When invited by UNESCO to Paris in 2019 to receive the Avicenna Award for my work on climate ethics, they introduced me to 10 young people who like Greta not only spoke passionately to their governments about the injustices of the government’s position on climate change but had actually succeeded in getting their governments to change their positions. Ever since then when I am asked what gives me hope given the dire climate position the world is in, I mention the young people who are speaking out forcefully about the injustices of their government’s climate positions.
Greta’s 2019 speech at the UN on climate change was a brilliant lesson both on the potential power of bringing attention to moral bankruptcy of arguments made by opponents of needed climate change policies, as well as a model for how to make moral and ethical arguments critical of reasons offered in opposition to needed climate policies. Thunberg’s speech successfully demonstrated the power of moral arguments critical of claims made by opponents of climate change policies for two reasons. First because of the facts she relied upon to make her argument Second on the rhetorical excellence of her speech.
Aristotle claimed in his writing on rhetoric that speakers are effective in persuading their listeners of the injustice of they are speaking about if the speaker exhibits three qualities: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
Ethos. Speakers exhibit ethos if they convince listeners that the speaker is motivated by what is right or wrong, not by self-interest. Greta Thunberg effectively communicated by her choice of words, rhythm, and emotions that she was motivated by the moral indefenisibility of governments that have refused to do what is necessary to avoid climate harms,given the facts she stated in support of this conclusion.-
Pathos. Effective speakers demonstrate some passion about the injustice that is motivating him or her.. Greta Thunberg’s display of anger was palpable and supported by the facts she relied upon.
Logos. In an effective speech about injustice, the speaker’s claims and conclusions are clear and logical. The facts which motivated and supported the premise of her speech, namely that governments’ responses to climate change are morally repugnant, were clearly stated.
B. The Speech’s Foundational Facts
The facts the speech relied upon to support the claim that governments’ responses to climate change are morally indefensible were very persuasive. The speech made the following claims about governments’ inadequate response to climate change:
1, You have stolen my dreams. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.
2. The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50 % chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.
3. 50 % may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.
4. “So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.
5. “To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. – the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on Jan. 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons.
6. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.
7. “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.
She then invited listeners to reflect on the moral significance of these facts by repeating the words “How dare you” four times after stating the facts.
The facts that Greta Thunberg relied on to support her conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible effectively supported this conclusion.
There are many other facts that proponents of climate change policies could also rely on to support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible. For instance proponents of climate change policies could bring attention to the following facts which also support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible:
The staggering magnitude of percent reductions in GHG emissions needed to achieve any warming limit goal such as 1.5 C or 2.0 C become greater the longer governments wait to respond because current emissions are rapidly consuming any carbon budget that the world must live within to achieve any warming limit goal.
The IPCC carbon budgets on which the quantity of reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal have been calculated through the use of climate models which have ignored some of the positive feedbacks such as methane emissions from melting permafrost or rapid breakup of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, both of which are already starting to happen.
The percentage reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal articulated by IPCC are for the entire world and ignore the legal, practical, and ethical obligations of developed countries to go faster than poor developed countries under the concept of “equity.”
Although skepticism in science is necessary for science to develop, sociologists have documented that fossil fuel companies have funded disinformation about climate science to undermine public confidence in the conclusions of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world. See Why Climate Science Disinformation is So Ethically Abhorrent
This site has often commented negatively on the propensity of many proponents of climate change policies to justify climate action largely by making claims that simply counter the factual arguments of opponents of climate change such as that climate change policies are unjustified because they will impose unacceptable costs on the economy, to which most proponents of climate policies often respond by claiming that policies will create new jobs. Such responses allow opponents of climate change to frame the problem in a way that ignores the moral problems with their arguments. Philosophers call this type of reasoning, which is reasoning exclusively based on facts that ignores ethical and justice issues “instrumental reasoning”and sociologists have warned for several decades that economically powerful entities would accomplish their goals by tricking citizens to limit their arguments about public policy to instrumental reasons. The mainstream media, at least in the United States, almost never brings attention when the fossil fuel industry and other opponents of climate policy make factual economic or scientific uncertainty arguments against climate policies to the strong ethical arguments that can be made in response to these claims. Nor more importantly that all of the countries in the world agreed to be bound by the “precautionary principle” which both makes scientific uncertainty an unacceptable basis for a nation failing to abide by its legal obligations under the climate treaty.
The facts relied upon by Greta Thunberg and those above could help citizens understand the moral bankruptcy of governments’ inadequate responses to climate change. Armed with such facts and learning from Greta Thunberg’s excellent rhetorical techniques could make climate change activists more effective in getting governments to make the extraordinary urgent hard-to-imagine reductions in GHG emissions needed to prevent climate catastrophe.
Sociologists also claim that the most successful social movements are energized by a strong sense of unfairness or injustice of the status quo. For this reason, although appeals to the self-interest of citizens based upon identifying the harms from climate change that they will experience should continue, such an appeal to self-interest alone does not justify ignoring the strong moral problems with the arguments of those who oppose climate change policies. In fact, only responding to the factual scientific and economic arguments of climate change policy opponents by making counter “factual” economic and scientific claims has the ironic effect of justifying the notion that these instrumental reasons for opposing climate change policies are ethically legitimate. In addition, as we have explained in the recent website entry UNESCO Examines the Urgency of and Strategy for Getting Traction for Ethical Guidance in Climate Change Policy Formation at Bangkok Program.there is no hope of averting catastrophic climate impacts unless governments comply with their ethical obligations under the UNFCCC.
Moreover. not raising ethical problems with the arguments of those opposing climate change policies is a hugh practical mistake because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail to survive minimum ethical scrutiny. That is because the world has already agreed on ethical principles which They usually violate non-controversial, widely agreed-upon ethical principles such as human rights obligations, the “no-harm” principle of customary international law, or the “precautionary principle” expressly agreed to by all nations in the 1992 UNFCCC among many other ethical principles.We have learned that many technical experts are aware ot the policy significance of the precautionary principle which is very easy to get citizens to understand if it is explained to citizens.
For these reasons, Greta Thunberg’s UN speech should be honored and used as an inspiration by climate activists around the world while encouraging the media to cover the ethical issues raised by climate change formation controversies.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Climate change has certain features that other environmental problems don’t have that citizens and the media need to understand to effectively evaluate both any government’s response to this enormous menace and arguments made by opponents of government climate change policies.
Opponents of climate change policies have effectively framed the debates that the public climate controversy has focused on by claiming that nations should not adopt climate policies because of scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts or excessive costs to the national economy of proposed climate policies. While proponents of climate policies have usually responded to the scientific uncertainty arguments and the excessive cost claims of the opponents of climate policies for over 40 years by calling on scientists, economists, or other technical experts. These technical experts have usually made counterclaims about the strength of mainstream climate science and the economic costs of moving away from fossil energy. In so doing, the public debate has usually ignored several ethical/legal principles that the international community agreed in 1992 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) should guide national responses to climate change despite the fact, as we will see, that these principles undermine the validity of the scientific uncertainty and excessive economic cost arguments that have successfully prevented or delayed adequate national responses to climate change for many decades.
As we will also see climate change has certain scientific features that make government delays in meeting their responsibilities under law potentially catastrophic. Therefore before discussing the issues that citizens need to understand to effectively evaluate climate change policy controversies, this article will begin with a brief description of some climate change scientific features that citizens need to understand to grasp the importance of the seven issues that are the focus of this article.
The seven issues discussed in this article are:
1. Because of certain features of climate change, many policy-making issues raise ethical/fairness questions that are practically significant for global prospects of preventing catastrophic climate harms.
2. Issues that arise in four steps that the setting of a national GHG emissions reduction target Implicitly takes a position on.
3. Because all CO2e emissions are diminishing the carbon budget that must constrain world emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, the speed of reducing GHG emissions as well as the magnitude of emissions reductions are crucial for achieving any warming limit goal.
4.Although the consensus scientific position on climate change is extraordinarily strong, no nation may fail to comply with its obligations under the 1992 UNFCCC on the basis of scientific uncertainty because all nations expressly agreed under the 1992 treaty to be bound by the precautionary principle.
5. No developed nation may fail to comply with Its obligations to reduce Its GHG emissions to Its fair share of safe global emissions under the UNFCCC on the basis of cost to the nation.
6. Cost-benefit analysis is not an ethically acceptable tool for limiting a government’s climate change responsibilities.
7. Developed nations under the 1992 UNFCCC acknowledged a duty to assist developing nations with financing their adaptation and mitigation costs and have a moral/legal responsibility to help compensate developing nations for their climate change caused losses and damages.
To understand the issues discussed in this article, the following very simplified image of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will help visualize several scientific features of climate change that will be discussed in more detail later in this paper. This simplified image ignores other GHGs including methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and water vapor which are sometimes included in the concept of CO2e or carbon dioxide equivalent.
The bottom ring in the bathtub depicts the approximate atmospheric concentration of CO2 (approximately 280 ppm) that existed before the mid-19th Century when increasing fossil fuel use began to raise atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
The middle ring in the tub is meant to visualize the current CO2 concentration which was 414 ppm CO2 in July 2020 (NOAA, 2020).
The top ring depicts the CO2e level at which atmospheric CO2e concentration levels must be stabilized to achieve any warming limit goal.
The space between the middle ring and the top ring is meant to visualize the amount of additional CO2e emissions that can be added to the atmosphere before the upper atmospheric stabilization goal is reached. This concept is referred to as the “carbon budget” or the number of tons of CO2e (all GHG emissions expressed in the common unit of CO2) that must constrain total global emissions if the international community will be able to successfully achieve any warming limit goal by stabilizing atmospheric CO2e concentrations at a level that will prevent warming greater than the warming limit goal.
This idea alone, as we shall see, and because GHGs and particularly CO2 are long-lived in the atmosphere, suggests an enormous challenge for climate change policy-making that is not a problem with other air pollution problems. Namely, before the atmospheric CO2e stabilization level goal is reached, global CO2e emissions must approach zero if any warming limit goal will be achieved.
The multiple lines into the faucet are meant to depict that different nations have been more responsible than others for raising the atmospheric concentration of CO2e.
The following chart depicts the long-lived retention of CO2 in the atmosphere, a fact which has a profound significance for policy-making. Although approximately 80% of the CO2 emissions are removed by the ocean, forests, and other global carbon sinks in about 100 years, some of the emitted CO2 persists for tens of thousands of years . (Yale Climate Connections, 2010).
(Yale Climate Connections, 2010)
A carbon sink is any reservoir, natural or constructed, of carbon that absorbs more carbon than it releases. Globally the most important carbon sinks are vegetation, the ocean, and soils. Because the health of carbon of sinks affects the atmospheric concentration of CO2e and because carbon sinks can become less effective sinks or carbon sources in a warming world or upon a government’s failure to protect sinks, a government’s management of carbon sinks is an important element of its climate change response.
Critically Evaluating a Nation’s Response to Climate Change or Arguments Made By Opponents of Climate Change Policies
Under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change nations agreed that:
Nations have duties to adopt policies to prevent dangerous climate change and to take steps toward stabilization of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system (UN 1992: Art 2).
Although the 1992 UNFCCC did not define dangerous climate change, under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 197 nations agreed to adopt policies to keep global temperature rise in this century well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C (Paris Agreement, 2015).
Nations also agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC that:
States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UNFCCC, Preamble).
This principle is referred to as the “no harm” principle.
This paper now identifies seven issues that citizens and the media need to understand to critically evaluate both any nation’s response to climate change and the most frequent arguments made by opponents of government climate change policies.
1. Because of certain features of climate change, many climate change policy issues raise ethical/fairness questions which are practically significant for global prospects of preventing catastrophic climate harms.
Certain features of climate change require it to be understood and responded to as a moral and ethical problem. These features are:
Some nations are more responsible than others for the rise of atmospheric concentrations of GHGs.
The countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts are among the nations least responsible for the rise of atmospheric GHG concentrations.
The potential harms to the most vulnerable are not mere inconveniences but include potential catastrophic harms to health, life, and ecological systems on which life depends.
Those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts usually can’t petition their governments for protection. Their best hope is that the countries that are most responsible for climate change will comply with their duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions while complying with several other principles expressly agreed to in the UNFCCC which are discussed in this paper.
Because of this, climate change policy-making raises a host of ethical or fairness issues that arise in specific policy-making steps that have important practical significance for global prospects of preventing dangerous climate impacts. Yet these ethical issues have frequently been ignored in the technical scientific and economic debates which have largely dominated climate change controversies visible to the public.
2. Issues that arise in four steps that the setting a national GHG emissions reduction target Implicitly takes a position on.
Every national GHG emissions reduction target adopted by a nation under the UNFCCC commonly referred to as a Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC, implicitly takes a position on four issues that raise ethical or fairness questions that have profound implications for policy-making. Almost all nations thus far have failed to identify their justification for their positions on these four issues (Brown and Taylor, 2015). Yet under the goals of the enhanced transparency mechanism of the Paris Agreement, nations should explain their justification for their positions on these issues because a nation’s NDC implicitly takes a position on these issues when they develop an NDC. Because some developed nations including the United States successfully resisted making the Paris Agreement enforceable in 2015, requiring nations to explain their justifications for their NDCs under the transparency mechanism under the Paris Agreement is the only tool under the Paris Agreement to put pressure on governments to improve their compliance with the Paris Agreement goals. For a more detailed discussion of the four steps , see (Brown et. al, 2018).
The four issues arise in four steps that all NDC policy formation processes must implicitly take a position on:
(1) Identify a global warming limit goal to be achieved by the GHG emissions reduction target or NDC.
Because under the Paris Agreement nations pledged to take best efforts to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 C but no greater than 2.0 C, nations have some discretion to adopt NDCs that will achieve a global warming goal in the 1.5 C to 2.0 C. Yet because a nation’s position on any warming limit goal is implicitly a position on how much harm to others the nation deems acceptable, this decision raises questions of fairness and justice which are usually referred to under the term “equity,” a concept which nations expressly agreed would guide their GHG policies under the UNFCCC and a concept which this article will examine below. Because there remains some scientific uncertainty about what temperatures will cause the most feared climate impacts that may be caused if temperatures trigger numerous “tipping points” or positive feedbacks that will accelerate the warming, the warming limit goal that the NDC seeks to achieve also raises profound questions of fairness to those nations and people most vulnerable to climate change impacts particularly if warming triggers any of the tipping points.
(2) Identify a global carbon budget that must constrain the international community’s GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal.
IPCC and other scientific organizations have identified different carbon budgets with different probabilities, usually expressed in gigatons of CO2e, available to achieve any warming limit goal. Because carbon budgets are usually arranged in probabilities of achieving a warming limit goal and some countries are much more vulnerable than others to climate harms, the selection of a carbon budget from among others that have different probabilities of achieving warming limits goals raises issues of fairness to the nations who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. In this writer’s experience, governments very frequently rely on carbon budgets that were calculated at least several years before that have not been adjusted to reflect the shrinking of the budget that has occurred due to emissions since the date at which the budget was calculated. For a discussion of how to identify a carbon budget that reflects the considerations that ideally should relied upon in selecting a carbon budget see, Brown et al, 2018.
(3) Determine the national fair share of the global carbon budget based on equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities as agreed to in the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement.
Although what “equity” requires is an issue that ethicists have different opinions on, there is widespread agreement among ethicists that some claims nations have made about what equity requires of them in setting their NDC that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard, ethicists often claim one need not know what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. For instance, in response to some nations who argued that their high costs of reducing GHG emissions was relevant to what equity required of them, IPCC concluded that:
The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the well-being of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg.224).
A claim made by US President Trump for his justification for removing the US from the Paris Agreement was that the Paris deal was unfair to the United States is obviously false because the Paris Agreement allows nations to determine what equity requires of the nation in achieving the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.
To determine any nation’s fair share of any carbon budget is essentially a question of what “equity” requires of the nation in achieving any warming limit goal. Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity expressly requires of a nation to reduce its GHG emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its 5th Assessment report that despite some ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden-sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4.pg 317).
The IPCC went on to say that;
(T)hese equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality, and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4, pg 317).
Responsibility is understood to mean historical responsibility for the current problem not emissions levels per year.
(Columbia University, 2019)
This chart demonstrates that the US historical emissions are much greater than China’s despite China surpassing the US in total tons of yearly CO2 emissions several decades ago. Frequent claims have been made by opponents of climate change policies that because China is currently the largest emitter of GHG in respect to tons of emissions, it is unfair to require a nation such as the United States to make significant emissions reductions without acknowledging that this is not true in respect to historical emissions which are more relevant to determine which countries are more responsible for the current warming problem.
Another variable that IPCC concluded is a legitimate consideration for determining what equity requires of a nation in determining its NDC is per capita emissions. The following chart depicts that the US has among the highest per capita emissions among countries.
The other two factors that IPCC concluded are relevant to a nation’s determination of what equity requires of it in formulating its NDC are “economic capacity” and “rights of developing nations to sustainable development.” These variables support the arguments of poor vulnerable countries that developed countries such as the United States should adopt more aggressive emissions reductions than poor vulnerable nations.
The following chart demonstrates that unless high emitting nations including the EU and the USA base their emissions reduction targets on what equity requires of it to reduce their GHG emissions, there is no hope that the international community will achieve any warming limit goal. The upper line in the chart represents the emissions reduction pathway that must constrain the entire world to achieve a 2C warming limit goal. The reduction curves of the four largest national emitters represent reduction pathways that these countries’ NDC would achieve.
(Global Carbon Project, 2019)
Thus unless high emitting nations base their emission reduction target or NDC on their equitable share of any carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, there will be nothing left of the remaining carbon budget for lower-emitting developing countries to allocate to themselves when they establish their NDC and they will thus have to achieve zero emissions quicker than the higher emitting developed nations. Therefore requiring nations to base their NDC on their equitable share of a remaining carbon budget is both required by principles of fairness and practically indispensable for the international community to achieve any warming limit goal.
(4) Specify the annual rate of national GHG emissions reductions on a pathway to achieve any warming limit goal.
These two different curves of different pathways to achieve zero emissions by 2050 demonstrate that different pathways to the same reduction target will consume more of the available remaining carbon budget to achieve any global warming limit goal.
Although citizens around the world have learned the importance of being able to visualize whether governments are flattening the COVID-19 infection curve to judge the effectiveness of policies to minimize the risks of the pandemic, such a curve of a government’s GHG emissions reductions is even more important to help citizens track and evaluate the effectiveness of a government’s climate policies because, among other reasons, any failure to reduce GHG emissions as planned in its emissions reduction pathway makes the global problem more difficult and expensive to solve as we will see below. The speed at which GHG reductions are made is extraordinarily relevant to evaluate a nation’s reduction policy because delay makes the carbon budget available for the world to use smaller and, as will see, makes the possibility of achieving any global warming goal more expensive and difficult to achieve.
The hourglass on the left represents the available carbon budget for any warming limit goal at any point in time. Yet because all GHG emissions are reducing the available budget, the top half the hourglass on the right is meant to visualize the relevant carbon budget sometime in the future. For climate change policy, doing nothing or delaying to reduce emissions makes the problem worse for the world. Thus the delays by the United States in adopting policies necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals since they were established in 2015 has already made it more difficult for the international community to achieve the Paris warming limit goals. In addition, US President Trump’s justification for US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement of “putting America first” is indefensible because the US agreed under the UNFCCC that it had a duty to adopt policies that will stabilize GHG atmospheric concentrations at safe levels and US GHG emissions are making the problem more difficult for the world to achieve any warming limit goal,
3. Because all CO2e emissions are diminishing the carbon budget that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, the speed of reducing GHG emissions as well as the magnitude of emissions reduction are crucial for achieving any warming limit goal.
Much of the public debate about climate change policies in the United States has focused on the quantify of GHG emissions needed by a date certain, such as 80% by 2050, without any acknowledgment that the speed of achieving the reduction target must be understood to evaluate the acceptability of how much of the remaining carbon budget the policies which will implement the reduction goal target will allocate to the nation.
In 2016, the United Nations “Bridge the Gap Report” found that to achieve the 1.5 C warming limit goal with a 50% probability, the world needed to reduce CO2e emissions to net-zero by 2045 (UNEP, 2016). To achieve the 2.0 warming limit goal with a 66% probability, UNEP also claimed in 2016 the world needed to reduce CO2e emissions to net-zero by 2070 (UNEP, 2016). Given these estimates were based on carbon budgets available for the entire world before 2016 and did not include adjustments for equity that are particularly practically important for developed countries to do to determine their fair share of the available remaining carbon budget, developed nations would need to reduce their emissions to net-zero even earlier than these dates.
In 2019, UNEP published another “Bridge the Gap Report” which quantified the profound policy implications of delaying global emissions reduction programs necessary to achieve the 1.5C warming limit goal. On achieving the 1.5C warming limit goal the report said:
Thus a mere six-year delay of waiting from 2019 until 2025 to implement policies needed to achieve the 1.5 C warming limit goal increases the needed necessary global reduction rate for the whole world from 7.6 % to 15.5%. Yet, in this writer’s experience, there has been little media coverage of the consequences of governments’ delay in reducing GHG emissions to levels required of them to meet the Paris agreement’s warming limit goals. Although the US media occasionally comments on President Trump’s intention to remove the US from the Paris Agreement, I have never heard anyone from the US media comment on the harm to the world caused by the Trump decision to move out the Paris Agreement.
4.No nation may fail to comply with its obligations under the 1992 UNFCCC on the basis of scientific uncertainty because all nations expressly agreed to be bound by the precautionary principle.
More specifically the treaty in Article 3 of 1992 UNFCCC said:
The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost (UNFCCC, 1992, Article 3.3).
From the standpoint of ethics, those who engage in risky behavior are not exonerated because they did not know for sure that their behavior would actually cause harm once there is a reasonable scientific basis for concluding that an activity is dangerous. In fact, many ethicists hold that those who are engaged in dangerous behavior should shoulder the burden of proof to demonstrate that their behavior is safe before being permitted to continue the dangerous behavior. Hans Jonas, a highly respected philosopher on ethical issues that arise in policy-making that must face scientific uncertainty, has said in responding to scientifically plausible dangerous human activities in policy-making, that prophesies of gloom should be given priority over prophecies of bliss (Jonas, 1984).
In this writer’s experience, many, if not most scientists and engineers, don’t know that who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof in regard to responses to activities that create scientifically credible concerns of dangerous impacts is an ethical issue, not a value-neutral scientific issue. This ignorance is compounded by the fact that most scientific disciplines usually follow epistemic norms or rules that determine when causal claims can be made which are designed to prevent a false positive, or a premature conclusion claiming the cause of an effect has been demonstrated. This phenomenon is referred to by scientists that scientific procedures are designed to prevent a “Type1 statistical error” Although many, if not most scientists, in this writer’s experience, are aware that the epistemic rules of their discipline have been established to prevent a false positive, they are infrequently aware that when human activity is already creating a scientifically plausible risk of harm, but because the complexity of the problem, such as the case in determining the cancer risk of mixtures of carcinogenic substances, prevents a government from determining the magnitude of the risk of the dangerous behavior before exposure to the risk can be prevented, ethics requires governments to follow a “precautionary science” approach to determine the nature of the harm. For a discussion of these issues see on this website “On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.”
A recent paper by the Breakthrough Institute claimed that IPCC has been underestimating the speed that some of the most worrisome climate tipping points could be triggered, including methane from permafrost, because the models on which IPCC relied could not integrate empirically-based permafrost risk melting rates because the melting was taking place from the bottom of the permafrost land mass up to 50 miles inland. (WLB, 2018) If this was the case, ethics would require that scientists develop a precautionary approach to estimating the speed of the methane leakage which would rely on reasonable speculation of the timing of the methane leakage from the permafrost rather than ignoring the risk.
Some issues in environmental policy-making have relied on a “precautionary science” including the development of cancer risk levels for very low doses of known carcinogenic substances because of practical limitations of determining the carcinogenicity of substances at very low dose levels.
In addition to the express inclusion of the “precautionary principle” in the 1992 treaty, as we have seen, nations agreed under the “no harm” principle that they have duties to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from harming others beyond their borders. This principle of customary international law has been interpreted by courts to assign responsibility to governments to protect others beyond their borders not only when a nation knew for sure that an activity within its jurisdiction would cause harm beyond its borders but legal responsibility is triggered when the nation could envision that certain harms to others could result from the activities within its jurisdiction (Voight, 2008)
As a matter of ethics, those engaged in scientifically plausible dangerous activities about which for practical reasons the uncertainties cant be resolved quickly enough for the government to take precautionary action should have the burden of proof to determine that the activity is safe. For this reason, a strong ethical argument can be made that opponents of climate change have had the duty to demonstrate following normal scientific epistemic norms in peer-reviewed journals that the world’s increasing GHG emissions and resultant atmospheric concentrations are safe.The scientific skeptic community have always had the option of publishing their claims in peer-reviewed journals but rarely have.
Scientific uncertainty argument has continued to dominate the debate about climate change policy adoption for almost 40 years despite the mountain of scientific evidence of human causation that began slowly in the early 19th Century and began significantly speeding up after measurements that began in 1958 by Charles Keeling on Mona Loa, Hawaii demonstrated rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
One day in September1997, while serving as Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US EPA Office of International Activities, this writer was tasked by the US State Department during negotiations of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to co-chair for the United States a negotiation on whether governments were willing to stipulate that the global warming, then already discernible, was human-caused rather than the result of natural forces. These natural climate drivers included, among others, several cyclical changes in the sun’s energy output that reaches Earth, due to changes in the sun’s orbit, wobble on its axis, and changes in radiation levels, ocean circulation and chemistry, movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, and CO2 releases as the result of volcanic activity.
A few OPEC countries led by Saudi Arabia at the start of the negotiation on this matter balked at agreeing to language that concluded that human activities were responsible for the growing climate change threats. Yet when I pointed out that their scientific representatives had agreed to the very same language under discussion in a meeting of IPCC climate scientists the year before, all countries finally agreed to stipulate that the balance of scientific evidence supported that the increasing global warming the world was experiencing was human-caused. Although scientists from around the world in IPCC meetings had agreed to human causation, this negotiation was the first time the world’s governments agreed to state that science supported human causation of change. Thus, every country in the world, including the world’s petroleum states which had consistently blocked global action on climate change, agreed more than two decades ago that the ominous climate changes the world has been experiencing have been primarily caused by rising levels of GHGs in the atmosphere which are attributable to human activities. Yet opponents of climate change policies including some fossil fuel countries and related industries continue to support witnesses in public fora considering proposed climate legislation who claim that human activities are not causing climate change.
The reason for the universal international agreement among nations that humans are responsible for the climate change the world is experiencing is that the evidence of human causation is extraordinarily compelling despite the fact that the Earth has experienced warming and cooling cycles during Earth’s history in responses to natural forces. The confidence of human causation is very high because scientists: (1) can predict how the Earth will warm up differently if a layer of GHGs in the atmosphere warms the Earth compared to how the planet warms if the natural forces that have caused warming in the Earth’s historical heating and cooling cycles, these differences are referred to as “human footprints”,(2) have compared the temperature forcing of human GHGs to forcing of the natural causes of climate variations in “attribution studies,” and have concluded that only the forcing from human sources can explain the rise in global temperatures, (2) have known precisely since the mid-1880s the amount of forcing a molecule of CO2 generates in watts per square meter, (3) have known that the CO2accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil fuel combustion because of its chemical isotope, (4) determined that the CO2accumulating in the atmosphere is directly proportional to the timing and amount of fossil fuel combustion around the world, (5) tested these lines of evidence rigorously in computer model experiments since the 1960s, (6) these models have not only accurately predicted future warming, they have been run backward and accurately described past temperature regimes, .
The way the atmosphere heats up is one of ten lines of evidence referred to as fingerprints that support human causation of experienced warming. For instance, if a layer of GHGs is causing the observed warming, the lower atmosphere warms as the upper atmosphere cools. If variations in the sun’s energy reaching Earth are causing the warming, the upper and lower atmosphere warm at a similar rate. This has been tested and the conclusions support atmospheric GHG are causing the warming.
This chart compares the warming expected from human activities in red, to the warming expected by natural forcing in blue, to the actual observed warming in black. Thus this comparison is strong evidence for attributing recent warming to human forces.
The scientific confidence in the consensus view of climate change is also extraordinarily strong because, in 1988, the World Health Organization and the UN Environment Program Created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) whose mission is to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate science and socio-economic literature on climate change and make recommendations to the international community. Approximately every five years, starting in 1990, thousands of scientists, most of whom had been recommended by member governments for their scientific expertise, produce comprehensive three volume IPCC reports. The IPCC does not do research, it synthesizes the published scientific literature.
This chart depicts that IPCC’s conclusions about human causation of climate change increased in confidence in every report with the last report claiming that human cause of climate change was virtually certain, meaning at least a 95% probability,
IPCC has issued 5 Reports since 1990.The Reports are produced in three different working groups, WGI synthesizes the physical climate science literature, WGII synthesizes the science on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, and WGIII which focuses on mitigation. This writer was a contributing author on a new IPCC Chapter in Working Group III in the IPCC 5th assessment on ethics and sustainability.
Scientific uncertainty arguments have continued to generate political opposition to government action on climate change despite the overwhelming strength of the evidence of human causation, that every Academy of Science in the world, and over 100 scientific organizations with expertise in climate science have issued statements in support of the consensus view, and at least 97 % of all scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science support the consensus view, and as we have seen, every government in the world agreed that climate change is human caused. . ,
In “The Denial Countermovement” sociologists Riley Dunlap and Araon McCright describe how some fossil fuel companies, corporations that depend on fossil fuel, business organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations successfully prevented government action on climate change by funding the climate change disinformation campaign which they explain sought to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream science (Dunlap, R., & McCright, A., 2015. p. 300).
On October 21, 2010, the John Broder of the New York Times, http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html?sort=newest&offset=2, reported, that “the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” According to the New York Times article, the fossil fuel industry has ” created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.”
Without doubt, those telling others that there is no climate danger heading their way have a special moral responsibility to be extraordinarily careful about such claims. For instance, if someone tells a child laying on a railroad tracks that they can lie there all day because there is no train coming and has never rigorously checked to see if a train is actually coming would be obviously guilty of reprehensible behavior.
This website includes 17 entries including three videos on the climate change disinformation campaign which both explain many aspects of this campaign and importantly distinguish the tactics of this campaign from legitimate climate skepticism (See, “Start Here and Index” Tab above under “Disinformation Campaign”). Just as screaming fire in a crowded theater when no fire exists is not construed to be a justifiable exercise of free speech because the claim of fire will likely lead to recklessly damaging behavior, climate change science disinformation cannot be justified on free speech grounds and must be understood as the morally indefensible behavior of many fossil fuel companies, some corporations, industry organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations that have funded the climate change disinformation campaign because inaction will cause atmospheric CO2 concentrations to rise and remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, likely cause great harm, and perhaps make it impossible to prevent catastrophic damages to human health and ecological systems on which life depends.
On this website, we have consistently acknowledged that skepticism is the oxygen of the scientific method and should be encouraged even on climate change issues. On the other hand, the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are deeply morally reprehensible strategies designed to undermine mainstream climate change science. For a summary of why the tactics are immoral see on this website:Insights from a New Book on Sociology and Climate Change: The Heinous Denial Countermovement
The immoral tactics have included:
(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth on some climate change science claims;
(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of settled climate change science;
(c) using think tanks to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty which have not been submitted to peer-review;
(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science;
(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science;
(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies; and
(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends.
We have frequently explained on this website that although skepticism in science a good thing, ethical considerations require that those making claims that conflict with a large body of peer-reviewed science should play by the rules of science by subjecting their claims to peer review. This conclusion is particularly strong when the scientific claim is about activities which are potentially very harmful.
5. No nation may fail to comply with Its obligations under the UNFCCC due to high economic cost to the national economy.
As we have seen, all nations in 1992 when they agreed to be bound by the ” no harm” principle acknowledged that they had a duty to adopt climate change policies that would keep climate change from harming others outside their jurisdiction. A nation’s duty to adopt policies that will prevent climate change caused harms is not diminished under the “no harm: rule because these policies will be costly to the nation or a national industry.
In addition, because climate change is now violating the most basic human rights including the rights to life and health, and national responsibilities to protect human rights are not excused because of high costs to a government responsible for preventing human rights violations, nations may not refuse to adopt climate policies necessary to prevent predicted climate impacts that violate basic human rights on the basis of cost to the nation.
A 2019 Special Report of the UN General Assembly found that climate change was already causing 150,000 premature deaths, a number which is sure to increase as temperature rises (UN General Assembly, 2019).
Climate change is also expected to increase infectious diseases through greater transmissions by bugs including mosquitoes and ticks whose numbers and ranges are expected to increase in a warming world. Climate change is also expected to cause numerous other health problems and deaths to the world’s population in many additional ways. It is already causing massive health problems including loss of life from intense storms, droughts, floods, intense heat, and rising seas and the current numbers of these health problems will surely rise in a warming world. Predicted warming is also already creating international chaos and conflict from the over million refugees that have had to flee their homes due to the loss of water supplies needed for drinking and agriculture.
As horrific as these climate impacts, even modest amounts of additional warming threatens to surpass levels that will trigger various ” tipping points” that could very dangerously speed up the warming. A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate system – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system (WLB, 2018). Progress toward triggering a tipping point is often driven by positive feedbacks, in which a change in one component of the climate system leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic global warming example is the ice-albedo feedback which happens when melting ice sheets cause more heat energy to warm the Earth rather than the ice reflecting the heat energy from the sun out into space.
Although the upper warming limit goal of 2 C in the Paris Agreement was based on an informal scientific consensus in 2015 that the tipping point feedbacks would not likely be triggered until warming exceeded 2 C, recently there has been some evidence that several tipping points of concern are showing signs of destabilization including methane permafrost (Anthony et al, 2018), arctic summer ice sheets are predicted to disappear in the coming decade, and the Greenland ice sheet has already past a point of no return (Morgan McFall-Johnson, 2020). These tipping points could trigger a domino effect tipping other feedbacks creating an existential crisis for much of life on Earth (Leahy, S. 2019).
Cost is also not an acceptable justification for a nation’s refusal to adopt climate policies necessary to prevent horrific climate impacts because nations agreed to the ” polluter pays” principle under the Rio Declaration in 1992 which says:
National authorities should endeavor to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment. (Rio Declaration, 1992, Principle 16)
6. Cost-benefit analysis is not an ethically acceptable analytical tool for limiting a government’s climate change responsibilities.
Many opponents of proposed climate change policies have argued that a nation’s response to climate change must satisfy cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Cost-benefit analysis can be a useful tool to determine how to maximize human preferences, but ethics ask a different question. Ethics asks us to consider which preferences are acceptable to have.
CBA can be a useful tool to determine economic efficiency but cannot determine what justice requires of our choices. As a result, for example, few people would propose the government use CBAs to determine whether the government should decriminalize child prostitution or when rape is acceptable.
CBA also requires that government policy-making translate all values into commodity value. Using CBA to determine the acceptability of climate change policies requires the policy process to compare the costs of implementing policies to reduce GHG emissions to the economic value of harms avoided by the implementation of the policies, including the economic value of people who might be killed by climate impacts, the economic value of health free of diseases that will be avoided by climate change policies, the economic value of treasured ecological systems, plants and animals and many other things that ethical theory holds should not be valued only for their commodity value. Although, for instance, some plants and animals are sacred in some cultures, such as cows in India and Elephants in Thailand, using a willingness to pay to determine the value of climate harms avoided requires transforming sacred value into commodity value. Given that GHG emissions harm people and governments around the world, using CBA to determine the acceptability of costs to a government of reducing GHG emissions requires that the economic value of avoiding the harms everywhere that will be avoided by the implementation of the climate policies be quantified, a concept often referred to as the “social cost of carbon.”. This is usually calculated by governments without the acceptance of those whose interests will be harmed by determining the “willingness to pay” for protecting things that will be harmed that have no market value and by determining the present value of things that will be harmed in the future by discounting the values of things harmed in the future by judging what discount rate should apply, a decision for which there is no value-neutral way of proceeding.
Since as we have seen, CO2 will last in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, and because climate change is capable of killing much of life on Earth particularly if a tipping point causes a cascade of tipping points, CBA used in climate change policy-making needs to face incredibly difficult challenges in determining what future harms will be created by GHG emissions and how to value these harms.
A question posed by a well-known economist to the audience at a conference I recently attended I thought demonstrated the absurdity of using commodity value to quantify the value of all potential climate harms. The economist asked the audience if they had any ideas about how to put a value on all human life if climate change killed all human life on Earth.
Support of CBA has been sometimes justified by some economists on the basis of utilitarian ethical theory which claims that society should develop policies that maximize human preferences although most philosophers hold that maximizing utility is not an ethically supportable justification for violating human rights.
Many subnational governments, including Pennsylvania for example, have used CBA to determine whether proposed climate policies are justified by comparing the costs of the policies to the economy of the government implementing the policy, such as Pennsylvania, to the economic value of the harms avoided by the policy only in the sub-national government. Yet this approach is ethically problematic because such comparison ignores the harms to the rest of the world that will be caused by the GHG emissions from the sub-national government.
7. Developed nations under the 1992 UNFCCC acknowledged a duty to assist developing nations with financing adaptation and mitigation and have a moral and perhaps legal responsibility to help compensate developing nations for their climate losses and damages.
The arguments made by opponents of climate change policies based on the cost to a government of adopting climate policies ignore the fact that under the UNFCCC, developed country Parties agreed to provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties in implementing the objectives of the Convention through, that is their mitigation costs (UNFCCC, Art. 4, 3). The developed countries also agreed under the UNFCCC that they have the responsibility to assist the developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in meeting their costs of needed adaptation to adverse effects (UNFCCC, Art 4, 4). The Paris Agreement also provides that the developed countries shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention (Paris Agreement, Art. 9.1). Yet the arguments made by opponents of climate change based on excessive costs to a nation of needed climate policies have not considered the costs that developed countries may be responsible for if they must contribute to financing the mitigation and adaptation costs of climate change to poor developing countries.
The “no harm” principle recognized in the UNFCCC also makes nations responsible for climate losses and damages to other nations caused by activities within their jurisdiction. Yet the fact that all nations have contributed to rising atmospheric CO2 levels and there is an absence of legal rules in the international legal system that prescribe how the value of damages should be allocated among all nations responsible for the climate change harms makes it unlikely that a court will find any country financially legally liable for a specific amount of loses or damages in any country (Voight, 2008) Nevertheless because nations have agreed in the UNFCCC that they have a duty to prevent activities in their jurisdiction from harming countries and people beyond their borders, many of the most vulnerable countries have been pushing for the creation of a financial mechanism under the UNFCCC that would compensate vulnerable countries for climate losses and damages that adaptation cant remediate.
.At the 2012 Doha Conference of the Parties under the UNFCCC, the international community agreed to establish a formal mechanism for compensation for losses and damages which is known as the “Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damages (WMLD)” Article 8 of the 2015 Paris Agreement made the WMLD an official negotiating body of the UNFCCC. Since the beginning of negotiations of the WMLD, negotiations have gotten bogged down over how to finance compensation for losses and damages in developing countries as developed nations have stressed that any agreement on compensation should not be understood as establishing legal liability for the developed nations to compensate for losses and damages. Although developed nations will likely prevail in avoiding any language that could be construed as establishing their clear legal liability for losses and damages in developing nations, in this writers opinion, developed nations will eventually likely agree to create some mechanism, such as an insurance fund, to compensate vulnerable developing countries for some kinds of losses and damages in developing countries which developed countries will be expected to provide financing for. .
Financial support of developing nation’s mitigation obligations under the UNFCCC is not only legally required under the UNFCCC but also practically important because large-scale investments by developing countries are required to significantly reduce their emissions and very dangerous climate change will not likely be avoided unless developing nations reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Financial support for developing nations by developed nations is also both legally and ethically required to meet the adaptation needs of developing countries.
Climate impacts, such as sea-level rise and more frequent droughts and floods, are already causing devastating effects to communities and individuals in developing countries. These impacts to developing nations are already affecting developed nations because, for instance, between 2008 and 2011, approximately 87 million people were displaced due to extreme weather events which have caused mass migration of refugees which are already destabilizing many developed nations, particularly in Europe (Brookings, 2019). Since 2014 serious drought in and severe weather in Central America has caused large migrations of refugees which have put pressure on the US southern border, (Wernick, 2018). Because climate change caused refugees are already destabilizing developed countries who have been fleeing vulnerable areas of poor developing nations that have become inhabitable due to climate change-induced droughts, floods, loss of drinking water, and rising seas, developed nations have a strong practical incentive to assist developing nations with adaptation. If developed countries do not help finance adaptation needs in developing countries, they will experience growing conflict and stress caused by vulnerable people’s problems including the 150 million refugees that the World Bank predicts will be created by a 2C temperature rise by the end of this Century, a temperature rise that now appears to be almost inevitable (World Bank, 2018).
Brown, D., Breakey, H., Burdon, P., Mackey B., Taylor, P (Brown et al., 2018) A Four-Step Process for Formulating and Evaluating Legal Commitments Under the Paris Agreement, Carbon & Climate Law Review, Vol 12, (2018) Issue 2, Pg 98 – 108, https://doi.org/10.21552/cclr/2018/2/
Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change,The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014), 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge University Press), 317_
On July 31, 2018, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which should create a shiver of fear in all humans everywhere. The paper, Trajectories in the Earth System in the Anthropoceneby Steffen et..al., explains how human-induced warming is rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positive climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves and droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world.
The Steffen et. al. paper also describes how the positive feedbacks depicted in the following graphic, once triggered could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (ghg) emissions alone would not prevent until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over reducing disastrous warming.
Steffen et. al,, supra pg. 4.
If this is not scary enough, the Steffen et. al. paper concluded some of these feedbacks could be triggered between 1 degree C to 3 degrees C, suggesting that the “risk of tipping cascades could be significant at a 2 degree C rise (Steffen at al p.7), the upper warming limit goal of the Paris Agreement which President Trump has announced the United States will withdraw from.
Given that even if temperature increases already baked into the system don’t trigger positive feedbacks until global temperatures rise by 2 degrees C and given the enormous challenge facing the world to achieve the 2 degrees C warming limit goal agreed to by the international community in Paris in 2015 requires the international community to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2070 (UNEP, Emissions Gap, 2016), the international community needs to immediately join forces to achieve extraordinarily ambitious international cooperation almost immediately to achieve the 2 degree C warming limit goal. However, given that the 2 degree C warming limit goal agreed to in Paris was selected because it was believed that if warming increases could be limited to 2 degrees C, triggering dangerous climate system positive feedbacks was unlikely, the conclusions of the Steffen et al paper that positive feedbacks could be triggered below 2 degrees C additional warming must be interpreted as a justification for a call for an unprecedented urgent global cooperative effort to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon sinks as rapidly as humanly possible.
Given that human-induced climate change is now widely understood to be an existential threat to life on Earth unless all nations rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) to net zero as fast as possible, Americans urgently need to understand certain features of the problem which have been infrequently mentioned in the US national climate change conversation including the following:
There is growing evidence that even if global ghg emissions could be reduced to near zero rapidly, there is enough carbon already in the atmosphere that limiting warming to the then 2 degrees C warming limit goal by the end of this Century has only a 5% chance (Mooney, 2017).
Every day that nations fail to reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to achieve a warming limit goal such as 2 degrees C makes the problem worse because budgets available for the whole world that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal shrink as emissions continue. Therefore, the speed that nations reduce their GHG emissions reductions is as important as the magnitude of reductions identified by any national GHG reduction commitment. For this reason, any national commitment on climate change should not only identify the amount of ghg emissions that will be reduced by a certain date, but the reduction pathway by which these reductions will be achieved,
For reasons stated in the Seffen et.al. paper, climate change is an existential threat to life on Earth that requires the international community to rapidly take extraordinarily aggressive coordinated steps not only sufficient to prevent global temperatures from rising no than more than 2 degrees C, the upper warming limit agreed to by the international community in the 2015 Paris Agreement, but to minimize any additional warming as quickly as possible,
Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which the US ratified in 1992, the US has a legal duty under the concept of “equity” to reduce its GHG emissions more rapidly than most other nations, and although there is reasonable disagreement among nations about what “equity” requires of them, any reasonable interpretation of equity would require the US to make much larger and more rapid GHG reductions than almost all other nations given that the United States emitted 5,011,687 metric kilo tons (kt) of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2016, second only to China’s 10,432,741 kt CO2. (Netherlands Environmental Agency). The US also has an equitable duty to more aggressively reduce its emissions than most other countries because it has emitted a greater amount of cumulative CO2 emissions, that is 29.3% of global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2002, while China emitted 7.6% during the same period, (WRI, Cumulative Emissions) making the US much more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to the current level of 406 ppm than any country. Also given the US is responsible for 15.56 metric tons per capita CO2 emissions which is more than twice as much as China’s 7.45 metric tons per capita in 2016 (World Bank), as a matter of equity the US must reduce its GHG emissions much more rapidly and steeply than almost all countries,
The US duty to formulate its ghg emissions reduction target on the basis of equity is not only required by its legal obligations under the UNFCCC, practically the US and other high emitting nations must reduce their GHG emissions by much greater amounts and faster than poor developing nations because if they don’t the poorer nations will have to reduce their GHG emissions almost immediately to near zero CO2 so that global emissions don’t exceed the carbon budget available to prevent a warming limit such as 2 degrees C from being exceeded,
Any US policy response to climate change such as a carbon tax must be structured to reduce US ghg emissions to levels and speeds required of the US to achieve its responsibilities to the rest of the world to prevent dangerous climate change. Thus, if the US were to pass a carbon tax, the imposition of a tax must either reduce US GHG emissions to the level and the speed required of it by its obligations or be supplemented by other policy responses such as, for instance, mandatory conversions of electric power generation from fossil fuel combustion to renewable energy by a date certain or mandatory requirements for electric vehicles,
Because GHG emissions from every country mix rapidly in the atmosphere, all nations emissions are contributing to rising atmospheric GHG concentrations thus harming people and ecological systems on which life depends all over the world. Thus, the US may not formulate its climate change policies only on the basis of costs and benefits to itself alone, it must acknowledge and respond to the devastating climate change harms the United States is already contributing to that are being experienced around the world and particularly by poor people and nations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. For this reason, the Trump administration’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on the basis of “putting US interests first” is deeply morally indefensible and tragic because of the damage it will likely cause to the world,
Because of the rapid speed required of the US to reduce its ghg emissions to net zero carbon emissions, the US urgently needs to put ghg emissions reductions on the equivalent of a wartime footing by not only adopting policy responses that can achieve ghg emission reduction goals required of it, but also by investing in research and development in new technologies that can facilitate and achieve the its ghg emission reduction obligations and increase carbon sinks that could reduce the rise in atmospheric ghg concentrations,
The United States needs to develop a strategy to achieve these objectives in the next two years and begin implementing the strategy immediately as quickly as possible.
This article explains the first two of several issues that citizens need to understand to evaluate appropriate national responses to climate change after the Paris Agreement. Although the mainstream media in the United States and other developed countries has widely reported on some aspects of the Paris Agreement, this series will describe important issues that are largely being ignored by press coverage of the Paris deal.
The first issue is why a 25-year delay in responding to increasingly stronger scientific warnings of the danger of human-induced climate change has made the problem much more threatening. The second is the urgency of the need for hard-to-imagine action to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions at all scales, that is globally, nationally, and locally, but particularly in high-emitting nations such as the United States in light of the limited amount of ghgs that can be emitted by the entire world before raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to very dangerous levels and in light of the need to fairly allocate ghg emissions reductions obligations around the world.
Media in the US has accurately reported on some positive aspects of the Paris deal including:
a. 186 nations have made commitments to reduce the threat of climate change although nations conceded in Paris that current commitments need to be upgraded to prevent dangerous climate change.
b. All nations agreed to limit the increase in global average temperatures to “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” – the level beyond which scientists believe the Earth will likely begin to experience rapid global warming and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”, a warming amount which may also cause serious global harms particularly to many poor, vulnerable nations. Also the Paris Agreement says by the second half of this century, there must be a balance between the emissions from human activity such as energy production and farming, and the amount that can be captured by carbon-absorbing “sinks” such as forests or carbon storage technology.
c. All countries agreed to submit updated plans that would ratchet up the stringency of emissions by 2020 and every five years thereafter.
d. Nations agreed to report to each other and the public on how well they are doing to implement their targets and to track progress towards the long-term goal through a robust transparency and accountability system.
e. Developed countries agreed to provide funding to help developing countries make the costly shift to green energy and shore up their defenses against climate change impacts like drought and storms and rich nations must report every two years on their finance levels — current and intended. The document refers $100 billion a year that rich countries had previously pledged to muster by 2020 as a “floor”. Under the new agreement the amount must be updated by 2025.
The Paris Agreement has been widely and accurately portrayed in the mainstream media as creating a policy framework that has the potential to reduce the threat of climate change if nations greatly step up to what they have committed to do. (This framework could have been tightened by including more specific language on several issues proposed by some countries but rejected by others on such matters as human rights, losses and damages, legal effect of the agreement, and financing of adaptation among others, yet the framework includes provisions that these issues can be considered in the years ahead.) However, the enormity of the challenge facing humanity from climate change and the special responsibilities of high-emitting developed nations in particular has not been covered in the mainstream press at least in the United States.
II. The Urgency and Enormity of the Need to Reduce GHG Emissions
Although the mainstream media has widely reported on the fact that the national ghg emissions reductions that were made before the Paris COP are not sufficient to limit warming to 2 degrees C, the media, at least in the United States, has been largely failing to report on the urgency and enormity of the need to rapidly reduce ghg emission globally and how further delays in taking action will dramatically make the problem much more threatening.
Looking at the delay caused by the climate change policy opposition in the United States is illustrative of the harm caused by political opposition to climate change policies worldwide.
The above illustration depicts, in a very abbreviated and sketchy form, that as the scientific evidence of the threat from human-induced climate change became stronger over a 40-year period and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 400 ppm. (For a much more rigorous analysis of the role of the climate change policy opposition in US climate policy formation see Brown 2002, chap 2 and Brown 2012, chap 2 and numerous articles on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign.”)
The rise in atmospheric CO2 levels is, of course, not only attributable to the US ghg emissions, yet the United States has played a major blocking role in preventing international action on climate change up until the recent more constructive role of the Obama administration which recently made commitments before the December Paris meeting to reduce US CO2 emissions by 26% to 28 % by 2025 below 2005 levels. However these new US commitments have not yet been implemented in the United States, and even if fully implemented still don’t represent the US fair share of safe global emissions (see report on US INDC. The US commitment, because it is based on a 2005 baseline, masks the fact that is only a mere 13-15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025, the baseline used by most of the world. For a discussion of the problems with the Obama administration commitment see report Captain America)
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s commitments still face strong opposition from the US climate change political opposition and are very likely to be rejected if a Republican becomes the next US President in 2016. Furthermore as long as US ghg emissions are exceeding the US fair share of safe global emissions, US ghg emissions are making the already very perilous climate change threat worse.
A detailed description of the climate change disinformation campaign that is responsible for much of the political opposition that has been largely responsible for the over 25-year US delay in responding to the scientific warnings about the threat of climate change is beyond the scope of this article but has been extensively discussed on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign.”
To fully understand the nature of the harm caused by this delay it is necessary to understand the policy implications of a “carbon budget” that must limit global emissions to avoid dangerous warming levels. .
To understand the policy implications of a carbon budget it is helpful to see the atmosphere as like a bathtub to the extent that it has limited volume and has been filling up with ghg so that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have been rising in proportion to human activities which release ghgs.
CO2 levels remained relatively stable for 10,000 years before the beginning of the industrial revolution at approximately 280 ppm (the lower line in the bathtub). Human activities have been responsible from elevating CO2 atmospheric concentration levels to the current concentration of approximately 400 ppm (the second line from the bottom of the tub). Although there is considerable scientific evidence that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is necessary to prevent very dangerous warming, a fact implicit in the recent Paris Agreement in which nations agreed to work to keep warming as close as possible from exceeding 1.5 degrees C additional warming, if the international community seeks to limit warming to 2 degrees C it must assure that global emissions do not exceed the number of tons of CO2 emissions that will raise atmospheric concentrations to levels that will cause warming of 2 degrees C. This number, that is the number of tons of CO2 emissions that can be emitted before atmospheric concentrations exceed levels that will cause dangerous climate change, is what is meant by a carbon budget.
This illustration, using figures from the most recent 2014 IPCC report, depicts that because only 800 gigatons of CO2 can be emitted by humanity before creating a 66% probability that a 2 degree C warming limit will be exceeded and humans have by 2011 already emitted 530 gigatons of CO2, there are only 270 gigatons of CO2 that may be emitted after 2011 to limit warming to 2 degrees C. (For a more detailed explanation of these figures see, Pidcock 2013)
The enormity of the challenge for the international community to keep warming from exceeding dangerous level can be understood by the fact that the remaining carbon budget is so small, that is approximately 270 gigatons of CO2, and current global ghg emissions are in excess of 10 gigatons per year and still rising, which means that even if the international community could stabilize global CO2 emissions levels there would be nothing left to allocate among all nations in 23 years. This grim fact is even bleaker if the international community concludes that it should limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, a conclusion that might become more obvious if current levels of warming start to make positive feedbacks visible in the next few years such as methane leakage from frozen tundra or more rapid loss of arctic ice.
The concept of the carbon budget explains why waiting to reduce ghg emissions levels to a certain percentage in the future is more harmful than rapid reductions earlier because the longer it takes to reduce emissions the more the remaining budget is consumed. For this reason, a joint research project between Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland recommended in Paris that national climate commitments be stated in tons of emissions over a specific period rather than percent reductions by a given date because waiting to the end of specific period to achieve percent reductions will cause the total tons of ghg emitted to be higher than if reductions are made earlier.
The enormous significance of the carbon budget can be seen from the following chart prepared by the Global Commons Institute.
The illustration depicts the enormity and urgency of global emissions reductions that would be necessary to limit warming to 1.5 or 2.0 degrees C given the steepness of the reductions curves necessary to limit warming to 2.0 degrees C with a 50% probability (the red dotted line), 2.0 degrees C with a 66% probability (the blue dotted line), and 1.5 degrees C (the green dotted line). The steepness of these curves superimposed on actual national ghg emissions levels is an indication of the enormity of the challenge for the international community because the emissions reduction curves are much steeper than reductions that can be expected under projections of what current national commitments are likely to achieve if fully implemented. The steepness of these reductions curves is somewhat controversial because any calculation of a carbon budget which determines the steepness of the the needed reduction curve must make assumptions about when positive feedbacks in the climate system will be triggered by rising temperatures, yet these controversies are reflected in giving different probabilities about the likelihood of achieving a specific warming limit. Yet even carbon budgets which have been discussed in the carbon budget literature which have assumed lower amounts of positive feedback yield very. very steep reduction curves.
The enormous increase in the magnitude of the challenge that has been caused by delay given the limited carbon budget can be seen from a recent statement of Jim Hansen who said that “the required rate of emissions reduction would have been about 3.5% per year if reductions had started in 2005 and continued annually thereafter, while the required rate of reduction, if commenced in 2020, will be approximately 15% per year. Without doubt every delay in reducing ghg emissions makes the problem more difficult and more expensive to solve. For this reason, all nations should aim to reduce ghg emissions as quickly as possible and any nation which opposes doing so on the basis of scientific uncertainty should be asked if the nation is willing to take full legal and financial responsibility for harms caused by any delay.
III. On the Additional Need to Make National GHG Emissions Allocations on the Basis of Equity
The above chart also helps explain the gross unfairness of requiring all nations to reduce by the same percentage reduction rates to achieve the globally needed emissions reductions because some nations are emitting at vastly higher per capita rates and some nations are responsible much more than others for raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to current dangerous elevated levels which are now in excess of 400 ppm CO2. .If each nation had to reduce their ghg emissions only to conform to the rates described in the reduction curves in the above chart despite their steepness, it would lead to grossly unfair results because of great differences among countries in per capita and historical emissions levels and urgent needs to increase energy consumption to escape grinding poverty in poor developing countries.
Per capita carbon levels by nations
The above chart gives some indication of huge differences in nations in per capita ghg emissions. If nations must reduce their ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, then such an allocation will freeze into place huge differences in per capita rights to emit ghg emissions into the atmosphere. If, for instance, the United States and India are required to reduce ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, for instance 90%, then the US per capita emissions of approximately 20 tons CO2 per capita would allow US citizens to emit CO2 at the rate of 2 tons per capita while the current India per capita emissions of approximately 1.8 tons per capita would mean that the Indian citizens could emit only at the rate 0.18 tons per capita even though India needs to dramatically increase its energy use to assure that hundreds of millions of people economically rise out of grinding poverty and India has comparatively done little to cause the existing problem. This result is clearly grossly unfair particularly in light of the fact that India has emitted far less tons of CO2 than most developed countries and therefore is less responsible for causing the existing problem than many developed nations. If some consideration for historical responsibility is not taken into account in allocating national responsibility for ghg emissions reductions, then those poor nations which have done very little to create the current threat of climate change will be required to shoulder a greater burden of needed global ghg emissions obligations than would be required of them if responsibility for the existing problem is not taken into account. As a result, although there are reasonable differences of opinion among nations about how to consider historical national ghg emission in determining national ghg emissions reductions allocations, including when, for instance, historical responsibility should be measured, almost all equity frameworks agree that prior levels of ghg emissions must have some consideration in national ghg allocations.There is also reasonable disagreement in the equity literature about what weight should be given to other matters that are widely considered to be valid considerations in determining fairness including the economic capability of rich countries to pay for ghg emissions reductions technologies and per capita considerations.
Yet unless fairness is taken into account in allocating national ghg targets necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, those nations who are mostly responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations will not be held responsible for their past ghg emissions while nations who have done almost nothing to cause the rise of atmospheric concentrations will be held equally responsible for lowering emissions.
From the above illustration it can be seen that the United States and the EU are more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations to current dangerous levels than than the rest of the world combined.
Many opponents of climate change policies argue that countries like the United States should not have to reduce their ghg emissions until China reduces its emissions by comparable amounts because China is now the largest emitter of all nations in terms of total tons, yet such an argument usually ignores the historical responsibility of countries like the United States which the following illustration reveals is more than twice as responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations than China is. (For a discussion of the fact that there are both a strong ethical and legal arguments that explain why no nation may use the claim that it need not reduce its ghg emissions until other nations do so, see, Brown 2012 p 214 )
Although there is a difference of opinion in the “equity” literature about how to consider valid equity considerations including per capita, historical emissions levels, and the economic capabilities of nations to fiance non-fossil energies, all nations agree that national commitments about ghg emissions reductions must consider fairness.
For this reason the Paris Agreement calls for nations to reduce their ghg emissions “to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” (Paris Agreement, Article 2)
In other words, the international community has agreed that national ghg emissions reductions commitments must be based on “equity” or “fairness.”
And so as a matter of international law under the Paris Agreement, national commitments to reduce ghg emissions must be based on achieving a warming limit as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2 degrees C, a requirement often referred to as the level of “ambition” but national commitments also must be based on “equity” or “fairness.” Although there are some reasonable disagreements among many engaged in climate policy debates about what “equity” or “fairness” requires, all nations have agreed that their obligations to reduce ghg emissions must consider equity or fairness principles.
However, if high-emitting nations take the “equity” and “fairness” requirement seriously, they will need to not only reduce ghg emissions at very, very rapid rates, a conclusion that follows from the steepness of the remaining budget curves alone, but also they will have to reduce their ghg emissions much faster than poor developing nations and faster than the global reductions curves entailed only by the need to stay within a carbon budget.
Source, Global Commons Institute
The above illustration prepared by the Global Commons Institute shows that even if only one equity consideration is taken into account, in this case per capita fairness, the USA ghg emissions reductions must be much faster than the rest of the world. Other organizations who have made calculations of the US fair share of the remaining carbon budget using different equity factors have concluded that the US fair share of safe global emissions is even smaller than that depicted in the above chart. For instance the following illustration prepared by EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that the US fair share of global emissions, making what the authors of the report claim are moderate assumptions of what equity requires, demonstrates that equity not only requires the US to reduce its emissions to zero quickly almost immediately but that US obligations to prevent a 2 degree C rise requires the US to substantially fund ghg emissions reductions in other countries by 2025 despite achieving zero emissions by 2020.
The above illustration, following the assumptions about what equity requires made by the authors of the report about how to determine US emissions reductions obligations, leads to the conclusion not only does the United States need to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2020, the US must reduce its emissions by -141% from 1990 levels by 2025. National Fair Shares. p 18. This is to be achieved, according to the report, by US financial support for reductions in developing countries .
Although national ghg emissions reductions commitments that have been evaluated by different organizations which have made different assumptions about how to calculate what equity requires of nations have come to different conclusions, most evaluations of national commitments made through an equity prism done before Paris concluded that even if they high emitting nations achieve net zero emissions by 2050, they will need, as a matter of equity and justice, to help pay the costs of emissions reductions in poor developing countries or finance technologies that will remove carbon from the atmosphere. The reasons for this are that the remaining carbon budget is so small, the per capita and historical emissions of high-emitting developed nations are so large compared to poor developing countries, and the financial resources of developed countries are so large compared to poor developing countries that equity considerations demand that the high-emitting nations financially help developing nations achieve their targets.
Without doubt, if nations reduce their ghg emissions to levels required of them by ambition, that is levels required by conformance with a carbon budget necessary to assure that future warming is limited to 2 degrees C or 1.5 degrees C adjusted to also consider equity and fairness, the international community is faced with an extraordinarily daunting challenge. Moreover, any delay in meeting this challenge will make the problem worse.
The Paris Agreement created a framework for solving the climate problem, yet the post-Paris media has poorly covered the implications for nations of what sufficient ambition and fairness should be required of nations when they formulate national climate policies if very dangerous climate change is to be avoided. As a result, there appears to be little awareness of the huge damage that will likely be caused by further delay. The research report of Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland has revealed that there appears to be little awareness around the world about what ambition and equity requires of nations when they formulate national climate change policies. As a result the international community is not likely to respond with sufficient urgency and ambition unless greater awareness of the policy implications of the need to live within a carbon budget at levels required of nations because of equity and fairness considerations.
Because of this, perhaps the most important immediate goal of climate change policy proponents is to help educate civil society and governments about the need to move urgently to make extremely rapid decreases in ghg emissions whereever governments can and to the maximum extent possible in light of the policy implications of limiting national ghg emissions to levels constrained by a carbon budget and in response to what fairness requires of nations. .
Brown. D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems with the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman Littelfield, Lantham Maryland
Brown. D. (2012) Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Routledge/Earthscan, Oxon, England
In June, a Dutch court in the landmark Urgenda decision concluded that the Netherlands must reduce its ghg emissions by 25% below 1990 levels by 2020. This is the first case in the world where a national government has been ordered by a court to reduce its greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions commitments by a specific amount on the basis that its current commitments and polices are not legally sufficient. This case had enormous potential significance not only for climate change law but also for ethical arguments made about what a nation should do to reduce its ghg emissions if the case for one reason or another is not directly applicable to legal responsibilities of nations other than the Netherlands.
Although the court’s decision on the Netherlands’ emissions reductions has been widely publicized around the world, the logic that the court used to conclude that the Dutch government had a duty to reduce its ghg emissions by 25% below 1990 by 2025 has received little media attention despite the fact that much of the court’s reasoning is potentially legally applicable to the responsibility of all other developed nations. And so, the reasoning in the Urgenda case could be used by proponents of stronger responses to climate change in other countries. Yet, as we will explain in this post, despite the fact if other courts apply the reasoning in the Urgenda to other developed nations, many developed nations including the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand would be required to increase their national ghg emissions commitments or INDCs, recent science on how much ghg concentrations in the atmosphere can rise without causing dangerous climate change supports the conclusion that the Dutch court mandated ghg emissions reductions target of -25% below 1990 levels by 2020 is still not stringent enough.
Much of the Court’s logic in its decision is relevant to the ethical issues that nations must face in developing climate change policy, even if the court’s reasoning in the Urgenda case is not directly legally applicable in other countries, After identifying the court’s legal reasoning in the bulleted paragraphs below, the significance of the legal reasoning for climate change ethics is identified in italics.
This post first reviews the Dutch Court’s logic that is relevant to how other nations should determine their ghg emissions reduction commitments under the UNFCCC, or INDCs. This is followed by a brief comment on the significance of the legal reasoning for climate change ethics.
II. The Urgenda court’s logic and its ethical significance.
Although the Dutch court relied in part on Dutch law to reach its decision which is not likely relevant to other developed nations, In reaching its decision that the Netherlands must reduce its ghg emissions by 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, the court relied upon the following legal reasoning which could be followed by other developed nations:
ALL developed parties agreed at the Cancun COP in 2010 to act with a view to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions so as to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and that Parties should take urgent action to meet this long-term goal on the basis of equity.
This is grounds for the conclusion that nations have an ethical duty, even if the legal promise cannot be enforced, to adopt policies that will reduce their ghg emissions to the nation’s fair share of global emissions that at a minimum are sufficient to limit warming to 2°C. Yet, because temperature increases below 2°C will impose harsh impacts on vulnerable people and nations, an ethical argument can be made that nations have an ethical duty to do whatever they can to limit any further warming. Particularly because there is scientific concern that warming of less than 2°C may trigger the catastrophic warming that the 2°C warming limit was designed to protect against, there is a strong ethical argument that nations need to do more than adopt policies that would allow warming to2°C.
The court relied upon the 2007 IPCC’s 4th Assessment report including conclusions to achieve a goal of limiting warming limit of 2 °C, ghg atmospheric concentrations stabilized at 450 ppm CO2 would create a 50% chance of preventing warming greater than the 2 °C warming limit.
As above, nations have a clear ethical duty, at the very minimum, to adopt policies that, working with other nations, will limit atmospheric concentrations of 450 ppm. Yet, as we will see below, stabilizing atmospheric ghg concentration at 450 ppm is likely not stringent enough to keep warming within 2°C not to mention that a more protective warming limit of perhaps 1.5 °C may be s needed to prevent catastrophic warming. Every national INDC is implicitly a position on what level of atmospheric ghg concentrations the nation is seeking to achieve in establishing an INDC and its fair share of global emissions the nation has committed to in selecting the INDC.
The IPCC concluded to stabilize ghg emissions at 450 ppm, Annex 1 countries must reduce ghg emissions by -25% to -40% below 1990 levels by 2020 and -80% to 95% below 1990 levels by 2050.
All developed nations have both a legal and ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions by a minimum of 25% by 2020 below 1990 levels but because the 450 ppm atmospheric concentration goal is not likely protective enough, the national commitments of developed countries must be greater than -25% below 1990 by 2020. .
In identifying the -25% to -40% reduction range by 2020, the IPCC relied upon a study which examined different approaches to apportioning emissions between regions.
One way of resolving conflicts between equity frameworks is to deduce emissions reduction target levels by considering multiple equity frameworks that pass ethical scrutiny and averaging them.
Several provisions of the UNFCCC have been agreed to by all nations including provisions in which nations agreed to: (a) under art. 2 of the UNFCCC to adopt policies and measures that will lead to “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” (b) under art. 3 of the UNFCCC to protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and accordingly, the developed country parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof, (c ) to take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects and 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.
Although it is not news to either lawyers or ethicists that nations have duties to adopt policies that will prevent dangerous climate change, to protect the climate for the benefit of future generations, to apply precautionary measures in developing climate policies, and that developed countries should take the lead in reducing the threat of climate change, this decision is the first legal decision to apply these principles to a national ghg emissions target. A strong argument can be made that nations have ethical duties to abide by these provisions in the UNFCCC on the basis of many ethical arguments including that nations have agreed to be bound by these provisions and nations should not break their promises..
Climate science leads to the conclusion that national climate strategies that achieve ghg reductions sooner rather than later are preferable because later-action scenarios pose greater risks of harsh climate impacts for four reasons:
First delaying action allows more greenhouse gases to build-up in the atmosphere in the near term, thereby increasing the risk that later emission reductions will be unable to compensate for this build up.
Second, the risk of overshooting climate targets for both atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and global temperature increase is higher with later-action scenarios.
Third, the near-term rate of temperature is higher, which implies greater near-term climate impacts.
Lastly, when action is delayed, options to achieve stringent levels of climate protection are increasingly lost.”
This part of the decision is of great ethical importance because it interpreted various provisions of the UNFCCC to require nations to adopt climate policies that achieve ghg emissions sooner rather than later. In doing this the court relied in part on an interpretation of the precautionary principle which has been rarely used for requiring nations to act quickly. Most commentators on the precautionary principle have used it to support arguments that nations may not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for insufficient action. Yet the Urgenda court used the precautionary principle to conclude that this principle required action sooner rather than later because delay increased the risk of catastrophic climate impacts.
The Dutch government’s argument that it should not be required to make major reductions because the Netherlands is only 0.5 % of global reductions and therefore its reductions will not affect global emissions because all nations have a global responsibility and a responsibility to take precautionary measures, nations have both an individual and joint responsibility.
This part of the decision is consistent with the ethical conclusion that all nations have ethical and moral duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to the size of the nation.
Article 21 of the Dutch Constitution requires Dutch authorities to keep the country habitable and to protect and improve the environment and imposes a duty of care on the State relating to the livability of the country and the protection and improvement of the living environment.
Although this conclusion is based on a provision of Dutch law, the legal reasoning supports the ethical conclusion that nations have a moral duty to protect the environment for the benefit of the nation’s citizens.
The Parties agree that due to the current climate change and the threat of further change with irreversible and serious consequences for man and the environment, the State should take precautionary measures for its citizens.
Although the precautionary principle is derivable from ethical reasoning, the decision supports the conclusion that the precautionary principle is binding on nations because they have promised to apply it.
Since it is an established fact that the current global emissions and reduction targets of the signatories to the UN Climate Change Convention are insufficient to achieve the 2° warming limit and thus the chances of dangerous climate change should be considered as very high – and this with serious consequences for man and the environment, both in the Netherlands and abroad – the State is obliged to take measures in its own territory to prevent dangerous climate change (mitigation measures). Since it is also an established fact that without far reaching reduction measures, the global greenhouse gas emissions will have reached a level in several years, around 2030, that achieving the 2°C warming limit will have become impossible, these mitigation measures should be taken expeditiously.
This legal reasoning also supports the ethical conclusion that nations must not only act ambitiously to reduce the threat of climate change but must also act quickly and rapidly.
The State has argued that allowing Urgenda’s claim, which is aimed at a higher reduction of greenhouse gas emission in the Netherlands, would not be effective on a global scale, as such a target would result in a very minor, if not negligible, reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions. After all, whether or not the 2°C target is achieved will mainly depend on the reduction targets of other countries with high emissions. More specifically, the States relies on the fact that the Dutch contribution to worldwide emissions is currently only 0.5%. If the reduction target of -25% to -40% from Urgenda’s claim were met the State argues that this would result in an additional reduction of 23.75 to 49.32 Mt CO2-eq (up to 2020), representing only 0.04-0.09% of global emissions. Starting from theidea that this additional reduction would hardly affect global emissions, the State argues that Urgenda has no interest in an allowance of its claim for additional reduction. This argument does not succeed. It is an established fact that climate change is a global problem and therefore requires global accountability. The fact that the amount of the Dutch emissions is small compared to other countries does not affect the obligation to take precautionary measures in view of the State’s obligation to exercise care. After all, it has been established that any anthropogenic greenhouse gas emission, no matter how minor, contributes to an increase of CO2 levels in the atmosphere and therefore to hazardous climate change. Emission reduction therefore concerns both a joint and individual responsibility of the signatories to the UN Climate Change Convention. In view of the fact that the Dutch emission reduction is determined by the State, it may not reject possible liability by stating that its contribution is minor. The court arrives at the opinion that the single circumstance that the Dutch emissions only constitute a minor contribution to global emissions does not alter the State’s obligation to exercise care towards third parties. Here too, the court takes into account that in view of a fair distribution the Netherlands, like the other Annex I countries, has taken the lead in taking mitigation measures and has therefore committed to a more than proportionte contribution to reduction. Moreover, it is beyond dispute that the Dutch per capita emissions are one of the highest in the world.
This is a very significant conclusion for climate ethics because many opponents of climate change polices have successfully argued that nations have no duty to act until large emitters like China and India act. The decision is very clear in explaining why such an argument is legally indefensible and also ethically unsupportable in light of the fact that climate change is a global problem and requires global responsibility, any anthropogenic ghg emission, no matter how minor, contributes to an increase of CO2 levels in the atmosphere and therefore to hazardous climate change, and emission reductions entail both a joint and individual responsibility of nations to act.
Urgenda is correct in arguing that the postponement of mitigation efforts, as currently supported by the State (less strict reduction between the present day and 2030 and a significant reduction as of 2030), will cause a cumulation effect, which will result in higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere in comparison to a more even procentual or linear decrease of emissions starting today. A higher reduction target for 2020 (40%, 30% or 25%) will cause lower total, cumulated greenhouse gas emissions across a longer period of time in comparison with the target of less than 20% chosen by theState. The court agrees with Urgenda that by choosing this reduction path, even though it is also aimed at realising the 2°C target, will in fact make significant contributions to the risk of hazardous climate change and can therefore not be deemed as a sufficient and acceptable alternative to the scientifically proven and acknowledged higher reduction path of -25% to -40% in 2020.
This part of the opinion also confirms the ethical conclusion that higher and quicker ghg emissions reduction targets are ethically required because slower, less ambitious targets will make the problem worse.
In the opinion of the court, the possibility of damages for those whose interests Urgenda represents, including current and future generations of Dutch nationals, is so great and concrete that given its duty of care, the State must make an adequate contribution, greater than its current contribution, to prevent hazardous climate change.
This part of the decision reiterates the conclusion that nations have an ethical duty to its citizens to prevent dangerous climate change. The court in another part of the decision also concluded that nations have a clear legal duty to not harm people outside of its jurisdiction under the “no harm” rule which is both expressly referenced in the UNFCCC and is customary international law but decided this clear duty was not relevant to the Urgenda case because the Urgenda plaintiffs were Danish nationals.
III. Recent Scientific Conclusions in Regard to the Adequacy of the 450 ppm atmospheric Goal
As we have seen, the Urgenda decision relied on the 2007 IPCC report on what emissions reductions would be required to limit warming to tolerable limits which assumed that 2°C2 was a reasonable warming limit for the world and that a 450 ppm CO2 atmospheric concentration was a reasonable atmospheric concentration target to give reasonable chance of keeping warming from exceeding the 2 degree C warming limit that has been agreed to by the international community. Since then several scientific reports have been published that claim : (1) the -25% to -45% reduction levels identified in the 2007 IPCC report are not stringent enough to live within a carbon budget that will protect the world from warming greater than 2°C, and (2) that the 2°C warming limit and the 450 ppm CO2 concentration goal are not stringent enough to prevent dangerous warming .
Climate Tracker Global Emissions Reduction Pathway Needed to Limit Warming to 2°C
A recent report by Climate Tracker summarized the most recent science on needed ghg reduction pathways to stay within the 2 degree C warming budget as follows:
Limiting warming below 2 degrees with a high chance means that total GHG emissions would need to be zero between 2060 and 2080 and likely negative thereafter CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industry would need to be zero by as early as 2045 and no later than 2065 and be negative thereafter.
Because total global emissions must be zero between 2060 and 2080, developed nations need to be zero before 2060. Since the 2007 IPCC on which the Urgenda decision was based called for developed nations to reduce their ghg emissions by -80% to -95% below 1990 by 2080, it is clear that emissions reductions called for in the Urgenda decision are now not sufficient to achieve the 2°C warming limit.
James Hansen recently issued an affidavit in support of litigation that has been intiated against the US state of Oregon which summarizes recent scientific views of many scientists in which he concluded that to protect against dangerous climate change, atmospheric CO2 must be brought down to 350 ppm and to achieve this the world needs to reduce ghg emissions by 6% per annum coupled with reforestation and improved forest and agricultural practices.
In this report, Dr. Hansen also claims that the required rate of emissions reduction would have been about 3.5% per year if reductions had started in 2005 and continued annually thereafter, while the required rate of reduction, if commenced in 2020, will be approximately 15% per year.
Applying these conclusions to the Urgenda decision leads to the conclusion that the Dutch court’s order requiring the Netherlands to reduce its emissions by -25% below 1990 levels is not stringent enough to meet the Netherlands legal and ethical responsibilities to act to prevent dangerous climate change.
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.
Editor’s Note: The following entry is by guest blogger, Dr. Idil Boran, from York University in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Boran has previously reported on equity and justice issues that arose in the recently concluded Bonn intercessional meetings of climate negotiations under the UNFCCC. This latest report was made at the conclusion of these negotiations during which almost no progress was made in defining equity under UNFCCC by the Ad Hoc Working Group on Durban Platform For Enhanced Action (ADP), a mechanism under the UNFCCC that seeks to achieve a adequate global climate agreement, despite a growing consensus among most observers of the UNFCCC negotiations that nations need to align their emissions reductions commitments to levels required of them by equity and justice if the world is going to prevent extremely dangerous climate change.
At the UN Climate Talks, Thinking About Equity May Require Understanding the Conditions of Mutual Trust
The UN Climate Conference held in Bonn, Germany, June 4-15, 2014, concluded in a generally positive tone. Much work has been done before COP 20 in Lima, where negotiators are expected to produce a fully written draft of the new agreement.
International talks on climate change have taken many twists and turns since the UNFCCC came into effect. In the current round of negotiations important shifts are occurring. As explained in a previous post, the new platform of negotiations favors the concept of global participation, where every nation is expected to do its part in some capacity. This is to replace the idea of common but differentiated responsibilities, which was the guiding principle of the negotiations in the Kyoto era. This principle was specially opted to capture a sense of equity within a binding global treaty. The current focus on global participation is to facilitate agreement and induce greater participation. But does this shift imply that the new agreement will have to make a compromise on the issue of equity?
Moral and political philosophers tend to think about equity in substantive terms, as claims about how to apportion the burdens and the benefits as part of a collective venture. The thinking is usually that of identifying an appropriate criterion of equity (a guiding principle) and then articulating an allocation of responsibilities from this criterion.
This way of thinking can be applied to many topics arising within the Framework Convention. Take, for example, the new issue at the heart of the multilateral negotiations: the Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage associated with climate impacts in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. When the issue of loss and damage is raised, a standard approach that comes to mind is that of prescribing an allocation of the costs associated with loss and damage (human, economic, as well as non-economic costs) by a criterion of equity.
For example, historical accountability provides a morally powerful criterion. This is the idea that those who are historically responsible for the problem of climate change should provide the resources to deal with loss and damage. Ability to pay provides another criterion. Here the idea is that developed countries should take up the costs, simply because they are more wealthy. These arguments have been made for mitigation efforts, and they can also be made as new issues arise, such as the issue of an international mechanism on loss and damage.
But the reality is far more complex. However neat these substantive arguments are, they do not capture the layers of discussions that actually take place. In fact, most of the discussions regarding the Warsaw Mechanism, at this point in time, are not over substantive questions. They are focused on deciding on the rules and procedures, and the composition of the Executive Committee, whose mandate will be to develop the details of the mechanism. But the questions that arise at this procedural level are no less interesting. As discussions continue, developing countries who feel threatened by the effects of climate change will press for greater representation within the Committee, and developed countries, such as the United States and the E.U. will press more on the importance of securing the right team of experts regardless of country representation.
But why are developing countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change are pressing for more seats on the Committee? Clearly, when it comes to decisions made by the Executive Committee, they worry that their interests will not be taken into account, unless they secure greater representation.
So, it looks like there is a problem of trust that needs to be addressed at the heart of the deliberations. Within rightful conditions of collective decision-making, equitable terms of cooperation can be captured and agreed upon. And this is exactly what the new round of negotiations aims to achieve by 2015, with more flexibility conferred to countries in making their contributions to the climate effort. What remains to be done, then, is to work on the conditions that will promote trust between parties.
More than neat arguments from first principles, this may require specially talented people, with strong diplomatic skills working on the ground, who can foster a sense of building bridges, and a feel for working together on a global problem. This will also require the building of strong international institutions that put greater emphasis than ever on transparency, accountability, and governance.
At this juncture then, if equity is the concern, there are reasons to invest in understanding what, if at all, can generate more trust between parties at the UNFCCC. Figuring out what it takes to secure mutual trust is more an art than strict rational argumentation. It has something to do with creating a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere, as opposed to a hostile one where all hold their cards close to their chests. It therefore makes sense for academic researchers interested in the ethical, political, and legal aspects of climate talks to tune in to these dynamics.
As for the institutional structure of the UNFCCC, adopting the right institutional rules and procedures can help in fostering mutual trust. That’s why the new multilateral assessment and review processes under development are of special significance. So is the effort to agree on a common metric on emissions reduction, so to allow all parties to pitch in their contributions in a coherent way, and work together toward ratcheting them up in the future. This may not be a magic solution to the climate problem, but it can set the foundations of cooperation that’s not only equitable but durable too. If successful, it can set an important precedent.
That’s why all eyes will be on Lima in December 2014…
Dr. Idil Boran. Associate Professor &
Director of the Certificate Program in Practical Ethics
Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies
Core Faculty Member
Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS)
Has the leadership of international climate negotiations under the UNFCCC lost the desire to require nations to expressly examine what “equity” requires of them? Recently there has been no evidence that the UNFCCC Secretariat or the leadership of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (known as the ADP) has any intention of discussing the meaning or practical significance of “equity” in climate negotiations. This paper examines: (a) what has happened recently in climate negotiations in regard to national obligations to reduce ghg emissions reductions on the basis of equity and justice, (b) arguments that have been made in support of ignoring express discussion of equity and justice issues in climate negotiations, (c) arguments in support of a greater focus on equity and justice at both the international and national levels, and (d) what should be done to increase the focus on equity and justice in light of the resistance of nations to acknowledge their equitable and justice obligations.
II. Recent Disappearance of Equity In Climate Negotiations
The ADP is a subsidiary body under the UNFCCC. It was established in 2011 with the mandate to develop a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015 and to come into effect in 2020.
While there have been negotiations under way on the new agreement, there has also been an attempt to increase national commitments on greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions in the short-term because mainstream science is telling nations that much greater reductions in emissions are necessary in the next few years to maintain any hope of keeping warming below 20 C, a warming limit that all nations have agreed should not be exceeded to give some hope of preventing catastrophic warming. In fact, the international community has understood that much more ambitious commitments are necessary, both in the short- and long-term to maintain any hope of keeping warming to tolerable levels. For this reason, the agendas of the last few Conferences of the Parties (COP) UNFCCC meetings have sought to increase the ambition of nations to increase their ghg emissions reductions commitments both in the short- and long-term. There has also been a fairly wide-spread understanding that the international community will not avoid very dangerous climate change unless nations increase their national commitments to levels required of them based upon equity while working with other nations to keep atmospheric concentrations of ghg from exceeding dangerous levels.
Two years ago it appeared as if the ADP was proceeding to seek some agreement on what equity requires under the UNFCCC. In May of 2012, the UNFCCC held a workshop on equity in Bonn. A report on the workshop is on available. As expected, nations were not able to come close to agreeing on what equity requires at this initial Bonn workshop. Yet, the workshop concluded that a work program on equity is needed and made a decision that “equity” should be taken up at COP-18 in Doha, Qatar.
There was no focused discussion of “equity” in Qatar despite the recommendation from the Bonn workshop. The United States opposed language in the final Qatar document that included language on “equity” according to the report on COP-18 by the Earth Negotiation Bulletin http://www.iisd.ca/vol12/enb12567e.html. Is this the reason why discussions on “equity” were not resumed in Qatar? The public record is not clear.
Nor was there any focused discussion on “equity” in Warsaw at COP-19 with the exception of a proposal pushed by the Brazilian government and 130 other nations to define equity in a way that took historic responsibility into account. The United States, the EU, Canada, and Australia refused to discuss this proposal.
And there was virtually no discussion of what equity would require of nations in regard to emissions reductions commitments in the last few years at the UNFCCC annual meetings which seek to create an adequate global solution to climate change.
The Warsaw meeting did discuss “co-benefits of climate change commitments” at the urging the UNFCCC leadership thereby implicitly reverting to a category of self-interest rather than national obligation. Co-benefits were discussed presumably to convince nations that it was in their national economic interest to adopt climate policies, a tactic which may implicitly confirm the notion that national economic interest rather than national obligations should be the basis for climate change policy.
And so it would appear that discussions of what equity would require of nations to increase their ghg emissions reductions commitments is no longer on the UNFCCC agenda.
Yet nations have already agreed under the UNFCCC to adopt programs and measures to prevent dangerous climate change based upon equity and common but differentiated responsibilities. We might add, however, even if nations did not agree to reduce their emissions based upon equity, basic and uncontroversial theories of justice would require nations to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. However most nations are making ghg reduction commitments based upon national economic interest, not on their fair share of safe global emissions.
Differences among nations about the significance of equity and justice plagued the Warsaw meeting in regard to funding for adaptation and loss and damages, yet the ADP discussions never took up express consideration of what equity would require in regard to these issues either.
This failure to discuss equity is somewhat curious given that there has been a strong level of agreement among many observers to and commenters on the climate negotiations that if nations are going to increase their ambition on ghg emissions reduction to levels that prevent catastrophic warming, they will need to make commitments based upon their equitable obligations to keep atmospheric ghg concentrations to safe levels rather than on self-interest. That is, without a recognition by nations of their ethical and justice obligations to the rest of the world to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, there is little hope of preventing catastrophic warming.
Based upon the negotiations in Warsaw at COP-19, it would appear that the future treaty that was agreed to in Durban in 2011 and is to be finally negotiated in Paris in 2015 will be comprised of “bottom-up” pledges without any formal recognition or operational definition of equity. Although it is possible that “equity” could be taken up in a meeting scheduled for March in Bonn this coming year, it would appear that at least for the moment, the UNFCCC secretariat has abandoned any hope of getting nations to operationalization “equity” in the negotiations.
In fact, several observers of the negotiations have advised the international community to abandon any direct discussion of “equity” because it is too contentious. This paper reviews some of the reasons that have been advanced for avoiding any direct negotiation of what “equity” requires along with arguments for resumption of negotiations expressly focused on equity. Finally this paper argues for continuance of a discussion on “equity” that anticipates some of the problems that have arisen when equity has been previously discussed in the negotiations.
III. Arguments Against Direct Negotiation of “Equity”
Several observers of the climate negotiations have counseled against any further direct negotiation of “equity” because it is too contentious and will not likely lead to agreement.
For instance, a recent World Bank paper recommends that climate negotiations abandon attempts to achieve national ghg emissions reductions commitments based upon “equitable” obligations after a somewhat rigorous review of the extant literature on “equity” and a brief summary of what has happened in the negotiations. The paper is entitled “Equity in Climate Change, An Analytical Review.” The paper identifies four formula or frameworks for operationalizing equity under the UNFCCC that have appeared in the relevant literature. These include emissions allocated: (i) equally on a per capita basis; (ii) inversely related to historic responsibility for emissions; (iii) inversely related to ability to pay; and (iv) directly related to future development opportunities.
The paper argues that none of these formulae have attracted sufficient support because each is dramatically inconsistent with many nations’ national interest and therefore will not likely receive the level of consensus required in international negotiations. In light of the fact that any attempt to reach consensus on the operationalization of equity will run into conflicts with national interest, the paper recommends a completely new approach that would fund a new carbon revolution while abandoning the current approach in which nations make individual emissions reductions commitments consistent with what equity requires of them. Equity considerations, according to the paper, would then play a role, not in allocating a shrinking emissions budget, but in informing the relative contributions of countries to funding a technological revolution.
The World Bank paper further asserts that conflicts of interest are created by any of the equity formulas that have been advanced that are both inherent and stron. They are inherent because any allocation must distribute a fixed aggregate carbon budget. They are strong because the budget is not really fixed but shrinking dramatically relative to the growing needs of developing countries. Since mainstream science has concluded that drastic compression in aggregate emissions is now necessary to keep temperatures below dangerous levels, shrinking emissions budgets are likely to require even greater ghg emissions reduction commitments that are in even greater conflict with national interests.
Therefore, the paper recommends abandoning negotiations about “equitable” emissions reduction commitments and attack climate change through commitments on funding climate friendly technologies.
Others have also recommended abandonment of “equity” considerations because any reasonable definition of equity would require nations to agree to cuts that were not in their national interest coupled with the fact that there is no consensus about what equity requires. It would appear that these people believe that if nations cannot agree on what equity requires it is unproductive to discuss equity in climate negotiations. They appear to fear that discussions of equity will lead to no agreement.
IV. Justification For Requiring Nations to Agree on Equitable Responsibilities
There are several reasons why nations should be required to make emissions reductions expressly consistent with what fairness and equity require of them including the following:
1. Nations have been entering negotiations as if only economic national interest counts and in so doing have failed to make emissions reductions commitments based upon equity that in the aggregate will avoid dangerous climate change. In fact, when some nations have been asked to explain why they have not made more ambitious commitments, they have frequently justified their unwillingness to make greater commitments because such reductions are not in their economic interest. For this reason, it is likely a practical mistake to not insist that any national commitment conforms to some reasonable definition of what equity requires. To ignore this obligation is to encourage the continued dominance of national self-interest in national responses to climate change.
2. Although there is some reasonable disagreement on what equity requires, this fact should not relieve nations of the obligation to demonstrate that their emissions reductions commitments are based upon reasonable expectations of fairness and distributive justice. Some nations seem to be arguing that because there are differences among nations about what equity requires, this is justification for totally ignoring equity and justice issues entailed by making allocations among nations. Because allocation of national ghg emissions is inherently a matter of justice, nations should be required to explain how their ghg emissions reduction commitments both will lead to a specific atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration that is not dangerous, that is, what remaining ghg CO2 equivalent budget they have assumed that their commitment will achieve, and on what equitable basis have they determined their fair share of that budget. Any national ghg emissions reduction is implicitly a position on a safe atmospheric ghg concentration and that nation’s fair share of total global emissions that will reach that target. Because of this, nations should be required to expressly disclose their assumptions on safe global emissions and what fairness requires of them because such assumptions are implicit but usually hidden in their commitment.
3. Although there may be some reasonable disagreement of what equity requires among various equitable frameworks that have been proposed, this does not mean that any proposal for what equity requires is entitled to respect. The problem of allocating emissions reductions among nations is a classic problem of distributive justice. Distributive justice allows people to be treated differently but requires that those who want to be treated differently from others in some distribution of public goods identify a morally relevant justification for being treated differently. For instance, a person whose justification for obtaining a larger share of food is the fact that he or she has blue eyes will not pass ethical scrutiny because the color of someone’s eyes is not a morally relevant justification for different treatment. Similarly a nation’s justification for the refusal to reduce ghg emissions is that reductions in emissions will affect the nation’s economic interest is not a morally relevant justification for refusing to cut ghg emissions. If it were any polluter could justify continuing to pollute as long as pollution controls cost the polluter money. Because many of the justifications for national ghg emissions commitments are based upon economic self-interest, rather than ethical duty to others, these justifications fail to satisfy minimum ethical scrutiny. And so, strong claims can be made that certain justifications for national commitments on ghg emissions reductions fail to pass any reasonable ethical analysis even though one cannot say absolutely what perfect justice requires. It is therefore fairly easy to spot ethical problems with national ghg commitments even though one cannot claim unambiguously what justice requires. Therefore it is possible to get traction for ethics and justice issues despite disagreement on what justice precisely requires.
4. Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity and justice may require of national ghg emission reduction commitments, there are only a few considerations that are arguably morally relevant to national climate targets. In discussing equity and the distributive justice of national commitments, the relevant criteria for being treated differently that have been recognized by serious participants in the debate about equity include: (a) per capita considerations, (b) historical considerations, (c) luxury versus necessity emissions, (d) economic capacity of nations for reductions, (e) levels of economic development, and (f) and combinations of these factors. The fact that reasonable people may disagree about the importance of each one of these criteria does not mean that anything goes as a matter of ethics and justice. In addition, the positions actually taken by nations on these issues in the negotiations utterly fail any reasonable ethical scrutiny. For this reason, discussions on equity should focus heavily on the obvious injustice of national positions on these issues rather than worrying about what perfect justice requires. Some reasonable compromise among these criteria should be a goal of the negotiations. In fact, a global framework for equity would include some forward looking considerations including per capita considerations and backward looking considerations such as historical responsibility from a specific date, modified by certain economic considerations including economic ability to respond rapidly and perhaps differences between necessity emissions and luxury emissions.
5. The insight that nations will not agree to what equity requires of them because it is not in their national interest should not be the basis for abandoning an equitable approach to climate change as recommended by the above referenced World Bank paper because national interest is not a morally acceptable justification for national climate change policy yet it is likely to remain the criteria for setting national climate change policy unless a nation is shamed for its ethically bankrupt position on climate change. The fact that changes in national responses to ethically unacceptable behavior can be demonstrated from the spread of human rights around the world which can be attributed to shaming nations for their failure to provide human rights protections. The same naming and shaming approach to equity and national ghg emissions reductions commitments should be followed on climate change emissions reductions commitments by adopting better understanding of the ethical bankruptcy of some nations’ approach to climate change.
6. The need to turn up the visibility on the ethical and equitable unacceptability of national ghg commitments is not only important to get nations to increase their emissions reductions commitments in international negotiations, it is also important to change the way climate change policies are debated at the national level when climate change policies are formed. For instance, when some nations including the United States and New Zealand have debated climate change policies at the national level there has been a complete failure to acknowledge that proposed policies must respond to the nation’s equity and ethical obligations. Because of this, national economic interest rather than global obligation dominates debates on proposed climate policies at the national level. There is an important need to change the focus of national debates on climate change policies at the national scale so that citizens understand the ethical problems with their country’s national commitments. And so, there is an important need to increase awareness of the equity and justice issues entailed by national climate change policy debates.
V. How To Make Equity Part Of National Responses To Climate Change
For the reason stated above, there is an urgent need to increase the focus in international climate negotiations and at the national level on equity and justice and simply ignoring these issues because they are difficult or contentious is likely a huge practical mistake that has potential catastrophic consequences. However, given the resistance thus far on nations’ willingness to openly discuss the equity and justice dimensions of their climate policies, the first order question is how to do this. Because of the unwillingness of nations to agree on what equity requires of them, initial steps should be taken to increase awareness of the ethical and justice failures of national responses to climate change.
1. The first priority is to achieve a wider understanding of the utter failure of national commitments thus far to deal with the equity and justice issues. The UNFCCC secretariat has the authority to ask nations specific questions. In the past, when the nations have been asked questions about their position on equity, the questions have been too general with insufficient follow up. Along this line each nation should be asked to answer a series of questions about their ghg emissions commitments which include but are not limited to the following:
A. What specifically is the quantitative relevance of your emission reduction commitment to a global ghg emissions budget to keep warming below a 1.5 °C or 2°C warming target. In other words how does your emissions reduction commitment, in combination with others, achieve an acceptable ghg atmospheric concentration that limits warming to 2°C or the 1.5°C warming limit that may be necessary to prevent catastrophic warming?
B. What is the atmospheric ghg concentration level that your target in combination with others is aiming to achieve?
C. How specifically does your national commitment take into consideration your nation’s undeniable obligation under the UNFCCC to base your national climate change policy on the basis of “equity.” In other words, how have you operationalized equity quantitatively in making your emissions reduction commitments?
D. What part of your target was based upon “equity”?
E. Are you denying that nations have a duty under international law to assure that:
a. the “polluter pays”;
b. citizens in their country not harm other people outside their national jurisdiction under the “no harm” principle; and,
c. your country should have applied the precautionary approach to climate change policy since 1992 when the UNFCCC was adopted?
F. How does your national ghg target commitment respond to these settled principles of international law?
G. In debating national climate policy, to what extent have you apprised citizens of your country that nations have ethical and justice responsibilities to other vulnerable people and nations?
H. To what extent have you informed high emitting entities and individuals within your nation that they have ethical responsibilities to decrease their ghg emissions in cases when this can be done without a major sacrifice to an entities or individual interest.
2. Because debates about climate change policy formation at the national level have often ignored questions of equity and fairness, there is a need to publicize how debates at the national level about proposed climate change policies acknowledge or ignore questions of equity, ethics, and distributive justice. To accomplish this, researchers around the world should be requested to report on and document how ethics and equity issues are being considered in public policy debates about national policy within each country. This analysis should determine, among other things, the extent to which the debate about climate policy has specifically considered an atmospheric ghg concentrations goal and on what equitable and distributive justice basis has the target commitment selected.
3. There is a need to establish an international data base on how nations have considered equity and distributive justice issues at the national level and specific excuses that nations have relied upon for their failure to support an ethically justifiable international climate regime.
4. The starting point for any negotiations session under the UNFCCC should be a submission by each government on their position on their equitable obligations for issues under negotiation. This submission should be detailed to include specific ethical issues under consideration during each negotiation.
5. Each nation should be required to identify what policy steps it is taking to provide, protect, and fulfill the human rights that may be adversely affected by climate change to both people in their own country and vulnerable people around the world.
6. As part of climate negotiations, each national commitment to reduce ghg emissions should be reviewed by a panel of experts who would evaluate each national commitment to reduce ghg emissions on its merits as a matter of distributive justice.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,
Widener University School of Law,
Visiting Professor, Nagoya University,
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China
This is the third paper in a series which is looking at the ethical and justice issues entailed by the Warsaw climate change negotiating agenda. This paper looks at issue two, namely, the ethics and justice issues entailed by the need to find a global solution to climate change that includes national ghg emissions targets after 2020. The last entry looked at ethical issues entailed by the need to increase the ambition of national emissions targets before 2020 when a new climate change treaty that will be negotiated by 2015 comes into effect.
The issues of long-term national commitments to reduce ghg emissions is being negotiated in Warsaw under the Durban Platform. The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) is a subsidiary body of the UNFCCC that was established by a decision of the Durban COP in December 2011. The mandate of the ADP is to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015 in order for it to be adopted at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020. Among many other issues, the new treaty will need to take a position on several issues relating to national ghg emissions obligations after 2020.
The last entry in this series examined some of the most recent scientific evidence that has concluded that the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change. The staggering magnitude of the challenge facing the international community to limit warming to 2 degrees C can be visualized by understanding the following chart that depicts three ghg emissions reductions pathways which would allow the world to stay within a specific remaining budget to achieve a specific atmospheric concentration of ghgs. As we explained in the last entry, the IPCC has in September of this year described a budget that would give the world a 66% confidence of preventing the 2 degree C warming limit which the international community has agreed upon.
Any atmospheric ghg concentration target can only state the warming that will be experienced at the concentration limited by a probability statement because there is scientific uncertainty about climate sensitivity, a term which is used to describe the warming that will be caused by different concentration of atmospheric ghgs. The level of certainty that we should seek to limit warming to a specific atmospheric concentration is itself an ethical question, not just a scientific question which often goes unexamined by the scientific community when discussing warming limits and emissions budgets to achieve warming limits.
One might ask why the budget prepared by IPCC was not based upon achieving the 2 degree C with much higher levels of certainty, a question which is not discussed in the IPCC report, yet one might speculate that IPCC’s failure to discuss a budget that would assure 100% certainty that the 2 degree C warming limit would not be exceeded was because it would leave no remaining budget for additional ghg emissions. The international community has already emitted so much CO2 that limiting warming to 2 degrees C with very high levels of certainty would mean that future emissions must be negative emissions, that is activities which remove ghg from the atmosphere while immediately ceasing ghg emissions activities.
As we have seen in the last entry, if the IPCC budget would have included all ghgs that have been emitted, it would have concluded that there remains only 269 billion tons of CO2e left to be emitted by the entire global community to stay within an emissions budget that will give a 66% confidence that the 20C warming limit would not be exceeded. Achieving the global reductions entailed by this budget is a civilization challenging problem of the highest magnitude.
The following chart prepared by the Global Commons Institute provides a visualization of the enormity of the challenge entailed by a budget of approximately 242 billion tons. This chart shows 3 different potential missions reductions pathways which will stay within the budget which differ depending upon how fast the needed emissions reductions are begun. The later global emissions peak and begin to be reduced, the steeper the emissions reductions pathways must become. This fact alone leads to the conclusion that any delay in emissions reductions has ethical significance because the steeper emission reductions are needed, the more difficult, if not impossible, it becomes to achieve the needed reductions. For this reasons, those who have been advocating for a delay in implementing a very aggressive ghg emissions policy can be understood to be engaged in ethically troublesome activities because it is alreadly likely to be too late to prevent some very serious consequences from climate change to hundreds of millions of people around the world.
This chart, being a depiction of total global emissions reductions pathway, does not attempt to display what the emissions reductions pathway in any one nation would be if equity and justice were to be taken seriously by nations. High emitting nations will need even steeper reductions in global missions than those depicted in the above chart. If there is any hope of achieving the global emotions needed to limit warming to 2°C, as we explained in the last entry in the series, nations will need to limit their emissions based upon equity. Yet, equity-based emissions for high emitting developed countries will lead to an even greater challenge for high emitting nations. The following chart, also prepared by the Global Commons Institute, depicts what the US share of total global missions must be if United States were to agree on a per capita allocation of the remaining global budget to satisfy its clear obligations to take equity into account although this chart would change depending upon when nations would agree on equal per capita shares and when global emissions peaked. Nevertheless it is helpful to demonstrate the enormity of the challenge entailed by the undeniable need to take equity into account by depicting the consequences for one nation as this chart does.
This chart uniquely shows why the United States and other high-emitting nations likely do not want to discuss “equity” in the Warsaw climate negotiations. If United States and other high-emitting nations were to take seriously its obligation to reduce its emissions based upon equity or distributive justice, such a decision would create an enormous challenge for them. And so, it would appear that the United States and several other developed countries have entered the Warsaw negotiations as if they can ignore the equity and justice issues while justifying their national ghg reductions commitments ultimately on the basis of national economic interest.
However, emissions reductions commitments based upon national economic interest can not be understood to satisfy any reasonable definition of equity or plausible formula for distributive justice.
Distributive justice does not require that all parties be treated equally. But distributive justice does require that parties who want to be treated differently justify their different treatment on the basis of morally relevant criteria. For instance, according to theories of distributive justice, I cannot justify my desire for more food on the basis that I have blue eyes. The color of my eyes it not a relevant basis for unequal treatment when it comes to food distribution. For the same reason, a justification for national ghg emissions reduction target commitments based upon national economic interest alone that does not consider global responsibilities does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. It is totally ethically bankrupt.
Many commentators on the “equity” issue arising in international climate negotiations dismiss any plea for “equitable” allocations on the basis that because different people reach different conclusions about what equity requires the search for an equitable global solution to climate change should be abandoned. For instance it has been reported that the United States has resisted discussing equity on the basis that there is no objective way of determining what equity requires.
Yet the fact that different people reach different conclusions about what equity means does not mean that all opinions about what acting equity means or entitled to respect. As we’ve seen, theories of distributive justice require that people want to be treated differently identify morally relevant criteria for being treated differently. As we have seen, the color of my eyes is not a morally relevant criteria were being treated differently. Similarly my race is not a morally relevant justification for giving me the right to vote above others.
The world urgently needs a deeper conversation about equity and justice and national climate change policies.
To move the equity debate along, nations should be required to specify specifically how their emissions reductions commitments deal with both the enormity of the challenge entailed by the global emissions budget identified by the IPCC and how their emissions reductions target specifically can be justified on the basis of equity and justice.
Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity and justice may require of any national ghg emission reduction commitment, there are only a few considerations that are arguably morally relevant to national climate targets. This entry will end with the identification of a few equity frameworks that have received serious attention in the international community. It is important to stress, however, that although there is some legitimate disagreement about which of these formats to follow in international negotiations, almost all national emissions reductions commitments of large emitting countries fail to pass any reasonable ethical scrutiny. In discussing equity and the distributive justice of national commitments, the relevant criteria for being treated differently that have been recognized by serious participants in the debate about equity include: (A) per capita considerations, (B) historical considerations, (C) luxury versus necessity emissions, (D) economic capacity of nations for reductions, (E) levels of economic development, and (E) and combinations of these factors.
The fact that reasonable people may disagree about the importance of each one of these criteria does not mean that anything goes as a matter of ethics and justice. In addition, the positions actually been taken by nations on these issues in the negotiations utterly fail any reasonable ethical scrutiny. For this reason, concerned citizens of the world should focus heavily on the obvious injustice of national positions on these issues rather than worrying about what perfect justice requires.
In addition, in all probability, a global framework for equity would include some forward looking considerations including per capita considerations and backward looking considerations such as historical responsibility from a specific date, modified by certain economic considerations including economic ability to respond rapidly and perhaps differences between necessity emissions and luxury emissions.
We would stress, it is not as necessary to get immediate agreement on the final framework as it is to achieve a wider understanding of the utter failure of national commitments thus far to deal with the equity and justice issues. Along this line each nation should be asked to answer a series of questions about their commitments which include:
A. What specifically is the quantitative relevance of your emission reduction commitment to a global ghg emissions budget to keep warming below the 2°C warming target. In other words how does your emissions reduction commitment in combination with others achieve an acceptable ghg atmospheric concentration that limits warming to 20C.
B. What is the atmospheric ghg concentration level that your target in combination with others is aiming to achieve?
C. How specifically does your national commitment take into consideration your nation’s undeniable obligation under the UNFCCC to base your national climate change policy on the basis of “equity.” How have you operationalized equity?
D. What part of your target was based upon “equity.”
E. Are you denying that nations have a duty under international law to assure that:
a. the “polluter pays,”
b. that nations have a duty to assure that citizens in their country not harm other people outside their national jurisdiction,
c. nations should have applied the precautionary approach to climate change policy since 1992 when the UNFCCC was adopted?
F. How does your national ghg target commitment respond to these settled principles of international law?
As we have noted, citizes of the world need to increase international understanding of the failure of nations to respond to equity and distributive justice. The following equitable framework formats are among others in serious discussion in international climate negotiations about what “equity” requires. However, as we have argued, it is more important in this moment in history to achieve a higher level of understanding of the utter injustice of national ghg emissions commitments than it is to get agreement on what perfect justice requires. This is particularly because, the international media, for the most part, is utterly failing to cover the obvious ethical unacceptability of most national commitments on climate change.
• Contraction and Convergence (C&C) is a proposed global framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. Conceived by the Global Commons Institute [GCI] in the early 1990s, the Contraction and Convergence strategy consists of reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gases to a safe level (contraction), resulting from every country bringing its emissions per capita to a level which is equal for all countries (convergence). It is intended to form the basis of an international agreement which will reduce carbon dioxide emissions to avoid dangerous climate change, carbon dioxide being the gas that is primarily responsible for changes in the greenhouse effect on Earth. C&C does not require immediate per capita emissions per country but allows a later convergence on capita allocations to deal with other equitable considerations.
• Greenhouse Development Rights is a framework wherein the burdens for supporting both mitigation and adaptation are shared among countries in proportion to their economic capacity and responsibility. GDRs seeks to transparently calculate national “fair shares” in the costs of an emergency global climate mobilization, in a manner that takes explicit account of the fact that, as things now stand, global political and economic life is divided along both North/South and rich/poor lines.
• Equity in the Greenhouse, South-North dialogue is a global “multi-stage approach,” based on principles of: responsibility; capability; mitigation potential; right to development.
• Brazilian Historic Responsibility is based primarily on historic responsibility for emissions: developed countries are each allocated emissions cuts based on the total contribution of their historic emissions (going back to 1800s) to the current global temperature increase.
• Oxfam has proposed an approach, subsequently supported by various other NGOs, that uses a calculated responsibility and capability index to allocate an overall developed country target of 40%, and allows for a climate finance budget of $150bn to be allocated using the same method. Developing countries individual need for financing is assessed in line with available economic capability, taking into account intra-national inequality, and hence climate finance is provided on a sliding scale (below a minimum ‘available capability threshold’).
• The EU has (e.g. EU Commission Proposal of 2009) suggested a method for distributing targets amongst Annex 1 countries that includes starting with an overall target for Annex 1 countries of 30% below 1990 levels by 2020 and allocating this target on the following basis: GDP per capita, addressing the capacity to pay for emission reduction within a country and through the global carbon market [capacity]; GHG per GDP, addressing the opportunities to reduce GHG emissions within one economy [capacity/mitigation potential]; Change of GHG emissions between 1990 and 2005, rewarding early action by developed countries to reduce emissions [reward early action/recognize latent mitigation potential]; Population trends over the period 1990 – 2005, recognizing different population trends between countries and as such different pressures on the projected emission evolution [equal rights to pollute]
There is a need to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change for many reasons including the fact that ethically dubious positions of nations are being hidden in self-interested arguments made in opposition to climate change policies and there is no hope of meeting the 2 degree C warming target without a serious national response based upon equity.
One need not seek agreement on what ethics requires to get traction on ethical issues because most opposition to action on climate change fails to survive minimum ethical scrutiny. The key is to spot the injustice of positions not on getting agreement on what justice requires.
The longer the world waits to develop a global approach to climate change, the more central the ethics questions become about the most contentious issues in consideration.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,
Widener University School of Law
Visting Professor, Nagoya University,
Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology
This is the second in a series of papers which will examine the ethical and justice issues that are at the center of the Warsaw climate negotiations, often referred to as the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP-19). The first in the series can be found on Ethicsandclimate.org. This paper looks at the ethical issues entailed by the need for nations to dramatically increase their ghg emissions reductions commitments immediately, that is in the short-term, to levels that equity and justice would require of them.
Each year in international negotiations, pleas of vulnerable developing nations have become louder calling for developed nations to respond to climate change in ways that are consistent with their ethical obligations. For the most part, this had utterly failed to happen. Yet, up until a few years ago, nations could ignore their ethical responsibilities provided they made any commitments at all to reduce their ghg emissions. As a result, nations have failed to adopt climate change policies consistent with their equitable obligations despite the fact that all nations who are parties to the UNFCCC agreed, when they became parties, to reduce their emissions to levels required of them based upon “equity” to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
Although most nations have now made some commitments that have included ghg emissions reductions targets starting in the Copenhagen COP in 2009, almost all nations appear to be basing their national targets not on what equity would require of them but at levels determined by their economic and national interests. In fact, in many cases when governments have been asked why they have not made more ambitious commitments, they have cited national economic justifications or their unwillingness to make more stringent commitments until other nations do so, excuses which are also based upon national interest rather than national global obligations. And so, for the most part, nations have entered the international climate negotiations as if their commitments to an urgently needed climate change global solution can be based on national interest rather than global responsibilities.
However the longer nations have waited to respond adequately to climate change, the more difficult it has becomes to ignore what ethics and justice requires of them because climate science is telling the international community that it must immediately adopt a global approach to climate change which is much more ambitious than current national commitments will provide. And so despite the fact that some vulnerable nations have been screaming for climate justice for at least two decades, in the last few COPs equity and justice has moved to the center of the most contentious issues in dispute. Now there is no escaping the international community from reviewing national commitments through a justice lens. The smaller the available budget becomes to avoid dangerous climate change, the more obvious the justice issues become.
Nations must both increase emissions reductions commitments immediately to give the world any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change while also agreeing to an international framework on future ghg emissions which will limit global ghg emissions in the medium- and long-term. And so, some aspects of the Warsaw agenda are focused both on increasing ghg emissions commitments in the short-term while at the same time working toward a new climate change treaty which will include a framework for national ghg emissions reductions after 2020. This paper looks at the equitable aspects of the need for more ambition in national ghg emissions commitments in the short-term while the next entry will look at ethics and justice issues entailed by the need for a new climate change treaty that was agreed to in prior COPs and that is scheduled to come into effect in 2020.
An adequate global climate change solution will need to limit total global ghg emissions to levels which will prevent atmospheric concentrations of ghgs from accumulating to dangerous levels and to do this any solution will also need to allocate total global emissions levels among all nations. Therefore each nation must agree to limit is emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions both in the short- and longer-term. There is now no way of escaping this urgent reality.
Up until now, nations could pretend that baby steps toward a global solution were acceptable progress. The urgency of finding a global climate change solution now makes it clear that such pretense is foolish self-deception.
Since the last COP in Qatar last year, there have been two prestigious scientific reports that have made it even more abundantly clear that much greater ambition from nations on their previous ghg emissions reduction commitments based upon equity are urgently needed. In 2013, IPCC in its recent Working Group I Report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change and UNEP in its just released the Emissions Gap Report are advising the international community that the world is quickly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
The UNEP report is particularly relevant to the short-term situation given that the international community has agreed to limit future warming to prevent catastrophic warming to 2° C or perhaps 1.5° C if later studies demonstrate that a 1.5° C warming limit is necessary to prevent catastrophic harms.
The UNEP report found that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, ghg emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level that would provide a likely chance of remaining on the least-cost pathway.
To be on track to stay within the 2° C target and head off very dangerous climate change, the report says that emissions should be a maximum of 44 GtCO2e by 2020 to set the stage for further cuts needed keep warming from exceeding the 2° C target.
Since total global ghg emissions in 2010 already stood at 50.1 GtCO2e, and are increasing every year, reaching a 44 GtCO2e target by 2020 is extraordinarily daunting and much greater ambition is needed from the global community than can be seen in existing national ghg emissions reduction commitments.
UNEP pointed out in its report that the 44 GtCO2e target by 2020 is necessary to have any hope of achieving even greater cuts needed after 2020 when total emissions must be limited to sharply declining total emissions limitations. Moreover if the world continues under a business-as-usual scenario, which does not include pledges, 2020 emissions are predicted to reach 59 GtCO2e, which is 1 GtCO2e higher than was estimated in a UNEP report issued in 2012. Without doubt increasing the ambition of national ghg commitments is urgently needed to provide any reasonable hope of limiting warming to non-catastrophic levels.
The September, 2013, IPCC issued a report which contained a budget on total carbon emissions that the world needs to stay within to give a 66% chance of preventing more than the 2° C warming that attracted world attention despite the fact that it has been widely criticized as being overly optimistic. This budget is an upper limit on total human CO2 equivalent emissions from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the day we stop burning carbon. The IPCC said that for warming to remain below last 2° C warming limit, the total amount of CO2 must be less than 1000 billion tons.
The IPCC report estimated that we’ve already used 531 billion tons of that budget as of 2011 by burning fossil fuels for energy as well as by clearing forests for farming and myriad other uses. That means would mean that there is 469 tons left in the emissions budget. This further means that the budget would be completely used up by current emissions by around 2044, just over 30 years from now.
Yet, the IPCC budget is likely significantly overly optimistic because ghg emissions other than CO2 are being emitted which the IPCC recent budget did not take into account. Factoring in the other ghgs brings the overall cumulative budget down from 1 trillion tons of carbon to 800 billion tons.
With that in mind, the remaining budget is even smaller, leaving just 269 billion tons of carbon left. This figure screams for a radical increase in short-term and long-term ghg emissions national ghg emissions commitments. For this reason, climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice.
The IPCC report also said that a possible release of ghg thawing permafrost and methane hydrates — which are “not accounted for in current models” — would shrink the remaining budget even further.
So why is equity and justice considerations so vital to increasing national ambitions? There are several reasons for this. First some countries much more than others are contributing to global atmospheric ghg concentrations on a per capita and total tons basis. Other countries more than others have contributed much more historically to existing elevated ghg atmospneric concentrations as they pursued higher levels of economic growth. And some countries more than others should be allowed to increase energy use to emerge from grinding poverty especially since they have done almost nothing to cause the existing crisis. And so, climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice and no matter what ethical considerations are taken into account to define an arguably distributively just allocation of ghg emissions targets among nations, many national commitments utterly and obviously flunk any ethical test. Yet the international press is not covering this aspect of this civilization challenging problem.
Ethics and justice demand that high-emitting nations and individuals reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Furthermore, it is already a settled principle in international law that polluters should pay for their pollution, that nations should reduce their emissions to prevent dangerous climate change on the basis of ‘equity,’ not national interest, and that nations should prevent their citizens from doing harm to people outside their national jurisdictional boundaries. These rules collectively mean that nations may not base their climate change national strategies on national interest because they they have duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others that they must take into account when setting national climate change policy. Yet hardly any nations are explaining their national ghg emissions reductions commitments on the basis of how they are congruent with their equitable obligations and the international media for the most part is ignoring this vital part of this civilization challenging drama unfolding in Warsaw.
In addition, every national ghg emissions target is already implicitly a position on the nation’s appropriate fair share of safe global emissions because it is a global problem about which each nation must do its fair share. Any national ghg emissions reduction target is a statement about the nation’s commitment to solve a global problem which is putting hundreds of millions of existing people at risk and countless members of future generations.
Furthermore, practically the nations of the world are not likely to increase ghg emissions targets unless those nations who are already exceeding their global fair share agree to reduce their ghg emissions. And so national ghg emissions reductions based on ethics and justice are both required on the basis of morality and are urgently practically needed. The obvious place to look for increases in ambition in national commitments is from nations that are obviously above emissions reduction levels that equity would require of them.
As we shall see in the next paper on a longer-term framework for national emissions, there are several competing ethical frameworks for what constitutes any nations fair share of safe global emissions. However, that does not mean that any position on “equity” passes minimum ethical scrutiny. And without any doubt, national ghg emissions targets based upon national economic interest alone flunks any ethical analysis because climate change requires nations to take into account how their ghg emissions are gravely harming the hundreds of millions of people around the world who are vulnerable to climate change in setting national climate change policies. That is under any conceivable ethical theory, nations must set ghg targets based upon their duties to not harm others, not self-interest alone. High-emitting nations are therefore obviously failing to set ghg emissions targets based upon their ethical obligations. In fact, as we have seen, nations often have admitted that their targets have been based upon self-interest not global duties.
For this reason, a key issue on the Warsaw agenda is the ethical dimensions of short-term ghg emissions targets and the need for high-emitting nations in particular to increase their commitments.
However, unfortunately at this moment, it is unlikely that countries will increase their emission reduction proposals in Warsaw. In fact, in some countries recent national policy changes call into question their capability to reach even their inadequate 2020 targets. Along this line, for instance, a recent backwards step of Australia was announced that it intends to abolish its newly established carbon pricing mechanism.
This series will report on what happened in Warsaw on short-term ghg targets and equity at the conclusion of the Warsaw conference
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,
Windener University School of Law
Visting Professor, Nagoya University
Nanjing University of Science Information and Technology