Improving IPCC Working Group III’s Analysis on Climate Ethics and Equity, Second In A Series.


jutice climate


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:

  1. how much warming will be tolerated, a matter which is implicit but rarely identified when nations make ghg emissions reduction commitments,
  2. 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,
  3. any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those who are harmed by climate change,
  4. when a nation is responsible for its ghg emissions given differences in historical and per capita emissions among nations,
  5. responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations,
  6. 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,
  7. who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, a topic usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice,
  8. the policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change,
  9. the responsibility of not only nations but subnational governments, entities, organizations, and individuals for climate change,
  10. when economic analyses of climate change policy options can prescribe or limit national duties or obligations to respond to the threat of climate change,
  11. ethical and justice implications of decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty,
  12. whether action or non-action of other nations is relevant to any nation’s responsibility for climate change,
  13. how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation,
  14. when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science,
  15. who is responsible for climate refugees and what their responsibilities are.

nw book advOn 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 Duties which 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

3.3.3 Intergenerational justice: distributive justice

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

3.4.3 Wellbeing

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

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


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Reference and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of  Law



Crimes against Humanity:The Genocidal Campaign of the Climate Change Contrarians

Editor’s Note: The lead author of the following article on the climate contrarians is Dr. Robert Nadeau, Professor Emeritus, George Mason University.  I am a minor contributing author. This article continues a series of 15 previous articles on the “Climate Change Disinformation Campaign”  that can be found under that topic in the Index on this website. 












 Crimes Against Humanity: The Genocidal Campaign of the Climate Change Contrarians.

When scientists make presentations at meetings or conferences on the existing and projected impacts of climate change, they describe in jargon laden language and in emotionally neutral terms what their research has revealed about these impacts. But during informal conversations over a few beers during the evening or late at night, these scientists no longer feel obliged to divorce their scientific heads from their human hearts. On these occasions, they use colorful and often profane language to express their disdain and contempt for the small number of scientists known as global warming skeptics who are well compensated by conservative think tanks for misinterpreting and abusing scientific knowledge.

The scientists involved in these conversations also vent their anger toward the oil and energy companies that sponsor massive disinformation campaigns on radio and television designed to convince Americans that their security, peace and economic well-being are utterly dependent on the consumption of increasing amounts of “clean and plentiful” fossil fuels. They say unkind things about the mangers of the American news media for running endless stories about the human suffering and financial losses caused by extreme weather events and saying nothing about the fact that climate change is contributing to the frequency and intensity of these events. But if the conversation goes on long enough and the hour is late, one or more of these scientists will say what the others firmly believe but are reluctant to admit—the fate of the Earth is sealed by the ignorance, lack of compassion, and inexhaustible greed of its human inhabitants and life on this planet for our children and grandchildren will be little more than a brutal struggle for survival.

The reasons why these empirically oriented rational thinkers have come to this dire conclusion are abundantly obvious in recent scientific research on the existing and projected impacts of climate change. This research has not only shown that massive reductions in worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases over the next two decades will be required to prevent the most disastrous impacts of climate change. It has also revealed that if we fail, as now seems likely, to accomplish this feat, there is a high probability that life on this planet for our children and grandchildren will be little more than a brutal struggle for survival. (Hansen et al. 2013) But as the scientists involved in the late night conversations know all too well, this research is largely ignored by the mainstream media, rarely discussed by political leaders and economic planners, and conspicuously missing in the rancorous public debate about climate change.

The usual explanation why this insane situation exists, as climate scientist Michael Mann put it in a recent article in the New York Times, is that there is a “violent strain of anti-science” in this country which “infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on television.” (Mann, 2014) What Mann did not say in this article but knows very well is that the primary source of this infection is the well-financed, highly coordinated, and very effective campaign of the climate change contrarians.

The Campaign of the Climate Change Contrarians

This campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists that had been paid by the tobacco industry to challenge the scientific evidence that smoking is harmful to human health were hired by oil and energy companies to challenge the scientific evidence about climate change. (Oreskes and Conway, 2010) The campaign greatly expanded during the 1990s after some increasingly vocal scientists warned that the threats of climate change were menacingly real and government must regulate emissions of greenhouse gases. (Pooley, 2014) The intent of the new coalition of free market think tanks, corporations, right wing conservatives, and billionaires with vested interests in the fossil fuel business was to accomplish one mayor objective. The objective was to convince the American electorate, along with their representatives in government, that there is no scientific basis for believing that climate change is a serious problem caused by human activities.

The phrase that best describes how this case was made on advertisements on radio and television, conservative talk shows, op-eds in major newspapers and magazines, and in the allegedly expert testimony of a small number of “contrarian” scientists is “Big Lie.” The phrase was originally coined by Adolf Hitler in “Mein Kamp” to describe a lie so colossal that is impossible to believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so famously.” George Orwell later appropriated the phrase in Nineteen Eighty Four and redefined it to mean “to tell deliberate lies while believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient.”

Orwell also said that the tellers of Big Lies were capable of holding two contradictory truths in mind and believing in both of them. For example, the climate change contrarians repeatedly and earnestly claimed that they were great lovers of science, had enormous respect for scientists, and were only concerned about the uncertainties and lack of scientific rigor in climate science. And yet they launched a full scale attack on the personal and intellectual integrity of climate scientists, did everything possible to destroy their reputations and end their careers, and completely misrepresented and distorted their scientific research.

For example, the campaign launched a full scale assault on climate scientists associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) at the University of East Anglia in 2009 after their emails were hacked and widely distributed over the internet. Some of the emails in this “private” correspondence contained unkind words about research done by scientists in the employ of the petroleum industry and others contained statements that could be interpreted out of context as suppressing this research. But in the view of the climate change contrarians, these comments constituted sufficient evidence to charge all IPCC scientists with everything from professional misconduct to engaging in a conspiracy to suppress scientific research that was not in accord with their ideological and political agendas.

Also consider what occurred after two climate change contrarians claimed that IPPC scientists made two scientifically inaccurate predictions about the environmental impacts of global warming in their 2007 report. One of these predictions, the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, was made in a 738 page working paper and did not appear in the 2007 report. The other prediction about crop failures in North Africa did appear in the background information section of the 3,000 page report but had no bearing whatsoever on the conclusions drawn. Nevertheless, the lawyers for the prosecution in the campaign of the climate change contrarians accused the IPCC scientists of committing fraud and coined the term “climategate” to refer to an alleged conspiracy to cover up or suppress the truth about climate change.

The ability of the climate change contrarians to hold two contradictory truths in mind and believing in both of them was also apparent in an email written by Republican spin doctor Frank Lutz to the Bush administration in 2002: “The scientific debate is closing against us but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe the scientific issues are settled, their views will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” (Lutz, 2007)

During the years that followed, the campaign of the climate change contrarians realized this goal by contributing large sums to conservative think tanks and political action groups, funding institutes that produced studies which claimed that there was no scientific consensus about climate change, and lavishly compensating allegedly “independent” scientists who were willing to testify that this claim was valid before Congressional committees. The campaign also used its resources to generate numerous economic analyses which allegedly revealed that any attempts by government to curb emissions of greenhouse gases would have a devastating impact on the American economy. (Broder, 2010)

American Legislative Exchange Council

The unacknowledged legislators of the climate change agenda in the United States are members of an organization known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to the ALEC website, this organization is committed to “Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty” and “works to advance fundamental principles of free-enterprise, limited government and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.” (ALEC, 2014) What the website does not say is that ALEC provides a forum for corporations to collaborate with members of state legislatures to create model bills which the legislators will later introduce and lobby for in their own legislature. The website also fails to mention that the model legislation is almost entirely written by the corporations and introduced by the legislators without any mention of the source.

new book description for website-1_01Also, nothing is said on this website about the fact that ALEC does not disclose its membership, meets in secret, and the general public are not told where the meetings are held and would be forcefully expelled if they tried to attend. It is also worth noting that the allegedly non-partisan members of state legislatures are right wing Republicans and that prominent and powerful right wing Republicans in both houses of Congress regularly attend the meetings of this secret organization. According the New York Times, special interests have “effectively turned ALEC’s lawmaker members into stealth lobbyists, providing them with talking points, signaling how they vote, and collaborating on bills effecting hundreds of issues.” (McIntire, 2012) -And the Guardian described ALEC as “a dating service for Republican legislators and big corporations, bringing them together to frame rightwing agendas in the form of model bills.” (Pilkington, 2013a)

In December of 2013, the membership of ALEC consisted of 1,801 members of state legislatures, more than 85 members of Congress, fourteen sitting or former governors considered alumni, and about 300 representatives of corporations, foundations, and think tanks. (Pinkelton and Goldberg, 2013) About 98% of the funding for ALEC comes from corporations, trade associations, and corporate foundations and the contributions of the corporations alone are estimated to be $6 million a year. Some of this corporate money is used to pay for “scholarships” that help to cover the costs of the family vacations that legislators take to ALEC conventions at posh resorts in August after their legislative sessions end. (PR Watch, 2011)

The state legislators who are members of ALEC introduce about 1000 pieces of model legislation each year and about 200 or more pass into law. One the first measures signed by then Governor of Texas George W. Bush was model legislation from ALEC that granted corporations immunity from prosecution if they told regulators about their violations of environmental law. Other model legislation from ALEC was designed to accomplish the following: obviate the decision by the Supreme Court to allow the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants; grant Congress the authority to block the enforcement of the Clean Air and Water Act; authorize state governments to open up federal lands to oil, gas and coal exploration; eliminate waste reduction and mandatory recycling laws; give legal protections to corporations against the victims of lead poisoning; eliminate federal regulations on coal combustion waste; call on the federal government to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and criminalize environmental activism. (Steinbruner et. al., 2013)

The Koch Brothers

 The poster children of the campaign of the climate change contrarians are 78 years old Charles Koch and his 73 year old brother David Koch. The Koch brothers are American oligarchs who preside over a vast financial empire and know from experience that money is power and can buy elections and set the political agenda at all levels of government. According to Kenneth Vogel, the “billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are among the most dominant forces in American politics, rivaling even the official Republican Party in its ability to shape policy debates and win elections.”(Vogel, 2014)  The brothers managed to accomplish this feat by creating a vast network of politically active non-profits that operate in concert and have a shared ideological agenda. This network is so vast that a detailed diagram of its organization and money flows took up half a page in the print edition of the Washington Post. (Washington Post, 2014) Some of the better known groups in this network are Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action for America, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Club for Growth.

Like most of the other billionaires who support the campaign of the climate change contrarians, the Koch brothers have vested interests in the fossil fuel business. The bothers are 85% owners of a multinational corporation, Koch Industries, whose core business is the refining and distribution of petroleum and the manufacture of chemicals, fiber, minerals, fertilizers, pulp and paper. Koch Industries also owns 2 million acres of land in Alberta, Canada which contains enormous quantities of tar sands oil. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from its source in the Boreal forest in Alberta to the Gulf Coast. If the pipeline is built, the Koch brothers and other billionaires in the fossil fuel business could realize billions of dollars in profits. Not surprisingly, the campaign of the climate change contrarians is doing everything possible to ensure that the pipeline will be approved by the State Department and President Obama.

The message conveyed to the American people in advertisements on radio and television sponsored by this campaign is that tar sands oil is a safe and reliable source of energy and the Keystone XL pipeline will create jobs, promote economic growth, and help to free the United States from dependence on foreign oil. The campaign has also used its considerable resources to dominate and control the public debate about the pipeline and to ensure that virtually nothing is said in this debate about the scientific research on its potential environmental impacts. For example, there has been no mention to my knowledge in the mainstream news media that scientific research has shown that the process of extracting, transporting, refining, and burning of tar sands oil results in significantly higher amounts of greenhouse gas emissions than for conventional oil. (Biello, 2013)  And only a few passing mentions were made in the back pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post of the results of recent scientific studies on the environmental impacts of these emissions.

One of these studies was done by James Hansen, one of the best known and highly respected climate scientists. Hansen and his team calculated how many gigatons (billions of tons) of carbon dioxide is contained in the tar sands oil in the Boreal forest in Alberta. This calculation revealed that the number of gigatons of carbon dioxide contained in tars sands is twice that previously emitted by burning oil during the entire period in which oil has been a source of energy. They then calculated the amount of carbon dioxide that would be in the atmosphere if we fully exploit the tar sands oil and continue to burn the remaining supplies of oil, gas and coal. In this scenario, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be higher than in the Pliocene era more than 3.5 million years ago.  Further increases in average Earth temperature would result in the rapid melting of the ice sheets, a sea level rise of at least 50 feet above current levels, and the extinction of twenty to fifty percent of the species on this planet. To put it bluntly, the price that could be paid for the use of all of these “safe and reliable sources of energy” would be an end to human civilization. As Hansen put it in language anyone can understand, “Game over for the climate.” (Hansen, 2012)

If the pipeline is built, the Koch brothers could potentially realize $100 billion in profits from the tar sands oil contained in the 2 million acres of land owned by Koch Industries in Alberta. The net worth of the brothers is now exceeded only by that of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison and ranks fourth in the world. Add the potential profits from the tar sand oil and the net worth of the Koch brothers would rank first in the world. The question here is why two impossible rich old men would feel compelled to become even richer by dumping enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to create an environmental disaster that would imperil the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The answer, if there is one, is that the Koch brothers, along with virtually all of the other members of their network of politically active groups and shadow government, are true believers in market fundamentalism.

In this quasi-religious belief system, there are two articles of faith that the true believers regard as transcendent and immutable truths. The first is that the dynamics of free market systems can resolve virtually all human problems, including the climate crisis, if they are not interfered with by government. The second is that the growth and expansion of free market systems lifts all boats and serves the greater good and the only legitimate role of government in the management of economic activities is to promote and enable this growth and expansion. This explains why the Koch brothers and the other participants in the campaign of climate change contrarians feel justified in buying elections and creating a shadow government that serves their vested interests and advances their ideological agenda. It also explains why they have no compunctions about subverting and violating the principles of democratic government and telling Big Orwellian Lies about the science of climate change.

There Ought to Be a Law

There are two definitions of crimes against humanity in international law that could apply to the campaign of the climate change contrarians. The first is “grave offences that are part of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population,” and the second is “inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical harm.” (Brown, 2013) -There is no doubt that the Big Lies told by the contrarians about climate science constitute a “widespread and systematic attack against” all of humanity. There is also no doubt that the contrarians were fully aware that they were misleading people in ways that could eventually result in “great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental and physical harm.” It is not possible for a variety of reasons to charge the Koch brothers and the other contrarians in their vast network with crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But we could at least begin to call them by a name that is more appropriate for those who have committed crimes against humanity.

The dictionary definition of a contrarian is a person who takes an opposing view. This implies that a climate change contrarian has a view of climate change that is opposed to and could be as valid as other views. My candidate for a more accurate and appropriate definition of climate change contrarian is as follows: “One who lies about the science of climate change and imperils the human future to protect and enhance his or her financial interests and has no regard for the principles of democracy or the welfare or will of the people of the United States.” But since this definition is too long to routinely use in descriptions of the activities of the contrarians, a better idea might be to add the word genocidal in all future references to their campaign. Hence the new name would be the “genocidal campaign of the climate change contrarians.”

One can hope that the Koch brothers and the members of their vast network will have a crisis of conscience and use their money, power and influence to prevent the ecological disaster they are now in the process of creating. But in the likely event that this does not happen, those of us who care about the human future must be prepared and willing to wage a war aptly described by the American philosopher William James: “What we need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be compatible with their spiritual selves as war proved itself to be incompatible.” (James, 1902)

The soldiers in the volunteer army that wages the moral equivalent of war must not only be prepared and willing to publicly challenge the Big Lies told by the contrarians about climate science and to expose and ridicule the motives of the tellers of these lies. They must also be prepared and willing to fight all the battles required to replace the Koch shadow government with a government that will work tirelessly to prevent an ecological disaster on a scope and scale that is virtually impossible to even imagine. The weapons that will be useful in fighting these battles are protests, rallies, town meetings, boycotts, and political campaigns promoted and organized with videos, documentaries, films and web-based communications networks.

Many people will be understandably reluctant for both personal and professional reasons to respond to this call to arms in a war compatible with their spiritual selves. But what is at stake in this war is not access to scarce national resources, the balance of power between nation-states, or the economic and political hegemony of the United States. It is a human future in which our children and grandchildren can live secure, rich and meaningful lives on a flourishing Earth. This is not merely the work of an age, but a work that could preserve the memory of all ages, and it hard to imagine that anyone could serve a greater good or answer to higher calling.


ALEC Web Site. 2014.

David Biello, 2013, How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?” Scientific American, January 23, 2013.

Broder, John, 2010, Climate Change Doubt is Tea Party Article of Faith, New York Times, October 21, 2010.

Brown. D., 2013,  “The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part One: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Crime Against Humanity or A Civil Tort?”,

Center for Media and Democracy, 2014, ALEC Exposed,

Hansen, J., Kharecha P., Sato M., Masson-Delmotte V., Ackerman F., et al.,2013, Assessing Dangerous Climate Change: Required Reductions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature,” PLoS One 8(12). Vermeer M., Rahmstorf S. (2009) Global Sea Level Rise Linked to Global Temperature, Proceedings National Academy Sciences USA PubMed NCBI Google Scholar; Grinsted A., Moore J., Jevrejeva S. (2010) Reconstructing Sea Rise from Paleo and Projected Temperature Rise, PubMed/NCBI Google Scholar; Liu J., Song M., Hu Y., Ren X. (2012) Changes in the Strength and Width of the Hadley Circulation, PubMed/NCBI Google Scholar; Parmesan C., Ecological and Evolutionary Response to Recent Climate Change,  Annual Review of Ecology and Evolution of Systems 2006, 37: 637-639; 7: 2287-2312; Marshall J. and Soloman S., editors, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change., Climate Change 2007 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Final Report of Synthesis and Assessment Product,” 4.1, 4.2, 2.3, 1.2. U.S. Climate Change Science Program, avail from:;Rahmstorf S., Coumou D. (2011) Increase in Extreme Weather Events in a Warming World, Proceedings National Academy Sciences USA PubMed/NCBI Google Scho

Hansen,  J., 2012,  Game Over for the Climate,”New York Times, May 9. 2012.

James, W., 1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (New York: Longmans Green), p. 367.

Lutz, F., 2007,  quoted in

McIntire, Mike, 2012,  Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist, New York Times, April 21, 2012.

Mann, M., 2014, If You See Something, Say Something, New York Times, Jan. 17, 2014.

Oreskes, Naiomi and Conway, Eric , 2010, Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury Press, New York, p. 39.

Pooley, E , 2010.  Climate Wars, True Believers, Power Brokers and the Fight to Save the Earth, Hyperion, New York, p. 39.

Pilkington, Ed, 2013, Obamacare Faces New Threat at State Level from Corporate Interest Group ALEC, Guardian, November 20, 2013.

Pilkington, Ed and Goldberg, 2013, Suzanne. ALEC Facing Funding Crisis from Donor Exodus in Wake of Trayvon Martin Row, Guardian, December 2, 2013

PR Watch, 2011,  A CMD Special Report on ALEC’s Funding and Spending

Steinbruner et. al., 2013,  ALEC and the Environment: ALEC Exposed,

Vogel, D.,  2014, Koch World 2014, January 29, 2014, Politico,

Washington Post, 2014, An Amazing Map or the Koch Brothers Massive Political Network, January 6, 2014.


Robert L. Nadeau, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus

George Mason University Widener University School of Law

Fairfax, Virginia 22030



Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania




Five Common Arguments Against Climate Change Policies That Can Only Be Effectively Responded To On Ethical Grounds

climate  change moral

Ethics and climate has explained in numerous articles on this site why climate change policy raises civilization challenging ethical issues which have practical significance for policy-making. This article identifies five common arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to proposed climate change laws and policies that cannot be adequately responded to without full recognition of serious ethical problems with these arguments. Yet the national debate on climate change and its press coverage in the United States and many other countries continue to ignore serious ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies. The failure to identify the ethical problems with these arguments greatly weakens potential responses to these arguments. These arguments include:

 1. A nation should not adopt climate change policies because these policies will harm the national economy.

This argument is obviously ethically problematic because it fails to consider that high emitting governments and entities have clear ethical obligations to not harm others.  Economic arguments in opposition to climate change policies are almost always arguments about self-interest that ignore strong global obligations. Climate change is a problem that is being caused mostly by high emitting nations and people that are harming and putting at risk poor people and the ecological systems on which they depend around the world. It is clearly ethically unacceptable for those causing the harms to others to only consider the costs to them of reducing the damages they are causing while ignoring their responsibilities to not harm others.

new book description for website-1_01 It is not only high emitting nations and corporations that are ignoring the ethical problems with cost-based arguments against climate change policies. Some environmental NGOs usually fail to spot the ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies based upon the cost or reducing ghg emissions to the emitters. Again and again proponents of action on climate change have responded to economic arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change by making counter economic arguments such as climate change policies will produce new jobs or reduce adverse economic impacts that will follow from the failure to reduce the threat of climate change.  In responding this way, proponents of climate change policy action are implicitly confirming the ethically dubious notion that public policy must be based upon economic self-interest rather than responsibilities to those who will be most harmed by inaction. There is, of course, nothing wrong with claims that some climate change policies will produce jobs, but such assertions should also say that emissions should be reduced because high-emitters of ghgs have duties and obligations to do so.


2. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act to reduce their emissions because this will put the nation that reduces its emissions in a disadvantageous economic position.

Over and over again opponents of climate change policies at the national level have argued that high emitting nations should not act to reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act accordingly. In the United States, for instance, it is frequently said that the United States should not reduce its ghg emissions until China does so.  Implicit in this argument  is the notion that governments should only adopt policies which are in their economic interest to do so.  Yet as a matter of ethics, as we have seen, all nations have a strong ethical duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and national economic self-interest is not an acceptable justification for failing to reduce national ghg emissions. Nations are required as a matter of ethics to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global  emissions; they are not required to reduce other nations’ share of safe global emissions. And so, nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.

3. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions as long as other nations are emitting high levels of ghg because it will do no good for one nation to act if other nations do not act.

A common claim similar to argument 2 is the assertion nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until others do so because it will do no good for one nation to reduce its emissions while high-emitting nations continue to emit without reductions. It is not factually true that a nation that is emitting ghgs at levels above its fair share of safe global emissions is not harming others because they are continuing to cause elevated atmospheric concentrations of ghg which will cause some harm to some places and people than would not be experienced if the nation was  emitting ghg at lower levels. And so, since all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, nations have a duty to reduce the harm that they are causing to others even if there is no adequate global response to climate change.

4.  No nation need act to reduce the threat of climate change until all scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts are resolved.

Over and over again opponents of climate change policies have argued that nations need not act to reduce the threat of climate change because there are scientific uncertainties about the magnitude and timing of  human-induced climate change impacts. There are a host of ethical problems with these arguments. First, as we have explained in detail on this website under the category of disinformation campaign in the index, some arguments that claim that that there is significant scientific uncertainty about human impacts on climate have been based upon lies or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science. Second, other scientific uncertainty arguments are premised on cherry picking climate change science, that is focusing on what is unknown about climate change while ignoring numerous conclusions of the scientific community that are not in serious dispute. Third. other claims that there is scientific uncertainty about human induced climate change have not been subjected to peer-review. Fourth some arguments against climate change policies  on the basis of scientific uncertainty often rest on the ethically dubious notion that nothing should be done to reduce a threat that some are imposing on others until all uncertainties are resolved. They make this argument despite the fact that if high emitters of ghg wait until all uncertainties are resolved before reducing their ghg emissions:

  • It will likely be too late to prevent serious harm if the mainstream scientific  view of climate change is later vindicated;
  • It will be much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm if nations wait, and
  • The argument to wait ignores the fact that those who will be harmed the most have not consented to be put at greater risk by waiting.

For all of these reasons, arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change based upon scientific uncertainty fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

5. Nations need only set ghg emissions reduction targets to levels consistent with their national interest.

Nations continue to set ghg emissions reductions targets at levels based upon their self-interest despite the fact that any national target must be understood to be implicitly a position on two issues that cannot be thought about clearly without considering ethical obligations. That is, every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on : (a) a safe ghg atmospheric stabilization target; and (b) the nation’s fair share of total global ghg emissions that will achieve safe ghg atmospheric concentrations.

A position on a global ghg atmospheric stabilization target is essentially an ethical question because a global ghg atmospheric concentration goal will determine to what extent the most vulnerable people and the ecological systems on which they depend will be put at risk. And so a position that a nation takes on atmospheric ghg atmospheric targets is necessarily an ethical issue because nations and people have an ethical duty to not harm others and the numerical ghg atmospheric goal will determine how much harm polluting nations will impose on the most vulnerable.

Once a global ghg atmospheric goal is determined, a nation’s ghg emissions reduction target is also necessarily implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global ghg emissions, an issue of distributive justice and ethics at its core.

And so any national ghg emissions target is inherently a position on important ethical and justice issues and thus setting a national emissions reduction target based upon national interest alone fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law



Why the US Academy of Science and the Royal Academy’s Easy To Understand Report On Climate Change Science Has Ethical Significance

national academy


The National Academy of Sciences and its British counterpart, the Royal Society, have published  Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, a very easy to understand primer on the science of greenhouse-driven global warming. Although there is not a lot new in this report as a matter of science, it makes the strong scientific consensus on human-induced climate change that has existed for some time clearer and more accessible for non-scientists particularly on the major issues that need to be understood by policy-makers and interested citizens.  The report is written in simple language and filled with pictures and graphs which illustrate why almost all mainstream scientists actually engaged in climate change science are virtually certain that human activity is causing very dangerous climate change.

This report is ethically significant because:

a. It is a report of two of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, namely US National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. Because of the prestige of both of the institutions writing this report, those opposing actual climate change have an ethical duty to acknowledge that the scientific basis supporting action on climate change is entitled to respect. They cannot reasonably claim that there is no strong scientific basis for policy action on climate change or even worse that climate change science is a “hoax.”  Which institutions have made claims that humans are engaged in dangerous behavior has ethical significance. If, for instance, someone is told by an expert in toxicology that chemicals he or she is discharging into a water supply will kill people, he or she has more of an ethical duty to stop discharging the chemicals until the issue of toxicology issues are resolved than they would if the claim about poisoning came from a religious leader or a tax accountant. When claims about danger are made by world-class scientific experts, as a matter of ethics, the burden of proof shifts to those potentially harming others to show that their behavior is not dangerous.

Skepticism in climate science should still be encouraged, but skeptics must play by the rules of science including: (a)  subjecting all claims contradicting the mainstream scientific view on climate change to peer-review, (b) subjecting claims that humans are not causing dangerous climate impacts to review by scientific institutions that have sufficient broad interdisciplinary expertise among its members to review such claims against all the contrary evidence from all relevant scientific disciplines, and (c) acknowledging all the contradictory evidence. Given the enormity of harms to citizens around the world and future generations predicted by mainstream scientists, those who seek to undermine proposed climate change policies on scientific certainty grounds should be understood to have the burden of proof to show by high levels of proof that human-induced climate change is not dangerous.

b. The report includes clear explanations of the scientific evidence in regard to specific justifications for not taking action on climate change very frequently made by those who oppose climate change policies. These justifications and responses to them include, for instance:

Justification 1

Scientists don’t know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities?

Report says:

Scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities from an understanding of basic physics, comparing observations with models, and fingerprinting the detailed patterns of climate change caused by different human and natural influences.

Direct measurements of CO₂ in the atmosphere and in air trapped in ice show that atmospheric CO₂ increased by about 40 percent from 1800 to 2012. Measurements of different forms of carbon reveal that this increase is because of human activities.

Justification 2

The recent slowdown of warming means that climate change is no longer happening?

Report says:

No, recent weather is not evidence that warming is not happening. Since the very warm year 1998 that followed the strong 1997-1998 El Niño, the increase in average surface temperature has slowed relative to the previous decade of rapid temperature increases. Despite the slower rate of warming, the 2000s were warmer than the 1990s. A short-term slowdown in the warming of Earth’s surface does not invalidate our understanding of long-term changes in global temperature.

Justification 3

CO₂ is already in the atmosphere naturally, and so human emissions are not significant.

Report says:

Human activities have significantly disturbed the natural carbon cycle by extracting long-buried fossil fuels and burning them for energy, thus releasing CO₂ into the atmosphere.

 Justification 4

Variations in output from the sun have caused the changes in the Earth’s climate in recent decades.

Report says:

The sun provides the primary source of energy driving Earth’s climate system, but its variations have played very little role in the climate-changes observed in recent decades. Direct satellite measurements since the late 1970s show no net increase in the sun’s output while, at the same time, global surface temperatures have increased.

Justification 5

If the world is actually warming, some recent winters and summers would not have been so  cold?

Report says:

Global warming is a long-term trend, but that does not mean that every year will be warmer than the previous one. Day-to-day and year-to-year changes in weather patterns will continue to produce some unusually cold days and nights, and winters and summers, even as the climate warms.

Justification 6

A few degrees of warming is not cause for concern.

Report says:

Even though an increase of a few degrees in global average temperature does not sound like much, global average temperature during the last ice age was only about 4°C to 5°C (7 °F to 9 °F) colder than now. Global warming of just a few degrees will be associated with widespread changes in regional and local temperature and precipitation, as well as with increases in some types of extreme weather events.

These are only a few of the justifications that have been made by those denying responsibility to reduce the threat of climate change that are directly and clearly refuted in the report.

c. The report also has ethical significance because its so clear that policy makers cannot reasonably claim that there is no scientific evidence about the major issues of concern to the climate change scientific community. As we have explained on this website, policy-makers may not, as a matter of ethics, rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change  science once they are informed by respectable scientific organizations that people and organizations  within their jurisdiction are likely harming others around the world. This responsibility to not rely upon their own uninformed opinions increases when there are easy to understand explanations from respected scientific institutions of the scientific basis for concluding that people within their jurisdiction are harming others. The new report from the US Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society is such a clear explanation.  And so government officials have a strong duty to go beyond their own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions that have the breadth of expertise to consider the interdisciplinary scientific issues that make up climate change science.

nw book advd.  Because politicians have an affirmative duty to rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm until peer-reviewed science establishes that the mainstream view is erroneous, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand the limitations of any politician’s views that opposes action on climate change on scientific grounds particularly when there are  easy to understand explanations of climate change science such as that in the new US National Academy and Royal Academy report. The new report will enable the press to fulfill its journalistic responsibilities by asking more precise and clearer questions of those who deny the mainstream scientific view.

For these reasons, the new report is ethically significant.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law,

New Study Concludes That Tracking Funding Of The Ethically Abhorrent Climate Disinformation Campaign Is Now Impossible.








A new peer-reviewed study by Dr. Robert Brulle from Drexel University documents how the funding of the climate change disinformation campaign has shifted in the last few years from corporations and some politically conservative foundations to pass-through 501(c) (3) foundations like Donors Trust and Donors Capital, whose funders cannot be traced.

Ethics and Climate Change has explained in great detail in 13 separate articles available in the Start Here and Index tab on this site under “Disinformation Campaign and Climate Ethics” why the climate change disinformation campaign is ethically abhorrent, and, in fact, is some new kind of crime or assault against humanity, gross human rights violation, or other kind of villainy. This is so, as explained in these articles, because although skepticism in science should be encouraged, the climate change disinformation campaign has engaged in tactics which can’t be understood as responsible skepticism. These tactics have included: (1) lying or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science, (2) cherry-picking climate science, (3) making specious claims about “bad” science, (4) focusing on what is unknown while ignoring what is not in dispute about climate change science, (5) using think tanks, front groups, and AstroTurf organizations to hide the real parties in interest, (6) manufacturing bogus science in conferences or publishing  in non peer-reviewed journals, (7) hiring public relations firms to convince citizens that there is no basis for mainstream scientific conclusions about climate change, and (8) cyber-bullying climate scientists and journalists. These tactics are not responsible skepticism but morally abhorrent misinformation.

The new study reviews the sociological literature on the climate change disinformation campaign while examining what is known about funding for this phenomenon.  Major conclusions of the study include:

  • Conservative foundations have bank-rolled denial. The largest and most consistent funders of organizations orchestrating climate change denial are a number of well-known conservative foundations, such as the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation. These foundations promote ultra-free-market ideas in many realms.
  • Koch and ExxonMobil have recently pulled back from publicly visible funding. From 2003 to 2007, the Koch Affiliated Foundations and the ExxonMobil Foundation were heavily involved in funding climate-change denial organizations. But since 2008, they are no longer making publicly traceable contributions.
  • Funding has shifted to pass through untraceable sources. Coinciding with the decline in traceable funding, the amount of funding given to denial organizations by the Donors Trust has risen dramatically. Donors Trust is a donor-directed foundation whose funders cannot be traced. This one foundation now provides about 25% of all traceable foundation funding used by organizations engaged in promoting systematic denial of climate change.
  • Most funding for denial efforts is untraceable. Despite extensive data compilation and analyses, only a fraction of the hundreds of millions in contributions to climate change denying organizations can be specifically accounted for from public records. Approximately 75% of the income of these organizations comes from unidentifiable sources..

The new study also concludes that the climate change disinformation campaign is what is known in the sociological literature as a “counter-movement.” Social movements such as that which has arisen to reduce the threat of climate change are often opposed by a “counter-movement” which seeks to undermine the goals of the social movement. Social movements usually seek to frame public policy issues as matters requiring government action while counter-movements work to frame the issue in the mind of the public to undermine the case for government action. This creates cultural contests over the appropriate frame for the public advocated by social movements and counter-movements.

new book description for website-1_01Counter-movements are “networks of individuals and organizations that share many of the same objects of concern as the social movements that they oppose. They make competing claims on the state on matters of policy and politics and vie for attention from the mass media and the broader public. Counter-movements seek to maintain the currently dominant frame and thus maintain the status quo by opposing, or countering, the efforts of movements seeking change. Significantly, counter-movements typically originate as the social change movement starts to show signs of success in influencing public policy, and threatening established interests.  These counter-movements typically represent economic interests directly challenged by the emergent social movement.”

According to Brulle, the climate change disinformation campaign is a well-funded and organized counter-movement effort to undermine public faith in climate science and block action by the U.S. government to regulate emissions. This counter-movement involves a large number of organizations, including conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, trade associations and conservative foundations, with strong links to sympathetic media outlets and conservative politicians. 

The new study also identifies the level of funding to the major organizations engaged in the climate change disinformation campaign and the amount of funding being provided to these organizations. The study ranks these organizations as follows with funding amounts in millions:

  • American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, $86.7, 16%
  • Heritage Foundation, $76.4, 14%
  • Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, $45.4, 8%
  • Manhattan Institute Policy Research, $33.1, 6%
  • Cato Institute, $30.6, 5%
  • Hudson Institute, $25.5, 5%
  • Altas Economic Research Foundation, $24.5, 4%
  • Americans for Prosperity Foundation, $22.7, 4%
  • John Locke Foundation, $18.0, 3%
  • Heartland Institute, $16.7, 3%
  • Reason Foundation, $15.0, 3%
  • Media Research Center, $14.5, 3%
  • Mercatus Center, $14.3, 3%
  • National Center for Policy Analysis, $13.9, 3%
  • Competitive Enterprise Institute, $12.5, 2%
  • State Policy Network, $12.0, 2%
  • Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, $11.4, 2%
  • Independent Womens Forum, $7.4, 1%
  • Landmark Legal Foundation, $7.0, 1%
  • FreedomWorks Foundation, $5.3, 1%
  • 49 Other Organizations < 1%, $63.7, 11%

The new report also identifies foundation funding source of these organizations and ranks them as follows in millions:

  • Donor Trust/Donors Capital Fund, $78.8, 14%
  • Scaife Affiliated Foundations, $39.6, 7%
  • The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, $29.6, 5%
  • Koch Affiliated Foundations, $26.3, 5%
  • Howard Charitable Foundation, $24.8, 4%
  • John William Pope Foundation, $21.9, 4%
  • Searle Freedom Trust, $21.7, 4%
  • John Templeton Foundation, $20.2, 4%
  • Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking, $13.7, 2%
  • Smith Richarson Foundation, Inc., $13.5, 2%
  • Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, $13.1, 2%
  • The Kovner Foundation, $12.8, 2%
  • Annenberg Foundation, $11.3, 2%
  • Lily Endowment Inc., $10.3, 2%
  • The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, $10.0, 2%
  • ExxonMobil Foundation, $7.2, 1%
  • Brady Education Foundation, $6.8, 1%
  • The Samuel Roberts Foundation, Inc., $6.7, 1%
  • Coors Affiliated Foundations, $6.2, 1%
  • Lakeside Foundation, $5.8, 1%
  • Herrick Foundation, $5.7, 1%
  • 118 Others < 1%, $170.4, 31%

Because much of the funding for the climate change disinformation campaign has shifted to organizations that prevent tracing the actual donors who are  receiving a tax deduction for their contributions, a case can be made that tax payers are paying for the disinformation campaign.  The new funding scheme also prevents citizens from knowing where the funding is coming from, facts which are necessary to understand who the parties in interest are behind the counter-movement. Because the tactics of the disinformation are so ethically reprehensible, the new funding scheme most likely shields large funders from public scrutiny that would reveal ethically abhorrent behavior.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School Of Law

Part-time Professor, Nanjing University School of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China







As an Ethical Matter, Pennsylvania State Environmental Official May Not Rely on His Uninformed Opinion on Climate Change Science



climate change and Penndisinformation

As we have explained in a previous article in Ethicsandclimate, government officials who have responsibility for policies that may affect climate change may not rely on their own uninformed opinion on climate change science. They have an ethical duty, unlike ordinary citizens, to take positions on climate change that are informed by a scientifically sound understanding of human-induced warming. That is they have a responsibility to go beyond uninformed opinion on the science of climate change as long as mainstream scientists are claiming that people within their jurisdiction are greatly threatening others and ecological systems outside their jurisdiction. Ethics requires that they not engage in willful blindness or unexamined ignorance if mainstream scientists are concluding that their constituents are greatly harming others.

Despite a firestorm over comments he made about climate change, by a vote of 42-8 on December 11, 2013 the Pennsylvania Senate voted to confirm Christopher Abruzzo as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.  ( 2013) Abruzzo touched off controversy last week when he told lawmakers during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was unaware of any “adverse impacts” of climate change on human beings or animals. (Cusick, 2013)

Abruzzo also told the committee that although he does believe climate change is occurring and that it seems to be at least partially attributable to human factors, he does not view it as harmful and sees no reason for Pennsylvania to adopt new policies to address it. He further said, “I think Pennsylvania’s already doing at least its fair share.” (Cusick, 2013)

Given that he will head the state agency responsible for protecting Pennsylvania’s environment, Mr. Abruzzo’s comments demonstrate astonishing ignorance about the science of climate change, Pennsylvania’s role in contributing to the problem, and the civilization challenging magnitude of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that the scientific community says are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.

Just last week, the US Academy of Sciences issued a new report about abrupt and potentially catastrophic events triggered by climate change. (US Academy, 2013) The report warned that the Earth is already seeing some abrupt changes like fast retreat of summer Arctic sea ice and that there is also a real risk that other rapid and drastic shifts could follow in the coming decades if the Earth keeps warming. These harsh impacts included widespread plant and animal extinctions and the creation of large “dead zones” in the ocean, the very kind of thing Mr. Abruzzo claimed to be unaware of.

Abruzzo’s blindness also appears to include ignorance of the civilization challenging magnitude of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that the scientific community has identified as necessary to prevent harsh climate change impacts. This September, for instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international organization created by the world’s governments to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate science, issued a report on this very subject. (IPCC, 2013) This report contained an emissions budget on total CO2 emissions for the entire world. If the international community does not emit greenhouse gases greater than the budget according to IPCC, there is 66% chance of preventing very dangerous warming. The IPCC said that for warming to remain below dangerous levels, the total amount of CO2 that may be emitted is 431 gigatons. This further means that the budget would be completely used up by current emissions by around 2044, just over 30 years from now. When other greenhouse gases that are being emitted around the world are taken into consideration, the remaining CO2 equivalent emissions budget is reduced to approximately 270 gigatons. (Carbon Briefing, 2013) This fact has led the climate scientists to strongly warn the international community that it is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and means the world will exceed the budget in 25 years at current emissions rates.

DEP Secretary designate Abruzzo is also staggeringly misinformed when he claimed that Pennsylvania is doing “its fair share.” According to a State DEP 2009 plan on climate change which was prepared at the end of the Rendell administration, Pennsylvania contributes a full 1 percent of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 4 percent of the United States contribution. (Pa DEP, 2009) The Pennsylvania population of approximately 12,742,886 is approximately 0.18 percent of global population of slightly over 7 billion people.

A strong case can be made that Pennsylvania should, as a matter of basic fairness, limit its emissions to achieve a greater percentage of greenhouse gas emissions reductions than required of the entire world to avoid dangerous climate change. This is so because, like all US states and most of the world’s developed nations, greenhouse emissions levels from Pennsylvania far exceed most of the world in per capita emissions, not to mention historical emissions that remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Because it has been determined that the entire world must reduce its emissions by over 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to prevent dangerous climate change, high-emitting nations or governments around the world, including US states, will need to reduce their emissions at levels greater than 80% on the basis of equity and fairness. To require each nation or government to reduce emissions by the same percentage amount would freeze into place unjust emission levels for high-emitting governments. For instance, if all nations need only reduce their emissions by equal percentage amounts, then a high emitting nation like the United States that emits CO2 at a rate of 17.3 tons per capita would be allowed to emit at a level 10 times more per capita than a country like Vietnam that emits 1.7 tons of GHG per capita. (World Bank, 2013)

An issue brief for New York State recently recognized the need of New York to set greenhouse gas emission targets on the basis of equity. (NY Statem When fairness is taken into account, the New York report acknowledged that New York must reduce its emissions by at least 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. And so, Pennsylvania is emitting climate change causing emissions far above its fair share of safe global emissions.

Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials, like Mr. Abruzzo, may not simply rely on their personal opinion as a matter of ethics. This is so because they have some power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions. That is, government officials have more responsibility than the average citizen to understand the state of climate change science because the government official can uniquely prevent harm that their constituents or governments are causing. And so when government officials, like Mr. Abruzzo, are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may hide behind willful blindness.

Yet, Mr. Abruzzo and the Corbett administration appear to have no interest in reducing Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions to meet Pennsylvania’s global obligations.


Philly. com, 2013, Abruzzo confirmed as Pa. secretary of DEP,

Carbon briefing. 2013, Making sense of the IPCC’s new carbon budget,’s-new-carbon-budget/

Cusick, M., 2013, Corbett’s pick to run DEP does not view climate change as harmful.,State Impact Pennsylvania,

IPCC, 2013, Climate Science, The Physical Basis,

New York State, (NY State), 2009, Climate Change Issue Brief, New York Energy Plan 2009,

Pa DEP, 2009, DEP Pennsylvania Final Climate Change Action Plan,, 2013, Abruzzo Confirmed as Pa Secretary of DEP

US Academy of Science, 2013, Abrupt Climate Change: Anticipating the Surprises, x

World Bank, (2012b), CO2 Emissions (Metric Tons Per Capita),


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Windener University School  of Law

Visting Professor, Nagoya University,

Nagoya, Japan

Part-time Professor,

Nanjing University Information Science and Technology

Nanjing, China


The Anti-Agenda 21 Disinformation Campaign, Part 2

 disinformationnew world order



I. Introduction to Part 2

This article continues the analysis of the anti-Agenda 21 disinformation campaign begun in our last article.  In that article we looked at the four claims about Agenda 21 that appeared in a resolution passed by West Cornwall Township in Pennsylvania which are also very frequently being made by activists in the anti-Agenda 21 campaign across the United States.  We now continue our examination of specific claims made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign by looking at claims made by John Anthony, a conservative businessman who frequently speaks on Agenda 21 issues around the United States and who has produced a You Tube in which he makes the specific claims considered here.  The claims that Mr. Anthony makes are also often being made by other anti-Agenda 21 activists.  We end with a claim made by the Republican National Platform.

After looking at eight additional claims in this article we examine the ethical issues raised by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign.

The last entry in this series will examine the organizations who are most responsible for the anti-Agenda 21 campaign.

II. Continuing Analysis of Claims of the anti-Agenda 21 Campaign

Claim 5. Agenda 21 attempts to erode the local control found in our communities across the nation and turns home and regional rule over to a global agenda set by  organizations authorized by the United Nations. (West Cornwall Township Resolution)

The fact that this claim is a complete and utter canard can be determined by looking at the actual language of Agenda 21.  Paragraph 3.5 (a) of Agenda 21, for instance,  calls for the empowerment of local and community groups under the principal of delegating authority, accountability, and resources to the most appropriate level to ensure that the program will be geographically and ecologically specific.

In addition paragraph 10.6 (e) of Agenda21,  as we’ve seen above, calls for delegating policy making to the lowest level of public authority consistent with effective action and a locally driven approach.

Absolutely nothing in Agenda 21 calls for the  divestment of local power and the substitution of the United Nations authority expressly provides that

Agenda 21 does acknowledge that some environmental and economic development problems cannot be solved by one community alone because some problems do not fit the boundaries of a single local community’s  jurisdiction. In these cases, governments need to cooperate to have any hope of solving the problem. For instance, upstream communities and nations can degrade the water supply of downstream nations and communities.  Three or more communities may degrade a common water supply. In such cases a regional solution is required to solve the problem and Agenda 21 implicitly calls for regional government cooperation in such cases.  In solving these regional problems, the United Nations is not called upon to play any role in the regional decision making. In these situations, the governments are encouraged, but not required, by Agenda 21 to consider the environmental and economic impacts in an integrated in decision-making.

Some environmental problems are global in scope such as ocean acidification, ozone layer depletion, and climate change. For these problems global cooperation is necessary and the United Nations has often played a convening role in bringing national governments together to solve these problems. However, even for global problems the United Nations has no power nor attempts to dictate the elements of global solutions. The United Nation’s role in global problems has been to call nations together in negotiations to arrive at treaties which have to be ratified by national governments.  In the United States treaty ratification requires a 2/3 vote of the US Senate. In global treaty negotiations, the United Nations plays no negotiating role except to facilitate negotiations among nations and sometimes to act in an administrative role in regard to the implementation of treaties. Yet even when it plays this role it reports to the nations who are parties to the treaties.

Thus Agenda 21 endorses a principle which is known legally as the “subsidarity” principle. The subsidiarity principle is an organizing principle of decentralization, stating that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter effectively.

Not only is there no basis for the claim that Agenda 21 undermines regional control by replacing it with a global control, as we have seen, Agenda 21 by incorporating principle 2 of the Rio declaration acknowledges the sovereign right of nations to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies.

one world gov

Claim 6. Agenda 21 calls for decisions affecting local property to be made in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations rather than local property law. (John Anthony tape)

This claim is simply a lie or reckless disregard for the truth. As we have seen, Agenda 21 calls for decisions to be made at the lowest practical level in accordance with the laws and policies of that level.

Furthermore, the Charter of the United Nations expressly provides in Article 2, Paragraph seven that:

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.

Since the planning issues under attack by the anti-Agenda 21 are matters within the jurisdiction of local, regional, state or national governments, the Charter of the United Nations actually prohibits the United Nations from usurping local or regional authority.

Thus, the claim that Agenda 21 calls for local decisions to be determined under the authority of the United Nations Charter is so loony and inconsistent with international law that it has obviously been made by someone who does not understand international law, yet who has been convinced by conspiracy theories that the United Nations is rapidly usurping national sovereignty.

Claim 7. Agenda 21 means that individual rights must take second place to the rights of the collective. (John Anthony tape) 

Not only does Agenda 21 nowhere say that individual rights must take second place to the rights of the collective as we have seen above, Agenda 21 is clear that governments at the appropriate scale should make decisions according to their own laws and policies, expressly reaffirms property rights, calls for judicial processes to protect rights, and is comprised of a set of recommendations for consideration by the appropriate government, not rules that must be adopted.  This claim, along with many others discussed in this series, must be understood as a lie or reckless disregard for the truth.

end of wall srt paint

Claim 8. Agenda 21 calls for free enterprise to be replaced with public/ private partnership. (John Anthony tape)

Nothing in Agenda 21 remotely comes close to saying that free enterprise should be replaced. As we have seen several times there is an entire chapter of Agenda 21, chapter 30, that calls for the strengthening of free enterprise in decision-making and Agenda 21 actually recommends greater use of market mechanisms.

Many businesses and business organizations have enthusiastically supported the ideas of Agenda 21. For instance the World Council of Sustainable Buisinness is an organization comprised of over 200 international corporations that have actively participated in UN meetings on sustainability. Thousands of businesses around the world have made commitments to sustainable development. As we saw above the United State government consistently met with US business interests before taking positions on sustainability issues at the UN. The claim that Agenda 21 calls for replacement of the private sector is not only inaccurate it is preposterous.

Claim 9. In decision-making at the local level, the job of the facilitator is to guide the local stakeholder groups to accept predetermined objectives consistent with Agenda 21.(John Anthony tape)

This claim apparently is made about multi-stakeholder meetings that are encouraged by Agenda 21 at the appropriate government level.  Multi-stakeholder meetings are usually organized by the government unit that is considering action relating to planning. The local governments usually select which facilitators will run meetings. It is very, very unlikely that facilitators of these meeting know anything about Agenda 21 or looked to it to find rules to apply to local solutions. There is no evidence at all that all or the majority of facilitators that have participated in local declension-making relevant to sustainability issues have forced the stakeholders to come up with recommendations consistent with Agenda 21.

Claim 10. Agenda 21 implementation will mean that people will only be able to live in the black areas in the following maps, living in rural areas will no longer be possible in the United States. (John Anthony tape)

AGENDA-21-BMP-1 where people live


This claim is obviously ludicrous and utterly disingenuous. There have been no proposals that have come close to limiting future domestic dwellings to the black spaces on the map nor to prohibiting people from locating their homes in rural areas. In the United States, land use decisions are made by state and local governments in accordance with state and local law. The United Nations has zero authority over the decisions of State and local governments on these issues. Agenda 21 makes no recommendations to prohibit living in rural communities.

From time to time in the past state and local governments have made land use decisions that restrict land uses to protect wild life and natural resources but they have not done this in response to Agenda 21. Some governments may also choose to restrict certain land uses for ecological preservation reasons in the future. Property owners of lands that might be identified to  be preserved for ecological reasons have strong property rights in the United States that prevent the government from taking their property without just compensation and due process of law. Agenda 21 not only does not undermine the rights of property owners, it reaffirms them as we have seen.

Claim 11. Agenda 21 requires that the same solutions be applied the same everywhere in the world. (John Anthony tape)

Once again, this claim is directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21. Paragraph 8.2 of Agenda 21 says in relevant part:

National plans, goals and objectives, national rules, regulations and law, and the specific situations in which different countries are placed are the overall framework in which integration takes place. In this context, it must be borne in mind that environmental standards may pose severe economic and social costs if they are uniformly applied in developing countries.

As we have also explained above , Agenda 21 expressly recognizes the sovereignty and right of nations to exploit their own resources according to their own needs. Agenda 21 is simply a menu of options for consideration, not a set of rules to be applied.

Claim 12. Agenda 21 Erodes National Sovereignty. (Republican National Platform)

Agenda 21 not only does not erode American sovereignty in any way, as we have seen throughout this analysis it reaffirms national sovereignty.

First, we have seen from the quote above that Section 8.2 expressly provides that the law of nations is the basis for integrating environmental and economic issues in implementing Agenda 21.

Second, we have seen that Agenda 21 is simply a menu of options not a set of rules to be applied in nations.

Third, we have seen that the Charter of the United Nations says that the Charter does not give the United Nations the authority to interfere with matters rightly within the jurisdictions of nations.

Fourth, we saw that paragraph 10.6 (e) of Agenda 21 calls for delegating policy making to the lowest level of public authority consistent with effective action and a locally driven approach.

Fifth, we have seen that Agenda 21 expressly incorporates Principle two of the Rio Declaration which says that “Nations have in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies.” (Rio Declaration, Principle 2)

Sixth, it is a well establish principle of international law that nations are not bound by international agreements unless they are treaties that have been ratifies or adopted according to national law.  In the United States, the US Senate must ratify a treaty by 2/3 vote of the United States Senate. The United States never ratified Agenda 21 nor even considered so doing because it was universally understood to be a non-binding document from its conception.

In summary, the United States retains full, undiluted sovereignty over matters discussed in Agenda 21.  Nothing in Agenda 21 remotely undermines the sovereignty of the United States.


envirrnmental ethics


III. Ethical Analysis of Anti-Agenda 21

We now look at the anti-Agenda 21 campaign phenomenon through an ethical lens.  We  end this ethical analysis with a reflection on the ethics of sustainable development.

1. Tactics of anti-Agenda 21 Campaign

We have seen in this series of articles that the assumptions and claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are very frequently based upon either lies or reckless disregard for the truth. Over and over again, claims of this campaign are made about the meaning or effect of Agenda 21 which are directly contradicted by the text of this document or are based upon a completely delusional understanding of the potential power of the United Nations over local or regional governments in the United States as a legal matter.

As we noted at the beginning of this series, citizens have clear rights to protect their interests by participating in and attempting to influence local and regional planning efforts. There is no doubt, some land-use decisions have occasionally    infringed upon property rights. In these cases existing US law provides legal protection for redress. Nothing in Agenda 21 can be construed to change this.

However those seeking to influence government processes have no rights to tell utter untruths about issues in contention. For this reason, the tactics of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are ethically problematic particularly in light of the magnitude and scope of the misinformation the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been inserting into discussions about local planning issues.

The tactics of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign include not only include large doses of misinformation about Agenda 21, they also appear to be designed to scare uninformed citizens that their rights are being taken over by the United Nations which is in the process of undermining national sovereignty in pursuit of imposing a Marxist/socialist one world government.

And so, the tactics of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign include the spreading a huge number of false claims that are being used to scare uninformed citizens. These tactics are clearly morally reprehensible.

2. The Ethics of Sustainability

As we explained, Agenda 21 is a document that encourages but does not require governments around the world to pursue integrated decision-making about environmental, economic, and social issues at the global, national, regional, and local scales. The idea is premised on the notion that if economic, environmental, or social policies are pursued by themselves they may prevent the achievement of legitimate environmental, economic, and social goals that may be achieved in integrated decision-making.

The idea of sustainable development does not give strong guidance on how to reconcile conflicts between environmental and economic goals.  As we noted in the first part of this series, the definition that is usually used to define the term is notoriously vague. Namely, sustainable development is development which meets the needs of present generations without  compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This definition could be understood to allow destruction of all natural resources if technology finds substitutes, makes human needs the measure of value for natural resources, fails to recognize duties to sentient animals, makes no distinctions on what human needs are, etc. As a result, many environmental ethicists have criticized the term the idea of sustainable development for its failure to be clearer about the value of nature and animals.

Similarly many environmental activists have criticized the concept of sustainable development on the basis that its implicit valorization of development will lead to environmental destruction.   

Yet it can be argued, that the idea of sustainable development is worthwhile pursuing practically and ethically despite its ethical vagueness because it calls for decisions relating to economic development to take into consideration potential adverse environmental impacts. It also encourages governments considering environmental protection policies to consider unwanted impacts on legitimate economic development objectives.  Because environmental and economic goals can have ethical significance, sustainable development is ethically supportable despite the lack of clarity about how to resolve conflicts between environmental and economic goals. For this reason, sustainable development is what philosophers call an “orienting” concept. It helps orient decision-making to consider the right thing to do, even if it is ethically incomplete in giving guidance on how to resolve environmental protection and economic development conflicts. Many other “orienting” concepts which contain no ethical rule but are helpful are frequently used in public life.  For instance, the very word “justice” is such an orienting concept.

The word “justice” in the abstract does not tell one what should be done when distributing societal benefits but it is useful in orienting thinking about what is a fair distribution of societal goods in human affairs 0r when procedures should be created to provide rights of participation in decisions for those who could be affected by government decisions.  For the same reason, a call for integrated decision-making is ethically positive even if it does not resolve all conflicts about environmental and economic issues.

This is so because many governments have pursued economic development objectives or environment protection goals without consideration of how policies in each of these areas might affect the legitimate aspirations of the other policy goals.  For instance, very frequently economic development projects that affected water quality have been approved before the project’s impacts on water quality were considered. Because people have a right to not have the water on which they depend degraded by others, it is ethically required that adverse impacts on water quality be considered in economic policy decisions that could affect water quality. There are also many examples particularly in developing countries where projects which proposed to restrict the use of natural resources have been approved without consideration of the adverse impacts that would follow by restricting natural resource on local indigenous people who depended on the resources for subsistence.  Ethics requires that environmental decisions consider how people’s subsistence needs may be affected by environmental policies.

And so the idea of sustainable development is ethically supportable despite its lack of clarity about how to resolve conflicts between environmental and economic goals. In cases of conflict between environmental and economic goals, governments need to look to other ethical principles contained in law or ethical theory to resolve conflicts. And so, sustainable development is an ethically supportable goal despite the fact that its it gives incomplete ethical guidance on how to resolve conflicts between environmental, economic, and other policy goals.

It would appear that the anti-Agenda 21 disinformation campaign is always  opposed to the idea of sustainable development that encourages integrated decision-making on environmental, economic, and social policies.

Such a position is itself ethically problematic precisely because people and governments have ethical duties to avoid certain kinds of adverse environmental, economic, and social impacts on others.

Therefore, we conclude that the anti-Agenda 21 campaign can be criticized on ethical grounds for many reasons including the fact that it appears to be opposed to integrated decision-making on projects that can have adverse environmental, economic, and social impacts.

IV. Conclusion

We have demonstrated that the claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are built upon misleading and inaccurate claims about Agenda 21. We have also shown that the tactics of this campaign are ethically problematic.

The last entry in this series will look at the organizations that have been propagating the claims that we have examined in this series.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law



A video: Why Politicians May Not Rely On Their Own Uninformed Opinion On Climate Change Science. 11 minute video examines why politicians, unlike many ordinary citizens,  may not rely upon their own uninformed opinion on climate change science as a basis for refusing to support climate change policies. The video argues that politicians have responsibilities that ordinary citizens do not have to protect others from harms that their constituents are causing others.


This video follows the last entry on this subject:

Why Politicians May Not Ethically Rely on Their Own Uninformed Opinion About Climate Science and 10 Questions That The Press Should Ask Politicians About Climate Science In Light of This Responsibility.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law


The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part Two: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Human Rights Violation Or A Special Kind of Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing ?

This is the second in a series looking at how to classify the climate change disinformation campaign given that it is some new kind of assault on humanity,  yet not easily classifiable into existing categories of behaviors that cause great harm.  Part One of this series identified four prior articles and three videos that has previously produced on this subject as well as looking at whether this effort to undermine the mainstream scientific view about climate change can be classified as a crime against humanity or a tort under common law.  These previous articles distinguished the tactics of the disinformation campaign from responsible skepticism and the acceptable exercise of free speech after explaining what is meant by the “climate change disinformation campaign” and how it operated.

I. Is The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign A Human Rights Violation?

A. Introduction

A very strong case can be made that human-induced climate change triggers human rights violations because of the destructive nature of climate change damages. If human rights are to be understood to be recognition of those norms that are necessary to protect human dignity, inadequate climate change policies must be understood to trigger human rights violations because climate change will not only make human dignity impossible for millions of people around the world, including countless members of future generations but also directly threaten life itself and resources necessary to sustain life. And so, as we shall see,  climate change causing activities create human rights violations because of the enormity of harm to life, health, food, property, and inviolability of the right of all people to enjoy the places where they live.

Yet finding legal remedies under human rights legal theories for the the destructive role that the disinformation campaign has played in preventing or delaying solutions to climate change will require finding at a minimum: (a) a specific human right under and an existing human rights regime that has been violated by climate change, (b)  a human rights regime that has the jurisdiction and legal authority  to grant the requested remedy in the specific human rights controversy before it, (c)  a legal theory supporting the claim that non-state actors, not just governments, responsible for the violations of human rights have duties to prevent human rights, and (d) a legal justification to link the duties of non-state actors to prevent human rights violations to the activities of the disinformation campaign.

B. Which human rights are violated by climate change and do human rights fora have the authority to adjudicate claims based upon the tactics of the disinformation campaign? 

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is usually viewed to be the foundational document in modern international human rights law. (UN, 1948). The UDHR is a non-binding ‘soft-law’ agreement among nations that over time has been complemented by a series of legally binding international treaties while retaining its status as customary international law. Because it is customary international law it could be relevant to damage claims made in civil litigation requesting damages in cases before international courts such as the International Court of Justice.

The two most important global human rights treaties in addition to the UDHR often stated to be the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change:

 (a) Life, liberty, and security of person. (Article 1)

(b) Right to an effective remedy by national tribunals for violations of fundamental or constitutionals rights. (Article 8)

(c) Full equality to a fair public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of a person’s rights and obligations. (Article 10)

(d) Freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence. (Article 12)

(e) Freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of property. (Article 17)

(f) Right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family, including food,  clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (Article 25)

(g) Rights to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms can be fully recognized. (Article 28) (UN1948)

 The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections relevant to climate change protections:

 (a) The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent. (Article 11)

(b) The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:

a. To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;

b. Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.

(c) The right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health… The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for:… (c) prevention, treatment  and control of epidemic, endemic, and occupational and other diseases. (Article 12)

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change protections:

(a) Inherent Right to Life. This right shall be protected by law. (Article 5)

(b) Right to be protected from arbitrary and unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home…. (Article 15)

A strong case can be made that climate change prevents people all around the world from enjoying the above rights.

These three documents i.e. the UDHR, the ICESCR, and the ICCPR are often considered to be the foundational documents that comprise an international bill of rights. Yet not all nations have adopted all three documents. Although the UDHR has been accepted by most nations of the world, the ICPCR and ICCPR have been less widely so.  In fact the ICESCR has not been ratified by the United States and therefore may be inapplicable to climate change caused human rights violations in the United States. To date, these two treaties have been ratified by about 75 percent of the world’s countries.  The UDHR is a “soft-law” document which has normative,  but not legal force in the international system. The ICESCR and ICCCPR  were the first of many treaties that have been enacted to give the protections identified in the UDHR the force of law.

A country ratifying a UN human rights treaty agrees to respect and implement within domestic law the rights the treaty covers. It also agrees to accept and respond to international scrutiny and criticism of its compliance. It does not necessarily agree to make the human rights norm directly enforceable in domestic courts. That usually requires implementing legislation.

Treaty enforcement is accomplished within the UN often with the creation of a body to monitor states’ performance, and to which member states are required to submit periodic reports on compliance.   For instance, the ICCPR is implemented through the Human Rights Committee (HRC) which was created to promote compliance with its provisions. The HRC frequently expresses its views as to whether a particular practice is a human rights violation, but it is not authorized to issue legally binding decisions.   Other treaties and bodies exist within the UN system with varying enforcement and implementation powers and duties to implement human rights goals.  For the most part, these enforcement powers are weak and  improvements in human rights violations are best achieved through holding offending nations to the court of international opinion rather than law.

In addition, several regional human rights regimes have been enacted that promote human rights in particular parts of the world. These regions include Europe, the Americas, and Africa which have their own declarations and conventions for enforcement of human rights on a regional basis.

Thus far no one has successfully brought a human rights claim for climate change caused damages although the Inuit Peoples filed such a claim in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Before a successful human rights claim can be brought in an existing legal forum in regard to climate change, several potential legal hurdles need to be overcome that have little to do with whether a nation or an individual  has committed a human rights violation. These hurdles include jurisdictional, issues, questions of proof, and authority of the relevant forum.  For this reason, the failure to successfully bring legally recognized human rights claims may have little to do with whether the offending behavior has created a violation of the protected right but more with the limitation of the existing legal regime. And so, the failure to bring a successful action against the climate change disinformation campaign in an existing human rights forum does not mean the disinformation campaign is not responsible for human rights violations.

Examining climate change through a human rights lens has the benefit of providing potential access to legal fora that have been created to adjudicate aspects of human rights violations. Given that there are no obvious legal fora to bring civil actions against those who have participated in the climate change disinformation campaign, pursuing remedies for human rights violations caused by climate change has the advantage of being able to file legal claims in existing judicial fora.

Potential fora include, at the global level, the Human Rights Committee established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights established by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Regional tribunals include the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, claims could potentially be pursued in national courts–for example, in the United States under the Alien Tort Statute.

Yet each of these fora have different jurisdictional limits on bringing legal actions on human rights basis. In this regard, a case brought on behalf of the Inuit Peoples in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sought to find that the United States was responsible for international human rights violations is illustrative of potential road blocks to bringing successful cases for human rights violations in existing legal rights fora.

The petition detailed the effects of rising Arctic temperatures on the ability of the Inuit to enjoy a wide variety of human rights, including the rights to life (melting ice and permafrost make travel more dangerous), property (as permafrost melts, houses collapse and residents are forced to leave their traditional homes) and health (nutrition worsens as the animals on which the Inuit depend for  sustenance decline in number). The petition connected the rising temperatures to increasing levels of greenhouse gases, and in particular, to the failure by the United States to take effective steps to reduce its emissions.

In November 2006, the Commission informed the petitioners
that it had determined that “it will not be possible to process your
petition at present.” The IACHR did not explain its reasoning, stating only that “the information provided does not enable us to determine whether the alleged facts would tend to characterize a violation of [protected human] rights.” The Commission did hold a hearing on the connection between climate change and human rights in March 2007, but it has taken no further action.

It would appear that IACHR did not believe it had the legal authority to order the specific relief requested by the petitioners, namely to issue an order to the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And so the IACHR did not decide the case on the merits of the underlying claim that the United States had contributed to human rights violations of the Inuit people, it appeared to decline to act on the basis of legal issues about its own authority.

(B) Do the duties to prevent human rights violations bind  non-state actors including corporations?

It is not clear as of yet the extent to which human rights regimes create duties for individuals and corporations, that is non-state actors. Bodansky summarizes the current state of this legal question.

[A] crucial question is whether the duties to respect, protect and fulfill apply to private actors as well as states. International criminal law demonstrates that international law can in some case impose duties directly on individuals, and some have proposed that corporations have duties to respect human rights. So, at least in theory, human rights law could impose a duty on private actors to respect human rights by limiting their emissions of greenhouse gases. But generally, human rights law – like international environmental law – imposes duties on states rather than on corporations. If this is true of climate change,then human rights law limits the activities of non-state actors only to the extent that states have a duty to protect against climate change by regulating private activities.

And so, it is not clear whether the corporations that have participated in the disinformation campaign can be sued in the various human rights tribunals, yet nations may have a duty to regulate emissions from those corporations participating in the climate change disinformation campaign under human rights theories.

(C) Are  the participants in the disinformation campaign liable for contributing to human rights violations? 

A final issue that needs to be overcome to successfully bring a legal action against the participants in the disinformation campaign for violating civil rights of people around the world is identifying a legal basis for concluding that the disinformation campaign unlawfully caused the violation of civil rights. Because most of the participants in the disinformation campaign are corporations that are also emitters of greenhouse gases, these corporations like all greenhouse gas emitters arguably have duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to levels that in combination with other emitters do not deprive people around the world from enjoying legally protected rights. Yet it is not clear, that the tactics of the disinformation campaign alone make the participants in the disinformation campaign responsible for human rights violations by themselves.

However, most governments make it a crime for individuals to conspire to deprive people of their human rights. For instance, under US law it is a crime for persons to conspire to deprive another of the  rights of an individual that has been secured by the individual through the United States Constitution or through any other laws of the United States. Although this specific law has not been tested in regard to climate change, it is generally viewed to be a breach of civil and sometimes criminal law to conspire to deprive people of their rights. As we saw in Part One of this series, the Plaintiffs in the case of Kivalina versus ExxonMobil et al asserted that the fossil fuel companies that have been part of the disinformation campaign conspired to harm the residents of Kavalina. And so there may be sufficient facts about the disinformation campaign that could form the basis of a claim that if proven could be the basis for finding responsibility for individuals participating in the climate change disinformation campaign yet only an actual case will test this possibility.

(D) Conclusions in regard to classifying the disinformation campaign as a violation of human rights.

There is little question that the more than 20 year delay in taking action on climate change in the United States for which the disinformation campaign is at least partially responsible for has prevented people around the world from enjoying a host of human rights that are now recognized in a variety of human rights regimes around the world. Yet, as was the case in categorizing the disinformation as a crime against humanity or a common law tort, there may be no existing legal remedy under existing human rights law that can be deployed to deal with the harms created by those  participating in the disinformation campaign. And so once again, there may be serious deprivations of human rights caused by the disinformation campaign without legal remedies. Only time will tell whether those who have been harmed by climate change will be able to successfully bring a legal action against those engaged in the disinformation campaign for damages.

II. What Kind of Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing is The Behavior of the Disinformation Campaign?

We have seen thus far from the previous analysis in this two part series that there may be no legal remedy under existing law relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights law for the harms caused by the climate change disinformation campaign. Yet the harms attributable to the disinformation campaign are so potentially catastrophic to hundreds of millions of people around the world that laws relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, and human rights should be amended to provide legal sanctions under these legal theories for at least for the more egregious tactics that have sometimes been deployed by some participants in this campaign.

Yet there is no doubt that some of the tactics deployed by the disinformation campaign, to be distinguished from responsible skepticism that should be encouraged, constitute some kind of malfeasance, transgression, villainy, or wrongdoing. To understand the full moral abhorrence of the disinformation campaign, a complete description of the tactics employed by the disinformation campaign is necessary and how the moral abhorrence of these tactics can be distinguished from the reasonable exercise of free speech, the right of individuals to express opinions, and the benefits to society from skeptical inquiry. reviewed these issues in four articles and three videos. These prior articles explained what is meant by the disinformation campaign, distinguished the tactics of the campaign from responsible scientific skepticism which should be encouraged, and described how the disinformation campaign was funded and organized.

The four part written series can be found at:

1. Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Introduction to a Series.

2.Ethical Analysis of the Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Reckless Disregard for the Truth, (2) Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns, (3) Specious Claims of “Bad” Science, and (4) Front Groups.

3.Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Think Tanks, (2) PR Campaigns, (3) Astroturf Groups, and (4) Cyber-Bullying Attacks.

4. Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign.

The three part video series can be found at:

Why The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Is So Ethically Abhorrent.

The Ethical Abhorrence of The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 2.

The Ethical Abhorrence of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 3.

We particularly recommend the first video for an overview of why the disinformation campaign is so morally abhorrent. Here it is:



This video explains how destructive the disinformation campaign has been in preventing or delaying government action to reduce the threat of climate change.

In summary, at least some of the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are some new kind of assault on humanity which could be dealt with under expanded legal theories about crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights.

The philosopher Hans Jonas argued that the potential of new technologies to create great good and great harm creates the need to establish new social norms about how to deal with scientific uncertainty. Following Jonas’ logic, the enormity of potential harms from a problem like climate change creates the need to establish new norms about the need to be extraordinarily careful about claims that there is no danger threatened by certain human activities.  We have examined in the last of the four articles above, what these new norms might look like given the need to encourage responsible skepticism yet assure that assertions that there is no danger are made responsibly. Because the climate change disinformation campaign deployed tactics that were designed to undermine the scientific basis that supported taking policy action to reduce the threat of climate change and in so doing used tactics that are ethically abhorrent, the climate change disinformation campaign should be used to develop new legal and moral norms about the need to be responsible when discussing very dangerous human activities. Just as it would be morally abhorrent for someone to tell a girl who is lying on a railroad track that she can continue to lie there because no train is coming when that person did not have reliable knowledge that no train was coming while having an economic interest in the girl staying on the track,  so it is deeply ethically troublesome for those engaged in the disinformation campaign to tell the US people that there is no evidence that fossil fuels are causing climate change without subjecting their claims to the rigor of peer-review.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part One: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Crime Against Humanity or A Civil Tort?

I. Introduction. The French philosopher Diderot said that skepticism in all things is the first step on the road to the truth.  Although responsible scientific skepticism about climate change science is a good thing that should be encouraged, as we have written about frequently on, there has been a well-organized, well-funded disinformation campaign about the science of climate change that has used tactics that are deeply ethically reprehensible.  In this entry we continue to explore how society should classify this very harmful development.

The tactics deployed by this campaign are now all well documented in the books and peer-reviewed sociological literature identified in the Appendix to this article. The tactics used by the climate change disinformation campaign have included the following ethically abhorrent tactics:

  • Lying or reckless disregard for the truth
  • Cherry picking the science
  • Cyber-bullying and ad hominem attacks on scientists and journalists
  • Manufacturing bogus, non-peer-reviewed science in ideological organized conferences and publications that don’t subject conclusions to peer-review
  • The use of ideological think tanks to promote the views of ideological skeptics
  • The use of front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interests
  • Specious claims about “bad science” that are based upon the dubious assumption that no conclusions in science can be made until everything is proven with high levels of certainty

These tactics obviously do not constitute responsible scientific skepticism but disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and even intimidation in the case of cyber-bullying. has described this disinformation campaign in a four part paper series and a three part video series that has examined these ethically abhorrent tactics in considerable detail.

The four part written series can be found at:

1. Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Introduction to a Series.

2.Ethical Analysis of the Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Reckless Disregard for the Truth, (2) Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns, (3) Specious Claims of “Bad” Science, and (4) Front Groups.

3.Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Think Tanks, (2) PR Campaigns, (3) Astroturf Groups, and (4) Cyber-Bullying Attacks.

4. Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign.

The three part video series can be found at:

Why The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Is So Ethically Abhorrent.

The Ethical Abhorrence of The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 2.

The Ethical Abhorrence of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 3.

In this entry we continue to examine how we should classify this kind of disinformation, an important question because the disinformation campaign is, we believe, a new kind of assault on humanity which raises questions about how we should classify it and how society should sanction disinformation about potentially very harmful human behavior. We first examine the basis for claiming that the disinformation campaign is a crime against humanity.

II. Crime Against Humanity

Because the international community has lost over twenty years in developing an adequate solution to climate change, a matter discussed in considerable detail in this writer’s recent book Climate Change Ethics, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, in no small measure due to the climate change disinformation campaign and given that the international community is now running out of time because of this delay to prevent dangerous climate change, the  disinformation campaign is likely responsible for huge quantities of human suffering.  That is this delay is causing or increasing the severity of droughts, floods, adverse human health impacts, intense storm damage, and heat related deaths among others adverse impacts.  Without doubt the failure to act in the last twenty years is putting hundreds of millions of people at great risk including some the world’s poorest people and the ecological systems on which their lives depend.

Given the scale of these impacts, what sense can be made of a claim that  the tactics of the disinformation campaign (to be distinguished from responsible scientific skepticism) is some new kind of crime against humanity.

Crimes against humanity are understood to be grave offenses that are part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.

In 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in The Hague (Netherlands) and the Rome Statute provides for the ICC to have jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The definition of what is a “crime against humanity” are contained in Article 7 of the Rome Statute which says that:

For the purpose of this Statute, “crime against humanity” means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack: (a) Murder; (b) Extermination; (c) Enslavement; (d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population; (e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;  (f) Torture; (g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; (h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, or gender, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court; (i) Enforced disappearance of persons; (j) The crime of apartheid; (k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

Thus far only these very odious acts have been recognized as crimes against humanity. Furthermore only crimes that have been committed in nations that have consented to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) may be prosecuted in the ICC. Because the United States has not consented to the ICC and many of the activities of the disinformation campaign have taken place in the United States, it is not likely that fossil fuel companies who have participated in in the disinformation campaign could be prosecuted for a crime against humanity even if the court construes the tactics of the disinformation campaign as “inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering.” Furthermore it is not clear that the disinformation campaign constitutes a “systematic attack against a civilian population” as defined in the ICC statute. Therefor although the  disinformation campaign can be understood as a new kind of assault on humanity, it does not obviously fit the definition of crime against humanity under the ICC.

And so, although a strong case can be made that the intentional acts of those participating in  the disinformation campaign are metaphorically some kind of new crime against humanity, it is not likely that these acts would be construed to be legally prosecutable as crimes against humanity under existing international law.

Before accusing someone of a crime, it is also necessary to be able to prove that they knew or should have known that that they were misleading people in ways that could cause damage or harm. One might ask whether anyone engaging in the tactics discussed in this series on the disinformation campaign is ethically blameworthy. Some skeptics, for instance, who engage in the ethically dubious practice of stressing unknowns while ignoring the large body of well-settled science are simply expressing their opinions or their interpretations of what they know about the science. If people have a right to free speech, it follows that people should be able to express their views on climate science freely, even if their views are based upon incomplete knowledge of the peer-reviewed science on which the consensus view has been based.

Yet there is abundant evidence that some of those participating in climate change disinformation campaign were being advised by scientists advising them that the mainstream scientific view was entitled to strong scientific respect, yet they persisted in spreading claims that there was no scientific basis for concern about human-induced climate change.

Furthermore, those funding the disinformation campaign consistently funded organizations and individuals that were regularly making demonstratively false claims about the state of climate change science or claims made in reckless disregard for the truth.

And so, some of the activities of those engaged in the disinformation campaign could likely be prosecuted on criminal grounds provided a court had jurisdiction to make criminal determinations in such matters under a law that criminalized known false claims about very dangerous behavior.  Given the immensity of the harm from the climate change disinformation campaign, a case can be made that new laws criminalizing disinformation on matters as dangerous as climate change are warranted where the disinformation is transmitted to protect economic interests.

III. Civil Liability Under Common Law for Disinformation

A tort is a violation of civil duties, that is a tort, in common law jurisdictions, is a civil wrong. Tort law deals with situations where a person’s behavior has unfairly caused someone else to suffer loss or harm. A tort is not necessarily an illegal act but an act that causes harm. The law allows anyone who is harmed to recover their loss.

We begin with a specific case,  Kivalina vrs ExxonMobil Corporation, because although this case has now been dismissed, the plaintiffs in this case set out in the complaint assertions they claimed they could prove about the actions of the defendants actions, the majority of which were fossil fuel companies,  that are are relevant to to the disinformation campaign.

Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corporation, et al. is a lawsuit filed on February 26, 2008 in a US district court asking for climate change damages from flooding to the Alaskan village of Kavalina. This case has subsequently been dismissed by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in October of 2012 on the basis that climate change raises political issues that need to be decided by legislative action rather than by  a court.

Nevertheless, the allegations made by the plaintiff, an Alaskan village,  asserted that some of the defendants including ExxonMobil Corporation, BP America, Inc., Chevron Corporation, ConocoPhillips Company,  Peabody Energy Corporation, American Electric Power Company, Inc, Duke Energy Corporation, and The Southern Company, conspired to misinform the public on the science of climate change either individually or through their various front groups or  industry trade associations. The complaint in this case further asserted that the object of the conspiracy was to create unwarranted doubts about the existence of global warming and its causes among the public and that the defendants did this to protect their economic interests.

The plaintiffs also claimed that some of the  defendants have conspired to mislead the public about the science of global warming creating flooding harms to the Village of Kivalina.

The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants  also funded “front groups,” including ƒƒphony citizens’ organizations and bogus scientific bodies, to regularly publish views expressing doubts about global warming in mainstream publications such as the Wall Street Journal. The plaintiffs also alleged that the defendants funded and circulated misleading advertising which questioned the “science” of global warming and human causation. The plaintiffs also alleged that defendants coordinated a “skeptics campaign” that include funding for energy industry groups and other public policy organizations which voiced skepticism regarding global warming, creating the appearance of numerous independent voices speaking out against global warming.

The plaintiffs further claimed that the defendants engaged in a civil conspiracy by ƒƒand through agreements to participate in the intentional creation, contribution to and/or maintenance of a public nuisance through global warming by undermining the public’s understanding of climate change science.

The plaintiffs also alleged that the fossil fuel companies were being told by scientists that were advising them that climate change was a serious threat, yet they continued to fund projects which sought to undermine the science.

The court finally dismissed the case on the ground that the “the solution to Kivalina’s dire circumstances must rest in the hands of the legislative and executive branches of our government, not the federal common law.” Kivalina may be the last blow for parties that are seeking to address climate change via the federal common law. Kivalina was the last in a series of cases seeking to recover damages from climate change under  theories of liability for a public nuisance. These other cases also have been dismissed on the grounds that climate change liability is a matter that must be resolved by legislatures not courts.  The opinion in the Kivalina case makes it clear that both abatement actions and monetary damage actions pertaining to greenhouse gas emissions have been displaced by the Clean Air Act. Most observers have concluded that  public nuisance litigation in the future will likely be litigated in the states, where common law public nuisance actions are still viable although efforts to address climate change via state common law have been unsuccessful (at least so far).

The apparent reasoning followed by the court in this case is that there is no right to damages from climate change under the theory of public nuisance in federal courts because climate change emissions now must be regulated under the federal Clean Air Act. In other words, federal statutory law has preempted the way in which greenhouse gas emissions will be regulated and the penalties that will be allowed for excess emissions. Such a decision is not understood to conclude that the defendants have not been harmed by the conspiracy of the defendants to mislead the public, only that there is no right to recover damages from this harmful behavior in US federal courts using common law tort theories.

And so the tactics employed by fossil fuel companies to undermine the public’s understanding of mainstream scientific conclusions about climate change may be a wrong without a civil remedy for damages under common law, at least in the United States. It is not clear, however, that civil liability for disinformation may not be adjudicated in courts outside the United States. Only time will tell.

Because climate change damages are likely to be so catastrophic for some people in some places, a case can be made that governments should create statutes that would impose severe financial penalties on parties that spread false information about very harmful behavior such as spreading misinformation about climate change.

Part II in this series will look at other legal theories for responding to the disinformation including human rights theories.

IV Conclusion

Thus far we have shown that although the climate change disinformation campaign is equal in destructive power to many human activities that are classified as crimes against humanity, yet the current international legal regime for prosecuting crimes against humanity does not provide an adequate remedy for climate change caused damages that have been caused by those participating in the disinformation campaign. This is so despite the fact that there is strong evidence that at least some of those participating in the disinformation campaign knew or should have known that they were spreading false information about the enormous threat of climate change and did so to protect economic interests.

We have also seen, there appears to be no civil law remedy for damages that tens of millions will experience at least in part because of tactics of the disinformation campaign. Yet a strong case can be made that there should be some civil legal remedy for those who have been harmed by the those responsible for the disinformation campaign.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law


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