Why Overcoming Instrumental Rationality In Climate Change Policy Controversies Is a First Order Problem Preventing Ethical Principles From Getting Traction to Guide Climate Change Policy Formation

 

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.

References:

Brown, D. (2008) Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs, https://ethicsandclimate.org/2008/06/01/ethical-issues-in-the-use-of-cost-benefit-analysis-of-climate-change-programs/, accessed 16 Dec. 2017

Congressional Research Service (2014) Cost-Benefit and Other Analysis Requirements in the Rulemaking Process’, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41974.pdf, accessed 18 Dec.,2017

Cruickshank, J., (2014) Democracy versus the domination of instrumental rationality: Defending Dewey’s argument for democracy as an ethical way of life, Humanities 3, 19–41; doi:10.3390/h3010019, http://www.likealittledisaster.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/humanities-03-00019.pdf, accessed 20 Dec.2017

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, [2003] 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

Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, (Rio Declaration, 1992)  https://www.un.org/documents/ga/conf151/aconf15126-1annex1.htm, accessed 24 Dec 2017,

Thomas. W. (2017) Max Weber on Rationality in Social Action, in Sociological Analysis in Modern Life, Rational Action, http://www.rational-action.com/?s=Weber, accessed 22 Dec. 2017

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992), FCC/INFORMAL/84/Rev.1 GE.14-20481 (E), Preamble.

United Nations (2015), Paris Agreement, FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1, https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf, accessed 23 Dec. 2017

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

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The Moral Outrageousness of Trump’s Decision on the Paris Agreement

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Pope Francis in May of 2015 issued his Laudata Si encyclical which called climate change a moral issue, it got global attention. Yet despite extensive international media coverage of worldwide condemnation of President Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris agreement, there has been relatively little coverage of why the Trump decision should be understood not only as a dangerous break with the international community but as a profoundly immoral choice.

Climate change has certain features that more than any other global environmental problem call for responding to it as a moral problem. First, it is a problem caused mostly by high-emitting developed countries that are putting relatively low emitting developing countries most at risk. Second, the potential harms to the most vulnerable nations and people are not mere inconveniences but include catastrophic threats to life and the ecological systems on which life depends. Third, those people and nations most at risk can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments to shield them; their best hope is that high-emitting nations will respond to their obligations to not harm others. Fourth CO2 emissions become well mixed in the atmosphere so that COatmosphere concentrations are roughly the same around the world regardless of the source of the emissions. Therefore unlike other air pollution problems which most threaten only those nations and communities located within the pollution plume, greenhouse gas emissions from any one country are threatening people and other countries around the world.  This means that US greenhouse gas emissions are causing and threatening enormous harm all over the world.

Under the 2015 Paris accord, 195 nations agreed to cooperate to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5°C and no more than 2.0°C.  Even nations that have historically opposed strong international action on climate change, including most of the OPEC countries, agreed to this warming limit goal because there is a broad scientific consensus that warming above these amounts will not only cause harsh climate impacts to millions around the word, but could lead to abrupt climate change which could create great danger for much of the human race. The international community’s condemnation of the Trump decision is attributable to the understanding that achieving the Paris agreement’s warming limit goals will require the cooperation of all nations and particularly high emitting nations including the United States to adopt greenhouse gas reduction targets more ambitious than nations have committed to thus far. For this reason, most nations view the Trump decision as outrageously dangerous.

Trump justified his decision by his claim that removing the United States from the Paris agreement was consistent with his goal of adopting policies that put America first. According to Trump staying in the Paris Agreement would cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025 including 440,000 fewer manufacturing jobs. This claim was based on a dubious study by National Economic Research Associates which was funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Council for Capitol Formation.  This study has been widely criticized for several reasons including that it neither counted the number of jobs which would be created in the renewable energy industry in a transformed energy sector nor the economic benefits of preventing climate change caused harms.

Yet it is the Trump assertion that the United States can base its energy policy primarily on putting US economic interests first while ignoring US obligations to not harm others that most clearly provokes moral outrage around the world. The moral principle that people may not harm others on the basis of self-interest is recognized by the vast majority of the world’s religions and in international law under the “no harm principle”.  The “no- harm’ rule is a principle of customary international law whereby a nation is duty-bound to prevent, reduce, and control the risk of environmental harm to other nations caused by activities within the nation  For these reasons, the Trump decision on the Paris Agreement is a moral travesty.

By: 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

Three Videos on Why the Fossil Fuel Funded Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Is Neither an Exercise of Free Speech nor Responsible Scientific Skepticism and Should Be Understood as Some Kind of New Crime Against Humanity

 

wizardweb of denial

 

This post identifies three updated 15 minute videos which have previously appeared on this site.  These videos describe, analyze, and respond to controversies about the climate change disinformation campaign. They include descriptions of:

(1) The enormous damage to the world that has been caused by a mostly fossil fuel corporate funded disinformation campaign on climate change,

(2) What is meant by the climate change disinformation campaign, a phenomenon sociologist describe as a “countermovement,”

(3) The tactics of the disinformation campaign,

(4) An explanation of why the tactics of the campaign cannot be excused either as an exercise in free speech or as responsible scientific skepticism,

(5) What norms should guide responsible scientific skepticism about climate change.

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Insights from New Book on Sociology and Climate Change: Why Has an Understanding of the Sociological Causes of the Failure of Government to Respond to Climate Change and Identification of the Deep Ethical Problems with Most Arguments Against Climate Policies Been Missing from Most Climate Change Literature?

sociology and climate

This is the first in a series of three posts that will identify important insights about the social causes of climate change in a new book that examines climate change through the lens of sociology. This new book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Bruelle, Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.

This book explains, among other things: (1) why sociological analyses of the causes of climate change as well as the identification of the serious ethical and moral problems with arguments of opponents of climate change policies have largely been missing from most climate change literature, (2) how certain corporations, industry organizations and free-market fundamentalist foundations have successfully prevented governments from adequately responding to climate change, and (3) how the failure to look at the causes of climate change through a sociological lens has partially blinded climate change policy advocates from a deeper understanding of the social causes of climate change and thereby prevented the development of potentially effective strategies to increase government responses to climate change

Before discussing the insights of this new important book, we note that many entries on this blog site have explained that for over 30 years opponents of climate change policies have mostly made two kinds of arguments in opposition to climate change policies.   First, they have argued that proposed policies designed to lessen the threat of human-induced climate change should be opposed because there has been inadequate scientific support for the conclusion that human activities are causing climate change harms which are threatening humans and ecological systems on which life depends. Second, opponents of climate change policies have made a variety of economic arguments that proposed climate change policies were too expensive, would destroy jobs, decrease national GDP, or otherwise would impose unacceptable costs on the nation’s economy.

In the United States and in a growing number of countries around the world these scientific uncertainty and unacceptable economic impact arguments have dominated disputes about proposed climate change policies since the mid-1980s. Proponents of climate change policies have almost always responded to these claims by disputing the factual claims about scientific uncertainty or unacceptable cost made by climate change policy opponents. And so, proponents of climate change policies have inadvertently allowed opponents of climate change policies to frame the public policy debate so as to limit the public controversy about climate change to disputes about scientific and economic “facts.” Largely missing from this three decade debate have been analyses of why the arguments of climate change policy opponents are not only factually flawed but ethically and morally bankrupt. Although a climate change ethics and justice literature has been growing for over a decade, the public debate about climate change  has largely ignored strong ethical and moral problems with the scientific and economic arguments that have been the consistent focus of the opponents of climate change policies.

Until the last few years, also largely missing from the public debate about climate change has been serious analyses of which organizations and interests have been most responsible for the arguments made by the opponents of climate change, who funded these organizations, what tactics have they used, and how can we understand that success of the climate change policy opposition in undermining serious responses to the growing threat of climate change.  In other words, missing from the public discussion about climate change has been serious analyses  of how the opponents of climate change policies have successfully blocked government responses to climate change despite increasingly louder and more intense calls from the  mainstream scientific community that government urgently must act to prevent catastrophic harms from climate change. That is, largely missing from the climate change debate has been any sophisticated analyses of how self-interested corporations. organizations, and ideological foundations have been able to manipulate a democracy to prevent the government from responding to a huge potential threat, matters which are the domain of the discipline of sociology.

Sociologists often seek to understand how self-interested minority groups within society can frequently hide the ethical and moral problems with their arguments by framing important public controversies in such a way that the ethical and moral problems raised by their arguments are hidden from public scrutiny. This framing works to hide the ethical and moral problems with arguments made by the opponents of government action to solve social and environmental problems by tricking the public to debate “factual” claims, such as those made by scientists or economists, as if there were no moral or ethical problems with these claims. As a result, in the case of climate change,  rather than debating whether it is morally acceptable for some people to put large numbers of other people at great risk from catastrophic harm on the basis that there’s some scientific uncertainty that the catastrophe will happen, the public is tricked into narrowly debating whether the catastrophe will happen with high levels of scientific certainty even in cases where waiting until all the uncertainties are resolved with high levels of confidence will likely make it too late to prevent the catastrophic harm. Rather than examining wether it is morally acceptable to delay action on climate change when delay will make the problem worse and the people most at risk have no say on whether to delay response action until scientific uncertainties are resolved, the public is tricked into debating the uncertainty. Rather than debating whether it is morally acceptable for one government to impose catastrophic harm on  hundreds of millions of other people, citizens are tricked into arguing about the magnitude of the economic costs that will be experienced by the country causing the harm if response action is taken.

As a result, in the United States, ethical and moral problems with the scientific uncertainty and unacceptable cost arguments made for over three decades by opponents of climate change policies have very rarely appeared in the US public debate about climate change that has been followed by the media. Although there has been a growing literature on the ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies and agreement among most ethicists that the arguments of most opponents of climate change are morally bankrupt, the mainstream climate change literature has rarely looked at the arguments of opponents of climate change policies through a moral lens.

And so, one of the reasons why ethical problems with the arguments most frequently made by opponents of climate change policies have neither rarely appeared in the dominant climate change literature nor become part of the public debate about what a country like United States should do in response to the threat of climate change is because economically powerful opponents of climate change policies have successfully narrowly framed the issues that have been discussed in the public debate, a common problem in democracies recognized by sociologists.

Also, largely missing in the public debate about climate change until very recently, has been sociological analyses of how those opposed to climate change have successfully created a social context about climate change, that is a cultural understanding of the problem in which individuals form opinions, Sociologists understand that culture is not fixed and and can change over time often in response to powerful forces that seek to affect widespread cultural understanding of a problem. Because individuals make decisions in light of the information about the problem provided by their culture, individual decisions about problems are often influenced by those who have sought to change the cultural understanding of the problem.

Although sociologists have begun in the last decade to explain how a climate change countermovement, a sociological term which will be discussed in the next entry in this series, has successfully influenced the cultural understanding of climate change in the United States, very little of the sociological explanation of how this countermovement has succeeded in  influencing the public’s understanding of climate change has appeared in the mainstream literature about climate change nor in media coverage of human-induced warming because the media also has largely reported on issues raised by opponents of climate change, namely, claims about scientific uncertainty and unacceptable costs of taking action.

The absence of sociological insights on how economic power has distorted the public’s understanding of climate change is most striking in the work of organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that study climate change primarily through a scientific lens although they  also have responsibility for making policy recommendations to decision-makers and in so doing have obligations to synthesize the relevant socioeconomic literature that should be considered by decision-makers.

In its first four assessments in 1990 (IPCC, AR1), 1995 (IPCC, AR2) , 2001(IPCC, AR4), and 2007 (IPCC, AR4), IPCC in its summary of relevant socioeconomic literature relevant to climate change relied almost exclusively on economic analyses of policy issues, rather than on the ethics and justice and justice literature.  In fact, in this regard, in the IPCC’s 5th Assessment  Report in 2014 (IPCC, AR5), in a new chapter on the Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts, IPCC admitted expressly that in prior IPCC Reports “ethics has received less attention than economics, although aspects of both are covered in AR2.” (IPCC, AR5, Working Group III, Chapter 3, pg. 10)  Yet the treatment of ethics in IPCC Working Group III in AR2, was hardly a serious consideration of the implications of ethical and justice principles that should guide climate change policy given that the vast majority of text in this report was focused on traditional economic analyses which assumed that climate policy should maximize efficiency rather than assign responsibility for reducing the threat of climate change or pay for harm to those poor most vulnerable countries that have done little to cause climate change  on the basis of justice. In fact, the AR2 report includes many statements that would lead policy-makers to conclude that it is perfectly permissible to determine the amount of ghg emissions reductions any nation should be required to achieve solely on economic considerations. For instance, AR 2 says expressly that: “there is no inherent conflict between economics and most conceptions of equity.” (IPCC, 1995,  AR2, Working Goup III, pg. 87) Moreover. any fair reading of prior IPCC reports would conclude that policymakers were encouraged by IPCC to base policy on economic considerations such as those determined in cost-benefit analyses. Yet, as we have explained many times on this website. cost-benefit analysis used as a prescriptive tool for policy-making on climate change raise many serious ethical problems. (See, for example, Brown, 2008, Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs )

Why has economics and psychological literature dominated the work of IPCC whose mission includes synthesizing the relevant socioeconomic literature for policy-makers? The new Dunlap/Brulle book attributes the dominance of economics and psychology literature in the work of IPCC to the fact that the major focus of IPCC is science. Organizations like IPCC which are dominated by scientists after determining what needs to be done scientifically to reduce the environmental harm look to disciplines that offer advice on how to motivate individuals including economics and psychology to enact the responses to the problems that scientists have described need to be implemented (Brulle, R., & Dunlap, R., 2015, p. 8-9). And so the discipline of economics, which often assumes that individuals can be motivated to act by appealing to their economic self-interest, and psychology, which also focuses on how individuals can be motivated to change their individual behavior by appropriate messaging, have dominated the social science literature on climate change because scientific organizations like IPCC have turned to disciplines that offer potential strategies for motivating individual behavioral change after the scientific organizations explore precisely what needs to be done. These disciplines do not examine how powerful groups in society frame public policy issues in a way that hides ethical problems with status quo approaches to societal problems nor how economically dominant groups shape government’s and civil society’s potential responses to societal problems by changing the cultural understanding of the problem,  concerns which in the social sciences are the domain of sociology. Because the vast majority of climate change social science literature is focused on motivating individual behavioral change, ethical criticisms of economic rationality and analyses of how “value-neutral” discourses including economics have come to dominate approaches to solving climate change have played a very small role in the social science literature that IPCC has attempted to synthesize.. Explaining this phenomenon Brulle, R. & Dunlap, R. (2015), p. 8 conclude that:

An analysis of the social science literature finds that economics is the most widely represented social science discipline in climate research. Fundamental to economic analysis of climate change is the “rational actor” model embedded in the discipline. The object of the analysis is the individual and the decisions and principles that each individual brings to the marketplace. Given the widespread societal influence of economics, it comes as no surprise that it has been highly influential in climate change research.

For these reasons it is not surprising why IPCC has allowed economic considerations to dominate much of its analyses of to reduce climate change’s great threat in its first four assessments.

IPCC’s work initially defines what needs to be done scientifically to prevent climate change’s jharm and it should be expected that it would turn to the two disciplines that claim they understand how to motivate individuals to do what needs to be done, namely economics and psychology. Yet these disciplines have little to offer about how the cultural understanding of climate change has been deeply influenced by those with strong economic interests in maintaining the status quo nor invite citizens around the world to examine responses to climate change from the lens of ethics and morality.

Although, IPCC has made some improvement in covering ethics and justice in its 5th Assessment, much improvement is still needed (Brown, 2014).

The next entry in this series will examine the insights from the Dunlap/ Brulle book about how the climate change denial countermovement influenced the cultural understanding of climate change initially in the United States and later in other parts of the world.

References: 

Brown, 2014, IPCC, Ethics, and Climate Change: Will IPCC’s Latest Report Transform How National Climate Change Policies Are Justified? https://ethicsandclimate.org/2014/05/02/ipcc-ethics-and-climate-change-will-ipccs-latest-report-transform-how-national-climate-change-policies-are-jusified/

Brulle, R., & Dunlap, R., (2015) Sociology and Climate Change, Introduction, in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR!), (1990), IPCC, First Assessment Report. AR1, The IPCC Response Strategies, retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_ipcc_first_asasssessment_1990_wg3.shtml

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR2), (1995), Second Assessment Report, AR2, Working Group III, Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change, retrieved from    https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml#1

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR3) (2001) IPCC, Third Assessment Report. The IPCC Response Strategies, retrieved from http://www.grida.no/publications/other/ipcc_tar/

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR4) (2007) IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group III,, retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg3/en/contents.html

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, AR5) (2014), 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

By: 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor,

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.org

 

 

Why ethics requires that Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) identify: (1) tonnes of CO2eq emissions reduced rather than a percent reduction from a baseline year, (b) the temperature limit and associated carbon budget that the INDC is seeking to achieve, (c) the equity principles that the nation relied on to assure the justice of its INDC, and (d) For Annex 1 countries, ghg emissions in 1990, the common baseline year.

INDC implications aubrey

COP-21 INDCs Compared With Carbon Budgets to achieve a warming limit of: (a)  3 to 4 degrees C, (b) a 50% probability of 2 degrees C, (c) a 66% probability of 2 degrees C , and, (d)  1.5 degrees C.  Global Commons Institute, Aubrey Meyer.

I. Introduction.

The above chart by the Global Commons Institute compares INDCs filed by nations with the UNFCCC before Paris with the reductions that would be needed by the entire world to live within carbon budgets that may not be exceeded if warming will be limited to;  between 3 degrees and 4 degrees C, a 50% chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, a 66% chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, and a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C.

A quick glance at the chart makes it clear that the INDCs that have been submitted by nations so far makes it very unlikely that the international community will be successful in limiting warming to 2 degrees C and virtually impossible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C unless nations make significant increases in the ambition of their INDCs.

This entry argues that because nations have clear ethical duties to make national commitments on ghg emissions reductions consistent with their fair share of safe global emissions, they have duties to provide clear and transparent information about how their INDCs satisfies the nation’s ethical duty to limit its ghg emissions to levels which are sufficiently ambitious and fair so that citizens around the world can evaluate whether a nation has satisfied its ethical obligations. Furthermore, because national INDCs that have been submitted to the UNFCCC do not contain crucial information that is necessary to evaluate the nation’s compliance with its ethical obligations, nations must submit additional information to allow citizens around the world to  evaluate national compliance with its ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change.

All developed countries and some non-Annex 1 countries have submitted INDCs that have made commitments on the basis of percent reductions below a baseline year such as 1990 or 2005 by a specific date such as 2030, 2050, etc.

Although nations were encouraged by the Lima COP-20  decision in 2014  to include in their INDC submissions information that was transparent as to  why their INDC was sufficiently ambitious and fair, few nations have done this.

As of October 8th, 2015, 121 INDC submissions have been filed with the UNFCCC, reflecting 148 countries (including the European Union member states), and covering around 86% of global emissions in 2010 (excluding land use and forest emissions) and 87% of global population.) Most nations have not submitted information that is useful in determining the adequacy of the ambition or fairness of the INDCs submitted.

II. Why nations have a strong ethical duty to be clearly transparent on how they satisfied their ethical obligations to reduce its ghg emissions to the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. 

A strong ethical case can be made that if nations have duties to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a conclusion that follows both as a matter of ethics and justice and several international legal principles including, among others, the “no harm principle,” and promises nations made in the 1992 UNFCCC to adopt policies and measures required to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system in accordance with equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, nations have a duty to clearly explain how their national ghg emissions reductions commitments arguably satisfy their ethical obligations to limit their ghg emissions to the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions.

Because information submitted by nations with their INDCs does not contain sufficient information to help evaluate the ethical acceptability of national INDCs, nations should submit additional information needed to evaluate a nation’s compliance with its ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change.

The ethical duty to clearly explain how a nation satisfied its ethical obligations for climate change follows from the ethical duty of nations to not harm others beyond their national boundary. Although nations could reasonably disagree on what equity frameworks should guide national commitments on ghg emissions, no nation can deny its responsibility to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of equity and principles of distributive justice to levels that will prevent dangerous climate impacts around the world. Unless nations specifically identify the equity principles that have guided their ghg emissions reductions, and the assumptions about warming limits entailed by their INDC,  nations and citizens around the world who may be harmed by illigitmate uses of common pool resources have an insufficient factual basis to challenge the potentially unethical responses of nations to their ethical obligations.  From this it is clear that nations have a strong duty to be clear on how they satisfied their ethical responsibilities for climate change. Yet almost all INDCs submitted thus far have either no information or inadequate information on how the nation satisfied its ethical duties in regard to the sufficient ambition or the justice of its INDC.

III. The ethical basis for why national INDCs should specify; (a) the number of tons of ghg emissions that will be reduced by implementation of the INDC by a specific date, (b) the warming limit and associated carbon budget that the nation’s INDC is seeking to achieve in cooperation with other nations, (c) the equity principles assumed by the nation in determining the fairness of its INDC, and (d) for Annex 1 nations,  emissions reductions that will be achieved by the INDC from 1990, a common baseline year. 

Any national ghg emissions reduction commitment is implicitly a position on two ethical questions, namely, first, what safe atmospheric ghg concentration level the commitment is designed to achieve and, second, what equity framework or principles of distributive justice the INDC is based on. Although some nations have acknowledged their ethical duties to base their INDC on ethically justifiable criteria, almost all INDC submissions have not explained how specific emissions reductions commitments link to a specific desired atmospheric ghg concentration levels and its associated carbon budget that will provide some level of confidence that a warming limit will be achieved nor why their ghg emissions reductions commitment is fair as a matter of distributive justice.

In fact no nation has explained quantitatively how its commitment is related to an atmospheric carbon budget or a specific equity framework. In addition the information submitted with INDCs submitted so far make it virtually impossible to rigorously evaluate the adequacy of the INDC as a matter of ethics and justice.

Almost all INDCs that have been submitted thus far by developed nations commit to a percentage reduction in ghg emissions from a baseline year by a a stated year. Although some nations acknowledge that their climate policies should be guided by ethical principles, no nation has expressly explained quantitatively how their commitments were specifically guided by ethical principles.

Because the acceptability of an INDC is a matter of ethics and justice, and citizens need additional information about the INDC to be able to evaluate the ethical acceptability of the INDC, INDCs submitted should be supplemented by additional information because an INDC expressed as a percent reduction from a given baseline year by a certain future date does not reveal:

(a) the percentage of the global carbon budget that will be consumed by the nation’s emissions because a percentage reduction commitment does not say when the reductions will be achieved yet the speed with which the reductions are achieved will affect the tonnes of any remaining carbon budget with quicker reductions consuming less amounts of the available carbon budget while waiting until the end of the period to achieve the percent reduction committed to will consume much more of the remaining carbon budget;

 

(b) the carbon budget in gigatons of CO2eq that the INDC is seeking to achieve. Because different carbon budgets will provide different levels of confidence that warming will be limited to specific temperature increases and the amount of temperature increase that an INDC has implicitly deemed to be acceptable to the nation is an ethical issue at its core, the nation should be required to link the INDC to a specific carbon budget so that the ambition of the INDC can be evaluated through an ethical lens.

 

(c) the equity framework or principles assumed by the nation in determining how much of a global carbon budget should be allocated to the nation in establishing its INDC such as contraction and  convergence, ghg development rights, historical emissions responsibilities, or other principles of distributive justice.  Although reasonable people may disagree what equity framework is just, nations should be expected to expressly specify the equity framework or principles of  distributive justice they used in determining their INDC so that citizens around the world can evaluate claims about fairness made by a nation in setting its INDC.

 

(d) the fairness of the baseline year selected such as 1990. Some nations including the United States have selected baseline years such as 2005 which represents the year of its peak emissions, 13 years after the United States agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC to adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous climate change that would return ghg emissions to levels that existed before 1992 by 2000. Although the international community could reasonably adopt different baseline years, ideally the baseline year should be consistent among nations so that citizens could more easily compare commitments and understand how a nation has taken responsibility for policies they adopted or failed to adopt after the nation agreed to adopt climate policies and measure in the 1992 UNFCCC. Although a strong case can be made that historical ghg emissions before 1990 should be considered in determining a nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, selecting a common baseline year such as 1990 would facilitate easier citizen comparison of national commitments while retaining the rights of nations to make arguments that historical ghg emissions should be considered in any equity framework.

For these reasons, ghg emissions reductions commitments in INDCs should be: (a) stated in tons of ghg emissions reductions rather then percent reductions  from a baseline year, (b) identify the temperature limit and its associated carbon budget that the INDC is seeking to achieve to satisfy its ethical responsibilities to prevent dangerous climate change, (c) identify the equity framework or principles a nation followed to assure that its ghg emissions reductions were fair and just, and (d) compute its ghg emissions reductions commitment from the baseline year of 1990.

By: 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

What Can Non-Catholics and Nonbelievers Learn From the Pope’s Encyclical About the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change?

climate change moralpopeslaudato

I. Introduction

Can non-Catholics and nonbelievers learn anything from the Pope’s encyclical on climate change? Although, of course, the Pope holds positions on some issues that many non-Catholics and nonbelievers do not agree with, are there insights about climate change ethics that non-Catholics and even nonbelievers can learn from the Pope’s recent encyclical Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home?

This encyclical has gotten wide publicity largely because of its message that we have a moral responsibility to prevent climate change. Yet this 184 page document is about much more than climate change.

Although this entry will focus mostly on climate issues, it is important to understand that the encyclical calls for deep moral reflection on and response to many problems threatening the common good including poverty, staggering economic inequality, homelessness, lack of meaningful work, diminishing water supplies, loss of global biodiversity, as well as climate change. Furthermore, the encyclical argues that there is a common cause of these problems, namely a global economic system which produces wealth, an outcome which the encyclical acknowledges is a good thing, while destroying planetary common natural resources and failing to produce social and institutional structures necessary to achieve basic human dignity.

The encyclical contains a strong critique of the current form of capitalism. It is not, however, as claimed by many on the political right, a call for centralized government control of the economy but a call for a more regulated economy and economic investment in things needed to assure that all human beings can live in basic dignity. The encyclical makes a strong argument that government policies that call for strong economic growth alone will not protect the environment nor provide institutional mechanisms needed to assure social justice and human dignity.

The encyclical states that the environmental crisis facing the world is related to the social crises present throughout the world. More specifically the encyclical says:

We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the underprivileged, and at the same time protecting nature. (Laudato Si, 139)

Throughout the document, the encyclical grounds its moral conclusions in Catholic theology but also widely appeals to the Golden Rule which is recognized in one form or another by all of the world’s religions and is a major tenet of much of the most universally recognized foundations for secular ethics. Thus the encyclical is a call to protect our common home not just to Catholics but to all of the people in the world. Its ethical logic is supportable both by Catholic theology and mainstream secular ethics.

Most of the encyclical’s analyses of what needs to be done to solve the environmental and social crises facing the world is based on the need to protect the common good, a duty derivable from the Golden Rule, which the encyclical expressly recognizes as a foundational theory of social ethics. In this regard the encyclical says:

Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. (Laudato Si, 156). Because current injustices, the common good requires solidarity with and a preferential option for the poor(Laudato Si,  89) The notion of the common good also extends to future generations.(Laudato Si, 159)

The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and the first principle of the whole ethical and social order. (Laudato Si, 93).

II. The Practical Importance of Seeing Climate Change as a Moral Problem

The encyclical has received most attention for its claims about the moral responsibility to prevent climate change.  For reasons discussed on this website many times, if the Pope’s encyclical is successful in getting civil society to see climate change as essentially a moral and ethical issue, it is likely to have a profound practical importance for climate change policy making, in fact, it could radically transform how climate change policy has been debated for over 35 years. There are two reasons for this.

One, climate change more than any other environmental problem has features that scream for attention to see it fundamentally as a moral issue. In fact, climate change policy makers can’t think clearly about policy until they respond to several ethical questions.

Second, those who have opposed action on climate change for over 35 years have tricked citizens, including most members of environmental organizations, to argue about climate change policies in ways that ignore moral and ethical questions and in so doing have weakened the strongest arguments that can be made in response to arguments made by opponents of climate change policies.

The features of climate change that scream for attention to see climate change policy options through a moral lens include:

(1) It is a problem caused by high-emitting nations and people who are putting the world’s poorest nations and people at most risk who have done little to cause the problem;
(2) The harms to those most vulnerable are likely to be catastrophic including: deaths, sickness, destruction of ecological systems on which life depends and entire countries, and the numerous other harsh impacts caused by rising seas, more intense storms, heat waves, killer droughts, and floods, loss of glaciers that millions of people depend upon for drinking and agriculture, while the harshest impacts are most threatening to Africa, particularly the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa, to Southeast Asia from loss of water supply, drought, and rising seas, and to Small Island states whose very existence is now threatened by rising oceans and killer storms;
(3) Unlike other environmental problems those most vulnerable to climate change often are unable do anything to protect themselves, their best hope is that the high emitting nations and people will see that they not only have economic interests but have ethical responsibilities to stop doing what they are doing; and,
(4) Most importantly, there is almost no hope of preventing very dangerous climate change unless all nations urgently limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.

To understand the link between urgency and fairness, one must understand aspects of climate science.

The Earth’s climate will not respond to increased atmospheric concentrations of ghg by raising temperatures in proportion to how much ghg are added to the atmosphere. That is, the earth’s climate system does not respond to increased atmospheric concentrations of ghgs in the same way the sound on a radio turns up in proportion to how the volume dial is turned up. The climate system is known to have threshold switches in addition to dials which will cause global temperatures to escalate abruptly if certain thresholds are exceeded. For instance, we know about 50 million years ago ocean temperatures passed a threshold which quickly released large amounts of methane hydrates stored in the bottom of the ocean which then caused global temperatures to rapidly increase abruptly by 5 degrees C.

Because the scientific community believes that the probability increases significantly that the switches in the climate system which will cause abrupt climate change will be triggered if warming is allowed to increase by 2 degrees C or perhaps 1.5 degrees C above preindustrial temperature levels, every country in the world agreed in Copenhagen in 2009 to try and keep warming from rising more than 2 degrees C.

Because high emitting countries in particular have allowed the atmospheric concentration of CO2 to rise to 400 ppm from the preindustrial level of 280 ppm and at 450 ppm there is only approximately a 50 % chance of limiting the warming to 2 degrees C, the international community is rapidly running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming. In fact, if the international community wants to have a reasonable probability of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, the entire world must limit all ghg to approximately 350 GtC and given that the world is now emitting 10 GtC per year, even if the international community could stabilize current ghg emissions at existing levels, in about 30 years any additional emissions of ghg would exceed a carbon budget that may not be exceeded to give a reasonable chance of preventing catastrophic climate change.

Given this, the mainstream scientific community is screaming to the world that the international community is rapidly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.

Even more disturbing some of the climate triggers that cause abrupt changes are now starting to be visible, including Arctic sea ice disintegration and methane release from the Asian tundra.

Because of all of this, the most contentious issues in international climate negotiations are issues about what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. Given that some nations more than others have much higher per capita emissions and historical emissions and if all nations must reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, some nations more than others must reduce their emissions much faster than others.

At the top of the list of countries that justice would require a country to go much, much faster in reducing ghg emissions than most any other country is the United States. Although China now emits more ghg than the US, the US is much more responsible than China for elevating atmospheric concentrations to the current dangerous levels of 400 ppm CO2 because of its world-leading historical emissions and US per capita emissions are almost twice China’s emissions

For this reason issues of justice and fairness are at this moment the most contentious issues in international climate change negotiations not only in regard to what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions but who should pay for urgently needed adaptation measures in poor developing nations.

And so a nation cannot think clearly about what its climate policy goal should be without considering two ethical questions.

The first is what is the atmospheric ghg concentration that a nation’s climate policy is seeking to achieve, such as 450 ppm CO2. This is a moral issue at its core because it is a position on who the country believes it is OK to kill and what damages to ecological systems on which life depends are acceptable.

The second ethical issue that a nation must confront in setting national policy is what is the nation’s fair share of a safe global carbon budget for the entire world.

For these reasons, climate change policy makers must take positions on profound ethical and justice issues in setting climate policy, issues that governments can’t duck when determining national climate change policy because every national ghg emissions target is already implicitly a position on these ethical questions.

However, perhaps an even more important reason why seeing climate change as essentially a moral issue is so practically important for policy stems from the success of fossil fuel companies and other opponents of climate change policies to frame climate policy debates over the last 35 years so that the debates have almost exclusively focused on three issues that have ignored the moral issues .

In the United States, opponents of climate change policies have argued that the United States should not adopt climate change policies because:

First, the policies will impose unacceptable costs on the US economy or destroy jobs, or other economic reasons to oppose climate policies

Second, there is scientific uncertainty about whether humans are causing climate change and what the impacts will be

Third, for the US to act would be unfair or ineffective until China and India do so.

US citizens and environmental groups have unknowingly been tricked into responding to these arguments by making factual responses to these claims, such as climate change policies will increase jobs, despite the fact that each of these arguments contain hidden assumptions which clearly flunk minimum ethical scrutiny.

For example, as we have seen, opponents of climate change policies have frequently based their opposition to climate policies on the claim that climate change policies will destroy US jobs or the US economy.

The response of NGOs and citizens to this argument has largely been to assert that climate change policies will create jobs and boost the economy. Yet this response unknowingly implicitly supports the very dubious hidden normative assumption of the climate policy opponents’ argument, namely that the US should not adopt climate policies if the policies will hurt the US economic interests despite the fact that this argument is obviously wrong when viewed through an ethical lens because polluters not only have economic interests, they more importantly have moral responsibilities to not harm others.

As we have seen, almost all cultures agree with the Golden Rule which holds that someone should not be able to kill others because it would be costly to the killer to stop the killing behavior. Thus, the failure to respond to the opponents’ of climate change policies arguments on moral grounds is an astonishing oversight in light of the fact that the moral objection is very strong  to someone who claims that they can seriously harm others if their economic interests are threatened if they have to limit their harmful activities.

Such a claim violates the most non-controversial ethical rules including the Golden Rule and many well accepted provisions of international law based on the Golden Rule such as a rule called the “no harm principle” which asserts that all nations have a legal duty to prevent their citizens from harming people outside their jurisdiction.

If citizens who support climate policies ignore the ethical problems with the arguments made by opponents of climate policies on the grounds that climate policies will impose costs on those who are harming others, they are playing into the hands of those responsible for putting the planet at risk from climate change.

There are also deeply problematic ethical assumptions that have remained largely unchallenged when the opponents of climate change policies argue the US should not adopt climate change policies due to scientific uncertainty (See, The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty) and unfairness or ineffectiveness of US ghg reductions if the US acts and China and India don’t act.(See May Any Nation Such as the United States or China Make Its Willingness to Reduce Its GHG Emissions Contingent On What Other Nations Do?)

And so, for 30 years, the opponents of climate change policies have succeeded in framing the climate debate in a way that ignores obvious ethical and moral problems,  Surprisingly both environmental organizations and the US press have failed to bring attention to the obvious moral problems with the arguments made by opponents of US climate change policies

For this reason, the Pope’s claim that climate change must be understood as a moral problem has the potential to change the climate debate in the US although to give the Pope’s message power citizens must work to turn up the volume on the obvious ethical problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies.

Now the Pope’s encyclical claims that the failure of citizens to acknowledge moral obligations entailed by climate change to be a symptom of a larger problem, namely the dominance of an aggressive form of capitalism which is undermining the common good in other ways.

Opposition to climate change policies has been organized by corporations and free market fundamentalists foundations and think tanks who share an ideology that if every person works in his or her own self interest, the market will achieve the common good by virtue of the invisible hand. This is so despite the fact that even mainstream economists admit that markets will not internalize externalities, that is, take into account harms to those who do not participate in market transactions, nor produce distributive justice.

Market rationality also translates all values into commodity values which crowd out other values including respect for life while not acknowledging the need to set limits on human behavior consistent with limits of natural resources.

The aggressive economic capitalism that is now dominating most of the world is also corrupting democracies by the infusion of money into politics, funding public relations campaigns to manipulate democratic outcomes, placing people with loyalty to those with economic interests into government management positions, and preventing government investment policies needed provide humans with human dignity.

III. Conclusion

If we want to protect the common good, achieve social justice in the world, and avoid catastrophic climate change, we will need people around the world with courage to publicly challenge the assumptions of an unregulated capitalism on moral grounds.  As the Pope has said, public policy that exclusively focuses on increasing economic growth will not protect our common home or achieve social justice.

As we have seen, the Pope’s call to see climate change as essentially as a moral problem has profound practical policy significance, thus Catholics, non-Catholics, and nonbelievers should identify the moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies. In fact, when opponents of climate change oppose climate change policies on grounds of costs to those causing climate change, scientific uncertainty, or unfairness or ineffectiveness of national action if China or other nations don’t act, citizens should publicly engage opponents of climate change by asking questions of climate change policy opponents designed to expose the ethical and moral problems with the opponents’ arguments. Some of these questions have been identified on this website. See:

.a. If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on Unacceptable National Costs?

b. If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on Scientific Uncertainty?

c. If Pope Francis is Right that Climate Change is a Moral Issue, How Should NGOs and Citizens Respond to Arguments Against Climate Policies Based on the Failure of Other Countries Like China to Act?

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener Commonwealth University Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

US Media’s Failure to Acknowledge the Most Important Implications of the Pope’s Encyclical

popes

Now that Pope Francis has released his encyclical on climate change, strong responses from many climate change deniers has predictably emerged. Most of these attacks on the Pope’s message have focused on the Pope wandering from his area of authority in theology into science. Former Thatcher adviser Christopher Monckton’s retort is typical: “It is not the business of the Pope to stray from the field of faith and morals and wander in to the playground that is science”

The US media’s coverage, also predictably, has mostly focused on whether the Pope should have stayed in his theology lane.

Yet the most important potential message of the Pope’s encyclical is his assertion that climate change is a moral problem. Now, of course, many see the Pope’s claim about morality unsurprising but fail to understand the profound significance for climate policy-making of understanding climate change fundamentally as a moral issue. If climate  change is understood to be a moral issue, it would completely transform the way climate change policies have been debated in the United States for over three decades.

For instance, opponents of US government action on climate change have for over 30 years predominantly argued against proposed policies on two grounds. First there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action and secondly climate policies will destroy jobs, specific industries, and the US economy. For this reason, action on climate change is not in the US self-interest.

But if climate change is a moral issue, the United States may not look at US economic interests alone, it must respond to US duties and obligations to the tens of millions of people around the world who are  most vulnerable to climate change harms. Yet the US debate on climate change has made cost to the US economy of climate change policies, or economic impacts on specific US industries the key criteria for the acceptability of US action on climate change while ignoring what US ghg emissions were doing or threatening to do to tens of vulnerable people around the world.

In addition, if climate change is a moral problem, even assuming counter-factually that there is considerable scientific uncertainty about whether humans are causing serious global warming, those who are putting others at risk have duties to not endanger vulnerable people without their consent. This is particularly true on issues where waiting to resolve scientific uncertainty makes the problem worse or waiting makes the problem harder to solve, clear attributes of climate change.

It is the tens of millions of potential victims of climate change impacts that have the most to lose by waiting until all scientific uncertainties are resolved. Given that the mainstream scientific community now believes that the world is quickly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the moral problems with waiting until all climate scientific uncertainties are resolved are unfortunately becoming obvious. The United States should have acknowledged the duty to fake action on climate change 30 years ago once the US Academy of Sciences and other highly respected scientific institutions stated that human-induced climate change was a growing menace.

Even without the Pope’s encyclical, Climate change is a problem with certain features that scream for attention to see it and respond to it as essentially a moral problem even more than other environmental problems. These features include the following:

• First, it is a problem that is being caused by some high-emitting people and nations in one part of the world who are putting other people and nations at great risk in another part of the world who have often done little to cause the problem.

• Second, the harms to those mostly at risk are not mere inconveniences, but potential catastrophic harms to life and natural resources on which all life depends.

• Third, climate change is a problem for which those people most at risk often can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments. Their best hope is that those high-emitting nations and people causing the problem will see that they have ethical duties to the victims to avoid harming them.

• Fourth, because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere, all human activities are contributing to rising atmospheric concentrations and therefore a global solution to climate change requires all nations and people to limit their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.

Because climate change is a moral problem, issues nations must face in formulating climate policies need to be guided by moral considerations. They include, among many others, principles on what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, who is responsible for reasonable adaptation needs of those people at greatest risk from  climate damages in poor nations that have done little to cause climate change, should high-emitting nations help poor nations obtain climate friendly energy technologies, and what responsibilities should high-emitting nations have for refugees who must flee their country because climate change has made their nations uninhabitable?

Because climate change is a moral problem, high-emitting organizations, sub-national governments, corporations, and individuals also have duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.

In the international climate negotiations that will resume on November 30 in Paris, issues of fairness are already the key issues in dispute. Hopefully the Pope’s encyclical will help citizens around the world see the moral dimensions of climate change policies and respond accordingly.

The US press has for 30 years utterly failed to help US citizens understand the practical significance for climate policy if climate change is a moral issue.  Perhaps the Pope’s encyclical will change this.

Do US GHG Emissions Commitments Pass Ethical Scrutiny?

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A. The US GHG Emissions  Reduction Targets

Although the Obama administration has over the last year or two taken significant steps to reduce US greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions that have been widely welcomed by many nations, do the current US ghg reduction targets represent the US fair share of safe global emissions?  This post examines the question of whether the current US commitments to reduce US ghg emissions are adequate as a matter of justice and ethics.

On November 11, 2014, the Obama Administration announced a new US commitment on reducing its ghg emissions in a deal with China. (US White House, 2014) The United States pledged to cut its emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 while retaining a prior pledge to reduce US ghg emissions by 80% below 2005 by 2050.

All nations have agreed to negotiate a new climate agreement with binding force at the twenty first Conference of the Parties (COP21) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in December 2015. To prepare for the Paris negotiations, countries have agreed to publicly outline what post-2020 climate actions they intend to take, known as their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The INDCs will largely determine whether the world is on a path to avoid catastrophic climate change by avoiding additional warming of no more than  2°C.

On March 31, 2015, the United States submitted its INDC to the Secretariat of  the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which reiterated the ghg emissions reduction targets announced in November. (US, 2015)

The US March announcement on its reduction targets for 2025 was met with mostly, but not uniformly, positive responses from nations around the world because the new commitments were a significant increase over the US commitment made in 2009 to reduce US ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions levels by 2020. The new US commitments were also welcomed because the United States has a record that spans several decades of being a major obstacle to achieving an adequate global solution to climate change. (For a discussion of the role that the United States has played in international climate negotiations, see Brown, 2002 and Brown, 2012) The Obama administration ghg reduction targets were seen by many as a constructive change in the US role in international efforts to find a global solution to climate change.

new book description for website-1_01Although there has been a positive response to the Obama commitments to reduce US ghg emissions, there is also great international concern that national INDCs, including the US commitments, are not nearly ambitious enough to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact there is a strong consensus among nations that unless nations reduce their ghg emissions to levels that represent each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, there is little hope of preventing catastrophic warming.

The United States along with almost every country in the world agreed when it ratified the UNFCCC to adopt policies to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system on the basis of “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Thus the United States has agreed that it should reduce its  ghg emissions to levels required of it on the basis of equity and justice.

In addition there are several features of climate change that scream for attention to understand it and respond to it as an ethical and moral problem. These features include: (a) it is a problem caused by some nations and people emitting high-levels of ghgs in one part of the world who are harming or threatening tens of millions of living people and countless numbers of future generations throughout the world who include some of the world’s poorest people and who have done little to cause the problem, (b) the harms to many of the world’s most vulnerable victims of climate change are potentially catastrophic, (c) many people most at risk from climate change often can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments; their best hope is that those causing the problem will see that justice requires them to greatly lower their ghg emissions, and, (d) to protect the world’s most vulnerable people, nations must act quickly to limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions.

A major significance for policy of understanding climate change as a moral and justice issue, is that nations may not look at economic self-interest alone in formulating policies, they must consider their ethical and moral obligations to those who are most vulnerable to climate change.

For these reasons, it is important to review the US ghg emissions reduction commitments through the lens of justice and equity.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) “equity” under the UNFCCC covers both distributive justice issues and procedural justice. (IPCC, 2015, chap 4, 4.2.2)

The rules under which nations are making commitments in their INDCs before the Paris COP under the UNFCCC do not include a definition of or benchmark for determining what “equity’ requires of nations.  Yet nations are encouraged to explain how they took environmental ambition and fairness into account in establishing their INDC. More specificly at UNFCC COP-20 in Lima, nations agreed to explain in its INDC:

“how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2. (UNFCCC, 2014, emphasis added)”

Although reasonable disagreements exist about what equity and justice requires of nations in setting their INDCs as demonstrated by numerous proposed equity frameworks discussed by the recent IPCC chapter in the 5th Assessment Report on equity (IPCC, 2014, chapter 4), the national commitments that are based upon national economic interests alone clearly fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. This is so because as IPCC said recently “reasonable interpretations of equity are limited to only a few plausible kinds of considerations namely responsibility, equality, capacity, and rights of developing countries to develop.” (IPCC, 2014, chapter 4. 48-52) If there is any doubt that economic self-interest is not compatible with the idea of “equity” it also is an unacceptable basis for establishing national climate change policies because economic self-interest is also inconsistent with well established international legal principles including:

  • the “polluter pays” principle of the Rio Declaration (UN, 1992: Principle 16),
  • the “no harm” principle recognized in the UNFCCC (UNFCCC, 1992: Preamble)
  • what is required of nations who fail to fulfill and protect human rights of citizens (For discussion of the implications for policy of a human rights approach to climate change policy see, Brown and Brown, 2014).

And so although it may not be possible to say precisely what equity requires of nations in advance, strong arguments can be made that some national commitments fail to satisfy reasonable interpretations of what equity requires. Or saying this another way, although policy makers may disagree on what perfect justice requires, they may all strongly agree that certain positions  are  unjust.

In the absence of a court adjudicating what equity requires of nations in setting their national climate change commitments, a possibility but far from a guarantee under existing international and national law (for an explanation of some of the litigation issues, Buiti,2011), the best hope for encouraging nations to improve the ambition of their national emissions reductions commitments on the basis of equity and justice is the creation of a mechanism under the UNFCCC that requires nations to explain their how they quantitatively took equity into account in establishing their INDCs and why their INDC is consistent with the nation’s ethical obligations to people who are most vulnerable to climate change and the above principles of international law.

B. The US Justification for Its GHG Emissions Reduction Targets.

Although the United States asserted without explanation when it submitted its INDCs to the the UNFCCC Secretariat that the US commitments were” fair and ambitious,” (US, 2015), the United States has also acknowledged the commitment was based upon what is achievable under existing US law rather than what may be required of the United States by ethics, justice, and basic fairness.

The US justification for its new 2025 commitment is as follows:

The target is grounded in intensive analysis of cost-effective carbon pollution reductions achievable under existing law and will keep the United States on the right trajectory to achieve deep economy-wide reductions on the order of 80 % by 2050. (US White House, 2014)

According the US White House, the 80% reduction commitment by 2050 is based upon a commitment made by the United States to the G8. (Light, 2014)
The US has not asserted that the 26% to 28 % reduction below 2005 emissions reduction commitment by 2025 or 80% reduction below 2005 emissions by 2050 aspiration represents the US fair share of safe global emissions.

In regard to the 80% reduction commitment by 205o, the United States has asserted that this number was taken from the 2009 G8 Declaration on Climate Change which stated that:

We recognize the broad scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C. Because this global challenge can only be met by a global response, we reiterate our willingness to share with all countries the goal of achieving at least a 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050, recognizing that this implies that global emissions need to peak as soon as possible and decline thereafter. As part of this, we also support a goal of developed countries reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in aggregate by 80% or more by 2050 compared to 1990 or more recent years. (G8, 2009)

The Obama administration has thus explicitly acknowledged that the current 2025 commitment is based upon what is currently achievable under existing law rather than on what ethics and justice would require of the United States while the commitment to reduce ghg emissions by 80% by 2050 is based on a promise made to the G8 in 2009 which did not expressly consider the implications of a carbon budget described by IPCC in 2013. (see below)

C. Why the US Commitments Are Inadequate

Although it is speculation, it would appear that the reference by the United States to an 80% reduction commitment by 2050 originally made to the G8 was influenced by a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007, p776) which concluded that developed nations needed to reduce ghg emissions by 25% to 40% below 1990 emissions levels by 2020 and 80% to 95% by 2050 for the world to have any reasonable chance of limiting warming to 2°C. If this is the case, the US government has not explained why the US believes it need only achieve the lower end of the 80% to 95% reduction goal for 2050 emissions for developed nations identified by the IPCC in 2007 nor why the current reduction commitment of 26% to 28% below 2005 emissions by 2025 is justified given the much higher 25% to 40% reduction targets by 2020  were recommended by the IPCC in 2007 for developed nations.

It would also appear when determining any of its ghg commitments that the United States has not considered the most recent carbon budget identified by the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report. (IPCC, 2013, p27). A carbon budget is a limit of total ghg emissions for the entire world that must constrain total global emissions to have any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C or any other temperature limit. The IPCC budget defines a limit of future carbon emissions of approximately 270 gigatonnes carbon (GtC) to have a 66% chance of limiting the warming to 2°C. (Pidcock, 2013). The 2°C warming limit has been agreed to by the international community including the United States as necessary to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change. The US has agreed several times, including in the G8 agreement above, on the need for it to adopt policies that will, working with others, prevent warming from exceeding the 2°C warming limit.

Because any US ghg target is implicitly a position on the US fair share of safe global emissions, any US emissions reduction target may only be justified as a matter of ethics and justice by explaining why the US commitment is a fair share of an acceptable global carbon emissions budget. Yet, the Obama administration has made no attempt to explain or justify why its emissions reduction goals are just and equitable in reference to a global carbon budget or a warming limit. As we have seen, the United States has asserted that its INDC is ambitious and fair but has given no explanation of how the United States justified this conclusion.

If the total carbon budget to give the world a 66% chance of keeping warming below 2°C is 270 gigatons carbon (GtC), then because the US population is 5 % of world population, a case can be made that the United States carbon budget must be below 13.5 GtC even before this number is adjusted on the grounds of fairness or equity that takes into account the US’s world leading share of historical emissions. Because  the US is currently emitting 1.44.GtC per year, the US will have zero emissions to allocate to itself in 9.4 years at current emissions rates.

In any event the US INDC, as well as all INDCs, should be expressed as a total number of carbon tons rather than as a percent reduction by a specific year given that a carbon budget requires nations to fairly allocate the remaining carbon budget necessary to limit warming to 2°C.  Because keeping global emissions within a global carbon budget requires all nations to live within their allocated budget for the entire period, the US commitment should identify the total number of tons as a percentage of the global carbon budget it is allocating to itself.  This is so because identifying a percentage reduction by a date in the future would not prevent a nation from far exceeding its budget allocation before the target date even if the percent reduction committed to is achieved by the target date.   For this reason, nations should express their INDCs for emissions reductions in tons rather than in percent reductions by a specific date.

During a speech at Georgetown University in June 2013, President Obama did acknowledge in very general terms that the United States has responsibility for climate change when he said:

[A]s the world’s largest economy and second-largest carbon emitter, as a country with unsurpassed ability to drive innovation and scientific breakthroughs, as the country that people around the world continue to look to in times of crisis, we’ve got a vital role to play. We can’t stand on the sidelines. We’ve got a unique responsibility. (Obama, 2014)

Although President Obama thus acknowledged US responsibility to the world to take effective action on climate change, the US has not explained how this responsibility is linked quantitatively to any US ghg reduction commitment.

There are several reasons for concluding that the US INDC fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

First, as one observer noted about the fairness of the US-China agreement:

“ [U]nder such an agreement the United States would come down “marginally” from its current 18 tonnes per capita and China would increase from its current seven-eight tonnes. Both the polluters would converge at 12-14 tonnes a person a year. This is when the planet can effectively absorb and naturally cleanse emissions not more than two tonnes a person a year.” (Narain, 2014)

Second, the US has admitted that its commitment on its 2025 emissions reductions of 26% to 28% is simply based on what is achievable under existing law not what is required of the US as a matter of justice.

Third  the debate about climate change in the United States for over 35 years reveals that opposition to stronger policies to reduce US ghg emissions has successfully blocked stronger US policies by making two kinds of arguments.

The first  argument has been that there is insufficient scientific certainty about human causation of harmful climate change to warrant climate policies given the likely costs of climate change policies to certain sectors of the US economy.

The second argument which has blocked stronger US climate change policy for the last few decades is based on claims that proposed climate law and policies would impose unacceptable costs on the US economy. The cost arguments have taken several forms. (Brown, 2012b, p57) These arguments have included that proposed  policies would destroy jobs, reduce US GDP, damage specific industries such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that proposed climate policies and legislation are unaffordable. (Brown, 2012b, p57).

It is therefore clear that the actual basis for current US positions on climate change have not been identified by the the Obama administration, which likely is doing as much as it can under existing law. Rather the actual basis for current US climate policies includes arguments which  have successfully prevented the US Congress from passing  more ambitious US climate change policies. Therefore in the US,  to determine the actual reasons for domestic action on climate change it is not sufficient to examine the claims of the administrative branch of government alone, one must examine the arguments made by opponents of climate change that have successfully blocked stronger climate change action by the government. And so, one cannot escape the conclusion that the basis for the US commitments on climate change include alleged unacceptable costs of more aggressive climate change policies to the US  economy, matters of economic self-interest rather than global responsibility.

Although both the scientific uncertainty and cost arguments made in opposition to US climate law and policies can be shown to be ethically problematic because they ignore US ethical obligations to others (see Brown, 2012b, pp57–137), these arguments neither have been examined in the US press nor identified by the US government. With very few exceptions, the US press has utterly failed to cover climate change as an ethical and moral issue while focusing on the scientific and economic arguments against taking action that have been made by opponents of US climate change policies for almost 30 years. (Brown, 2009 ; Brown, 2012a) By focusing on the cost issues to the US economy, the US press has reinforced the ethically problematic notion that cost to the US economy alone is an acceptable justification for inaction on climate change.

The US debate on climate change has ignored the fact that when the United States ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 it agreed that nations:

“[H]ave, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law… the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” (UNFCCC, 1992, Preamble)

As explained above, the United States government has not explained how the US ghg emissions reduction commitments took into consideration justice and equity issues in establishing US emissions reduction targets. Although the Obama administration is likely doing as much as it can under existing law, it would have to admit that its current commitments do not represent the US fair share of safe global emissions.

Reasonable arguments can be made about which of the equity frameworks that have attracted international attention and respect should be applied to any nation’s INDC.  An examination of the arguments for and against specific equity frameworks that have received international attention and respect is beyond the scope of this article.  (For a discussion of the merits of various equity frameworks see, Brown, 2014)  However, it is not necessary to agree on an equity framework to conclude that some national commitments fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. As we noted above it is not necessary to know what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. The US current ghg emissions reductions commitments clearly fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny for reasons stated here and summarized below. The United States had an opportunity to explain its justification for why its INDC was fair and sufficiently ambitious when it submitted its INDC. In fact the decision at COP 2o in Lima in December of 2014 encouraged the United States and all countries to explain why its INDC was fair and sufficiently ambitious to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States chose not to do this.

D. Summary 

In summary, a strong case can be made that the US emissions reduction commitment for 2025 of 26% to 28% clearly fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny when one considers: (a) the 2007 IPCC report on which the US likely relied upon to establish a 80% reduction target by 2050 also called for 25% to 40% reduction by developed countries by 2020, and (b) although reasonable people may disagree with  what “equity” means under the UNFCCC, the US commitments can’t be reconciled with any reasonable interpretation of what “equity” requires, (c) the United States has expressly acknowledged that its commitments are based upon what can be achieved under existing US law not on what is required of it as a mater of justice, (d) it is clear that more ambitious US commitments have been blocked by arguments that alleged unacceptable costs to the US economy,  arguments which have ignored US responsibilities to those most vulnerable to climate change, and (e) it is virtually certain that the US commitments can not be construed to be a fair allocation of the remaining carbon budget that is available for the entire world to limit warming to 2°C.

References

Brown, B. and Brown, D. (2015) Commonly Unrecognized Benefits of a Human Rights Approach to Climate Change, in L.Westra, C. Gray, and V. Karageorgou (eds.) Ecological Systems Integrity: Governance, Law, and Human Rights, Earthscan Routledge, in press.

Brown, D. (2009) ‘The most crucial missing element in U.S. media coverage of climate change: The ethical duty to reduce GHG emissions’, ThinkProgress, 14 August 2009, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2009/08/14/204506/media-climate-ethics-reduce-ghg-emissions/, accessed 22 July 2014.

Brown, D. (2012a) ‘The US media’s grave failure to communicate the significance of understanding climate change as a civilization challenging ethical issue’, ethicsandclimate.org, http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/31/the-us-medias-grave-failure-to-communicate-the-significance-of-understanding-climate-change-as-a-civilization-challenging-ethical-issue/, accessed 22 July 2014

Brown, D. (2012b) ‘Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change Ethics in Light of a Thirty-Five Year Debate’, Routledge-Earthscan, New York.

Brown, D. (2014) 10 Reasons Why “Contraction and Convergence” Is Still The Most Preferable Equity Framework for Allocating National GHG Targets . http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/?s=contraction+and+convergence#sthash.9C4qxVSx.dpuf

Buiti, C. (2011) The tortuous road to liability: A critical survey of climate change litigation in Europe and America, Sustainable Development Law and Policy, Vol 11, Issue II, Retrieved from http;//digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1467

G8 (2009) Responsible Leadership for  a Sustainable Future,  http://www.g8italia2009.it/static/G8_Allegato/G8_Declaration_08_07_09_final,0.pdf

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), (2013) Working Group I, The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers, http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf, accessed 22 July 2014

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007a), “Summary for Policymakers,” in Bert Metz et al., eds, Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007b) (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 23. Available
online at http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg3/ar4-wg3-spm.pdf.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2014) Working Group III, Mitigation of climate change, social and economic dimensions, Retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

Light, A. (2014) Communication with Donald A. Brown in response to question about the justification for US position.

Narain, S. (2014) The bad China-US climate deal, Business Standard, http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/sunita-narain-the-bad-china-us-climate-deal-11411230

Obama, B. (2014) ‘Remarks by the President on Climate Change’, Georgetown University, White House Press Office, 25 June, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/25/remarks-president-climate-change, accessed 22 July 2014.

Pidcock, R. (2013) ‘Carbon briefing: Making sense of the IPCC’s new carbon budget,  http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2013/10/carbon-briefing-making-sense-of-the-ipcc’s-new-carbon-budget/

United Nations (UN), (1992) The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development’, UN Document A/CONF.151/26.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (1992) 1771 UNTS 107; S. Treaty Doc No. 102-38; U.N. Doc. A/AC.237/18 (Part II)/Add.1; 31 ILM 849

UNFCCC (2014b) Lima Call for Climate Action, http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/lima_dec_2014/application/pdf/auv_cop20_lima_call_for_climate_action.pdf

US White House, (2014), FACT SHEET: U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy Cooperation, http://wGww.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/11/fact-sheet-us-china-joint-anG Resources Institute (WRI) (2014) ‘Cumulative Emissions’, Chapter 6 in Navigating the Numbers: Greenhouse Gas Data and International Climate Policy, date undetermined, http://pdf.wri.org/navigating_numbers_chapter6.pdf, accessed 22 July 2014

United States, 2015, US Cover Note on its INDC, http://www4.unfccc.int/submissions/INDC/Submission%20Pages/submissions.aspx

Questions That Should Be Asked Of Politicians And Others Who Oppose National Action On Climate Change On The Basis Of Scientific Uncertainty Or Unacceptable Cost To The Economy Given That Climate Change Is A Profound Global Justice And Ethical Problem

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Climate change must be understood and responded to as a profound problem of global justice and ethics. This is so because: (a) it is a problem mostly caused by some nations and people emitting high-levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) in one part of the world who are harming or threatening tens of millions of living people and countless numbers of future generations throughout the world who include some of the world’s poorest people who have done little to cause the problem, (b) the harms to many of the world’s most vulnerable victims of climate change are potentially catastrophic, (c) many people most at risk from climate change often can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments; their best hope is that those causing the problem will see that justice requires them to greatly lower their ghg emissions, (d) to protect the world’s most vulnerable people nations must limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions, and, (e) climate change is preventing some people from enjoying the most basic human rights including rights to life and security among others. Because climate change is a profound problem of justice those causing the problem may not use self-interest alone as justification for their policy responses to human-induced warming, they must respond in ways consistent with their responsibilities and duties to others. In light of this the following questions should be asked of those who oppose national action on climate change on the basis of excessive costs to the national economy or scientific uncertainty.

Questions that should be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of cost to the national economy:

1. When you claim that a government emitting high levels of ghgs need not reduce its ghg emissions because the costs to it of so doing are too high, do you deny that high-emitting governments not only have economic interests in climate change policies but also duties and obligations to tens of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest impacts?

2. If you argue that high costs to a nation of reducing its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global ghg emissions justify non-action, how have you considered the increased harms and risks to poor vulnerable people and nations that will continue to grow as atmospheric ghg concentrations continue to rise? In other words how have you considered the harms to others that will be caused by government inaction on climate change?

3. If the justification for a nation to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions is that costs to it are too high, yet inaction causes loss of life and great harm to people outside the nation’s borders, is the use of a cost justification by a nation for non-action morally supportable?

4. Do you agree that those nations and people around the world who will most be harmed by climate change have a right to participate in a decision by a nation that chooses to not adopt climate change policies because costs to it are deemed unacceptable?

5. Do you agree that nations that emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting countries and individuals that have done little to cause climate change?

6. If you disagree that all nations have a duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to cost to it, do you also deny the applicability of the well-established international legal norm that almost all nations have agreed to in 1992 in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development called the “polluter pays” principle which holds that polluters should pay for consequences of their pollution?

7. Do you agree that nations that have very high per capita and historical ghg emissions compared to other nations and so have contributed more than other nations to the rise of atmospheric concentrations of ghgs to dangerous levels have a greater duty to reduce their ghg emissions than nations that have done comparatively little to create the current threat of human-induced warming?

8. If you argue that the United States should not adopt climate change policies on the basis that economic competitors such as China have not adopted climate change policies, are you claiming that no nation has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until all other nations reduce their ghg emissions accordingly?

9. In arguing that the United States or other high-emitting nations need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions based on cost, how have you considered, if at all, that all nations have agreed in international climate negotiations to take steps to limit warming to 2 degree C because warming greater than this amount will not only create harsh impacts for tens of millions of people but runs the risk of creating rapid non-linear warming that will outstrip the ability of people and nations to adapt?

Questions that should be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty:

1. When you argue that a nation emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts, are you arguing that a nation need not take action on climate change until scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken may very likely make it too late to prevent catastrophic climate change harms to millions of people around the world?

2. Do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in a decision about whether to wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change to them because of scientific uncertainty?

3. Given that mainstream climate change scientific view holds that the Earth could experience rapid non-linear climate change impacts which outstrip the ability of some people and nations to adapt, should this fact affect whether nations which emit high levels of ghgs should be able to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for non-action on climate change?

4. What specific scientific references and sources do you rely upon to conclude that there is a reasonable scientific dispute about whether human actions are causing observable climate change and are you aware of the multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies that very strongly point to human causation?

(Fingerprint studies draw conclusions about human causation that can be deduced from: (a) how the Earth warms in the upper and lower atmosphere, (b) warming in the oceans,(c) night-time vs day-time temperature increases,(d) energy escaping from the upper atmosphere versus energy trapped, (e) isotopes of CO2 in the atmosphere and coral that distinguish fossil CO2 from non-fossil CO2, (f) the height of the boundary between the lower and upper atmosphere, and (g) atmospheric oxygen levels decrease as CO2 levels increase. “Attribution” studies test whether the energy differences from those natural forces which have changed the Earth’s climate in the past such as changing radiation from the sun are capable of explaining observed temperature change.)

5. On what specific basis do you disregard the mainstream scientific view that holds that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual, conclusions supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,  the United States Academy of Sciences and over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world whose membership includes scientists with expertise relevant to the science of climate change including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and the Royal Society of the UK and according to the American Academy of Sciences 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?

6. When you claim that a nation such as the United States which emits high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse human-induced climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their lives often depend and if so what is that proof?

7. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States and almost every country in the world in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?
(Article 3 states:)

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

8. If a nation emitting high levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms the health and ecological systems on which life depends for tens of millions of others, should that nation be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Widener University School Of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

New Very Helpful Website on Climate Equity

 

 

The World Resources Institute (WRI) has created a new very helpful website that allows visual comparisons of up to four nations at a time up and up to eight of 24  variables at a time relevant to determining what equity requires of nations in formulating their climate policies. The website is called Equity Tracker and is available at:  http://cait2.wri.org/equity/ 

The above picture from the website demonstrates how one could visualize differences between nations on factors relevant to what equity requires of them and thereby understand why some nations must make much  deeper cuts than others as a matter of equity and justice.  This information could be very valuable in deepening citizen and government reflection on ethical, justice, and equity problems with national responses to climate change. As a matter of equity, for instance, the website help one quickly visualize why the United States must make deeper percentage cuts in its ghg emissions than India and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not to mention China, for instance.

One minor criticism of the site is, however, in order. Although the website is very helpful to both help visualize and understand facts relevant to determinations of what equitable principles should guide national climate policy formation, particularly in regard to ghg emissions reduction targets, lamentably the site could be interpreted to leave the mistaken impression that equity could mean anything.  In fact the site says that the meaning of equity “depends upon the lens through which one views it.” The site could be improved if it included a reference to the IPCC discussion in Chapters 3 and 4 of Working Group III’s recent report which, among other things,  identifies  ethical limitations of economic arguments about climate policies and only a  limited number of considerations that should be considered in determining what equity means. For a summary of the IPCC conclusions on these issue see IPCC, Ethics, and Climate Change: Will IPCC’s Latest Report Transform How National Climate Change Policies Are Justified?. and Improving IPCC Working Group III’s Analysis on Climate Ethics and Equity, Second In A Series on this website.

The other idea one must understand to effectively criticize national ghg commitments is the policy implications of a carbon budget that must be maintained to limit warming to 2 degrees C.  If a citizen understands the equity considerations and the extraordinary urgency of lowering global emissions to limit warming to 2 degrees C,  then citizens can then effectively criticize their nation’s ghg emissions target. The following is one depiction of a carbon budget prepared by the Global Commons Institute with three different reductions pathways that make different assumptions about when global ghg emissions peak.

Slide22

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com