If climate change, as the Pope’s recent encyclical claims, is a profound global justice, ethical, and moral problem, this paper identifies questions that should be asked of opponents of climate change policies to expose the ethical problems with their positions.
Although the Pope bases his claim that climate change is a moral problem on theological arguments derived mostly from Catholic teachings, this paper begins with a brief description of unique features of climate change that lead to an understanding that this enormous global threat must be understood fundamentally and essentially as a moral, ethical, and justice problem as a matter of secular ethics also. This is followed by questions designed to assure that opponents of climate change policies are required to expressly respond to ethical problems with their most frequent arguments made against climate change policies. These questions are organized according to the most frequent arguments made against climate change policies which are claims that climate change policies: (a) will impose unacceptable costs on a national economy or specific industries or prevent nations from pursuing other national priorities, (b) should not be adopted because of scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts, or (c) are both unfair and ineffective as long as high emitting nations such as China or India do not adopt meaningful ghg emissions reduction policies. Following each question is a short explanation of the strong ethical arguments for rejecting the arguments of the climate change policy opponents that have triggered the specific questions.
II. Why Climate Change Must be Understood as an Ethical, Moral, and Justice Problem.
Climate change must be understood and responded to as a profound problem of global justice, ethics, and morality. This is so because in addition to the theological reasons given by Pope Francis recently: (a) it is a problem mostly caused by some nations and people emitting high-levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) in one part of the world who are harming or threatening tens of millions of living people and countless numbers of future generations throughout the world who include some of the world’s poorest people who have done little to cause the problem, (b) the harms to many of the world’s most vulnerable victims of climate change are potentially catastrophic, (c) many people most at risk from climate change often can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments; their best hope is that those causing the problem will see that justice requires them to greatly lower their ghg emissions, (d) to protect the world’s most vulnerable people nations must limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions, and, (e) climate change is preventing some people from enjoying the most basic human rights including rights to life and security among others. Because climate change is a profound problem of ethics, morality and justice those causing the problem may not use self-interest alone as justification for their policy responses to human-induced warming, they must respond in ways consistent with their responsibilities and duties to others. In light of this the following questions should be asked of those who oppose national action on climate change on the basis of excessive cost to national economies, scientific uncertainty, or unfairness if other high emitting nations refuse to reduce their ghg emissions. .
III. Questions That Should Be Asked of Those Opposing Climate Change to Expose the Ethical and Moral Problems with Their Opposition.
A. Questions to be asked of those opposing government action on climate change on the basis of cost to the economy, cost to specific industries, job destruction, or other economic arguments that oppose adoption of climate change policies.
When you argue that governments should not adopt policies to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that climate policies will impose unacceptable costs on national economies, destroy specific industries, kill jobs, or prevent the nation from investing in other national priorities:
1. Do you deny high-emitting nations not only have economic interests but also duties and obligations to nations and people most vulnerable to climate impacts to limit their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions?
This question is designed to expose a strong ethical and moral problem with those who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions on the basis of costs to them, a position that ignores that those harming others have strong ethical, moral, and legal responsibilities to not harm others. This strong ethical and moral responsibility is derivable both from the universally accepted moral principles including the widely accepted golden rule which requires people to treat others as they wish to be treated, and international law including, but not limited to the “no harm” rule which is a widely recognized principle of customary international law whereby a State is duty-bound to prevent, reduce and control the risk of environmental harm to other states and a rule agreed to by all nations in the preamble to the UNFCCC, the “polluter-pays principle” agreed to by almost all nations in the 1992 Rio Declaration, human rights law which requires nations to assure that their citizens enjoy human rights, and many other legal theories including tort law.
2. Do you agree that no nation has a right to kill other people or destroy the ecological systems on which life depends simply because reducing ghg emissions will impose costs on the high-emitting nation?
Like question one, this question is designed to expose more explicitly than previous questions that those nations who refuse to limit ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions are implicitly ignoring their very strong ethical duty to not kill or greatly harm others.
3. Do you deny that all high ghg emitting developed nations under the UNFCCC has a duty to adopt policies that prevent harms from climate change to human health and ecological systems on which life depends which the nation is causing in other nations?
In addition to the ethical problems with cost arguments identified above in response to questions one and two, this question is also designed to expose that a nation that refuses to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions is violating promises it made under the UNFCCC to adopt ” policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system.” and that the developed nations have promised to take the lead in reducing ghg emissions.
4. Do you deny the applicability of the well-established international norm that polluters should pay for the harms caused by their pollution and that if a nation or entity refuses to reduce its ghg emissions it is responsible for any damages or harms caused by their ghg emissions?
This question is designed to more expressly expose the ethical issue identified in response to question one, namely that high-emitting nations are responsible for the harms they are causing to others under the “polluter pays” principle of international law. This rule is also a basis for concluding that high-emitting nations have a duty to pay for the damages caused by ghg emissions from their country that exceed their fair share of global emissions.
5. Do you agree that a nation that refuses to reduce its ghg emission to its fair share of safe global ghg emissions on the basis of cost to it is implicitly taking a position on how high atmospheric concentrations of ghgs should be allowed to rise and that the higher atmosphere ghg concentrations rise the more people and the ecological systems on which life depends will be harmed?.
This question is designed to expose that refusals of nations to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions is implicitly a position on acceptable levels of atmospheric ghg concentrations which is essentially a moral issue because a position on acceptable atmospheric ghg concentrations is a position of a nation on who it is willing to kill or greatly harm by their ghg emissions.
6. Do you agree that a national ghg emissions target that is based on cost to it must be understood as implicitly a position on a global emissions reduction pathway necessary to stabilize atmospheric ghg concentrations at safe levels and that the longer a nation waits to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions the smaller is the remaining carbon budget for the entire world that may not be exceeded to prevent dangerous climate change?
This question is designed to expose the fact that because delays in ghg emissions based on costs to the polluter makes the enormous threat of climate change much more difficult to solve and more likely that serious harms and damages will be experienced, therefore arguments for delays in reducing ghg emissions based upon cost raise moral and ethical issues because the delays are making the problem worse.
7. Do you agree that nations which emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting vulnerable countries and individuals who have done little to cause climate change?
This question is designed to expose the fact that a nation’s refusal to lower its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of costs creates financial obligations to pay for resulting harms and damages.
8. Do you agree that all the costs of inaction on climate change must be considered by nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of cost to them?
This question is designed to expose that fact that a nation which refuses to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of costs to it have a strong duty to expressly consider all the costs of damages created by inaction.
9. Given that the United States and most other developed anions have for over twenty-five years failed to adequately respond to climate change because of alleged unacceptable costs to each nation and that due to the delay ghg emissions reductions now needed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change are much steeper and costly than what would be required if these nations acted twenty five years ago, is it just for the United States and other developed nations to now defend further inaction on climate change on the basis of cost to it?
This question is designed to expose the fact that previous unwillingness to reduce ghg emissions by a nation has caused dangerous delays which should be understood to create moral obligations to delay no longer in reducing ghg emissions to the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions.
10. Do you believe that a nation who desires to delay to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of costs to it, should have a responsibility to consult with those who will be harmed by the delay before delay is initiated?
This question is designed to expose the fact that procedural justice requires that that those who seek to put others at greater risk on the basis of cost has a duty as a matter of procedural justice to seek consensus from those who may be harmed by non-action.
B. Questions to be Asked of Those Opposing Action on Climate Change on the Basis of Scientific Uncertainty.
When you argue that nations such as the United States or states, regional, or local governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions because of scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts:
1. On what specific basis do you disregard the conclusions of the United States Academy of Sciences, and numerous other Academies of Sciences Around the World including the Royal Academy of the UK, over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations whose membership includes those with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and according to the American Academy of Sciences 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change which conclusions hold that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are already being experienced in parts of the world, and that the international community is running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming.
This question is designed to expose the ethical conclusion that nations who are put on notice by the most prestigious and responsible scientific organizations in the world that ghg emissions from their jurisdictions are causing great harm to vulnerable people around the world have an ethical duty to accept the burden of proof to prove that their ghg emissions are not causing harm. That is once there is a reasonable scientific basis for concluding that some nations or entities are causing great harm, the question of who should have the burden of proof is an ethical and not simply a scientific question. Thus the question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty of those who are engaged in risky behavior to produce credible scientific evidence that demonstrates that their behavior is not causing harm if they choose to use uncertainty as justification for continuing the risky behavior. That risky behavior is not acceptable because there is some uncertainty about the harm that will be caused by the behavior is clear from law around the world that makes dangerous behavior unacceptable and often criminal. For instance, it is not a defense to reckless driving that the police could not prove the driving would cause harm. Nations and people have a moral duty to stop engaging in behaviors that might be causing harm once they are put on notice that their behavior is dangerous.
2. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are some remaining scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve uncertainties before action is taken will virtually guarantee that it will too late to prevent catastrophic human-induced climate change harms to people and ecological systems around the world?
This question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty to take action in the face of uncertainty if waiting until the uncertainties are resolved will produce greater harm if the harms are caused particularly for problems like climate change that the predicted harms are likely catastrophic to some people and regions..
3. Given that waiting until uncertainties are resolved will make climate change harms worse and the scale of reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change much more daunting, do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in any decision about whether a nation should wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change because of scientific uncertainty?
This question is designed to expose the ethical duty entailed by procedural justice to obtain consensus from those who will be harmed by any delay in taking action on the basis of uncertainty when delay will likely increase the harms to those most vulnerable to the dangerous behavior.
4. Should a developed nation such as the United States which has much higher historical and per capita emissions than other nations be able to justify its refusal to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty, given that if the mainstream science is correct, the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent warming above 2 degrees C, a temperature limit which if exceeded may cause rapid, non-linear climate change.
This question, following up on question one is designed to expose the ethical duty of high-emitting developed countries like the United States to refrain from further delay on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty given that the nation’s non-action on climate change is already responsible for putting the international community in great danger from climate change.
5. If you claim that there is no evidence of human causation of climate change are you aware that there are multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies which point to human causation of observed warming?
This question. following up on question one, is designed to expose the fact that there is a strong ethical duty to assume human causation of climate change if there is reliable evidence of human causation and that those who seek to justify non-action on climate change because they claim that human causation has not been proven have a very strong ethical duty to demonstrate that humans are not causing climate change with high levels of proof. More specifically in regard to the question of human causation, opponents of climate change policies that deny human causation should be expected to specifically respond to the numerous “foot-print” and “attribution” studies that the international community has relied on to make conclusions about human causation.
6. When you claim that the United States or other nations emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven in peer reviewed scientific literature that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?
This question is designed to expose that those who seek to rely on scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change have a strong ethical duty to produce very credible scientific evidence that supports the conclusion that human activities releasing ghgs are not causing climate change and its impacts.
7. If you concede that climate skeptics have not proven in peer-reviewed journals that human-induced warming is not a very serious threat to human health and ecological systems, given that human-induced warming could create catastrophic warming the longer the human community waits to respond to reduce the threat of climate change and the more difficult it will be to prevent dangerous warming, do you agree that those responsible for rising atmospheric ghg concentrations have a duty to demonstrate that their ghg emissions are safe?
This question is designed to provoke express ethical reflection on the fact that those most responsible for dangerous atmospheric concentrations of ghg have a strong ethical duty to demonstrate that additional levels of ghg in the atmosphere are safe.
8. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty? Article 3 states:
The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost. (UNFCCC, Art 3)
This question is designed to bring attention to the fact that because all nations that ratified the UNFCCC agreed to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not reducing their ghg emissions, they have an ethical duty to keep their promises.
9. If a nation such as the United States which emits high-levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually seriously harms the health of tens of millions of vulnerable people around the world and ecological systems on which their life depends, should the nation be financially responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?
This question is designed to bring attention to the ethical duty of nations to pay for damages that result from their delays in taking action on the basis of scientific uncertainty.
10. Do you agree that if a government is warned by some of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world that activities within its jurisdiction are causing great harm to and gravely threatening hundreds of millions of people outside their government’s jurisdiction, government officials who could take steps to assure that activities of their citizens do not harm or threaten others should not be able escape responsibility for preventing harm caused by simply declaring that they are not scientists?
This question is designed to expose that those politicians who refuse to reduce their government’s ghg on the basis that they are not scientists cannot ethically justify non-action on climate change on this basis because once they are put on notice by respected scientific organizations that ghg from their government jurisdiction are harming others, they have a duty to prevent dangerous behavior or establish credible scientific evidence that the alleged dangerous behavior is safe.
C. Questions to be asked of those opposing government action climate change on the basis that other nations such as China and India have not reduced their ghg emissions.
When you argue that nations such as the United States need not reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emission because other nations such as China have not taken action,
1. Are you claiming that no nation has a duty to reduce its ghgs emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until all other nations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions accordingly?
This question is designed to expose the ethical duty of all nations to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions regardless of what other nations do because any nation emitting ghg emissions above its fair share of safe global emissions is contributing to elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations which are harming and threatening others.
2. If you claim that the US or other developed nation has no duty to act on climate change until China acts, do you agree that economic competitors such has China have no duty to reduce their emissions until the United States does so?
This question is designed to bring attention to the fact if the United States or other high-emitting nation has no duty to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until other nations do the same, no nation has a duty to act until the US responds to its obligations, a patently absurd conclusion.
3. Are you aware that the claim frequently made by opponents of US and other national action on climate change that if the country acts to reduce its ghg emissions and China or other developing country dose not act it will make no difference because climate change will still happen is not true because ghg emissions from nations exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions are responsible for rising atmospheric concentrations of ghgs?
This question is designed to correct the false claim that as long as a country such as China does not act, any action by a high-emitting nation such as the United States to reduce its ghg emissions makes no difference. This is factually not true because as long as a developed nation’s ghg emissions are above its fair share of safe global emissions they are contributing to rising atmospheric concentrations of ghgs.
4. Are you aware that the United States agreed when it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 to adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and that developed nations agreed to take the lead in reducing the threat of climate change?
This question is designed to bring attention to the fact that the United States and other developed nations have promised to take action to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions regardless of what other nations do under the UNFCCC.
6. Are you aware that all nations have a duty under customary international law to prevent harm by ensuring that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction?
This question is designed to expose the ethical duty of the United States and other high-emitting nations under international law to prevent its citizens from engaging in activities which cause climate change damages as a matter international law without regard to what other nations do.
7. Are you aware that the United States is much more responsible for elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations than any other country including China because of US historical and per capita emissions?
This question is designed to expose the strong ethical obligation of the United States and many other high-emitting nations to reduce their ghg emissions without regard to what other nations do because they are more responsible for dangerous elevated atmospheric levels of ghgs than any countries.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener Commonwealth University Law School