All nations, when they set national ghg emissions reductions targets, are implicitly taking a position on the following two civilization challenging ethical issues. The international community should require that all nations explicitly explain their positions on these two issues.
Every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on the two above civilization challenging ethical issues, although nations almost never identify the positions they have taken on these issues nor acknowledge that these are ethical matters. These issues are: (1) a ghg atmospheric concentration stabilization goal, and (2) the nation’s fair share of global ghg emissions that will achieve the atmospheric goal. This picture seeks to help citizens understand these issues. Both of these issues are essentially ethical and moral issues. This is so because in taking a position on an ghg atmospheric stabilization goal, a nation is determining how much harm it is willing to inflict on hundreds of millions of poor vulnerable people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends. Also, in specifying a ghg emissions reduction amount, the nation is also taking a position on what distributive justice requires of it to reduce global ghg emissions to safe levels.
Governments should be required to explain their positions on these issues because every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on these ethical questions.
The international press has widely reported recently on some of the most dire conclusions of the 5th Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These warnings have included that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and that rapid and unprecedented cooperation among countries is urgently needed to avoid climate catastrophe. Yet, there has been little media coverage of an enormously important topic that is sprinkled throughout the recent Working Group III report as well as being the major focus of two new chapters largely dedicated to the topic. This is the issue of the extent to which national responses to climate change must be consistent with obligations entailed by ethics and justice rather than economic rationality and self-interest alone; matters which have profound practical significance for the acceptability of national climate change policies.
Given that most nations have been setting national ghg reduction targets on the basis of national economic interest rather than global ethical obligations, if the new IPCC chapters, one on ethics and a second one on equity in the IPCC Working Group III report, are taken seriously by governments, this could transform national responses to climate change. These chapters should also be of value to civil society in criticizing inadequate national ghg emissions reductions commitments.
This is the first in a multi-part series that will examine the ethical and justice issues embedded in and raised by the recent IPCC reports.
Although this series will conclude that the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable for more clearly identifying ethical issues with the ways governments, some international organizations, and NGOs have often discussed, debated, and made recommendations on climate change policies, the series will also make some criticisms of how IPCC has articulated the significance of the ethical, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change.
As we have explained frequently in EthicsandClimate.org, climate change is a problem that has unique features that demand that it be understood essentially and fundamentally as a civilization challenging moral problem. These features include the fact that human-induced warming is a problem that: (1) is being caused mostly by high-emitting nations, peoples, and entities that are putting low emitting nations and peoples at greatest risk who are often among the world’s poorest nations and people and who have done little to cause the problem, (2) the harms to those most vulnerable to climate change are not mere inconveniences but are often existential threats to life and the ecological systems on which life depends, and (3) those most vulnerable to climate changes’ harshest impacts can often do little to protect themselves from climate change’s harshest impacts. In fact, the victims’ best hope is that high-emitting nations and peoples will see that they have duties and responsibilities to climate change’s victims to greatly reduce their ghg emissions.
We have also frequently explained why an understanding of the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change has extraordinarily important practical significance for climate change policy formation particularly in regard to: (1) setting national ghg emissions reduction targets, (2) taking a position on adequate greenhouse gas (ghg) atmospheric concentrations, (3) determining who should be responsible for paying the costs of necessary adaptation and compensating those who suffer climate change damages, and, (4) deciding who should participate in decisions on proposed climate change policies that must be made in the face of some uncertainty about climate change impacts.
II. IPCC and Ethics, Justice, and Equity
In its first four assessments in 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2007, IPCC relied almost exclusively on economic analysis of policy alternatives, rather than ethics and justice, in its guidance to policy-makers on how to develop climate law and policy. In fact, in this regard, the AR 5 in the new chapter on the Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts, IPCC admits expressly that in prior IPCC Reports “ethics has received less attention than economics, although aspects of both are covered in AR2. (IPCC, AR5, Working Group III, Chapter 3, pg. 10) Yet the treatment of ethics in IPCC Working Group III in AR2, is hardly a serious consideration of the implications of ethical and justice principles that should guide climate change policy because the vast majority of text in this report is focused on traditional economic analysis which assumes that climate policy should maximize efficiency rather than assign responsibility for reducing the threat of climate change, allocate emissions reductions among nations, determine who should pay for needed adaptation or compensate victims for climate damages on the basis of ethical principles. In fact, the AR2 report includes many statements that would lead policy-makers to conclude that it is perfectly permissible to determine the amount of ghg emissions reductions any nation should be required to achieve solely on economic considerations. For instance, AR 2 says expressly that: “there is no inherent conflict between economics and most conceptions of equity.” (IPCC, 1995, AR2, Working Goup III, pg. 87) Moreover. any fair reading of prior IPCC reports would conclude that policymakers were encouraged by IPCC to base policy on economic considerations such as those determined in cost-benefit analyses.
In light of this, the tendencies of national governments to adopt climate change policies on the basis of economic considerations that frequently ignore ethical obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change impacts is not surprising. In fact, a strong case can be made that the IPCC in its first four assessment reports failed to adequately identify ethics and justice principles that should guide the formation of national climate change policy.
In this respect, AR5 contains some important breaks from the past. For instance, the new chapter on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts says:
How should the burden of mitigating climate change should be divided among countries? It raises difficult questions of fairness, and rights, all of which are in the sphere of ethics. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
Indeed, ethical judgements of value underlie almost every decision that is connected with climate change, including decisions by public, and private organizations, governments, and groupings of governments. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
If justice requires that a person should not be treated in a particular way–uprooted by her home by climate change, for example –than the person has a right not to be treated that way. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. …They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)
What ethical considerations can economics and justice can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, 2014.AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 25)
Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. (IPCC,2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3,pg. 24)
In addition, the Working Group III AR5 report also has a new chapter on Sustainable Development and Equity which also contains a number of conclusions that have important ethical and justice implications. They include:
Conventional climate policy analysis that is based too narrowly on traditional utilitarian or cost-benefit frameworks will neglect critical equity issues. These oversights include human rights implications and moral imperatives; the distribution of costs and benefits of a given set of policies, and the further distributional inequities that arise when the poor have limited scope to influence policies. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 8)
Given the disparities evident in consumption patterns, the distributional implications of climate response strategies are critically important. (IPCC, 2014, AR5,WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 9)
[I]t is morally proper to allocate burdens associated with our common global climate challenge according to ethical principles. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 16)
Equitable burden sharing will be necessary if the climate change challenge is effectively met. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 16)
[T]he eventual effectiveness of a collective action regime may hinge on equitable burden sharing, the absence of actors who are powerful enough to coercively impose their preferred burden sharing arrangements, the inapplicability of standard utilitarian methods of calculating costs and benefits, and the fact that regime effectiveness depends on long-term commitments of members to implement its terms. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 17)
There is a basic set of shared ethical principles and precedents that apply to the climate problem…[and] such principles… can put bounds on the plausible interpretation of equity in the burden sharing context…[and] are important in establishing what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 48)
Common sense ethics (and legal practice) hold persons responsible for harms or risks they knowingly impose or could have reasonably foreseen, and in certain cases, regardless of whether they could have been foreseen. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 49)
[T]here is now a consensus that methods of cost-benefit analysis that simply add up monetary-equivalent gains and issues are consistent and applicable only under very specific assumptions…which are empirically dubious and ethically controversial. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 54)
And so the new AR5 IPCC Working Group III report by including statements which conclude that self-interested economic justifications for national climate change policies are ethically problematic is both a profound shift from prior IPCC guidance on how nations should set climate change policies and could form the basis for strong criticisms of national ghg emissions reductions commitments.
In addition to the above provisions, the IPCC AR5 Working Group III report examines throughout the report many other climate change policy issues that raise important ethical questions. Sometimes the IPCC treatment of the ethical dimensions of these issues is acceptable and other times inadequate.
These other issues include: (a) an acceptable basis for burden sharing by nations to limit warming to tolerable levels, (b) temperature levels that could trigger abrupt climate change, (c) the unique vulnerability to climate change impacts of many of the world’s poorest people, (e) whether national ghg emissions reductions targets should be set on the basis of ghg emissions released within a national territory or on the basis of products consumed in that nation which have embedded ghgs created by their manufacture in other places, (f) the fact that extraordinary degrees of irreversible damage and harm from climate change are now distinct possibilities, (g) various frameworks for equitable burden sharing, (h) gross disparities in per capita emissions around the world, (i) whether national ghg emissions targets should be legally binding, (j) various issues entailed by a growing number of climate refugees, (k) fairness issues by nations that seek to create boarder adjustments or monetary penalties on nations that have no comparable emissions reductions targets, (l) funding for adaptation and damages in poor vulnerable nations, (m) the role of trading flexibility mechanisms in an international climate regime, (n) the remaining global ghg emissions budget that all nations must live within to prevent dangerous climate change, and (o) the human rights implications of national climate policies.
We will explain in future entries in this series that how IPCC has handled the ethical issues entailed by these issues has sometimes been unacceptable or incomplete despite being improvements from prior IPCC reports.
One common problem with IPCC’s treatment of the ethical dimensions of climate change policy making is that the text often leaves the impression that while policymakers should consider ethical questions in developing climate change policies they are free to ignore what ethics requires of nations. Particularly in some places, the text does not adequately communicate that were strong ethical duties for nations to not greatly harm others or the ecological systems on which life depends exist, they are not free to follow national economic self-interest in setting climate change policies. The text often reads as if ethics is an optional consideration along with economic self-interest when formulating climate policy. We will examine this problem in more detail in future entries on this subject on this site.
Ethics and climate has explained in numerous articles on this site why climate change policy raises civilization challenging ethical issues which have practical significance for policy-making. This article identifies five common arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to proposed climate change laws and policies that cannot be adequately responded to without full recognition of serious ethical problems with these arguments. Yet the national debate on climate change and its press coverage in the United States and many other countries continue to ignore serious ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies. The failure to identify the ethical problems with these arguments greatly weakens potential responses to these arguments. These arguments include:
1. A nation should not adopt climate change policies because these policies will harm the national economy.
This argument is obviously ethically problematic because it fails to consider that high emitting governments and entities have clear ethical obligations to not harm others. Economic arguments in opposition to climate change policies are almost always arguments about self-interest that ignore strong global obligations. Climate change is a problem that is being caused mostly by high emitting nations and people that are harming and putting at risk poor people and the ecological systems on which they depend around the world. It is clearly ethically unacceptable for those causing the harms to others to only consider the costs to them of reducing the damages they are causing while ignoring their responsibilities to not harm others.
It is not only high emitting nations and corporations that are ignoring the ethical problems with cost-based arguments against climate change policies. Some environmental NGOs usually fail to spot the ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies based upon the cost or reducing ghg emissions to the emitters. Again and again proponents of action on climate change have responded to economic arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change by making counter economic arguments such as climate change policies will produce new jobs or reduce adverse economic impacts that will follow from the failure to reduce the threat of climate change. In responding this way, proponents of climate change policy action are implicitly confirming the ethically dubious notion that public policy must be based upon economic self-interest rather than responsibilities to those who will be most harmed by inaction. There is, of course, nothing wrong with claims that some climate change policies will produce jobs, but such assertions should also say that emissions should be reduced because high-emitters of ghgs have duties and obligations to do so.
2. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act to reduce their emissions because this will put the nation that reduces its emissions in a disadvantageous economic position.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies at the national level have argued that high emitting nations should not act to reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act accordingly. In the United States, for instance, it is frequently said that the United States should not reduce its ghg emissions until China does so. Implicit in this argument is the notion that governments should only adopt policies which are in their economic interest to do so. Yet as a matter of ethics, as we have seen, all nations have a strong ethical duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and national economic self-interest is not an acceptable justification for failing to reduce national ghg emissions. Nations are required as a matter of ethics to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions; they are not required to reduce other nations’ share of safe global emissions. And so, nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.
3. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions as long as other nations are emitting high levels of ghg because it will do no good for one nation to act if other nations do not act.
A common claim similar to argument 2 is the assertion nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until others do so because it will do no good for one nation to reduce its emissions while high-emitting nations continue to emit without reductions. It is not factually true that a nation that is emitting ghgs at levels above its fair share of safe global emissions is not harming others because they are continuing to cause elevated atmospheric concentrations of ghg which will cause some harm to some places and people than would not be experienced if the nation was emitting ghg at lower levels. And so, since all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, nations have a duty to reduce the harm that they are causing to others even if there is no adequate global response to climate change.
4. No nation need act to reduce the threat of climate change until all scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts are resolved.
Over and over again opponents of climate change policies have argued that nations need not act to reduce the threat of climate change because there are scientific uncertainties about the magnitude and timing of human-induced climate change impacts. There are a host of ethical problems with these arguments. First, as we have explained in detail on this website under the category of disinformation campaign in the index, some arguments that claim that that there is significant scientific uncertainty about human impacts on climate have been based upon lies or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science. Second, other scientific uncertainty arguments are premised on cherry picking climate change science, that is focusing on what is unknown about climate change while ignoring numerous conclusions of the scientific community that are not in serious dispute. Third. other claims that there is scientific uncertainty about human induced climate change have not been subjected to peer-review. Fourth some arguments against climate change policies on the basis of scientific uncertainty often rest on the ethically dubious notion that nothing should be done to reduce a threat that some are imposing on others until all uncertainties are resolved. They make this argument despite the fact that if high emitters of ghg wait until all uncertainties are resolved before reducing their ghg emissions:
It will likely be too late to prevent serious harm if the mainstream scientific view of climate change is later vindicated;
It will be much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm if nations wait, and
The argument to wait ignores the fact that those who will be harmed the most have not consented to be put at greater risk by waiting.
For all of these reasons, arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change based upon scientific uncertainty fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
5. Nations need only set ghg emissions reduction targets to levels consistent with their national interest.
Nations continue to set ghg emissions reductions targets at levels based upon their self-interest despite the fact that any national target must be understood to be implicitly a position on two issues that cannot be thought about clearly without considering ethical obligations. That is, every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on : (a) a safe ghg atmospheric stabilization target; and (b) the nation’s fair share of total global ghg emissions that will achieve safe ghg atmospheric concentrations.
A position on a global ghg atmospheric stabilization target is essentially an ethical question because a global ghg atmospheric concentration goal will determine to what extent the most vulnerable people and the ecological systems on which they depend will be put at risk. And so a position that a nation takes on atmospheric ghg atmospheric targets is necessarily an ethical issue because nations and people have an ethical duty to not harm others and the numerical ghg atmospheric goal will determine how much harm polluting nations will impose on the most vulnerable.
Once a global ghg atmospheric goal is determined, a nation’s ghg emissions reduction target is also necessarily implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global ghg emissions, an issue of distributive justice and ethics at its core.
And so any national ghg emissions target is inherently a position on important ethical and justice issues and thus setting a national emissions reduction target based upon national interest alone fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
The National Academy of Sciences and its British counterpart, the Royal Society, have published Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, a very easy to understand primer on the science of greenhouse-driven global warming. Although there is not a lot new in this report as a matter of science, it makes the strong scientific consensus on human-induced climate change that has existed for some time clearer and more accessible for non-scientists particularly on the major issues that need to be understood by policy-makers and interested citizens. The report is written in simple language and filled with pictures and graphs which illustrate why almost all mainstream scientists actually engaged in climate change science are virtually certain that human activity is causing very dangerous climate change.
This report is ethically significant because:
a. It is a report of two of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, namely US National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. Because of the prestige of both of the institutions writing this report, those opposing actual climate change have an ethical duty to acknowledge that the scientific basis supporting action on climate change is entitled to respect. They cannot reasonably claim that there is no strong scientific basis for policy action on climate change or even worse that climate change science is a “hoax.” Which institutions have made claims that humans are engaged in dangerous behavior has ethical significance. If, for instance, someone is told by an expert in toxicology that chemicals he or she is discharging into a water supply will kill people, he or she has more of an ethical duty to stop discharging the chemicals until the issue of toxicology issues are resolved than they would if the claim about poisoning came from a religious leader or a tax accountant. When claims about danger are made by world-class scientific experts, as a matter of ethics, the burden of proof shifts to those potentially harming others to show that their behavior is not dangerous.
Skepticism in climate science should still be encouraged, but skeptics must play by the rules of science including: (a) subjecting all claims contradicting the mainstream scientific view on climate change to peer-review, (b) subjecting claims that humans are not causing dangerous climate impacts to review by scientific institutions that have sufficient broad interdisciplinary expertise among its members to review such claims against all the contrary evidence from all relevant scientific disciplines, and (c) acknowledging all the contradictory evidence. Given the enormity of harms to citizens around the world and future generations predicted by mainstream scientists, those who seek to undermine proposed climate change policies on scientific certainty grounds should be understood to have the burden of proof to show by high levels of proof that human-induced climate change is not dangerous.
b. The report includes clear explanations of the scientific evidence in regard to specific justifications for not taking action on climate change very frequently made by those who oppose climate change policies. These justifications and responses to them include, for instance:
Scientists don’t know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities?
Scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities from an understanding of basic physics, comparing observations with models, and fingerprinting the detailed patterns of climate change caused by different human and natural influences.
Direct measurements of CO₂ in the atmosphere and in air trapped in ice show that atmospheric CO₂ increased by about 40 percent from 1800 to 2012. Measurements of different forms of carbon reveal that this increase is because of human activities.
The recent slowdown of warming means that climate change is no longer happening?
No, recent weather is not evidence that warming is not happening. Since the very warm year 1998 that followed the strong 1997-1998 El Niño, the increase in average surface temperature has slowed relative to the previous decade of rapid temperature increases. Despite the slower rate of warming, the 2000s were warmer than the 1990s. A short-term slowdown in the warming of Earth’s surface does not invalidate our understanding of long-term changes in global temperature.
CO₂ is already in the atmosphere naturally, and so human emissions are not significant.
Human activities have significantly disturbed the natural carbon cycle by extracting long-buried fossil fuels and burning them for energy, thus releasing CO₂ into the atmosphere.
Variations in output from the sun have caused the changes in the Earth’s climate in recent decades.
The sun provides the primary source of energy driving Earth’s climate system, but its variations have played very little role in the climate-changes observed in recent decades. Direct satellite measurements since the late 1970s show no net increase in the sun’s output while, at the same time, global surface temperatures have increased.
If the world is actually warming, some recent winters and summers would not have been so cold?
Global warming is a long-term trend, but that does not mean that every year will be warmer than the previous one. Day-to-day and year-to-year changes in weather patterns will continue to produce some unusually cold days and nights, and winters and summers, even as the climate warms.
A few degrees of warming is not cause for concern.
Even though an increase of a few degrees in global average temperature does not sound like much, global average temperature during the last ice age was only about 4°C to 5°C (7 °F to 9 °F) colder than now. Global warming of just a few degrees will be associated with widespread changes in regional and local temperature and precipitation, as well as with increases in some types of extreme weather events.
These are only a few of the justifications that have been made by those denying responsibility to reduce the threat of climate change that are directly and clearly refuted in the report.
c. The report also has ethical significance because its so clear that policy makers cannot reasonably claim that there is no scientific evidence about the major issues of concern to the climate change scientific community. As we have explained on this website, policy-makers may not, as a matter of ethics, rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science once they are informed by respectable scientific organizations that people and organizations within their jurisdiction are likely harming others around the world. This responsibility to not rely upon their own uninformed opinions increases when there are easy to understand explanations from respected scientific institutions of the scientific basis for concluding that people within their jurisdiction are harming others. The new report from the US Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society is such a clear explanation. And so government officials have a strong duty to go beyond their own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions that have the breadth of expertise to consider the interdisciplinary scientific issues that make up climate change science.
d. Because politicians have an affirmative duty to rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm until peer-reviewed science establishes that the mainstream view is erroneous, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand the limitations of any politician’s views that opposes action on climate change on scientific grounds particularly when there are easy to understand explanations of climate change science such as that in the new US National Academy and Royal Academy report. The new report will enable the press to fulfill its journalistic responsibilities by asking more precise and clearer questions of those who deny the mainstream scientific view.
For these reasons, the new report is ethically significant.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor
Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law,
Editors Note: The following entry has been written by guest bloger, Michael Hoexter. This entry was first published on the Web Site New Economic Perspectives on February 27, 2014. We republish this article with permission of the author because it contains a number of excellent points about the ethical dimensions of climate change particularly in regard to who should be understood to be responsible for the failure of the United States to take adequate action on climate change. This analysis concludes that different parties should be differentially responsible for inaction on climate change. In addition, the article makes several compelling arguments for the urgent practical need to understand climate change as an ethical and moral problem. The article also explains why government action on climate change is indispensable to an adequate climate change solution, that is, why market solutions such as cap and trade or even carbon taxes will not alone create an adequate US response to climate change.
Degrees of Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
The climate crisis is an event with such profound personal and broadly social moral implications that many shy away from discussing the crisis itself let alone its ethical aspects. Via our society’s use of fossil fuels we are, if our combustion of these fuels remains unchecked and in addition we further destroy the carbon fixing capacity of natural systems, destroying almost all wealth, the likelihood of their being future civilizations, and even the possibility for existence for future generations. To continue ignoring climate change and effective climate action is definitely an après moi le deluge stance, an expression of callousness and self-absorption unsupportable by moral justification. Morality and ethics is here not an exotic preoccupation of a select group but a basic reality-check: does what we are doing make sense and promote the general ends to which these activities are devoted? How do we assess our own agency and role and those of others, in events that are occurring around us and will with very high likelihood exacerbate in the future?
In addition to the lulling effects of the organized climate denial industry as well as propaganda for fossil fuels broadcast in all media channels, one of the difficulties facing climate change activism is that, taking effective, durable action is not primarily an individual phenomenon but a massive group enterprise, ideally with full participation and leadership by governments. It is difficult for people to understand how a sense of personal ethical obligation, which people may or may not feel, can translate into effective action, given the uncertainties and variability of the participation of others and of the varying, non-existent, or contrary commitments of social institutions to the necessary changes in our energy system. With some justification, people on the ground believe they are, in their isolation, too small and insignificant to remake the energy basis of society and the economy.
Also, because the way to effective climate action is not clearly in mind, people who do not feel themselves to be in positions of power or influence might resent people pointing out, as I am doing now, their role, moral or otherwise, regarding climate change. We are living in an age where people feel that ethical appeals, more generally, are felt to be a hindrance to living one’s life unencumbered by obligations to others, that ethics competes with and impedes the light sense of freedom that is one of the sought-after states of mind in our time. Often this sense of freedom is defined by many throughout the developed and developing world as a choice of a variety of consumer goods for immediate or near-term consumption. The attachment to near-term pleasures can even turn into a form of climate nihilism, a philosophical rejection of ethics in favor of sensuous pleasure über alles. Nihilism’s formal severance from ethical considerations in turn leads ultimately to an acceptance or enactments of varying degrees of psychopathy/sociopathy and eventually to the collapse of civilization.
As of late, the North American climate action movement and outspoken climate scientists such as Michael Mann have focused on counteracting the massive propaganda and obfuscation campaign that has delayed climate action. Fingers have been pointed at the fossil fuel industries and their role in creating clouds of doubt and confusion around the findings of climate science, while continuing to profit from climate change denial and or fossil fuel addiction. The climate movement is pointing out that unconventional fossil fuel extraction techniques (fracking, tar sands excavation, deep-water drilling, mountaintop removal coal mining) are leaving or will leave toxic wastes and scars on the landscape as the fossil fuel industry gouges and lacerates the earth in search of combustible fossil resources. The freight rail network in North America is being turned into a conduit for crude oil from the landlocked Canadian tar-sands and the Bakken Shale, as construction timelines and permitting decisions are awaited for new pipelines. It appears that conventional oil has reached its peak and is, as well, controlled by sovereign oil companies not the oil majors.
Local groups and national environmental organizations are attempting to combat fracking operations, pipeline build-out and crude-by-rail programs either by reference to their local damages and risks, or too little, in my opinion, via reference to the impact of these activities on global warming. I am active in groups that are focused on halting the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industries including the Keystone XL pipeline and yet the climate movement is still figuring out how a focus on local damages and pollution translate to action on the global long-term issue. The phrase “leave it in the ground” has started to gain currency, though it appears not have yet become the central demand of any national campaign. Recently, activists in our area have created the slogan “NIMBY => NOPE” (“’Not in My Back Yard’ to ‘Not on Planet Earth’”).
While some of the defenders of the fossil fuel industries deny climate change, there are others like President Obama and those who support his energy policy, who simultaneously admit that climate change is a problem and continue encouraging the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and therefore its ongoing use. The MSNBC commentator Ed Schultz, known as a progressive, has voiced support for the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline as does his frequent guest, the supposed progressive and would-be challenger to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for President in 2016, former Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana. Schultz, to his credit, has been devoting considerable time on his air to the issue of the pipeline, and may be reconsidering his stance. As another MSNBC commentator, Chris Hayes, points out, the stance of Obama and others, that they are against global warming but for the building of new pipelines, are the protestations of fossil fuel addicts, who haven’t yet confronted their addiction.
And it is and will be very difficult for us, particularly here in North America, to confront our fossil fuel addiction as well as lessen our impact on the climate more generally, individually and also as a society as a whole. We are, all of us, in various positions along a continuum of lesser to greater individual or family climate virtue, whether by intention, by pre-existing preference, or by level of means, though in the developed societies, we are as individuals and families bunched towards the less virtuous end of the spectrum in terms of the stability of the climate. However, as many people know, individual and familial efforts even if all of us were paragons of climate virtue within our various means, do not add up to the systemic changes required to cut emissions on a grand scale across the economy. The vision of climate action as simply the accumulation of individual and familial choices overlooks the importance of public goods like infrastructure and the design and locations of cities and towns, which can only be changed by government action or other coordinated collective means. This fact alone reveals that market-based instruments (either cap and trade or carbon taxes) are more likely auxiliary policies rather than the central policy structure to transform our societies. Carbon pricing instruments, at least in the form of a gradually escalating carbon price, are “nudges” when we are needing in many areas a reversal of direction and a major concerted push, or time will have run out on our best intentions.
Chicken and Egg: Demand- vs. Supply-Focused Campaigns
Among those who have taken some interest in addressing climate change, there have over the last decade or so been discussions about whether a focus on curtailing the activities of the fossil fuel industries or a focus on reducing demand for fossil fuels is the right single or leading method to move society into a transition away from fossil energy. Economics is divided on the subject of what is the primary cause of business activity in general, though strangely in the area of curtailing fossil fuel use, almost everybody is a “Keynesian” in the sense of theorizing a demand-led business cycle. Keynes is the most influential economist who challenged the old dogma of Say’s Law that states that supply creates its own demand; i.e. “build it and they will come”. With, in theory, supply no longer controlling the business cycle, Keynes advocated stimulation of demand via government spending and/or tax cuts as a cure for economic depressions caused by what turned out to be a collapse in demand.
With fossil fuels, a large majority of economists that contemplate climate action advocate a price on carbon, either a tax or a permit to emit, which would reduce demand for the fuels without restricting supply. By contrast, this is the reverse of the current right-leaning consensus among policymakers regarding what to do about unemployment, which prescribe, almost exclusively, supply-side solutions. The unemployed or youth are said to lack the proper skills, so the focus is on skills training and educational reform would supposedly create jobs. Meanwhile few economists are advocating curtailing the activities of the fossil fuel industry or rationing fuel, both supply-side measures, to meet the challenge of global warming. This could be seen as a tribute to the relative political power of the fossil fuel industries and high-consumers of fossil energy (large corporations and the affluent) versus the power of the unemployed and youth; the former are treated, if at all, with gentle “nudges” while the latter are viewed as “clay to be molded” by elites.
Demand and supply-side interventions have different ethical implications, with ethics being the social discourse about how we manage our own agency or agencies (our “doing”) in the light of what is best or better for us or for a greater community or some combination thereof. Policy focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels starts from the premise that we are not able by internalizing legal-ethical mandates/strictures, foresight, and rational planning to change our behavior. Only after incurring a succession of monetary losses or anticipated losses from the “sin” tax or increased price do “appetites” for fossil fuel use diminish: consumers, as they have limited monetary resources, figure out for themselves the trade-off in monetary terms of one set of appetites for another and start choosing the higher benefit-to-cost satisfactions. The process of choosing between those appetites, or the restriction of the satisfaction of other appetites because of a lack of funds, leads eventually, in some, to a waning of interest in the targeted product or service. A supply-side restriction, such as rationing or cutting off certain types of fossil fuel supply (reducing overall supply), assumes that people are able to rein in their appetites via either their own internalized moral compass, or they accept the legitimacy of the external moral instance of government or the community to regulate their usage of, in this case, fossil fuels
The divide between supply- and demand-side policies is a byproduct of mainstream economic assumptions and academic disputes that some heterodox economists criticize, yet have not yet presented an alternative causal model of business and sectoral development. Presented in current contretemps between self-identified Keynesians and anti-Keynesians as an “either/or”, a longer view look at economic history suggests that the causal role of supply and demand are historical and sectoral snapshots of the complex unfolding of the actual economy. Due to the rapidity of energy transition required for human civilization to survive as well as the need for a change in energy systems, a combination of supply- and demand-side measures are required, together applied with as much force and speed as possible and effective. Supply-side restrictions of fossil fuels, for instance, would create a feedback loop where a restriction of supply will for instance act as a virtual “carbon tax” as oil companies charge more for their scarcer product. This should be seen as intentional rather than accidental, if one is advocating that both supply and demand be simultaneously curtailed. At the same time, government needs to supply or help design and subsidize the building of many of the connective pieces of a zero-carbon infrastructure. A new source or switch of suppliers is not well theorized by the supply-demand framework.
Even the institution and maintenance of an effective demand-side policy, advertised as the more moderate and “reasonable” solution, would in reality require a high degree of ethical commitment by the polity to effective climate action, more than the neoclassical economic fantasy of what constitutes the human being could accommodate. A behavior-changing carbon price (a tax or fee) of perhaps $150-200 per metric tonne CO2-equivalent emissions (with or without a refundable tax credit, sometimes called a dividend to blunt its regressivity) would require sacrifice differentially among economic sectors and groups, as well the need to change comfortable habits and ways of life. Such sacrifice would need to be openly acknowledged beforehand, requiring people, as citizens beyond their roles as consumers, to develop an ethical commitment to the large-scale task of preventing climate catastrophe.
Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
A political campaign on climate that focuses its anger and claims of responsibility only on the role of the fossil fuel industries and their political surrogates is naïve: their power is sustained by the number of paying customers available for their products, as well as their accumulated wealth from a 225-year history of fueling industrial growth via fossil energy. On the other hand, campaigns that focus only on demand-side policy, on the population’s demand for cheap, polluting fuel, tend to overlook the effects of the massive political-economic disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industries and their political surrogates on laming climate action once human-caused climate change was recognized internationally as a problem around 25 years ago. The assumption of demand-side policy is that our “appetite” for the products and services that fossil fuels enable is the driving force and therefore a wide-swath of the developed world is culpable for climate catastrophe.
Holding ordinary consumers in the developed world responsible on an individual basis for the continued dominance of fossil fuels either implicitly or explicitly is unfair and unrealistic. Some combination of an appeal to the moral sense of each individual as well as an appeal to macroethical justice for those who have delayed climate action and profit from climate inaction is required for climate action to be both heart-felt by many and also politically and economically astute.
Furthermore, there is a third category of people who have neither made executive decisions nor consumption/purchasing decisions that have had significant climate impacts. Some of these people live in poverty in the developing world or are too young now to have made significant decisions about how to live their lives yet. These people will pay the price of the decisions of others yet are or will become responsible for protecting the climate from further negative change and devastation of a conducive life-world for them and humanity more generally. Their responsibilities then start now or lie in the future.
I am proposing then that we subdivide responsibility into three categories or levels with regard to climate change, though this type of subdivision may be applicable with other large scale societal institutions and events. In delaying action on climate, some people have had a much greater role than others in prolonging our addiction to fossil fuels. As a parallel example, many legal jurisdictions, for instance, assign a higher culpability to drug pushers/dealers than to drug addicts, though unfortunately the latter group is in the United States subject to excessive legal penalties for non-violent drug offenses. The dealer/user distinction found in many legal codes should be carried over to the politics and ethics of global warming.
Around global warming then, at the current juncture in history, we can say that there are those who have primary moral responsibility for causing climate catastrophe, a much larger group of those who have secondary ethical responsibility for climate catastrophe, and a still larger group who are bystanders in terms of causality of global warming to date but will need to assume some responsibility in solving the climate crisis. The growth of a political movement will be in part by determined by how these relative responsibilities as we will see below will be addressed by climate politics and climate policies.
Historical Responsibility and Present-Day Responsibility
With large-scale complex systems such as energy infrastructure, an industrial economy, or an entire civilization, it is fair to distinguish between historical responsibility and ethical responsibility. The socially-constructed complex systems we live in are the product of generations of decisions and actions by our ancestors as well as those now living, some of whom may be retired from positions of power and authority. There are those who set up and reinforced the fossil-fuel-dependent industrial base of our civilization who were and are responsible but cannot be said, because of their lack of awareness of global warming and the continued dominance of fossil energy up to the present to be ethically responsible for global warming. John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Moses, Dwight D. Eisenhower and many others made crucial decisions in the design of American civilization. The American model of development remains one of the primary models for many developed and developing industrial cultures from early 20th Century onward that, of course, require a large supply of fossil energy with current infrastructure. These historical figures and others hold historical responsibility but they cannot be held ethically responsible for global warming as they were not made aware of the consequences of their actions at the time. We then can only discuss the ethical responsibilities for global warming of those in the current generation because a crucial piece of that ethical responsibility is having been made aware, in this case, by the geosciences and in particular climate science, of the consequences of maintaining the status quo in these complex large-scale systems.
Global warming emerged as a very strong hypothesis in the then-obscure scientific discipline of climate science in the 1980’s with mounting empirical data supporting the human role in increases in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide. The climate science community alerted policymakers to the danger in the late 1980’s with among other events, James Hansen’s dramatic testimony to Congress during the heatwave of 1988. From these interactions and subsequent meetings between policymakers, there eventually emerged in 1997 the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with the Kyoto Protocol and its emissions-trading (cap and trade) instrument selected as the general policy tool to reduce emissions worldwide. Emissions trading is an implementation of the economic idea of carbon pricing, the idea that an escalating carbon price will shape economic behavior to emit less greenhouse gases, while supposedly being able to meet an overall “cap” in quantity of emissions, set by policymakers. While the Kyoto Protocol had already been set into place as the primary solution to climate change, the historian of science Stuart Weart marks the point at the year 2001 where climate scientists had actually reached a consensus that human activity was warming the planet via GHG emissions and land-use changes, the former largely from fossil fuel use.
Having been alerted of an impending catastrophe in 2001, perhaps in terms that were soft pedaled at the time and filtered through the politics of national governments, it can be said in theory that all adults in the world were at that point informed enough to know that they had an ethical responsibility as citizens and consumers to address climate change. Even if the emissions trading instrument chosen by the UN was and is opaque and faulty, as it turned out to be, theoretically it was then and is now incumbent upon people as citizens to correct or amend climate policy.
However, in reality, a number of trends and events have intervened that make it unreasonable to have conferred responsibility upon all adults in 2001 when the climate science consensus was formed. Unfortunately, it has required a real degradation in the climate and a series of failures of the cap and trade instrument before it is reasonable to assume that ethical responsibility has been fully transferred, in varying degrees, to all adults in the world. In the intervening time between 2001 and today, the international and various national policy communities, outside of a few nations like the US and China, were claiming that it was on the road to “solving” the climate issue with emissions trading. I have devoted a good portion of my writing over the past decade to showing how insufficient and ineffective emission trading is and also a diversion from leaders’ and citizens’ primary ethical duties to act on climate change. It may be that the transmission of ethical responsibility is not yet complete until it is made abundantly clear that:
It is incumbent on everyone to act in some way to save the climate.
Existing solutions and actions are insufficient to address climate.
There must be a search for new solutions on political and economic levels to climate.
These new solutions must be implemented until such time as we see radical reductions in the emissions of warming gases.
This document is part of this transmission of responsibilities.
The climate change denial industry acts as an effort to delay the realization and transmission of ethical obligations as well as deflect accusations of immoral behavior or deficient character on those who continue to drive us toward climate catastrophe. By attacking the level of certainty that people may hold with regard to either the existence of or human causation of global warming, climate change denial has attractions for those outside the inner circle of beneficiaries from the fossil fuel industry who do not want to reckon with either changes in their own lifestyle or with the increased role of government required by effective climate action. Climate denial functions to blunt either the pangs of internal conscience or to deflect accusations of climate destruction or sluggish inaction.
As hinted at above, ethical responsibility with regard to taking action on climate is not discharged simply by committing to a putative or first-offered greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan, but effectively seeing through the execution of that plan. If the plan first selected is ineffective or not sufficient effective, either via prima facie analysis based on its highly likely outcomes or by empirical results, then continued subscription to the initial reduction plan becomes itself as unethical as inaction. One’s ethical responsibilities in this case are discharged by effective actions, not by expressions of good intention or commitments to climate virtue in the future.
Primary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
As discussed above, responsibilities and therefore accusations of culpability with regard to the impending climate catastrophe should not be equally distributed. Responsibilities are differentially distributed in society already by the different levels of power that people exert in relationship, largely, to their roles in the social institutions relevant to a given phenomenon. A fire chief is more responsible for extinguishing fires throughout a town than a baker or for that matter a trainee in the fire department. Now, 13 years after 2001 and 22 years after the 1992 Rio Summit that initiated international action on global warming, we can determine with a high degree of certainty that some people bear primary responsibility for at least the last decade if not the longer 22 year delay in substantive climate action. To bear primary responsibility means to have been exposed to the overwhelming scientific data and analysis on anthropogenic global warming and willfully and misleadingly denied or acted in ignorance of that consensus. Additionally primary responsibility for climate catastrophe falls on those who bear substantial responsibility by dint of economic positioning, scientific obfuscation, political patronage, political influence or political position as to the direction of our political-economic system, where that system effects our society’s energy and land use and therefore climate impacts.
The following categories of people then bear primary responsibility for the impending climate catastrophe, if they do not soon change their course by attempting to radically change the course of the institutions they are involved in (which is not always possible), agitate in the public sphere for immediate and thoroughgoing climate action and/or to publicly leave those institutions, transferring a substantial portion of their financial gains to investments in or contributions to effective climate action. Though they are primarily responsible for the continuance and acceleration of global warming, those primarily responsible for the disaster should not expect to be responsible for the solutions, though they should at least get out of the way of those solutions, for their sake, the sake of their children, and for the sake of humanity more generally. Some individuals will fit more than one category of the following:
1) “Denier-Leaders” – Political leaders that over the past 13 years to the present have promoted denial or unscientific doubt of anthropogenic global warming and its highly likely negative effects or have promoted, voted for, passed into law or administered local, regional or national government’s transport, land use and energy policy as if there were no ongoing catastrophic, human-caused global warming trend. Much of the current U.S. Republican Party leadership and Congressional delegation as well as the leadership of other right-wing parties in a number of countries including Canada and Australia are thus primarily responsible for the continuation of our global warming trend. These politicians can be viewed as spokespeople for the fossil fuel industries of their countries. The slightly more respectable “doubter” position has similar effects to “denial” in sensitive positions where the critically important instrument of government is either put to work to change the energy system or in the case of denier-leaders, used to reinforce the fossil energy status quo.
2) “Lip-Service Leaders”- Political leaders on the local, regional, national or UN levels that acknowledge human-caused global warming exists and is a problem but either a) support the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industries as they veer into “extreme” extraction techniques, b) support “fig-leaf” or ineffective climate policies such as most existing emissions trading schemes, c) continue to subscribe to the fiction that natural gas is a “bridge” fuel to a greener future or d) some combination a) , b) and c). Many of the center and left-leaning political party leaders and political representatives in the US and around the world fit into this category. Barack Obama is a leading example of category “d)”. Likewise the leadership of fossil fuel exporting nations such as Russia that acknowledge climate change but are sluggish to implement effective policies are similarly primarily responsible for global warming. The weakness of the policy proposals and leadership on climate of this group is a reflection of compromises that these groups make with climate deniers, with the power of the fossil fuel lobbies, and with the dominance over the past 30 years of neoliberal theories of government’s fallibility and the market’s infallibility. However their stance and the policy infrastructure they have erected are, in many ways, a dangerous diversion of attention from designing and implementing more effective and timely climate action that involves both direct investment by government as well as regulation of markets via rule-making and tax policy/direct carbon pricing. Both “Lip-Service Leaders” and “Denier Leaders” are avoiding the difficult though necessary confrontation with both the fossil fuel industries and with their own political constituencies. These leaders have turned away from the task of preparing their constituents to wean themselves off or pay more for fossil-dependent conveniences available in developed nations. Additionally these leaders have avoided providing their constituents with the public funding and programmatic guidance to enable them to devote themselves to remaking the energy and transportation basis of our societies for their and for future generations’ benefit.
3) “Climate Destruction Sponsors” – There are some extremely wealthy people, most of which have or have had substantial investments in fossil fuel extraction and sales who have funded climate science denial efforts by institutions such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute as a means of delaying action on climate change. These are the funders of the odd collection of scientists that Naomi Oreskes has termed “the Merchants of Doubt”. The Koch Brothers and the corporate leadership of Exxon/Mobil are the most famous of these funders, who also have almost their entire business empires devoted to fossil fuels. There are also a large tranches of funding that are donated as “dark money” via Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund directed in the direction of delay of climate action. These sponsors (who may also be profiteers from delay of effective climate action) cloak their activities in the rhetoric of “freedom” or the fictions of free market economics, distracting themselves from the physical consequences of our emissions trajectory as well as distracting others from their often substantial financial interests in climate destruction.
4) “Climate Destruction Profiteers” – There is substantial overlap between the “sponsors” group and those who profit from the destruction of the climate but what I am calling the “sponsors” have shrouded themselves in the ideological mantle of the dominant neoliberal political philosophy that idealizes markets. The Koch Brothers are of course also profiteers on the destruction of the climate as are major stockholders and share owners of large and medium-size fossil fuel companies. There are others, high level employees and strategists of major oil companies, who are driving the business of fossil fuel extraction and can no longer take the defense that they were just following orders. The same goes for passive fossil fuel investors, who have become the target of the “Go Fossil Free” fossil fuel divestment campaign. At some point, at lower level employees or small service businesses within the oil, gas and coal industries, the argument can be made that the existential needs of their families keep them in the business, rather than the accumulation of profits. At these lower levels of the organization or market segment, it can be no longer said that they bear primary responsibility for climate catastrophe and their work or business would simply be replaced if they withdrew bids for business, if they quit, or would be fired if they sought to change the terms of their work.
5) “Media Deniers/Equivocators” – Newspapers, magazines, television, and Internet journalism play key roles in telling people what they should think about and how they should think about it. While there are obvious prominent owners of right-leaning media, like Rupert Murdoch of Fox News and News Corporation who are climate change deniers or “doubters”, the media in general in the United States and other key countries has suppressed or downplayed the story of global warming, delegating it to obscure web-only blogs or leaving it out entirely of their offerings. Instead of a steady drumbeat of stories reminding people of the present danger, media outlets have tended to reflect the “comfort zone” of a political spectrum where one side is devoted to half-measures and lip service while the other is militantly against the idea of human-caused global warming because it contradicts their political-economic ideology. Many media outlets for too long have seen their work as trying to “split the difference” between two opposed sides on a number of issues, including global warming, rather than investigate the terrifying facts, report those facts as well as who is representing those facts more truthfully. In the United States, a critical role has been played by among others by environmental reporter Andrew Revkin, who at a critical point turned over his blog at the New York Times to largely serve as a forum for doubt and contrarianism about basic climate science. It cannot be underestimated how much the doubt sowed by supposed environmental journalists has distracted readers from the critical questions of how to deal with impending climate catastrophe.
6) “Characterological Contrarians/Merchants of Doubt” – The fodder for much media coverage of climate change has been supplied by the self-styled courageous “skeptics” that claim to challenge the climate science consensus that human activity is driving global warming on supposedly scientific grounds. Using scant data and ignoring most findings that suggest warming, these “merchants of doubt” have attempted to suggest that political motivations and/or sloppy science has led to the what would amount to a massive “conspiracy” of climate scientists to assert that humans are causing global warming. While in science, true skepticism is welcome, the climate “skeptics” play primarily to a political and media audience and some have received funding from the “Climate Destruction Sponsors”. While some deniers may be driven by a psychological compulsion towards contrarianism, this also leads to the “reward” for some of enjoying a great deal of attention as well as some financial support. Whether paid or simply driven to contradict for psychological reasons, this group has with the aid of the media and their sponsors, helped humanity continue on its destructive path vis-à-vis the climate, providing reassurance to the ill-informed and to those with more malevolent or destructive intentions.
7) “Fossil-Dependent Electric Utility Executives & Large Shareholders” – One of the prime consumers of coal and natural gas is the electricity generation industry, which consumes almost all of the coal produced in the world, and a high percentage of the natural gas. While many electric utilities have built their capital intensive infrastructure around the availability of fossil energy to drive their generators, utilities have had the choice to lead the transition to a zero net emissions energy system via the use of renewable and nuclear energy to generate electricity. Electric utilities have for the most part only under the duress of regulators moved towards renewable energy and energy efficiency. Some have made gestures towards acknowledging that we live in a carbon-constrained world, only to continue on with the fossil fueled status quo. New nuclear generation has not been an option in many areas, as there have been prohibitive technical, environmental and political challenges associated with building and operating new nuclear plants. Many utilities continue to undermine the spread of renewable energy, in part because it has meant a loosening of their monopoly on electricity generation. Unfortunately this has also meant with few exceptions that they remain prime supporters of the coal and natural gas industries.
8) “Propagandists of Neoliberalism/Neoliberal Government, Corporate and Financial Elites” – The discovery of global warming and attempts at concerted climate action have occurred within the neoliberal era, (1978 to the present). Neoliberalism is a political-economic philosophy derived from neoclassical economic dogmas and “Austrian” political philosophy that persistently holds up the idealized construct of “free markets” as infallible (and supposedly real or about-to-be-realized) and government as the nexus of fallibility in society. Neoliberalism’s over-praising of markets has supported an idealization of an increasingly deregulated private financial sector among political elites who came to believe that finance should lead the economy and was a magical fountain of wealth. Subsequently, economies in the last 30 years have become financialized, de-industrialized at the geographic metropolitan “center” where political and economic power is concentrated, highly economically unequally, and burdened down with mountains of private (corporate, financial and household) debt. Neoliberalism is the overarching current political-economic philosophy of elites, and some of these elites may believe that global warming is a problem (some are “Lip-service Leaders” or the corporate equivalent) but their neoliberal philosophy makes actual effective government action on climate to seem “beyond the pale” to them. Beyond these elites steeped in neoliberal dogma, the economists and pundits that continue to reinforce and reproduce the dogma of neoliberalism are equally responsible for removing the most important tool in the fight against climate catastrophe from the table, i.e. government committed to the public good. The following are the real effects of neoliberal governance and corporate policy that lead its propagandists and practitioners to be primarily responsible for climate catastrophe:
In the first 20 years of carbon policy, as noted above, policymakers’ almost exclusive focus on “market-based” policy rather than the combined political-economy as a whole including direct public investment and utilizing the policy space available to monetarily sovereign government in the area of fiscal policy more generally.
In turn, the choice of a market regulation that relies on a financialized concept (emissions trading) rather than a binding tax obligation. Emissions trading systems have been intentionally riddled with loopholes to enable companies to postpone cutting emissions as well as mute the carbon price signal that would favor the lower-emitting products or services on the market.
The politically- or philosophically-motivated devaluation of the reputation of government by neoliberal academics, business leaders and government officials has made much more difficult the effective deployment of government to address climate change. Governments not markets, particularly monetarily sovereign national governments, are the central institution to transform the energy and systems and social practices that require fossil fuel inputs.
The ballooning of private debt in step with worldwide ballooning of real estate/asset bubbles is a product of a financialized political economy that has shunned public provision of financial assets via government spending in favor of debt issuance by banks. Mounting private debt claims a portion of nominal economic growth for debt service and therefore increased emissions that contributes only to the welfare of the credit issuers, mostly large financial institutions or speculative traders and not to overall social welfare or, on average, net incomes of the borrowers.
9) “Austerity-Mongers” – A subset of neoliberals and the latest iteration of the neoliberal philosophy after the 2007-2008 financial crisis are the advocates of fiscal austerity, which is a hyperaggressive campaign of sabotaging government functions from within by arbitrary restriction of government spending, leading to the giveaway of public functions and assets to supposedly more efficient “market” actors, i.e. private corporations. The pretext for this fire-sale of the public sector is the intellectual and/or politically-motivated confusion in mainstream economics of financially-constrained local, regional, and Euro-Zone nations that do not control their currencies and the governments of countries like the US, Great Britain, Japan and many others that issue their own currencies. Austerity-mongers claim that all public entities are “running out of money” for social programs and public spending projects, when the latter can at will create more currency units to pay for necessary projects. Austerity advocates are knowingly or unknowingly the useful idiots of the bloated financial sector, as artificially limiting government expenditure and giveaways to public assets, makes more room for and dependence upon private debt issuance. While some austerity mongers, like David Cameron in Britain, claim to care about global warming and may believe that the fictional shortage of government money he promotes is a stand-in for the real shortage of atmospheric assets of the earth, the overall effect of austerity is to, as with neoliberalism more generally, to undermine the critically important instrument of government at exactly the time when it is needed most. One leader of the U.S. austerity drive, Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson, seems to have no position on climate change but nevertheless continues on his quest to hand financial dominion over the economy to Wall Street and scuttle the power of government to mobilize real assets by public spending for public purposes. The timing of this drive for power by the private financial sector, cloaked in the rhetoric of fiscal prudence, could not come at a more inopportune time for the collective good of the current and future generations.
10) “Leaders of Large Organizations without a Low-/Zero-Carbon Strategy” – Besides electric utilities, much fossil energy or electricity generated by combusting fossil fuels is consumed by large corporations, non-profit organizations, and departments/ministries of various governments throughout the world. These large organizations are some of the major customers for oil companies, gas and electric utilities, sustaining demand for fossil energy. While a high-enough carbon tax/fee would provide a financial incentive for organizations to transition off carbon-based energy, it makes sense for many to anticipate this move by starting an energy transition before it is a requirement. Those organizations that move sooner will have greater advantages and also contribute less to emissions overall. For some sectors this is much more difficult than others and therefore the obligation is greater for leaders of organizations in sectors where technological or organizational process choices already exist.
Secondary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
Those primarily responsible for accelerating and exacerbating the degradation of the climate do not generally make decisions in isolation about energy policy or the course of our society but as part of larger social systems in which there are many participants, workers, co-beneficiaries and counter-parties. The use of fossil fuels has made the physical lives of many in these countries much easier, as human labor is either aided or replaced by mechanical work fueled largely by fossil fuels. While these fuels may have brought into the production process primarily to increase profits for the owners of a business, the mechanical work of machines has had secondary benefits for workers especially with the advent of consumer durables and Fordism, the ability of those in the lower middle and working classes to afford major energy using devices like automobiles.
The powers and convenience conferred on poor, working-class, and middle-class individuals by participation in a majority fossil fueled energy system are great in comparison to the existence of those in “Dickensian” early industrial society and in comparison to those in underdeveloped societies currently. Much of the relative physical ease of those in developed nations would be much sought-after by those who must do hard physical labor to enjoy just a basic and uncertain subsistence in those underdeveloped societies. Most residents of the wealthier OECD countries (Western Europe, North America, Australia, Japan) and many of the wealthier residents of the less wealthy OECD (Eastern Europe, Mexico) and developing countries have secondary responsibility for impending climate catastrophe.
It is patronizing and fatalistic to assume that people in positions of relative but not absolute powerlessness, who nevertheless benefit from a high carbon-emitting society, are entirely bereft of the ability to chose and therefore of power. With that power comes moral responsibility, especially as their/our activities and choices lead to durable “memorials in the sky” in the form of carbon emissions.
So while there are those with primary responsibility for the ongoing climate catastrophe, who have had a central decision-making role, there are largely passive beneficiaries who can additionally be used as ideological cover by those with primary responsibility. The benefits that the services that this broader swath of the population enjoys from our energy- and carbon-intensive society can be put forward as a quasi-sacred duty, by those who defend the energy status quo. And many who enjoy these conveniences agree that these are indeed valuable goods or services offered by our energy-intensive society.
However, that these enjoyments are leading to a negation of all of our work and our desires to build a future for our family and loved ones should give us all pause. The question for each remains: “Which is more valuable: our current satisfactions or the satisfactions of many future generations?” It is this, what I am calling “secondary”, moral responsibility that can be the basis of action as citizens and consumers start upon the road of transforming societies and economies. Without recognizing this secondary moral responsibility, a movement for climate action will be inconsequential and unserious.
Prospectively, the movement for climate solutions draws from those who are secondarily responsible for climate change as political activists and leaders. This process involves recognizing one’s own agency and choices, an ethical process, and fomenting a broader discussion and subsequent actions that remedy to some degree the damages done to the viability of the earth for human life and civilization.
Tertiary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
Furthermore, there are many people in the world, mostly the billions of poor in the developing and underdeveloped world, who may wish to enjoy the ease and benefits of a supplementary-energy powered society but have not yet enjoyed them. Or they may be satisfied with some version of their own current lifestyle with or without the addition of some of the conveniences offered by supplementary-energy powered technology. While they have had very little of the benefits of fossil fuel use, there are still matters of choice and moral agency which are entirely their prerogative, as the climate catastrophe sweeps the globe.
Those with tertiary moral responsibility, who aspire to a better life, have a choice to pursue a more or less carbon-intensive lifestyle and development path, even as they are by international agreements entitled to pollute more than those who pollute less. Secondly, as the effects of climate change mount, it is incumbent on them, as it is every individual, to help protect their families and their nation more generally from the effects of climate chaos. They could become powerful political agents and world political leaders, which is a process that involves moral choices, in favor of climate solutions that makes the earth more habitable for all.
Degrees of Responsibility Counteracts Psychological “Splitting”
While the notion of degrees of responsibility may seem obvious, this is a departure from the assumption of a “perpetrator-victim” or “transgressor-transgressed” model for relationships assumed by many who discuss the relative blame or varying moral rights with regard to underdevelopment and climate change. In politics and in other stress-ridden domains of life, there are tendencies for people to engage in milder and more severe forms of the psychological defense mechanism called “splitting”. In “splitting”, a defense that emerges in early childhood, children imagine that some people or things are “all-good” and some are “all-bad”. They are “split” because the child cannot see “shades of grey” in goodness and badness. Many of the fairy-tales of childhood are built around children’s attachment to “all-good” and fear of “all-bad” characters.
There are contexts in adult life where splitting is a cultural norm though one could argue it also has deleterious effects. The adversarial process in legal proceedings as well as political conflicts between parties are two of the main cultural institutions where a polarization of good and bad is encouraged in peacetime and in wartime or international conflicts, there is often a tacit acceptance of jingoism in public discourse. In many parts of popular culture particular in action and suspense movies, television and games, the polarization of good and bad becomes the prelude to various forms of combat and dehumanization of antagonists.
Splitting is particularly unrealistic in dealing with the differential responsibilities for climate catastrophe. The entire developed world is implicated by its dependence upon fossil fuels to function yet some have over the past few decades struggled valiantly to change this while others have fought to keep the status quo. Some who have fought for what they thought were climate solutions, have in my opinion and given the trajectory of emissions, been fighting for ineffective instruments and with the wrong allies (the finance sector). Even if we have been fighting for the most effective and appropriate tools to reduce emissions, we are still to some degree morally responsible for the impending climate catastrophe. On the other side, those who are primarily responsible are not necessarily “all-bad” but they still are primarily responsible for causing grievous harm to the climate that has been favorable to human growth and civilization.
Meeting the Evolutionary Challenge of the Anthropocene
Already a different animal than co-evolved species, humanity has initiated as a byproduct of its activity over the last several decades, if not before, a new geological era that scientists are calling the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene means that what marks this era in terms of geologic phenomena are the traces of human activity on the biosphere, the atmosphere, and even the geosphere, of which the mining and burning of fossil fuels is one of the most powerful agents. But human-caused climate change is only the most critical of a number of ways in which humanity is putting its imprint on the planet, having effects that are largely unintended by people with feedbacks that are out of the immediate control of humanity.
This places humanity in an unprecedented situation as a species. While many different animal and plant species can be said to shape their various ecosystems by activity “pre-programmed” by their genomes, no single species until human beings has had its own future within its voluntary control via the outsized impacts it has had through its tool creation and use and through the ability to coordinate social activity, think alone and deliberate together via the use of language. Humanity is both endangering its own future and has the potential to secure, within the limits of untoward events occurring in the universe or an upsurge in violent geological activity, its own future.
In order to meet the evolutionary challenge of an environment that no longer will accept the byproducts of human activity without destroying our future, we will have to care enough about ourselves and future generations to institute new systems and sets of rules that coordinate nationally and internationally our use of the environment, starting with the concentration of warming gases in the atmosphere. A recognition of our agency (our “ability to do”) and our ethical choices in the immediate past, now and in the future, is an important starting place for this evolutionary journey.
(The Contraction and Convergence Equity Framework)
Perhaps the most challenging policy issue raised by climate change is how to fairly allocate responsibility among nations, regions, states, organizations, and individuals to reduce global greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions to non-dangerous levels. This problem is generally referred to as the problem of “equity” in the climate change regime. It a central issue in climate change policy formation because each government policy on reducing the threat of climate change is implicitly a position on that government’s fair share of safe global emissions. In addition, climate change will continue to get worse unless each country reduces its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore, “equity” is not only a challenging issue in forming climate policies, it is perhaps the most critical policy question facing the international community.
This article identifies 10 reasons why the equity framework known as “contraction and convergence” (C&C) is the most preferable of all the equity frameworks under serious discussion around the world. The end of this paper will acknowledge some alleged limitations of C&C yet explain why these limitations should be dealt with in one of several possible ways while adopting the C&C framework internationally.
C&C was first proposed in 1990 by the London-based non-governmental Global Commons Institute. (Meyer, 2000) ( GCI, 2009) Basically, C&C is not a prescription per se, but rather a way of demonstrating how a global prescription could be negotiated and organized. (Meyer, 1999:305) Implementing C&C requires two main steps. As a first step, countries must to agree on a long-term global stabilization level for atmospheric ghg concentrations. Although a warming limit of 2 degrees C has been preliminarily agreed to in international negotiations, subject to the acknowledged need to examine whether the limit should be reduced to 1.5 degrees C in studies that are underway, once a warming limit is finalized it must be translated into a ghg atmospheric concentration goal and then a global ghg emissions budget can be calculated. As a second step, countries need to negotiate a convergence date, that is a date at which time the emissions allocated to each country should converge on equal per-capita entitlements (“convergence”) while staying within the carbon budget. During the transition period, a yearly global limitation is devised which contracts over time as the per-capita entitlements of developed countries decrease while those of most developing countries increase. C&C would allow nations to achieve their per capita based targets through trading from countries that have excess allotments.
And so the heart of C&C is the idea that justice requires that rights to use the atmosphere as a carbon sink must be based upon the idea that all human beings have an equal right to use the global commons, the Earth’s atmosphere. Because it would be impossible to achieve equal per capita emissions allocations in the short-term, C&C allows higher emitting nations to converge on a equal per capita target at some future date thus giving these nations some time to achieve an equal per capita target goal.
II. 10 Reasons To Support C&C
C&C is the most preferable equity framework for the following reasons:
1. Climate change is a classic problem of distributive justice. Distributive justice holds that all people should be treated as equals in any allocation of public goods unless some other distribution can be justified on morally supportable grounds. And so distributive justice entails the idea that at all allocations of public goods should start with a with a presumption of equal rights to public goods. Yet, distributive justice does not require that all shares of public goods be equal but put puts the burden on those who want to move away from equal shares to demonstrate that their justification for their requested entitlement to non-equal shares is based upon morally relevant grounds. Therefore someone cannot justify his or her desire to use a greater share of public resources on the fact that he or she has blue eyes or that he or she will maximize his or her economic self-interest through greater shares of public goods because such justifications fail to pass the test of morally supportable justifications for being treated differently. Because C&C ends up at some time in the future with equal rights for all individuals to use the atmosphere as a sink, it is strongly consistent with theories of distributive justice. Although distributive justice would also allow for other morally relevant considerations to be considered in allocating ghg emissions that diverge from strict equality, including such considerations as historical ghg emissions levels, these other considerations can be built into a C&C framework either by negotiating the convergence dates in a C&C regime or in side-agreements on such issues as financing technologies for low-emitting nations at levels that would allow them to achieve per capita emissions limitations. C&C therefore is strongly consistent with theories of distributive justice because equal per capita emissions is the ultimate outcome of C&C even if that outcome is modified to take into account other legitimate equitable issues in negotiations by changing the convergence date or in side-agreements that finance compliance for poor nations that need assistance in achieving equal per capita emissions limitations.
2. Allocating ghg emissions on an equal per capita emissions basis is consistent with the virtually universally recognized ethical idea that all people should treat others as they wish to be treated. And so basing allocations on equal rights is the least contentious of all ethical theories of how to allocate public goods. Although there are are other ethically relevant facts that arguably should be considered in an allocation of ghg emissions such as economic capability to reduce emissions or historical emissions levels, these considerations are more controversial ethically particularly in regard to how they are operationalized in setting a numeric targets and therefore are more amenable to negotiated settlements on issues such as when convergence on equal per capita levels will be achieved rather than in setting basic allocation target levels.
3. Equal per capita emissions levels are also consistent with human rights theories about the duty to prevent climate change. That is, human rights are based upon the uncontroversial ethical theory that humans should treat each other as they would like to be treated because all people, regardless of where they are, should be treated with respect. Since the outcome of C&C is equal per capita rights, it is completely consistent with the idea of treating all people with equal respect, the foundation of human rights obligations. Because climate change undeniably violates several non-controversial human rights including the right to life, security, and food among other rights, climate change is widely acknowledged as a human rights problem. If climate change allocations are considered to be in fulfillment of human rights duties, then arguments based upon economic self-interest in setting ghg emissions targets are not an acceptable justification for avoiding human rights obligations. This is so because human rights obligations are viewed to ethically trump other values such as economic self interest or utility maximization as has been explained in significant detail in recent entries on this website. If human rights are violated by climate change, costs to those causing climate change entailed by policies to reduce the threat of climate change are not relevant for policy. That is if a person is violating human rights, he or she should desist even if it is costly to them. Therefore because a C&C framework has the strongest obvious link to human rights, if it were agreed to by the international community it would provide a strong argument against those who refuse to limit their emissions to an equal per capita level on the bases of cost to them.
4. Setting a ghg emissions target based upon distributive justice requires consideration of facts determined by looking backward, such as levels of historical ghg emissions, and issues determined by looking forward, such as what amount of the global commons should each individual be entitled to for personal use. Only equal per capita entitlements to the use a global commons satisfies future focused allocations issues without ethical controversy. And so an allocation that converges on equal per capita emissions allocations sometime in the future is more than any other allocation framework likely to be seen as universally just as far as future entitlements issues are concerned. And so, the C&C should be supported because it is most consistent with equal entitlements to use global commons resources.
5, The C&C framework is the simplest of the dozen or so equity allocation frameworks which have been seriously considered in international climate change negotiations. Because it is simpler, it will likely be easier to negotiate than the other equity frameworks which have received serious consideration. Its simplicity is derived from the fact that its focus is narrowly on climate change justice issues. Thus it is not complicated by other global injustice issues which are not climate change related yet which are considerations in some other equity frameworks . For instance, other proposed ghg allocation formula try and remedy economic injustice among nations, issues which are worthy of international attention yet greatly complicate the ethical issues which need to be considered in setting ghg targets. Because C&C is simple, it is very pragmatic.
6. Objections to equal per capita allocations have sometimes been made by representatives from high emitting nations such as the United States because of the enormous ghg emissions reductions which would be required of it to reach equal per capita emissions levels of diminishing allowable safe global emissions. Yet emissions reductions that would be required of high emitting nations under other proposed equity frameworks would be even steeper because they take into considerations issues such as, for example, historical emissions, economic wealth of nations, and ability of nations to pay. For this reason C&C holds the best chance of being accepted by the international community compared to other equity frameworks provided other issues that raise legitimate equity concerns including historical emissions levels are taken into account in some way in climate negotiations. These other justice concerns should be understood to be refinements of C&C rather than replacements of C&C because the C&C framework was always flexible enough to take into account additional issues relevant to distributive justice.
7. Many observers of international global efforts to achieve a solution to climate change argue that there has been too much emphasis on the obligations of nations while obligations of individuals and regional governments have largely been ignored. These observers argue that this focus on nations has helped high-emitting individuals and regional governments to largely escape public scrutiny. Because C&C obligations are premised on determining the obligations of nations based upon equal per capita shares, C&C can be seamlessly applied to state and regional governments and individuals around the world. If, for instance, a C&C framework determines that the world should converge on a per capita emissions target of 2 tons per person by 2025, it is therefore a straightforward deduction to argue that all individuals around the world should limit their emissions to be below 2 tons per person by 2025 at a minimum.
8. Some of the issues that proponents of other equity frameworks have argued should be considered in allocating national emissions targets such as historical emissions or the level of economic development in poor countries are already in serious consideration in international climate change negotiation agenda focused on such matters as: (a) financial responsibility for adaptation, (b) responsibility for loses and damages for climate change, and (c) financing of climate friendly technologies for developing countries. Because of this the ethical issues raised by historical emissions or economic ability of nations to achieve a per capita allocation could be relegated to other issues already being negotiated in international climate change negotiations while emissions allocations targets are allocated on the basis of C&C.
9. Establishing a norm that each person is only entitled to emit ghgs on an equal per capita basis would also help to draw lines about other contentious ethical issues raised by climate change such as how to count responsibility for historical emissions. Determining how to translate historical emissions into legal obligations raises a host of contentious issues including when to start counting historical emissions. This question could be simplified by first determining reasonable per capita emissions at various moments in history. In addition, determining liability for future excess emissions could be simplified if there was an agreement on acceptable per capita emissions. And so looking at the problem of climate change through a per capita lens helps draw lines about other climate change policy matters which will need to be faced. Therefore the establishment of a C&C framework would help with other policy questions that must be faced in the future.
10. Many have argued that responsibility for reducing ghg emissions should not only be based upon production of ghgs within a nation, the current presumption of international negotiations, but on products consumed in a nation but produced in another nations in processes which emitted ghgs. Although this shift from production ghg to consumption related ghg as a way of establishing national responsibility to achieve ghg emissions reduction targets is not likely to happen in the short-term, those who desire to assign liability on the basis of consumption could also use the C&C framework more easier than other proposed equity frameworks.
III. Limitations of C&C
Other proposed equity frameworks were developed to deal with a few alleged limitations of C&C. (As we have explained, C&C was always flexible enough to deal with additional issues relevant to distributive justice and therefore these alleged criticisms did not take into considerations the inherent flexibility of C&C.)
For instance, a second allocation formula which has received serious attention by the international community is the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework ( GDR) (Baer et al., 2008). GDR was developed, according to its proponents, because C&C does not leave adequate ghg emissions to allow developing nations to develop to levels that would allow them to escape grinding poverty. And so, proponents of GDR argue that any targets developed under a C&C framework will not be fair to poor nations and therefore will not be accepted by developing nations. We agree that several additional equitable issues including the justice dimensions of historical emissions levels must be dealt with for a C&C approach to be fair to low-emitting poor countries because emissions targets simply based upon equal per capita emissions to allocate the extraordinarily small carbon budget that is left to avoid dangerous climate change will leave almost nothing for low emitting nations to grow economically. The questions is not whether these issues need to be considered in setting targets, but rather how they are considered while maintaining the moral force of equal per capita rights to use the atmosphere as a carbon sink.
The Brazilian government has also developed a proposed equity framework based upon the need to take historical emissions levels seriously. Both the proposed GDR framework and the proposed Brazilian framework more directly deal with legitimate justice issues which are not expressly initially dealt with under C&C. Yet C&C can be adopted in combination with other agreements and adjustments to C&C assumptions that deal directly with the equitable issues more directly considered by the other proposed equity frameworks. For instance, the convergence dates in the C&C framework can be modified to take into consideration s0me historical emissions issues. In addition, separate agreements on such matters as financing carbon friendly technologies in poor, low emitting nations can deal with issues of need to assist developing nations achieve otherwise just ghg emissions targets.
In summary, some of the alleged limitations of C&C can be dealt in other agreements while retaining the basic structure of C&C. And so, for the 10 reasons above, the C&C should be adopted by the international community not withstanding the legitimate need to consider other issues relevant to distributive justice in setting ghg emissions reduction targets including levels of historical emissions and financial ability of poor nations to comply with per capita emissions limitations. For this reason, C&C is the most preferable and practical equitable framework for allocating climate change obligations among governments.
Meyer, A., (2000, Contraction and Convergence, The Global Solution to Climate Change, Ttones, UK: Green Books,
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law and Professor, Widener University School of LawPart-time Professor, Nanjing University of Science Information and Technology, Nanjing, China
This is the second entry which helps explain why US state ghg targets are woefully inadequate in light of the most recent science. The first entry included two charts provided by the Global Commons Institute. The following chart also prepared by the Global Commons Institute also shows what US states would need to do to reduce ghg emissions by 80 %, a level which is still woefully inadequate in light of the most recent science as we explained in the last entry hear. This chart is available for closer inspection at: http://www.gci.org.uk/images/US_Emissions_Data_by_State_with_Map.pdf
In addition to depicting state by state reductions pathways that would achieve a reduction of 80%, the numbers on this chart identify what this 80% reduction would accomplish in reducing per capita emissions in each state.
Despite the steepness of reductions depicted in this chart, as we explained in the last post, they are not sufficient in regard to the need to keep global emissions from exceeding a 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget that is the upper limit of global emissions if the world seeks to have a reasonable change of avoiding dangerous climate change. (See the prior post for a fuller explanation of the carbon budget limitation)
As we explained in the last entry, any ghg target must implicitly make an assumption about two issues that are rarely explained. They are: (a) an assumption about what ghg emissions budget will be achieved by the target that will avoid dangerous climate change, the carbon budget assumption, and (b) a position on what distributive justice principle was followed by the government entity when the target was selected, the equity and justice assumption. Although these assumptions are implicitly made in setting any ghg emissions target, government entities usually escape expressly identifying these assumptions. Because these assumptions are key to critically reflecting on the adequacy of any ghg target, governments should be required to make their assumptions explicit about what carbon budget the target will help achieveand what principle of distributive justice the government reduction target relied in setting the ghg emissions target.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law and Professor
Widener University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Science and Technology
Several charts produced by the Global Commons Institute vividly demonstrate the woeful inadequacy of both the US federal government’s and US states’ commitments on climate change in light of the most recent climate change science.
These charts are extremely important because there is virtually no discussion in the US press of the utter and undeniable inadequacy of commitments on climate change made by the US federal and state governments.
These charts help visualize complex information that is not well understood by the vast majority of US citizens, yet these facts must be understood to comprehend the utter inadequacy of the US federal government and US state governments response to climate change. Thus, these charts help explain both why the US commitment to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 as well as targets that have been set by even those US states which have shown some leadership on climate change must now be understood as utterly inadequate in light of the most recent climate change science.
As we shall see below, in setting a government target for ghg emissions two clusters of issues need to be considered which have largely been ignored when US policy makers have set ghg emissions targets. One is the issue of global carbon budgets for the entire world needed to prevent dangerous climate change. We will call this the carbon budget issue. The second is the unquestionable need of all governments to set a target in light of that government’s fair share of safe global emissions. This is required by distributive justice. We will call this the equity or justice issue. All ghg emissions targets are implicitly a positions on the carbon budget issue and the equity and justice issue, yet policy makers rarely discuss their implicit positions on these issues and the US media is largely not covering the budget and justice issues implicit in any US policy on climate change. Any entities identifying a ghg emissions reduction target must be expected to expressly identify their assumptions about what remaining carbon budget and justice and equity consideration were made in setting the target.
I. The First Chart-US States’ Emissions Reductions Commitments Required to Prevent Dangerous Climate Change and Adjusted To Take Equity Into Account.
The following chart depicts what US states emissions commitments should be to prevent dangerous climate change in light of the most recent climate change science and the need to take justice into account in setting ghg emissions targets. This chart can be examined in more detail on the Global Commons Institute website at http://www.gci.org.uk/images/Don_Brown_All_State_draft_[complete].pdf Clinking on this URL should access a pdf file that will allow for a closer inspection of this chart which can be further enhanced by using the zoom function.
What is most notable about this chart is that the US federal government and US state g0vernments will need to reduce their ghg emissions extraordinarily steeply in the next few decades, far beyond what has been committed to. This chart, in combination with the next chart, helps visualize why the current commitments of even those US states which have demonstrated some considerable leadership on climate change need to be increased to levels that represent the state’s fair share of safe global emissions.
a. The Carbon Budget Issue
These steep reductions commitments are needed in light of the most recent scientific understanding of the climate problem facing the world. A carbon emissions budget for the entire world is needed to prevent dangerous climate change and was identified by IPCC in 2013. This budget is of profound significance for national and state and regional ghg emissions reductions targets yet it is infrequently being discussed in global media and has virtually been completely ignored by the US media. To give the world an approximately 66% chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees C, the entire global community must work together to keep global ghg emissions from exceeding approximately 250 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. The 250 metric gigatonne budget figure has been widely recognized as a reasonable budget goal by many scientists and organizations including most recently the International Geosphere Biosphere Program. The 250 metric ton number is based upon IPCC’s original budget number after adjusting for carbon equivalence of non-CO2 gases that have already been emitted but were not considered initially by IPCC. The practical meaning of this budget is that when the 250 gigtatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions have been emitted the entire world’s ghg emissions must be zero to give reasonable hope of limiting warming to the 2 degrees C. Since the world is now emitting carbon dioxide equivalent emissions at approximately 10 metric gigatons per year, the world will run out of emissions under the budget in approximately 25 years at current emissions rates. This is a daunting challenge for the world particularly in light of the fact that global emissions levels continue to increase.
A 2 degree C warming limit was agreed to by almost every nation in the world in international climate change negotiations in 2009 in Copenhagen because it is widely believed by the majority of mainstream scientists that warming greater 2 degree C will create very harsh climate impacts for the world. In fact many scientists believe that the warming limit should be lower than 2 degree C to prevent dangerous climate change and as a result the international community has also agreed to study whether the warming limit should be lowered to 1.5 degree C. The report on whether a 1.5 degree C warming limit should be adopted is to be completed in 2015. In addition, some scientists, including former NASA scientist James Hansen who is now at Columbia University, believe that atmospheric concentrations are already too high and that atmospheric concentrations of ghg should actually be lowered from their current levels of approximately 400 ppm CO2 to 350 ppm CO2 to prevent dangerous climate impacts. If, of course, there is a consensus that the current warming limit should be lower than 2 degrees C, the slopes in the above chart would need to be even steeper. (For a good introduction to the implications of the 2 degree C warming limit see the short video by International Geosphere Biosphere Programme)
Although there has been some very limited discussion of this in the US press, the staggering global challenge entailed by keeping global emission within a roughly 250 gigaton budget, not to mention a budget premised on 1.5 degrees C, does not take into account the additional undeniable need of high-emitting nations, states, and regional governments to take equity and distributive justice into account in setting ghg emissions reduction targets is not being covered in US media hardly at all.
b. The Justice or Equity Issue
Under any reasonable interpretation of what equity and justice requires, high-emitting nations and regions (including the United States federal government and US states) will need to reduce their ghg emissions at significantly greater rates than lower emitting government entities because of: (1) significantly higher per capita emissions in developed nations (2) the dramatically higher historical emissions of most developed countries compared to poorer countries, and (3) the need of poor countries to be able to aspire to economic growth rate that will get them out of grinding poverty. If equity is not taken into account in setting national ghg targets, poor countries will have their much lower per capita emissions levels frozen into place if national governments set targets based upon equal percentage reduction amounts. And so there are at least three very strong reasons why any target of a high emitting nation or state government must take justice into account in setting its emissions reduction target:
(1) Allocating emissions among nations to achieve a global target is inherently a problem of distributive justice. To not take justice into account in quantifying ghg emissions targets guarantees an unjust global response to climate change.
(2) All nations including the United States have already agreed to reduce their emissions based upon “equity,” not national self-interest when they ratified the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change.
(3) To not consider justice when a developed nation sets a ghg reduction target would be extraordinarily and obviously unfair to poor, low emitting nations, many of which are most vulnerable to the harshest climate change impacts and have done little to cause the existing problem.
The numbers in the above chart are based upon an equity framework known as Contraction and Convergence (C&C). The C&C framework consists of reducing overall emissions of ghg to a safe levels from all nations (contraction) and each nation bringing its emissions eventually to equal per capita levels for all countries (convergence). Although justification of the C&C framework is beyond the scope of this entry, we will argue in a future article that it is the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks receiving international attention and therefore should be adopted by the international community as it can be adjusted to take other distributive justice issues into account not expressly initially considered in the C&C framework such as historical emissions and the need of poor-developing countries to grow economically. Because nations can negotiate the convergence date in the C&C framework, it is also a good tool to negotiate a global solution to climate change. It is therefore the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks under serious consideration by the international community although there are other equity frameworks that have some supporters including the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework (GDR). (We will explain our position on these issues in much more detail in a future entry.)
Yet, for the purposes of showing the utter inadequacy of existing US federal government and US state commitments, the C&C framework is very useful because other equity frameworks which have received some attention and respect in international discussions of what equity requires of nations would require even steeper reductions for the US and US state governments. For instance the GDR framework would require the US to be carbon negative by between 2025 and 2030. The C&C framework is therefore a very non-controversial way of demonstrating the utter inadequacy of developed nations ghg emissions reductions commitments because other equity frameworks would require even greater reductions from developed countries.
The above chart demonstrates the implications of this recent science for US states as well as the inadequacy of the US federal government commitment in light of a total global budget limitation of approximately 250 gigatons of carbon equivalent emissions.. The steepness of the curves in this chart are driven both by the limitations of the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget and the need to take equity into account. (The Global Commons Institute has a computer graphic tool on its web site, the Carbon Budget Accounting Tool, that allows those who would like to consider alternatives to the 250 gigaton budget to visualize the effects of other budget numbers on the shape of the ghg reductions pathways needed, the differences in environmental impacts, and many other policy considerations.)
Like any attempt to determine what a ghg national target should be, the above chart makes a few assumptions, including but not limited to, about what equity requires not only of the United States but of individual states, when global emissions will peak, and what the carbon emissions budget should be to avoid dangerous climate change. Although different assumptions would lead to different slopes of the emissions reductions pathways that are needed to remain below the 250 gigaton global carbon limitation, the chart depicts very reasonable assumptions about what needs to be done to stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget while taking equity into account. And so, without doubt the US government and US state’s targets are woefully inadequate. To stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget, total US emissions which will be comprised of emissions from all states must achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Even the most aggressive US state targets are woefully short of this goal. In addition most US states have no emissions reduction target at all. The US will need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and this national requirement will will require US states to work together to achieve carbon neutrality. The US government could achieve the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 by relying on different approaches in different states, yet the individual states must assume they have a duty to limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions and in the absence of a federal plan that would allow them to do otherwise, states must achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the above chart is a good example of what is required of them in total.
II. The Second Chart-US States Existing Commitments Compared to an 80% Reduction By 2050.
A few states have set ghg emissions reduction targets of 80 % by 2050. The next chart shows the quantify of reductions that each state would need to achieve to reach an 80% reduction by 2050 although we have already established above that the most recent science would require each state to achieve carbon neutrality by 2o50.
What is notable about this chart is that most US states have made no ghg emissions reductions commitments at all, only a few have made a commitment of an 80% reduction by 2050 which is still not stringent enough to meet the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and that some states such as Texas need to achievehuge emissions reductions if the US is going to do its fair share of staying within the 250 metric gigaton carbon equivalent budget.
These charts help visualize the enormity of the challenge facing the United States federal government and US state governments in light of the challenge facing the world as understood by the vast majority of mainstream scientists. There has been almost no coverage of this reality in the US media.
As explained above, there are two kinds of issues that need to be understood to comprehend what governments must do when setting ghg emissions targets. The first is the need to set any target in light of a total global ghg emissions limitation or budget entailed by the need to limit ghg emissions to levels that will not cause dangerous climate change. This, as we have seen, is sometimes referred to as the carbon budget issue. The second is the need of governments to set their emissions target only after considering what distributive justice requires of them. This sometimes referred to as the equity or justice issue. Any propose ghg emissions target must take positions on
these two clusters of issues in fact they implicitly do this. Yet government rarely explain what assumptions about the carbon budget and equity and justice issues they have made when setting their target.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Nanjing China
This is the first in a series that will rigorously examine the importance of understanding climate change as a human rights problem. There is a large and growing literature that examines links between human rights and climate change. This series will summarize the main conclusions of this literature while making additional arguments about the benefits of examining climate change as a human rights problem that can be deduced from almost seven decades of international human rights law. This series will conclude that those who see climate change as a civilization challenging moral and ethical problem will find many practical lessons to be learned from human rights law and its philosophical foundations that should help achieve a greater response to climate change consistent with national, regional, and individual ethical and moral obligations. These lessons will include: (a) substantive conclusions about obligations that follow when specific rights that are violated. (b) procedural lessons about increasing compliance with rights obligations that can be seen by examining almost 65 years of continuing development of international human rights law at the international, regional, and national scale, (c) and specific ideas about how to get nations to take their ethical and equity obligations seriously in international climate change negotiations. The series will end with recognition of some challenges to a human rights approach to climate change. yet with an explanation why despite these challenges, greater use of human rights should be made to find a solution to climate change.
This first in the series will begin with a summary of major conclusions reached about climate change and human rights reached in an excellent paper on the subject: Climate Change, Human Rights and Moral Thresholds by Simon Caney. (Caney, 2010)
II. Climate Change Prevents Enjoyment of the Most Basic, Non- Controversial Human Rightsand as a Result Certain Practical Consequences Follow.
The Caney paper explains that climate change violates many human rights including three of the most fundamental least controversial rights: (1) right to life, (2) right to health, and (3) right to subsistence. Climate change violates the right to life because a changing climate will and is killing people through more intense storms, floods, droughts, and killer heat waves. Climate change will violate the right to health by increasing the number of people suffering from disease, death, and injury form heatwaves, floods, storms, fires, and droughts, increases in the range of malaria and the burden of diarrhoeal diseases, cardie-respiratory morbidity associated with ground level ozone, and increase the number of people at risk from dengue fever. Climate change will violate the right to subsistence by increasing: (a) droughts which will undermine food security, (b) water shortages, (c) sea level rise which will put some agricultural areas under water, and (d) flooding which will lead to crop failure.
Caney explains that other human rights are affected by climate change but an understanding that climate change violates these three rights puts the claim that climate change violates human rights on the most uncontroversial grounds. Caney also explains that climate change is also morally objectionable on other grounds than human rights including non-anthropogenic moral grounds.
Caney further explains in the article that because climate change clearly violates human rights, certain things follow.
These consequences for policy include:
Because human rights are violated, costs to those causing climate change entailed by policies to reduce the threat of climate change are not relevant for policy. That is if a person is violating human rights, he or she should desist even if it is costly. The abolition of slavery was immensely costly slave owners yet because basic human rights were violated by climate change costs to the slave owner of abolishing slavery were not relevant
If climate change is a human rights problem, compensation is due to those whose rights have been violated. The human rights approach generates both duties for mitigation and adaptation. It also generates duties of compensation for harm.
Human rights apply to each and every human being as they are based on the idea that all human beings are born free and entitled to certain rights.
If one has a right not to suffer a particular harm, then it is wrong to violate that right because one can pay compensation. It is for instance wrong to assault someone even if the person assaulted can be paid compensation for the harm.
If the human rights of the most vulnerable are being violated they need not bear the burdens of mitigating the threats.
Human rights usually take priority over other human values such as efficiency and promoting happiness.
Caney, Simon, 2010, Climate Change, Human Rights and Moral Thresholds, in S. Gardiner. S. Caney, D. Jamieson, H. Shue (editors), Climate Ethics, Essential Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,
Widener University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China.
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