Research conducted by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland concludes that national debates about climate change policies and the press coverage of these issues are for the most part ignoring the obvious ethical and moral problems both with how nations are justifying climate change commitments and the arguments of climate change policy opponents at the national level. (See Nationalclimatejustice.org under “lessons learned.”) This is so despite the fact that:
(a) It is impossible for a nation to think clearly about climate policy until the nation takes a position on two ethical issues: (1) what warming limit the nation is seeking to achieve through its policy, and (d) what is the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. These are ethical issues that can’t be decided through economic or scientific analysis alone.
(b) Climate change policy making raises numerous ethical issues that arise in policy formulation. (See below)
(c) Ethical arguments made in response to the arguments of climate change policy arguments are often the strongest arguments that can be made in response to the claims of climate policy opponents because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
(d) Climate change more than any other environmental problem has features that scream for attention to see it fundamentally as a moral, ethical, and justice issue. These features include: (a) It is a problem overwhelmingly caused by high-emitting nations and individuals that is putting poor people and nations who have done little to cause the problem at greatest risk, (b) the harms to the victims are potentially catastrophic losses of life or the destruction of ecosystems on which life depends, (c) those most at risk usually can’t petition their own governments for protection, their best hope is that high emitters of ghgs will respond to their moral obligations to not harm others, and, (d) any solution to the enormous threat of climate change requires high emitting nations to lower their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a classic problem of distributive justice.
Our research has discovered that most journalists and national debates about climate policies around the world have largely ignored the numerous ethical issues that arise in climate policy formation and instead usually have narrowly responded to the arguments of the opponents of climate policy which have almost always been variations of claims that climate change policies should be opposed because: (a) they will harm national economic interests, or (b) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action.
Yet numerous issues arise in climate change policy formation for which ethical and moral considerations are indispensable to resolve these issues and moral arguments about these issues are by far the strongest responses to arguments on these issues usually made by opponents of climate policies. The issues include:
Can a nation justify its unwillingness to adopt climate change policies primarily on the basis of national economic interest alone?
When is scientific uncertainty an ethically acceptable excuse for non-action for a potentially catastrophic problem like climate change given that waiting until the uncertainties are resolved makes the problem worse and more difficult to solve?
Should proponents or opponents of climate change policies have the burden of proof to scientifically demonstrate that climate change is or is not a threat before climate change policies are in enacted?
What level of proof, such as, for instance, 95% confidence levels or the balance of the evidence, is needed to demonstrate climate change is a threat that warrants policy responses?
What amount of climate change harm is it ethically acceptable for a nation to impose on those nations or people outside their jurisdiction who will be harmed without their consent?
How aggressive should a nation be in achieving carbon neutrality?
Do high emitting nations have an ethical responsibility to reduce their ghg emissions as dramatically and quickly as possible or is their responsibility limited to assuring that their ghg emissions are no greater than their fair share of safe global emissions?
How transparent should a nation be in explaining the ethical basis for national ghg commitments particularly in regard to sufficiency of the ambition and fairness of the national commitments?
To what extent does a nation’s financial ability to reduce ghg emissions create an ethical obligation to do so?
What are the rights of potential victims of climate change to consent to a nation’s decision to delay national action on the basis of national cost or scientific uncertainty?
Who gets to decide what amount of global warming is acceptable?
Who should pay for reasonable adaptation needs of victims of climate change?
Do high emitting nations and individuals have a moral responsibility to pay for losses and damages caused climate change to people or nations who have done little to cause climate change?
How should national ghg targets consider the per capita or historical emissions of the nation in establishing their national climate commitments?
How should a nation prioritize its climate change adaptation needs?
Who has a right to participate in a nation’s decision about funding and prioritizing domestic and foreign adaptation responses?
How does global governance need to be changed to deal with climate change?
What difference for climate change policy-making is entailed by the conclusion that climate change violates human rights?
If climate change violates human rights, can economic costs to polluting nations be be a relevant consideration in the development of national climate policy?
Can one nation condition its response to the threat of climate change on the actions or inaction of other nations?
Which equity framework should a nation follow to structure its response to climate change?
What principles of distributive justice may a nation consider in determining its fair share of safe global emissions?
What kind of crime, tort, or malfeasance is spreading disinformation about climate change science by those who have economic interests in resisting constraints on fossil fuel?
What are the ethical limits of economic reasoning about the acceptability of climate change policies?
What ethical issues arise from cap and trade or carbon taxing solutions to climate change?
What is ethically acceptable climate change scientific skepticism, for instance should all climate skeptics be expected to subject their claims in peer-reviewed journals?
Can a politician avoid responsibility for taking action on climate change simply on the basis that he or she is not a climate change scientist?
What ethical obligations are triggered by potentially catastrophic but low probability impacts from climate change and who gets to decide this?
What are the ethical limits to using cost-benefit analyses as a prescriptive guide to national climate policies?
What responsibility do high emitting nations have for climate refugees?
When are potential adverse environmental impacts of low emitting ghg technologies such as solar and wind a valid excuse for continuing to use high emitting ghg fossil fuel technologies?
Who gets to decide whether geo-engineering techniques which could lessen the adverse impacts of climate change are acceptable as long as these techniques could also create potential previously unexperienced environmental impacts?
What are the ethical and moral responsibilities of sub-national governments, businesses, organizations and individuals for climate change?
Can poor nations which have done little to cause climate change justify non-action on climate change on the basis of their lack of historical responsibility for climate change if some citizens or entities in the country are emitting high amounts of ghgs?
Do poor low-emitting nations have any moral responsibility for climate change and what is it?
When should a nation be bound by provisions of international law relevant to climate change including provisions in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that they agreed to such as the “no-harm,” and “precautionary? principles and the duty of developed nations to take the lead on climate change?
To what extent should stakeholder groups that advise governments on climate policies be gender and minority representative?
This website contains over 160 articles on these and other climate change ethical issues.
COP-21 INDCs Compared With Carbon Budgets to achieve a warming limit of: (a) 3 to 4 degrees C, (b) a 50% probability of 2 degrees C, (c) a 66% probability of 2 degrees C , and, (d) 1.5 degrees C. Global Commons Institute, Aubrey Meyer.
The above chart by the Global Commons Institute compares INDCs filed by nations with the UNFCCC before Paris with the reductions that would be needed by the entire world to live within carbon budgets that may not be exceeded if warming will be limited to; between 3 degrees and 4 degrees C, a 50% chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, a 66% chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, and a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C.
A quick glance at the chart makes it clear that the INDCs that have been submitted by nations so far makes it very unlikely that the international community will be successful in limiting warming to 2 degrees C and virtually impossible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C unless nations make significant increases in the ambition of their INDCs.
This entry argues that because nations have clear ethical duties to make national commitments on ghg emissions reductions consistent with their fair share of safe global emissions, they have duties to provide clear and transparent information about how their INDCs satisfies the nation’s ethical duty to limit its ghg emissions to levels which are sufficiently ambitious and fair so that citizens around the world can evaluate whether a nation has satisfied its ethical obligations. Furthermore, because national INDCs that have been submitted to the UNFCCC do not contain crucial information that is necessary to evaluate the nation’s compliance with its ethical obligations, nations must submit additional information to allow citizens around the world to evaluate national compliance with its ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change.
All developed countries and some non-Annex 1 countries have submitted INDCs that have made commitments on the basis of percent reductions below a baseline year such as 1990 or 2005 by a specific date such as 2030, 2050, etc.
Although nations were encouraged by the Lima COP-20 decision in 2014 to include in their INDC submissions information that was transparent as to why their INDC was sufficiently ambitious and fair, few nations have done this.
As of October 8th, 2015, 121 INDC submissions have been filed with the UNFCCC, reflecting 148 countries (including the European Union member states), and covering around 86% of global emissions in 2010 (excluding land use and forest emissions) and 87% of global population.) Most nations have not submitted information that is useful in determining the adequacy of the ambition or fairness of the INDCs submitted.
II. Why nations have a strong ethical duty to be clearly transparent on how they satisfied their ethical obligations to reduce its ghg emissions to the nation’s fairshare of safe global emissions.
A strong ethical case can be made that if nations have duties to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a conclusion that follows both as a matter of ethics and justice and several international legal principles including, among others, the “no harm principle,” and promises nations made in the 1992 UNFCCC to adopt policies and measures required to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system in accordance with equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, nations have a duty to clearly explain how their national ghg emissions reductions commitments arguably satisfy their ethical obligations to limit their ghg emissions to the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions.
Because information submitted by nations with their INDCs does not contain sufficient information to help evaluate the ethical acceptability of national INDCs, nations should submit additional information needed to evaluate a nation’s compliance with its ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change.
The ethical duty to clearly explain how a nation satisfied its ethical obligations for climate change follows from the ethical duty of nations to not harm others beyond their national boundary. Although nations could reasonably disagree on what equity frameworks should guide national commitments on ghg emissions, no nation can deny its responsibility to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of equity and principles of distributive justice to levels that will prevent dangerous climate impacts around the world. Unless nations specifically identify the equity principles that have guided their ghg emissions reductions, and the assumptions about warming limits entailed by their INDC, nations and citizens around the world who may be harmed by illigitmate uses of common pool resources have an insufficient factual basis to challenge the potentially unethical responses of nations to their ethical obligations. From this it is clear that nations have a strong duty to be clear on how they satisfied their ethical responsibilities for climate change. Yet almost all INDCs submitted thus far have either no information or inadequate information on how the nation satisfied its ethical duties in regard to the sufficient ambition or the justice of its INDC.
III. The ethical basis for why national INDCs should specify;(a) the number of tons of ghg emissions that will be reduced by implementation of the INDC by a specific date, (b)the warming limit and associated carbon budget that the nation’s INDC is seeking to achieve in cooperation with other nations, (c) the equity principles assumed by the nation in determining the fairness of its INDC, and (d) for Annex 1 nations, emissions reductions that will be achieved by the INDC from 1990, a common baseline year.
Any national ghg emissions reduction commitment is implicitly a position on two ethical questions, namely, first, what safe atmospheric ghg concentration level the commitment is designed to achieve and, second, what equity framework or principles of distributive justice the INDC is based on. Although some nations have acknowledged their ethical duties to base their INDC on ethically justifiable criteria, almost all INDC submissions have not explained how specific emissions reductions commitments link to a specific desired atmospheric ghg concentration levels and its associated carbon budget that will provide some level of confidence that a warming limit will be achieved nor why their ghg emissions reductions commitment is fair as a matter of distributive justice.
In fact no nation has explained quantitatively how its commitment is related to an atmospheric carbon budget or a specific equity framework. In addition the information submitted with INDCs submitted so far make it virtually impossible to rigorously evaluate the adequacy of the INDC as a matter of ethics and justice.
Almost all INDCs that have been submitted thus far by developed nations commit to a percentage reduction in ghg emissions from a baseline year by a a stated year. Although some nations acknowledge that their climate policies should be guided by ethical principles, no nation has expressly explained quantitatively how their commitments were specifically guided by ethical principles.
Because the acceptability of an INDC is a matter of ethics and justice, and citizens need additional information about the INDC to be able to evaluate the ethical acceptability of the INDC, INDCs submitted should be supplemented by additional information because an INDC expressed as a percent reduction from a given baseline year by a certain future date does not reveal:
(a) the percentage of the global carbon budget that will be consumed by the nation’s emissions because a percentage reduction commitment does not say when the reductions will be achieved yet the speed with which the reductions are achieved will affect the tonnes of any remaining carbon budget with quicker reductions consuming less amounts of the available carbon budget while waiting until the end of the period to achieve the percent reduction committed to will consume much more of the remaining carbon budget;
(b) the carbon budget in gigatons of CO2eq that the INDC is seeking to achieve. Because different carbon budgets will provide different levels of confidence that warming will be limited to specific temperature increases and the amount of temperature increase that an INDC has implicitly deemed to be acceptable to the nation is an ethical issue at its core, the nation should be required to link the INDC to a specific carbon budget so that the ambition of the INDC can be evaluated through an ethical lens.
(c) the equity framework or principles assumed by the nation in determining how much of a global carbon budget should be allocated to the nation in establishing its INDC such as contraction and convergence, ghg development rights, historical emissions responsibilities, or other principles of distributive justice. Although reasonable people may disagree what equity framework is just, nations should be expected to expressly specify the equity framework or principles of distributive justice they used in determining their INDC so that citizens around the world can evaluate claims about fairness made by a nation in setting its INDC.
(d) the fairness of the baseline year selected such as 1990. Some nations including the United States have selected baseline years such as 2005 which represents the year of its peak emissions, 13 years after the United States agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC to adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous climate change that would return ghg emissions to levels that existed before 1992 by 2000. Although the international community could reasonably adopt different baseline years, ideally the baseline year should be consistent among nations so that citizens could more easily compare commitments and understand how a nation has taken responsibility for policies they adopted or failed to adopt after the nation agreed to adopt climate policies and measure in the 1992 UNFCCC. Although a strong case can be made that historical ghg emissions before 1990 should be considered in determining a nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, selecting a common baseline year such as 1990 would facilitate easier citizen comparison of national commitments while retaining the rights of nations to make arguments that historical ghg emissions should be considered in any equity framework.
For these reasons, ghg emissions reductions commitments in INDCs should be: (a) stated in tons of ghg emissions reductions rather then percent reductions from a baseline year, (b) identify the temperature limit and its associated carbon budget that the INDC is seeking to achieve to satisfy its ethical responsibilities to prevent dangerous climate change, (c) identify the equity framework or principles a nation followed to assure that its ghg emissions reductions were fair and just, and (d) compute its ghg emissions reductions commitment from the baseline year of 1990.
This is the second of three articles that makes recommendations on how NGOs and citizens should debate climate change policies if Pope Francis claim that climate change is essentially a moral problem is correct. The first of these three articles looked at how NGO’s should respond to arguments against climate change policies based on cost if climate change is a moral problem. This entry makes recommendations about how NGOs and citizens should respond to arguments based on scientific uncertainty. The third in this series will make recommendations on how to respond to arguments based on the unfairness or ineffectiveness of a nation acting if China or India does not reduce their ghg emissions.
Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Future, is attracting high-level attention around the world for its claim that climate change is a moral problem which all people have a duty to prevent. If his claim that climate change is essentially and fundamentally a moral problem is widely accepted, a conclusion that is also strongly supported by basic ethical theory as explained on this website many times, it has the potential to radically transform how climate change has been debated in many nations around the world for the last twenty-five years because opponents of climate change policies have been very successful in framing the public debate so that it has focused on several issues almost exclusively. This framing has enabled the climate change debate to ignore ethical and moral issues that should have been part of the debate. The opponents of climate change policies have largely succeeded in opposing proposed climate change law and policy by claiming that government action on climate change should be opposed because: (1) it will impose unacceptable costs on national economics or specific industries and destroy jobs, (2) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant government action, or (3) it would be unfair and ineffective for nations like the United States to adopt expensive climate policies as long as China or India fail to adopt serious greenhouse gas emissions reductions policies. Common to these arguments is that they have successfully framed the climate change debate so that opponents and proponents of climate policies debate facts about costs, scientific uncertainty, or unfairness of one country acting while others don’t rather than the moral problems with these arguments.
This series argues following the example of Pope Francis that NGOs, governments, and citizens should ask opponents of climate change policies questions designed to bring attention to the obvious ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies based on scientific uncertainty. Each question is followed by a brief description of the moral problem that the question is designed to bring to light.
Some of the arguments against climate change policies based upon scientific uncertainty should and can be responded to on scientific grounds especially in light of the fact that many claims about scientific uncertainty about human-induced warming are great distortions of mainstream climate change science. Yet in addition to the scientific responses to arguments made against climate policies on scientific grounds, there are a host of ethical problems with these arguments which the following questions are designed to expose.
II. Questions to be Asked of Those Opposing Action on Climate Change on the Basis of Scientific Uncertainty.
When you argue that nations such as the United States or states, regional, or local governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions because of scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts:
1. On what specific basis do you disregard the conclusions of the United States Academy of Sciences, and numerous other Academies of Sciences around the World including the Royal Academy of the UK, over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations whose membership includes those with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and according to the American Academy of Sciences, 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change whose conclusions hold that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, that harsh impacts from warming are already being experienced in parts of the world, and that the international community is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming.
This question is designed to expose the ethical conclusion that nations who are put on notice by the most prestigious and responsible scientific organizations in the world that ghg emissions from their jurisdictions are causing great harm to vulnerable people around the world have an ethical duty to accept the burden of proof to prove that their ghg emissions are not causing harm. That is once there is a reasonable scientific basis for concluding that some nations or entities are causing great harm, the question of who should have the burden of proof is an ethical and not simply a scientific question. Thus the question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty of those who are engaged in risky behavior to produce credible scientific evidence that demonstrates with relatively high levels of proof that their behavior is not causing harm if they choose to persist in behaving in a way that might be dangerous. That risky behavior is not acceptable because there is some uncertainty about the harm that will be caused by the behavior is clear from law around the world that makes dangerous behavior unacceptable and often criminal. For instance, it is not a defense to a charge of reckless driving that the police could not prove the driving would cause harm. Nations and people have a moral duty to not engage in behaviors that might cause harm if there is a reasonable basis that the behavior could cause harm. Therefore opponents of climate change have a strong burden of proof to prove that human release of ghgs is not dangerous. For this reason, opponents of climate change policies have an ethical duty to explain the scientific basis for concluding that human activities are not causing dangerous climate change.
2. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are some remaining scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve uncertainties before action is taken will virtually guarantee that it will too late to prevent catastrophic human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems around the world?
This question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty to take action in the face of uncertainty if waiting until the uncertainties are resolved will produce greater harm particularly for problems like climate change that are predicted to cause catastrophic harms to some people and regions if strong action is not taken.
3. Given that waiting until uncertainties are resolved will make climate change harms worse and the scale of reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change much more daunting, do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in any decision about whether a nation should wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change because of scientific uncertainty?
This question is designed to expose the ethical duty entailed by procedural justice to obtain consensus about waiting until uncertainties are resolved before taking action from those who will be harmed by any delay in taking action on the basis of uncertainty when delay will most likely increase the harms to those who are most vulnerable.
4. Should a developed nation such as the United States which has much higher historical and per capita emissions than other nations be able to justify its refusal to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty, given that if the mainstream science is correct, the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent warming above 2 degrees C, a temperature limit which if exceeded may cause rapid, non-linear climate change.
This question, following up on question one is designed to expose the ethical duty of high-emitting developed countries like the United States to refrain from further delay on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty given that the nation’s non-action on climate change is already responsible for putting the international community in great danger from climate change.
5. If you claim that there is no evidence of human causation of climate change are you aware that there are multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies which point to human causation of observed warming?
This question, following up on question one, is designed to expose the fact that there is a strong ethical duty to assume human causation of climate change if there is reliable evidence of human causation and that those who seek to justify non-action on climate change because they claim that human causation has not been proven have a very strong ethical duty to demonstrate that humans are not causing climate change with high levels of proof. More specifically in regard to the question of human causation, opponents of climate change policies that deny human causation should be expected to specifically respond to the numerous “foot-print” and “attribution” studies that the international community has relied on to make conclusions about human causation.
6. When you claim that the United States or other nations emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven in peer reviewed scientific literature that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?
This question is designed to expose that those who seek to rely on scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change have a strong ethical duty to produce very credible scientific evidence that supports the conclusion that human activities releasing ghgs are not causing climate change and its impacts.
7. If you concede that climate skeptics have not proven in peer-reviewed journals that human-induced warming is not a very serious threat to human health and ecological systems, given that human-induced warming could create catastrophic warming the longer the human community waits to respond to reduce the threat of climate change and the more difficult it will be to prevent dangerous warming, do you agree that those nations most responsible for rising atmospheric ghg concentrations have a duty to demonstrate that their ghg emissions are safe?
This question is designed to provoke express ethical reflection on the fact that those most responsible for dangerous atmospheric concentrations of ghg have a strong ethical duty to demonstrate that additional levels of ghg in the atmosphere are safe.
8. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty? Article 3 states:
The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. (UNFCCC, Art 3)
This question is designed to bring attention to the fact that because all nations that ratified the UNFCCC agreed to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not reducing their ghg emissions, they have an ethical duty to keep their promises.
9. If a nation such as the United States which emits high-levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually seriously harms the health of tens of millions of vulnerable people around the world and ecological systems on which their life depends, should the nation be financially responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?
This question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty of nations to pay for damages that result from their delays in taking action on the basis of scientific uncertainty.
10. Do you agree that if a government is warned by some of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world that activities within its jurisdiction are causing great harm to and gravely threatening hundreds of millions of people outside their government’s jurisdiction, government officials who could take steps to assure that activities of their citizens do not harm or threaten others should not be able escape responsibility for preventing harm caused by simply declaring that they are not scientists?
This question is designed to expose that those politicians who refuse to reduce their government’s ghg on the basis that they are not scientists cannot ethically justify non-action on climate change on this basis because once they are put on notice by respected scientific organizations that ghg from their government jurisdiction are harming others, they have a duty to prevent dangerous behavior or establish credible scientific evidence that the alleged dangerous behavior is safe.
Now that Pope Francis has released his encyclical on climate change, strong responses from many climate change deniers has predictably emerged. Most of these attacks on the Pope’s message have focused on the Pope wandering from his area of authority in theology into science. Former Thatcher adviser Christopher Monckton’s retort is typical: “It is not the business of the Pope to stray from the field of faith and morals and wander in to the playground that is science”
The US media’s coverage, also predictably, has mostly focused on whether the Pope should have stayed in his theology lane.
Yet the most important potential message of the Pope’s encyclical is his assertion that climate change is a moral problem. Now, of course, many see the Pope’s claim about morality unsurprising but fail to understand the profound significance for climate policy-making of understanding climate change fundamentally as a moral issue. If climate change is understood to be a moral issue, it would completely transform the way climate change policies have been debated in the United States for over three decades.
For instance, opponents of US government action on climate change have for over 30 years predominantly argued against proposed policies on two grounds. First there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action and secondly climate policies will destroy jobs, specific industries, and the US economy. For this reason, action on climate change is not in the US self-interest.
But if climate change is a moral issue, the United States may not look at US economic interests alone, it must respond to US duties and obligations to the tens of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change harms. Yet the US debate on climate change has made cost to the US economy of climate change policies, or economic impacts on specific US industries the key criteria for the acceptability of US action on climate change while ignoring what US ghg emissions were doing or threatening to do to tens of vulnerable people around the world.
In addition, if climate change is a moral problem, even assuming counter-factually that there is considerable scientific uncertainty about whether humans are causing serious global warming, those who are putting others at risk have duties to not endanger vulnerable people without their consent. This is particularly true on issues where waiting to resolve scientific uncertainty makes the problem worse or waiting makes the problem harder to solve, clear attributes of climate change.
It is the tens of millions of potential victims of climate change impacts that have the most to lose by waiting until all scientific uncertainties are resolved. Given that the mainstream scientific community now believes that the world is quickly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the moral problems with waiting until all climate scientific uncertainties are resolved are unfortunately becoming obvious. The United States should have acknowledged the duty to fake action on climate change 30 years ago once the US Academy of Sciences and other highly respected scientific institutions stated that human-induced climate change was a growing menace.
Even without the Pope’s encyclical, Climate change is a problem with certain features that scream for attention to see it and respond to it as essentially a moral problem even more than other environmental problems. These features include the following:
• First, it is a problem that is being caused by some high-emitting people and nations in one part of the world who are putting other people and nations at great risk in another part of the world who have often done little to cause the problem.
• Second, the harms to those mostly at risk are not mere inconveniences, but potential catastrophic harms to life and natural resources on which all life depends.
• Third, climate change is a problem for which those people most at risk often can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments. Their best hope is that those high-emitting nations and people causing the problem will see that they have ethical duties to the victims to avoid harming them.
• Fourth, because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere, all human activities are contributing to rising atmospheric concentrations and therefore a global solution to climate change requires all nations and people to limit their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.
Because climate change is a moral problem, issues nations must face in formulating climate policies need to be guided by moral considerations. They include, among many others, principles on what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, who is responsible for reasonable adaptation needs of those people at greatest risk from climate damages in poor nations that have done little to cause climate change, should high-emitting nations help poor nations obtain climate friendly energy technologies, and what responsibilities should high-emitting nations have for refugees who must flee their country because climate change has made their nations uninhabitable?
Because climate change is a moral problem, high-emitting organizations, sub-national governments, corporations, and individuals also have duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.
In the international climate negotiations that will resume on November 30 in Paris, issues of fairness are already the key issues in dispute. Hopefully the Pope’s encyclical will help citizens around the world see the moral dimensions of climate change policies and respond accordingly.
The US press has for 30 years utterly failed to help US citizens understand the practical significance for climate policy if climate change is a moral issue. Perhaps the Pope’s encyclical will change this.
Although the Obama administration has over the last year or two taken significant steps to reduce US greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions that have been widely welcomed by many nations, do the current US ghg reduction targets represent the US fair share of safe global emissions? This post examines the question of whether the current US commitments to reduce US ghg emissions are adequate as a matter of justice and ethics.
On November 11, 2014, the Obama Administration announced a new US commitment on reducing its ghg emissions in a deal with China. (US White House, 2014) The United States pledged to cut its emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 while retaining a prior pledge to reduce US ghg emissions by 80% below 2005 by 2050.
All nations have agreed to negotiate a new climate agreement with binding force at the twenty first Conference of the Parties (COP21) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in December 2015. To prepare for the Paris negotiations, countries have agreed to publicly outline what post-2020 climate actions they intend to take, known as their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The INDCs will largely determine whether the world is on a path to avoid catastrophic climate change by avoiding additional warming of no more than 2°C.
On March 31, 2015, the United States submitted its INDC to the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which reiterated the ghg emissions reduction targets announced in November. (US, 2015)
The US March announcement on its reduction targets for 2025 was met with mostly, but not uniformly, positive responses from nations around the world because the new commitments were a significant increase over the US commitment made in 2009 to reduce US ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions levels by 2020. The new US commitments were also welcomed because the United States has a record that spans several decades of being a major obstacle to achieving an adequate global solution to climate change. (For a discussion of the role that the United States has played in international climate negotiations, see Brown, 2002 and Brown, 2012) The Obama administration ghg reduction targets were seen by many as a constructive change in the US role in international efforts to find a global solution to climate change.
Although there has been a positive response to the Obama commitments to reduce US ghg emissions, there is also great international concern that national INDCs, including the US commitments, are not nearly ambitious enough to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact there is a strong consensus among nations that unless nations reduce their ghg emissions to levels that represent each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, there is little hope of preventing catastrophic warming.
The United States along with almost every country in the world agreed when it ratified the UNFCCC to adopt policies to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system on the basis of “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Thus the United States has agreed that it should reduce its ghg emissions to levels required of it on the basis of equity and justice.
In addition there are several features of climate change that scream for attention to understand it and respond to it as an ethical and moral problem. These features include: (a) it is a problem caused by some nations and people emitting high-levels of ghgs in one part of the world who are harming or threatening tens of millions of living people and countless numbers of future generations throughout the world who include some of the world’s poorest people and who have done little to cause the problem, (b) the harms to many of the world’s most vulnerable victims of climate change are potentially catastrophic, (c) many people most at risk from climate change often can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments; their best hope is that those causing the problem will see that justice requires them to greatly lower their ghg emissions, and, (d) to protect the world’s most vulnerable people, nations must act quickly to limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions.
A major significance for policy of understanding climate change as a moral and justice issue, is that nations may not look at economic self-interest alone in formulating policies, they must consider their ethical and moral obligations to those who are most vulnerable to climate change.
For these reasons, it is important to review the US ghg emissions reduction commitments through the lens of justice and equity. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) “equity” under the UNFCCC covers both distributive justice issues and procedural justice. (IPCC, 2015, chap 4, 4.2.2)
The rules under which nations are making commitments in their INDCs before the Paris COP under the UNFCCC do not include a definition of or benchmark for determining what “equity’ requires of nations. Yet nations are encouraged to explain how they took environmental ambition and fairness into account in establishing their INDC. More specificly at UNFCC COP-20 in Lima, nations agreed to explain in its INDC:
“how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2. (UNFCCC, 2014, emphasis added)”
Although reasonable disagreements exist about what equity and justice requires of nations in setting their INDCs as demonstrated by numerous proposed equity frameworks discussed by the recent IPCC chapter in the 5th Assessment Report on equity (IPCC, 2014, chapter 4), the national commitments that are based upon national economic interests alone clearly fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. This is so because as IPCC said recently “reasonable interpretations of equity are limited to only a few plausible kinds of considerations namely responsibility, equality, capacity, and rights of developing countries to develop.” (IPCC, 2014, chapter 4. 48-52) If there is any doubt that economic self-interest is not compatible with the idea of “equity” it also is an unacceptable basis for establishing national climate change policies because economic self-interest is also inconsistent with well established international legal principles including:
the “polluter pays” principle of the Rio Declaration (UN, 1992: Principle 16),
the “no harm” principle recognized in the UNFCCC (UNFCCC, 1992: Preamble)
what is required of nations who fail to fulfill and protect human rights of citizens (For discussion of the implications for policy of a human rights approach to climate change policy see, Brown and Brown, 2014).
And so although it may not be possible to say precisely what equity requires of nations in advance, strong arguments can be made that some national commitments fail to satisfy reasonable interpretations of what equity requires. Or saying this another way, although policy makers may disagree on what perfect justice requires, they may all strongly agree that certain positions are unjust.
In the absence of a court adjudicating what equity requires of nations in setting their national climate change commitments, a possibility but far from a guarantee under existing international and national law (for an explanation of some of the litigation issues, Buiti,2011), the best hope for encouraging nations to improve the ambition of their national emissions reductions commitments on the basis of equity and justice is the creation of a mechanism under the UNFCCC that requires nations to explain their how they quantitatively took equity into account in establishing their INDCs and why their INDC is consistent with the nation’s ethical obligations to people who are most vulnerable to climate change and the above principles of international law.
B. The US Justification for Its GHG Emissions Reduction Targets.
Although the United States asserted without explanation when it submitted its INDCs to the the UNFCCC Secretariat that the US commitments were” fair and ambitious,” (US, 2015), the United States has also acknowledged the commitment was based upon what is achievable under existing US law rather than what may be required of the United States by ethics, justice, and basic fairness.
The US justification for its new 2025 commitment is as follows:
The target is grounded in intensive analysis of cost-effective carbon pollution reductions achievable under existing law and will keep the United States on the right trajectory to achieve deep economy-wide reductions on the order of 80 % by 2050. (US White House, 2014)
According the US White House, the 80% reduction commitment by 2050 is based upon a commitment made by the United States to the G8. (Light, 2014)
The US has not asserted that the 26% to 28 % reduction below 2005 emissions reduction commitment by 2025 or 80% reduction below 2005 emissions by 2050 aspiration represents the US fair share of safe global emissions.
In regard to the 80% reduction commitment by 205o, the United States has asserted that this number was taken from the 2009 G8 Declaration on Climate Change which stated that:
We recognize the broad scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C. Because this global challenge can only be met by a global response, we reiterate our willingness to share with all countries the goal of achieving at least a 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050, recognizing that this implies that global emissions need to peak as soon as possible and decline thereafter. As part of this, we also support a goal of developed countries reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in aggregate by 80% or more by 2050 compared to 1990 or more recent years. (G8, 2009)
The Obama administration has thus explicitly acknowledged that the current 2025 commitment is based upon what is currently achievable under existing law rather than on what ethics and justice would require of the United States while the commitment to reduce ghg emissions by 80% by 2050 is based on a promise made to the G8 in 2009 which did not expressly consider the implications of a carbon budget described by IPCC in 2013. (see below)
C. Why the US Commitments Are Inadequate
Although it is speculation, it would appear that the reference by the United States to an 80% reduction commitment by 2050 originally made to the G8 was influenced by a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007, p776) which concluded that developed nations needed to reduce ghg emissions by 25% to 40% below 1990 emissions levels by 2020 and 80% to 95% by 2050 for the world to have any reasonable chance of limiting warming to 2°C. If this is the case, the US government has not explained why the US believes it need only achieve the lower end of the 80% to 95% reduction goal for 2050 emissions for developed nations identified by the IPCC in 2007 nor why the current reduction commitment of 26% to 28% below 2005 emissions by 2025 is justified given the much higher 25% to 40% reduction targets by 2020 were recommended by the IPCC in 2007 for developed nations.
It would also appear when determining any of its ghg commitments that the United States has not considered the most recent carbon budget identified by the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report. (IPCC, 2013, p27). A carbon budget is a limit of total ghg emissions for the entire world that must constrain total global emissions to have any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C or any other temperature limit. The IPCC budget defines a limit of future carbon emissions of approximately 270 gigatonnes carbon (GtC) to have a 66% chance of limiting the warming to 2°C. (Pidcock, 2013). The 2°C warming limit has been agreed to by the international community including the United States as necessary to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change. The US has agreed several times, including in the G8 agreement above, on the need for it to adopt policies that will, working with others, prevent warming from exceeding the 2°C warming limit.
Because any US ghg target is implicitly a position on the US fair share of safe global emissions, any US emissions reduction target may only be justified as a matter of ethics and justice by explaining why the US commitment is a fair share of an acceptable global carbon emissions budget. Yet, the Obama administration has made no attempt to explain or justify why its emissions reduction goals are just and equitable in reference to a global carbon budget or a warming limit. As we have seen, the United States has asserted that its INDC is ambitious and fair but has given no explanation of how the United States justified this conclusion.
If the total carbon budget to give the world a 66% chance of keeping warming below 2°C is 270 gigatons carbon (GtC), then because the US population is 5 % of world population, a case can be made that the United States carbon budget must be below 13.5 GtC even before this number is adjusted on the grounds of fairness or equity that takes into account the US’s world leading share of historical emissions. Because the US is currently emitting 1.44.GtC per year, the US will have zero emissions to allocate to itself in 9.4 years at current emissions rates.
In any event the US INDC, as well as all INDCs, should be expressed as a total number of carbon tons rather than as a percent reduction by a specific year given that a carbon budget requires nations to fairly allocate the remaining carbon budget necessary to limit warming to 2°C. Because keeping global emissions within a global carbon budget requires all nations to live within their allocated budget for the entire period, the US commitment should identify the total number of tons as a percentage of the global carbon budget it is allocating to itself. This is so because identifying a percentage reduction by a date in the future would not prevent a nation from far exceeding its budget allocation before the target date even if the percent reduction committed to is achieved by the target date. For this reason, nations should express their INDCs for emissions reductions in tons rather than in percent reductions by a specific date.
During a speech at Georgetown University in June 2013, President Obama did acknowledge in very general terms that the United States has responsibility for climate change when he said:
[A]s the world’s largest economy and second-largest carbon emitter, as a country with unsurpassed ability to drive innovation and scientific breakthroughs, as the country that people around the world continue to look to in times of crisis, we’ve got a vital role to play. We can’t stand on the sidelines. We’ve got a unique responsibility. (Obama, 2014)
Although President Obama thus acknowledged US responsibility to the world to take effective action on climate change, the US has not explained how this responsibility is linked quantitatively to any US ghg reduction commitment.
There are several reasons for concluding that the US INDC fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
First, as one observer noted about the fairness of the US-China agreement:
“ [U]nder such an agreement the United States would come down “marginally” from its current 18 tonnes per capita and China would increase from its current seven-eight tonnes. Both the polluters would converge at 12-14 tonnes a person a year. This is when the planet can effectively absorb and naturally cleanse emissions not more than two tonnes a person a year.” (Narain, 2014)
Second, the US has admitted that its commitment on its 2025 emissions reductions of 26% to 28% is simply based on what is achievable under existing law not what is required of the US as a matter of justice.
Third the debate about climate change in the United States for over 35 years reveals that opposition to stronger policies to reduce US ghg emissions has successfully blocked stronger US policies by making two kinds of arguments.
The first argument has been that there is insufficient scientific certainty about human causation of harmful climate change to warrant climate policies given the likely costs of climate change policies to certain sectors of the US economy.
The second argument which has blocked stronger US climate change policy for the last few decades is based on claims that proposed climate law and policies would impose unacceptable costs on the US economy. The cost arguments have taken several forms. (Brown, 2012b, p57) These arguments have included that proposed policies would destroy jobs, reduce US GDP, damage specific industries such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that proposed climate policies and legislation are unaffordable. (Brown, 2012b, p57).
It is therefore clear that the actual basis for current US positions on climate change have not been identified by the the Obama administration, which likely is doing as much as it can under existing law. Rather the actual basis for current US climate policies includes arguments which have successfully prevented the US Congress from passing more ambitious US climate change policies. Therefore in the US, to determine the actual reasons for domestic action on climate change it is not sufficient to examine the claims of the administrative branch of government alone, one must examine the arguments made by opponents of climate change that have successfully blocked stronger climate change action by the government. And so, one cannot escape the conclusion that the basis for the US commitments on climate change include alleged unacceptable costs of more aggressive climate change policies to the US economy, matters of economic self-interest rather than global responsibility.
Although both the scientific uncertainty and cost arguments made in opposition to US climate law and policies can be shown to be ethically problematic because they ignore US ethical obligations to others (see Brown, 2012b, pp57–137), these arguments neither have been examined in the US press nor identified by the US government. With very few exceptions, the US press has utterly failed to cover climate change as an ethical and moral issue while focusing on the scientific and economic arguments against taking action that have been made by opponents of US climate change policies for almost 30 years. (Brown, 2009 ; Brown, 2012a) By focusing on the cost issues to the US economy, the US press has reinforced the ethically problematic notion that cost to the US economy alone is an acceptable justification for inaction on climate change.
The US debate on climate change has ignored the fact that when the United States ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 it agreed that nations:
“[H]ave, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law… the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” (UNFCCC, 1992, Preamble)
As explained above, the United States government has not explained how the US ghg emissions reduction commitments took into consideration justice and equity issues in establishing US emissions reduction targets. Although the Obama administration is likely doing as much as it can under existing law, it would have to admit that its current commitments do not represent the US fair share of safe global emissions.
Reasonable arguments can be made about which of the equity frameworks that have attracted international attention and respect should be applied to any nation’s INDC. An examination of the arguments for and against specific equity frameworks that have received international attention and respect is beyond the scope of this article. (For a discussion of the merits of various equity frameworks see, Brown, 2014) However, it is not necessary to agree on an equity framework to conclude that some national commitments fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. As we noted above it is not necessary to know what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. The US current ghg emissions reductions commitments clearly fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny for reasons stated here and summarized below. The United States had an opportunity to explain its justification for why its INDC was fair and sufficiently ambitious when it submitted its INDC. In fact the decision at COP 2o in Lima in December of 2014 encouraged the United States and all countries to explain why its INDC was fair and sufficiently ambitious to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States chose not to do this.
In summary, a strong case can be made that the US emissions reduction commitment for 2025 of 26% to 28% clearly fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny when one considers: (a) the 2007 IPCC report on which the US likely relied upon to establish a 80% reduction target by 2050 also called for 25% to 40% reduction by developed countries by 2020, and (b) although reasonable people may disagree with what “equity” means under the UNFCCC, the US commitments can’t be reconciled with any reasonable interpretation of what “equity” requires, (c) the United States has expressly acknowledged that its commitments are based upon what can be achieved under existing US law not on what is required of it as a mater of justice, (d) it is clear that more ambitious US commitments have been blocked by arguments that alleged unacceptable costs to the US economy, arguments which have ignored US responsibilities to those most vulnerable to climate change, and (e) it is virtually certain that the US commitments can not be construed to be a fair allocation of the remaining carbon budget that is available for the entire world to limit warming to 2°C.
Brown, B. and Brown, D. (2015) Commonly Unrecognized Benefits of a Human Rights Approach to Climate Change, in L.Westra, C. Gray, and V. Karageorgou (eds.) Ecological Systems Integrity: Governance, Law, and Human Rights, Earthscan Routledge, in press.
Buiti, C. (2011) The tortuous road to liability: A critical survey of climate change litigation in Europe and America, Sustainable Development Law and Policy, Vol 11, Issue II, Retrieved from http;//digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1467
G8 (2009) Responsible Leadership for a Sustainable Future, http://www.g8italia2009.it/static/G8_Allegato/G8_Declaration_08_07_09_final,0.pdf
Climate change must be understood and responded to as a profound problem of global justice and ethics. This is so because: (a) it is a problem mostly caused by some nations and people emitting high-levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) in one part of the world who are harming or threatening tens of millions of living people and countless numbers of future generations throughout the world who include some of the world’s poorest people who have done little to cause the problem, (b) the harms to many of the world’s most vulnerable victims of climate change are potentially catastrophic, (c) many people most at risk from climate change often can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments; their best hope is that those causing the problem will see that justice requires them to greatly lower their ghg emissions, (d) to protect the world’s most vulnerable people nations must limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions, and, (e) climate change is preventing some people from enjoying the most basic human rights including rights to life and security among others. Because climate change is a profound problem of justice those causing the problem may not use self-interest alone as justification for their policy responses to human-induced warming, they must respond in ways consistent with their responsibilities and duties to others. In light of this the following questions should be asked of those who oppose national action on climate change on the basis of excessive costs to the national economy or scientific uncertainty.
Questions that should be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of cost to the national economy:
1. When you claim that a government emitting high levels of ghgs need not reduce its ghg emissions because the costs to it of so doing are too high, do you deny that high-emitting governments not only have economic interests in climate change policies but also duties and obligations to tens of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest impacts?
2. If you argue that high costs to a nation of reducing its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global ghg emissions justify non-action, how have you considered the increased harms and risks to poor vulnerable people and nations that will continue to grow as atmospheric ghg concentrations continue to rise? In other words how have you considered the harms to others that will be caused by government inaction on climate change?
3. If the justification for a nation to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions is that costs to it are too high, yet inaction causes loss of life and great harm to people outside the nation’s borders, is the use of a cost justification by a nation for non-action morally supportable?
4. Do you agree that those nations and people around the world who will most be harmed by climate change have a right to participate in a decision by a nation that chooses to not adopt climate change policies because costs to it are deemed unacceptable?
5. Do you agree that nations that emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting countries and individuals that have done little to cause climate change?
6. If you disagree that all nations have a duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to cost to it, do you also deny the applicability of the well-established international legal norm that almost all nations have agreed to in 1992 in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development called the “polluter pays” principle which holds that polluters should pay for consequences of their pollution?
7. Do you agree that nations that have very high per capita and historical ghg emissions compared to other nations and so have contributed more than other nations to the rise of atmospheric concentrations of ghgs to dangerous levels have a greater duty to reduce their ghg emissions than nations that have done comparatively little to create the current threat of human-induced warming?
8. If you argue that the United States should not adopt climate change policies on the basis that economic competitors such as China have not adopted climate change policies, are you claiming that no nation has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until all other nations reduce their ghg emissions accordingly?
9. In arguing that the United States or other high-emitting nations need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions based on cost, how have you considered, if at all, that all nations have agreed in international climate negotiations to take steps to limit warming to 2 degree C because warming greater than this amount will not only create harsh impacts for tens of millions of people but runs the risk of creating rapid non-linear warming that will outstrip the ability of people and nations to adapt?
Questions that should be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty:
1. When you argue that a nation emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts, are you arguing that a nation need not take action on climate change until scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken may very likely make it too late to prevent catastrophic climate change harms to millions of people around the world?
2. Do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in a decision about whether to wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change to them because of scientific uncertainty?
3. Given that mainstream climate change scientific view holds that the Earth could experience rapid non-linear climate change impacts which outstrip the ability of some people and nations to adapt, should this fact affect whether nations which emit high levels of ghgs should be able to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for non-action on climate change?
4. What specific scientific references and sources do you rely upon to conclude that there is a reasonable scientific dispute about whether human actions are causing observable climate change and are you aware of the multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies that very strongly point to human causation?
(Fingerprint studies draw conclusions about human causation that can be deduced from: (a) how the Earth warms in the upper and lower atmosphere, (b) warming in the oceans,(c) night-time vs day-time temperature increases,(d) energy escaping from the upper atmosphere versus energy trapped, (e) isotopes of CO2 in the atmosphere and coral that distinguish fossil CO2 from non-fossil CO2, (f) the height of the boundary between the lower and upper atmosphere, and (g) atmospheric oxygen levels decrease as CO2 levels increase. “Attribution” studies test whether the energy differences from those natural forces which have changed the Earth’s climate in the past such as changing radiation from the sun are capable of explaining observed temperature change.)
5. On what specific basis do you disregard the mainstream scientific view that holds that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual, conclusions supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United States Academy of Sciences and over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world whose membership includes scientists with expertise relevant to the science of climate change including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and the Royal Society of the UK and according to the American Academy of Sciences 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?
6. When you claim that a nation such as the United States which emits high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse human-induced climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their lives often depend and if so what is that proof?
7. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States and almost every country in the world in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?
(Article 3 states:)
The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost
8. If a nation emitting high levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms the health and ecological systems on which life depends for tens of millions of others, should that nation be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?
The World Resources Institute (WRI) has created a new very helpful website that allows visual comparisons of up to four nations at a time up and up to eight of 24 variables at a time relevant to determining what equity requires of nations in formulating their climate policies. The website is called Equity Tracker and is available at: http://cait2.wri.org/equity/
The above picture from the website demonstrates how one could visualize differences between nations on factors relevant to what equity requires of them and thereby understand why some nations must make much deeper cuts than others as a matter of equity and justice. This information could be very valuable in deepening citizen and government reflection on ethical, justice, and equity problems with national responses to climate change. As a matter of equity, for instance, the website help one quickly visualize why the United States must make deeper percentage cuts in its ghg emissions than India and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not to mention China, for instance.
One minor criticism of the site is, however, in order. Although the website is very helpful to both help visualize and understand facts relevant to determinations of what equitable principles should guide national climate policy formation, particularly in regard to ghg emissions reduction targets, lamentably the site could be interpreted to leave the mistaken impression that equity could mean anything. In fact the site says that the meaning of equity “depends upon the lens through which one views it.” The site could be improved if it included a reference to the IPCC discussion in Chapters 3 and 4 of Working Group III’s recent report which, among other things, identifies ethical limitations of economic arguments about climate policies and only a limited number of considerations that should be considered in determining what equity means. For a summary of the IPCC conclusions on these issue see IPCC, Ethics, and Climate Change: Will IPCC’s Latest Report Transform How National Climate Change Policies Are Justified?. and Improving IPCC Working Group III’s Analysis on Climate Ethics and Equity, Second In A Series on this website.
The other idea one must understand to effectively criticize national ghg commitments is the policy implications of a carbon budget that must be maintained to limit warming to 2 degrees C. If a citizen understands the equity considerations and the extraordinary urgency of lowering global emissions to limit warming to 2 degrees C, then citizens can then effectively criticize their nation’s ghg emissions target. The following is one depiction of a carbon budget prepared by the Global Commons Institute with three different reductions pathways that make different assumptions about when global ghg emissions peak.
In the United States and in several developed countries including Australia and Canada, for instance, opponents of national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions frequently have made several arguments in opposition to proposed climate change policies. Most of these arguments have been of two types.
First, opponents of national climate policies have argued that there is insufficient scientific certainty about human causation of adverse climate impacts to warrant action because of the costs of reducing greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions might entail unnecessary expenditures if the mainstream scientific view on climate impacts turns out to be false.
Second proposed climate change policies are too costly. These cost arguments have taken several forms. They have included claims that the proposed ghg emissions reduction policies: (a) will unacceptably reduce national GDP, (b) will destroy jobs, (c) will destroy specific industries, (d) are not justified by cost-benefit analyses or other welfare maximization measurements, or (e) are just too costly.
Another very common argument made in opposition to national ghg emissions reductions policies that implicitly rests on claims of excessive costs is the frequent claim that it is unfair to the United States, or some other country, to be required to reduce its emissions as long as another country, e.g. China or India, is not willing to reduce its ghg emissions in similar ways.
This paper will examine whether a nation may make its willingness to reduce its ghg emissions contingent on what other nations do through an ethical lens after very briefly examining ethical problems with other cost justifications for a nation’s unwillingness to reduce it ghg emissions.
II. Ethical Problems with Cost Justifications for a Nation’s Unwillingness to Reduce its GHG Emissions.
As a matter of ethics all nations have clear duties reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of global emissions because nations have ethical duties to not harm other people and nations. These ethical duties can be derived both from various ethical theories and international law. For instance, as an example from climate law, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, nations agreed that nations have the:
“responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” (UNFCCC, Preamble)
In regard to the ethical basis for concluding that nations have duties to not harm others a recent conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is relevant
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)
Cost arguments are almost always arguments about self-interest that usually ignore duties and responsibilities to others.
Whether a nation or individual should act to prevent climate change is a matter of justice, not simply a matter of economic efficiency, national welfare maximization, or economic self-interest alone. This is so because some governments and individuals more than others are more responsible for climate change because they have much higher emissions of ghg in total tons, per capita levels, and historical contributions to elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations. Yet each nation must reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions because it has a duty to not harm others and some of the poorest people in the world who have done almost nothing to cause climate change are the most vulnerable to climate change. These people will suffer the most if governments and individuals refuse to reduce their emissions based upon “efficiency” or “welfare maximization” or national costs considerations alone. In addition, those most vulnerable to climate change have not consented to be harmed because costs to polluters of reducing their emissions are high.
In regard to these ethical limits of costs arguments, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Working Group III report recently confirmed these conclusions when it stated:
“Efficiency” and “welfare maximization” justifications unjustly sacrifice vulnerable people to the economic prosperity of high emitting nations and individuals. 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)
Yet, of course, what is any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions is a matter of distributive justice about which reasonable people may disagree. In fact, some very low emitting nation’s and people may be able to argue that they need not yet cut their ghg emissions because they have not yet exceeded their fair share of safe global emissions. Yet almost all nations are without doubt emitting at levels above their fair share of safe global emissions because total global emissions must be cut by as much as 95 percent by 2050 to prevent dangerous climate change. This is particularly true for all developed nations such as the United States which have very high per capita and historical emissions.
Although reasonable people may disagree on exactly what any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, this does not mean that any national articulation of what is fair passes ethical scrutiny.
In this regard, the recent IPCC report also agreed when it said:
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)
The recent IPPC report identified the considerations that have been discussed in the ethics literature as being relevant for determining what fairness requires in allocating national responsibility for national ghg emissions reductions. They include; (a) responsibility for causing the climate problem, that is historical levels of emissions, (b) capacity or ability to pay for ghg emissions reductions, (c) equality or giving each human being an equal right to use the atmosphere as a sink for ghg emissions, and (d) the right to development a concept which is usually understood to give poorer nations an exception from the obligations to reduce ghg emissions so that they can meet basic needs. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII pp 52-56)
And so ethics requires each nation to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions where what is fair must be based upon morally justifiable reasons for allocating national ghg emissions reductions’ burdens yet in determining what are morally relevant factors there are only a limited number of considerations that are recognized by ethicists to be morally relevant. None of these considerations are costs to reduce ghg emissions of high-emitting nations or people.
III. The Ethics Of One Nation Making Its GHG Reductions’ Commitment Contingent Upon Other Nations Doing the Same.
All nations that are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to immediately reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do. This is so because climate change obligations are a matter of global justice, not national interest alone, and justice requires all nations to reduce their ghg emissions to levels that are distributively just and sufficient in magnitude to in combination with the reductions of other nations to prevent dangerous climate change.
The duty to cease activities that harm others 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 contributing to the harm of others have not ceased their destructive behavior.
For example, it would be absurd for one of two factories that are poisoning people downstream by their discharges of toxic substances to argue that it has no obligation to reduce toxic discharges until the other factory agrees to reduce its toxic discharges. One of two persons beating up an innocent victim cannot defend his actions on the basis that he had no duty to stop the beating as long as the other person continued to assault the victim.
Yet climate change is an analogous problem because some very high-emitting countries are largely causing great harm to very low-emitting poor countries who can do little by themselves to protect themselves from the great harm. Those poor nations who are the most vulnerable victims of climate change are appropriately dismissive of arguments from high-emitting countries that justify their unwillingness to change the status quo on the basis that other high-emitting countries have not reduced their emissions.
May the United States, or other nation, refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions as long as another nation, for instance China, will not act accordingly? As a matter of ethics, for reasons stated above, no nation may refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions levels on the basis what other nations do.
May China, or other developing nation refuse to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis that another developed nation has refused to act according to levels required of them?
Any nation’s obligation, including China’s, to reduce its ghg emissions is terminated only when its ghg emission levels are below levels required by fair global allocations that will prevent dangerous climate change. Although even if a nation is emitting at levels below its fair share of safe global emissions an argument can be made that any nation that could reduce its ghg emissions further should do so to avoid catastrophic harm to others. This so because climate change is violating the human rights of poor people around the world and human rights theory requires governments that have the ability to prevent human rights violations should do so even if they are not at fault.
Without doubt as a matter of ethics, all nations, at a minimum, have a duty to keep ghg emissions below their fair share of safe global emissions independent of what other nations are doing.
Although as we have seen what fairness requires is a matter about which different ethical theories might reach different conclusions, a claim by almost any nation in the top 80 percent of global per capita emissions that it is already below its fair share of safe global emissions is highly unlikely to pass scrutiny on the basis of any conceivable ethically theory.
And so, the United States, along with other high-emitting nations, must act now because it cannot make a credible case that US ghg emissions are already below the US’s fair share of safe global emissions levels. This is true because most mainstream scientists have concluded that the world must reduce total global emissions by as much as 90 to 80 percent below existing levels to stabilize GHG atmospheric concentrations at minimally safe atmospheric ghg concentrations and most developed nations and China are very high emitters in both historical and per capita emissions. Therefore what is a fair reduction levels for these high-emitting countries will need to be reductions at greater levels than required of the entire world.
Yet, some very low-emitting developing countries might be able to make a credible case that their current ghg emissions levels are still below their fair share of safe global emissions. And so although some poor low-emitting nations might be able to substantiate a claim that their existing ghg emissions levels don’t yet trigger immediate emissions reductions obligations, the United States and all developed nations and China are not members of this group. For this reason, the US, developed nations, and even high-emitting developing nations have a duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and this obligation is an international responsibility that is unaffected by the actions of other nations.
In addition, it is ethically problematic for the United States or another developed nation to assert that other nations must reduce their emissions to levels commensurate with US reductions. In fact, for the United States to make any claim on any other nation that it must reduce its emissions in the same amount as the US emissions reductions, it would have to make the case that the nation was already exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions coupled with the claim that to achieve fair emissions levels the nation would have to reduce emissions to the same level committed to by the United States. But even then, as we have seen, the United States could not makes its emissions reduction commitments contingent on what another nation did.
A variation of the argument that a country like the United States need not reduce its ghg emissions unless other nations do so is the claim that it will not make a difference in the harms experienced by those vulnerable to climate change if the United States reduces its ghg emissions and others fail to do so. Yet this claim is not factually true. Any nation which is emitting ghg emissions above its fair share is contributing to the harms of people and nations who are harmed by climate change. Although it is obviously true that unless all nations reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global ghg emissions, some nations and people will be harmed by climate change, yet these harms will be worse so long as each nation refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions. Although the most damaging harms may be caused by those nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share, all nations emitting ghgs above their fair share make the harms worse.
Countries like the United States are not being asked to reduce China’s fair share of safe global emissions, they are only expected to reduce the US ghg emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions. For this reason, also, the US may not as a matter of ethics fail to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions because other countries have failed to do so.
In conclusion, nations have an ethical responsibility to reduce ghg emissions that harm others for as long as they are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. This duty exists regardless of efforts undertaken by other nations to reduce their ghg emissions.
This is the second in a three part series examining the ethical and justice issues discussed by the IPCC Working Group III in its 5th Assessment Report (AR5) . In the first entry in this series we concluded that although the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable improvement over prior IPCC reports in regard to identifying ethical and equity issues that should be considered in developing climate change policy, some criticisms are also warranted of how IPCC has articulated the significance and implications of the ethical, justice, and equity principles that should guide nations in developing climate change policies.
In short, we will argue improvement is possible in how IPCC deals with ethics, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change policy-making despite very significant improvements on these matters in the AR5 report compared to prior IPCC reports.
In this entry we will examine several preliminary ethical and justice issues raised by the new IPCC Working Group III Chapter 3, on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts. The last entry will continue the examination Chapter 3 and then turn to Chapter 4 on Sustainable Development and Equity.
As a preliminary matter, one of the challenges that IPCC faces in its mandate on of ethics and justice issues relevant to climate change policy-making is that it is not IPCC’s role to be prescriptive in deciding what governments should do. It’s mandate is to synthesize the extant social-economic and scientific literature for policy-makers. In this regard, the IPCC chapter on ethics said expressly:
This chapter does not attempt to answer ethical questions, but rather provides policymakers with the tools (concepts, principles, arguments, and methods) to make decisions. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 10)
And so it is not IPCC’s role to do ethical analyses of policy issues that raise ethical questions. IPCC can, however, distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive questions that arise in relevant socio-economic literature about climate policy-making, identify important ethical and justice issues that arise in this literature, where there is a consensus on ethics and justice issues in the relevant literature describe the consensus position, where there is no consensus on ethical and justice issues describe the range of reasonable views on these issues, and identify hard and soft law legal principles relevant to how governments should resolve ethical and justice issues that must be faced by policy-makers.
There are several subjects in climate change policy-making which raise important ethical and justice issues. They include policy judgements about:
how much warming will be tolerated, a matter which is implicit but rarely identified when nations make ghg emissions reduction commitments,
any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, matters which are referred to by the IPCC usually as burden-sharing or effort-sharing considerations and a matter taken up in chapter 4 of IPCC, Working Group III chapter on sustainability and equity,
any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those who are harmed by climate change,
when a nation is responsible for its ghg emissions given differences in historical and per capita emissions among nations,
responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations,
how to evaluate the effects on and responsibilities to others of climate change technologies that are adopted in response to the threat of climate change, including such technologies as geo-engineering or nuclear power, for instance,
who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, a topic usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice,
the policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change,
the responsibility of not only nations but subnational governments, entities, organizations, and individuals for climate change,
when economic analyses of climate change policy options can prescribe or limit national duties or obligations to respond to the threat of climate change,
ethical and justice implications of decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty,
whether action or non-action of other nations is relevant to any nation’s responsibility for climate change,
how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation,
when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science,
who is responsible for climate refugees and what their responsibilities are.
On some of these issues, the recent IPCC report included a good summary of the extant ethical literature, on other issues important gaps in IPCC’s analysis can be identified, and lastly on a few of these issues, IPCC Working Group III is silent. IPCC reports cannot be expected to be exhaustive on these matters and therefore gaps and omissions in the IPCC reports in regard to ethics and justice issues relevant to policy-making is not necessarily a criticism of IPCC and is here pointed out only for future consideration. In fact, IPCC’s work on the ethical limits of economic arguments is a particularly important contribution to the global climate change debate. What is worthy of criticism, however, is if IPCC’s conclusions on guidance for policy-makers is misleading on ethics and justice issues.
II. Ethical Issues Raised by Economic Arguments About Climate Policy
Perhaps the most important practical ethical and justice issues raised by Working Group III’s work on ethics is its conclusions on the ethical and justice limitations of economic analyses of climate change policy options. This topic is enormously practically important because nations and others who argue against proposed climate change policies usually rely on various economic arguments which often completely ignore the ethical and justice limitations of these arguments (In the case of the United States, see Brown, 2012.) Because most citizens and policy-makers have not been trained in spotting ethically dubious claims that are often hidden in what appear at first glance to be “value-neutral” economic arguments, IPCC’s acknowledgement of the ethical limitations of economic arguments is vitally important. It is also practically important because the first four IPCC reports, although not completely ignoring all ethical and justice problems with economic arguments about climate change policies, failed to examine the vast majority of ethical problems with economic arguments against climate change policies while making economic analyses of climate change policies the primary focus of Working Group III’s work thereby leaving the strong impression that economic analyses, including but not limited to cost-benefit analyses, is the preferred way to evaluate the sufficiency of proposed climate change policies. On this matter, the AR5 report has made important clarifications.
The AR5 III report included a section on this very issue entitled: Economics, Rights, and Dutieswhich we reproduce here it its entirety because of its importance to this discussion, followed by comments in bold italics:
Economics can measure and aggregate human wellbeing, but Sections 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 explain that wellbeing may be only one of several criteria for choosing among alternative mitigation policies.
Other ethical considerations are not reflected in economic valuations, and those considerations may be extremely important for particular decisions that have to be made. For example, some have contended that countries that have emitted a great deal of GHG in the past owe restitution to countries that have been harmed by their emissions. If so, this is an important consideration in determining how much finance rich countries should provide to poorer countries to help with their mitigation efforts. It suggests that economics alone cannot be used to determine who should bear the burden of mitigation.
What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take into account of justice and rights in general. However, distributive justice can be accommodated within economics, because it can be understood as a value: specifically the value of equality. The theory of fairness within economics (Fleurbaey, 2008) is an account of distributive justice. It assumes that the level of distributive justice within a society is a function of the wellbeings of individuals, which means it can be reflected in the aggregation of wellbeing. In particular, it may be measured by the degree of inequality in wellbeing, using one of the standard measures of inequality such as the Gini coefficient (Gini, 1912), as discussed in the previous section. The Atkinson measure of inequality (Atkinson, 1970) is based on an additively separable social welfare function (SWF), and is therefore particularly appropriate for representing the prioritarian theory described in Section 3.4.6 . Furthermore, distributive justice can be reflected in weights incorporated into economic evaluations as Section 3.6 explains.
Simply identifying the level of inequality using the Gini Index does not assure that the harms and benefits of climate change policies will be distributed justly. For that a theory of just distribution is needed. The Gini index is also at such a level of abstraction that it is very difficult to use it as a way of thinking about the justice obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change. Even if there is strong economic equality in a nation measured by the Gini index, one cannot conclude that climate change policies are distributively just.
Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. For example, a CBA might not show the drowning of a Pacific island as a big loss, since the island has few inhabitants and relatively little economic activity. It might conclude that more good would be done in total by allowing the island to drown: the cost of the radical action that would be required to save the island by mitigating climate change globally would be much greater than the benefit of saving the island. This might be the correct conclusion in terms of overall aggregation of costs and benefits. But the island’s inhabitants might have a right not to have their homes and livelihoods destroyed as a result of the GHG emissions of richer nations far away. If that is so, their right may override the conclusions of CBA. It may give those nations who emit GHG a duty to protect the people who suffer from it, or at least to make restitution to them for any harms they suffer.
Even in areas where the methods of economics can be applied in principle, they cannot be accepted without question (Jamieson, 1992; Sagoff, 2008). Particular simplifying assumptions are always required, as shown throughout this chapter. These assumptions are not always accurate or appropriate, and decision‐makers need to keep in mind the resulting limitations of the economic analyses. For example, climate change will shorten many people’s lives. This harm may in principle be included within a CBA, but it remains highly contentious how that should be done. Another problem is that, because economics can provide concrete, quantitative estimates of some but not all values, less quantifiable considerations may receive less attention than they deserve.
This discussion does not adequately capture serious ethical problems with translating all values into monetary units measured by willingness to pay or its surrogates nor that such transformation may greatly distort ethical obligations to do no harm into changes in commodity value.
The extraordinary scope and scale of climate change raises particular difficulties for economic methods (Stern, forthcoming). First, many of the common methods of valuation in economics are best designed for marginal changes, whereas some of the impacts of climate change and efforts at mitigation are not marginal (Howarth and Norgaard, 1992). Second, the very long time scale of climate change makes the discount rate crucial at the same time as it makes it highly controversial (see Section 3.6.2 ). Third, the scope of the problem means it encompasses the world’s extremes of wealth and poverty, so questions of distribution become especially important and especially difficult. Fourth, measuring non‐market values—such as the existence of species, natural environments, or traditional ways of life of local societies—is fraught with difficulty. Fifth, the uncertainty that surrounds climate change is very great. It includes the likelihood of irreversible changes to societies and to nature, and even a small chance of catastrophe. This degree of uncertainty sets special problems for economics. (Nelson, 2013) (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 12-13)
Again this discussion does not adequately describe the ethical problems with economic determinations of all values. In fact it leaves the impression that if non-market values can be discovered the problems of transforming all values to commodity values are adequately dealt with.
Chapter 3, also includes additional statements about the ethical limits of economic reasoning sprinkled throughout the chapter. They include:
1. Most normative analyses of solutions to the climate problem implicitly involve contestable ethical assumptions.(IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg.10)
2. However, the methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They can be based on ethical principles, as Section 3.6 explains. But they cannot take account of every ethical principle. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not to taking account of justice and rights (with the exception of distributive justice − see below), or other values apart from human wellbeing. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)
And so Chapter 3 of the IPCC report contains a number or clear assertions about the ethical limitations of economic arguments. However there are important gaps missing from this analysis. Also several sections of Chapter 3 that can be interpreted as claims that policy makers are free to choose economic reasoning as justification for climate policies. That is, some of the text reads as if a policy-maker is free to choose whether to base policy on economic or ethical and justice considerations, choosing between these two ways of evaluation is simply an option. Some of these provisions follow with responses in italics
Chapter 3 page 6 says:
Many different analytic methods are available for evaluating policies. Methods may be quantitative (for example, cost‐benefit analysis, integrated assessment modeling, and multi‐criteria analysis) or qualitative (for example, sociological and participatory approaches). However, no single best method can provide a comprehensive analysis of policies. A mix of methods is often needed to understand the broad effects, attributes, trade‐offs, and complexities of policy choices; moreover, policies often address multiple objectives (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)
Although economic analyses can provide policy-makers with valuable information such as which technologies will achieve ethically determined goals at lowest cost, thereby providing criteria for making remedies cost-effective, there are serious ethical problems with cost-benefit analyses used prescriptively to set emissions reductions targets. Some of these are alluded to in IPCC Chapters 3 and 4, others are not acknowledged. Because of the prevalence of cost-benefit justifications for climate change policies, future IPCC reports could make a contribution by identifying all of the ethical issues raised by cost-benefit analyses.
Any decision about climate change is likely to promote some values and damage others. These may be values of very different sorts. In decision making, different values must therefore be put together or balanced against each other. (IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)
This provision can be understood as condoning a consequentialist approach to climate policy that fails to acknowledge deontological limits. Since when any nation makes policy on climate change it affects poor people and vulnerable nations around the world, there are serious procedural justice issues which go unacknowledged in this section and, for the most part, all throughout Chapter 3. Nowhere does the chapter acknowledge that when a climate policy is under development at the national level, nations have no right to compare costs to them of implementing policies with the harms to others that have not consented to the method of valuation being used to determine quantitative value.
Ideally, emissions should be reduced in each place to just the extent that makes the marginal cost of further reductions the same everywhere. One way of achieving this result is to have a carbon price that is uniform across the world; or it might be approximated by a mix of policy instruments (see Section 3.8 ). (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)
This statement fails to acknowledge that emissions reductions amounts should be different in different places according to well accepted principles of distributive justice. Although other sections of the chapter acknowledge that responsibility for climate change is a matter of distributive justice, this section and others leave the impression that climate policy can be based upon economic efficiency grounds alone. The way to cure this problem is to continue to reference other sections that recognize ethical limits in setting policy on the basis of efficiency.
(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)
Since, for efficiency, mitigation should take place where it is cheapest, emissions of GHG should be reduced in many developing countries, as well as in rich ones. However, it does not follow that mitigation must be paid for by those developing countries; rich countries may pay for mitigation that takes place in poor countries. Financial flows between countries make it possible to separate the question of where mitigation should take place from the question of who should pay for it. Because mitigating climate change demands very large‐scale action, if put in place these transfers might become a significant factor in the international distribution of wealth. Provided appropriate financial transfers are made, the question of where mitigation should take place is largely a matter for the economic theory of efficiency, tempered by ethical considerations. But the distribution of wealth is amatter of justice among countries, and a major issue in the politics of climate change (Stanton, 2011). It is partly a matter of distributive justice, which economics can take into account, but compensatory justice may also be involved, which is an issue for ethics. (Section 3.3).(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)
There are a host of potential ethical problems with mitigation taking place in one part of the world to satisfy the ethical obligations of a nation in another part of the world which is emitting above its fair share of safe global emissions that are not mentioned in this article. Included in these problems are:
Environmental Sufficiency. There are many technical challenges in assuring that a project in one part of the world that seeks to reduce ghg by an amount that otherwise would be required of a polluter will actually succeed in achieving the reductions particularly when the method of reduction is reliant on biological removal of carbon.
Permanence. Many proposed projects for reducing carbon in one part of the world to offset reductions ethically required in another part of the world raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by the project will stay out of the atmosphere forever, a requirement that is required to achieve the environmental equivalence to ghg emissions reductions that would be achieved at the source.
Leakage. Many proposed projects used to offset emissions reductions of high-emitters raise serious questions about whether carbon reduced by a project at one location will result in actual reductions in emissions because the activity which is the subject of the offset is resumed at another location.
Additionality. A project that is proposed in another part of the world to offset emissions reductions of a high-emitting entity may not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons.
Allowing Delay In Investing In New Technology. The ability to rely on a cheaper emissions reductions project in another part of the world as a substitute of reducing emissions creates an excuse for high-emitting entities to delay investment in technologies that will reduce the pollution load. This may create a practical problem when emissions reductions obligations are tightened in the future.
Chapter 3 also treats other important ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. They include:
3.3 Justice, equity and responsibility,
3.3.1 Causal and moral responsibility
3.3.2 Intergenerational justice and rights of future people
3.3.4 Historical responsibility and distributive justice
3.3.5 Intra‐generational justice: compensatory justice and historical responsibility
3.3.6 Legal concepts of historical responsibility
3.3.7 Geoengineering, ethics, and justice
3.4 Values and wellbeing
3.4.1 Non‐human values
3.4.2 Cultural and social values
3.4.4 Aggregation of wellbeing
3.4.5 Lifetime wellbeing
3.4.6 Social welfare functions
3.4.7 Valuing population
III. Some Additional Gaps In Chapter 3
Some of the gaps in Chapter 3 on ethical issues raised by climate change policy-making include: (1) ethics of decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty, (2) whether action or non-action of other nations affects a nation’s responsibility for climate change, (3) how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation, (4) when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science, and (5) who is responsible to for climate refugees and what are their responsibilities.
The last entry in this series will continue the analyses of IPCC Chapter 3 on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts and Chapter 4 on Sustainability and Equity.
Brown, 2012, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change Ethics In Light of a Thirty-Five Year Debate, Routledge-Earthscan, 2012
On Monday June 2, the US press began to shine a spotlight on the predictable political warfare breaking out over the Obama administration’s new proposed climate change rules. Yet, there are at least four crucial facts about any US response to climate change that continue to be largely ignored by the US media coverage of this food fight. They include: (1) a 35 year US delay on climate action has made the problem extraordinarily challenging to solve, (2) US greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions are more than any country responsible for rise in atmospheric concentrations to present dangerous levels, (3) US ghg emissions not only threaten the US with climate disruption but endanger many of the poorest people around the world, (4) the Obama administration’s pledge to reduce ghg emissions is far short of the US fair share of safe global emissions.
For over 35 years the US Academy of Sciences has been warning Americans about the threat of climate change. In 1977, Robert M. White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote a report for the US Academy that concluded that CO2 released during the burning of fossil fuel could have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society. By the late 1980s, scientists around the world agreed that action by the world governments was needed to avoid the threat of climate change. In June in 1988, a conference of the world’s governments and scientists proposed that developed nations reduce their emissions by 20% by 2000. The US, virtually standing alone among developed countries, refused to commit to any emissions reductions targets citing scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy. The 35 year delay in taking significant action has made the task of avoiding dangerous climate change increasingly more challenging. In fact, most climate scientists are alarmed that the world is now running out of time to prevent very dangerous climate change. The 35 year delay has now created a need for extraordinarily steep ghg reductions worldwide. The longer the world waits, the more difficult and costly it will be to avoid dangerous climate change.
Opponents of US action on climate change loudly now argue that the US should not act until China commits to acts correspondingly siting that China is now the world’s largest emitter of ghg. Yet they conveniently ignore the fact that the United States is a much larger emitter of ghgs than China in per capita and historical emissions. The atmosphere is like a bathtub, it has a limited volume, and because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere it makes little difference where the emissions come from; the bathtub continues to fill. The US more than any other country has been responsible for filling the atmospheric bathtub with ghgs above levels that existed before the beginning of the industrial revolution to current dangerous levels. Given there is limited atmospheric space left before ghg concentrations exceed very dangerous levels, the international community expects the United States to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, it is not asking American to reduce China’s share.
The political fight in the United States often exclusively has focused on climate harms to the United States if it does not take climate action compared to the costs to the US of taking action. Such a framing ignores that it is tens of millions of poor people around the world who will be most harmed by climate change if high-emitting nations fail to reduce their emissions to their fair share 0f safe global emissions. For this reason, climate change raises civilization challenging questions of justice and fairness, a feature of climate change that the US press is largely ignoring while it focuses on harms and benefits to the United States alone. Climate change creates US obligations to poor people and places around the world that are most at risk.
In 2009, President Obama promised the world that the US would strive to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions by 2020. He did this knowing that the United States would need to adopt additional policies to achieve this very modest goal. Because the US Congress has refused to act, the Obama administration proposed the regulation this week that has triggered the political firestorm. Missing from the coverage of the proposed regulations, is that the Obama pledge on ghg emissions reductions falls far short of any reasonable judgment about what the US fair share of safe global emissions is. This is so because to have any reasonable hope of preventing dangerous climate change, the entire world must reduce its emissions by much greater amounts than the US 2009 commitment and the United States is at the high-end of national historical and per capita emissions. To having any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change the US and other high-emitting nations will need to reduce their emissions at much greater rates than the average for the rest of the world. Basic justice requires this.