Editor’s Note: This entry contains both a video and a the text on which the video was based that examines the views of US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney on climate change though an ethical lens. The text follows the video.
Ethicsandclimate.org has critically examined US President Obama’s approach to climate change on several occasions. See, for instance:
Ethicsandclimate.org now turns to an ethical analysis of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s views on climate change. Although Mitt Romney’s position on climate change appears to have changed over time (at one time supported policies to reduce the threat of climate change), he recently has opposed legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gases citing two reasons. In an October 2011 he asserted in response to a question about his view on climate change that he was opposed to climate change legislation because:
- He did not know whether climate change was human caused.
- Climate change is a global problem and the US should not spend huge amounts of money on a problem that is global in scope.
(See: Romney : We Don’t Know What’s Causing Global Warming, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmfoQZMzsh8)
In addition, during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention on August 30, 2012, Romney commented on climate change by asserting that President Obama would try to stop raising seas and heal the planet while he would help American families, thus implicitly implying that he would not support climate change legislation while he was President (Lacey, 2012).
II. Ethical Analysis Of Romney’s Opposition To Climate Change Policies
Should Mitt Romney’s opposition to government action on climate change be understood as a profound ethical lapse? The potential ethical significance of an unwillingness to act on climate change is obvious once one understands that:
- High emitting nations and individuals are putting tens of millions of the world’s poorest people at risk.
- Tens of thousands of deaths and other harms caused by climate change are already attributable to human-induced warming, that is climate change is not just a civilization challenging future problem but the present cause of misery to some humans in some parts of the world.
- Even if the international community could stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions at current levels further warming will continue for as much as 100 years because of thermal lags in the climate system.
- The mainstream scientific view holds that the world is likely running out of time to prevent rapid, nonlinear, and potentially catastrophic warming.
These facts are held by mainstream scientific view on climate change, a view supported by every academy of sciences in the world that has taken a position including theUnited States Academy of Sciences, 97 to 98% of the scientists that actually do climate science research, and over 100 scientific organizations in the world whose members have relevant expertise.
In light of the above, Mitt Romney’s position on human-induced warming is a stunning moral failure. We now investigate in more detail ethical problems with the specific justifications articulated by Romney so far for his unwillingness to support climate change legislation.
- Ethical analysis of opposing greenhouse gas reduction policies on the basis of lack of scientific evidence of human causation.
It is not clear from candidate Romney’s stated position about human causation of observable warming whether he is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation or alternatively that there is significant scientific uncertainty about links between human activities and observed warming.
If Romney is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation of warming this is either a lie or reckless disregard for the truth. That is any claim that there is no evidence that observed warming is caused by human activity is demonstratively false. In fact there are numerous independent and robust lines of evidence that humans are mostly responsible for the undeniable warming the world is experiencing. This evidence includes:
- Multiple climate fingerprints of human causation including how the upper atmosphere is warming in comparison to the lower atmosphere, nights are warming faster than days, the upper limit of the troposphere is rising as the world warms, more heat is returning to Earth, less oxygen is being found in atmosphere as CO2 rises, and ocean temperature change patterns can’t be attributed to factors that drive natural climate variability.
- Multiple studies (called attribution studies) designed to statistically test the probability that observed warming could be attributed to natural variability.
- Measures of isotopes of CO2 that support the conclusion that the CO2 appearing in the atmosphere is from fossil fuels combustion.
- Close correlation between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global consumption of fossil fuel and deforestation.
- Inability to attribute observed warming to known causes of natural climate variability.
- Uncontestable scientific understanding that as greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere the Earth’s climate will warm to some extent.
It is clearly untruthful to claim that there’s no evidence of human causation of observed warming.
Perhaps, Romney is claiming, however, not that there is no evidence of human causation, but rather that there is significant scientific uncertainty about whether warming can be attributed to human activities. Yet the mainstream scientific view on this issue is that it is more than 90% certain that observable warming is primarily caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities including the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation (IPCC, 2007). The mainstream scientific view, as we have seen, is supported by the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world a fact in itself that has moral significance.
Even assuming for the sake of argument that there is more scientific uncertainty about human causation of warming than that recognized by the mainstream scientific view, as we have explained in Ethicsandclimate.org before in numerous articles (See. e.g. Brown, 2008a), using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for non-action on climate change does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny due to certain features of the climate change problem including:
- The enormous adverse potential impacts on human health and the environment from human-induced climate change articulated by the consensus view.
- The disproportionate climate change impacts on the poorest people of the world.
- The real potential for potentially catastrophic climate surprises recognized by the mainstream scientific view.
- The fact that much of the science of the climate change problem has never or is not now in dispute, even if one acknowledges some remaining uncertainty about timing or magnitude of climate change impacts.
- The fact that climate change damage is probably already being experienced by some people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world in the form of rising seas and increased strength of tropical storms and more frequent and intense droughts and floods.
- The strong likelihood that serious and irreversible damage will be experienced before all the uncertainties can be eliminated.
- The fact that the longer nations wait to take action, the more difficult it will be to stabilize greenhouse gases at levels which don’t create serious damage.
- The fact that those who will be most harmed by climate change have rights to be consulted about decisions that dare made to take no action on climate change on the basis of basis scientific uncertainty.
- The fact that the mainstream view holds that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
Given these features of the climate change problem, it is inconceivable that any ethical system would condone an excuse for non-action on climate change based upon scientific uncertainty. This is particularly true because if the consensus view is wrong about the magnitude and timing of climate change it could be wrong in both directions, that is, climate change impacts could be much worse and more rapid than the impacts identified by IPCC and the US Academy of Sciences even if they also could be less harmful in regard to timing and magnitude.
All major ethical systems would strongly condemn behavior that is much less threatening and dangerous than climate change. That is deontological, utilitarian, justice, ecocentric, biocentric, and relationship based ethics would not condone using scientific uncertainty as justification for not reducing high levels of greenhouse gas emissions given what is not in dispute among mainstream climate scientists (See Brown, 2002: 141-148). For this is a problem that if not controlled may cause the death of tens or hundreds of thousands of helpless victims caused by intense storms and heat waves, the death or sickness of millions that may suffer dengue fever or malaria, the destruction of some nations’ ability to grow food or provide drinking water, the devastation of forests and personal property, and the acceleration of elimination of countless species of plants and animals that are already stressed by other human activities. In summary, global warming threatens many of the things that humans hold to be of most value, i.e., life, health, family, the ability to make a living, community, and the natural environment.
The ethical duty to avoid risky behavior is proportional to the magnitude of the potential harm. Because climate change is likely to cause death to many, if not millions of people, through heat stroke, vector borne disease, and flooding, annihilate many island nations by rising seas, cause billions of dollars in property damage in intense storms, and destroy the ability of hundreds of millions to feed themselves in hotter drier climates, the duty to refrain from activities which could cause global warming is extraordinarily strong even in the face of scientific uncertainty about consequences.
Therefore, the nature of the risk from climate change is enormous and using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for doing nothing is ethically intolerable.
In fact that there is wide spread cross-cultural acceptance of the idea that one should not engage in very risky behavior that could cause great harm to things which people attach great value to is a conclusion that is clear from the acceptance of the “precautionary principle” in a growing number of international treaties including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN, 1992, Article 3). Under the precautionary principle agreed in the climate change convention, nations promised not to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking cost-effective action. This is an additional ethical reason why scientific uncertainty cannot now be used by nations as an excuse for refusing to make reductions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, in addition to the strong ethical reasons identified sbove, a nation may not break a promise made to other nations in the UNFCCC to not use scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change.
II. Ethical Duty To Act Does Not Depend On Other Nation’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Commitments
As we have seen, Presidential candidate Romney has also indicated that he would not support US domestic change legislation because it is a global problem and the United States should not spend money on such a global problem. It would appear that Romney is objecting to US expenditures to reduce greenhouse gases as long as other nations are not also committing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions although it is not clear why Romeny would object to US action on climate change on the basis that is a global problem. Implicit in this justification appears to be the unstated assumption that no nation need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global missions until other nations act accordingly. Yet this excuse for non-action on climate change also does not withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.
Because current greenhouse gas levels are already harming people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world according to the consensus climate change scientific view, and even if global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases could be stabilized at current levels, an extraordinarily difficult goal to achieve, climate change-caused harms will grow in the years ahead. For this reason, current levels of total global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced significantly to avoid future harms especially to those who have done little to cause the existing problem.
Yet, not all nations have equal responsibility to reduce greenhouse emissions given differences among nations in current and past emissions levels and steps already taken to reduce national emissions. However, all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions if they are exceeding their fair share (See Brown 2008). Although reasonable people may disagree on what fairness requires because different theories of distributive justice reach different conclusiosn about how to allocate responsibility, no developed nation may reasonablly make the argument that they are justified in not reducing greenhouse gas emissions subatanially because of the cilization challenging magnitude of emissions reductions that are needed to stabilze atmospheric concentrations at safe levels and the hugely disproportionate emissons levels attributable to developed nations.
As a matter of distributive justice, no nation nay deny that it has a duty to keep its national emissions levels below its fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore if a nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions, that nation has an ethical duty to reduce emissions and this duty does not depend upon what other nations are doing.
Although some developing nations can make a presentable argument that they could increase greenhouse gas emissions without exceeding their fair share of global emissions, the developed nations, including the United States cannot make this argument because it is known that existing total global emissions levels need to be significantly reduced and the developed nations are very high emitting nations compared to most nations in the world. For this reason, the United States and other developed nations, along with perhaps a few developing nations, have an immediate duty to begin to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and this obligation is compelled by basic justice, not a need for leadership.
The duty to reduce emissions is not diminished if others who are contributing to the harm fail to cease their harmful behavior. This is so because no nation or person has a right to continue destructive behavior on the basis that others who are causing damage have not ceased their destructive behavior. The only question that needs to be examined to trigger a responsibility to begin to make immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is whether the nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions.
In addition to principles of distributive justice, developed nations have another strong reason why they must reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, they promised to do reduce their emissions based upon “equity” in the Untied Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system. Violating a provision of an international agreement such as the UNFCCC is considered a wrongful act under international law, and is therefore an unethical action for consenting nations (See, e.g., International Law Commission Draft Articles on State Responsibility Art. 2(a) & (b), 2001). Since parties to the UNFCCC also agreed that Annex I countries, that is developed countries, would take the lead in combating climate change and modifying future trends, Annex I countries must undertake policies and measures to limit their emissions regardless of actions taken by non-Annex I country parties. This is now a matter of international law as well as a principle of distributive justice.
For these reasons, high emitting nations in particular have a legal and ethical responsibility to reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. This duty applies regardless of efforts undertaken by other nations.
And so, Republican presidential candidate Romney may not justify a refusal of the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that other nations refuse to do so. All that is being asked of United States is that it limit its greenhouse gas emissions to it’s fair and just share. It is not being asked to solve the problem for the rest of the world.
For these reasons, the United States may not refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emission because not all nations have acted accordingly. Such a conclusion is ethically absurd.
For all these reasons, US presidential candidate Romney’s position on climate change fails to pass minimal ethical scrutiny.
Brown, Donald (2002) American Heat, Ethical Problems with The United States Response to Global Warming, Rowman and Littlefield, Lantham Maryland.
Brown, Donald (2008) Nations Must Reduce Greenhouse Gas EmissionsToTheirFair Share of Safe Global Emissions Without Regard To What Other Nations Do, EthicsandClimate.org. EthicsandClimage.org, http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2008/06/08/nations-must-reduce-greenhouse-gas-emissions-to-their-fair-share-of-safe-global-emissions-without-regard-to-what-other-nations-do/
Brown, Donald (2008a) The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty, EthicsandClimate.org http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2008/05/19/the-ethical-duty-to-reduce-greenhouse-gas-emissions-in-the-face-of-scientific-uncertainty/
Brown, Donald (2012) The Silence of US President Obama on Climate Change–A Serious Ethical Lapse? EthicsandClimate.org, http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/08/29/the-silence-of-us-president-obama-on-climate-change-a-serious-ethical-lapse/
Brown, Donald (2009) Ethical Problems With Some of Obama Team’s Approach to Climate Change? EthicsandClimate.org. http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2009/01/06/ethical-problems-with-some-of-the-obama-teams-approach-to-climate-change/
Cook, John (2010) Ten Human Indicators on Climate Change, Skeptical Science, http://www.skepticalscience.com/10-Indicators-of-a-Human-Fingerprint-on-Climate-Change.html
International Law Commission (2001) Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, Supplement No. 10 (A/56/10), chp.IV.E.1, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3ddb8f804.html [accessed 1 September 2012]
Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC 2007) The AR4 Synthesis Report, Section 2(4) Attribution of Climate Change. http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/mains2-4.html
Lacey, Stephen (2012) RepublicanConventionRecap: AsExpertsWarn ‘TheDoorIsClosing’ OnClimate, TheGOPMocksTheProblem, Think Progress, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/08/31/783341/republican-convention-recap-as-experts-warn-the-door-is-closing-on-climate-the-gop-mocks-the-problem/?mobile=nc
United Nations (UNFCCC) (1992) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN Document, A: AC237/18, 29 May 1992.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law