When Pope Francis in May of 2015 issued his Laudata Si encyclical which called climate change a moral issue, it got global attention. Yet despite extensive international media coverage of worldwide condemnation of President Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris agreement, there has been relatively little coverage of why the Trump decision should be understood not only as a dangerous break with the international community but as a profoundly immoral choice.
Climate change has certain features that more than any other global environmental problem call for responding to it as a moral problem. First, it is a problem caused mostly by high-emitting developed countries that are putting relatively low emitting developing countries most at risk. Second, the potential harms to the most vulnerable nations and people are not mere inconveniences but include catastrophic threats to life and the ecological systems on which life depends. Third, those people and nations most at risk can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments to shield them; their best hope is that high-emitting nations will respond to their obligations to not harm others. Fourth CO2 emissions become well mixed in the atmosphere so that CO2 atmosphere concentrations are roughly the same around the world regardless of the source of the emissions. Therefore unlike other air pollution problems which most threaten only those nations and communities located within the pollution plume, greenhouse gas emissions from any one country are threatening people and other countries around the world. This means that US greenhouse gas emissions are causing and threatening enormous harm all over the world.
Under the 2015 Paris accord, 195 nations agreed to cooperate to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5°C and no more than 2.0°C. Even nations that have historically opposed strong international action on climate change, including most of the OPEC countries, agreed to this warming limit goal because there is a broad scientific consensus that warming above these amounts will not only cause harsh climate impacts to millions around the word, but could lead to abrupt climate change which could create great danger for much of the human race. The international community’s condemnation of the Trump decision is attributable to the understanding that achieving the Paris agreement’s warming limit goals will require the cooperation of all nations and particularly high emitting nations including the United States to adopt greenhouse gas reduction targets more ambitious than nations have committed to thus far. For this reason, most nations view the Trump decision as outrageously dangerous.
Trump justified his decision by his claim that removing the United States from the Paris agreement was consistent with his goal of adopting policies that put America first. According to Trump staying in the Paris Agreement would cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025 including 440,000 fewer manufacturing jobs. This claim was based on a dubious study by National Economic Research Associates which was funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Council for Capitol Formation. This study has been widely criticized for several reasons including that it neither counted the number of jobs which would be created in the renewable energy industry in a transformed energy sector nor the economic benefits of preventing climate change caused harms.
Yet it is the Trump assertion that the United States can base its energy policy primarily on putting US economic interests first while ignoring US obligations to not harm others that most clearly provokes moral outrage around the world. The moral principle that people may not harm others on the basis of self-interest is recognized by the vast majority of the world’s religions and in international law under the “no harm principle”. The “no- harm’ rule is a principle of customary international law whereby a nation is duty-bound to prevent, reduce, and control the risk of environmental harm to other nations caused by activities within the nation For these reasons, the Trump decision on the Paris Agreement is a moral travesty.
For over 35 years, opponents of climate change policies most frequently have made two kinds of arguments in opposition to proposed climate policies. First proposed climate policies should be opposed because there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action. Second climate policies should be opposed because of the adverse economic harms that the policies will cause. This kind of argument has taken several different forms such as, climate policies simply cost too much, will destroy jobs, harm the economy, or are not justified by cost-benefit analyses just to name a few cost-based arguments made frequently in opposition to climate change policies. .
For most of the 35 years, proponents of climate change policies have usually responded to these arguments by making counter “factual” claims such as climate policies will increase jobs or trigger economic growth. Although the claims made by opponents of climate change policies about excessive costs are often undoubtedly false and therefore counter factual arguments are important responses to these arguments of climate change opponents, noticeably missing from the climate change debate for most of the 35 years are explanations and arguments about why the cost-based arguments fail to pass minimum ethical and moral scrutiny. This absence is lamentable because the moral and ethical arguments about the arguments of those opposing climate policy are often very strong.
This video identifies questions that should be asked of those who oppose climate change policies on the basis of cost or adverse economic impacts to expose the ethical and moral problems with these arguments. The video not only identifies the questions, it give advice on how the questions should be asked. The questions in the video also can be found below.
We are interested in hearing from those who use these questions to expose the ethical problems with cost arguments made against climate change policies. Those who wish to share their experiences with these questions, please reply to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This website has produced many articles and several videos describing and analyzing the climate change disinformation campaign that has been funded by fossil fuel companies, other corporations whose economic interests are threatened by placing restrictions on fossil fuel use, industry associations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations. These analyses have concluded that these entities have engaged in morally reprehensible disinformation that should be distinguished from responsible scientific skepticism (See site index above under “disinformation campaign and climate ethics”).
For three short videos on why the climate change disinformation campaign cannot be considered responsible skepticism but must be judged as morally abhorrent disinformation see:
This study’s analysis of 20 years’ worth of communication data between participants in the climate change countermovement by Yale University researcher Dr. Justin Farrell shows beyond a doubt that ExxonMobil and the Kochs have been key actors who funded the creation of climate disinformation think tanks and ensured the prolific spread of their doubt products throughout our mainstream media and public discourse about climate change.
“The contrarian efforts have been so effective for the fact that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust,” Dr. Farrell told the Washington Post. “This countermovement produced messages aimed, at the very least, at creating ideological polarization through politicized tactics, and at the very most, at overtly refuting current scientific consensus with scientific findings of their own,” Dr. Farrell, the author of the study said.
The PNAS’s press briefing note about the article by Dr. Farrell said:
Corporate funding likely influences the nature and content of polarizing texts pertaining to climate change, according to a study. Political polarization has become a hallmark of climate change policy discussion, with multiple groups in various sectors contributing to public discourse regarding climate and energy. To quantify the influence of corporate funding in climate change discourse, Justin Farrell analyzed more than 39 million words of text produced by 164 organizations active in the climate change counter-movement between 1993 and 2013. The author examined the ideological content of the produced texts, as well as the funding behind the organizations that produced the texts.
Organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have produced polarizing texts, the author found, with ExxonMobil and the Koch family foundation acting as influential funders (emphasis added). Further, according to the author, corporate funding may have influenced the ideological content of produced texts. The results suggest quantitative evidence of the influence of funding in the climate change debate that had previously been hypothesized, and suggests an analytical model for integrating texts with the social networks that created them, according to the author.
Two main conclusions of this study are noteworthy because they are strong evidence for the role that fossil fuel interests played in creating a false cultural understanding of climate change science in the United States. The conclusions are:
First, that organizations with corporate funding were more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue.
Second, and more importantly, that corporate funding influences the actual thematic content of these polarization efforts, and the discursive prevalence of that thematic content over time (Study abstract).
Thus this study, which was published by the very prestigious US Academy of Sciences, provides further evidence that the public deception orchestrated by the fossil fuel industry actually influenced the cultural understanding of climate change in the United States, and therefore should prove valuable to investigators examining ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies as well as other current and future efforts to hold these corporations accountable for their disinformation. The following chart from the Natural Academy study depicts how the entities comprising the denial campaign communicated with each other.
Fig. 1.Which organizations produced discourse? Nodes in this network are organizations. The color of the node indicates whether they produced a text, and whether they received corporate funding
Recently, the Attorneys General from Massachusetts and New York initiated legal proceedings to hold Exxon and other fossil fuel companies liable for fraud. The fossil fuel industry has responded to these suits by fiercely waging a campaign that claims that any legal action against the fossil fuel companies for funding organizations engaged in climate change denial activities is tantamount to a legally inappropriate suppression of free speech (See: Climate change vs. free speech: Punishing fossil fuel companies for expressing doubt).
The tactics of the fossil fuel industry cannot simply be understood as its exercise of free speech. As we have seen in previous entries on the disinformation campaign on this website the disinformation Campaigns tactics have included:
1. Lying or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science.
2. Cherry-picking mainstream climate science by focusing on an issue about which there may be some scientific uncertainty while ignoring a vast body of climate science which is well-settled.
3. Manufacturing non peer-reviewed climate change science claims.
4. The creating think tanks, front groups, and Astroturf groups which widely have disseminated untruthful claims about mainstream climate science and which were created to hide the real parties in interest, members of the fossil fuel industry.
5. Publishing and widely disseminating dubious manufactured climate change scientific claims that have not been subjected to peer-review.
6. Widely attacking mainstream climate scientist and journalists who have called for action on climate change.
7 Cyber-bullying mainstream climate scientists and journalists.
A few of these tactics are always ethically troublesome including creating conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, and PR campaigns whose very creation was motivated to fool people about who the real parties in interest are behind claims that attack mainstream climate science. These organizations have also manufactured bogus climate science claims, cyber-bullied climate scientists and journalists, and widely published claims about climate change science that have not been subject to peer-review.
Corporations who fund these ethically troubling tactics are particularly ethically loathsome because they are using their economic power to deceive the public and intimidate mainstream scientists and journalists in the pursuit of economic self-interest.
Certain facts about climate change make these ethically obnoxious tactics even more reprehensible. They include the fact that climate change is a problem that the longer governments wait to take action to prevent damage, the worse the problem becomes and the more difficult and more expensive it becomes to solve it. The climate change disinformation campaign has been responsible for at least 30 years of inaction and, as a result, enormous and expensive greenhouse gas reductions are now required of the entire world to prevent potentially devastating and catastrophic climate change impacts. These impacts will likely be most harshly experienced by poor countries around the world which have done very little to cause theca climate problem. In addition, those most vulnerable to the harshest climate impacts have never consented to nor been consulted about waiting until all climate science uncertainties are resolved before action is taken.
For these reasons, just as screaming fire in a crowded theater when no fire exists is not construed to be a justifiable exercise of free speech, climate change science disinformation cannot be justified on free speech grounds and must be understood as the morally indefensible behavior of many fossil fuel companies, some corporations and industry organizations, and free market fundamentalist foundations that have funded the climate change disinformation campaign. Just as It is morally reprehensible to call fire in a crowed theater when there is no evidence of a fire because such reckless behavior will likely cause harm to people panicking to run to safety, telling those responsible for GHG emissions that there is no evidence that human activities are causing and threatening climate induced harms will likely cause great damage because inaction guarantees that atmospheric concentrations of GHG will continue to rise and remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years and likely cause great harm and perhaps make it impossible to prevent catastrophic damages to human health and ecological systems on which life depends. In fact not only is the the deceit propagated by the fossil fuel companies and others funding the disinformation campaign unjustifiable on free speech grounds it is so harmful that it may create legal liability for those entities who have funded the disinformation campaign.
Climate change disinformation is responsible for almost a 40 year delay in reducing GHG emissions to safe levels and harsh climate change impacts are already visible in many parts of the world caused by rising seas, much more intense storms, droughts, and floods. And so some of the great harm caused by the climate change denial countermovement is already being experienced even though the most catastrophic climate change harms will be experienced in future decades.
When US President Obama announced revised regulations on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from US power plants on August 3, 2015 in a laudable speech supporting the new rules, as he predicted opponents of US climate change policy strongly attacked the new rules on grounds that they would wreck the US economy, destroy jobs, and raise electricity prices. Although President Obama defended the new rules on the basis that they were necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, that time was running out to do so, and that the rules would protect human health of US citizens, the speech failed to develop some of the obvious profound implications for climate policy of the conclusion that climate change is a moral problem, although President Obama did assert twice in the speech that climate change is a moral problem.
Although the Obama speech has rightly been praised by those who believe the US must take strong action on climate change, his speech did not acknowledge that:
US ghg emissions are harming and seriously threatening hundreds of millions of people outside the United States. There was no mention in the speech how US ghg emissions were harming others around the world.
Those who are most vulnerable to climate change have done almost nothing to cause the existing threats to them.
Those who are most vulnerable to climate change can do little to protect themselves, their best hope is that high emitting nations, sub-national governments, organizations, entities, and individuals will respond to their moral responsibilities to reduce the threat of climate change.
If climate change is a moral problem, the US may not base its climate change policies on US interests alone, it must respond to its obligations to not harm others outside the United States. Therefore costs to the US economy alone may not be used to justify failure to reduce US ghg emissions.
The United States must reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, a fact which leads to the conclusion that the new rules for power plants are still not stringent enough in light of the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that developed countries must reduce their ghg emissions by a minimum of 25% to 40% by 2020 to prevent dangerous climate change and the new rule will only achieve 32% reduction by 2030 coupled with the added fact that any reasonable interpretation of what equity requires of the United States would require the US to be closer to the 40% reduction by 2020 and surely reduce US ghg emissions well in excess of 40% by 2030.
One of the reasons the world is now running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change is because fossil fuel companies and their allies in the US Congress has prevented the United States from taking serious action on climate change since 1992 when the George H. W Bush administration agreed in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that the United States should adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference on climate change on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities. Thus the United States, more than any other developed country, has been responsible for the disastrous 30 year delay in formulating a serious global response to climate change, while delays make the problem harder and more expensive to solve and increase the likelihood of triggering dangerous climate change.
The United States is more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas concentrations to 400 ppm CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere than any country and has among the highest per capita ghg emissions as any country in the world.
The climate change opposition in the United States has successfully prevented the United States from adopting policies that would have significantly reduced US emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty despite the fact that the United States agreed in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not reducing its ghg emissions to safe levels.
Those nations who have consistently emitted ghgs above their fair share of safe global ghg emissions are responsible for the reasonable adaptation costs and damages of poor nations and people who have not caused climate change.These responsibilities are required both by basic ethics and justice and international law. These financial obligations will far exceed hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
Although the Obama administration has over the last year or two taken significant steps to reduce US greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions that have been widely welcomed by many nations, do the current US ghg reduction targets represent the US fair share of safe global emissions? This post examines the question of whether the current US commitments to reduce US ghg emissions are adequate as a matter of justice and ethics.
On November 11, 2014, the Obama Administration announced a new US commitment on reducing its ghg emissions in a deal with China. (US White House, 2014) The United States pledged to cut its emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 while retaining a prior pledge to reduce US ghg emissions by 80% below 2005 by 2050.
All nations have agreed to negotiate a new climate agreement with binding force at the twenty first Conference of the Parties (COP21) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in December 2015. To prepare for the Paris negotiations, countries have agreed to publicly outline what post-2020 climate actions they intend to take, known as their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The INDCs will largely determine whether the world is on a path to avoid catastrophic climate change by avoiding additional warming of no more than 2°C.
On March 31, 2015, the United States submitted its INDC to the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which reiterated the ghg emissions reduction targets announced in November. (US, 2015)
The US March announcement on its reduction targets for 2025 was met with mostly, but not uniformly, positive responses from nations around the world because the new commitments were a significant increase over the US commitment made in 2009 to reduce US ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions levels by 2020. The new US commitments were also welcomed because the United States has a record that spans several decades of being a major obstacle to achieving an adequate global solution to climate change. (For a discussion of the role that the United States has played in international climate negotiations, see Brown, 2002 and Brown, 2012) The Obama administration ghg reduction targets were seen by many as a constructive change in the US role in international efforts to find a global solution to climate change.
Although there has been a positive response to the Obama commitments to reduce US ghg emissions, there is also great international concern that national INDCs, including the US commitments, are not nearly ambitious enough to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact there is a strong consensus among nations that unless nations reduce their ghg emissions to levels that represent each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, there is little hope of preventing catastrophic warming.
The United States along with almost every country in the world agreed when it ratified the UNFCCC to adopt policies to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system on the basis of “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Thus the United States has agreed that it should reduce its ghg emissions to levels required of it on the basis of equity and justice.
In addition there are several features of climate change that scream for attention to understand it and respond to it as an ethical and moral problem. These features include: (a) it is a problem caused by some nations and people emitting high-levels of ghgs in one part of the world who are harming or threatening tens of millions of living people and countless numbers of future generations throughout the world who include some of the world’s poorest people and who have done little to cause the problem, (b) the harms to many of the world’s most vulnerable victims of climate change are potentially catastrophic, (c) many people most at risk from climate change often can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments; their best hope is that those causing the problem will see that justice requires them to greatly lower their ghg emissions, and, (d) to protect the world’s most vulnerable people, nations must act quickly to limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions.
A major significance for policy of understanding climate change as a moral and justice issue, is that nations may not look at economic self-interest alone in formulating policies, they must consider their ethical and moral obligations to those who are most vulnerable to climate change.
For these reasons, it is important to review the US ghg emissions reduction commitments through the lens of justice and equity. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) “equity” under the UNFCCC covers both distributive justice issues and procedural justice. (IPCC, 2015, chap 4, 4.2.2)
The rules under which nations are making commitments in their INDCs before the Paris COP under the UNFCCC do not include a definition of or benchmark for determining what “equity’ requires of nations. Yet nations are encouraged to explain how they took environmental ambition and fairness into account in establishing their INDC. More specificly at UNFCC COP-20 in Lima, nations agreed to explain in its INDC:
“how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2. (UNFCCC, 2014, emphasis added)”
Although reasonable disagreements exist about what equity and justice requires of nations in setting their INDCs as demonstrated by numerous proposed equity frameworks discussed by the recent IPCC chapter in the 5th Assessment Report on equity (IPCC, 2014, chapter 4), the national commitments that are based upon national economic interests alone clearly fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. This is so because as IPCC said recently “reasonable interpretations of equity are limited to only a few plausible kinds of considerations namely responsibility, equality, capacity, and rights of developing countries to develop.” (IPCC, 2014, chapter 4. 48-52) If there is any doubt that economic self-interest is not compatible with the idea of “equity” it also is an unacceptable basis for establishing national climate change policies because economic self-interest is also inconsistent with well established international legal principles including:
the “polluter pays” principle of the Rio Declaration (UN, 1992: Principle 16),
the “no harm” principle recognized in the UNFCCC (UNFCCC, 1992: Preamble)
what is required of nations who fail to fulfill and protect human rights of citizens (For discussion of the implications for policy of a human rights approach to climate change policy see, Brown and Brown, 2014).
And so although it may not be possible to say precisely what equity requires of nations in advance, strong arguments can be made that some national commitments fail to satisfy reasonable interpretations of what equity requires. Or saying this another way, although policy makers may disagree on what perfect justice requires, they may all strongly agree that certain positions are unjust.
In the absence of a court adjudicating what equity requires of nations in setting their national climate change commitments, a possibility but far from a guarantee under existing international and national law (for an explanation of some of the litigation issues, Buiti,2011), the best hope for encouraging nations to improve the ambition of their national emissions reductions commitments on the basis of equity and justice is the creation of a mechanism under the UNFCCC that requires nations to explain their how they quantitatively took equity into account in establishing their INDCs and why their INDC is consistent with the nation’s ethical obligations to people who are most vulnerable to climate change and the above principles of international law.
B. The US Justification for Its GHG Emissions Reduction Targets.
Although the United States asserted without explanation when it submitted its INDCs to the the UNFCCC Secretariat that the US commitments were” fair and ambitious,” (US, 2015), the United States has also acknowledged the commitment was based upon what is achievable under existing US law rather than what may be required of the United States by ethics, justice, and basic fairness.
The US justification for its new 2025 commitment is as follows:
The target is grounded in intensive analysis of cost-effective carbon pollution reductions achievable under existing law and will keep the United States on the right trajectory to achieve deep economy-wide reductions on the order of 80 % by 2050. (US White House, 2014)
According the US White House, the 80% reduction commitment by 2050 is based upon a commitment made by the United States to the G8. (Light, 2014)
The US has not asserted that the 26% to 28 % reduction below 2005 emissions reduction commitment by 2025 or 80% reduction below 2005 emissions by 2050 aspiration represents the US fair share of safe global emissions.
In regard to the 80% reduction commitment by 205o, the United States has asserted that this number was taken from the 2009 G8 Declaration on Climate Change which stated that:
We recognize the broad scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C. Because this global challenge can only be met by a global response, we reiterate our willingness to share with all countries the goal of achieving at least a 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050, recognizing that this implies that global emissions need to peak as soon as possible and decline thereafter. As part of this, we also support a goal of developed countries reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in aggregate by 80% or more by 2050 compared to 1990 or more recent years. (G8, 2009)
The Obama administration has thus explicitly acknowledged that the current 2025 commitment is based upon what is currently achievable under existing law rather than on what ethics and justice would require of the United States while the commitment to reduce ghg emissions by 80% by 2050 is based on a promise made to the G8 in 2009 which did not expressly consider the implications of a carbon budget described by IPCC in 2013. (see below)
C. Why the US Commitments Are Inadequate
Although it is speculation, it would appear that the reference by the United States to an 80% reduction commitment by 2050 originally made to the G8 was influenced by a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007, p776) which concluded that developed nations needed to reduce ghg emissions by 25% to 40% below 1990 emissions levels by 2020 and 80% to 95% by 2050 for the world to have any reasonable chance of limiting warming to 2°C. If this is the case, the US government has not explained why the US believes it need only achieve the lower end of the 80% to 95% reduction goal for 2050 emissions for developed nations identified by the IPCC in 2007 nor why the current reduction commitment of 26% to 28% below 2005 emissions by 2025 is justified given the much higher 25% to 40% reduction targets by 2020 were recommended by the IPCC in 2007 for developed nations.
It would also appear when determining any of its ghg commitments that the United States has not considered the most recent carbon budget identified by the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report. (IPCC, 2013, p27). A carbon budget is a limit of total ghg emissions for the entire world that must constrain total global emissions to have any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C or any other temperature limit. The IPCC budget defines a limit of future carbon emissions of approximately 270 gigatonnes carbon (GtC) to have a 66% chance of limiting the warming to 2°C. (Pidcock, 2013). The 2°C warming limit has been agreed to by the international community including the United States as necessary to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change. The US has agreed several times, including in the G8 agreement above, on the need for it to adopt policies that will, working with others, prevent warming from exceeding the 2°C warming limit.
Because any US ghg target is implicitly a position on the US fair share of safe global emissions, any US emissions reduction target may only be justified as a matter of ethics and justice by explaining why the US commitment is a fair share of an acceptable global carbon emissions budget. Yet, the Obama administration has made no attempt to explain or justify why its emissions reduction goals are just and equitable in reference to a global carbon budget or a warming limit. As we have seen, the United States has asserted that its INDC is ambitious and fair but has given no explanation of how the United States justified this conclusion.
If the total carbon budget to give the world a 66% chance of keeping warming below 2°C is 270 gigatons carbon (GtC), then because the US population is 5 % of world population, a case can be made that the United States carbon budget must be below 13.5 GtC even before this number is adjusted on the grounds of fairness or equity that takes into account the US’s world leading share of historical emissions. Because the US is currently emitting 1.44.GtC per year, the US will have zero emissions to allocate to itself in 9.4 years at current emissions rates.
In any event the US INDC, as well as all INDCs, should be expressed as a total number of carbon tons rather than as a percent reduction by a specific year given that a carbon budget requires nations to fairly allocate the remaining carbon budget necessary to limit warming to 2°C. Because keeping global emissions within a global carbon budget requires all nations to live within their allocated budget for the entire period, the US commitment should identify the total number of tons as a percentage of the global carbon budget it is allocating to itself. This is so because identifying a percentage reduction by a date in the future would not prevent a nation from far exceeding its budget allocation before the target date even if the percent reduction committed to is achieved by the target date. For this reason, nations should express their INDCs for emissions reductions in tons rather than in percent reductions by a specific date.
During a speech at Georgetown University in June 2013, President Obama did acknowledge in very general terms that the United States has responsibility for climate change when he said:
[A]s the world’s largest economy and second-largest carbon emitter, as a country with unsurpassed ability to drive innovation and scientific breakthroughs, as the country that people around the world continue to look to in times of crisis, we’ve got a vital role to play. We can’t stand on the sidelines. We’ve got a unique responsibility. (Obama, 2014)
Although President Obama thus acknowledged US responsibility to the world to take effective action on climate change, the US has not explained how this responsibility is linked quantitatively to any US ghg reduction commitment.
There are several reasons for concluding that the US INDC fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
First, as one observer noted about the fairness of the US-China agreement:
“ [U]nder such an agreement the United States would come down “marginally” from its current 18 tonnes per capita and China would increase from its current seven-eight tonnes. Both the polluters would converge at 12-14 tonnes a person a year. This is when the planet can effectively absorb and naturally cleanse emissions not more than two tonnes a person a year.” (Narain, 2014)
Second, the US has admitted that its commitment on its 2025 emissions reductions of 26% to 28% is simply based on what is achievable under existing law not what is required of the US as a matter of justice.
Third the debate about climate change in the United States for over 35 years reveals that opposition to stronger policies to reduce US ghg emissions has successfully blocked stronger US policies by making two kinds of arguments.
The first argument has been that there is insufficient scientific certainty about human causation of harmful climate change to warrant climate policies given the likely costs of climate change policies to certain sectors of the US economy.
The second argument which has blocked stronger US climate change policy for the last few decades is based on claims that proposed climate law and policies would impose unacceptable costs on the US economy. The cost arguments have taken several forms. (Brown, 2012b, p57) These arguments have included that proposed policies would destroy jobs, reduce US GDP, damage specific industries such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that proposed climate policies and legislation are unaffordable. (Brown, 2012b, p57).
It is therefore clear that the actual basis for current US positions on climate change have not been identified by the the Obama administration, which likely is doing as much as it can under existing law. Rather the actual basis for current US climate policies includes arguments which have successfully prevented the US Congress from passing more ambitious US climate change policies. Therefore in the US, to determine the actual reasons for domestic action on climate change it is not sufficient to examine the claims of the administrative branch of government alone, one must examine the arguments made by opponents of climate change that have successfully blocked stronger climate change action by the government. And so, one cannot escape the conclusion that the basis for the US commitments on climate change include alleged unacceptable costs of more aggressive climate change policies to the US economy, matters of economic self-interest rather than global responsibility.
Although both the scientific uncertainty and cost arguments made in opposition to US climate law and policies can be shown to be ethically problematic because they ignore US ethical obligations to others (see Brown, 2012b, pp57–137), these arguments neither have been examined in the US press nor identified by the US government. With very few exceptions, the US press has utterly failed to cover climate change as an ethical and moral issue while focusing on the scientific and economic arguments against taking action that have been made by opponents of US climate change policies for almost 30 years. (Brown, 2009 ; Brown, 2012a) By focusing on the cost issues to the US economy, the US press has reinforced the ethically problematic notion that cost to the US economy alone is an acceptable justification for inaction on climate change.
The US debate on climate change has ignored the fact that when the United States ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 it agreed that nations:
“[H]ave, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law… the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” (UNFCCC, 1992, Preamble)
As explained above, the United States government has not explained how the US ghg emissions reduction commitments took into consideration justice and equity issues in establishing US emissions reduction targets. Although the Obama administration is likely doing as much as it can under existing law, it would have to admit that its current commitments do not represent the US fair share of safe global emissions.
Reasonable arguments can be made about which of the equity frameworks that have attracted international attention and respect should be applied to any nation’s INDC. An examination of the arguments for and against specific equity frameworks that have received international attention and respect is beyond the scope of this article. (For a discussion of the merits of various equity frameworks see, Brown, 2014) However, it is not necessary to agree on an equity framework to conclude that some national commitments fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. As we noted above it is not necessary to know what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. The US current ghg emissions reductions commitments clearly fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny for reasons stated here and summarized below. The United States had an opportunity to explain its justification for why its INDC was fair and sufficiently ambitious when it submitted its INDC. In fact the decision at COP 2o in Lima in December of 2014 encouraged the United States and all countries to explain why its INDC was fair and sufficiently ambitious to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States chose not to do this.
In summary, a strong case can be made that the US emissions reduction commitment for 2025 of 26% to 28% clearly fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny when one considers: (a) the 2007 IPCC report on which the US likely relied upon to establish a 80% reduction target by 2050 also called for 25% to 40% reduction by developed countries by 2020, and (b) although reasonable people may disagree with what “equity” means under the UNFCCC, the US commitments can’t be reconciled with any reasonable interpretation of what “equity” requires, (c) the United States has expressly acknowledged that its commitments are based upon what can be achieved under existing US law not on what is required of it as a mater of justice, (d) it is clear that more ambitious US commitments have been blocked by arguments that alleged unacceptable costs to the US economy, arguments which have ignored US responsibilities to those most vulnerable to climate change, and (e) it is virtually certain that the US commitments can not be construed to be a fair allocation of the remaining carbon budget that is available for the entire world to limit warming to 2°C.
Brown, B. and Brown, D. (2015) Commonly Unrecognized Benefits of a Human Rights Approach to Climate Change, in L.Westra, C. Gray, and V. Karageorgou (eds.) Ecological Systems Integrity: Governance, Law, and Human Rights, Earthscan Routledge, in press.
Buiti, C. (2011) The tortuous road to liability: A critical survey of climate change litigation in Europe and America, Sustainable Development Law and Policy, Vol 11, Issue II, Retrieved from http;//digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1467
G8 (2009) Responsible Leadership for a Sustainable Future, http://www.g8italia2009.it/static/G8_Allegato/G8_Declaration_08_07_09_final,0.pdf
Climate change must be understood and responded to as a profound problem of global justice and ethics. This is so because: (a) it is a problem mostly caused by some nations and people emitting high-levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) in one part of the world who are harming or threatening tens of millions of living people and countless numbers of future generations throughout the world who include some of the world’s poorest people who have done little to cause the problem, (b) the harms to many of the world’s most vulnerable victims of climate change are potentially catastrophic, (c) many people most at risk from climate change often can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments; their best hope is that those causing the problem will see that justice requires them to greatly lower their ghg emissions, (d) to protect the world’s most vulnerable people nations must limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions, and, (e) climate change is preventing some people from enjoying the most basic human rights including rights to life and security among others. Because climate change is a profound problem of justice those causing the problem may not use self-interest alone as justification for their policy responses to human-induced warming, they must respond in ways consistent with their responsibilities and duties to others. In light of this the following questions should be asked of those who oppose national action on climate change on the basis of excessive costs to the national economy or scientific uncertainty.
Questions that should be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of cost to the national economy:
1. When you claim that a government emitting high levels of ghgs need not reduce its ghg emissions because the costs to it of so doing are too high, do you deny that high-emitting governments not only have economic interests in climate change policies but also duties and obligations to tens of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest impacts?
2. If you argue that high costs to a nation of reducing its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global ghg emissions justify non-action, how have you considered the increased harms and risks to poor vulnerable people and nations that will continue to grow as atmospheric ghg concentrations continue to rise? In other words how have you considered the harms to others that will be caused by government inaction on climate change?
3. If the justification for a nation to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions is that costs to it are too high, yet inaction causes loss of life and great harm to people outside the nation’s borders, is the use of a cost justification by a nation for non-action morally supportable?
4. Do you agree that those nations and people around the world who will most be harmed by climate change have a right to participate in a decision by a nation that chooses to not adopt climate change policies because costs to it are deemed unacceptable?
5. Do you agree that nations that emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting countries and individuals that have done little to cause climate change?
6. If you disagree that all nations have a duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to cost to it, do you also deny the applicability of the well-established international legal norm that almost all nations have agreed to in 1992 in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development called the “polluter pays” principle which holds that polluters should pay for consequences of their pollution?
7. Do you agree that nations that have very high per capita and historical ghg emissions compared to other nations and so have contributed more than other nations to the rise of atmospheric concentrations of ghgs to dangerous levels have a greater duty to reduce their ghg emissions than nations that have done comparatively little to create the current threat of human-induced warming?
8. If you argue that the United States should not adopt climate change policies on the basis that economic competitors such as China have not adopted climate change policies, are you claiming that no nation has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until all other nations reduce their ghg emissions accordingly?
9. In arguing that the United States or other high-emitting nations need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions based on cost, how have you considered, if at all, that all nations have agreed in international climate negotiations to take steps to limit warming to 2 degree C because warming greater than this amount will not only create harsh impacts for tens of millions of people but runs the risk of creating rapid non-linear warming that will outstrip the ability of people and nations to adapt?
Questions that should be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty:
1. When you argue that a nation emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts, are you arguing that a nation need not take action on climate change until scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken may very likely make it too late to prevent catastrophic climate change harms to millions of people around the world?
2. Do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in a decision about whether to wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change to them because of scientific uncertainty?
3. Given that mainstream climate change scientific view holds that the Earth could experience rapid non-linear climate change impacts which outstrip the ability of some people and nations to adapt, should this fact affect whether nations which emit high levels of ghgs should be able to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for non-action on climate change?
4. What specific scientific references and sources do you rely upon to conclude that there is a reasonable scientific dispute about whether human actions are causing observable climate change and are you aware of the multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies that very strongly point to human causation?
(Fingerprint studies draw conclusions about human causation that can be deduced from: (a) how the Earth warms in the upper and lower atmosphere, (b) warming in the oceans,(c) night-time vs day-time temperature increases,(d) energy escaping from the upper atmosphere versus energy trapped, (e) isotopes of CO2 in the atmosphere and coral that distinguish fossil CO2 from non-fossil CO2, (f) the height of the boundary between the lower and upper atmosphere, and (g) atmospheric oxygen levels decrease as CO2 levels increase. “Attribution” studies test whether the energy differences from those natural forces which have changed the Earth’s climate in the past such as changing radiation from the sun are capable of explaining observed temperature change.)
5. On what specific basis do you disregard the mainstream scientific view that holds that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual, conclusions supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United States Academy of Sciences and over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world whose membership includes scientists with expertise relevant to the science of climate change including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and the Royal Society of the UK and according to the American Academy of Sciences 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?
6. When you claim that a nation such as the United States which emits high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse human-induced climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their lives often depend and if so what is that proof?
7. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States and almost every country in the world in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?
(Article 3 states:)
The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost
8. If a nation emitting high levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms the health and ecological systems on which life depends for tens of millions of others, should that nation be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?
In the United States and in several developed countries including Australia and Canada, for instance, opponents of national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions frequently have made several arguments in opposition to proposed climate change policies. Most of these arguments have been of two types.
First, opponents of national climate policies have argued that there is insufficient scientific certainty about human causation of adverse climate impacts to warrant action because of the costs of reducing greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions might entail unnecessary expenditures if the mainstream scientific view on climate impacts turns out to be false.
Second proposed climate change policies are too costly. These cost arguments have taken several forms. They have included claims that the proposed ghg emissions reduction policies: (a) will unacceptably reduce national GDP, (b) will destroy jobs, (c) will destroy specific industries, (d) are not justified by cost-benefit analyses or other welfare maximization measurements, or (e) are just too costly.
Another very common argument made in opposition to national ghg emissions reductions policies that implicitly rests on claims of excessive costs is the frequent claim that it is unfair to the United States, or some other country, to be required to reduce its emissions as long as another country, e.g. China or India, is not willing to reduce its ghg emissions in similar ways.
This paper will examine whether a nation may make its willingness to reduce its ghg emissions contingent on what other nations do through an ethical lens after very briefly examining ethical problems with other cost justifications for a nation’s unwillingness to reduce it ghg emissions.
II. Ethical Problems with Cost Justifications for a Nation’s Unwillingness to Reduce its GHG Emissions.
As a matter of ethics all nations have clear duties reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of global emissions because nations have ethical duties to not harm other people and nations. These ethical duties can be derived both from various ethical theories and international law. For instance, as an example from climate law, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, nations agreed that nations have the:
“responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” (UNFCCC, Preamble)
In regard to the ethical basis for concluding that nations have duties to not harm others a recent conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is relevant
Common sense ethics (and legal practice) hold persons responsible for harms or risks they knowingly impose or could have reasonably foreseen, and in certain cases, regardless of whether they could have been foreseen. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 49)
Cost arguments are almost always arguments about self-interest that usually ignore duties and responsibilities to others.
Whether a nation or individual should act to prevent climate change is a matter of justice, not simply a matter of economic efficiency, national welfare maximization, or economic self-interest alone. This is so because some governments and individuals more than others are more responsible for climate change because they have much higher emissions of ghg in total tons, per capita levels, and historical contributions to elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations. Yet each nation must reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions because it has a duty to not harm others and some of the poorest people in the world who have done almost nothing to cause climate change are the most vulnerable to climate change. These people will suffer the most if governments and individuals refuse to reduce their emissions based upon “efficiency” or “welfare maximization” or national costs considerations alone. In addition, those most vulnerable to climate change have not consented to be harmed because costs to polluters of reducing their emissions are high.
In regard to these ethical limits of costs arguments, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Working Group III report recently confirmed these conclusions when it stated:
“Efficiency” and “welfare maximization” justifications unjustly sacrifice vulnerable people to the economic prosperity of high emitting nations and individuals. The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. …They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)
What ethical considerations can economics and justice can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, 2014.AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 25)
Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. (IPCC,2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3,pg. 24)
Yet, of course, what is any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions is a matter of distributive justice about which reasonable people may disagree. In fact, some very low emitting nation’s and people may be able to argue that they need not yet cut their ghg emissions because they have not yet exceeded their fair share of safe global emissions. Yet almost all nations are without doubt emitting at levels above their fair share of safe global emissions because total global emissions must be cut by as much as 95 percent by 2050 to prevent dangerous climate change. This is particularly true for all developed nations such as the United States which have very high per capita and historical emissions.
Although reasonable people may disagree on exactly what any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, this does not mean that any national articulation of what is fair passes ethical scrutiny.
In this regard, the recent IPCC report also agreed when it said:
There is a basic set of shared ethical principles and precedents that apply to the climate problem…[and] such principles… can put bounds on the plausible interpretation of equity in the burden sharing context…[and] are important in establishing what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 48)
The recent IPPC report identified the considerations that have been discussed in the ethics literature as being relevant for determining what fairness requires in allocating national responsibility for national ghg emissions reductions. They include; (a) responsibility for causing the climate problem, that is historical levels of emissions, (b) capacity or ability to pay for ghg emissions reductions, (c) equality or giving each human being an equal right to use the atmosphere as a sink for ghg emissions, and (d) the right to development a concept which is usually understood to give poorer nations an exception from the obligations to reduce ghg emissions so that they can meet basic needs. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII pp 52-56)
And so ethics requires each nation to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions where what is fair must be based upon morally justifiable reasons for allocating national ghg emissions reductions’ burdens yet in determining what are morally relevant factors there are only a limited number of considerations that are recognized by ethicists to be morally relevant. None of these considerations are costs to reduce ghg emissions of high-emitting nations or people.
III. The Ethics Of One Nation Making Its GHG Reductions’ Commitment Contingent Upon Other Nations Doing the Same.
All nations that are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to immediately reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do. This is so because climate change obligations are a matter of global justice, not national interest alone, and justice requires all nations to reduce their ghg emissions to levels that are distributively just and sufficient in magnitude to in combination with the reductions of other nations to prevent dangerous climate change.
The duty to cease activities that harm others is not diminished if others who are contributing to the harm fail to cease their harmful behavior. This is so because no nation or person has a right to continue destructive behavior on the basis that others who are contributing to the harm of others have not ceased their destructive behavior.
For example, it would be absurd for one of two factories that are poisoning people downstream by their discharges of toxic substances to argue that it has no obligation to reduce toxic discharges until the other factory agrees to reduce its toxic discharges. One of two persons beating up an innocent victim cannot defend his actions on the basis that he had no duty to stop the beating as long as the other person continued to assault the victim.
Yet climate change is an analogous problem because some very high-emitting countries are largely causing great harm to very low-emitting poor countries who can do little by themselves to protect themselves from the great harm. Those poor nations who are the most vulnerable victims of climate change are appropriately dismissive of arguments from high-emitting countries that justify their unwillingness to change the status quo on the basis that other high-emitting countries have not reduced their emissions.
May the United States, or other nation, refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions as long as another nation, for instance China, will not act accordingly? As a matter of ethics, for reasons stated above, no nation may refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions levels on the basis what other nations do.
May China, or other developing nation refuse to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis that another developed nation has refused to act according to levels required of them?
Any nation’s obligation, including China’s, to reduce its ghg emissions is terminated only when its ghg emission levels are below levels required by fair global allocations that will prevent dangerous climate change. Although even if a nation is emitting at levels below its fair share of safe global emissions an argument can be made that any nation that could reduce its ghg emissions further should do so to avoid catastrophic harm to others. This so because climate change is violating the human rights of poor people around the world and human rights theory requires governments that have the ability to prevent human rights violations should do so even if they are not at fault.
Without doubt as a matter of ethics, all nations, at a minimum, have a duty to keep ghg emissions below their fair share of safe global emissions independent of what other nations are doing.
Although as we have seen what fairness requires is a matter about which different ethical theories might reach different conclusions, a claim by almost any nation in the top 80 percent of global per capita emissions that it is already below its fair share of safe global emissions is highly unlikely to pass scrutiny on the basis of any conceivable ethically theory.
And so, the United States, along with other high-emitting nations, must act now because it cannot make a credible case that US ghg emissions are already below the US’s fair share of safe global emissions levels. This is true because most mainstream scientists have concluded that the world must reduce total global emissions by as much as 90 to 80 percent below existing levels to stabilize GHG atmospheric concentrations at minimally safe atmospheric ghg concentrations and most developed nations and China are very high emitters in both historical and per capita emissions. Therefore what is a fair reduction levels for these high-emitting countries will need to be reductions at greater levels than required of the entire world.
Yet, some very low-emitting developing countries might be able to make a credible case that their current ghg emissions levels are still below their fair share of safe global emissions. And so although some poor low-emitting nations might be able to substantiate a claim that their existing ghg emissions levels don’t yet trigger immediate emissions reductions obligations, the United States and all developed nations and China are not members of this group. For this reason, the US, developed nations, and even high-emitting developing nations have a duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and this obligation is an international responsibility that is unaffected by the actions of other nations.
In addition, it is ethically problematic for the United States or another developed nation to assert that other nations must reduce their emissions to levels commensurate with US reductions. In fact, for the United States to make any claim on any other nation that it must reduce its emissions in the same amount as the US emissions reductions, it would have to make the case that the nation was already exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions coupled with the claim that to achieve fair emissions levels the nation would have to reduce emissions to the same level committed to by the United States. But even then, as we have seen, the United States could not makes its emissions reduction commitments contingent on what another nation did.
A variation of the argument that a country like the United States need not reduce its ghg emissions unless other nations do so is the claim that it will not make a difference in the harms experienced by those vulnerable to climate change if the United States reduces its ghg emissions and others fail to do so. Yet this claim is not factually true. Any nation which is emitting ghg emissions above its fair share is contributing to the harms of people and nations who are harmed by climate change. Although it is obviously true that unless all nations reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global ghg emissions, some nations and people will be harmed by climate change, yet these harms will be worse so long as each nation refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions. Although the most damaging harms may be caused by those nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share, all nations emitting ghgs above their fair share make the harms worse.
Countries like the United States are not being asked to reduce China’s fair share of safe global emissions, they are only expected to reduce the US ghg emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions. For this reason, also, the US may not as a matter of ethics fail to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions because other countries have failed to do so.
In conclusion, nations have an ethical responsibility to reduce ghg emissions that harm others for as long as they are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. This duty exists regardless of efforts undertaken by other nations to reduce their ghg emissions.
Editor’s note: The following entry is by a guest blogger Sunita Narain who writes widely on justice issues and for the Business Standard in India. This peace is a reflection on climate change policy in the United States after the recent climate change national assessment of climate change impacts on the United States was issued in May. Although it is before the new Obama administration regulations that were issued this Monday, June 2nd, that proposed to reduc ghg emissions by 30 % below 2005 by 2030 for coal fired power plants. As we will explain in a future entry, the US commitments is still far short of what equity and justice would require of the United States despite reasonable disagreements on which equity framework should be followed by high-emitting nations. We look forward to Ms Narain’s reflections and others on how the most recent proposed US EPA regulations comport with justice Notice of rule-making was issued on Monday, June 2, 2014, This article formerly was published in the Business Standard.
Sunita Narain: Change of climate in the US
Climate change has a surprising new follower: the president of the United States. The US government has been the biggest hurdle in climate change negotiations. Since discussions began on the issue in the early 1990s, the US has stymied all efforts towards an effective and fair deal. It has blocked action by arguing that countries like China and India must first do more. Worse, successive governments have even denied that the threat from a changing climate is real, let alone urgent. US President Barack Obama, who came to power in his first term with the promise to deal with climate change, was noticeably coy about the issue in recent years.
However, in May this year, the US government released its National Climate Assessment, which puts together carefully peer-reviewed scientific information on the impact of climate change in the US. It makes clear that even the US is not immune to the dangers of climate change. In fact, many trends are visible and the country is already hurting.
It is important to understand what this assessment concludes and why its findings are important for the rest of the world. One, it makes clear that the increase in temperature is now established; the rise in temperature is the highest in the poles, where snow and ice cover has decreased. As the atmosphere warms, it holds more water, which leads to more precipitation. Add to this the fact that the incidence of extreme heat and heavy precipitation is increasing – more heat and more rain. This makes for a deadly combination.
In the US, the incidence of heatwave has increased. In 2011 and 2012, the number of heatwaves was almost triple the long-term average. The assessment also finds that in areas where precipitation has not gone down, droughts occur. The reason is that higher temperatures lead to increased rates of evaporation and loss of soil moisture. In Texas in 2011 and then again in large parts of the Midwest in 2012, prolonged periods of high temperatures led to severe droughts.
In addition, now it does not just rain but pours. The heaviest rainfall events have become more frequent. Moreover, the amount of precipitation on the heavy rainfall days has also increased. Many parts of the country have already seen flooding, and the assessment is that these risks are significant in the future. This is combined with the fact that the intensity, frequency, duration and the number of strongest (category four and five) storms and hurricanes have increased since the 1980s, the period for which high-quality data are available.
Therefore, the news is not good for even a rich and temperate country like the US. For a long time, there was an unwritten agreement that climate change would benefit such countries. It was believed that they would become warmer, with the result that crop-growing periods would increase – which, in turn, would benefit their economies. The National Climate Assessment makes it clear that even if specific regions benefit from climate change, this will not be sufficient or durable. The net result will be economic disruption and disaster.
The other welcome change in the report is its clear assertion – something that needed to be stated bluntly to the American people – that climate change is caused by human activity. It cannot be dismissed any more as natural weather variability. Not only has there been an unprecedented build-up in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases resulting from the use of fossil fuels, fingerprinting studies can also attribute observed climate change to particular causes. Even as the stratosphere – the higher atmospheric layer – is cooling, the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere are warming. This is clearly the result of an increase in heat-trapping gases released from fossil fuels that countries burn to drive economic growth.
The message is clear: the time for complacency is over. The gases in the atmosphere have hit dangerous levels, which is hurting the US economy. The effort must include adapting, and building flood- and drought-resistant agriculture and infrastructure. However, this won’t add up to much unless emissions from burning fossil fuels are cut fast and drastically.
This is where the report is the weakest. It says the current US contribution to annual global emissions is 18 per cent, but accepts that the country’s contribution to cumulative emissions is much higher. Importantly, it also accepts that it is this stock of emissions that determines the extent of global climate change. Till now, the US position on historical emissions has been a stumbling block in negotiations.
The question is: what needs to be done? The US still does not have a plan to cut its emissions based on its contribution to the problem. Its stated voluntary target is to reduce emissions by 17 per cent over the 2005 levels. This is too little, too late – in fact, meaningless.
For the moment, we should accept that the elephant in the room has been acknowledged. This itself should lead to change.
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.
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.
Several charts produced by the Global Commons Institute vividly demonstrate the woeful inadequacy of both the US federal government’s and US states’ commitments on climate change in light of the most recent climate change science.
These charts are extremely important because there is virtually no discussion in the US press of the utter and undeniable inadequacy of commitments on climate change made by the US federal and state governments.
These charts help visualize complex information that is not well understood by the vast majority of US citizens, yet these facts must be understood to comprehend the utter inadequacy of the US federal government and US state governments response to climate change. Thus, these charts help explain both why the US commitment to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 as well as targets that have been set by even those US states which have shown some leadership on climate change must now be understood as utterly inadequate in light of the most recent climate change science.
As we shall see below, in setting a government target for ghg emissions two clusters of issues need to be considered which have largely been ignored when US policy makers have set ghg emissions targets. One is the issue of global carbon budgets for the entire world needed to prevent dangerous climate change. We will call this the carbon budget issue. The second is the unquestionable need of all governments to set a target in light of that government’s fair share of safe global emissions. This is required by distributive justice. We will call this the equity or justice issue. All ghg emissions targets are implicitly a positions on the carbon budget issue and the equity and justice issue, yet policy makers rarely discuss their implicit positions on these issues and the US media is largely not covering the budget and justice issues implicit in any US policy on climate change. Any entities identifying a ghg emissions reduction target must be expected to expressly identify their assumptions about what remaining carbon budget and justice and equity consideration were made in setting the target.
I. The First Chart-US States’ Emissions Reductions Commitments Required to Prevent Dangerous Climate Change and Adjusted To Take Equity Into Account.
The following chart depicts what US states emissions commitments should be to prevent dangerous climate change in light of the most recent climate change science and the need to take justice into account in setting ghg emissions targets. This chart can be examined in more detail on the Global Commons Institute website at http://www.gci.org.uk/images/Don_Brown_All_State_draft_[complete].pdf Clinking on this URL should access a pdf file that will allow for a closer inspection of this chart which can be further enhanced by using the zoom function.
What is most notable about this chart is that the US federal government and US state g0vernments will need to reduce their ghg emissions extraordinarily steeply in the next few decades, far beyond what has been committed to. This chart, in combination with the next chart, helps visualize why the current commitments of even those US states which have demonstrated some considerable leadership on climate change need to be increased to levels that represent the state’s fair share of safe global emissions.
a. The Carbon Budget Issue
These steep reductions commitments are needed in light of the most recent scientific understanding of the climate problem facing the world. A carbon emissions budget for the entire world is needed to prevent dangerous climate change and was identified by IPCC in 2013. This budget is of profound significance for national and state and regional ghg emissions reductions targets yet it is infrequently being discussed in global media and has virtually been completely ignored by the US media. To give the world an approximately 66% chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees C, the entire global community must work together to keep global ghg emissions from exceeding approximately 250 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. The 250 metric gigatonne budget figure has been widely recognized as a reasonable budget goal by many scientists and organizations including most recently the International Geosphere Biosphere Program. The 250 metric ton number is based upon IPCC’s original budget number after adjusting for carbon equivalence of non-CO2 gases that have already been emitted but were not considered initially by IPCC. The practical meaning of this budget is that when the 250 gigtatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions have been emitted the entire world’s ghg emissions must be zero to give reasonable hope of limiting warming to the 2 degrees C. Since the world is now emitting carbon dioxide equivalent emissions at approximately 10 metric gigatons per year, the world will run out of emissions under the budget in approximately 25 years at current emissions rates. This is a daunting challenge for the world particularly in light of the fact that global emissions levels continue to increase.
A 2 degree C warming limit was agreed to by almost every nation in the world in international climate change negotiations in 2009 in Copenhagen because it is widely believed by the majority of mainstream scientists that warming greater 2 degree C will create very harsh climate impacts for the world. In fact many scientists believe that the warming limit should be lower than 2 degree C to prevent dangerous climate change and as a result the international community has also agreed to study whether the warming limit should be lowered to 1.5 degree C. The report on whether a 1.5 degree C warming limit should be adopted is to be completed in 2015. In addition, some scientists, including former NASA scientist James Hansen who is now at Columbia University, believe that atmospheric concentrations are already too high and that atmospheric concentrations of ghg should actually be lowered from their current levels of approximately 400 ppm CO2 to 350 ppm CO2 to prevent dangerous climate impacts. If, of course, there is a consensus that the current warming limit should be lower than 2 degrees C, the slopes in the above chart would need to be even steeper. (For a good introduction to the implications of the 2 degree C warming limit see the short video by International Geosphere Biosphere Programme)
Although there has been some very limited discussion of this in the US press, the staggering global challenge entailed by keeping global emission within a roughly 250 gigaton budget, not to mention a budget premised on 1.5 degrees C, does not take into account the additional undeniable need of high-emitting nations, states, and regional governments to take equity and distributive justice into account in setting ghg emissions reduction targets is not being covered in US media hardly at all.
b. The Justice or Equity Issue
Under any reasonable interpretation of what equity and justice requires, high-emitting nations and regions (including the United States federal government and US states) will need to reduce their ghg emissions at significantly greater rates than lower emitting government entities because of: (1) significantly higher per capita emissions in developed nations (2) the dramatically higher historical emissions of most developed countries compared to poorer countries, and (3) the need of poor countries to be able to aspire to economic growth rate that will get them out of grinding poverty. If equity is not taken into account in setting national ghg targets, poor countries will have their much lower per capita emissions levels frozen into place if national governments set targets based upon equal percentage reduction amounts. And so there are at least three very strong reasons why any target of a high emitting nation or state government must take justice into account in setting its emissions reduction target:
(1) Allocating emissions among nations to achieve a global target is inherently a problem of distributive justice. To not take justice into account in quantifying ghg emissions targets guarantees an unjust global response to climate change.
(2) All nations including the United States have already agreed to reduce their emissions based upon “equity,” not national self-interest when they ratified the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change.
(3) To not consider justice when a developed nation sets a ghg reduction target would be extraordinarily and obviously unfair to poor, low emitting nations, many of which are most vulnerable to the harshest climate change impacts and have done little to cause the existing problem.
The numbers in the above chart are based upon an equity framework known as Contraction and Convergence (C&C). The C&C framework consists of reducing overall emissions of ghg to a safe levels from all nations (contraction) and each nation bringing its emissions eventually to equal per capita levels for all countries (convergence). Although justification of the C&C framework is beyond the scope of this entry, we will argue in a future article that it is the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks receiving international attention and therefore should be adopted by the international community as it can be adjusted to take other distributive justice issues into account not expressly initially considered in the C&C framework such as historical emissions and the need of poor-developing countries to grow economically. Because nations can negotiate the convergence date in the C&C framework, it is also a good tool to negotiate a global solution to climate change. It is therefore the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks under serious consideration by the international community although there are other equity frameworks that have some supporters including the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework (GDR). (We will explain our position on these issues in much more detail in a future entry.)
Yet, for the purposes of showing the utter inadequacy of existing US federal government and US state commitments, the C&C framework is very useful because other equity frameworks which have received some attention and respect in international discussions of what equity requires of nations would require even steeper reductions for the US and US state governments. For instance the GDR framework would require the US to be carbon negative by between 2025 and 2030. The C&C framework is therefore a very non-controversial way of demonstrating the utter inadequacy of developed nations ghg emissions reductions commitments because other equity frameworks would require even greater reductions from developed countries.
The above chart demonstrates the implications of this recent science for US states as well as the inadequacy of the US federal government commitment in light of a total global budget limitation of approximately 250 gigatons of carbon equivalent emissions.. The steepness of the curves in this chart are driven both by the limitations of the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget and the need to take equity into account. (The Global Commons Institute has a computer graphic tool on its web site, the Carbon Budget Accounting Tool, that allows those who would like to consider alternatives to the 250 gigaton budget to visualize the effects of other budget numbers on the shape of the ghg reductions pathways needed, the differences in environmental impacts, and many other policy considerations.)
Like any attempt to determine what a ghg national target should be, the above chart makes a few assumptions, including but not limited to, about what equity requires not only of the United States but of individual states, when global emissions will peak, and what the carbon emissions budget should be to avoid dangerous climate change. Although different assumptions would lead to different slopes of the emissions reductions pathways that are needed to remain below the 250 gigaton global carbon limitation, the chart depicts very reasonable assumptions about what needs to be done to stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget while taking equity into account. And so, without doubt the US government and US state’s targets are woefully inadequate. To stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget, total US emissions which will be comprised of emissions from all states must achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Even the most aggressive US state targets are woefully short of this goal. In addition most US states have no emissions reduction target at all. The US will need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and this national requirement will will require US states to work together to achieve carbon neutrality. The US government could achieve the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 by relying on different approaches in different states, yet the individual states must assume they have a duty to limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions and in the absence of a federal plan that would allow them to do otherwise, states must achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the above chart is a good example of what is required of them in total.
II. The Second Chart-US States Existing Commitments Compared to an 80% Reduction By 2050.
A few states have set ghg emissions reduction targets of 80 % by 2050. The next chart shows the quantify of reductions that each state would need to achieve to reach an 80% reduction by 2050 although we have already established above that the most recent science would require each state to achieve carbon neutrality by 2o50.
What is notable about this chart is that most US states have made no ghg emissions reductions commitments at all, only a few have made a commitment of an 80% reduction by 2050 which is still not stringent enough to meet the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and that some states such as Texas need to achievehuge emissions reductions if the US is going to do its fair share of staying within the 250 metric gigaton carbon equivalent budget.
These charts help visualize the enormity of the challenge facing the United States federal government and US state governments in light of the challenge facing the world as understood by the vast majority of mainstream scientists. There has been almost no coverage of this reality in the US media.
As explained above, there are two kinds of issues that need to be understood to comprehend what governments must do when setting ghg emissions targets. The first is the need to set any target in light of a total global ghg emissions limitation or budget entailed by the need to limit ghg emissions to levels that will not cause dangerous climate change. This, as we have seen, is sometimes referred to as the carbon budget issue. The second is the need of governments to set their emissions target only after considering what distributive justice requires of them. This sometimes referred to as the equity or justice issue. Any propose ghg emissions target must take positions on
these two clusters of issues in fact they implicitly do this. Yet government rarely explain what assumptions about the carbon budget and equity and justice issues they have made when setting their target.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Nanjing China