Seven Features of Climate Change That Citizens and the Media Need to Understand To Critically Evaluate a Government’s Response to This Existential Threat and the Arguments of Opponents of Climate Policies.

I. Introduction
 

Climate change has certain features that other environmental problems don’t have that citizens and the media need to understand to effectively evaluate both any government’s response to this enormous menace and arguments made by opponents of government climate change policies.

 Opponents of climate change policies have effectively framed the debates that the public climate controversy has focused on by claiming that nations should not adopt climate policies because of scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts or excessive costs to the national economy of proposed climate policies. While proponents of climate policies have usually responded to the scientific uncertainty arguments and the excessive cost claims of the opponents of climate policies for over 40 years by calling on scientists, economists, or other technical experts. These technical experts have usually made counterclaims about the strength of mainstream climate science and the economic costs of moving away from fossil energy. In so doing, the public debate has usually ignored several ethical/legal principles that the international community agreed in 1992 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) should guide national responses to climate change despite the fact, as we will see, that these principles undermine the validity of the scientific uncertainty and excessive economic cost arguments that have successfully prevented or delayed adequate national responses to climate change for many decades.

As we will also see climate change has certain scientific features that make government delays in meeting their responsibilities under law potentially catastrophic. Therefore before discussing the issues that citizens need to understand to effectively evaluate climate change policy controversies, this article will begin with a brief description of some climate change scientific features that citizens need to understand to grasp the importance of the seven issues that are the focus of this article.

The seven issues discussed in this article are:

1. Because of certain features of climate change, many policy-making issues raise ethical/fairness questions that are practically significant for global prospects of preventing catastrophic climate harms.

2. Issues that arise in four steps that the setting of a national GHG emissions reduction target Implicitly takes a position on.

3. Because all CO2e emissions are diminishing the carbon budget that must constrain world emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, the speed of reducing GHG emissions as well as the magnitude of emissions reductions are crucial for achieving any warming limit goal.

4. Although the consensus scientific position on climate change is extraordinarily strong, no nation may fail to comply with its obligations under the 1992 UNFCCC on the basis of scientific uncertainty because all nations expressly agreed under the 1992 treaty to be bound by the precautionary principle.

5No developed nation may fail to comply with Its obligations to reduce Its GHG emissions to Its fair share of safe global emissions under the UNFCCC on the basis of cost to the nation.

6. Cost-benefit analysis is not an ethically acceptable tool for limiting a government’s climate change responsibilities.

7. Developed nations under the 1992 UNFCCC acknowledged a duty to assist developing nations with financing their adaptation and mitigation costs and have a moral/legal responsibility to help compensate developing nations for their climate change caused losses and damages.

To understand the issues discussed in this article, the following very simplified image of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will help visualize several scientific features of climate change that will be discussed in more detail later in this paper. This simplified image ignores other GHGs including methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, and water vapor which are sometimes included in the concept of CO2e or carbon dioxide equivalent.
 
 
The bottom ring in the bathtub depicts the approximate atmospheric concentration of CO2 (approximately 280 ppm) that existed before the mid-19th Century when increasing fossil fuel use began to raise atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
 
The middle ring in the tub is meant to visualize the current CO2 concentration which was 414 ppm CO2 in July 2020 (NOAA, 2020).
 
The top ring depicts the CO2e level at which atmospheric CO2e concentration levels must be stabilized to achieve any warming limit goal.
 
The space between the middle ring and the top ring is meant to visualize the amount of additional CO2e emissions that can be added to the atmosphere before the upper atmospheric stabilization goal is reached. This concept is referred to as the “carbon budget” or the number of tons of CO2e (all GHG emissions expressed in the common unit of CO2) that must constrain total global emissions if the international community will be able to successfully achieve any warming limit goal by stabilizing atmospheric CO2e concentrations at a level that will prevent warming greater than the warming limit goal.
 
This idea alone, as we shall see, and because GHGs and particularly CO2 are long-lived in the atmosphere, suggests an enormous challenge for climate change policy-making that is not a problem with other air pollution problems. Namely, before the atmospheric CO2e stabilization level goal is reached, global CO2e emissions must approach zero if any warming limit goal will be achieved. 
 
The multiple lines into the faucet are meant to depict that different nations have been more responsible than others for raising the atmospheric concentration of CO2e.
 
The following chart depicts the long-lived retention of CO2 in the atmosphere, a fact which has a profound significance for policy-making. Although approximately 80% of the CO2 emissions are removed by the ocean, forests, and other global carbon sinks in about 100 years, some of the emitted CO2 persists for tens of thousands of years . (Yale Climate Connections, 2010).
 
(Yale Climate Connections, 2010)
 
A carbon sink is any reservoir, natural or constructed, of carbon that absorbs more carbon than it releases. Globally the most important carbon sinks are vegetation, the ocean, and soils. Because the health of carbon of sinks affects the atmospheric concentration of CO2e and because carbon sinks can become less effective sinks or carbon sources in a warming world or upon a government’s failure to protect sinks, a government’s management of carbon sinks is an important element of its climate change response.
 
Critically Evaluating a Nation’s Response to Climate Change or Arguments Made By Opponents of Climate Change Policies
 
Under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change nations  agreed that: 

  • Nations have duties to adopt policies to prevent dangerous climate change and to take steps toward stabilization of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system (UN 1992: Art 2).

Although the 1992 UNFCCC did not define dangerous climate change, under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 197 nations agreed to adopt policies to keep global temperature rise in this century well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C (Paris Agreement, 2015).

Nations also agreed in the 1992 UNFCCC that:

States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UNFCCC, Preamble).

This principle is referred to as the “no harm” principle.

This paper now identifies seven issues that citizens and the media need to understand to critically evaluate both any nation’s response to climate change and the most frequent arguments made by opponents of government climate change policies.

1. Because of certain features of climate change, many climate change policy issues raise ethical/fairness questions which are practically significant for global prospects of preventing catastrophic climate harms.
 
Certain features of climate change require it to be understood and responded to as a moral and ethical problem. These features are:
 
  • Some nations are more responsible than others for the rise of atmospheric concentrations of GHGs.
  • The countries most vulnerable to climate change impacts are among the nations least responsible for the rise of atmospheric GHG concentrations.
  • The potential harms to the most vulnerable are not mere inconveniences but include potential catastrophic harms to health, life, and ecological systems on which life depends.
  • Those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts usually can’t petition their governments for protection. Their best hope is that the countries that are most responsible for climate change will comply with their duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions while complying with several other principles expressly agreed to in the UNFCCC which are discussed in this paper.  

(Sceptical Science)

Because of this, climate change policy-making raises a host of ethical or fairness issues that arise in specific policy-making steps that have important practical significance for global prospects of preventing dangerous climate impacts. Yet these ethical issues have frequently been ignored in the technical scientific and economic debates which have largely dominated climate change controversies visible to the public.

2. Issues that arise in four steps that the setting a national GHG emissions reduction target Implicitly takes a position on.

Every national GHG emissions reduction target adopted by a nation under the UNFCCC commonly referred to as a Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC, implicitly takes a position on four issues that raise ethical or fairness questions that have profound implications for policy-making. Almost all nations thus far have failed to identify their justification for their positions on these four issues (Brown and Taylor, 2015). Yet under the goals of the enhanced transparency mechanism of the Paris Agreement, nations should explain their justification for their positions on these issues because a nation’s NDC implicitly takes a position on these issues when they develop an NDC. Because some developed nations including the United States successfully resisted making the Paris Agreement enforceable in 2015, requiring nations to explain their justifications for their NDCs under the transparency mechanism under the Paris Agreement is the only tool under the Paris Agreement to put pressure on governments to improve their compliance with the Paris Agreement goals. For a more detailed discussion of the four steps , see (Brown et. al, 2018).

The four issues arise in four steps that all NDC policy formation processes must implicitly take a position on:

(1) Identify a global warming limit goal to be achieved by the GHG emissions reduction target or NDC.

Because under the Paris Agreement nations pledged to take best efforts to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5 C but no greater than 2.0 C, nations have some discretion to adopt NDCs that will achieve a global warming goal in the 1.5 C to 2.0 C. Yet because a nation’s position on any warming limit goal is implicitly a position on how much harm to others the nation deems acceptable, this decision raises questions of fairness and justice which are usually referred to under the term “equity,” a  concept which nations expressly agreed would guide their GHG policies under the UNFCCC and a concept which this article will examine below. Because there remains some scientific uncertainty about what temperatures will cause the most feared climate impacts that may be caused if temperatures trigger numerous “tipping points” or positive feedbacks that will accelerate the warming, the warming limit goal that the NDC seeks to achieve also raises profound questions of fairness to those nations and people most vulnerable to climate change impacts particularly if warming triggers any of the tipping points.

(2) Identify a global carbon budget that must constrain the international community’s GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal.

IPCC and other scientific organizations have identified different carbon budgets with different probabilities, usually expressed in gigatons of CO2e, available to achieve any warming limit goal. Because carbon budgets are usually arranged in probabilities of achieving a warming limit goal and some countries are much more vulnerable than others to climate harms, the selection of a carbon budget from among others that have different probabilities of achieving warming limits goals raises issues of fairness to the nations who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. In this writer’s experience, governments very frequently rely on carbon budgets that were calculated at least several years before that have not been adjusted to reflect the shrinking of the budget that has occurred due to emissions since the date at which the budget was calculated. For a discussion of how to identify a carbon budget that reflects the considerations that ideally should relied upon in selecting a carbon budget see, Brown et al, 2018. 

(3) Determine the national fair share of the global carbon budget based on equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities as agreed to in the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement.

Although what “equity” requires is an issue that ethicists have different opinions on, there is widespread agreement among ethicists that some claims nations have made about what equity requires of them in setting their NDC that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard, ethicists often claim one need not know what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. For instance, in response to some nations who argued that their high costs of reducing GHG emissions was relevant to what equity required of them, IPCC concluded that:

The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the well-being of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg.224).

A claim made by US President Trump for his justification for removing the US from the Paris Agreement was that the Paris deal was unfair to the United States is obviously false because the Paris Agreement allows nations to determine what equity requires of the nation in achieving the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.

To determine any nation’s fair share of any carbon budget is essentially a question of what “equity” requires of the nation in achieving any warming limit goal. Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity expressly requires of a nation to reduce its GHG emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its 5th Assessment report that despite some ambiguity about what equity means:

There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden-sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4.pg 317).

The IPCC went on to say that;

(T)hese equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality, and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII, Ch.4, pg 317).

Responsibility is understood to mean historical responsibility for the current problem not emissions levels per year.

(Columbia University, 2019)

This chart demonstrates that the US historical emissions are much greater than China’s despite China surpassing the US in total tons of yearly CO2 emissions several decades ago. Frequent claims have been made by opponents of climate change policies that because China is currently the largest emitter of GHG in respect to tons of emissions, it is unfair to require a nation such as the United States to make significant emissions reductions without acknowledging that this is not true in respect to historical emissions which are more relevant to determine which countries are more responsible for the current warming problem.

Another variable that IPCC concluded is a legitimate consideration for determining what equity requires of a nation in determining its NDC is per capita emissions. The following chart depicts that the US has among the highest per capita emissions among countries.

(Columbia University,2019)

The other two factors that IPCC concluded are relevant to a nation’s determination of what equity requires of it in formulating its NDC are “economic capacity” and “rights of developing nations to sustainable development.” These variables support the arguments of poor vulnerable countries that developed countries such as the United States should adopt more aggressive emissions reductions than poor vulnerable nations.

The following chart demonstrates that unless high emitting nations including the EU and the USA base their emissions reduction targets on what equity requires of it to reduce their GHG emissions, there is no hope that the international community will achieve any warming limit goal. The upper line in the chart represents the emissions reduction pathway that must constrain the entire world to achieve a 2C warming limit goal. The reduction curves of the four largest national emitters represent reduction pathways that these countries’ NDC would achieve. 

(Global Carbon Project, 2019)

Thus unless high emitting nations base their emission reduction target or NDC on their equitable share of any carbon budget that must constrain global GHG emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, there will be nothing left of the remaining carbon budget for lower-emitting developing countries to allocate to themselves when they establish their NDC and they will thus have to achieve zero emissions quicker than the higher emitting developed nations. Therefore requiring nations to base their NDC on their equitable share of a remaining carbon budget is both required by principles of fairness and practically indispensable for the international community to achieve any warming limit goal.

(4) Specify the annual rate of national GHG emissions reductions on a pathway to achieve any warming limit goal.

These two different curves of different pathways to achieve zero emissions by 2050 demonstrate that different pathways to the same reduction target will consume more of the available remaining carbon budget to achieve any global warming limit goal. 

Although citizens around the world have learned the importance of being able to visualize whether governments are flattening the COVID-19 infection curve to judge the effectiveness of policies to minimize the risks of the pandemic, such a curve of a government’s GHG emissions reductions is even more important to help citizens track and evaluate the effectiveness of a government’s climate policies because, among other reasons, any failure to reduce GHG emissions as planned in its emissions reduction pathway makes the global problem more difficult and expensive to solve as we will see below. The speed at which GHG reductions are made is extraordinarily relevant to evaluate a nation’s reduction policy because delay makes the carbon budget available for the world to use smaller and, as will see, makes the possibility of achieving any global warming goal more expensive and difficult to achieve.

(UCSUSA)

The hourglass on the left represents the available carbon budget for any warming limit goal at any point in time. Yet because all GHG emissions are reducing the available budget, the top half the hourglass on the right is meant to visualize the relevant carbon budget sometime in the future. For climate change policy, doing nothing or delaying to reduce emissions makes the problem worse for the world. Thus the delays by the United States in adopting policies necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals since they were established in 2015 has already made it more difficult for the international community to achieve the Paris warming limit goals. In addition, US President Trump’s justification for US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement of “putting America first” is indefensible because the US agreed under the UNFCCC that it had a duty to adopt policies that will stabilize GHG atmospheric concentrations at safe levels and US GHG emissions are making the problem more difficult for the world to achieve any warming limit goal,

3. Because all CO2e emissions are diminishing the carbon budget that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal, the speed of reducing GHG emissions as well as the magnitude of emissions reduction are crucial for achieving any warming limit goal.

Much of the public debate about climate change policies in the United States has focused on the quantify of GHG emissions needed by a date certain, such as 80% by 2050, without any acknowledgment that the speed of achieving the reduction target must be understood to evaluate the acceptability of how much of the remaining carbon budget the policies which will implement the reduction goal target will allocate to the nation. 

 In 2016, the United Nations “Bridge the Gap Report” found that to achieve the 1.5 C warming limit goal with a 50% probability, the world needed to reduce CO2e emissions to net-zero by 2045 (UNEP, 2016).  To achieve the 2.0 warming limit goal with a 66% probability, UNEP also claimed in 2016 the world needed to reduce CO2e emissions to net-zero by 2070 (UNEP, 2016). Given these estimates were based on carbon budgets available for the entire world before 2016 and did not include adjustments for equity that are particularly practically important for developed countries to do to determine their fair share of the available remaining carbon budget, developed nations would need to reduce their emissions to net-zero even earlier than these dates. 

In 2019, UNEP published another “Bridge the Gap Report” which quantified the profound policy implications of delaying global emissions reduction programs necessary to achieve the 1.5C  warming limit goal. On achieving the 1.5C warming limit goal the report said:

Thus a mere six-year delay of waiting from 2019 until 2025 to implement policies needed to achieve the 1.5 C warming limit goal increases the needed necessary global reduction rate for the whole world from 7.6 % to 15.5%. Yet, in this writer’s experience, there has been little media coverage of the consequences of governments’ delay in reducing GHG emissions to levels required of them to meet the Paris agreement’s warming limit goals. Although the US media occasionally comments on President Trump’s intention to remove the US from the Paris Agreement, I have never heard anyone from the US media comment on the harm to the world caused by the Trump decision to move out the Paris Agreement.

4. No nation may fail to comply with its obligations under the 1992 UNFCCC on the basis of scientific uncertainty because all nations expressly agreed to be bound by the precautionary principle.

More specifically the treaty in Article 3 of 1992 UNFCCC said:

The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects.  Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost (UNFCCC, 1992, Article 3.3).

 From the standpoint of ethics, those who engage in risky behavior are not exonerated because they did not know for sure that their behavior would actually cause harm once there is a reasonable scientific basis for concluding that an activity is dangerous. In fact, many ethicists hold that those who are engaged in dangerous behavior should shoulder the burden of proof to demonstrate that their behavior is safe before being permitted to continue the dangerous behavior. Hans Jonas, a highly respected philosopher on ethical issues that arise in policy-making that must face scientific uncertainty, has said in responding to scientifically plausible dangerous human activities in policy-making, that prophesies of gloom should be given priority over prophecies of bliss (Jonas, 1984). 

 

In this writer’s experience, many, if not most scientists and engineers, don’t know that who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof in regard to responses to activities that create scientifically credible concerns of dangerous impacts is an ethical issue, not a value-neutral scientific issue. This ignorance is compounded by the fact that most scientific disciplines usually follow epistemic norms or rules that determine when causal claims can be made which are designed to prevent a false positive, or a premature conclusion claiming the cause of an effect has been demonstrated. This phenomenon is referred to by scientists that scientific procedures are designed to prevent a “Type1 statistical error”  Although many, if not most scientists, in this writer’s experience, are aware that the epistemic rules of their discipline have been established to prevent a false positive, they are infrequently aware that when human activity is already creating a scientifically plausible risk of harm, but because the complexity of the problem, such as the case in determining the cancer risk of mixtures of carcinogenic substances, prevents a government from determining the magnitude of the risk of the dangerous behavior before exposure to the risk can be prevented, ethics requires governments to follow a “precautionary science” approach to determine the nature of the harm. For a discussion of these issues see on this website “On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.”  

A recent paper by the Breakthrough Institute claimed that IPCC has been underestimating the speed that some of the most worrisome climate tipping points could be triggered, including methane from permafrost, because the models on which IPCC relied could not integrate empirically-based permafrost risk melting rates because the melting was taking place from the bottom of the permafrost land mass up to 50 miles inland. (WLB, 2018)  If this was the case, ethics would require that scientists develop a precautionary approach to estimating the speed of the methane leakage which would rely on reasonable speculation of the timing of the methane leakage from the permafrost rather than ignoring the risk.

Some issues in environmental policy-making have relied on a “precautionary science” including the development of cancer risk levels for very low doses of known carcinogenic substances because of practical limitations of determining the carcinogenicity of substances at very low dose levels.

In addition to the express inclusion of the “precautionary principle” in the 1992 treaty, as we have seen, nations agreed under the “no harm” principle that they have duties to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from harming others beyond their borders. This principle of customary international law has been interpreted by courts to assign responsibility to governments to protect others beyond their borders not only when a nation knew for sure that an activity within its jurisdiction would cause harm beyond its borders but legal responsibility is triggered when the nation could envision that certain harms to others could result from the activities within its jurisdiction (Voight, 2008) 

As a matter of ethics, those engaged in scientifically plausible dangerous activities about which for practical reasons the uncertainties cant be resolved quickly enough for the government to take precautionary action should have the burden of proof to determine that the activity is safe. For this reason, a strong ethical argument can be made that opponents of climate change have had the duty to demonstrate following normal scientific epistemic norms in peer-reviewed journals that the world’s increasing GHG emissions and resultant atmospheric concentrations are safe.The scientific skeptic community have always had the option of publishing their claims in peer-reviewed journals but rarely have.

Scientific uncertainty argument has continued to dominate the debate about climate change policy adoption for almost 40 years despite the mountain of scientific evidence of human causation that began slowly in the early 19th Century and began significantly speeding up after measurements that began in 1958 by Charles Keeling on Mona Loa, Hawaii demonstrated rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

One day in September1997, while serving as Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US EPA Office of International Activities, this writer was tasked by the US State Department during negotiations of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to co-chair for the United States a negotiation on whether governments were willing to stipulate that the global warming, then already discernible, was human-caused rather than the result of natural forces. These natural climate drivers included, among others, several cyclical changes in the sun’s energy output that reaches Earth, due to changes in the sun’s orbit, wobble on its axis, and changes in radiation levels, ocean circulation and chemistry, movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, and CO2 releases as the result of volcanic activity.

A few OPEC countries led by Saudi Arabia at the start of the negotiation on this matter balked at agreeing to language that concluded that human activities were responsible for the growing climate change threats. Yet when I pointed out that their scientific representatives had agreed to the very same language under discussion in a meeting of  IPCC climate scientists the year before, all countries finally agreed to stipulate that the balance of scientific evidence supported that the increasing global warming the world was experiencing was human-caused. Although scientists from around the world in IPCC meetings had agreed to human causation, this negotiation was the first time the world’s governments agreed to state that science supported human causation of change. Thus, every country in the world, including the world’s petroleum states which had consistently blocked global action on climate change, agreed more than two decades ago that the ominous climate changes the world has been experiencing have been primarily caused by rising levels of GHGs in the atmosphere which are attributable to human activities. Yet opponents of climate change policies including some fossil fuel countries and related industries continue to support witnesses in public fora considering proposed climate legislation who claim that human activities are not causing climate change.

The reason for the universal international agreement among nations that humans are responsible for the climate change the world is experiencing is that the evidence of human causation is extraordinarily compelling despite the fact that the Earth has experienced warming and cooling cycles during Earth’s history in responses to natural forces. The confidence of human causation is very high because scientists: (1) can predict how the Earth will warm up differently if a layer of GHGs in the atmosphere warms the Earth compared to how the planet warms if the natural forces that have caused warming in the Earth’s historical heating and cooling cycles, these differences are referred to as “human footprints”,(2) have compared the temperature forcing of human GHGs to forcing of the natural causes of climate variations in “attribution studies,” and have concluded that only the forcing from human sources can explain the rise in global temperatures, (2) have known precisely since the mid-1880s the amount of forcing a molecule of CO2  generates in watts per square meter, (3) have known that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is from fossil fuel combustion because of its chemical isotope, (4) determined that the CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere is directly proportional to the timing and amount of fossil fuel combustion around the world, (5) tested these lines of evidence rigorously in computer model experiments since the 1960s, (6) these models have not only accurately predicted future warming, they have been run backward and accurately described past temperature regimes, .

(Skeptical Science)

The way the atmosphere heats up is one of ten lines of evidence referred to as fingerprints that support human causation of experienced warming. For instance, if a layer of GHGs is causing the observed warming, the lower atmosphere warms as the upper atmosphere cools. If variations in the sun’s energy reaching Earth are causing the warming, the upper and lower atmosphere warm at a similar rate. This has been tested and the conclusions support atmospheric GHG are causing the warming.


(Simple Climate)

This chart compares the warming expected from human activities in red, to the warming expected by natural forcing in blue, to the actual observed warming in black. Thus this comparison is strong evidence for attributing recent warming to human forces. 

The scientific confidence in the consensus view of climate change is also extraordinarily strong because, in 1988, the World Health Organization and the UN Environment Program Created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) whose mission is to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate science and socio-economic literature on climate change and make recommendations to the international community. Approximately every five years, starting in 1990, thousands of scientists, most of whom had been recommended by member governments for their scientific expertise, produce comprehensive three volume IPCC  reports.  The IPCC does not  do  research, it synthesizes the published scientific literature.

 

This chart depicts that IPCC’s conclusions about human causation of climate change increased in confidence in every report with the last report claiming that human cause of climate change was virtually certain, meaning at least a 95% probability,

IPCC has issued 5 Reports since 1990.The Reports are produced in three different working groups, WGI synthesizes the physical climate science literature, WGII  synthesizes the science on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability, and WGIII which focuses on  mitigation. This writer was a contributing author on a new IPCC Chapter in Working Group III in the IPCC 5th assessment on ethics and sustainability.

Scientific uncertainty arguments have continued to generate political opposition to government action on climate change despite the overwhelming strength of the evidence of human causation, that every Academy of Science in the world, and over 100 scientific organizations with expertise in climate science have issued statements in support of the consensus view, and at least 97 % of all scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science support the consensus view, and as we have seen, every government in the world agreed that climate change is human caused. .    ,

In “The Denial Countermovement”  sociologists Riley Dunlap and Araon McCright describe how some fossil fuel companies, corporations that depend on fossil fuel, business organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations successfully prevented government action on climate change by funding the climate change disinformation campaign which they explain sought to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream science (Dunlap, R., & McCright, A., 2015. p. 300).

On October 21, 2010, the John Broder of the New York Times, http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html?sort=newest&offset=2, reported, that “the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” According to the New York Times article, the fossil fuel industry has ” created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.”

Without doubt, those telling others that there is no climate danger heading their way have a special moral responsibility to be extraordinarily careful about such claims. For instance, if someone tells a child laying on a railroad tracks that they can lie there all day because there is no train coming and has never rigorously checked to see if a train is actually coming would be obviously guilty of reprehensible behavior.

This website includes 17 entries including three videos on the climate change disinformation campaign which both explain many aspects of this campaign and importantly distinguish the tactics of this campaign from legitimate climate skepticism (See, “Start Here and Index” Tab above under “Disinformation Campaign”).  Just as screaming fire in a crowded theater when no fire exists is not construed to be a justifiable exercise of free speech because the claim of fire will likely lead to recklessly damaging behavior, 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, industry organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations that have funded the climate change disinformation campaign because inaction will cause atmospheric  CO2 concentrations to rise and remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, likely cause great harm, and perhaps make it impossible to prevent catastrophic damages to human health and ecological systems on which life depends.

On this website, we have consistently acknowledged that skepticism is the oxygen of the scientific method and should be encouraged even on climate change issues. On the other hand, the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are deeply morally reprehensible strategies designed to undermine mainstream climate change science. For a summary of why the tactics are immoral see on this website:Insights from a New Book on Sociology and Climate Change: The Heinous Denial Countermovement

The immoral tactics have included:

(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth on some climate change science claims;

(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of settled climate change science;

(c) using think tanks to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty which have not been submitted to peer-review;

(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science;

(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science;

(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies; and

(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends.

We have frequently explained on this website that although skepticism in science a good thing, ethical considerations require that those making claims that conflict with a large body of peer-reviewed science should play by the rules of science by subjecting their claims to peer review. This conclusion is particularly strong when the scientific claim is about activities which are potentially very harmful.

 5. No nation may fail to comply with Its obligations under the UNFCCC due to high economic cost to the national economy.

As we have seen, all nations in 1992 when they agreed to be bound by the ” no harm” principle acknowledged that they had a duty to adopt climate change policies that would keep climate change from harming others outside their jurisdiction. A nation’s duty to adopt policies that will prevent climate change caused harms is not diminished  under the “no harm: rule because these policies will be costly to the nation or a national industry.

In addition, because climate change is now violating the most basic human rights including the rights to life and health, and national responsibilities to protect human rights are not excused because of high costs to a government responsible for preventing human rights violations, nations may not refuse to adopt climate policies necessary to prevent predicted climate impacts that violate basic human rights on the basis of cost to the nation.

A 2019 Special Report of the UN General Assembly found that climate change was already causing 150,000 premature deaths, a number which is sure to increase as temperature rises (UN General Assembly, 2019).

Climate change is also expected to increase infectious diseases through greater transmissions by bugs including mosquitoes and ticks whose numbers and ranges are expected to increase in a warming world.  Climate change is also expected to cause numerous other health problems and deaths to the world’s population in many additional ways. It is already causing massive health problems including loss of life from intense storms, droughts, floods, intense heat, and rising seas and the current numbers of these health problems will surely rise in a warming world. Predicted warming is also already creating international chaos and conflict from the over million refugees that have had to flee their homes due to the loss of water supplies needed for drinking and agriculture.

As horrific as these climate impacts, even modest amounts of additional warming threatens to surpass levels that will trigger various ” tipping points” that could very dangerously speed up the warming. A tipping point may be understood as the passing of a critical threshold in the earth climate system – such as major ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, the polar ice sheet, and the terrestrial and ocean carbon stores – which produces a steep change in the system (WLB, 2018). Progress toward triggering a tipping point is often driven by positive feedbacks, in which a change in one component of the climate system leads to further changes that eventually “feedback” onto the original component to amplify the effect. A classic global warming example is the ice-albedo feedback which happens when melting ice sheets cause more heat energy to warm the Earth rather than the ice reflecting the heat energy from the sun out into space.

(Business Insider)

Although the upper warming limit goal of 2 C in the Paris Agreement was based on an informal scientific consensus in 2015 that the tipping point feedbacks would not likely be triggered until warming exceeded 2 C, recently there has been some evidence that several tipping points of concern are showing signs of destabilization including methane permafrost (Anthony et al, 2018), arctic summer ice sheets are predicted to disappear in the coming decade, and the Greenland ice sheet has already past a point of no return (Morgan McFall-Johnson, 2020). These tipping points could trigger a domino effect tipping other feedbacks creating an existential crisis for much of life on Earth (Leahy, S. 2019).

Cost is also not an acceptable justification for a nation’s refusal to adopt climate policies necessary to prevent horrific climate impacts because nations agreed to the ” polluter pays” principle under the Rio Declaration in 1992 which says:

National authorities should endeavor to promote the internalization of environmental costs and the use of economic instruments, taking into account the approach that the polluter should, in principle, bear the cost of pollution, with due regard to the public interest and without distorting international trade and investment. (Rio Declaration, 1992, Principle 16)

6. Cost-benefit analysis is not an ethically acceptable analytical tool for limiting a government’s climate change responsibilities.

Many opponents of proposed climate change policies have argued that a nation’s response to climate change must satisfy cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Cost-benefit analysis can be a useful tool to determine how to maximize human preferences, but ethics ask a different question. Ethics asks us to consider which preferences are acceptable to have. 

CBA can be a useful tool to determine economic efficiency but cannot determine what justice requires of our choices. As a result, for example, few people would propose the government use CBAs to determine whether the government should decriminalize child prostitution or when rape is acceptable.

CBA also requires that government policy-making translate all values into commodity value. Using CBA to determine the acceptability of climate change policies requires the policy process to compare the costs of implementing policies to reduce GHG emissions to the economic value of harms avoided by the implementation of the policies, including the economic value of people who might be killed by climate impacts, the economic value of health free of diseases that will be avoided by climate change policies, the economic value of treasured ecological systems, plants and animals and many other things that ethical theory holds should not be valued only for their commodity value. Although, for instance, some plants and animals are sacred in some cultures, such as cows in India and Elephants in Thailand, using a willingness to pay to determine the value of climate harms avoided requires transforming sacred value into commodity value. Given that GHG emissions harm people and governments around the world, using CBA to determine the acceptability of costs to a government of reducing GHG emissions requires that the economic value of avoiding the harms everywhere that will be avoided by the implementation of the climate policies be quantified, a concept often referred to as the “social cost of carbon.”. This is usually calculated by governments without the acceptance of those whose interests will be harmed by determining the “willingness to pay” for protecting things that will be harmed that have no market value and by determining the present value of things that will be harmed in the future by discounting the values of things harmed in the future by judging what discount rate should apply, a decision for which there is no value-neutral way of proceeding. 

Since as we have seen, CO2 will last in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, and because climate change is capable of killing much of life on Earth particularly if a tipping point causes a cascade of tipping points, CBA used in climate change policy-making needs to face incredibly difficult challenges in determining what future harms will be created by GHG emissions and how to value these harms.

A question posed by a well-known economist to the audience at a conference I recently attended I thought demonstrated the absurdity of using commodity value to quantify the value of all potential climate harms. The economist asked the audience if they had any ideas about how to put a value on all human life if climate change killed all human life on Earth.

Support of CBA has been sometimes justified by some economists on the basis of utilitarian ethical theory which claims that society should develop policies that maximize human preferences although most philosophers hold that maximizing utility is not an ethically supportable justification for violating human rights.  

There are numerous other ethical problems with the use of CBA to determine the acceptability of climate policies. See, Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Program.  

Many subnational governments, including Pennsylvania for example, have used CBA to determine whether proposed climate policies are justified by comparing the costs of the policies to the economy of the government implementing the policy, such as Pennsylvania, to the economic value of the harms avoided by the policy only in the sub-national government. Yet this approach is ethically problematic because such comparison ignores the harms to the rest of the world that will be caused by the GHG emissions from the sub-national government.

7. Developed nations under the 1992 UNFCCC acknowledged a duty to assist developing nations with financing adaptation and mitigation and have a moral and perhaps legal responsibility to help compensate developing nations for their climate losses and damages.

The arguments made by opponents of climate change policies based on the cost to a government of adopting climate policies ignore the fact that under the UNFCCC, developed country Parties agreed to provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties in implementing the objectives of the Convention through, that is their mitigation costs (UNFCCC, Art. 4, 3). The developed countries also agreed under the UNFCCC that they have the responsibility to assist the developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in meeting their costs of needed adaptation to adverse effects (UNFCCC, Art 4, 4). The Paris Agreement also provides that the developed countries shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention (Paris Agreement, Art. 9.1). Yet the arguments made by opponents of climate change based on excessive costs to a nation of needed climate policies have not considered the costs that developed countries may be responsible for if they must contribute to financing the mitigation and adaptation costs of climate change to poor developing countries.

The “no harm” principle recognized in the UNFCCC also makes nations responsible for climate losses and damages to other nations caused by activities within their jurisdiction. Yet the fact that all nations have contributed to rising atmospheric CO2 levels and there is an absence of legal rules in the international legal system that prescribe how the value of damages should be allocated among all nations responsible for the climate change harms makes it unlikely that a court will find any country financially legally liable for a specific amount of loses or damages in any country (Voight, 2008)  Nevertheless because nations have agreed in the UNFCCC that they have a duty to prevent activities in their jurisdiction from harming countries and people beyond their borders, many of the most vulnerable countries have been pushing for the creation of a financial mechanism under the UNFCCC that would compensate vulnerable countries for climate losses and damages that adaptation cant remediate.

.At the 2012 Doha Conference of the Parties under the UNFCCC, the international community agreed to establish a formal mechanism for compensation for losses and damages which is known as the “Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damages (WMLD)”  Article 8 of the 2015 Paris Agreement made the WMLD an official negotiating body of the UNFCCC.  Since the beginning of negotiations of the WMLD, negotiations have gotten bogged down over how to finance compensation for losses and damages in developing countries as developed nations have stressed that any agreement on compensation should not be understood as establishing legal liability for the developed nations to compensate for losses and damages. Although developed nations will likely prevail in avoiding any language that could be construed as establishing their clear legal liability for losses and damages in developing nations, in this writers opinion, developed nations will eventually likely agree to create some mechanism, such as an insurance fund, to compensate vulnerable developing countries for some kinds of losses and damages in developing countries which developed countries will be expected to provide financing for. .

Financial support of developing nation’s mitigation obligations under the UNFCCC is not only legally required under the UNFCCC but also practically important because large-scale investments by developing countries are required to significantly reduce their emissions and very dangerous climate change will not likely be avoided unless developing nations reduce their GHG emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Financial support for developing nations by developed nations is also both legally and ethically required to meet the adaptation needs of developing countries.

Climate impacts, such as sea-level rise and more frequent droughts and floods, are already causing devastating effects to communities and individuals in developing countries. These impacts to developing nations are already affecting developed nations because, for instance, between 2008 and 2011, approximately 87 million people were displaced due to extreme weather events which have caused mass migration of refugees which are already destabilizing many developed nations, particularly in Europe (Brookings, 2019). Since 2014 serious drought in and severe weather in Central America has caused large migrations of refugees which have put pressure on the US southern border,  (Wernick, 2018). Because climate change caused refugees are already destabilizing developed countries who have been fleeing vulnerable areas of poor developing nations that have become inhabitable due to climate change-induced droughts, floods, loss of drinking water, and rising seas, developed nations have a strong practical incentive to assist developing nations with adaptation. If developed countries do not help finance adaptation needs in developing countries, they will experience growing conflict and stress caused by vulnerable people’s problems including the 150 million refugees that the World Bank predicts will be created by a 2C temperature rise by the end of this Century, a temperature rise that now appears to be almost inevitable (World Bank, 2018).

References

Anthony et. al., 2018, 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath Lakes, Nature Communications, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05738-9#author-information

Business Insider, 2020, The world could hit a tipping point that causes warming to spiral out of control — a scenario scientists call ‘Hothouse Earth, https://www.businessinsider.com/hothouse-earth-climate-change-tipping-point-2018-8

Breakthrough Institute, (WLB, 2018), What Lies Beneath, On the Understatement of Existential Climate Risk, https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/148cb0_a0d7c18a1bf64e698a9c8c8f18a42889.pdf

Brookings Institution, 2019, Climate Crisis, Urban Migration, and Refugees, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-climate-crisis-migration-and-refugees/

Brown, D., Breakey, H., Burdon, P., Mackey B., Taylor, P (Brown et al., 2018)  A Four-Step Process for Formulating and Evaluating Legal Commitments Under the Paris AgreementCarbon & Climate Law Review, Vol 12, (2018) Issue 2, Pg 98 – 108, https://doi.org/10.21552/cclr/2018/2/

Columbia University, 2019, http://www.columbia.edu/~mhs119/CO2Emissions/Emis_moreFigs/

Dunlap, R., & McCright, A., http://www.columbia.edu/~mhs119/CO2Emissions/Emis_moreFigs/ A., 2015. p. 300

Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change, The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Global Carbon Project, 2019, https://www.kivi.nl/uploads/media/5e57a2255eea1/Presentatie%20Herman%20Russchenberg.pdf

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014), 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge University Press), 317_

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC, 2019), Special Report on 1.5 C https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

Inside Climate News, 2014, Why A Carbon Budget Matters, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/20140922/climate-primer-explaining-global-carbon-budget-and-why-it-mattersen

Jonas, H, 1984, The Imperative of Responsibility; In Search of an Ethics for a Technological

 Kormann, C., 2019, The Dire Warnings of the United Nations’ Latest Climate-Change Report, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-dire-warnings-of-the-united-nations-latest-climate-change-report

Leahy, S., 2019   Climate Change Driving Entire Planet To Dangerous Tipping Point https://www.natiTonalgeographic.com/science/2019/11/earth-tipping-point/

Morgan McFall-Johnson , 2020,  Greenland’s Melting Ice Sheet Has Passed The Point of No Return, Science Alert, https://www.sciencealert.com/greenland-s-melting-ice-sheet-has-passed-the-point-of-no-return-scientists-say

NOAA, https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/

 NYTimes, 2019, Cyclone Idai Kills at Least 150 in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/17/world/africa/cyclone-idai-malawi-mozambique-zimbabwe.html

Rio Declaration, 1992, UN Doc. A/CONF.151/26 (vol. I), 31 ILM 874.

Skeptical Science, https://skepticalscience.com/Those-who-contribute-the-least-greenhouse-gases-will-be-most-impacted-by-climate-change.html

Simple Climate ,https://simpleclimate.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/greenhouse

Steffen et al. 2018, Trajectories in the Earth System in the AnthropoceneProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, http://macroecointern.dk/pdf-reprints/Steffen_PNAS_2018.pdf

Science Daily, 2019, Breaching a ‘carbon threshold’ could lead to mass extinction, https://slideplayer.com/slide/11848341

Skeptical Science, https://www.skepticalscience.com/graphics.php?g=86

UCSUSA, https://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Two-Degrees-Hourglass.jpg

United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), 2016, Bridge the Gap http://wedocs.0unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/10016/emission_gap_report_2016.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

United Nations General Assembly, 2019, Special Report on Human Rights and Climate Change https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Environment/SREnvironment/Report.pdf

United Nations Environment Program.(UNEP,) 2019, Bridge the Gap, https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/bridging-emissionsu

 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/convkp/conveng.pdf

World Bank, 2018, Climate Change Could Force Over 140 Million to Migttrate Within Countries by 2050: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/03/19/climate-change-could-force-over-140-million-to-migrate-within-countries-by-2050-world-bank-report

Wernick, A., 2018, Climate Change  Is Conributing  To Migration of Central American Refugees, The World, https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-07-15/climate-change-contributing-migration-chttps

Yale Climate Connections (2010), https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2010/12/common-climate-misconceptions-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide/

 

 

 

 

What the Media Should Learn From Its Intense Coverage of COVID-19 About How to Cure Its Failed Reporting On the More Devastating Threat of Climate Change

 (L.Thieblemont)

I. Introduction

This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19.  This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.

Continue reading

If some of the ethical and justice issues raised by climate change are so obvious that even monkeys would get them, why doesn’t the media, NGOs, and citizens spot these ethical issues in climate change policy formation controversies?

The ethical issues raised by arguments raised against climate change policies often raise obvious ethical problems such as the claim that a country such as the United States need not adopt policies if they will impose unacceptable costs on the nation or an industry discussed in this video. There are, however, many other examples of strong ethical problems with arguments made against proposed climate change policies that are not discussed in this video that are discussed on this website, ethicsandclimate.org. See the “index and start here” tab above on this website for other topics.

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Advocates of Strong Government Action on Climate Change Should Learn from Sociology

 

sociology and climate

This is the 3rd entry in a series that has been examining the practical significance for climate change policy formation of insights of sociologists about the failure of governments to respond to the enormous threat of climate change.

This series is reviewing a new book about the social causes of climate change. The book is Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives by Riley Dunlap and Robert Brulle, eds., Oxford University Press, 2015, New York.

In the first entry in the series, we described why sociological explanations for the success of the opponents of climate change policies and identification of deep ethical and moral problems with arguments made by climate change policy opponents largely have been missing from mainstream climate change literature and the media coverage of human-induced warming issues.

In the second entry in this series, we looked at the insights from sociology about the morally reprehensible climate change disinformation countermovement.

We now review what advocates of strong government action on climate change should learn from sociologists.  We note that the Dunlap/ Brulle book contains many other issues about the sociology of climate change than those discussed in this series. However, advocates of climate change policy should:

1. Pay attention to and educate others on  how civil society’s understanding of climate change issues has been manipulated by powerful forces, that is, help citizens see the wizard behind the curtain who has been projecting a false understanding of climate change matters.

wizard

In the first entry in this series, we reviewed the conclusions of sociologists summarized in the Dunlap/Brulle book about why most of the climate change literature relevant to relevant to changing the dangerous path the world was on assumed that the primary challenge was to motivate individuals to respond to the danger of climate change described by scientists. Therefore, many of not  most climate policy advocates focused on how to improve messaging about climate change policies or how to we incentivize individual behavioral change through the use of economic incentives.

We also explained that for over 30 years, proponents of action on climate change mostly focused on responding to the arguments made by opponents of climate change that government action on climate change was unjustifiable due to scientific uncertainty and high costs of proposed climate policies.

Because motivating individual behavior to engage in activities that don’t produce GHGs was assumed to be the major challenge to improve government responses to climate change, proponents of climate change policies have largely relied on the disciplines of economics and psychology, two disciplines which claim expertise on how to motivate individual behavior, to make policy recommendations on how to change individual responses to climate change. Yet sociologists warn that individuals almost always make decisions in response to the cultural understanding of the problem of concern. Therefore, large scale individual behavioral change on climate change is not likely as long as many people are influenced by the cultural narrative pushed by the opponents of climate change that climate change science is uncertain and that proposed responses to climate change will create great unacceptable damage to a nation’s economy.

Therefore, those working to improve government and individual responses to climate change should adjust their tactics to respond to the insights of sociologists that have concluded that citizens need to understand how the cultural understanding of climate change has been shaped by powerful actors who have used sophisticated tactics to achieve support for their position that climate change policies should be opposed on the basis of scientific uncertainty and unacceptable costs to the economy. It is not enough for proponents of climate change policies to simply make counter scientific and economic “factual” arguments to the scientific and economic claims of  the climate change policy opponents,  advocates for climate policies need to help citizens understand what interests are responsible for the disinformation that is the basis for the  false arguments made by opponents of climate change policies, why the tactics used the opponents of climate change policies are morally reprehensible, and why the arguments of those opposing climate change policies will continue to create huge injustices and immense suffering in the world.

As we explained in on this website many times, although skepticism in science is a good thing, opponents of climate change participating in the denial countermovement have engaged in a variety of morally reprehensible tactics that have included:

(a) lying about or acting with reckless disregard for the truth of climate change science,

(b) cherry-picking climate change science by highlighting a few climate science issues about which there has been some uncertainty while ignoring enormous amounts of well-settled climate change science,

(c) using think tanks and front groups to manufacture claims about scientific uncertainty about climate science which have not been submitted to peer-review,

(d) hiring public relations firms to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream climate change science,

(e) making specious claims about what constitutes “good” science,

(f) creating front groups and fake grass-roots organizations known as “Astroturf” groups that hide the real parties in interest behind opposition to climate change policies, and

(g) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists who get national attention for claiming that climate change is creating a great threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends.

These tactics do not constitute responsible scientific skepticism, but morally reprehensible disinformation (For a discussion of these tactics and why they are morally reprehensibility, see, An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?)

The United States and some other countries are nations where a culture of individualism dominates, cultural understanding which often hides the role that politically powerful actors play in formulating  public policy. On this issue, the new book on sociology and climate change states:

Psychological and economic perspectives on climate change can easily be misused to reinforce the societal tendency to focus on individuals as both the primary cause of, and solution to climate change. (Brulle, R. and Dunlap, R., 2015. p. 10 ) …..These disciplines  assume that addressing the human dimensions of climate change is in essence a matter of incentivizing, persuading and encouraging individuals to do their bit and to quit the habit of excessive resource consumption. This approach leads to an emphasis on addressing climate change by changing individual behavior via financial incentives or disincentives or through various communications efforts aimed at promoting lifestyle changes that reduce carbon emissions. (Brulle, R. and Dunlap, R., 2015, p. 10 )

The notion of autonomous individuals responsible for their personal choices is widely held among US policymakers, the media and the general public and is of course quite compatible with the assumptions of economics and psychology. But simply pursuing strategies to motivate individual behavioral change without helping citizens understand how the cultural understanding of climate change was manufactured by morally indefensible strategies, does little to change the cultural understanding of the problem held by many.

Proponents of climate change policies need to help citizens see who is the wizard behind the screen which has over and over again been making false claims about the lack of  scientific grounding for the conclusions that humans are responsible for creating huge climate change threats. Proponents of climate change policies need to achieve greater understanding of and focus on who is funding the false claims of the opponents of climate change policies, and how they are organized and communicate, what tactics they have and continue to use to propagate a false narrative, and how the actions of politicians who resist action on climate change are linked to the the climate change denial countermovement.

web of denial

In the last month,19 US Senators led by Senator Sheldon Whitehorse have begun to publicize the role of fossil fuel coal companies in misleading citizens on climate change (See Web of Denial).  This political effort has been made possible by the sociological work of Dunlap, Brulle, and McCritte, among others.  And so there is a growing body of sociological work that is now available to help citizens understand how the cultural understanding of climate change has been manipulated at the federal level in the United States and in several other countries.  However, additional sociological analysis is needed to better understand how opponents of climate change policies have  successfully manipulated the government response to climate change at the State and local level in the United States and other countries, matters which the Dunlap/Brulle book acknowledges.

Simply improving messaging in accordance with recommendations of psychologists  or following the recommendations of economists to create economic incentives to engage in less GHG producing behavior will not likely create strong citizen support for climate change policies unless citizens better understand that the narrative created by opponents of climate change policies about high levels of scientific uncertainty and unacceptable harm to the economy from the adoption of climate policies is not only false but has been manufactured by fossil fuel companies and other entities which have economic interests in continuing high levels of fossil fuel consumption. Advocates of climate policies need to help citizens understand that the wizard behind the curtain has been the fossil fuel industry, their industry organizations, free-market fundamentalists foundations, and the politicians who represent the interests of and are often funded by these groups.

As we have seen, in the first two entries in this series, the new book edited by sociologists  Dunlap and Brulle includes information  on how participants in the denial countermovement have prevented governments from responding to climate change by undermining the scientific basis on which claims about the urgent need to take action. The participants in the countermovement have attacked climate models, paleoclimatic data on which warming trends are based, modern temperature records, mainstream scientists who have claimed there is an urgent need to act, and manufactured bogus non-peer-reviewed climate science claims which they have then widely publicized in books and pamphlets, and then widely circulated the publications to journalists and politicians, tactics which have succeeded in getting the disinformation propaganda  widely distributed by friendly media. (Dunlap, R., and McCright, 2015, p. 306–307).

The climate denial countermovement has also blocked critical reflection on and  serious debate about climate change through other strategies which seek to promote the idea that civil society will be better off if climate change policies are not adopted. These strategies have included funding politicians that will promote the interests of participants in the climate change denial countermovement, placing people sympathetic to the interests of the fossil fuel industry in positions of authority in government institutions with regulatory authority, limiting the budgets of government environmental agencies in ways that prevent government action on climate change, orchestrating political opposition to climate change legislation through funding campaigns and lobbying efforts, and stroking the fear of individuals about adverse economic effects of climate change legislation (Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., 2015, p. 306–307).

As we have seen in the first entry in this series, opponents of climate change policies have also successively tricked proponents of climate change policies and the media covering climate change issues to focus on “factual” scientific and economic arguments while ignoring the deep moral and ethical problems with these arguments.

Advocates of climate change policies need to better educate civil society about how opponents of climate change policies are actually preventing government action on climate change. On these issues. sociological research can be helpful in explaining what has happened to prevent government action on climate change..

Sociologists can help citizens understand how the concentrated wealth of the opponents of climate change policies  have created an enormous inequality in the ability of different groups to participate in public decisions about climate change. For this reason, advocates of climate change policies need to publicize the details of how the opponents of climate change use the political processes open them to achieve their goals and why the opportunity for citizen involvement in climate change policy formation is often hindered by institutional structure and processes.

 2. Help civil society better understand the ethical and moral limits of the economic narrative discourses which are dominating civil society’s understanding of the acceptability of climate change policies.

The Dunlap/Brulle book explains how the discourse of neoliberal economic ideology has dominated political approaches to society’s problems.(Dunlap, R. and McCright, A. 2015, p. 304) This ideology holds that civil society is better off if market capitalism is left alone and unimpeded by regulations that interfere with the generate of wealth. Advocates of  neoliberal ideology value individual rights. private property, laissez-faire capitalism, and free enterprise (Dunlap, R. and McCright, A. 2015, p. 302). Because neoliberal ideology has dominated political life in many countries including the United  States, many if not most proponents of climate change policies have advocated for “market” based solutions to climate change such as carbon taxes or cap and trade programs. Yet market ideology often ignores moral and ethical questions such as on what justice and fairness considerations should the burdens of reducing GHG emission be allocated. Yet questions of distributive justice about which nations should bear the major responsibility for most GHG reductions at the international level have and continue to block agreement in international climate negotiations, as well as questions about which countries should be financially responsible for adaptation costs and damages in poor countries that are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest climate impacts and who have done little to cause the problem.

The failure of nations to consider act on what equity and justice requires of them to reduce the threat of climate change has been at the very center of the most contentious disputes in international climate negotiations (See, Brown, 2013, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity).

Many proponents of strong climate change policies that advocate for market based solutions have largely ignored the many obvious ethical and equity questions raised by climate change and as result the mainstream press has largely ignored these issues despite the fact that these issues are at the center of international disputes over climate change.  Also despite the fact that the positions that the United States and several other countries have frequently taken in Internationale climate negotiations have clearly flunked minimum ethical scrutiny, the US media has largely ignored the ethical and justice issues raised by the US response to climate change. (See Brown, 2012, A Video: Even Monkeys Get Climate Change Justice. Why Don’t Governments and the Press?)

The Dunlap/Brulle book acknowledges that the dominant scientific and economic discourses framing the climate debate “reinforces the existing socio-politico-economic status quo” and “removes moral and political considerations from the discussion” (Brulle. R., and Dunlap. R. 2015, p.12). Yet, unless the ethical and justice issues raised by climate change are seriously considered by nations when they formulate their international emissions reductions commitments under the UNFCCC, the international community is not likely to find a global solution to prevent potential enormous damages from human-induced warming (See, On The Practical Need To Examine Climate Change Policy Issues Through An Ethical Lens)

For these reasons, proponents of strong climate change policies should expressly integrate ethical and moral considerations into their analyses of climate change policies. Ignoring these issues will likely continue to be responsible for the lack of media coverage of these issues, despite the fact that there is an enormous need  at the international level for nations to respond to climate change at levels consistent with what justice requires of them if a global solution to climate is become viable.

In addition, every national GHG emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore, nations must face the question of what does fairness and justice require of it when formulating national climate policy, yet issues of justice and fairness are virtually absent from US media coverage of US climate policy. Also, the magnitude of GHG emissions reductions committed to by a nation is implicitly a position on how much warming damage a nation is willing to inflict on others around the world, a matter which is a moral issue at its core.

The failure to identify the ethical and moral dimensions of a nation, state, or regional governments GHG reduction target an invitation to hide profound moral and ethical issues behind scientific “factual” matters thus preventing public debate about what justice and morality require of governments.

3. Educate civil society about climate change issues in ways that will promote and sustain a social movement about climate change. 

Sociology studies how large scale social change is produced by social movements (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, 2015, p. 235). Given the civilization challenging nature of climate change, many observers of the failure of governments to respond to the threat of climate change have concluded that creating a strong social movement on climate change is the best hope of preventing catastrophic harm from human-induced warming given the enormity of the challenge facing the world. For this reason, proponents of strong climate change policies should work consciously to build and sustain a social movement to aggressively reduce GHG emissions mindful of what works to make social movements arise, become effective, and be sustained..

Sociology has developed an extensive and robust literature on the process of social change driven by citizen mobilization, including the development and advocacy of alternative policy perspectives, the creation of new organizations, how these organizations can affect both corporate actions and public policy (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, S.. 2015, p. 235).

The most basic way that social movements change the social landscape is by framing grievances in ways that resonate with members of civil society (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz,S., 2015, p.237).  Because a high percentage of the arguments made by most proponents of climate change policy have been focused on adverse climate impacts that citizens will experience where they live, while ignoring the harms to hundreds of millions of vulnerable poor people around the world that are being affected by GHG emissions from all-high emitting nations, along with claims that mainstream climate science is credible and has been undermined by morally reprehensible tactics, there is a need to make more people aware of:

(a) the catastrophic harm that their GHG producing activities are imposing on others around the world;

(b) that government action to reduce the threat of climate change has been consistently blocked by the disinformation created by the fossil fuel industry;

(c) that the campaigns of politicians who support the fossil fuel industry have often been funded significantly by fossil fuel money;

(d) that the fossil fuel industry funded disinformation campaign has resulted in almost a 30 year delay which has now made it much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm; and,

(e)  and that every day that action is not taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it makes the problem more difficult to solve.

Proponents of climate change policies need to stress the enormous damages that the fossil fuel industry is inflicting on poor people around the world and the gross unfairness of high-emitting nations such as the United States on international climate issues because  an understanding of basic unfairness will help build and sustain a social movement on  climate change

Social movements focus members of civil society on particular dimensions of social problems of concern and provide their publics with clear definitions of those problems, along with arguments regarding who is at fault and what options exist for solving their social grievances. (Caniglia, B.,S., Brulle, R. and Szasz, S., 2015, p.237)  For this reason,  proponents of climate change policies should seek to widely educate civil society about who has funded the numerous participants in the climate change countermovement and the morally reprehensible tactics that they have used.

Although sociologists have now documented which corporations, corporate industry groups, and free-market fundamentalists foundations and institutions have been most responsible for the spread of climate change disinformation at the national level in the United States and a few other countries, knowledge about who  is blocking climate change action at the state and local level has not yet widely been developed. Proponents of climate change policies should seek to assure that civil society understands what corporations, institutions, and foundations have been responsible for climate change disinformation and which politicians have advanced the interests of these groups at the national level and seek to better understand, perhaps working with sociologists, entities and politicians most responsible for resistance to climate change policies at the state and regional level.

To create and sustain a social movement on climate change, it is not enough for advocates of climate change policies to counter the false scientific and economic claims of climate change policy opponents, they must constantly seek to educate civil society about the causes of the grave injustices that climate change is causing if they seek to build and sustain a social movement on climate change.

References:

Dunlap, R., and McCright, A., (2015) Challenging Climate Change, The Denial Countermovement in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R, (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

Caniglia, B., S., Bruelle, R., Szasz,A., (2015). Civil Society, Social Movements, and Climate Change, in Dunlap, R., and Brulle, R. (eds.) (2015). Climate Change and Society, Sociological Perspectives, New York, Oxford University Press

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainable Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School

dabrown57@gmail.com

Reflections on the Failed US Media Coverage of COP 21 in Paris

 

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As the last two days of the negotiations are now before us, the US mainstream media coverage of the UNFCCC COP 21 in Paris continues to miss some of the most important issues that US citizens need to understand to evaluate the US government’s response to climate change. Although there has been ample coverage of President Obama’s appearance at the beginning of the Paris COP and abundant coverage of a few issues such as the fact that national commitments on ghg emissions reductions are not likely sufficient to limit warming to 20 C, there has been only sketchy coverage at best of the following issues:

  • The enormity and urgency of global ghg emissions reductions that are needed to limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees C. Only when citizens fully understand the limited carbon budget that remains to be distributed among all the nations of the world if the international community is going to retain hope of limiting warming to non-dangerous levels can they understand why all nations must increase their ambition in reducing ghg emissions to their fair share  of safe global emissions.
  • The evidence that 1.5 degrees C should be the warming limit for the world that all nations should seek to achieve rather than 2 degrees C. To the extent that the press has covered the controversy between setting a global warming limit at 2 degrees C or 1.5 degrees C. the press has left the impression as if this is simply a choice for the international community without explaining the enormous danger for many poor developing countries that turns on this choice. Unless citizens understand how some countries are put at much greater risk if the warming limit remains at 2 degrees C they cannot clearly reflect on their moral responsibility to act to limit warming to lower amounts.
  • The implications of taking equity and justice seriously in allocating national ghg emissions reduction targets for the United States including the fact that if the United States would take its equitable obligations seriously it would not only have to reduce its carbon emissions to zero by 2050, it would have to financially contribute to the costs of emissions reductions in developing countries.
  • The damage to the world from an almost 30 year US delay in taking serious steps to reduce the threat of climate change including the enormity of global ghg emissions reductions that are now necessary compared to the reductions that would have been necessary if the United States and the world acted more forcefully a decade ago or so earlier.
  • The ethical and legal reasonableness of requiring high-emitting nations including the United States to financially contribute to the costs of adaptation, losses, and damages in poor, vulnerable nations that have done little to cause the threat of climate change.
  • The enormity of growing costs for needed adaptation, loses, and damages in poor developing countries. Without a clear understanding of how adaptation and loses and damages costs increase dramatically as delays continue in making adequate dramatic ghg emissions reductions, citizens cannot evaluate the need of their nations to act rapidly to reduce ghg emissions.
  • The failure of  developed countries to meet their obligations to help poor vulnerable nations meet clear adaptation needs.
  • Why the commitment on reducing ghg emissions by the Obama administration, despite it being a welcome change from prior US responses to climate change, is still woefully inadequate.
  • The utter ethical and moral bankruptcy of the positions of opponents of climate change policies in the United States that are being presented in opposition to the Paris negotiations.

This blog will cover these issues in more detail in coming entries.

By:

Donald A.  Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

widener

dabrown57@gmail.com

US Media’s Failure to Acknowledge the Most Important Implications of the Pope’s Encyclical

popes

Now that Pope Francis has released his encyclical on climate change, strong responses from many climate change deniers has predictably emerged. Most of these attacks on the Pope’s message have focused on the Pope wandering from his area of authority in theology into science. Former Thatcher adviser Christopher Monckton’s retort is typical: “It is not the business of the Pope to stray from the field of faith and morals and wander in to the playground that is science”

The US media’s coverage, also predictably, has mostly focused on whether the Pope should have stayed in his theology lane.

Yet the most important potential message of the Pope’s encyclical is his assertion that climate change is a moral problem. Now, of course, many see the Pope’s claim about morality unsurprising but fail to understand the profound significance for climate policy-making of understanding climate change fundamentally as a moral issue. If climate  change is understood to be a moral issue, it would completely transform the way climate change policies have been debated in the United States for over three decades.

For instance, opponents of US government action on climate change have for over 30 years predominantly argued against proposed policies on two grounds. First there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action and secondly climate policies will destroy jobs, specific industries, and the US economy. For this reason, action on climate change is not in the US self-interest.

But if climate change is a moral issue, the United States may not look at US economic interests alone, it must respond to US duties and obligations to the tens of millions of people around the world who are  most vulnerable to climate change harms. Yet the US debate on climate change has made cost to the US economy of climate change policies, or economic impacts on specific US industries the key criteria for the acceptability of US action on climate change while ignoring what US ghg emissions were doing or threatening to do to tens of vulnerable people around the world.

In addition, if climate change is a moral problem, even assuming counter-factually that there is considerable scientific uncertainty about whether humans are causing serious global warming, those who are putting others at risk have duties to not endanger vulnerable people without their consent. This is particularly true on issues where waiting to resolve scientific uncertainty makes the problem worse or waiting makes the problem harder to solve, clear attributes of climate change.

It is the tens of millions of potential victims of climate change impacts that have the most to lose by waiting until all scientific uncertainties are resolved. Given that the mainstream scientific community now believes that the world is quickly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the moral problems with waiting until all climate scientific uncertainties are resolved are unfortunately becoming obvious. The United States should have acknowledged the duty to fake action on climate change 30 years ago once the US Academy of Sciences and other highly respected scientific institutions stated that human-induced climate change was a growing menace.

Even without the Pope’s encyclical, Climate change is a problem with certain features that scream for attention to see it and respond to it as essentially a moral problem even more than other environmental problems. These features include the following:

• First, it is a problem that is being caused by some high-emitting people and nations in one part of the world who are putting other people and nations at great risk in another part of the world who have often done little to cause the problem.

• Second, the harms to those mostly at risk are not mere inconveniences, but potential catastrophic harms to life and natural resources on which all life depends.

• Third, climate change is a problem for which those people most at risk often can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments. Their best hope is that those high-emitting nations and people causing the problem will see that they have ethical duties to the victims to avoid harming them.

• Fourth, because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere, all human activities are contributing to rising atmospheric concentrations and therefore a global solution to climate change requires all nations and people to limit their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.

Because climate change is a moral problem, issues nations must face in formulating climate policies need to be guided by moral considerations. They include, among many others, principles on what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, who is responsible for reasonable adaptation needs of those people at greatest risk from  climate damages in poor nations that have done little to cause climate change, should high-emitting nations help poor nations obtain climate friendly energy technologies, and what responsibilities should high-emitting nations have for refugees who must flee their country because climate change has made their nations uninhabitable?

Because climate change is a moral problem, high-emitting organizations, sub-national governments, corporations, and individuals also have duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.

In the international climate negotiations that will resume on November 30 in Paris, issues of fairness are already the key issues in dispute. Hopefully the Pope’s encyclical will help citizens around the world see the moral dimensions of climate change policies and respond accordingly.

The US press has for 30 years utterly failed to help US citizens understand the practical significance for climate policy if climate change is a moral issue.  Perhaps the Pope’s encyclical will change this.

Do US GHG Emissions Commitments Pass Ethical Scrutiny?

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A. The US GHG Emissions  Reduction Targets

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.

new book description for website-1_01Although 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.

D. Summary 

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.

References

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.

Brown, D. (2009) ‘The most crucial missing element in U.S. media coverage of climate change: The ethical duty to reduce GHG emissions’, ThinkProgress, 14 August 2009, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2009/08/14/204506/media-climate-ethics-reduce-ghg-emissions/, accessed 22 July 2014.

Brown, D. (2012a) ‘The US media’s grave failure to communicate the significance of understanding climate change as a civilization challenging ethical issue’, ethicsandclimate.org, http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/31/the-us-medias-grave-failure-to-communicate-the-significance-of-understanding-climate-change-as-a-civilization-challenging-ethical-issue/, accessed 22 July 2014

Brown, D. (2012b) ‘Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change Ethics in Light of a Thirty-Five Year Debate’, Routledge-Earthscan, New York.

Brown, D. (2014) 10 Reasons Why “Contraction and Convergence” Is Still The Most Preferable Equity Framework for Allocating National GHG Targets . http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/?s=contraction+and+convergence#sthash.9C4qxVSx.dpuf

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

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), (2013) Working Group I, The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers, http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf, accessed 22 July 2014

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007a), “Summary for Policymakers,” in Bert Metz et al., eds, Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007b) (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 23. Available
online at http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg3/ar4-wg3-spm.pdf.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2014) Working Group III, Mitigation of climate change, social and economic dimensions, Retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

Light, A. (2014) Communication with Donald A. Brown in response to question about the justification for US position.

Narain, S. (2014) The bad China-US climate deal, Business Standard, http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/sunita-narain-the-bad-china-us-climate-deal-11411230

Obama, B. (2014) ‘Remarks by the President on Climate Change’, Georgetown University, White House Press Office, 25 June, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/25/remarks-president-climate-change, accessed 22 July 2014.

Pidcock, R. (2013) ‘Carbon briefing: Making sense of the IPCC’s new carbon budget,  http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2013/10/carbon-briefing-making-sense-of-the-ipcc’s-new-carbon-budget/

United Nations (UN), (1992) The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development’, UN Document A/CONF.151/26.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (1992) 1771 UNTS 107; S. Treaty Doc No. 102-38; U.N. Doc. A/AC.237/18 (Part II)/Add.1; 31 ILM 849

UNFCCC (2014b) Lima Call for Climate Action, http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/lima_dec_2014/application/pdf/auv_cop20_lima_call_for_climate_action.pdf

US White House, (2014), FACT SHEET: U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy Cooperation, http://wGww.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/11/fact-sheet-us-china-joint-anG Resources Institute (WRI) (2014) ‘Cumulative Emissions’, Chapter 6 in Navigating the Numbers: Greenhouse Gas Data and International Climate Policy, date undetermined, http://pdf.wri.org/navigating_numbers_chapter6.pdf, accessed 22 July 2014

United States, 2015, US Cover Note on its INDC, http://www4.unfccc.int/submissions/INDC/Submission%20Pages/submissions.aspx

Questions That Should Be Asked Of Politicians And Others Who Oppose National Action On Climate Change On The Basis Of Scientific Uncertainty Or Unacceptable Cost To The Economy Given That Climate Change Is A Profound Global Justice And Ethical Problem

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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?

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Widener University School Of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

Four Tragic Omissions From US Media’s Coverge Of Obama’s Climate Proposals.

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On Monday June 2, the US press began to shine a spotlight on the predictable political warfare breaking out over the Obama administration’s new proposed climate change rules. Yet, there are at least four crucial facts about any US response to climate change that continue to be largely ignored by the US media coverage of this food fight. They include: (1) a 35 year US delay on climate action has made the problem extraordinarily challenging to solve, (2) US greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions are more than any country responsible for rise in atmospheric concentrations to present dangerous levels, (3) US ghg emissions not only threaten the US with climate disruption but endanger many of the poorest people around the world, (4) the Obama administration’s pledge to reduce ghg emissions is far short of the US fair share of safe global emissions.

For over 35 years the US Academy of Sciences has been warning Americans about the threat of climate change. In 1977, Robert M. White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote a report for the US Academy that concluded that CO2 released during the burning of fossil fuel could have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society. By the late 1980s, scientists around the world agreed that action by the world governments was needed to avoid the threat of climate change. In June in 1988, a conference of the world’s governments and scientists proposed that developed nations reduce their emissions by 20% by 2000. The US, virtually standing alone among developed countries, refused to commit to any emissions reductions targets citing scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy. The 35 year delay in taking significant action has made the task of avoiding dangerous climate change increasingly more challenging. In fact, most climate scientists are alarmed that the world is now running out of time to prevent very dangerous climate change. The 35 year delay has now created a need for extraordinarily steep ghg reductions worldwide. The longer the world waits, the more difficult and costly it will be to avoid dangerous climate change.

nw book advOpponents of US action on climate change loudly now argue that the US should not act until China commits to acts correspondingly siting that China is now the world’s largest emitter of ghg. Yet they conveniently ignore the fact that the United States is a much larger emitter of ghgs than China in per capita and historical emissions. The atmosphere is like a bathtub, it has a limited volume, and because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere it makes little difference where the emissions come from; the bathtub continues to fill. The US more than any other country has been responsible for filling the atmospheric bathtub with ghgs above levels that existed before the beginning of the industrial revolution to current dangerous levels. Given there is limited atmospheric space left before ghg concentrations exceed very dangerous levels, the international community expects the United States to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, it is not asking American to reduce China’s share.

The political fight in the United States often exclusively has focused on climate harms to the United States if it does not take climate action compared to the costs to the US of taking action. Such a framing ignores that it is tens of millions of poor people around the world who will be most harmed by climate change if high-emitting nations fail to reduce their emissions to their fair share 0f safe global emissions. For this reason, climate change raises civilization challenging questions of justice and fairness, a feature of climate change that the US press is largely ignoring while it focuses on harms and benefits to the United States alone. Climate change creates US obligations to poor people and places around the world that are most at risk.

In 2009, President Obama promised the world that the US would strive to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions by 2020. He did this knowing that the United States would need to adopt additional policies to achieve this very modest goal. Because the US Congress has refused to act, the Obama administration proposed the regulation this week that has triggered the political firestorm. Missing from the coverage of the proposed regulations, is that the Obama pledge on ghg emissions reductions falls far short of any reasonable judgment about what the US fair share of safe global emissions is. This is so because to have any reasonable hope of preventing dangerous climate change, the entire world must reduce its emissions by much greater amounts than the US 2009 commitment and the United States is at the high-end of national historical and per capita emissions. To having any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change the US and other high-emitting nations will need to reduce their emissions at much greater rates than the average for the rest of the world. Basic justice requires this.

 

 By: 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

IPCC, Ethics, and Climate Change: Will IPCC’s Latest Report Transform How National Climate Change Policies Are Justified?

IPCC on certainty of human causations images

 

I. Introduction

The international press has widely reported recently on some of the most dire conclusions of the 5th Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These warnings have included that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and that rapid and unprecedented cooperation among countries is urgently needed to avoid climate catastrophe. Yet, there has been little media coverage of an enormously important topic that is sprinkled throughout the recent Working Group III report as well as being the major focus of two new chapters largely dedicated to the topic. This is the issue of the extent to which national responses to climate change must be consistent with obligations entailed by ethics and justice rather than economic rationality and self-interest alone; matters which have profound practical significance for the acceptability of national climate change policies.

Given that most nations have been setting national ghg reduction targets on the basis of national economic interest rather than global ethical obligations, if the new IPCC chapters, one on ethics and a second one on equity in the IPCC Working Group III  report, are taken seriously by governments, this could transform national responses to climate change. These chapters should also be of value to civil society in criticizing inadequate national ghg emissions reductions commitments.

This is the first in a multi-part series that will examine the ethical and justice issues embedded in and raised by the recent IPCC reports.

Although this series will conclude that the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable for more clearly identifying ethical issues with the ways governments, some international organizations, and NGOs  have often discussed, debated, and made recommendations on climate change policies, the series will also make some criticisms of how IPCC has articulated the significance of the ethical, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change.

As we have explained frequently in EthicsandClimate.org, climate change is a problem that has unique features that demand that it be understood essentially and fundamentally as a civilization challenging moral problem. These features include the fact that human-induced warming is a problem that: (1) is being caused mostly by high-emitting nations, peoples, and entities that are putting low emitting nations and peoples at greatest risk who are often among the world’s poorest nations and people and who have done little to cause the problem, (2) the harms to those most vulnerable to climate change are not mere inconveniences but are often existential threats to life and the ecological systems on which life depends, and (3) those most vulnerable to climate changes’ harshest impacts can often do little to protect themselves from climate change’s harshest impacts. In fact, the victims’  best hope is that high-emitting nations and peoples will see that they have duties and responsibilities to climate change’s victims to greatly reduce their ghg emissions.

We have also frequently explained why an understanding of the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change has extraordinarily important practical significance for climate change policy formation particularly in regard to: (1) setting national ghg emissions reduction targets, (2) taking a position on adequate greenhouse gas (ghg) atmospheric concentrations, (3) determining who should be responsible for paying the costs of necessary adaptation and compensating those who suffer climate change damages, and, (4) deciding who should participate in decisions on proposed climate change policies that must be made in the face of some uncertainty about climate change impacts.

II. IPCC and Ethics, Justice, and Equity

In its first four assessments in 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2007, IPCC  relied almost exclusively on economic analysis of policy alternatives, rather than ethics and justice, in its guidance to policy-makers on how to develop climate law and policy.  In fact, in this regard, the AR 5 in the new chapter on the Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts, IPCC admits expressly that in prior IPCC Reports “ethics has received less attention than economics, although aspects of both are covered in AR2. (IPCC, AR5, Working Group III, Chapter 3, pg. 10)  Yet the treatment of ethics in IPCC Working Group III in AR2, is hardly a serious consideration of the implications of ethical and justice principles that should guide climate change policy because the vast majority of text in this report is focused on traditional economic analysis which assumes that climate policy should maximize efficiency rather than assign responsibility for reducing the threat of climate change, allocate emissions reductions among nations, determine who should pay for needed adaptation or compensate victims for  climate damages on the basis of ethical principles. In fact, the AR2 report includes many statements that would lead policy-makers to conclude that it is perfectly permissible to determine the amount of ghg emissions reductions any nation should be required to achieve solely on economic considerations. For instance, AR 2 says expressly that: “there is no inherent conflict between economics and most conceptions of equity.” (IPCC, 1995,  AR2, Working Goup III, pg. 87) Moreover. any fair reading of prior IPCC reports would conclude that policymakers were encouraged by IPCC to base policy on economic considerations such as those determined in cost-benefit analyses.

In light of this, the tendencies of national governments to adopt climate change policies on the basis of economic considerations that frequently ignore ethical obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change impacts is not surprising.  In fact, a strong case can be made that the IPCC in its first four assessment reports failed to adequately identify ethics and justice principles that should guide the formation of national climate change policy.

In this respect, AR5 contains some important breaks from the past. For instance, the new chapter on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts says:

  • How should the burden of mitigating climate change should be divided among countries? It raises difficult questions of fairness, and rights, all of which are in the sphere of ethics. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
  • Indeed, ethical judgements of value underlie almost every decision that is connected with climate change, including decisions by public, and private organizations, governments, and groupings of governments.  (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
  • If justice requires that a person should not be treated in a particular way–uprooted by her home by climate change, for example –than the person has a right not to be treated that way. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
  • 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)

In addition, the Working Group III AR5 report also has a new chapter on Sustainable Development and Equity which also contains a number  of conclusions that have important ethical and justice implications. They include:

  • Conventional climate policy analysis that is based too narrowly on traditional utilitarian or cost-benefit frameworks will neglect critical equity issues. These oversights include human rights implications and moral imperatives; the distribution of costs and benefits of a given set of policies, and the further distributional inequities that arise when the poor have limited scope to influence policies. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 8)
  • Given the disparities evident in consumption patterns, the distributional implications of climate response strategies are critically important. (IPCC, 2014, AR5,WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 9)
  • [I]t is morally proper to allocate burdens associated with our common global climate challenge according to ethical principles. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 16)
  • Equitable burden sharing will be necessary if the climate change challenge is effectively met. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 16)
  • [T]he eventual effectiveness of a collective action regime may hinge on equitable burden sharing, the absence of actors who are powerful enough to coercively impose their preferred burden sharing arrangements, the inapplicability of standard utilitarian methods of calculating costs and benefits, and the fact that regime effectiveness depends on long-term commitments of members to implement its terms. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 17)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • [T]here is now a consensus that methods of cost-benefit analysis that simply add up monetary-equivalent gains and issues are consistent and applicable only under very specific assumptions…which are empirically dubious and ethically controversial. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 54)

And so the new AR5 IPCC Working Group III report by including statements which conclude that self-interested economic justifications for national climate change policies are ethically problematic is both a profound shift from prior IPCC guidance on how nations should set climate change policies and could form the basis for strong criticisms of national ghg emissions reductions commitments.

In addition to the above provisions, the IPCC AR5 Working Group III report examines throughout the report many other climate change policy issues that raise important ethical questions. Sometimes the IPCC treatment of the ethical dimensions of these issues is acceptable and other times inadequate.

These other issues include: (a) an acceptable basis for burden sharing by nations to limit warming to tolerable levels, (b) temperature levels that could trigger abrupt climate change, (c) the unique vulnerability to climate change impacts of many of the world’s poorest people, (e) whether national ghg emissions reductions targets should be set on the basis of ghg emissions released within a national territory or on the basis of products consumed in that nation which have embedded ghgs created by their manufacture in other places, (f) the fact that extraordinary degrees of irreversible damage and harm from climate change are now distinct possibilities, (g) various frameworks for equitable burden sharing, (h) gross disparities in per capita emissions around the world, (i) whether national ghg emissions targets should be legally binding, (j) various issues entailed by a growing number of climate refugees, (k) fairness issues by nations that seek to create boarder adjustments or monetary penalties on nations that have no comparable emissions reductions targets, (l) funding for adaptation and damages in poor vulnerable nations, (m) the role of trading flexibility mechanisms in an international climate regime, (n) the remaining global ghg emissions  budget that all nations must live within to prevent dangerous climate change, and (o) the human rights implications of national climate policies.

We will explain in future entries in this series that how IPCC has handled the ethical issues entailed by these issues has sometimes been unacceptable or incomplete despite being improvements from prior IPCC reports.

nw book advOne common problem with IPCC’s treatment of the ethical dimensions of climate change policy making is that the text often leaves the impression that while policymakers should consider ethical questions in developing climate change policies they are free to ignore what ethics requires of nations. Particularly in some places, the text does not adequately communicate that were strong ethical duties for nations to not greatly harm others or the ecological systems on which life depends exist, they are not free to follow national economic self-interest in setting climate change policies. The text often reads as if ethics is an optional consideration along with economic self-interest when formulating climate policy.  We will examine this problem in more detail in future entries on this subject on this site.

References:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 1995, AR2, Working Group III, Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change, https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml#1

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

Contributing Author, IPCC, Working Group III, Chapter 4

dabrown57@gmail.com