII synthesizes the science on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, and WGIII which focuses on mitigation. This writer was a contributing author on a new IPCC Chapter in Working Group III in the IPCC 5th assessment on ethics and sustainability.
Scientific uncertainty arguments have continued to generate political opposition to government action on climate change despite the overwhelming strength of the evidence of human causation, that every Academy of Science in the world, and over 100 scientific organizations with expertise in climate science have issued statements in support of the consensus view, and at least 97 % of all scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science support the consensus view, and as we have seen, every government in the world agreed that climate change is human caused. . ,
In “The Denial Countermovement” sociologists Riley Dunlap and Araon McCright describe how some fossil fuel companies, corporations that depend on fossil fuel, business organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations successfully prevented government action on climate change by funding the climate change disinformation campaign which they explain sought to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream science (Dunlap, R., & McCright, A., 2015. p. 300).
On October 21, 2010, the John Broder of the New York Times, http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html?sort=newest&offset=2, reported, that “the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” According to the New York Times article, the fossil fuel industry has ” created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.”
Without doubt, those telling others that there is no climate danger heading their way have a special moral responsibility to be extraordinarily careful about such claims. For instance, if someone tells a child laying on a railroad tracks that they can lie there all day because there is no train coming and has never rigorously checked to see if a train is actually coming would be obviously guilty of reprehensible behavior.
This website includes 17 entries including three videos on the climate change disinformation campaign which both explain many aspects of this campaign and importantly distinguish the tactics of this campaign from legitimate climate skepticism (See, “Start Here and Index” Tab above under “Disinformation Campaign”). Just as screaming fire in a crowded theater when no fire exists is not construed to be a justifiable exercise of free speech because the claim of fire will likely lead to recklessly damaging behavior, climate change science disinformation cannot be justified on free speech grounds and must be understood as the morally indefensible behavior of many fossil fuel companies, some corporations, industry organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations that have funded the climate change disinformation campaign because inaction will cause atmospheric CO2 concentrations to rise and remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, likely cause great harm, and perhaps make it impossible to prevent catastrophic damages to human health and ecological systems on which life depends.
On this website, we have consistently acknowledged that skepticism is the oxygen of the scientific method and should be encouraged even on climate change issues. On the other hand, the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are deeply morally reprehensible strategies designed to undermine mainstream climate change science. For a summary of why the tactics are immoral see on this website:Insights from a New Book on Sociology and Climate Change: The Heinous Denial Countermovement
The immoral tactics have included:
(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth on some climate change science claims;
(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of settled climate change science;
(c) using think tanks to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty which have not been submitted to peer-review;
(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science;
(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science;
(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies; and
(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends.
We have frequently explained on this website that although skepticism in science a good thing, ethical considerations require that those making claims that conflict with a large body of peer-reviewed science should play by the rules of science by subjecting their claims to peer review. This conclusion is particularly strong when the scientific claim is about activities which are potentially very harmful.
5. No nation may fail to comply with Its obligations under the UNFCCC due to high economic cost to the national economy.
As we have seen, all nations in 1992 when they agreed to be bound by the ” no harm” principle acknowledged that they had a duty to adopt climate change policies that would keep climate change from harming others outside their jurisdiction. A nation’s duty to adopt policies that will prevent climate change caused harms is not diminished under the “no harm: rule because these policies will be costly to the nation or a national industry.
In addition, because climate change is now violating the most basic human rights including the rights to life and health, and national responsibilities to protect human rights are not excused because of high costs to a government responsible for preventing human rights violations, nations may not refuse to adopt climate policies necessary to prevent predicted climate impacts that violate basic human rights on the basis of cost to the nation.
A 2019 Special Report of the UN General Assembly found that climate change was already causing 150,000 premature deaths, a number which is sure to increase as temperature rises (UN General Assembly, 2019).
Climate change is also expected to increase infectious diseases through greater transmissions by bugs including mosquitoes and ticks whose numbers and ranges are expected to increase in a warming world. Climate change is also expected to cause numerous other health problems and deaths to the world’s population in many additional ways. It is already causing massive health problems including loss of life from intense storms, droughts, floods, intense heat, and rising seas and the current numbers of these health problems will surely rise in a warming world. Predicted warming is also already creating international chaos and conflict from the over million refugees that have had to flee their homes due to the loss of water supplies needed for drinking and agriculture.
As horrific as these climate impacts, even modest amounts of additional warming threatens to surpass levels that will trigger various ” tipping points” that could very dangerously speed up the warming. A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate system – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system (WLB, 2018). Progress toward triggering a tipping point is often driven by positive feedbacks, in which a change in one component of the climate system leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic global warming example is the ice-albedo feedback which happens when melting ice sheets cause more heat energy to warm the Earth rather than the ice reflecting the heat energy from the sun out into space.
Although the upper warming limit goal of 2 C in the Paris Agreement was based on an informal scientific consensus in 2015 that the tipping point feedbacks would not likely be triggered until warming exceeded 2 C, recently there has been some evidence that several tipping points of concern are showing signs of destabilization including methane permafrost (Anthony et al, 2018), arctic summer ice sheets are predicted to disappear in the coming decade, and the Greenland ice sheet has already past a point of no return (Morgan McFall-Johnson, 2020). These tipping points could trigger a domino effect tipping other feedbacks creating an existential crisis for much of life on Earth (Leahy, S. 2019).
Cost is also not an acceptable justification for a nation’s refusal to adopt climate policies necessary to prevent horrific climate impacts because nations agreed to the ” polluter pays” principle under the Rio Declaration in 1992 which says:
National authorities should endeavor to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment. (Rio Declaration, 1992, Principle 16)
6. Cost-benefit analysis is not an ethically acceptable analytical tool for limiting a government’s climate change responsibilities.
Many opponents of proposed climate change policies have argued that a nation’s response to climate change must satisfy cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Cost-benefit analysis can be a useful tool to determine how to maximize human preferences, but ethics ask a different question. Ethics asks us to consider which preferences are acceptable to have.
CBA can be a useful tool to determine economic efficiency but cannot determine what justice requires of our choices. As a result, for example, few people would propose the government use CBAs to determine whether the government should decriminalize child prostitution or when rape is acceptable.
CBA also requires that government policy-making translate all values into commodity value. Using CBA to determine the acceptability of climate change policies requires the policy process to compare the costs of implementing policies to reduce GHG emissions to the economic value of harms avoided by the implementation of the policies, including the economic value of people who might be killed by climate impacts, the economic value of health free of diseases that will be avoided by climate change policies, the economic value of treasured ecological systems, plants and animals and many other things that ethical theory holds should not be valued only for their commodity value. Although, for instance, some plants and animals are sacred in some cultures, such as cows in India and Elephants in Thailand, using a willingness to pay to determine the value of climate harms avoided requires transforming sacred value into commodity value. Given that GHG emissions harm people and governments around the world, using CBA to determine the acceptability of costs to a government of reducing GHG emissions requires that the economic value of avoiding the harms everywhere that will be avoided by the implementation of the climate policies be quantified, a concept often referred to as the “social cost of carbon.”. This is usually calculated by governments without the acceptance of those whose interests will be harmed by determining the “willingness to pay” for protecting things that will be harmed that have no market value and by determining the present value of things that will be harmed in the future by discounting the values of things harmed in the future by judging what discount rate should apply, a decision for which there is no value-neutral way of proceeding.
Since as we have seen, CO2 will last in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, and because climate change is capable of killing much of life on Earth particularly if a tipping point causes a cascade of tipping points, CBA used in climate change policy-making needs to face incredibly difficult challenges in determining what future harms will be created by GHG emissions and how to value these harms.
A question posed by a well-known economist to the audience at a conference I recently attended I thought demonstrated the absurdity of using commodity value to quantify the value of all potential climate harms. The economist asked the audience if they had any ideas about how to put a value on all human life if climate change killed all human life on Earth.
Support of CBA has been sometimes justified by some economists on the basis of utilitarian ethical theory which claims that society should develop policies that maximize human preferences although most philosophers hold that maximizing utility is not an ethically supportable justification for violating human rights.
Many subnational governments, including Pennsylvania for example, have used CBA to determine whether proposed climate policies are justified by comparing the costs of the policies to the economy of the government implementing the policy, such as Pennsylvania, to the economic value of the harms avoided by the policy only in the sub-national government. Yet this approach is ethically problematic because such comparison ignores the harms to the rest of the world that will be caused by the GHG emissions from the sub-national government.
7. Developed nations under the 1992 UNFCCC acknowledged a duty to assist developing nations with financing adaptation and mitigation and have a moral and perhaps legal responsibility to help compensate developing nations for their climate losses and damages.
The arguments made by opponents of climate change policies based on the cost to a government of adopting climate policies ignore the fact that under the UNFCCC, developed country Parties agreed to provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties in implementing the objectives of the Convention through, that is their mitigation costs (UNFCCC, Art. 4, 3). The developed countries also agreed under the UNFCCC that they have the responsibility to assist the developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in meeting their costs of needed adaptation to adverse effects (UNFCCC, Art 4, 4). The Paris Agreement also provides that the developed countries shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention (Paris Agreement, Art. 9.1). Yet the arguments made by opponents of climate change based on excessive costs to a nation of needed climate policies have not considered the costs that developed countries may be responsible for if they must contribute to financing the mitigation and adaptation costs of climate change to poor developing countries.
The “no harm” principle recognized in the UNFCCC also makes nations responsible for climate losses and damages to other nations caused by activities within their jurisdiction. Yet the fact that all nations have contributed to rising atmospheric CO2 levels and there is an absence of legal rules in the international legal system that prescribe how the value of damages should be allocated among all nations responsible for the climate change harms makes it unlikely that a court will find any country financially legally liable for a specific amount of loses or damages in any country (Voight, 2008) Nevertheless because nations have agreed in the UNFCCC that they have a duty to prevent activities in their jurisdiction from harming countries and people beyond their borders, many of the most vulnerable countries have been pushing for the creation of a financial mechanism under the UNFCCC that would compensate vulnerable countries for climate losses and damages that adaptation cant remediate.
.At the 2012 Doha Conference of the Parties under the UNFCCC, the international community agreed to establish a formal mechanism for compensation for losses and damages which is known as the “Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damages (WMLD)” Article 8 of the 2015 Paris Agreement made the WMLD an official negotiating body of the UNFCCC. Since the beginning of negotiations of the WMLD, negotiations have gotten bogged down over how to finance compensation for losses and damages in developing countries as developed nations have stressed that any agreement on compensation should not be understood as establishing legal liability for the developed nations to compensate for losses and damages. Although developed nations will likely prevail in avoiding any language that could be construed as establishing their clear legal liability for losses and damages in developing nations, in this writers opinion, developed nations will eventually likely agree to create some mechanism, such as an insurance fund, to compensate vulnerable developing countries for some kinds of losses and damages in developing countries which developed countries will be expected to provide financing for. .
Financial support of developing nation’s mitigation obligations under the UNFCCC is not only legally required under the UNFCCC but also practically important because large-scale investments by developing countries are required to significantly reduce their emissions and very dangerous climate change will not likely be avoided unless developing nations reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Financial support for developing nations by developed nations is also both legally and ethically required to meet the adaptation needs of developing countries.
Climate impacts, such as sea-level rise and more frequent droughts and floods, are already causing devastating effects to communities and individuals in developing countries. These impacts to developing nations are already affecting developed nations because, for instance, between 2008 and 2011, approximately 87 million people were displaced due to extreme weather events which have caused mass migration of refugees which are already destabilizing many developed nations, particularly in Europe (Brookings, 2019). Since 2014 serious drought in and severe weather in Central America has caused large migrations of refugees which have put pressure on the US southern border, (Wernick, 2018). Because climate change caused refugees are already destabilizing developed countries who have been fleeing vulnerable areas of poor developing nations that have become inhabitable due to climate change-induced droughts, floods, loss of drinking water, and rising seas, developed nations have a strong practical incentive to assist developing nations with adaptation. If developed countries do not help finance adaptation needs in developing countries, they will experience growing conflict and stress caused by vulnerable people’s problems including the 150 million refugees that the World Bank predicts will be created by a 2C temperature rise by the end of this Century, a temperature rise that now appears to be almost inevitable (World Bank, 2018).
Brown, D., Breakey, H., Burdon, P., Mackey B., Taylor, P (Brown et al., 2018) A Four-Step Process for Formulating and Evaluating Legal Commitments Under the Paris Agreement, Carbon & Climate Law Review, Vol 12, (2018) Issue 2, Pg 98 – 108, https://doi.org/10.21552/cclr/2018/2/
Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change,The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014), 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge University Press), 317_
This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19. This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.
Climate change has certain features that more than any other environmental problem scream for attention that it should be understood and responded to as an ethical problem. These features include that it is a problem that: (1) has mostly been caused by developed nations; (2) most threatens poor vulnerable people and nations which have done comparatively little to cause the problem; (3) creates harms to the most vulnerable that include potential catastrophic losses of life and damages to ecological systems on which life depends; (4) those people who are most vulnerable to it cannot depend on petitioning their governments for protection, their best hope is that those most responsible for raising atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations will respond to their ethical and moral duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions; and, (5) because GHGs from any country mix well in the atmosphere, they thereby are contributing to rising atmospheric concentrations which are responsible for harming people and ecological systems far beyond their boarders.
Yet nations, and even most environmental NGOs have largely ignored evaluating nations’ responses to climate change through an ethical lens but have usually simply responded to the arguments of opponents of climate change which largely have been claims that proposed policies on climate change are unsupportable because: (1) the policies would create unacceptable costs to the national economy or a specific national industry; or, (2) the policies were not justifiable because of scientific uncertainty about alleged adverse climate change impacts. And so, when opponents of climate change argued in opposition to proposed climate change policies on the grounds of unacceptable costs that the policy would create, proponents often responded by simply asserting responses to climate change would create jobs rather than helping citizens understand that behaviors that cause violations of human rights, kills others or destroys ecological systems on which life depends cant be justified on the grounds that the cessation of these destructive behaviors would impose costs on those engaged in the destructive behavior. In response to the scientific uncertainty arguments made by opponents of proposed climate change policies, proponents of climate policies usually simply make claims such as 97% of climate sciencentists support the consensus view while ignoring the fact that that every country in the world agreed in the 1992 climate threaty that scientific uncertainty should not be used as a excuse for taking protective action.
By not helping citizens see the morally indefensible problems with orguments made by opponents of climate change policies, proponents of climate change policies are failing to motivate those who are not motivated by the scientific and economic technical discoures which have dominated climate change policy controversies and which are not likely to mobilize public concern, strong emotion, or activism that fuel strong public social movements. (Wetts, 2019)
A recent paper by sociologist Rachel Wetts of Brown University found that of 1768 press releases about climate change issues only 3.4% attempted to motivate climate responses on the basis of moral obligations. (Wetts, 2019)
On December 12th at the Madrid COP 25 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNESCO, in cooperation with the Center for Environmental Ethics and Law, sponsored a panel on the urgency of getting nations to comply with their ethical obligations to respond to climate change. This panel On the Urgency of and Getting Traction for Ethical Principles to Guide National Responses to Climate Change was part of a UNESCO event entitled Changing Minds, Not the Climate, Science, Knowledge Systems, and Ethics for Enhanced Ambition and Resilience.
The ethics panel discussed numerous specific policy decisions on climate issues that raised important ethical issues, yet tragically the ethical problems with the arguments made by opponents of climate policies were rarely identified. Despite the fact that arguments made in opposition to the proposed climate policy issues would not survive minimum ethical scrutiny if they were subjected to ethical critique, the ethical problems with the arguments made against climate policies are rarely identified. Furthermore, unless citizens spotted the ethical problems with their nation’s response to climate change they could not effectively critique their nation’s response to climate change. For instance, every national GHG reduction target is implicitly a position of the national government on how much harm the government deems it is acceptable to impose on vulnerable people and nations because every ton of GHG emissions makes the harms worse, and every target is also implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of a carbon budget that the entire world must live within to prevent a warming limit goal from being exceeded. Yet these ethical problems with national climate change responses have been infrequently part of national climate debates. The speakers on the Madrid COP 25 panel on the urgency of getting traction for ethics in climate change policy formation were
Donald A. Brown, Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University Commonwealth Law School (USA) who explained the urgency of getting traction for ethical principles to guide government responses to climate change both to prevent climate catastophe and to critically evaluate the arguments of climate change policy opponents;
Kathryn Gwiazdon, J.D., Esq., Executive Director, Center for Environmental Ethics, and Law, Chicago (USA) who gave numerous examples of specific climate change policy controversies that raise obvious but often unacknowledged ethical issues;
Sébastien Duyck, Research Fellow, Institute of European and International Economic Law, University of Bern who explained efforts to get traction for human rights obligations in climate change policy formation; and,
Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Professor of Climatology and Environmental Sciences, “Université Catholique de Louvain” (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium), former IPCC Vice-Chair (2008-2015), member of the Royal Academy of Belgium who epained his experiences with getting the conclusions of IPCC which should trigger moral obligations accepted.
In December of 2017, UNESCO adopted the Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change, which sets out a number of important ethical principles to guide political decision-making and formulation of cross-cutting public policies around the world. Among the proclaimed six ethical principles, the Declaration emphasizes the links between justice, sustainability and solidarity that could support countries to scale their national commitments and coordinate action across cultures. The Madrid panel discussed why finding ways for getting nations to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate change, and explored strategies for getting traction for ethical principles in guiding national responses to climate change. Furthermore, the panel discussed that although there are other important and binding sources of international law containing many well settled ethical principles which are relevant to national responses to climate change such as the “no harm,” “precautionary,” and “polluter pays” principles, duties of nations to protect human rights, and adopt emissions reduction targets at levels to prevent dangerous climate change on the basis of “equity,” and common but differentiated responsibilities, nations are ignoring these principles in formulating national policies.
The UNESCO Madrid COP 25 panel reviewed evidence that most nations are still ignoring these ethical principles in national climate change policy formation. The UNESCO panel concluded by inviting individuals to submit ideas about how to get traction for ethics in national responses to climate change.
Until UNESCO sets up a website on these issues, individuals with ideas about how to get traction for ethical guidance for climate policy formation should submit comments to firstname.lastname@example.org for the time being.
The ethical issues raised by arguments raised against climate change policies often raise obvious ethical problems such as the claim that a country such as the United States need not adopt policies if they will impose unacceptable costs on the nation or an industry discussed in this video. There are, however, many other examples of strong ethical problems with arguments made against proposed climate change policies that are not discussed in this video that are discussed on this website, ethicsandclimate.org. See the “index and start here” tab above on this website for other topics.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Greta Thunberg’s September 23rd speech at the UN on climate change was a brilliant lesson both on the potential power of bringing attention to moral bankruptcy of arguments made by opponents of needed climate change policies, as well as a model for how to make moral and ethical arguments critical of reasons offered in opposition to climate policies. Thunberg’s speech successfully demonstrated the power of moral arguments critical of claims made by opponents of climate change policies for two reasons: first, because of her speech’s rhetorical excellence, and second for Thunberg’s selection of facts about climate change which supported the speech’s main thesis that governments’ failures to act to reduce the threat of climate change are morally repugnant.
A. The Speech’s Rhetorical Excellence
Aristotle claimed in his writing on rhetoric that speakers are effective in persuading their listeners if the speaker exhibits three qualities: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
Ethos. Speakers exhibit ethos if they convince listeners that the speaker is motivated by what is right or wrong, not by self-interest. Greta Thunberg effectively communicated by her choice of words, rhythm, and emotions that she was motivated by the moral indefensibility of governments that have refused to do what is necessary to avoid climate change harms given the facts she stated in support of this conclusion.
Pathos. Effective speakers demonstrate some passion about the injustice that is motivating him or her. Greta Thunberg’s display of anger was palpable and supported by the facts she relied upon.
Logos. In an effective speech, the speaker’s claims and conclusions are clear and logical. The facts which motivated and supported the premise of her speech, namely that governments’ responses to climate change are morally repugnant, were clearly stated.
B. The Speech’s Foundational Facts
The facts the speech relied upon to support the claim that governments’ responses to climate change are morally indefensible were very persuasive. The speech made the following claims about governments’ inadequate response to climate change:
1, You have stolen my dreams. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.
2. The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50 % chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.
3. 50 % may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.
4. “So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.
5. “To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. – the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on Jan. 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons.
6. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.
7. “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.
She then invited listeners to reflect on the moral significance of these facts by repeating the words “How dare you” four times after stating the facts.
The facts that Greta Thunberg relied on to support her conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible effectively supported this conclusion.
There are many other facts that proponents of climate change policies could also rely on to support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible. For instance proponents of climate change policies could bring attention to the following facts which also support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible:
The staggering magnitude of percent reductions in GHG emissions needed to achieve any warming limit goal such as 1.5 C or 2.0 C become greater the longer governments wait to respond because current emissions are rapidly consuming any carbon budget that the world must live within to achieve any warming limit goal.
The IPCC carbon budgets on which the quantity of reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal have been calculated through the use of climate models which have ignored some of the positive feedbacks such as methane emissions from melting permafrost or rapid breakup of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, both of which are already starting to happen.
The percentage reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal articulated by IPCC are for the entire world and ignore the legal, practical, and ethical obligations of developed countries to go faster than poor developed countries under the concept of “equity.”
Although skepticism in science is necessary for science to develop, sociologists have documented that fossil fuel companies have funded disinformation about climate science to undermine public confidence in the conclusions of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world. See Why Climate Science Disinformation is So Ethically Abhorrent
This site has often commented negatively on the propensity of many proponents of climate change policies to justify climate action largely by making claims that simply counter the factual arguments of opponents of climate change such as that climate change policies are unjustified because they will impose unacceptable costs on the economy, to which most proponents of climate policies often respond by claiming that policies will create new jobs. Such responses allow opponents of climate change to frame the problem in a way that ignores the moral problems with their arguments. Philosophers call this type of reasoning, which is reasoning exclusively based on facts that ignores ethical and justice issues “instrumental reasoning’ and sociologists have warned for over a decade that economically powerful entities would accomplish their goals by tricking citizens to limit their arguments about public policy to instrumental reasons. The mainstream media, at least in the United States, almost never brings attention when the fossil fuel industry and other opponents of climate policy make factual economic or scientific uncertainty arguments against climate policies to the strong ethical arguments that can be made in response to these claims.
The facts relied upon by Greta Thunberg and those above could help citizens understand the moral indefensibility of governments’ inadequate responses to climate change. Armed with such facts and learning from Greta Thunberg’s excellent rhetorical techniques could make climate change activists more effective in getting governments to make the extraordinary urgent hard-to-imagine reductions in GHG emissions needed to prevent climate catastrophe.
Sociologists also claim that the most successful social movements are energized by a strong sense of unfairness or injustice of the status quo. For this reason, although appeals to the self-interest of citizens based upon identifying the harms from climate change that they will experience should continue, such an appeal to self-interest alone does not justify ignoring the strong moral problems with the arguments of those who oppose climate change policies. In fact, only responding to the factual scientific and economic arguments of climate change policy opponents by making counter “factual” economic and scientific claims has the ironic effect of justifying the notion that these instrumental reasons for opposing climate change policies are ethically legitimate. In addition, as we have explained in the recent website entry UNESCO Examines the Urgency of and Strategy for Getting Traction for Ethical Guidance in Climate Change Policy Formation at Bangkok Program.there is no hope of averting catastrophic climate impacts unless governments comply with their ethical obligations under the UNFCCC. Moreover. not raising ethical problems with the arguments of those opposing climate change policies is a practical mistake because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail to survive minimum ethical scrutiny. They usually violate non-controversial, widely agreed-upon ethical principles such as human rights obligations, the “no-harm” principle of customary international law, or the “precautionary principle” expressly agreed to by all nations in the 1992 UNFCCC among many other ethical principles.
For these reasons, Greta Thunberg’s UN speech should be honored and used as an inspiration by climate activists around the world while encouraging the media to cover the ethical issues raised by climate change formation controversies.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
This article identifies and explains six things that most citizens around the world, although particularly those in developed countries, need to understand about climate change in light of the most recent climate change science. These six things are:
The enormous magnitude of GHG emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic warming.
The speed of GHG emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic warming.
No nation may either legally or morally use national self-interest alone as justification for their failure to fully meet their obligation under the UNFCCC.
No nation may either legally or morally use scientific uncertainty as justification for their failure to fully meet their obligations under the UNFCCC.
Developed countries must legally, morally, and practically more aggressively reduce their GHG emissions than developing countries
Developed countries must legally, morally, and practically help finance mitigation and adaptation programs in poor developing countries.
The need for broad understanding among civil society of these issues follows from several recent scientific reports on climate change. For instance, on October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a Special Reporton limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures. This landmark report, along with several additional recent scientific studies published in the last few months including a paper published by the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences on July 21, 2018, Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropoceneby Steffen et.al., and a paper published in mid-August of this year in Nature Communications by Anthony et. al., 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath, lead to the conclusion that the international community is facing an urgent existential crisis that threatens life on Earth. Preventing this catastrophe requires the entire international community at all levels of government (national, state, regional, and local) to engage immediately in an unprecedented effort to rapidly reduce GHG emissions to net zero in the next few decades.
Although the October IPCC report on 1.5 degrees C warming received some significant notice in the US media, the recent US elections on November 6th in which climate change played only a very minor role at best, demonstrates a startling lack of understanding about the enormity and urgency of the climate threat facing the international community. Because of the immense ramp-up of programs and efforts needed to reduce the staggering threat of climate change depends on broad understanding of the scale of the problem facing the human race, and given the apparent ignorance of most citizens about the magnitude and urgency of the climate change crisis and other issues discussed in this paper, concerned citizens need to mount an aggressive educational program to inform civil society about aspects of the climate change threat that appear to be poorly understood. These issues include the following:
1. The Immense Magnitude of GHG Reductions Urgently Needed to Prevent Catastrophic Warming
The IPCC Special Report concludes that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. This is so because to limit warming to 1.5 C, CO2 emissions would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050 according to the IPCC Special Report. This means if global CO2 emissions have not fallen to net zero levels by 2050, any remaining emissions would need to balanced by removing CO2 from the air.
The Steffen et. al. paper also describes how the positive feedbacks depicted in the following graphic, once triggered could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions alone would not prevent additional warming until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over reducing disastrous warming.
The Steffen et.al paper also explains how human-induced warming of slightly over 1.0 degrees C is already rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positive climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves, droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world.
The Anthony et.al paper also explains that, contrary to common assumptions previously made by many in the international community that positive feedbacks in the climate system that could cause abrupt temperature increases would not likely be triggered if warming could be limited to below 20 C above pre-industrial levels, positive feedbacks could be initiated between current temperatures which have risen slightly above 1.10 C and 20 C. Moreover, the additional warming caused by these feedbacks could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world, phenomena which threaten life on earth.
For these reasons, citizens around the world need to understand the urgent need to reduce GHG emissions to net zero as soon as possible.
2. The Speed of GHG Reductions Needed to Prevent Catastrophic Warming.
Every day that nations fail to reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to achieve a warming limit goal such as 2 degrees C makes the problem worse because the carbon budgets for the whole world that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal shrink as emissions continue. Therefore, the speed that nations reduce their GHG emissions reductions is as important as the magnitude of the reductions identified by any national GHG reduction commitment. For this reason, any national commitment on climate change should not only identify the amount of GHG emissions that will be reduced by a certain date, but also the reduction pathway by which these reductions will be achieved.
The following illustration depicts two different GHG reduction pathways for reaching zero emissions by 2050. Although the curve on the top achieves zero GHG emissions at the same time as the curve on the bottom, total emissions during the period are much greater following the emissions reductions pathway under the top curve compared to total emissions under the bottom curve because the lower curve pathway more quickly reduces emissions. Citizens need to understand that waiting to reduce GHG emissions makes the problem worse because waiting consumes more of any shrinking carbon budget that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal.
3. No Nation may either Legally or Morally use National Self-interest Alone as Justification for Their Failure to Fully Meet Their Obligations under the UNFCCC.
Because GHG emissions from every country mix rapidly in the atmosphere, all nations’ emissions are contributing to rising atmospheric GHG concentrations thus harming people and ecological systems on which life depends all over the world. The above illustration depicts that the atmosphere is analogous to a bathtub in that it has limited volume and that all nations emitting GHGs are raising atmospheric concentration of GHGs to its current concentration of approximately 407 ppm CO2 (the second line from the bottom in the above bathtub) which level is already causing enormous harm in many vulnerable countries while threatening the entire world if the atmospheric GHG concentration is raised to levels which trip positive feedbacks discussed above (represented by the upper line in the above bathtub). Thus high-emitting countries such as the US may not formulate their climate change policies on the basis of costs and benefits to itself alone. Particularly those nations that are emitting high levels of GHGs must acknowledge and respond to the devastating climate change harms they are already contributing to in other countries and particularly harms to poor people and nations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Thus in the United States, for instance, the Trump administration’s justification for withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement on the basis of “putting US interests first ” is ethically indefensible and tragic because of the damage the Trump climate change policy will cause outside the United States.
The following illustration depicts nations emitting high levels of GHG in red in the top half of the illustration while those countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts are indicated in red in the bottom half of the illustration.
For this reason, as a matter of law, given that nations under the UNFCCC agreed to stabilize GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. (UNFCCC, Art. 2), a nation may not fail to reduce its GHG emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions based on the cost to it because it has ethical and legal duties to other nations not to harm them.
4. Scientific Uncertainty is Not a Legally or Morally Defensible Justification for Not Adopting Aggressive Climate Change Policy Responses.
Although opponents of climate change policies have justified their opposition on the basis of scientific uncertainty, and despite the fact that the most prestigious scientific organizations have expressly stated their conclusions about the enormous threat of climate change with increasingly higher levels of scientific probability for over 40 years, scientific uncertainty is not a justifiable response for any nation’s unwillingness to adopt climate change policies as a matter of law or morally.
Under international law, including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, Art. 3.3) which states in relevant part “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty may not be used as a reason for postponing such measures,” and the “no harm principle”, a principle of customary international law recognized in the Preamble to the UNFCCC, nations may not legally use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to take action to prevent dangerous climate change.
Given, that numerous reputable scientific organizations beginning in the late 1970s, including the US National Academies of Sciences, (See Early Climate Change Consensus at the National Academy) and five reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change beginning in 1990 (See IPCC report timeline) have concluded with increasing levels of certainty that human activities are dangerously threatening people and ecological systems on which life depends, nations have been on strong notice for over four decades that human activities responsible for GHG emissions are dangerous to the human community, thus nations have been on notice about the dangers of climate change for over 40 years and therefore may not legally or morally use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to adopt climate change policies that will reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to prevent dangerous climate change.
5. High Emitting Developed Countries, Including the United States, Must Reduce GHG Emissions More Aggressively than Other Countries as a Matter of Law and Practically to Prevent Dangerous Climate Change.
Hiigh-emitting nations have a legal duty under the UNFCCC to reduce their GHG emissions faster than lower emitting nations because they agreed to:
[P]rotect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof. (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.1)
These principles were re-committed to in the Paris Agreement , Art 2.2 which provides that:
This Agreement will be implemented to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.
Thus under law, hiigh emitting nations, such as the US, have a legal duty under the concept of “equity” to reduce its GHG emissions more rapidly than most other nations. Although there is reasonable disagreement among nations about what “equity” requires of them, formulate its ghg emissions reduction target on the basis of equity is not only required by its legal obligations under the UNFCCC, practically the US and other high emitting nations must reduce their GHG emissions by much greater amounts and faster than poor developing nations because if they don’t the poorer nations will have to reduce their GHG emissions almost immediately to near zero CO2 so that global emissions don’t exceed the carbon budget available to prevent a warming limit such as 2 degrees C from being exceeded,
There is a basic set of shared ethical principles and precedents that apply to the climate problem…[and] such principles… can put bounds on the plausible interpretation of equity in the burden sharing context…[and] are important in establishing what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg .317 )
The IPCC went on to say:
these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, , AR5, WG III, Ch 4, p. 318).
As a matter of law, therefore, high-emitting countries such as the United States must reduce its GHG emissions to safe levels based on equity at faster levels than other countries as any reasonable interpretation of equity would require the US to make much larger and more rapid GHG reductions than almost all other nations given that the United States (under the concept of responsibility) emitted 5,011,687 metric kilotons (kt) of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2016, second only to China’s 10,432,741 kt CO2. (Netherlands Environmental Agency), also under the concept of responsibility the United States has emitted a greater amount of cumulative CO2 emissions, that is 29.3% of global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2002, while China emitted 7.6% during the same period, (WRI, Cumulative Emissions) making the US much more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to the current level of approximately 406 ppm than any country. Also, under the concept of equality given the US is responsible for 15.56 metric tons per capita CO2 emissions which is more than twice as much as China’s 7.45 metric tons per capita in 2016 (World Bank), as a matter of equity the US must reduce its GHG emissions much more rapidly and steeply than almost all countries.
The following illustration demonstrates why high-emitting nations must also practically reduce emissions more aggressively than other nations because it can be seen that if the high emitting nations such as China, the EU, and USA, depicted near the bottom of the illustration, don’t reduce GHG emissions muchfaster than the rest of the world, and if the international community is going to be restrained by the emissions reduction pathway needed to achieve a warming limit goal, such as the 2 degee C pathway depicted in the illustration, then there is quickly nothing left for the rest of the world. Therefore, high-emitting nations must more aggressively reduce their emissions than lower emitting nations not only as a matter of law but also to retain any hope for the international community to achieve warming limit goals agreed to in the Paris Agreement of as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2 degrees C.
6. Developed Nations Have a Legal and Moral Duty to Provide Financial Resources to Assist Developing Nartions with both Mitigation and Adaptation Programs and this Financial Assistance is also Practically Indespensible to Prevent Climate-induced Harms in all Countries.
Under the UNFCCC, developed country Parties agreed to provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties in implementing the objectives of the Convention (UNFCCC, Article 4, §3). The Paris Agreement also provides that the developed countries shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention. (Paris Agreement, Art, 9.1)
Financial support of developing nation’s mitigation obligations under the UNFCCC mitigations is not only legally required under the UNFCCC but also practically important because large-scale investments are required to significantly reduce emissions and dangerous climate change will not likely be avoided unless developing nations reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Financial support for developing nations by developed nations is also both legally and ethically required to meet the adaptation needs of developing countries, as significant financial resources are needed by many vulnerable countries to adapt to the adverse climate change.
Climate impacts, such as sea-level rise and more frequent droughts and floods, are already having devastating effects on communities and individuals in developing countries. These impacts on developing countries are already affecting developed nations because, for instance, between 2008 and 2011, approximately 87 million people were displaced due to extreme weather events which is causing a mass migration of refugees which is destabilizing many developed nations, particularly in Europe.(Climate Change in Developing Countries, Government of Canada) According to the World Health Organization, climate change is expected to contribute to approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.(World Health Organization, Climate and Health) .
Developing countries are the most impacted by climate change. This is due to many factors, including the economic importance of climate-sensitive sectors for these countries (e.g. agriculture) and the limited financial and human capacity to respond to the impacts of climate change. (Climate Change in Developing Countries, Government of Canada). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that by 2030, up to 122 million more people could be forced into extreme poverty due to the effects of climate change—many of them women. (Conflicts Fueled by Climate Change, The Guardian.)
Because climate change is already destabilizing developed countries due to refugees who are fleeing vulnerable areas of poor developing nations that have become inhabitable due to climate change-induced droughts, floods, loss of drinking water, and rising seas, if developed nations do not help finance climate change adaptation programs in developing countries, they will experience growing conflict and stress caused by vulnerable people and refugees in developing countries who are both creating conflicts in their countries and in developed countries they have or are seeking to enter. .
The following illustration depicts the number of refugees who are fleeing or who have fled climate change.
For this reason, developed country financing assistance for emissions reduction and adaptation programs in developing countries is not only legally required but practically necessary to reduce climate change-induced problems and conflicts in developed countries.
On July 31, 2018, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which should create a shiver of fear in all humans everywhere. The paper, Trajectories in the Earth System in the Anthropoceneby Steffen et..al., explains how human-induced warming is rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positive climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves and droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world.
The Steffen et. al. paper also describes how the positive feedbacks depicted in the following graphic, once triggered could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (ghg) emissions alone would not prevent until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over reducing disastrous warming.
Steffen et. al,, supra pg. 4.
If this is not scary enough, the Steffen et. al. paper concluded some of these feedbacks could be triggered between 1 degree C to 3 degrees C, suggesting that the “risk of tipping cascades could be significant at a 2 degree C rise (Steffen at al p.7), the upper warming limit goal of the Paris Agreement which President Trump has announced the United States will withdraw from.
Given that even if temperature increases already baked into the system don’t trigger positive feedbacks until global temperatures rise by 2 degrees C and given the enormous challenge facing the world to achieve the 2 degrees C warming limit goal agreed to by the international community in Paris in 2015 requires the international community to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2070 (UNEP, Emissions Gap, 2016), the international community needs to immediately join forces to achieve extraordinarily ambitious international cooperation almost immediately to achieve the 2 degree C warming limit goal. However, given that the 2 degree C warming limit goal agreed to in Paris was selected because it was believed that if warming increases could be limited to 2 degrees C, triggering dangerous climate system positive feedbacks was unlikely, the conclusions of the Steffen et al paper that positive feedbacks could be triggered below 2 degrees C additional warming must be interpreted as a justification for a call for an unprecedented urgent global cooperative effort to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon sinks as rapidly as humanly possible.
Given that human-induced climate change is now widely understood to be an existential threat to life on Earth unless all nations rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) to net zero as fast as possible, Americans urgently need to understand certain features of the problem which have been infrequently mentioned in the US national climate change conversation including the following:
There is growing evidence that even if global ghg emissions could be reduced to near zero rapidly, there is enough carbon already in the atmosphere that limiting warming to the then 2 degrees C warming limit goal by the end of this Century has only a 5% chance (Mooney, 2017).
Every day that nations fail to reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to achieve a warming limit goal such as 2 degrees C makes the problem worse because budgets available for the whole world that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal shrink as emissions continue. Therefore, the speed that nations reduce their GHG emissions reductions is as important as the magnitude of reductions identified by any national GHG reduction commitment. For this reason, any national commitment on climate change should not only identify the amount of ghg emissions that will be reduced by a certain date, but the reduction pathway by which these reductions will be achieved,
For reasons stated in the Seffen et.al. paper, climate change is an existential threat to life on Earth that requires the international community to rapidly take extraordinarily aggressive coordinated steps not only sufficient to prevent global temperatures from rising no than more than 2 degrees C, the upper warming limit agreed to by the international community in the 2015 Paris Agreement, but to minimize any additional warming as quickly as possible,
Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which the US ratified in 1992, the US has a legal duty under the concept of “equity” to reduce its GHG emissions more rapidly than most other nations, and although there is reasonable disagreement among nations about what “equity” requires of them, any reasonable interpretation of equity would require the US to make much larger and more rapid GHG reductions than almost all other nations given that the United States emitted 5,011,687 metric kilo tons (kt) of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2016, second only to China’s 10,432,741 kt CO2. (Netherlands Environmental Agency). The US also has an equitable duty to more aggressively reduce its emissions than most other countries because it has emitted a greater amount of cumulative CO2 emissions, that is 29.3% of global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2002, while China emitted 7.6% during the same period, (WRI, Cumulative Emissions) making the US much more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to the current level of 406 ppm than any country. Also given the US is responsible for 15.56 metric tons per capita CO2 emissions which is more than twice as much as China’s 7.45 metric tons per capita in 2016 (World Bank), as a matter of equity the US must reduce its GHG emissions much more rapidly and steeply than almost all countries,
The US duty to formulate its ghg emissions reduction target on the basis of equity is not only required by its legal obligations under the UNFCCC, practically the US and other high emitting nations must reduce their GHG emissions by much greater amounts and faster than poor developing nations because if they don’t the poorer nations will have to reduce their GHG emissions almost immediately to near zero CO2 so that global emissions don’t exceed the carbon budget available to prevent a warming limit such as 2 degrees C from being exceeded,
Any US policy response to climate change such as a carbon tax must be structured to reduce US ghg emissions to levels and speeds required of the US to achieve its responsibilities to the rest of the world to prevent dangerous climate change. Thus, if the US were to pass a carbon tax, the imposition of a tax must either reduce US GHG emissions to the level and the speed required of it by its obligations or be supplemented by other policy responses such as, for instance, mandatory conversions of electric power generation from fossil fuel combustion to renewable energy by a date certain or mandatory requirements for electric vehicles,
Because GHG emissions from every country mix rapidly in the atmosphere, all nations emissions are contributing to rising atmospheric GHG concentrations thus harming people and ecological systems on which life depends all over the world. Thus, the US may not formulate its climate change policies only on the basis of costs and benefits to itself alone, it must acknowledge and respond to the devastating climate change harms the United States is already contributing to that are being experienced around the world and particularly by poor people and nations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. For this reason, the Trump administration’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on the basis of “putting US interests first” is deeply morally indefensible and tragic because of the damage it will likely cause to the world,
Because of the rapid speed required of the US to reduce its ghg emissions to net zero carbon emissions, the US urgently needs to put ghg emissions reductions on the equivalent of a wartime footing by not only adopting policy responses that can achieve ghg emission reduction goals required of it, but also by investing in research and development in new technologies that can facilitate and achieve the its ghg emission reduction obligations and increase carbon sinks that could reduce the rise in atmospheric ghg concentrations,
The United States needs to develop a strategy to achieve these objectives in the next two years and begin implementing the strategy immediately as quickly as possible.
This entry will examine ethical issues raised by relying on putting a price on carbon as a policy response to reduce the threat of climate change.
Establishing a price on carbon emissions as a response to reduce a government’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has received strong support around the world. One observer of global climate change policy developments has concluded:
Not only is there a robust consensus among economists, but they have been remarkably successful in spreading the gospel to the wider world as well. Climate activists, wonks, funders, politicians, progressives, and even conservatives (the few who take climate seriously) all sing from the same hymnal. It has become conventional wisdom that a price on carbon is the sine qua non of serious climate policy. (Roberts, 2016)
This article will identify potential ethical problems with relying on carbon pricing to reduce the enormous threat of climate change despite the widespread popularity of pricing carbon regimes. As we shall see, although a few ethicists have ethical problems with any carbon pricing scheme, many others approve of carbon pricing schemes provided that the regime design adequately deals with certain ethical issues that carbon pricing regimes frequently raise.
Climate pricing regimes vary greatly from the government to government and among different types of carbon pricing regimes. However, there are two basic methods for using a price on carbon to reduce greenhouse (GHG) emissions.
The first is to distribute carbon caps, often referred to as carbon allowances, to GHG emitters usually followed by a tightening of the cap over time to achieve desired GHG emissions reduction goals. Those who have more allowances than they need may sell allowances to those who do not have enough. Thus carbon allowances may be bought and sold, a scheme that is often justified by economists by claiming that this approach leads to GHG reductions at the lowest cost thereby finding an efficient solution to climate change while the amount`of GHG emissions achieved by the scheme may be determined by the total amount of allowances permitted. This method is usually referred to as “cap and trade”
Many cap and trade regimes allow those who need additional allowances to reduce GHG emissions to levels required by the cap to fund GHG emissions reduction projects often anywhere in the world including in places without a cap and get credit for the amount of GHG reductions achieved by the funded project, which credit then can be applied to determine whether the cap has been achieved. Different trading regimes have different rules specifying where and under what conditions emissions credits can be obtained by funding projects in other places.
The other common carbon pricing scheme is for government to charge a price for carbon emissions, a method usually referred to as carbon taxing. The carbon tax works also to lower GHG emissions because it makes technologies which produce less GHG per unit of energy more attractive thereby creating strong incentives for energy users to switch to energy technologies which produce less GHG emissions per unit of energy produced. A price on carbon also creates incentives for all those responsible for GHG emissions to do what they can to emit less GHGs, including, for instance, reducing their carbon footprints by driving less, walking more, lowering thermostats in the winter, adding insulation to buildings, etc.
For these reasons, putting a price on carbon emissions as a policy response to human-induced climate change has strong global support particularly among economists.
This article will identify ethical issues created by (a) any carbon pricing scheme, (b) cap and trade regimes, and (c) carbon taxing regimes. This analysis will be followed by several conclusions.
II. Ethical Issues Raised By Any Carbon Pricing Scheme.
Although many ethicists who have identified ethical issues raised by policy responses to climate change that rely on putting a price on carbon acknowledge that pricing schemes have shown to be effective in reducing GHG emissions often at lower costs than other regulatory approaches, some ethicists nonetheless oppose carbon pricing schemes because of certain ethical problems with these schemes. Many other ethicists who acknowledge potential ethical problems with carbon pricing schemes believe these problems can be adequately dealt with by appropriate carbon pricing regime design. Yet even if ethical problems raised by carbon pricing regimes can be averted through carbon pricing regime design, policymakers and citizens need to understand these ethical problems so that they can be mitigated in the design of the carbon pricing scheme.
An ethical approach to climate change would limit GHG emissions by law at levels necessary to prevent human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems. For instance, many governments have established legal requirements on the percentage of renewable energy required of electricity providers, a policy response that does no rely on pricing carbon. An ethical approach to climate change is based on different justifications for reducing change harms than some economic approaches. As Vanderhelen said:
An ethical approach to climate policy is based on different assumptions than economic-based policy assumptions. The ethical approach says we should act on climate change now, not because the future costs of inaction exceed those of mitigation, but because the failure to do so harms others. It is our ethical duty to avoid this. (Vanderhelen, 2011)
And so an ethical approach to climate change requires those who are responsible for human-induced climate change harms to comply with their duty to not harm others without regard to the economic value of costs and benefits of climate change policy responses. All national governments in the world have duties to take actions that reduce GHG emissions from their jurisdiction to the nation’s fair share of safe global GHG emissions under the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In addition, an ethical approach to climate change also identifies ethical issues raised by carbon pricing schemes including the following:
A. Assuring the price will achieve GHG reductions at levels entailed by the government’s ethical obligations.
The amount and speed of GHG emissions reductions that government policies should achieve is fundamentally an ethical question that economic reasoning alone cannot determine. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its 5th Assessment Report:
How should the burden of mitigating climate change be divided among countries? It raises difficult questions of fairness, and rights, all of which are in the sphere of ethics. (IPCC, 2014, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 215).
The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg.224).
What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, 2014,.AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 225).
Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice (IPCC,2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3,pg. 225).
[I]t is morally proper to allocate burdens associated with our common global climate challenge according to ethical principles. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).
Thus, no carbon pricing scheme alone without consideration of ethical issues can determine what the magnitude and timing of a government’s GHG emissions reduction goals should be because a government’s GHG emissions reduction goals must be based on fairness, justice, and obligations to not harm others or the ecological systems on which life depends without the consent of those who will be harmed. These are essentially ethical matters that economic rationality alone cannot deal with. Proponents of carbon pricing schemes claim that pricing regimes allow those responsible for reducing GHG emissions to achieve reductions at the lowest cost, yet the amount of reductions that a nation is obligated to achieve is essentially an ethical matter. So the goal of any pricing scheme should be designed to achieve ethically justified national GHG emissions reduction targets.
All nations in the world have agreed under the 2015 Paris Accord that they are duty bound to adopt policies that will enable the international community to limit warming to between 1.5 degrees C and 2.0 degrees C, the warming limit goal, on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in light of national circumstances, the ‘equity’ requirement under the Paris Agreement.(UNFCCC, Paris Agreement, 2015, Art 2.) And so all nations have an ethical duty to determine their GHG emissions reduction goals which at a minimum would limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C although no greater than 2.0 degrees C on the basis of what equity requires of it to achieve these warming limits. Equity is understood by philosophers as a synonym for distributive justice.
Although there are differences among ethicists about what equity requires, “equity” may not be construed to mean anything that a nation claims it to mean, such as national economic self-interest. As IPCC said, despite ambiguity about what equity means:
there is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in establishing expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 317).
The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg 317)
As a result, because some pricing regimes will not reduce national GHG emissions to levels required by their national obligations under the Paris Agreement even those nations that have adopted some kind of carbon pricing regime have had to enact other climate change policies to achieve the nation’s GHG reduction goals. For this reason and because some politicians have conditioned their support for a proposed carbon pricing scheme on acceptance of legal provisions that prohibit policy responses that are in addition to a carbon pricing scheme under consideration by a legislature, policymakers and citizens need to understand that any carbon pricing scheme must assure that a government’s emissions reduction policies will achieve the government’s ethically determined carbon emissions reduction obligations. Thus they must oppose legislation that prohibits a government from supplementing carbon pricing schemes with other laws to reduce GHG emissions.
Thus the quantity of the price placed on carbon under a taxing scheme or the magnitude of allowances under a cap and trade regime should be established after express determination of the government’s ethically prescribed obligations to reduce GHG emissions to its fair share of adequately safe global emissions.
Every national GHG emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on two profound ethical questions among others. They are:
the amount of warming and associated harms the nation is willing to inflict on others including poor vulnerable people and nations, Since all nations have agreed under the Paris Agreement to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C and no greater than 2.0 degrees C, these warming limits should be the default assumptions of governments’ GHG reduction target formulation;
the nation’s fair share of total global GHG emissions that may not be exceeded to keep global warming from exceeding the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals of 1.5 degrees C to 2.0 degrees C
Thus, to make sense of the acceptability of any carbon pricing scheme, government’s should; (a) identify its GHG reduction target, (b) how the target achieves its GHG emissions reduction obligations in regard to warming limits and fairness, (c) the date by which the target will be achieved, and (e) the reduction pathway that will achieve the GHG reduction goal.
The date by which the GHG reductions will be achieved is ethically relevant because any delay in achieving required reductions affects the remaining carbon budget that is available to assure that any warming limit goal is achieved. Carbon budgets that must constrain global GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal such as the 1.5 degrees C to 2.0 degrees C warming limit goals under the Paris Agreement continue to shrink until total GHG emissions are reduced to levels that will stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations at levels that will not cause warming greater than the warming limit goal. Therefore both the magnitude of the government’s GHG emissions reduction goals and the time it takes to achieve the goal are relevant factors in regard to whether any government will achieve GHG reductions that represent its fair share of safe global emissions. In fact the reduction pathway by which the reduction goal will be achieved is also relevant to whether a government will reduce its GHG emissions to levels required of it by its obligations because pathways which produce rapid reductions early in any period will consume less of a shrinking carbon budget than pathways that achieve most of the reductions at later times in the relevant period. This fact is depicted in this chart.
This chart demonstrates that different GHG reduction pathways may consume different amounts of any relevant carbon budget even if the percent amount of reductions, in this case, 100% reduction by 2050, is the same for the different pathways. The amount of the budget consumed by the two pathways is represented by the areas underneath the curves.
B. Intrinsic Ethical Problems With Any Carbon Pricing Scheme.
A few ethicists argue that relying on putting a price on carbon to achieve a government’s obligations is ethically problematic without regard to the details of the pricing scheme.
Ethicist Michael Sandel, for instance, in a 1967 OpEd in the New York Times entitled It’s Immoral to Buy the Right to Pollute identified the following ethical problems with pricing carbon after acknowledging that trading GHG emissions allowances could make compliance for the United States cheaper and less painful. (Sandel, 1967)
Turning pollution into a commodity to be bought and sold removes the moral stigma that is properly associated with it. If a company is fined by a government for spewing excessive pollutants into the air, the government conveys its judgment that the polluter has done something wrong. A fee, on the other hand, makes pollution just another cost of doing business, like wages, benefits, and rent. (Sandel, 1967)
The distinction between a fine and a fee for despoiling the environment is not one we should give up too easily. Suppose there was a $100 fine for throwing a beer can into the Grand Canyon, and a wealthy hiker decided to pay $100 for the convenience. Would there be nothing wrong with his treating the fine as if it were simply an expensive dumping charge?
Or consider the fine for parking in a place reserved for the disabled. If a busy contractor needs to park near his building site and is willing to pay the fine, is there nothing wrong with his treating that space as an expensive parking lot?
In effacing the distinction between a fine and a fee, emission trading is like a recent proposal to open carpool lanes on Los Angeles freeways to drivers without passengers who are willing to pay a fee. Such drivers are now fined for slipping into carpool lanes; under the market proposal, they would enjoy a quicker commute without opprobrium. (Sandel, 1967)
Some human behavior is so morally reprehensible that charging a price for the behavior to create a disincentive is widely seen as morally unacceptable. For instance, most societies would agree that a strategy to reduce child prostitution that relies on increasing the price of child prostitution or taxing a sexual transaction in which children are involved is morally unacceptable. Because some countries’ GHG emissions are far greater than any reasonable determination of their fair share of safe global emissions and these GHG emissions are already contributing to the killing or harming millions of people around the world while threatening tens of millions of others, allowing GHG emitters to continue to emit GHGs at unsafe levels if they are willing to pay the price required by a government rather then establishing a legally determined maximum emissions rate consistent with the emitter’s morally determined emissions limits can be argued to be as morally unacceptable as dealing with child prostitution by imposing a tax. Even though a tax might achieve the same amount of reductions as a legal limit implemented by an enforceable cap on GHG emissions amounts, applying a tax implicitly signals that it is morally permissible to continue emitting GHGs at current levels as long as the carbon tax is paid. Thus, the tax can diminish the moral stigma entailed by status quo levels of emissions.
Putting a price on carbon as a policy response to climate change is often justified by economists as a way to make sure that market transactions consider the value of harms caused by climate change that are unpriced in market transactions. For instance, because the price of coal does not consider the value of the harms caused by the burning of coal that will be experienced by some people who are not participants in the sale of the coal, putting a price on carbon equivalent to the value of the harms caused by the burning of coal is a way of assuring that the value of the harms caused by the coal are considered in the market transaction. This addition to the price is referred to as a Pigovian tax or a tax on any market transaction that generates negative externalities, so that the value of the negative externalities is included in the market price. Most economists recommend that the amount of the tax be based on the social cost of the negative externalities where the social costs are measured in dollars or other monetary units determined by the amount people would be willing to pay to prevent the harm. Once the cost the harms is determined and included in a tax, the market will be able to operate efficiently.
Economists thus justify a tax set in this way because it enables the market to maximize preferences. But ethics is interested not in maximizing preferences people have but in assuring that people’s preferences are those that people should have morally. For ethicists, it is wrong to harm people without their consent, even if those causing the harm could pay victims money calculated by the market value of the harm. That is, according to most ethicists it is morally wrong to harm people or the ecological systems on which life depends even if those causing the harm are willing to compensate those harmed. Some ethicists therefore argue, putting a price on carbon as a policy response to climate change does not pass ethical scrutiny unless the price prevents all non-trivial harms to life, health, and ecological property that people have not consented to. Given that some human rights have already been demonstrated to be violated by climate change (UNHR, 2018), any price on carbon that allows human rights violations to continue does not pass ethical scrutiny.
And so putting a price on carbon does not pass ethical scrutiny as long as the price does not prevent the harms that people have right to object to without their consent.
Although the money from the carbon tax could be used to compensate people for harms caused by climate change, this potential use of the tax revenues does not ethically justify continuing the behavior which causes serious harms to others without the consent of those who are harmed. In addition, because those being harmed by GHG emissions are people all around the world, if the revenue from a tax is to be used to compensate those who will be harmed by the GHG emission, the revenues from a tax would have to be distributed worldwide. At this time there is no such global revenue stream from national carbon pricing schemes.
Many citizens and institutions around the world including many colleges and universities have significantly reduced their carbon footprint because they believed they had a moral obligation to do so as long as their GHG emissions could contribute to harming people, animals, ecological systems on which life depends, or things of great value to people. A sense of moral obligation, without doubt, motivates, at least some people and institutions, to do the right thing. Yet pricing carbon as a response to climate change does not create a legal prohibition to reduce GHG emissions but only an economic incentive to do so. A government could always legally prohibit activities that create GHG emissions that create harms, an approach to changing behavior that was the dominant strategy in environmental law for many decades. Economists, however, have often objected to these “command and control’ approaches because they claim that market-based mechanisms can achieve needed reductions in a more efficient economic way, that is, at a price that includes consideration of the value of the harms created.
At least in the United States, many of the proponents of carbon pricing are failing to educate civil society about the moral obligations of all nations and people to reduce GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a concern particularly in light of the very limited time left to limit warming to non-catastrophic levels. These proponents often passionately advocate for the adoption of a carbon pricing scheme because they are accurately convinced that a price on carbon will reduce GHG emissions, yet ignore discussing the non-discretionary moral duty to reduce GHG emissions thus inadvertently leaving the impression that provided that those who are willing to pay a price placed on carbon they have no moral obligation to cease activities which are responsible for carbon emissions.
Economists often justify their market-based solutions as a method for maximizing the enjoyment of human preferences. They thus calculate the value of harms avoided by climate policies by determining a market value of the harm and if there is no market value they often determine the value of the harms by determining what people are willing to pay to prevent the harm. This allows the economists to compare the cost of reducing GHG emissions against the value of harms prevented through pricing and in so doing allows a policymaker to select a policy option which maximizes human preferences. Yet, as we have seen ethics is concerned not solely with efficiently achieving the preferences people have but with establishing what preferences people should have in light of their moral obligations.
Under an ethical approach to climate change based on an injunction against harming others, because any additional GHG are raising GHG atmospheric levels which are already increasing harms people are suffering from droughts, floods, intense storms, tropical storms, and heat waves among other causes of climate-induced harms, an ethical argument can be made that any carbon pricing scheme should seek to achieve the lowest feasible GHG emissions levels as quickly as possible. Ethics refuses to define what is ‘feasible’ in terms of the balance of costs and benefits. Ethics requires that harm to innocent victims must be avoided, even when the cost of reducing pollution exceeds the monetary value of harms to life and ecological systems on which life depends. Not all economists, of course, argue that government policies should be based on cost-benefit analysis but many do.
An ethical approach to climate change also requires that polluters should pay for the harms and damages they create as well as the costs to them of reducing the pollution. Many carbon pricing schemes ignore the duty of GHG emitters to compensate those who have been harmed by their GHG emissions and base the amount of the tax on the amount of money needed to reduce GHG emissions while ignoring any obligations to compensate those who have been harmed by their emissions. This problem could be remedied by basing any price on the amount of money needed to compensate those who have experienced loses and damages or by providing separate funds to compensate those who are harmed by climate change but most carbon pricing schemes fail to take these matters into consideration.
Ethicists also acknowledge that climate-related harms are more likely to affect the poor, not just those who are now being asked to contribute toward its mitigation. For this reason, many ethicists prefer laws that prohibit certain immoral behaviors over laws that allow people to continue their immoral behavior if they are willing to pay higher prices entailed by the value of the harms caused by their behavior.
Economists often support pricing schemes if the pricing leads to the market incentivizing the use of alternative technologies that don’t create the harms of concern. In such cases, the morality of the pricing scheme likely depends on whether the technical transformation created by the pricing scheme will take place soon enough to prevent the harms of concern.
However, even in these cases, many ethicists believe that human activities that create morally unacceptable levels of GHG emissions should be responded to as moral obligations and only support pricing schemes so long as the scheme will enable reducing GHG emissions to morally acceptable levels as rapidly as possible. However, even so, some ethicists warn against erasing the moral stigma entailed by morally unacceptable levels of GHG emissions that could occur by allowing some to continue to exceed their moral obligations if they are willing to pay to do so.
Pope Francis inLaudato Si, the papal encyclical released in July 2015, questions whether market capitalism can effectively protect the poor, and in one passage specifically criticized “the strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits.’ More specifically Laudato Si argues that:
The strategy of buying and selling ‘carbon credits’ can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. (Laudato Si 171).
The Pope’s objection appears to be based in part on the fact that a carbon pricing scheme will allow those who can afford to continue emitting GHGs after paying the pricing fee to do so while those that are unable to afford to pay the fee will need to reduce the activities that create GHG emissions. Yet this problem can be somewhat ameliorated by carbon pricing regime design decisions on how revenues are distributed or how allowances to emit are allocated. However, these decisions raise questions of distributive justice, that is questions about how burdens or benefits of public policy should be allocated to comply with what fairness requires. For this reason, carbon pricing schemes often raise serious questions of distributive justice.
In addition if revenues from pricing schemes are to be used to help compensate those who are most harmed by climate change, given that those who are most harmed are often very poor people in poor nations that usually have done little to cause climate change, the revenues would need to transferred to poor nations and people around the world. Yet no national carbon pricing schemes have yet proposed such international financial transfers.
III. Ethical Issues Raised by Cap and Trade GHG Emissions Reduction Schemes
This paper next examines the following ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes that are additional to those discussed in Section II.
A very detailed examination of some ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes by Simone Carey and Cameron Hepburn is entitled Carbon Trading: Unethical, Unjust, and Ineffective? The Carey/Hepburn paper discusses in detail the following ethical issues raised by cap and trade regimes that are in addition to those discussed above. The following is a summary of issues discussed by the Carey/Hepburn paper.
A. Rights to use nature cannot be owned
Because GHG emitters that receive allowances or buy allowances from those that have excess allowances could under some trading mechanisms hold or bank these allowances, holders of allowances could be understood under some trading schemes to have a right pollute the atmosphere at levels entailed by the allowances they hold. However, most ethicists believe that no one should have a property right to pollute the atmosphere. Because in absence of a rule that would prevent the owner of allowances to bank the allowances for use far into the future, the owners of the allowances could accumulate the right to pollute far into the future. As a result, some ethicists have argued that allowances should be limited to a specific time period and be understood to be revocable if the science changes and concludes that greater reductions are necessary then those that were understood to be necessary to prevent harm when the allowances were distributed.
B Responsibilities to abate harms cannot be transferred to others
Some ethicists believe that some human responsibilities should not be allowed to be transferred to others. For instance, it is generally believed to be ethically unacceptable for those who are potentially subject to being drafted into the military to be able to buy their way out of this obligation by paying someone else to agree to take one’s place if he or she is drafted. For this reason, some ethicists claim that is ethically problematic for high GHG emitters to get a credit for reductions made by others while not requiring more of the high emitters to reduce their emissions.
C. Distributive justice issues with how allowances and revenues are allocated
Because those with the money to do so can buy scarce allowances, participants in a cap and trade regime can wind up with vastly unequal levels of allowances creating significant differences among participants in rights to emit GHGs. In addition, because rules determining who can get allowances and what is done with the money generated from allowance trading can create great imbalances, rules for allocating allowances and revenues from sales of allowances should be consistent with what distributive justice requires to assure fair burden and benefit sharing. Distributive justice requires that people should be treated equally unless there are morally relevant reasons for treating people differently. There is no reason in principle for allowance and revenue allocations to lead to a more unequal distribution of wealth. It will depend on how the cap and trade scheme is designed.
These issues are discussed in more detail by the Carey/Hepburn paper.
D. Ethical issues created by the fact that some cap and trade regimes allow high emitters of GHGs to count emissions reductions made by projects of others funded by the emitters in achieving the high emitters’ GHG reduction obligations.
Some cap and trade regimes allow those with GHG emissions reduction obligations to count the reduction of GHG emissions made by others’ projects funded by the emitter as a credit in achieving the emitter’s cap obligations. Economists justify this feature of cap and trade because it allows emitters to achieve GHG reductions at a lower price, However, not all GHG reduction strategies will reduce GHG emissions with equal probabilities that GHG reductions made by the emitter would actually have achieved. For instance, an electricity supplier can commit to reducing its emissions to amounts that will be achieved with high levels of confidence by installing non-fossil energy but if the electricity supplier relies on funding a forestation project in a third world country to obtain a credit for its emissions reductions. the actual reductions to be achieved by the funded project are much more speculative because of problems in assuring that any forest project will keep GHG reductions achieved by photosynthesis of the forest out of the atmosphere forever. Thus funding a project to achieve GHG emissions credits raises issues about the reliability of achieving specific GHG emission reduction amounts that are more reliable if the person responsible for GHG emissions must assure that GHG emissions will actually be achieved.
Thus cap and trade regimes often also raise the following ethical problems which were discussed in more detail in a prior entry on this website. (Brown, Ethical Issues Raised By Carbon Trading, 2010).:
a. Permanence. Many proposed projects for carbon trading raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by a project will stay out of the atmosphere forever. Yet permanent storage of carbon is needed to assure equivalence between emissions reductions avoided if no credits were issued and atmospheric carbon reductions attributable to a project which creates carbon credits. This is so because emissions reductions should guarantee that some quantity of GHG will not wind up in the atmosphere, yet some projects which are used to substitute for emissions reductions at a source have difficulty in demonstrating that the quantities of carbon reductions projected will actually be achieved. For instance, carbon stored in forests, soils, or geological carbon sequestration projects could be released to the atmosphere under the certain conditions. For example, rapid temperature change could kill trees thus releasing back into the atmosphere carbon stored in the trees. This problem is usually referred to as the problem of “permanence” of carbon reduction projects. For this reason, only projects that assure permanent reduction of carbon in the atmosphere can be categorized as environmentally effective projects and should be used to offset activities which actually release carbon.
b. Leakage.Many proposed projects for carbon trading raise serious questions about whether carbon reduced by a project at one location will result in actual reductions in emissions because the activity which is the subject of the trade could be resumed at another location. For example, paying people to plant trees in location A is not environmentally effective if these same people that receive the money chop down trees at place B. This is the problem usually referred to as “leakage.” Forest and other kinds of bio-sequestration projects that sequester carbon in particular often create leakage challenges. Industrial projects can also create leakage problems if the industry gets credit for reducing carbon at one industrial plant while moving the carbon producing activities to another place. If leakage occurs, then the trade is not environmentally effective.
c. Additionality. Getting a credit for a project which is used in a trade will also not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons. This is so because trading regimes usually assume that a GHG emitter should get credit because of their willingness to invest in projects that reduce carbon emissions that would not happen without the incentive to get credit for carbon reductions. If the project would happen without the investment of the emitter, then the investment in the project is not “additional” to business as usual. This is the problem usually referred to as the “additionality” problem.
d. Enforcement of trading regime. A trading regime is environmentally ineffective if its conditions cannot be enforced. Although enforcement of trading regimes is sometimes practical when the project on which the trade is based is within the jurisdiction of the government issuing the allowances, enforcement is particularly challenging when the project is located outside of allowance issuing government. In such cases, enforcement must be “out-sourced” to other institutions or governments In addition, while many hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in setting up emissions trading schemes all over the world, virtually no resources are being channeled into their enforcement or verification. Although most cap and trade regimes have built-in carbon reduction verification steps, verification remains extremely difficult for many types of carbon reduction projects for which credits are being issued because of the lack of enforcement or long-term verification potential. This enforcement challenge is exacerbated when projects for which credits are issued are in poor countries without the technical capability to enforce or verify that reductions have been made. Because of this, a strong case can be made that those who desire to rely on projects that have dubious enforcement and verification potential should have the burden of demonstrating enforcement and verification potential before they may obtain credits generated from these projects.
e. Distributive justice and internal allocation of a government-wide cap.How a cap is allocated among entities within a government creates many potential distributive justice problems. Governments sometimes distribute a cap they have by giving away allowances, auctioning allowances, and other ad hoc considerations that often take into account political feasibility. Each of these methods of distributing a cap raises distributive justice issues that are often ignored for political reasons. For instance, both auctioning allowances and giving away allowances could be significantly regressive, making higher-income households better off while making lower-income households worse off. Auctioning could also be regressive if the most wealthy get the most permits forcing those without the financial resources into non-polluting options. Sometimes governments choose to allocate the cap by placing caps on “upstream” carbon users such as coal and petroleum companies and ignoring “downstream” carbon emitters such as coal-fired industrial users. A decision to place a cap upstream makes the climate change regime easier to administer but could have regressive effects on those least able to afford increased fuel costs. An upstream cap also can create little incentives for those who can afford to waste energy to change behavior. In contrast, downstream caps puts the responsibility on energy users. There is no ethically neutral way to decide these design questions.
f. Distributive justice and revenue from allowances. When allowances are auctioned or otherwise purchased, governments must make decisions about how to use allowance revenues. These decisions raise a host of distributive justice issues that are often ignored for political reasons. Some governments have chosen, for instance, to use allowance revenues to fund climate change technology research, to meet international obligations to fund climate change adaptation projects in developing countries, to fund programs to reduce deforestation projects in developing countries, to buy off politically powerful opponents to climate change legislation, to help those least able to cope with rising energy costs, or to subsidize nuclear power, geologic carbon sequestration, or renewable energy. Thus, decisions about how to allocate revenues from distributing allowances raise distributive justice issue
IV. Ethical Issues With Carbon Taxes.
In addition to the ethical issues that apply to all carbon pricing regimes identified in section II of this entry, carbon taxing regimes can raise the following additional ethical issues.
a. Distributive Justice and a Carbon Tax. Carbon taxing regimes must decide who must pay the tax and just as is the case for cap and trade regimes in the allocation of allowances, taxing schemes may choose to apply the tax either to upstream producers of carbon fuels such as petroleum or coal companies that distribute fossil fuels or further downstream to entities such as electricity generators who consume the fossil fuels. Upstream taxation creates fewer taxable entities who have a huge tax burden. Therefore the decision on who to tax creates different winners and losers, an outcome which has political significance particularly in places where fossil energy is mostly produced. If the tax is based on the amount of CO2 per unit of energy, then some fossil fuel industries such as coal production will pay a much higher tax per unit of energy, a fact which most greatly affects those places and communities that produce fuels with higher CO2 emissions levels per unit of energy. This fact creates heavy burdens from the tax for those who are dependent on the sale of fuel with higher CO2 production levels. And so a decision about who must pay a tax has distributive justice implications.
How the tax revenues are used by the government also has enormous political and distributive justice implications. Policymakers are faced with many competing ways of using tax revenues generated by putting a price on carbon. Many parts of the world that have established a carbon tax use it primarily to subsidize technologies that produce lower amounts of GHG per unit of energy such as wind and solar power. Other governments use the revenues to ease the burden on those who are most affected by the tax, including poor people. Thus how the revenues of a carbon tax are distributed raises deep questions of distributive justice which also create issues of political feasibility.
b.Amount of the tax.
As we have seen all carbon pricing schemes raise ethical issues about whether the price is sufficient to achieve GHG emissions reductions consistent with the government’s ethically determined obligations to reduce GHG emissions. A pricing regime that is based on taxing carbon emissions raises more challenging questions about whether the tax is ethically stringent enough than cap and trade regimes because governments are able more easily assure that the cap is stringent enough than a regime based on taxing carbon because the size of the cap may be set directly on the magnitude of GHG reductions required for the government to achieve its ethically determined GHG emissions reductions obligations while the sufficiency of a tax must rely on economic modelling to determine the magnitude of reductions that will be achieved by different levels of the tax. Determining the amount GHG reductions that will be achieved by different levels of the tax is always somewhat of a guessing game due to the inherent imprecision of economic modeling to predict how entities and people will respond to different price signals. For this reason, taxing schemes that seek to assure that the government will reduce GHG emissions reductions levels congruent with the government’s ethically determined reduction obligations should include accelerator provisions that would increase the amount of the tax once it is determined that actual GHG reductions are not consistent with reductions pathways required to achieve ethically determined reductions obligations. However, because experience with carbon taxing programs around the world has demonstrated that political backlash will likely arise that undermines government support for continuing a carbon tax that is judged to be too high, governments which seriously seek to reduce their GHG emissions through imposing a tax alone may need to consider back up strategies rather than rapidly accelerating taxes if the original tax does not achieve the GHG reductions required of it by its ethical obligations.
c. Considering responsibility for prior emissions, an issue relevant to distributive justice.
Distributive justice supports an allocation of burden sharing obligations on the basis of who is most responsible for causing the current problem. Carbon tax regimes are usually forward-looking; in that most schemes make everyone pay the same price for using the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb CO2. Thus the scheme ignores responsibility determined by looking backward at questions such as:
Who caused the problem?
Who benefited from past emissions?
Who is in the best position to fix the problem?
To deal with these questions, a carbon tax may need to be supplemented by additional policies, for example by tax credits for poor people or sharing of tax revenues with those who must pay the tax but who have done little to cause the current problem so that the tax scheme can consider the distributive justice implications of looking backward at who is most responsible for the current problem
As we have seen carbon pricing schemes designed to reduce GHG emissions raise a host of ethical issues and problems.
Although many of these ethical problems can be dealt with by the pricing carbon regime design, given the enormous threat to life and ecological systems created by human-induced climate change, perhaps the most important ethical issue raised by carbon pricing regime is whether the carbon pricing regime will be successful in reducing a government’s GHG emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions.
Because there is limited political support for enacting carbon pricing schemes with sufficient pricing levels to achieve the enormous reductions in GHG emissions now necessary to prevent very dangerous climate change, carbon pricing schemes will likely require policy responses in addition to carbon pricing alone.
Because of the need to judge whether any carbon pricing scheme will achieve a government’s ethically determined GHG emissions reduction obligations, all proposed carbon pricing schemes should be clear and transparent on how the pricing scheme will achieve the government’s ethically determined GHG reduction goals. A pricing scheme could contribute to achieving a nation’s GHG reduction obligations either by establishing a price that will sufficiently reduce a government’s GHG emissions to achieve the nation’s GHG reduction obligations by itself or in combination with other GHG reduction policies. However, to judge the adequacy of the pricing scheme, governments should explain the role of any carbon pricing scheme in achieving its ethically determined GHG reduction obligations.
The following comments on this entry were made by Eric Haites, an economic consultant for Margaree Consultants Inc, in Toronto
Ethical Issues Entailed by Pricing Carbon as a Policy Response to Climate Change confuses benefit-cost analysis with carbon pricing and criticizes carbon pricing on grounds that also apply to non-price policies.
Carbon pricing policies – cap and trade systems (CTSs) and carbon taxes – are regulatory measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by specified sources within a jurisdiction. They may be implemented in conjunction with or as substitutes for non-price regulations such as subsidies for non-carbon energy, minimum gasoline efficiency standards for vehicles, funding for affordable public transportation, requirements/incentives to increase the supply of renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for buildings.
Benefit-cost analysis of climate change compares the estimated costs of different levels of global emissions reductions with the estimated value of reduced global climate change damages associated with those emission reductions. Benefit-cost analysis of climate change is extremely complex conceptually and in practice. Since the analysis must span a century or more due to the long atmospheric lives of greenhouse gases, the calculations are very sensitive to the discount rate and have large uncertainty ranges.
A CTS or carbon tax can be implemented by a jurisdiction to help achieve its GHG reduction goal regardless of how that goal is established. A country that has a nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement can use carbon pricing and/or non-price policies to meet its commitment.
It is true that many economics textbooks suggest that the carbon tax be set at the level determined by benefit-cost analysis, but that is not necessary and is based on the implicit assumption that an emissions reduction goal has not been established by other means, such as international negotiations.
Many of the criticisms of carbon pricing policies do not specify an alternative policy. If emissions are to be reduced, the alternative is a set of non-price regulations including efficiency standards and increased reliance on renewable energy. In practice, neither carbon pricing nor non-price regulations cover all GHG emissions, so there are regulated emissions and exempt emissions under every policy.
Consider then the claim that it is immoral to buy the right to pollute. Before a regulation is implemented, the right to pollute in unlimited quantities is free. Regulations impose costs and/or quantity limits on the right to pollute. In the case of a carbon tax, there is a cost for each ton of GHGs emitted by specified sources. In the case of a CTS, total emissions by specified sources are capped. In the case of non-price regulations there is a compliance cost, but any remaining emissions are free and unrestricted. The cost of an efficient automobile is higher, but its emissions are not priced or restricted.
One of the arguments by Simone Carey and Cameron Hepburn cited by the paper is that the rights to nature can not be owned. Many CTSs explicitly state that the allowances are not property rights. Almost all of the CTSs have cancelled or greatly devalued surplus allowances.
In the paper, the discussion of the distinction between a fine and a fee is misleading for a CTS. Every CTS has penalties for non-compliance, so the correct comparison is the fine for a CTS and that for a non-price policy. The non-compliance penalty for most CTSs is a reduction in emissions equal to the exceedance plus a penalty. To use the analogy in the paper, a CTS requires the offender to pick up the beer can and pay a penalty. In contrast, a non-price regulation only imposes a fine.
The paper raises the concern that “the tax can diminish the moral stigma entailed by status quo levels of emissions.” Why would the moral stigma associated with residual emissions differ? Are the residual emissions by a source subject to a carbon tax morally less acceptable than those by the owner of a more efficient automobile. Sources subject to carbon pricing policies have a financial incentive to make emission reductions that cost less than the tax/allowance price. Sources subject to non-price policies have no incentive to reduce their emissions.
Issues of distributive justice arise for all regulations; which sources are regulated, how stringent is the regulation, how should groups that are adversely affected by compensated? The paper clearly identifies these issues for CTSs and carbon taxes. But they apply equally to non-price regulations. Who pays for the more efficient vehicles and buildings, the public transit and the additional renewable energy? Those costs will be borne by specific groups or the government. Carbon pricing policies have the advantage that they generate revenue that can be used to help address distributive justice.
The paper argues that past emissions should be considered when addressing distributive justice. Presumably, this consideration applies to any policy, not just carbon pricing. In practice the ability to do this is limited due to lack of data and the long atmospheric lives of GHGs. Non-price regulations often differentiate between existing and new sources and CTSs address this concern through their allowance allocations.
In summary, carbon pricing can be implemented by a government to help meet its GHG emissions reduction target regardless of how that target is established. A CTS or carbon tax can be implemented alone, jointly or in combination with non-price policies. In practice all jurisdictions with a pricing policy also implement non-price policies. Many of the ethical criticisms of pricing policies apply to non-price policies as well. Price policies have the advantage of raising revenue that can be used to address distributive justice.
 Indeed, they may have a financial incentive to increase emissions. A more efficient vehicle may have a lower operating cost per km so the owner may drive more.
Resonse to comments
I agree that levels of GHG reductions achieved by a pricing scheme need not be determined by Cost-Benefit Analysis although some economists recommend this. In such cases the ethical issues discussed in this paper apply
Mr, Haite is correct that the articles criticism of carbon pricing schemes may also apply to other responses to climate change, However, if the level of reductions that constitute a nation’s GHG reduction target are based on a nation;s ethical obligations, then the problem entailed by some carbon pricing scheme’s allowing emitters to continue emit as long as they pay a tax is not possible.
I. The Failure of Ethical Principles to Get Traction in Climate Change Policy Formation.
This entry will explain why a type of rationality, referred to as instrumental rationality, both dominates policy formation on climate change around the world and is responsible for the failure of ethical principles to guide government responses to climate change.
As we have explained frequently on Ethicsandclimate.org, climate change is a problem with features that particularly require that it be seen and responded to as an ethical problem even more than other environmental problems. These features include that:
First, it is a problem that is being caused by some people in one part of the world who are putting others in other places who have often done little to cause the problem at great risk.
Second, the harms to those at most risk are not mere inconveniences but potentially catastrophic harms to life and natural resources on which life depends. In fact, unless humans adequately respond to climate change’s growing threats, most of life on Earth is threatened.
Finally climate change is a problem about which many of its greatest victims can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments for protection. The victims’ best hope is that the those high-emitting nations and people causing the problem will see that they have duties to climate change victims to avoid harming them.
The ethical dimensions of climate change are important to understand because unless those nations and individuals that are emitting high levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) reduce their emissions in accordance with their ethical obligations, climate change will eventually cause great harm to all but particularly to those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts and who usually have done little to cause the great harm.
There are many ethical principles that should, without controversy, guide national responses to climate change. These include, for instance:
Governments around the world have agreed under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) and agreements by parties under this treaty since then, including the Paris Agreement (Paris Agreement 2015), to adopt national climate change policies on the basis of several ethical principles including the duty to establish national policies in accordance with equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.1), to apply the precautionary principle that prohibits nations from using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking action to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.3), and the principle that developed countries have the obligation to take the lead on reducing the threat of climate change (UNFCCC,1992, Art 3.1), and to enact policies that limit warming to between 1.5 to 2.0 degrees C (United Nations, 2015 Art 2)
In addition there are numerous other non-controversial ethical norms that are understood to apply to nations as a matter of international law to global environmental problems such as climate change including the “no harm principle” which obligates nations to prevent people or entities within their jurisdiction from harming people and nations outside their borders (UNFCCC,1992, Preamble), and the “polluter pays principle” which requires those nations causing harm from pollution to pay for the damages they cause (Rio Declaration, 1992, Principle 16).
Yet most nations are completely ignoring these ethical obligations when they formulate policy responses to climate change (National Climate Justice. Lessons Learned).
A research project led by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland found that despite express national promises under the Paris Agreement to base national climate commitments known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reduce the threat of climate change to prevent warming as close as possible to 1.5°C but no more than 2°C, on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, all 24 nations studied actually set their NDCs on economic self-interest. Yet this conclusion was not determinable from the documents that nations submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat when the nations submitted their NDCs (National Climate Justice, Lessons Learned). The study also found that environmental NGOs in the country that supported national action on climate change did not seem to understand how to critique the failure of the nation to set its NDC on the basis of the nation’s ethical obligations including ethical obligations that the nation expressly agreed to.
Every national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GOHG) emissions, or NDC, is implicitly a position on two profound ethical questions among others. They are:
the amount of warming and associated harms the nation is willing to inflict on poor vulnerable people and nations, and
the nation’s fair share of global GHG emissions that may not be exceeded to keep global warming from exceeding a warming limit goal.
Yet nations around the world are setting their NDCs on economic self-interest and ignoring their ethical responsibilities on these issues.
Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity requires of nations to reduce their GHG emissions, national economic self-interest as a justification for their GHG reduction targets does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its fifth assessment report that despite ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014).
The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014).
And so ethical principles are failing to guide national climate change policy formation despite the uncontroversial applicability of several ethical principles that should guide national climate change policies.
The failure of ethical principles to get traction in guiding policy is a much broader problem than in regard to climate change policy formation alone. Despite the emergence of the academic sub-discipline of environmental ethics in the late 1970s, ethical principles are failing to influence environmental policy-making for most environmental problems.
The claim that ethical principles are rarely guiding environmental policy formation is strongly supported by the comments of the founder of the journal Environmental Ethics, Eugene Hargrove, who in 2003 published an essay “What’s Wrong ? Who’s to Blame? (Hargrove, 2003). This essay invited reflection on why environmental ethics has not had an influence on environmental policy. Just three years later, Robert Frodeman, in the same journal in an article entitled “The Policy Turn in Environmental Ethics” also reflected on the huge failure of environmental ethics to achieve traction in environmental policy formation (Frodeman, 2006).
Since its inception in the late 1970s, academic environmental ethics has been mostly focused on theoretical issues while completely failing to help policy makers understand what is ethically wrong with specific arguments made by opponents of environmental policies who almost always use arguments derived from instrumental rationality which hide dubious unstated norms that are the justification for the arguments and which would often fail minimum ethical scrutiny if the norms were made express and critically reflected on.
One of the reasons why ethical principles have failed to affect environmental policymaking is the failure of the academic discipline of environmental ethics to pay attention to actual controversies that arise in environmental policymaking debates. Academic environmental ethics since its inception in the late 1970s has been almost exclusively focused on theoretical issues, such as how to ground a biocentric or ecocentric ethics, while completely failing to help policymakers understand what is ethically wrong with specific arguments made by opponents of environmental policies who almost always rely on arguments derived from instrumental rationality which hide or ignore dubious unstated norms on which the arguments are based.
II. The Problem of Instrumental Rationality
This article now explains why a first order task that needs to be addressed before ethical principles can play their appropriate role in shaping environmental public policy is to open policymaking arguments on environmental issues including climate change to express ethical reflection. This is a first order task because throughout the world those responsible for environmental policymaking are following instrumental reason, a mode of reason which hides or ignores ethical questions, to determine the acceptability of environmental policies. It is a first order problem because before one can consider what ethical principles should guide policy formation, policymaking must be made open to ethical critique and reflection. If policymakers don’t see and respond to the ethical issues that are implicitly raised by arguments raised against proposed policies, they can’t apply the appropriate ethical rules.
Instrumental rationality is a mode of rationality that is exclusively concerned with the search for efficient means or scientific facts which, consequently, is not concerned with assessing the goals—or ends— that policies should pursue. This form of rationality has existed throughout history, but has become increasingly more dominant in post-Enlightenment liberal democratic capitalist societies (Cruickshank,2014).
Ethics rationality, on the other hand, is concerned about what the goals of society should be. Ethical reasoning seeks to determine what should be the goal of human behavior by examining what is right or wrong, what is permissible or impermissible, what actions are obligatory or non-obligatory, and how burdens of preventing harm should be justly distributed.
Instrumental rationality, because it focuses on means, usually ignores ethical questions about what the goals of policy should be despite the fact that every argument against a proposed environmental policy already contains an unstated norm. For instance, a claim that a proposed climate change policy should not be adopted because it imposes unacceptable costs rests on the unstated norm that the government should not adopt policies that impose significant costs on the economy or specific industries.
Scientific and economic reasoning, which have increasingly dominated public policy-making from the beginning of the Enlightenment, almost always focuses on how to achieve goals, not on what goals or ends should be desired.
Economic rationality often focuses on how to maximize human preferences. Ethics asks a different question of economic activity, namely what preferences humans should have.
Scientific reasoning usually tests hypotheses to determine what “is.” Moral philosophers believe that determining what “is,” which is the proper domain of science, cannot determine what “ought” to be, which is the domain of ethics.
Yet instrumental rationality that scientists and economists deploy in their search for scientific and economic facts has dominated public life and higher education for several centuries.
That instrumental rationality dominates environmental policy making is clear given that most government environmental agencies are staffed exclusively by engineers, scientists, economists, and lawyers but very infrequently by employees trained in ethics. This is huge problem because very few employees of environmental agencies or scientific organizations that make policy recommendations can spot problematic ethical issues that should be acknowledged in policy debates and particularly ethical issues that are ignored or hidden when instrumental rationality is deployed to make policy recommendations. Although employees of government agencies responsible for policy formation often understand they should apply policy rules entailed by relevant laws, many relevant laws do not contain clear rules on how to respond to economic and uncertainty arguments against proposed environmental policies.
Instrumental rationality dominates public policy formation for at least two reasons:
First, sociologists, including Max Weber, have predicted that instrumental rationality would over time crowd out ethical rationality in modern societies because increasingly complex human problems would be relegated to bureaucracies run by technical experts whose expertise depends on the use of instrumental rationality. Since the power of experts depends, in part, on maintaining the fiction that their expertise is the central key to solving modern problems, these experts are reluctant to acknowledge that their analytic tools for solving problems are often ethically inadequate and sometimes ethically inappropriate (Thomas, 2017). Moreover particularly in capitalist societies, wealthy interests are able to hire experts and frequently do so to fight government action which would reduce profits.
Second, opponents of proposed environmental policies usually frame opposition to these policies on the basis of excessive costs to governments or specific industries or lack of scientific certainty about harms the policy seeks to prevent. These arguments very frequently hide controversial normative assumptions implicitly embedded in the arguments. For instance, cost arguments made in opposition to environmental policies often rest on the very ethically dubious idea that any policy which creates significant cost to a nation, regional economy, or to a specific industry should not be adopted even when the problematic behavior causes serious harm to people or nations who have not consented to be harmed. The public debate in response to these claims often narrowly focuses on the magnitude of the costs or whether the regulatory action will create jobs and in so doing ignores several serious ethical problems with these arguments.
In policy disputes about matters in which potential harms are acknowledged by opponents of proposed policies, the public debate about the acceptability of the harms is often limited to some form of “cost-benefit analysis”(CBA).
Yet CBAs frequently hide important ethical issues. If, for instance, a CBA concludes that government action to protect vulnerable people or ecological systems should not be taken because costs of taking action to reduce an environmental threat outweigh the economic value of harms avoided by the proposed regulation, controversial ethical assumptions may be hidden in factual assertions about the magnitude of the costs or value of benefits particularly if:
Potentially but not fully proven catastrophic harms were ignored in the CBA.
The costs of taking action would be imposed upon parties that are harming others, yet the victims of the harm have not consented to be harmed.
Things that were believed to be sacred by one culture are valued in the CBA as if they were commodities whose value can be measured adequately by “willingness-to-pay” monetary measures. CBAs usually commodify all human values and thus value is restricted to monetary value while ignoring other values including sacred value or beliefs that certain entities should not be for sale. Thus in CBAs, usually the value of things that could be harmed are measured by human preferences measured in monetary values. Yet ethics is concerned with what preferences people should hold, not simply what preferences people hold.
Human rights will be violated if regulatory action is not taken.
The proposed government action implements the ethical duty of people to not harm others on the basis of self-interest.
The CBA determined economic value of entities that might be harmed are determined without obtaining the consent of those who might be harmed.
The benefits of government action to protect the environment are discounted too greatly in calculations that seek to allow future benefits of action to be compared to current costs to those who must act to prevent harm (Brown, 2008).
Thus, if a decision to take no government action on a potential environmental problem is justified only as a matter of imbalance between costs and benefits, very dubious ethical assumptions are frequently hidden in the CBA calculations while ethical principles, including those that have been widely acknowledged as valid and applicable to government policy formation are often ignored.
In this writer’s experience, proponents of environmental policies also not only rarely identify the ethical problems with the use of CBAs or almost any cost-based argument made in opposition to proposed policies, they almost always respond to the cost-based arguments by making counter cost claims. And so public debate about proposed policies usually focuses on economic “factual” claims while ignoring ethical principles.
Evidence of the utter dominance of instrumental rationality in the United State includes executive orders of several US presidents which require that any US proposed regulation must satisfy a CBA before it may be promulgated (Congressional Research Service, 2017).
This is so despite the fact that, as we have seen, a CBA used as a prescriptive guide to policymaking often hides many controversial ethical issues including, for instance, the duty of nations to not harm others on the basis of national economic self-interest.
Using cost to those causing harm to others as justification for failing to abate the harm also violates well-established principles of international environmental law including the “polluter pays principle” (Rio Declaration,1992, Principle 16 ) and the “no harm principle.” (UNFCCC,1992, Preamble)..
Yet the United States continues to very frequently base the acceptability of environmental regulations on the results of a CBA.
In 1997, while working as the Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of International Affairs, this author closely observed the US debate about whether the US should agree to the Kyoto Protocol under the UNFCCC. This debate focused exclusively on two different CBAs, one completed by the US EPA and the other by the US Department of Energy which reached slightly different conclusions about the magnitude of negative impacts on US GDP if the US agreed to be bound by the Protocol. Amazingly both CBAs examined costs and benefits to the United States alone if the United States ratified the Kyoto Protocol while completely ignoring potentially harsh climate impacts on poor people around the world and the most vulnerable nations. Yet no one in the US government nor NGOs participating in the debate about whether the US should ratify the Kyoto Protocol raised any ethical problems with the US reliance on CBAs that examined costs and benefits to the US alone as a tool to determine the appropriateness of US action on climate change.
In most Western capitalist countries, corporations and their industry associations have huge political power to frame public policy questions and don’t hesitate to exercise their power to prevent any government action that could lower corporate profits. And so the public debate on proposed policies often focuses on economic “facts,” not ethical duties, despite the almost universally accepted ethical norm agreed to by almost all religions and nations that people should not harm others on the basis of self-interest.
Opposition arguments against proposed environmental policies often rest on the unstated very dubious norm that regulatory action limiting commercial activities should not be taken unless the harms are proven by the government with high degrees of scientific certainty even in cases where achieving high levels of certainty is scientifically difficult or very prohibitively expensive.
For over 30 years, opponents of US action on climate change have frequently based their opposition on scientific uncertainty about human-caused climate change harms despite the fact that the United States agreed to the “precautionary principle” when it agreed to the UNFCCC in 1992. (UNFCCC. 1992, Art 3.3) This principle says that governments will no longer fail to take action on the basis of scientific uncertainty. Yet advocates of national action on climate change in response to opponents’ scientific uncertainty arguments almost always simply claim that the scientific “facts” of harm have been sufficiently scientifically demonstrated not on the ethical rule that precaution is required once it is scientifically established that significant harm might be created by certain human activities.
If a government decides not to act to reduce the threat of environmental harm on the basis of lack of proof of harm, such a decision can hide important ethical questions particularly if:
The government assumes that the proponents of government action to prevent environmental harm should shoulder the burden of proof of demonstrating harm particularly in matters where proof is very expensive, difficult to demonstrate, or cannot be fully demonstrated before potential harms are experienced..
There is credible but uncertain evidence that the current activity may be approaching thresholds that could trigger very serious consequences.
If the government waits until all uncertainties are resolved it will be too late to prevent serious harm.
Some very serious potential harm is judged to be low probability just because the mechanism for causing serious harm is not completely understood so that the probability of the serious harm cannot be confidently evaluated.
The victims of potential harm have not consented to put at risk.
All of these considerations are relevant to climate change yet, the United States has failed to decisively act on climate change since international climate change negotiations began 30 years ago because opponents of US climate change policies have claimed that there is insufficient proof of human-induced climate change caused harms.
Although the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world including most national academies of science and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have concluded with high levels of confidence that humans are causing and threatening great harms from human-induced climate change, even conceding, for the sake of argument, that great harms from human induced climate change are not yet proven, ethical principles requires that action should be taken to reduce the threat of climate change. Yet the ethical basis for requiring action is almost never discussed in the US public debate about whether scientific uncertainty about human-induced climate change is an appropriate justification for US unwillingness to act on climate change.
Scientists employed by environmental agencies usually focus on understanding the environmental harms and risks of various human activities and whether proposed government action will acceptably reduce threats to human health and the environment. The goals of environmental regulatory action are usually given to them by law or regulation such as water pollution should be reduced to prevent unreasonable harm to humans or ecological systems. Yet, in the face of scientific uncertainty about whether human actions may cause harm, scientists cannot determine who should have the burden of proof or what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof by scientific methods alone because these are fundamentally ethical questions.
An understanding the ethical problems with instrumental rationality leads to an understanding of why nations often ignore even well-established ethical principles in policy formation such as the ethical principle that no nation should harm others outside their jurisdiction on the basis of national economic interest.
For this reason, a first-order problem on the road to a world which formulates policies guided by ethical principles is to open policy formation controversies to express consideration of ethical issues. This goal requires that those engaged in policy formation spot and identify the ethical issues frequently hidden in economic and scientific arguments against proposed policies that currently dominate policy formation controversies on environmental issues around the world.
Unfortunately most professionals engaged in environmental policy formation have no training that would help them identify the hidden ethical issues embedded in arguments made against environmental and sustainable development policies. Nor do those NGOs who participate in controversies about these issues have the training to spot ethical problems made by opponents of proposed policies that are derived from various forms of instrumental rationality.
Frodeman, R. (2006) A Policy Turn in Environmental Ethics, Environmental Ethics, 26
Hargrove, E., ‘(2003) What’s Wrong? Who Is to Blame?, Environmental Ethics, 25 (1):3-4,  3-4
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2014) 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Chapter 4. Sustainable Development and Equity. Sec 4.6. 2.1, p 4., http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/ assessed , Dec 23, 2017
National Climate Justice, Research Project On Ethics and Justice in Formulating National Climate Policies, Lessons Learned, https://nationalclimatejustice.org, accessed 24 Dec, 2017