Responding to the Nomination for US Secretary of State the CEO of Exxon, a Company Which Funded the Morally Reprehensible Climate Change Disinformation Campaign and Politicians Who Are Climate Change Deniers

Greenpeace activists who have chained themself to a Greenpeace vehicle and to the entrance of the Exxon Mobil Headquarters are being observed by a couple of policemen and -women. The vehicle says exxon-ceo

I. Introduction. Relative Lack of Media Focus on the Danger of Appointing the Exxon CEO to be US Secretary of State Given the Enormity of the Climate Change Threat.

How should those who are concerned about the enormous threat of climate change respond to the Trump nomination of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to be the US Secretary of State given the enormous damage that Exxon has already caused through the company’s successful efforts in delaying the adoption of US climate change policies?

Trump’s selection of Tillerson for Secretary of State has received considerable understandable attention from the US media largely because of concern about Exxon’s ties to Russia, including, for instance, a contract with Russia negotiated by Tillerson in the amount of $500 billion that can’t be executed until economic sanctions placed on Russia for its invasion of the Ukraine are lifted.

Given the potential meddling of Russia in the recent US presidential election and potential conflicts between Russia’s and US interests, appointing someone to be the lead US foreign policy administrator who is the chief executive of a company with such close ties to Russia creates reason for obvious concerns about the ability of the Secretary of State to manage foreign policy so as to protect US interests while ignoring the interests of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company which are sometimes in conflict with American goals.

Conflicts between Exxon’s interests and US foreign policy interests are likely to frequently arise in the Trump administration. For instance, it is in the US interest to keep the price of fossil fuel very low but not in the interest of a fossil fuel company, nor Russia for that matter, both of which could benefit from high fossil fuel prices.

Receiving considerable less attention from the US media is the propriety of appointing someone to be US Secretary of State who has been the chief executive of  Exxon, a company with a well documented hostility to government policies on climate change. This hostility has not only manifested itself in Exxon’s spending of many millions of dollars in lobbying efforts to oppose proposed US domestic policies on climate change and supporting politicians who have consistently opposed proposed US climate change policies but also, even more disconcerting, Exxon has funded organizations who have been actively fighting to stop the United States from adopting climate change policies by employing morally reprehensible tactics to undermine citizens’ understanding of the scientific basis for the need to aggressively respond to climate change.

As we have explained, on this website in considerable detail (see articles under disinformation campaign in the index), although scientific skepticism is good because skepticism is the oxygen of science, Exxon has funded organizations engaged in disinformation who have used utterly indefensible tactics including: (1) lying or reckless disregard for the truth about climate change science, (2) manufacturing false scientific claims about climate change by holding bogus scientific conferences at which participants have  made scientific claims that have never not been subjected to peer review, (3) supporting front groups and fake grass roots organizations to oppose climate change policies whose creation was designed to hide the real parties in interest, (4) cherry-picking mainstream climate science by emphasizing a few minor issues in climate science about which there is some scientific uncertainty while ignoring the huge body of climate change science which is undisputed and claiming the uncertainties undermine the entire body of mainstream climate science, and (5) funding public relations strategies to undermine US citizens confidence in mainstream climate science, and (6) cyber bullying mainstream climate scientists and journalist who report on growing climate change risk.

Fossil fuel company support of the climate change disinformation campaign has been responsible for at least a twenty-five year delay in the United States response to climate change, a delay which has also thwarted international efforts to achieve a global solution to climate change and has made the threat of climate change now extraordinarily dangerous and made the warming limit goals agreed to by the world in Paris in 2015 to as close as possible 1.5 degrees C but no more than 2 degrees C extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

And so, the chief executive of a company has been nominated to lead the development of US foreign policy including forging an international position on climate change which company is already responsible for enormous potential climate change caused harms to the world created by the delay which is attributable to their funding and that of several other fossil fuel companies, industry organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations.

Although entities other than Exxon have also contributed to the funding of the climate change disinformation campaign, a  recent paper published  in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) in October concluded that the main organizations comprising the climate denial echo chamber were funded by ExxonMobil and Koch Family Foundation and produced misinformation that effectively polluted mainstream media coverage of climate science and polarized the climate policy debate. The study is: Corporate funding and ideological polarization about climate change, October 12, 2015. 

This study’s analysis of 20 years’ worth of communication data between participants in the climate change counter-movement by Yale University researcher Dr. Justin Farrell shows beyond doubt that Exxon and the Koch Family Foundations have been key actors who funded the climate disinformation campaign and ensured the prolific spread of their doubt products throughout our mainstream media and public discourse about climate change.

The contrarian efforts have been so effective for the fact that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust,” Dr. Farrell told the Washington Post.  Dr Farrell said: “This counter-movement produced messages aimed, at the very least, at creating ideological polarization through politicized tactics, and at the very most, at overtly refuting current scientific consensus with scientific findings of their own.”

As we have explained on this website, the tactics deployed by the climate change disinformation campaign funded by some fossil fuel companies including Exxon and others should be understood as a new kind of crime against humanity because they are deeply morally reprehensible even if not classifiable as a crime under existing law because of the enormous climate change harms these tactics have caused to tens of millions of poor vulnerable people around the world, some of which are already occurring as others are already in the pipeline.

Some participants in the climate change disinformation campaign defend their behavior as exercises in free speech, yet as we have explained on this website, free speech is not an adequate defense for those who make claims based on lies or reckless disregard for the truth when misinformation can greatly harm others. (see; Three Videos on Why the Fossil Fuel Funded Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Is Neither an Exercise of Free Speech nor Responsible Scientific Skepticism and Should Be Understood as Some Kind of New Crime Against Humanity)

Thus an argument can be made that Exxon and the other entities who have funded the climate change disinformation campaign to protect their profits should be made to help pay for at least some of the climate change adaptation responses that are now needed to protect poor vulnerable people around the world from rising seas, floods, droughts, and diminished water supplies and the enormous damages from climate change that will be experienced because of the approximate three decade delay in responding to climate change that is attributable to the climate change disinformation campaign which began to get organized in the late 1980s. (Several law suits that have been filed against Exxon and other fossil fuel companies by plaintiffs seeking damages from climate change harms have been dismissed thus far, often on the grounds that allocating climate change damages is a political rather than a judicial function yet  a growing number of cases  continue to be filed seeking to establish legal liability of fossil fuel companies for their role in spreading misinformation about climate change.)

Yet, rather than making Exxon responsible for the enormous damage it has done through its successful efforts to prevent government policies to reduce GHG emissions., President-elect Trump has nominated Exxon’s CEO to be the spokesperson for US foreign policy including climate change foreign policy. This is arguably like appointing the CEO of Philip Morris to be the Surgeon General of the United States.

II. Why Has the US Media Given Little Attention About the Danger from Climate Change of Making the Exxon CEO US Secretary of State?

Why has the US press mostly ignored the extreme danger of making the CEO of a huge powerful oil company Secretary of State which company has been responsible for dangerous delays in responding to climate change through the use of morally reprehensible tactics and which company’s profits are greatly threatened by policies that rapidly reduce GHG emissions?

It would appear that the media’s relative lack of concern about nominating an Exxon CEO to run the State Department is attributable to Exxon’s and Tillerson’s announcements which began in 2006 that they had changed their views on climate change, agreed that human-induced climate change was a threat worthy of policy responses which include potentially putting a price on carbon, and Exxon would no longer fund organizations participating in climate change denial. (For a discussion of Exxon’s and Tillerson’s gradual shift on climate change see John Schwartz, New York Times, Tillerson Led Exxon’s Shift on Climate Change; Some Say ‘It Was All P.R.‘)

In fact, some recent press coverage of Tillerson’s nomination to be the US Secretary of State have uncritically portrayed the Exxon CEO as a climate change advocate.

For instance  Media Matters has reported in a CBS Evening News Report on December 13, anchor Scott Pelley said of Tillerson: “The lifelong oil man has no government experience, but he did convince Exxon to acknowledge climate change.” [CBS Evening News, 12/13/16]

Media Matters also reported that on December 10, an NBC news segment discussing Tillerson, correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported, “During his time at the world’s largest public energy company, Tillerson acknowledged the science behind climate change, supporting a carbon tax, while also expressing support for the Paris Climate Agreement.”

And so it would appear that Exxon’s and Tillerson’s recent stated changes in their positions on the acceptance of climate change science is responsible to the US media’s largely uncritical coverage of Tillerson’s nomination despite Exxon’s role in successfully undermining US responses to climate change and the basic conflict that exists between rapidly reducing GHG emissions and Exxon’s profits and the value of its oil reserves.

In what is likely an attempt to rebrand Exxon from being a climate change policy obstructionist, recently Exxon has produced TV commercials in which the company announces that is supporting the development of carbon capture and storage technologies that would reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

III. Has Exxon actually stopped funding climate denial organizations?

In July 2016, DeSmog Blog reported that Exxon’s most recent financial disclosures show that the company “continues to support organizations that claim greenhouse gases are not causing climate change, or that cuts to emissions are a waste of time and money”:

Organisations including the American Enterprise Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Black Chamber of Commerce — all organisations with a record of misinformation on climate science — all received grants in 2015 from ExxonMobil. The 2015 tally brings the total amount of known Exxon funding to denial groups north of $33 million since 1998. (DeSmog Blog, 7/8/16)

According to a recent article in the Guardian, Exxon gave more than $2.3 million to members of Congress and a corporate lobbying group that deny climate change and block efforts to fight climate change – eight years after pledging to stop its funding of climate denial.

IV Has Exxon and Tillerson Actually Become Advocates of Government Action On Climate Change. 

Does Exxon and Tillerson fully accept the mainstream peer-reviewed science on climate change? It is not clear.

Although both Exxon and Tillerson have asserted that they agree with the mainstream scientific view that human-induced climate change is a significant threat that must be dealt with, it is not clear that either accepts the scientific implications of the mainstream view including, for instance, neither that some fossil fuels must be left in the ground unless carbon capture and storage technology can be made affordable and proven effective nor that there is an urgent need to immediately aggressively reduce GHG emissions if the the international community hopes to prevent dangerous climate change. .

Tillerson has stated that he believes that climate change is a problem with an engineering solution. This suggests he supports the development of technologies that can either store carbon in the ground or remove carbon from the atmosphere. Yet no such technologies have been yet identified that can be deployed at the scale currently needed and that are also affordable and technologically effective despite the fact that these technologies are needed to justify continued use of oil and gas at current rates.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, to limit warming to the warming limit goals agreed to in Paris in 2015 of as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C, the world must reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

CO2 emissions from energy and industry must be zero globally around 2050 for a 1.5°C limit, which is around 10-25 years earlier than for a 2°C limit. Full decarbonization for 1.5°C limit is therefore needed by mid-century, and mid-way through the second half of the century for 2°C limit. (Climate Analytics)

Thus, the international community must achieve net zero GHG emissions from the energy and industrial sectors in 33 years to have hope of limiting warming to 1.5°C and 58 years to achieve zero GHG emissions to limit to 2°C. To achieve these civilization challenging goals, the world must act quickly and aggressively. In fact rapid reductions are particularly needed in the next few years as UNEP has concluded. In fact there is an urgency of enhancing pre-2020 mitigation efforts to have any realistic hope of achieving the warming limit goals agreed to in Paris in December 2015. (See UNEP, Emissions Gap Report 2016, pg 9)

If nations quickly respond to the obligation to begin reducing GHG emissions to achieve zero emissions by 2050, this will require rapid expansion of non-fossil energy, a possibility due to recent rapid reductions in the cost of solar energy, and require energy companies to hold fossil fuel reserves in the ground. This could leave energy companies with unprofitable reserves, or assets “stranded” underground unless carbon capture and storage or atmospheric carbon removal technologies are deployed at scale because they have become affordable and technically effective. Yet  carbon storage has not yet proven affordable nor effective at the scale that would be required to prevent dangerous atmospheric GHG concentrations from continuing to rise.

Exxon has not accepted this idea.  In 2014, shareholders seeking greater accountability from the company on the potential that some of its reserves would have to be left in the ground submitted a resolution to disclose how its reserves would be affected if climate action reduced demand. The company, in response, produced a report that said it would be “highly unlikely” that countries would enact action aggressive enough to affect demand. Two years later, the world’s nations agreed to the Paris climate agreement to reduce emissions to zero by late in this century.

Has Tillerson questioned or denied mainstream climate science since 2006?

Yes. In settings with stock analysts or other executives Tillerson has at times reverted back to Exxon’s old narrative that cast doubt on climate science. At the company’s 2013 annual shareholder meeting, for instance,Tillerson said: “Notwithstanding all the advancements that have been made in gathering more data, instrumenting the planet so that we understand how climate conditions on the planet are changing, notwithstanding all that data, our ability to project with any degree of certainty the future is continuing to be very limited….If you examine the temperature record of the last decade, it really hadn’t changed.” Thus Tillerson adopted the frequently discredited claim of many climate change deniers that global rises in temperatures paused in the last decade.

At the 2015 annual meeting, Tillerson said it might be better to wait for better science before taking action on climate change. “What if everything we do, it turns out our models are lousy, and we don’t get the effects we predict?” (Inside Climate News, Rex Tillerson’s Record on Climate Change: Rhetoric vs. Reality)

Although Exxon and Tillerson have proclaimed that they might support a tax on carbon, they have done nothing to make this happen nor have they stated that they would support a significant carbon tax immediately. (John Schwartz, New York Times, Tillerson Led Exxon’s Shift on Climate Change; Some Say ‘It Was All P.R )

For these reasons, it is not clear that Exxon or Tillerson are willing to support US government responses on climate change that are now urgently required to deal with the climate emergency facing the world.

V. What Should Those Who Are  Concerned Abouaret Climate Change Do In Response to the Tillerson Nomination.

Given the enormity of the threat to the world from climate change, the indefensible role that Exxon has played in delaying US action on climate change, and the lack of clarity about whether Rex Tillerson supports policies needed to rapidly reduce global GHG emissions to safe global emissions, concerned ciitzens should strongly oppose the Tillerson nomination while demanding  that the nominee respond to the following questions under oath before a confirmation vote is taken in the US Senate:

  1.  Do you support development and deployment of non-fossil energy in the United States as rapidly as possible until technologies which can sequester carbon or remove carbon from the atmosphere have been demonstrated to be economically feasible and technically effective?
  2. If you agree that the United States should respond to climate change by putting a price on carbon, will you immediately support legislation which creates a price on carbon at levels necessary to reduce US emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions?
  3. Do you agree that US policy on climate change should seek to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals of preventing warming from exceeding as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2.0 degrees C above pre-industrial levels?
  4. If you agree that US climate policy should seek to limit warming to between 1.5 degrees C and 2.0 degrees C, do you agree that the US should clearly explain how its policies will achieve these warming limit goals of the Paris agreement?
  5. Since you agree that human-induced climate change is a threat to people and ecological systems around the world, do you agree that Exxon should no longer fund the campaigns of politicians that deny that human-induced climate change is a threat worthy of a strong national response?
  6. Since GHG emissions from the United States not only threaten US citizens and ecological systems but people and ecological systems around the world, do you agree that US policy on climate change should respond to the US responsibility to prevent climate change from harming all people and ecological systems around the world?
  7. Do you agree that people and nations who could be harmed by high levels of US GHG emissions from the United States have interests in US climate change policies and if so their interests should be considered in formulating US climate policy?
  8. Do you agree that nations that emit GHGs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting countries and individuals that have done little to cause climate change?
  9. If you disagree that high emitting nations have responsibility to help finance reasonable adaptation needs or unavoidable damages from climate change in countries which are largely not responsible for climate change, how do you interpret the “polluter pays” principle of international law?
  10. Do you deny that when the US formulates a GHG emissions reduction target it has a duty both under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which it ratified in 1992 and the Paris Agreement to formulate its commitment after consideration of what “equity” requires of the United States and if so what does the term ‘equity” under the UNFCCC mean to you?


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

Exxon changed its position at about the time that Rex Tillerson became the CEO of Exxon.

On January 8, 2009, Rex Tillerson gave a speech in  Washingotn

IPCC, Ethics, and Climate Change: Will IPCC’s Latest Report Transform How National Climate Change Policies Are Justified?

IPCC on certainty of human causations images


I. Introduction

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, 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.

nw book advOne 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.


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 1995, AR2, Working Group III, Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change,

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change,


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

Contributing Author, IPCC, Working Group III, Chapter 4




An Ethical Analysis Of US Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s Views On Climate Change


Editor’s Note: This entry contains both a video and a the text on which the video was based that examines the views of US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney on climate change though an ethical lens. The text follows the video.



I. Introduction has critically examined US President Obama’s approach to climate change on several occasions. See, for instance: now turns to an ethical analysis of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s views on climate change. Although Mitt Romney’s position on climate change appears to have changed over time (at one time supported policies to reduce the threat of climate change), he recently has opposed legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gases citing  two reasons. In an October 2011 he asserted in response to a question about his view on climate change that he was opposed to climate change legislation because:

  1.  He did not know whether climate change was human caused.
  1. Climate change is a global problem and the US should not spend huge amounts of money on a problem that is global in scope.

(See: Romney : We Don’t Know What’s Causing Global Warming,


In addition, during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention on August 30, 2012, Romney commented on climate change by asserting that President Obama would try to stop raising seas and heal the planet while he would help American families, thus implicitly implying that he would not support climate change legislation while he was President (Lacey, 2012).


II. Ethical Analysis Of Romney’s Opposition To Climate Change Policies

 Should Mitt Romney’s opposition to government action on climate change be understood as a profound ethical lapse? The potential ethical significance of an unwillingness to act on climate change is obvious once one understands that:

  •  High emitting nations and individuals are putting tens of millions of the world’s poorest people at risk.
  • Tens of thousands of deaths and other harms caused by climate change are already attributable to human-induced warming, that is climate change is not just a civilization challenging  future problem but the present cause of misery to some humans in some parts of the world.
  • Even if the international community could stabilize atmospheric concentrations of  greenhouse gas emissions at current levels further warming will continue for as much as 100 years because of thermal lags in the climate system.
  • The mainstream scientific view holds that the world is likely running out of time to prevent rapid, nonlinear, and potentially catastrophic warming.


These facts are held by mainstream scientific view on climate change, a view supported by every academy of sciences in the world that has taken a position including theUnited States Academy of Sciences, 97 to 98% of the scientists that actually do climate science research, and over 100 scientific organizations in the world whose members have relevant expertise.


In light of the above, Mitt Romney’s position on human-induced warming is a stunning moral failure.  We now investigate in more detail ethical problems with the specific justifications articulated by Romney so far for his unwillingness to support climate change legislation.


  1. Ethical analysis of opposing greenhouse gas reduction policies on the basis of lack of scientific evidence of human causation.


It is not clear from candidate Romney’s stated position about human causation of observable warming whether he is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation or alternatively that there is significant scientific uncertainty about links between human activities and observed warming.


If Romney is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation of warming this is either a lie or reckless disregard for the truth. That is any claim that there is no evidence that observed warming is caused by human activity is demonstratively false. In fact there are numerous independent and robust lines of evidence that humans are mostly responsible for the undeniable warming the world is experiencing. This evidence includes:

Fingerprints of Human Causation of Climate Change

(Cook 2010)

  • Multiple climate fingerprints of human causation including how the upper atmosphere is warming in comparison to the lower atmosphere, nights are warming faster than days, the upper limit of the troposphere is rising as the world warms, more heat is returning to Earth, less oxygen is being found in atmosphere as CO2 rises, and ocean temperature change patterns can’t be attributed to factors that drive natural climate variability.


  • Multiple studies (called attribution studies) designed to statistically test the probability that observed warming could be attributed to natural variability.


  • Measures of isotopes of CO2 that support the conclusion that the CO2 appearing in the atmosphere is from fossil fuels combustion.


  • Close correlation between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global consumption of fossil fuel and deforestation.


  • Inability to attribute observed warming to known causes of natural climate    variability.


  • Uncontestable scientific understanding that as greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere the Earth’s climate will warm to some extent.


It is clearly untruthful to claim that there’s no evidence of human causation of observed warming.

Perhaps, Romney is claiming, however, not that there is no evidence of human causation, but rather that there is significant scientific uncertainty about whether warming can be attributed to human activities. Yet the mainstream scientific view on this issue is that it is more than 90% certain that observable warming is primarily caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities including the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation (IPCC, 2007). The mainstream scientific view, as we have seen, is supported by the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world a fact in itself that has moral significance.


Even assuming for the sake of argument that there is more scientific uncertainty about human causation of warming than that recognized by the mainstream scientific view,  as we have explained in before in numerous articles (See. e.g. Brown, 2008a), using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for non-action on climate change does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny due to certain features of the climate change problem including:

  •  The enormous adverse potential impacts on human health and the environment from human-induced climate change articulated by the consensus view.
  •  The disproportionate climate change impacts on the poorest people of the world.
  •  The real potential for potentially catastrophic climate surprises recognized by the mainstream scientific view.
  •  The fact that much of the science of the climate change problem has never or is not now in dispute, even if one acknowledges some remaining uncertainty about timing or magnitude of climate change impacts.
  •   The fact that climate change damage is probably already being experienced by some people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world in the form of rising seas and increased strength of tropical storms and more frequent and intense droughts and floods.
  •  The strong likelihood that serious and irreversible damage will be experienced before all the uncertainties can be eliminated.
  •  The fact that the longer nations wait to take action, the more difficult it will be to stabilize greenhouse gases at levels which don’t create serious damage.
  •  The fact that those who will be most harmed by climate change have rights to be consulted about decisions that dare made to take no action on climate change on the basis of basis scientific uncertainty.
  •  The fact that the mainstream view holds that  the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.


Given these features of the climate change problem, it is inconceivable that any ethical system would condone an excuse for non-action on climate change based upon scientific uncertainty. This is particularly true because if the consensus view is wrong about the magnitude and timing of climate change  it could be wrong in both directions, that is, climate change impacts could be much worse and more rapid than the impacts identified by IPCC and the US Academy of Sciences even if they also could be less harmful in regard to timing and magnitude.

All major ethical systems would strongly condemn behavior that is much less threatening and dangerous than climate change. That is deontological, utilitarian, justice, ecocentric, biocentric, and relationship based ethics would not condone using scientific uncertainty as justification for not reducing high levels of greenhouse gas emissions given what is not in dispute among mainstream climate scientists (See Brown, 2002: 141-148). For this is a problem that if not controlled may cause the death of tens or hundreds of thousands of helpless victims caused by intense storms and heat waves, the death or sickness of millions that may suffer dengue fever or malaria, the destruction of some nations’ ability to grow food or provide drinking water, the devastation of forests and personal property, and the acceleration of elimination of countless species of plants and animals that are already stressed by other human activities. In summary, global warming threatens many of the things that humans hold to be of most value, i.e., life, health, family, the ability to make a living, community, and the natural environment.

The ethical duty to avoid risky behavior is proportional to the magnitude of the potential harm. Because climate change is likely to cause death to many, if not millions of people, through heat stroke, vector borne disease, and flooding, annihilate many island nations by rising seas, cause billions of dollars in property damage in intense storms, and destroy the ability of hundreds of millions to feed themselves in hotter drier climates, the duty to refrain from activities which could cause global warming is extraordinarily strong even in the face of scientific uncertainty about consequences.

Therefore, the nature of the risk from climate change is enormous and using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for doing nothing is ethically intolerable.

In fact that there is wide spread cross-cultural acceptance of the idea that one should not engage in very risky behavior that could cause great harm to things which people attach great value to is a conclusion that is clear from the acceptance of the “precautionary principle” in a growing number of international treaties including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN, 1992, Article 3). Under the precautionary principle agreed in the climate change convention, nations promised not to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking cost-effective action. This is an additional ethical reason why scientific uncertainty cannot now be used by nations as an excuse for refusing to make reductions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, in addition to the strong ethical reasons identified  sbove, a nation may not break a promise made to other nations in the UNFCCC to not use scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change.


II. Ethical Duty To Act Does Not Depend On Other Nation’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Commitments

As we have seen, Presidential candidate Romney has also indicated that he would not support US domestic change legislation because it is a global problem and  the United States should not spend money on such a global problem. It would appear that Romney is objecting to US expenditures to reduce greenhouse gases as long as other nations are not also committing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions although it is not clear why Romeny would object to US action on climate change on the basis that is a global problem. Implicit in this justification appears to be the unstated assumption that no nation need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global missions until other nations act accordingly. Yet  this excuse for non-action on climate change also does not withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.

Because current greenhouse gas levels are already harming people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world according to the consensus climate change scientific view, and even if global  atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases could be stabilized at current levels, an extraordinarily difficult goal to achieve, climate change-caused harms will grow in the years ahead. For this reason, current levels of total global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced significantly to avoid future harms especially to those who have done little to cause the existing problem.

Yet, not all nations have equal responsibility to reduce greenhouse emissions given differences among nations in current and past emissions levels and steps already taken to reduce national emissions. However, all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions if they are exceeding their fair share (See Brown 2008). Although reasonable people may disagree on what fairness requires because different theories of distributive justice reach different conclusiosn about how to allocate responsibility, no developed nation may reasonablly make the argument that they are justified in not reducing greenhouse gas emissions subatanially because of the cilization challenging magnitude of emissions reductions that are needed to stabilze atmospheric concentrations at safe levels and the hugely disproportionate emissons levels attributable to developed nations.

As a matter of distributive justice, no nation nay deny that it has a duty to keep its national emissions levels below its fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore if a nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions, that nation has an ethical duty to reduce emissions and this duty does not depend upon what other nations are doing.

Although some developing nations can make a presentable argument that they could increase greenhouse gas emissions without exceeding their fair share of global emissions, the developed nations, including the United States cannot make this argument because it is known that existing total global emissions levels need to be significantly reduced and the developed nations are very high emitting nations compared to most nations in the world. For this reason, the United States and other developed nations, along with perhaps a few developing nations, have an immediate duty to begin to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and this obligation is compelled by basic justice, not a need for leadership.

The duty to reduce emissions is not diminished if others who are contributing to the harm fail to cease their harmful behavior. This is so because no nation or person has a right to continue destructive behavior on the basis that others who are causing damage have not ceased their destructive behavior. The only question that needs to be examined to trigger a responsibility to begin to make immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions  is whether the nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions.

In addition to principles of distributive justice, developed nations have another strong reason why they must reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, they promised to do reduce their emissions based upon “equity” in the Untied Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system. Violating a provision of an international agreement such as the UNFCCC is considered a wrongful act under international law, and is therefore an unethical action for consenting nations (See, e.g., International Law Commission Draft Articles on State Responsibility Art. 2(a) & (b), 2001). Since parties to the UNFCCC also agreed that Annex I countries, that is developed countries, would take the lead in combating climate change and modifying future trends, Annex I countries must undertake policies and measures to limit their emissions regardless of actions taken by non-Annex I country parties. This is now a matter of international law as well as a principle of distributive justice.

For these reasons, high emitting nations in particular have a legal and ethical responsibility to reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. This duty applies regardless of efforts undertaken by other nations.

And so, Republican presidential candidate Romney may not justify a refusal of the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions  to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that other nations refuse to do so. All that is being asked of United States is that it limit its greenhouse gas emissions to  it’s fair and just share. It is not being asked to solve the problem for the rest of the world.

For these reasons, the United States may not refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emission because not all nations have acted accordingly. Such a conclusion is ethically absurd.


III. Conclusion

 For all these reasons, US presidential candidate Romney’s position on climate change fails to pass minimal ethical scrutiny.



 Brown, Donald (2002) American Heat, Ethical Problems with The United States Response to Global Warming, Rowman and Littlefield, Lantham Maryland.

 Brown, Donald (2008) Nations Must Reduce Greenhouse Gas EmissionsToTheirFair Share of Safe Global Emissions Without Regard To What Other Nations Do,,

Brown, Donald (2008a) The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty,

 Brown, Donald (2012) The Silence of  US President Obama on  Climate ChangeA Serious Ethical Lapse?,

Brown, Donald (2009) Ethical Problems With Some of Obama Team’s Approach to Climate Change?

Cook, John (2010) Ten Human Indicators on Climate Change, Skeptical Science,

International Law Commission (2001) Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, Supplement No. 10 (A/56/10), chp.IV.E.1, available at: [accessed 1 September 2012]

Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC 2007) The AR4 Synthesis Report, Section 2(4) Attribution of Climate Change.

Lacey, Stephen (2012) RepublicanConventionRecap: AsExpertsWarnTheDoorIsClosingOnClimate, TheGOPMocksTheProblem, Think Progress,

 Romney, Mitt (2011) We Don’t Know What’s Causing Global Warming, You Tube,

United Nations (UNFCCC) (1992) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN Document, A: AC237/18, 29 May 1992.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law