Editor’s note: The following entry is by a guest blogger Sunita Narain who writes widely on justice issues and for the Business Standard in India. This peace is a reflection on climate change policy in the United States after the recent climate change national assessment of climate change impacts on the United States was issued in May. Although it is before the new Obama administration regulations that were issued this Monday, June 2nd, that proposed to reduc ghg emissions by 30 % below 2005 by 2030 for coal fired power plants. As we will explain in a future entry, the US commitments is still far short of what equity and justice would require of the United States despite reasonable disagreements on which equity framework should be followed by high-emitting nations. We look forward to Ms Narain’s reflections and others on how the most recent proposed US EPA regulations comport with justice Notice of rule-making was issued on Monday, June 2, 2014, This article formerly was published in the Business Standard.
Sunita Narain: Change of climate in the US
Climate change has a surprising new follower: the president of the United States. The US government has been the biggest hurdle in climate change negotiations. Since discussions began on the issue in the early 1990s, the US has stymied all efforts towards an effective and fair deal. It has blocked action by arguing that countries like China and India must first do more. Worse, successive governments have even denied that the threat from a changing climate is real, let alone urgent. US President Barack Obama, who came to power in his first term with the promise to deal with climate change, was noticeably coy about the issue in recent years.
However, in May this year, the US government released its National Climate Assessment, which puts together carefully peer-reviewed scientific information on the impact of climate change in the US. It makes clear that even the US is not immune to the dangers of climate change. In fact, many trends are visible and the country is already hurting.
It is important to understand what this assessment concludes and why its findings are important for the rest of the world. One, it makes clear that the increase in temperature is now established; the rise in temperature is the highest in the poles, where snow and ice cover has decreased. As the atmosphere warms, it holds more water, which leads to more precipitation. Add to this the fact that the incidence of extreme heat and heavy precipitation is increasing – more heat and more rain. This makes for a deadly combination.
In the US, the incidence of heatwave has increased. In 2011 and 2012, the number of heatwaves was almost triple the long-term average. The assessment also finds that in areas where precipitation has not gone down, droughts occur. The reason is that higher temperatures lead to increased rates of evaporation and loss of soil moisture. In Texas in 2011 and then again in large parts of the Midwest in 2012, prolonged periods of high temperatures led to severe droughts.
In addition, now it does not just rain but pours. The heaviest rainfall events have become more frequent. Moreover, the amount of precipitation on the heavy rainfall days has also increased. Many parts of the country have already seen flooding, and the assessment is that these risks are significant in the future. This is combined with the fact that the intensity, frequency, duration and the number of strongest (category four and five) storms and hurricanes have increased since the 1980s, the period for which high-quality data are available.
Therefore, the news is not good for even a rich and temperate country like the US. For a long time, there was an unwritten agreement that climate change would benefit such countries. It was believed that they would become warmer, with the result that crop-growing periods would increase – which, in turn, would benefit their economies. The National Climate Assessment makes it clear that even if specific regions benefit from climate change, this will not be sufficient or durable. The net result will be economic disruption and disaster.
The other welcome change in the report is its clear assertion – something that needed to be stated bluntly to the American people – that climate change is caused by human activity. It cannot be dismissed any more as natural weather variability. Not only has there been an unprecedented build-up in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases resulting from the use of fossil fuels, fingerprinting studies can also attribute observed climate change to particular causes. Even as the stratosphere – the higher atmospheric layer – is cooling, the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere are warming. This is clearly the result of an increase in heat-trapping gases released from fossil fuels that countries burn to drive economic growth.
The message is clear: the time for complacency is over. The gases in the atmosphere have hit dangerous levels, which is hurting the US economy. The effort must include adapting, and building flood- and drought-resistant agriculture and infrastructure. However, this won’t add up to much unless emissions from burning fossil fuels are cut fast and drastically.
This is where the report is the weakest. It says the current US contribution to annual global emissions is 18 per cent, but accepts that the country’s contribution to cumulative emissions is much higher. Importantly, it also accepts that it is this stock of emissions that determines the extent of global climate change. Till now, the US position on historical emissions has been a stumbling block in negotiations.
The question is: what needs to be done? The US still does not have a plan to cut its emissions based on its contribution to the problem. Its stated voluntary target is to reduce emissions by 17 per cent over the 2005 levels. This is too little, too late – in fact, meaningless.
For the moment, we should accept that the elephant in the room has been acknowledged. This itself should lead to change.
The National Academy of Sciences and its British counterpart, the Royal Society, have published Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, a very easy to understand primer on the science of greenhouse-driven global warming. Although there is not a lot new in this report as a matter of science, it makes the strong scientific consensus on human-induced climate change that has existed for some time clearer and more accessible for non-scientists particularly on the major issues that need to be understood by policy-makers and interested citizens. The report is written in simple language and filled with pictures and graphs which illustrate why almost all mainstream scientists actually engaged in climate change science are virtually certain that human activity is causing very dangerous climate change.
This report is ethically significant because:
a. It is a report of two of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, namely US National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. Because of the prestige of both of the institutions writing this report, those opposing actual climate change have an ethical duty to acknowledge that the scientific basis supporting action on climate change is entitled to respect. They cannot reasonably claim that there is no strong scientific basis for policy action on climate change or even worse that climate change science is a “hoax.” Which institutions have made claims that humans are engaged in dangerous behavior has ethical significance. If, for instance, someone is told by an expert in toxicology that chemicals he or she is discharging into a water supply will kill people, he or she has more of an ethical duty to stop discharging the chemicals until the issue of toxicology issues are resolved than they would if the claim about poisoning came from a religious leader or a tax accountant. When claims about danger are made by world-class scientific experts, as a matter of ethics, the burden of proof shifts to those potentially harming others to show that their behavior is not dangerous.
Skepticism in climate science should still be encouraged, but skeptics must play by the rules of science including: (a) subjecting all claims contradicting the mainstream scientific view on climate change to peer-review, (b) subjecting claims that humans are not causing dangerous climate impacts to review by scientific institutions that have sufficient broad interdisciplinary expertise among its members to review such claims against all the contrary evidence from all relevant scientific disciplines, and (c) acknowledging all the contradictory evidence. Given the enormity of harms to citizens around the world and future generations predicted by mainstream scientists, those who seek to undermine proposed climate change policies on scientific certainty grounds should be understood to have the burden of proof to show by high levels of proof that human-induced climate change is not dangerous.
b. The report includes clear explanations of the scientific evidence in regard to specific justifications for not taking action on climate change very frequently made by those who oppose climate change policies. These justifications and responses to them include, for instance:
Scientists don’t know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities?
Scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities from an understanding of basic physics, comparing observations with models, and fingerprinting the detailed patterns of climate change caused by different human and natural influences.
Direct measurements of CO₂ in the atmosphere and in air trapped in ice show that atmospheric CO₂ increased by about 40 percent from 1800 to 2012. Measurements of different forms of carbon reveal that this increase is because of human activities.
The recent slowdown of warming means that climate change is no longer happening?
No, recent weather is not evidence that warming is not happening. Since the very warm year 1998 that followed the strong 1997-1998 El Niño, the increase in average surface temperature has slowed relative to the previous decade of rapid temperature increases. Despite the slower rate of warming, the 2000s were warmer than the 1990s. A short-term slowdown in the warming of Earth’s surface does not invalidate our understanding of long-term changes in global temperature.
CO₂ is already in the atmosphere naturally, and so human emissions are not significant.
Human activities have significantly disturbed the natural carbon cycle by extracting long-buried fossil fuels and burning them for energy, thus releasing CO₂ into the atmosphere.
Variations in output from the sun have caused the changes in the Earth’s climate in recent decades.
The sun provides the primary source of energy driving Earth’s climate system, but its variations have played very little role in the climate-changes observed in recent decades. Direct satellite measurements since the late 1970s show no net increase in the sun’s output while, at the same time, global surface temperatures have increased.
If the world is actually warming, some recent winters and summers would not have been so cold?
Global warming is a long-term trend, but that does not mean that every year will be warmer than the previous one. Day-to-day and year-to-year changes in weather patterns will continue to produce some unusually cold days and nights, and winters and summers, even as the climate warms.
A few degrees of warming is not cause for concern.
Even though an increase of a few degrees in global average temperature does not sound like much, global average temperature during the last ice age was only about 4°C to 5°C (7 °F to 9 °F) colder than now. Global warming of just a few degrees will be associated with widespread changes in regional and local temperature and precipitation, as well as with increases in some types of extreme weather events.
These are only a few of the justifications that have been made by those denying responsibility to reduce the threat of climate change that are directly and clearly refuted in the report.
c. The report also has ethical significance because its so clear that policy makers cannot reasonably claim that there is no scientific evidence about the major issues of concern to the climate change scientific community. As we have explained on this website, policy-makers may not, as a matter of ethics, rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science once they are informed by respectable scientific organizations that people and organizations within their jurisdiction are likely harming others around the world. This responsibility to not rely upon their own uninformed opinions increases when there are easy to understand explanations from respected scientific institutions of the scientific basis for concluding that people within their jurisdiction are harming others. The new report from the US Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society is such a clear explanation. And so government officials have a strong duty to go beyond their own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions that have the breadth of expertise to consider the interdisciplinary scientific issues that make up climate change science.
d. Because politicians have an affirmative duty to rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm until peer-reviewed science establishes that the mainstream view is erroneous, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand the limitations of any politician’s views that opposes action on climate change on scientific grounds particularly when there are easy to understand explanations of climate change science such as that in the new US National Academy and Royal Academy report. The new report will enable the press to fulfill its journalistic responsibilities by asking more precise and clearer questions of those who deny the mainstream scientific view.
For these reasons, the new report is ethically significant.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor
Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law,
Editors Note: The following entry has been written by guest bloger, Michael Hoexter. This entry was first published on the Web Site New Economic Perspectives on February 27, 2014. We republish this article with permission of the author because it contains a number of excellent points about the ethical dimensions of climate change particularly in regard to who should be understood to be responsible for the failure of the United States to take adequate action on climate change. This analysis concludes that different parties should be differentially responsible for inaction on climate change. In addition, the article makes several compelling arguments for the urgent practical need to understand climate change as an ethical and moral problem. The article also explains why government action on climate change is indispensable to an adequate climate change solution, that is, why market solutions such as cap and trade or even carbon taxes will not alone create an adequate US response to climate change.
Degrees of Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
The climate crisis is an event with such profound personal and broadly social moral implications that many shy away from discussing the crisis itself let alone its ethical aspects. Via our society’s use of fossil fuels we are, if our combustion of these fuels remains unchecked and in addition we further destroy the carbon fixing capacity of natural systems, destroying almost all wealth, the likelihood of their being future civilizations, and even the possibility for existence for future generations. To continue ignoring climate change and effective climate action is definitely an après moi le deluge stance, an expression of callousness and self-absorption unsupportable by moral justification. Morality and ethics is here not an exotic preoccupation of a select group but a basic reality-check: does what we are doing make sense and promote the general ends to which these activities are devoted? How do we assess our own agency and role and those of others, in events that are occurring around us and will with very high likelihood exacerbate in the future?
In addition to the lulling effects of the organized climate denial industry as well as propaganda for fossil fuels broadcast in all media channels, one of the difficulties facing climate change activism is that, taking effective, durable action is not primarily an individual phenomenon but a massive group enterprise, ideally with full participation and leadership by governments. It is difficult for people to understand how a sense of personal ethical obligation, which people may or may not feel, can translate into effective action, given the uncertainties and variability of the participation of others and of the varying, non-existent, or contrary commitments of social institutions to the necessary changes in our energy system. With some justification, people on the ground believe they are, in their isolation, too small and insignificant to remake the energy basis of society and the economy.
Also, because the way to effective climate action is not clearly in mind, people who do not feel themselves to be in positions of power or influence might resent people pointing out, as I am doing now, their role, moral or otherwise, regarding climate change. We are living in an age where people feel that ethical appeals, more generally, are felt to be a hindrance to living one’s life unencumbered by obligations to others, that ethics competes with and impedes the light sense of freedom that is one of the sought-after states of mind in our time. Often this sense of freedom is defined by many throughout the developed and developing world as a choice of a variety of consumer goods for immediate or near-term consumption. The attachment to near-term pleasures can even turn into a form of climate nihilism, a philosophical rejection of ethics in favor of sensuous pleasure über alles. Nihilism’s formal severance from ethical considerations in turn leads ultimately to an acceptance or enactments of varying degrees of psychopathy/sociopathy and eventually to the collapse of civilization.
As of late, the North American climate action movement and outspoken climate scientists such as Michael Mann have focused on counteracting the massive propaganda and obfuscation campaign that has delayed climate action. Fingers have been pointed at the fossil fuel industries and their role in creating clouds of doubt and confusion around the findings of climate science, while continuing to profit from climate change denial and or fossil fuel addiction. The climate movement is pointing out that unconventional fossil fuel extraction techniques (fracking, tar sands excavation, deep-water drilling, mountaintop removal coal mining) are leaving or will leave toxic wastes and scars on the landscape as the fossil fuel industry gouges and lacerates the earth in search of combustible fossil resources. The freight rail network in North America is being turned into a conduit for crude oil from the landlocked Canadian tar-sands and the Bakken Shale, as construction timelines and permitting decisions are awaited for new pipelines. It appears that conventional oil has reached its peak and is, as well, controlled by sovereign oil companies not the oil majors.
Local groups and national environmental organizations are attempting to combat fracking operations, pipeline build-out and crude-by-rail programs either by reference to their local damages and risks, or too little, in my opinion, via reference to the impact of these activities on global warming. I am active in groups that are focused on halting the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industries including the Keystone XL pipeline and yet the climate movement is still figuring out how a focus on local damages and pollution translate to action on the global long-term issue. The phrase “leave it in the ground” has started to gain currency, though it appears not have yet become the central demand of any national campaign. Recently, activists in our area have created the slogan “NIMBY => NOPE” (“’Not in My Back Yard’ to ‘Not on Planet Earth’”).
While some of the defenders of the fossil fuel industries deny climate change, there are others like President Obama and those who support his energy policy, who simultaneously admit that climate change is a problem and continue encouraging the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and therefore its ongoing use. The MSNBC commentator Ed Schultz, known as a progressive, has voiced support for the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline as does his frequent guest, the supposed progressive and would-be challenger to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for President in 2016, former Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana. Schultz, to his credit, has been devoting considerable time on his air to the issue of the pipeline, and may be reconsidering his stance. As another MSNBC commentator, Chris Hayes, points out, the stance of Obama and others, that they are against global warming but for the building of new pipelines, are the protestations of fossil fuel addicts, who haven’t yet confronted their addiction.
And it is and will be very difficult for us, particularly here in North America, to confront our fossil fuel addiction as well as lessen our impact on the climate more generally, individually and also as a society as a whole. We are, all of us, in various positions along a continuum of lesser to greater individual or family climate virtue, whether by intention, by pre-existing preference, or by level of means, though in the developed societies, we are as individuals and families bunched towards the less virtuous end of the spectrum in terms of the stability of the climate. However, as many people know, individual and familial efforts even if all of us were paragons of climate virtue within our various means, do not add up to the systemic changes required to cut emissions on a grand scale across the economy. The vision of climate action as simply the accumulation of individual and familial choices overlooks the importance of public goods like infrastructure and the design and locations of cities and towns, which can only be changed by government action or other coordinated collective means. This fact alone reveals that market-based instruments (either cap and trade or carbon taxes) are more likely auxiliary policies rather than the central policy structure to transform our societies. Carbon pricing instruments, at least in the form of a gradually escalating carbon price, are “nudges” when we are needing in many areas a reversal of direction and a major concerted push, or time will have run out on our best intentions.
Chicken and Egg: Demand- vs. Supply-Focused Campaigns
Among those who have taken some interest in addressing climate change, there have over the last decade or so been discussions about whether a focus on curtailing the activities of the fossil fuel industries or a focus on reducing demand for fossil fuels is the right single or leading method to move society into a transition away from fossil energy. Economics is divided on the subject of what is the primary cause of business activity in general, though strangely in the area of curtailing fossil fuel use, almost everybody is a “Keynesian” in the sense of theorizing a demand-led business cycle. Keynes is the most influential economist who challenged the old dogma of Say’s Law that states that supply creates its own demand; i.e. “build it and they will come”. With, in theory, supply no longer controlling the business cycle, Keynes advocated stimulation of demand via government spending and/or tax cuts as a cure for economic depressions caused by what turned out to be a collapse in demand.
With fossil fuels, a large majority of economists that contemplate climate action advocate a price on carbon, either a tax or a permit to emit, which would reduce demand for the fuels without restricting supply. By contrast, this is the reverse of the current right-leaning consensus among policymakers regarding what to do about unemployment, which prescribe, almost exclusively, supply-side solutions. The unemployed or youth are said to lack the proper skills, so the focus is on skills training and educational reform would supposedly create jobs. Meanwhile few economists are advocating curtailing the activities of the fossil fuel industry or rationing fuel, both supply-side measures, to meet the challenge of global warming. This could be seen as a tribute to the relative political power of the fossil fuel industries and high-consumers of fossil energy (large corporations and the affluent) versus the power of the unemployed and youth; the former are treated, if at all, with gentle “nudges” while the latter are viewed as “clay to be molded” by elites.
Demand and supply-side interventions have different ethical implications, with ethics being the social discourse about how we manage our own agency or agencies (our “doing”) in the light of what is best or better for us or for a greater community or some combination thereof. Policy focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels starts from the premise that we are not able by internalizing legal-ethical mandates/strictures, foresight, and rational planning to change our behavior. Only after incurring a succession of monetary losses or anticipated losses from the “sin” tax or increased price do “appetites” for fossil fuel use diminish: consumers, as they have limited monetary resources, figure out for themselves the trade-off in monetary terms of one set of appetites for another and start choosing the higher benefit-to-cost satisfactions. The process of choosing between those appetites, or the restriction of the satisfaction of other appetites because of a lack of funds, leads eventually, in some, to a waning of interest in the targeted product or service. A supply-side restriction, such as rationing or cutting off certain types of fossil fuel supply (reducing overall supply), assumes that people are able to rein in their appetites via either their own internalized moral compass, or they accept the legitimacy of the external moral instance of government or the community to regulate their usage of, in this case, fossil fuels
The divide between supply- and demand-side policies is a byproduct of mainstream economic assumptions and academic disputes that some heterodox economists criticize, yet have not yet presented an alternative causal model of business and sectoral development. Presented in current contretemps between self-identified Keynesians and anti-Keynesians as an “either/or”, a longer view look at economic history suggests that the causal role of supply and demand are historical and sectoral snapshots of the complex unfolding of the actual economy. Due to the rapidity of energy transition required for human civilization to survive as well as the need for a change in energy systems, a combination of supply- and demand-side measures are required, together applied with as much force and speed as possible and effective. Supply-side restrictions of fossil fuels, for instance, would create a feedback loop where a restriction of supply will for instance act as a virtual “carbon tax” as oil companies charge more for their scarcer product. This should be seen as intentional rather than accidental, if one is advocating that both supply and demand be simultaneously curtailed. At the same time, government needs to supply or help design and subsidize the building of many of the connective pieces of a zero-carbon infrastructure. A new source or switch of suppliers is not well theorized by the supply-demand framework.
Even the institution and maintenance of an effective demand-side policy, advertised as the more moderate and “reasonable” solution, would in reality require a high degree of ethical commitment by the polity to effective climate action, more than the neoclassical economic fantasy of what constitutes the human being could accommodate. A behavior-changing carbon price (a tax or fee) of perhaps $150-200 per metric tonne CO2-equivalent emissions (with or without a refundable tax credit, sometimes called a dividend to blunt its regressivity) would require sacrifice differentially among economic sectors and groups, as well the need to change comfortable habits and ways of life. Such sacrifice would need to be openly acknowledged beforehand, requiring people, as citizens beyond their roles as consumers, to develop an ethical commitment to the large-scale task of preventing climate catastrophe.
Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
A political campaign on climate that focuses its anger and claims of responsibility only on the role of the fossil fuel industries and their political surrogates is naïve: their power is sustained by the number of paying customers available for their products, as well as their accumulated wealth from a 225-year history of fueling industrial growth via fossil energy. On the other hand, campaigns that focus only on demand-side policy, on the population’s demand for cheap, polluting fuel, tend to overlook the effects of the massive political-economic disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industries and their political surrogates on laming climate action once human-caused climate change was recognized internationally as a problem around 25 years ago. The assumption of demand-side policy is that our “appetite” for the products and services that fossil fuels enable is the driving force and therefore a wide-swath of the developed world is culpable for climate catastrophe.
Holding ordinary consumers in the developed world responsible on an individual basis for the continued dominance of fossil fuels either implicitly or explicitly is unfair and unrealistic. Some combination of an appeal to the moral sense of each individual as well as an appeal to macroethical justice for those who have delayed climate action and profit from climate inaction is required for climate action to be both heart-felt by many and also politically and economically astute.
Furthermore, there is a third category of people who have neither made executive decisions nor consumption/purchasing decisions that have had significant climate impacts. Some of these people live in poverty in the developing world or are too young now to have made significant decisions about how to live their lives yet. These people will pay the price of the decisions of others yet are or will become responsible for protecting the climate from further negative change and devastation of a conducive life-world for them and humanity more generally. Their responsibilities then start now or lie in the future.
I am proposing then that we subdivide responsibility into three categories or levels with regard to climate change, though this type of subdivision may be applicable with other large scale societal institutions and events. In delaying action on climate, some people have had a much greater role than others in prolonging our addiction to fossil fuels. As a parallel example, many legal jurisdictions, for instance, assign a higher culpability to drug pushers/dealers than to drug addicts, though unfortunately the latter group is in the United States subject to excessive legal penalties for non-violent drug offenses. The dealer/user distinction found in many legal codes should be carried over to the politics and ethics of global warming.
Around global warming then, at the current juncture in history, we can say that there are those who have primary moral responsibility for causing climate catastrophe, a much larger group of those who have secondary ethical responsibility for climate catastrophe, and a still larger group who are bystanders in terms of causality of global warming to date but will need to assume some responsibility in solving the climate crisis. The growth of a political movement will be in part by determined by how these relative responsibilities as we will see below will be addressed by climate politics and climate policies.
Historical Responsibility and Present-Day Responsibility
With large-scale complex systems such as energy infrastructure, an industrial economy, or an entire civilization, it is fair to distinguish between historical responsibility and ethical responsibility. The socially-constructed complex systems we live in are the product of generations of decisions and actions by our ancestors as well as those now living, some of whom may be retired from positions of power and authority. There are those who set up and reinforced the fossil-fuel-dependent industrial base of our civilization who were and are responsible but cannot be said, because of their lack of awareness of global warming and the continued dominance of fossil energy up to the present to be ethically responsible for global warming. John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Moses, Dwight D. Eisenhower and many others made crucial decisions in the design of American civilization. The American model of development remains one of the primary models for many developed and developing industrial cultures from early 20th Century onward that, of course, require a large supply of fossil energy with current infrastructure. These historical figures and others hold historical responsibility but they cannot be held ethically responsible for global warming as they were not made aware of the consequences of their actions at the time. We then can only discuss the ethical responsibilities for global warming of those in the current generation because a crucial piece of that ethical responsibility is having been made aware, in this case, by the geosciences and in particular climate science, of the consequences of maintaining the status quo in these complex large-scale systems.
Global warming emerged as a very strong hypothesis in the then-obscure scientific discipline of climate science in the 1980’s with mounting empirical data supporting the human role in increases in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide. The climate science community alerted policymakers to the danger in the late 1980’s with among other events, James Hansen’s dramatic testimony to Congress during the heatwave of 1988. From these interactions and subsequent meetings between policymakers, there eventually emerged in 1997 the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with the Kyoto Protocol and its emissions-trading (cap and trade) instrument selected as the general policy tool to reduce emissions worldwide. Emissions trading is an implementation of the economic idea of carbon pricing, the idea that an escalating carbon price will shape economic behavior to emit less greenhouse gases, while supposedly being able to meet an overall “cap” in quantity of emissions, set by policymakers. While the Kyoto Protocol had already been set into place as the primary solution to climate change, the historian of science Stuart Weart marks the point at the year 2001 where climate scientists had actually reached a consensus that human activity was warming the planet via GHG emissions and land-use changes, the former largely from fossil fuel use.
Having been alerted of an impending catastrophe in 2001, perhaps in terms that were soft pedaled at the time and filtered through the politics of national governments, it can be said in theory that all adults in the world were at that point informed enough to know that they had an ethical responsibility as citizens and consumers to address climate change. Even if the emissions trading instrument chosen by the UN was and is opaque and faulty, as it turned out to be, theoretically it was then and is now incumbent upon people as citizens to correct or amend climate policy.
However, in reality, a number of trends and events have intervened that make it unreasonable to have conferred responsibility upon all adults in 2001 when the climate science consensus was formed. Unfortunately, it has required a real degradation in the climate and a series of failures of the cap and trade instrument before it is reasonable to assume that ethical responsibility has been fully transferred, in varying degrees, to all adults in the world. In the intervening time between 2001 and today, the international and various national policy communities, outside of a few nations like the US and China, were claiming that it was on the road to “solving” the climate issue with emissions trading. I have devoted a good portion of my writing over the past decade to showing how insufficient and ineffective emission trading is and also a diversion from leaders’ and citizens’ primary ethical duties to act on climate change. It may be that the transmission of ethical responsibility is not yet complete until it is made abundantly clear that:
It is incumbent on everyone to act in some way to save the climate.
Existing solutions and actions are insufficient to address climate.
There must be a search for new solutions on political and economic levels to climate.
These new solutions must be implemented until such time as we see radical reductions in the emissions of warming gases.
This document is part of this transmission of responsibilities.
The climate change denial industry acts as an effort to delay the realization and transmission of ethical obligations as well as deflect accusations of immoral behavior or deficient character on those who continue to drive us toward climate catastrophe. By attacking the level of certainty that people may hold with regard to either the existence of or human causation of global warming, climate change denial has attractions for those outside the inner circle of beneficiaries from the fossil fuel industry who do not want to reckon with either changes in their own lifestyle or with the increased role of government required by effective climate action. Climate denial functions to blunt either the pangs of internal conscience or to deflect accusations of climate destruction or sluggish inaction.
As hinted at above, ethical responsibility with regard to taking action on climate is not discharged simply by committing to a putative or first-offered greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan, but effectively seeing through the execution of that plan. If the plan first selected is ineffective or not sufficient effective, either via prima facie analysis based on its highly likely outcomes or by empirical results, then continued subscription to the initial reduction plan becomes itself as unethical as inaction. One’s ethical responsibilities in this case are discharged by effective actions, not by expressions of good intention or commitments to climate virtue in the future.
Primary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
As discussed above, responsibilities and therefore accusations of culpability with regard to the impending climate catastrophe should not be equally distributed. Responsibilities are differentially distributed in society already by the different levels of power that people exert in relationship, largely, to their roles in the social institutions relevant to a given phenomenon. A fire chief is more responsible for extinguishing fires throughout a town than a baker or for that matter a trainee in the fire department. Now, 13 years after 2001 and 22 years after the 1992 Rio Summit that initiated international action on global warming, we can determine with a high degree of certainty that some people bear primary responsibility for at least the last decade if not the longer 22 year delay in substantive climate action. To bear primary responsibility means to have been exposed to the overwhelming scientific data and analysis on anthropogenic global warming and willfully and misleadingly denied or acted in ignorance of that consensus. Additionally primary responsibility for climate catastrophe falls on those who bear substantial responsibility by dint of economic positioning, scientific obfuscation, political patronage, political influence or political position as to the direction of our political-economic system, where that system effects our society’s energy and land use and therefore climate impacts.
The following categories of people then bear primary responsibility for the impending climate catastrophe, if they do not soon change their course by attempting to radically change the course of the institutions they are involved in (which is not always possible), agitate in the public sphere for immediate and thoroughgoing climate action and/or to publicly leave those institutions, transferring a substantial portion of their financial gains to investments in or contributions to effective climate action. Though they are primarily responsible for the continuance and acceleration of global warming, those primarily responsible for the disaster should not expect to be responsible for the solutions, though they should at least get out of the way of those solutions, for their sake, the sake of their children, and for the sake of humanity more generally. Some individuals will fit more than one category of the following:
1) “Denier-Leaders” – Political leaders that over the past 13 years to the present have promoted denial or unscientific doubt of anthropogenic global warming and its highly likely negative effects or have promoted, voted for, passed into law or administered local, regional or national government’s transport, land use and energy policy as if there were no ongoing catastrophic, human-caused global warming trend. Much of the current U.S. Republican Party leadership and Congressional delegation as well as the leadership of other right-wing parties in a number of countries including Canada and Australia are thus primarily responsible for the continuation of our global warming trend. These politicians can be viewed as spokespeople for the fossil fuel industries of their countries. The slightly more respectable “doubter” position has similar effects to “denial” in sensitive positions where the critically important instrument of government is either put to work to change the energy system or in the case of denier-leaders, used to reinforce the fossil energy status quo.
2) “Lip-Service Leaders”- Political leaders on the local, regional, national or UN levels that acknowledge human-caused global warming exists and is a problem but either a) support the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industries as they veer into “extreme” extraction techniques, b) support “fig-leaf” or ineffective climate policies such as most existing emissions trading schemes, c) continue to subscribe to the fiction that natural gas is a “bridge” fuel to a greener future or d) some combination a) , b) and c). Many of the center and left-leaning political party leaders and political representatives in the US and around the world fit into this category. Barack Obama is a leading example of category “d)”. Likewise the leadership of fossil fuel exporting nations such as Russia that acknowledge climate change but are sluggish to implement effective policies are similarly primarily responsible for global warming. The weakness of the policy proposals and leadership on climate of this group is a reflection of compromises that these groups make with climate deniers, with the power of the fossil fuel lobbies, and with the dominance over the past 30 years of neoliberal theories of government’s fallibility and the market’s infallibility. However their stance and the policy infrastructure they have erected are, in many ways, a dangerous diversion of attention from designing and implementing more effective and timely climate action that involves both direct investment by government as well as regulation of markets via rule-making and tax policy/direct carbon pricing. Both “Lip-Service Leaders” and “Denier Leaders” are avoiding the difficult though necessary confrontation with both the fossil fuel industries and with their own political constituencies. These leaders have turned away from the task of preparing their constituents to wean themselves off or pay more for fossil-dependent conveniences available in developed nations. Additionally these leaders have avoided providing their constituents with the public funding and programmatic guidance to enable them to devote themselves to remaking the energy and transportation basis of our societies for their and for future generations’ benefit.
3) “Climate Destruction Sponsors” – There are some extremely wealthy people, most of which have or have had substantial investments in fossil fuel extraction and sales who have funded climate science denial efforts by institutions such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute as a means of delaying action on climate change. These are the funders of the odd collection of scientists that Naomi Oreskes has termed “the Merchants of Doubt”. The Koch Brothers and the corporate leadership of Exxon/Mobil are the most famous of these funders, who also have almost their entire business empires devoted to fossil fuels. There are also a large tranches of funding that are donated as “dark money” via Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund directed in the direction of delay of climate action. These sponsors (who may also be profiteers from delay of effective climate action) cloak their activities in the rhetoric of “freedom” or the fictions of free market economics, distracting themselves from the physical consequences of our emissions trajectory as well as distracting others from their often substantial financial interests in climate destruction.
4) “Climate Destruction Profiteers” – There is substantial overlap between the “sponsors” group and those who profit from the destruction of the climate but what I am calling the “sponsors” have shrouded themselves in the ideological mantle of the dominant neoliberal political philosophy that idealizes markets. The Koch Brothers are of course also profiteers on the destruction of the climate as are major stockholders and share owners of large and medium-size fossil fuel companies. There are others, high level employees and strategists of major oil companies, who are driving the business of fossil fuel extraction and can no longer take the defense that they were just following orders. The same goes for passive fossil fuel investors, who have become the target of the “Go Fossil Free” fossil fuel divestment campaign. At some point, at lower level employees or small service businesses within the oil, gas and coal industries, the argument can be made that the existential needs of their families keep them in the business, rather than the accumulation of profits. At these lower levels of the organization or market segment, it can be no longer said that they bear primary responsibility for climate catastrophe and their work or business would simply be replaced if they withdrew bids for business, if they quit, or would be fired if they sought to change the terms of their work.
5) “Media Deniers/Equivocators” – Newspapers, magazines, television, and Internet journalism play key roles in telling people what they should think about and how they should think about it. While there are obvious prominent owners of right-leaning media, like Rupert Murdoch of Fox News and News Corporation who are climate change deniers or “doubters”, the media in general in the United States and other key countries has suppressed or downplayed the story of global warming, delegating it to obscure web-only blogs or leaving it out entirely of their offerings. Instead of a steady drumbeat of stories reminding people of the present danger, media outlets have tended to reflect the “comfort zone” of a political spectrum where one side is devoted to half-measures and lip service while the other is militantly against the idea of human-caused global warming because it contradicts their political-economic ideology. Many media outlets for too long have seen their work as trying to “split the difference” between two opposed sides on a number of issues, including global warming, rather than investigate the terrifying facts, report those facts as well as who is representing those facts more truthfully. In the United States, a critical role has been played by among others by environmental reporter Andrew Revkin, who at a critical point turned over his blog at the New York Times to largely serve as a forum for doubt and contrarianism about basic climate science. It cannot be underestimated how much the doubt sowed by supposed environmental journalists has distracted readers from the critical questions of how to deal with impending climate catastrophe.
6) “Characterological Contrarians/Merchants of Doubt” – The fodder for much media coverage of climate change has been supplied by the self-styled courageous “skeptics” that claim to challenge the climate science consensus that human activity is driving global warming on supposedly scientific grounds. Using scant data and ignoring most findings that suggest warming, these “merchants of doubt” have attempted to suggest that political motivations and/or sloppy science has led to the what would amount to a massive “conspiracy” of climate scientists to assert that humans are causing global warming. While in science, true skepticism is welcome, the climate “skeptics” play primarily to a political and media audience and some have received funding from the “Climate Destruction Sponsors”. While some deniers may be driven by a psychological compulsion towards contrarianism, this also leads to the “reward” for some of enjoying a great deal of attention as well as some financial support. Whether paid or simply driven to contradict for psychological reasons, this group has with the aid of the media and their sponsors, helped humanity continue on its destructive path vis-à-vis the climate, providing reassurance to the ill-informed and to those with more malevolent or destructive intentions.
7) “Fossil-Dependent Electric Utility Executives & Large Shareholders” – One of the prime consumers of coal and natural gas is the electricity generation industry, which consumes almost all of the coal produced in the world, and a high percentage of the natural gas. While many electric utilities have built their capital intensive infrastructure around the availability of fossil energy to drive their generators, utilities have had the choice to lead the transition to a zero net emissions energy system via the use of renewable and nuclear energy to generate electricity. Electric utilities have for the most part only under the duress of regulators moved towards renewable energy and energy efficiency. Some have made gestures towards acknowledging that we live in a carbon-constrained world, only to continue on with the fossil fueled status quo. New nuclear generation has not been an option in many areas, as there have been prohibitive technical, environmental and political challenges associated with building and operating new nuclear plants. Many utilities continue to undermine the spread of renewable energy, in part because it has meant a loosening of their monopoly on electricity generation. Unfortunately this has also meant with few exceptions that they remain prime supporters of the coal and natural gas industries.
8) “Propagandists of Neoliberalism/Neoliberal Government, Corporate and Financial Elites” – The discovery of global warming and attempts at concerted climate action have occurred within the neoliberal era, (1978 to the present). Neoliberalism is a political-economic philosophy derived from neoclassical economic dogmas and “Austrian” political philosophy that persistently holds up the idealized construct of “free markets” as infallible (and supposedly real or about-to-be-realized) and government as the nexus of fallibility in society. Neoliberalism’s over-praising of markets has supported an idealization of an increasingly deregulated private financial sector among political elites who came to believe that finance should lead the economy and was a magical fountain of wealth. Subsequently, economies in the last 30 years have become financialized, de-industrialized at the geographic metropolitan “center” where political and economic power is concentrated, highly economically unequally, and burdened down with mountains of private (corporate, financial and household) debt. Neoliberalism is the overarching current political-economic philosophy of elites, and some of these elites may believe that global warming is a problem (some are “Lip-service Leaders” or the corporate equivalent) but their neoliberal philosophy makes actual effective government action on climate to seem “beyond the pale” to them. Beyond these elites steeped in neoliberal dogma, the economists and pundits that continue to reinforce and reproduce the dogma of neoliberalism are equally responsible for removing the most important tool in the fight against climate catastrophe from the table, i.e. government committed to the public good. The following are the real effects of neoliberal governance and corporate policy that lead its propagandists and practitioners to be primarily responsible for climate catastrophe:
In the first 20 years of carbon policy, as noted above, policymakers’ almost exclusive focus on “market-based” policy rather than the combined political-economy as a whole including direct public investment and utilizing the policy space available to monetarily sovereign government in the area of fiscal policy more generally.
In turn, the choice of a market regulation that relies on a financialized concept (emissions trading) rather than a binding tax obligation. Emissions trading systems have been intentionally riddled with loopholes to enable companies to postpone cutting emissions as well as mute the carbon price signal that would favor the lower-emitting products or services on the market.
The politically- or philosophically-motivated devaluation of the reputation of government by neoliberal academics, business leaders and government officials has made much more difficult the effective deployment of government to address climate change. Governments not markets, particularly monetarily sovereign national governments, are the central institution to transform the energy and systems and social practices that require fossil fuel inputs.
The ballooning of private debt in step with worldwide ballooning of real estate/asset bubbles is a product of a financialized political economy that has shunned public provision of financial assets via government spending in favor of debt issuance by banks. Mounting private debt claims a portion of nominal economic growth for debt service and therefore increased emissions that contributes only to the welfare of the credit issuers, mostly large financial institutions or speculative traders and not to overall social welfare or, on average, net incomes of the borrowers.
9) “Austerity-Mongers” – A subset of neoliberals and the latest iteration of the neoliberal philosophy after the 2007-2008 financial crisis are the advocates of fiscal austerity, which is a hyperaggressive campaign of sabotaging government functions from within by arbitrary restriction of government spending, leading to the giveaway of public functions and assets to supposedly more efficient “market” actors, i.e. private corporations. The pretext for this fire-sale of the public sector is the intellectual and/or politically-motivated confusion in mainstream economics of financially-constrained local, regional, and Euro-Zone nations that do not control their currencies and the governments of countries like the US, Great Britain, Japan and many others that issue their own currencies. Austerity-mongers claim that all public entities are “running out of money” for social programs and public spending projects, when the latter can at will create more currency units to pay for necessary projects. Austerity advocates are knowingly or unknowingly the useful idiots of the bloated financial sector, as artificially limiting government expenditure and giveaways to public assets, makes more room for and dependence upon private debt issuance. While some austerity mongers, like David Cameron in Britain, claim to care about global warming and may believe that the fictional shortage of government money he promotes is a stand-in for the real shortage of atmospheric assets of the earth, the overall effect of austerity is to, as with neoliberalism more generally, to undermine the critically important instrument of government at exactly the time when it is needed most. One leader of the U.S. austerity drive, Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson, seems to have no position on climate change but nevertheless continues on his quest to hand financial dominion over the economy to Wall Street and scuttle the power of government to mobilize real assets by public spending for public purposes. The timing of this drive for power by the private financial sector, cloaked in the rhetoric of fiscal prudence, could not come at a more inopportune time for the collective good of the current and future generations.
10) “Leaders of Large Organizations without a Low-/Zero-Carbon Strategy” – Besides electric utilities, much fossil energy or electricity generated by combusting fossil fuels is consumed by large corporations, non-profit organizations, and departments/ministries of various governments throughout the world. These large organizations are some of the major customers for oil companies, gas and electric utilities, sustaining demand for fossil energy. While a high-enough carbon tax/fee would provide a financial incentive for organizations to transition off carbon-based energy, it makes sense for many to anticipate this move by starting an energy transition before it is a requirement. Those organizations that move sooner will have greater advantages and also contribute less to emissions overall. For some sectors this is much more difficult than others and therefore the obligation is greater for leaders of organizations in sectors where technological or organizational process choices already exist.
Secondary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
Those primarily responsible for accelerating and exacerbating the degradation of the climate do not generally make decisions in isolation about energy policy or the course of our society but as part of larger social systems in which there are many participants, workers, co-beneficiaries and counter-parties. The use of fossil fuels has made the physical lives of many in these countries much easier, as human labor is either aided or replaced by mechanical work fueled largely by fossil fuels. While these fuels may have brought into the production process primarily to increase profits for the owners of a business, the mechanical work of machines has had secondary benefits for workers especially with the advent of consumer durables and Fordism, the ability of those in the lower middle and working classes to afford major energy using devices like automobiles.
The powers and convenience conferred on poor, working-class, and middle-class individuals by participation in a majority fossil fueled energy system are great in comparison to the existence of those in “Dickensian” early industrial society and in comparison to those in underdeveloped societies currently. Much of the relative physical ease of those in developed nations would be much sought-after by those who must do hard physical labor to enjoy just a basic and uncertain subsistence in those underdeveloped societies. Most residents of the wealthier OECD countries (Western Europe, North America, Australia, Japan) and many of the wealthier residents of the less wealthy OECD (Eastern Europe, Mexico) and developing countries have secondary responsibility for impending climate catastrophe.
It is patronizing and fatalistic to assume that people in positions of relative but not absolute powerlessness, who nevertheless benefit from a high carbon-emitting society, are entirely bereft of the ability to chose and therefore of power. With that power comes moral responsibility, especially as their/our activities and choices lead to durable “memorials in the sky” in the form of carbon emissions.
So while there are those with primary responsibility for the ongoing climate catastrophe, who have had a central decision-making role, there are largely passive beneficiaries who can additionally be used as ideological cover by those with primary responsibility. The benefits that the services that this broader swath of the population enjoys from our energy- and carbon-intensive society can be put forward as a quasi-sacred duty, by those who defend the energy status quo. And many who enjoy these conveniences agree that these are indeed valuable goods or services offered by our energy-intensive society.
However, that these enjoyments are leading to a negation of all of our work and our desires to build a future for our family and loved ones should give us all pause. The question for each remains: “Which is more valuable: our current satisfactions or the satisfactions of many future generations?” It is this, what I am calling “secondary”, moral responsibility that can be the basis of action as citizens and consumers start upon the road of transforming societies and economies. Without recognizing this secondary moral responsibility, a movement for climate action will be inconsequential and unserious.
Prospectively, the movement for climate solutions draws from those who are secondarily responsible for climate change as political activists and leaders. This process involves recognizing one’s own agency and choices, an ethical process, and fomenting a broader discussion and subsequent actions that remedy to some degree the damages done to the viability of the earth for human life and civilization.
Tertiary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe
Furthermore, there are many people in the world, mostly the billions of poor in the developing and underdeveloped world, who may wish to enjoy the ease and benefits of a supplementary-energy powered society but have not yet enjoyed them. Or they may be satisfied with some version of their own current lifestyle with or without the addition of some of the conveniences offered by supplementary-energy powered technology. While they have had very little of the benefits of fossil fuel use, there are still matters of choice and moral agency which are entirely their prerogative, as the climate catastrophe sweeps the globe.
Those with tertiary moral responsibility, who aspire to a better life, have a choice to pursue a more or less carbon-intensive lifestyle and development path, even as they are by international agreements entitled to pollute more than those who pollute less. Secondly, as the effects of climate change mount, it is incumbent on them, as it is every individual, to help protect their families and their nation more generally from the effects of climate chaos. They could become powerful political agents and world political leaders, which is a process that involves moral choices, in favor of climate solutions that makes the earth more habitable for all.
Degrees of Responsibility Counteracts Psychological “Splitting”
While the notion of degrees of responsibility may seem obvious, this is a departure from the assumption of a “perpetrator-victim” or “transgressor-transgressed” model for relationships assumed by many who discuss the relative blame or varying moral rights with regard to underdevelopment and climate change. In politics and in other stress-ridden domains of life, there are tendencies for people to engage in milder and more severe forms of the psychological defense mechanism called “splitting”. In “splitting”, a defense that emerges in early childhood, children imagine that some people or things are “all-good” and some are “all-bad”. They are “split” because the child cannot see “shades of grey” in goodness and badness. Many of the fairy-tales of childhood are built around children’s attachment to “all-good” and fear of “all-bad” characters.
There are contexts in adult life where splitting is a cultural norm though one could argue it also has deleterious effects. The adversarial process in legal proceedings as well as political conflicts between parties are two of the main cultural institutions where a polarization of good and bad is encouraged in peacetime and in wartime or international conflicts, there is often a tacit acceptance of jingoism in public discourse. In many parts of popular culture particular in action and suspense movies, television and games, the polarization of good and bad becomes the prelude to various forms of combat and dehumanization of antagonists.
Splitting is particularly unrealistic in dealing with the differential responsibilities for climate catastrophe. The entire developed world is implicated by its dependence upon fossil fuels to function yet some have over the past few decades struggled valiantly to change this while others have fought to keep the status quo. Some who have fought for what they thought were climate solutions, have in my opinion and given the trajectory of emissions, been fighting for ineffective instruments and with the wrong allies (the finance sector). Even if we have been fighting for the most effective and appropriate tools to reduce emissions, we are still to some degree morally responsible for the impending climate catastrophe. On the other side, those who are primarily responsible are not necessarily “all-bad” but they still are primarily responsible for causing grievous harm to the climate that has been favorable to human growth and civilization.
Meeting the Evolutionary Challenge of the Anthropocene
Already a different animal than co-evolved species, humanity has initiated as a byproduct of its activity over the last several decades, if not before, a new geological era that scientists are calling the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene means that what marks this era in terms of geologic phenomena are the traces of human activity on the biosphere, the atmosphere, and even the geosphere, of which the mining and burning of fossil fuels is one of the most powerful agents. But human-caused climate change is only the most critical of a number of ways in which humanity is putting its imprint on the planet, having effects that are largely unintended by people with feedbacks that are out of the immediate control of humanity.
This places humanity in an unprecedented situation as a species. While many different animal and plant species can be said to shape their various ecosystems by activity “pre-programmed” by their genomes, no single species until human beings has had its own future within its voluntary control via the outsized impacts it has had through its tool creation and use and through the ability to coordinate social activity, think alone and deliberate together via the use of language. Humanity is both endangering its own future and has the potential to secure, within the limits of untoward events occurring in the universe or an upsurge in violent geological activity, its own future.
In order to meet the evolutionary challenge of an environment that no longer will accept the byproducts of human activity without destroying our future, we will have to care enough about ourselves and future generations to institute new systems and sets of rules that coordinate nationally and internationally our use of the environment, starting with the concentration of warming gases in the atmosphere. A recognition of our agency (our “ability to do”) and our ethical choices in the immediate past, now and in the future, is an important starting place for this evolutionary journey.
Several charts produced by the Global Commons Institute vividly demonstrate the woeful inadequacy of both the US federal government’s and US states’ commitments on climate change in light of the most recent climate change science.
These charts are extremely important because there is virtually no discussion in the US press of the utter and undeniable inadequacy of commitments on climate change made by the US federal and state governments.
These charts help visualize complex information that is not well understood by the vast majority of US citizens, yet these facts must be understood to comprehend the utter inadequacy of the US federal government and US state governments response to climate change. Thus, these charts help explain both why the US commitment to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 as well as targets that have been set by even those US states which have shown some leadership on climate change must now be understood as utterly inadequate in light of the most recent climate change science.
As we shall see below, in setting a government target for ghg emissions two clusters of issues need to be considered which have largely been ignored when US policy makers have set ghg emissions targets. One is the issue of global carbon budgets for the entire world needed to prevent dangerous climate change. We will call this the carbon budget issue. The second is the unquestionable need of all governments to set a target in light of that government’s fair share of safe global emissions. This is required by distributive justice. We will call this the equity or justice issue. All ghg emissions targets are implicitly a positions on the carbon budget issue and the equity and justice issue, yet policy makers rarely discuss their implicit positions on these issues and the US media is largely not covering the budget and justice issues implicit in any US policy on climate change. Any entities identifying a ghg emissions reduction target must be expected to expressly identify their assumptions about what remaining carbon budget and justice and equity consideration were made in setting the target.
I. The First Chart-US States’ Emissions Reductions Commitments Required to Prevent Dangerous Climate Change and Adjusted To Take Equity Into Account.
The following chart depicts what US states emissions commitments should be to prevent dangerous climate change in light of the most recent climate change science and the need to take justice into account in setting ghg emissions targets. This chart can be examined in more detail on the Global Commons Institute website at http://www.gci.org.uk/images/Don_Brown_All_State_draft_[complete].pdf Clinking on this URL should access a pdf file that will allow for a closer inspection of this chart which can be further enhanced by using the zoom function.
What is most notable about this chart is that the US federal government and US state g0vernments will need to reduce their ghg emissions extraordinarily steeply in the next few decades, far beyond what has been committed to. This chart, in combination with the next chart, helps visualize why the current commitments of even those US states which have demonstrated some considerable leadership on climate change need to be increased to levels that represent the state’s fair share of safe global emissions.
a. The Carbon Budget Issue
These steep reductions commitments are needed in light of the most recent scientific understanding of the climate problem facing the world. A carbon emissions budget for the entire world is needed to prevent dangerous climate change and was identified by IPCC in 2013. This budget is of profound significance for national and state and regional ghg emissions reductions targets yet it is infrequently being discussed in global media and has virtually been completely ignored by the US media. To give the world an approximately 66% chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees C, the entire global community must work together to keep global ghg emissions from exceeding approximately 250 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. The 250 metric gigatonne budget figure has been widely recognized as a reasonable budget goal by many scientists and organizations including most recently the International Geosphere Biosphere Program. The 250 metric ton number is based upon IPCC’s original budget number after adjusting for carbon equivalence of non-CO2 gases that have already been emitted but were not considered initially by IPCC. The practical meaning of this budget is that when the 250 gigtatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions have been emitted the entire world’s ghg emissions must be zero to give reasonable hope of limiting warming to the 2 degrees C. Since the world is now emitting carbon dioxide equivalent emissions at approximately 10 metric gigatons per year, the world will run out of emissions under the budget in approximately 25 years at current emissions rates. This is a daunting challenge for the world particularly in light of the fact that global emissions levels continue to increase.
A 2 degree C warming limit was agreed to by almost every nation in the world in international climate change negotiations in 2009 in Copenhagen because it is widely believed by the majority of mainstream scientists that warming greater 2 degree C will create very harsh climate impacts for the world. In fact many scientists believe that the warming limit should be lower than 2 degree C to prevent dangerous climate change and as a result the international community has also agreed to study whether the warming limit should be lowered to 1.5 degree C. The report on whether a 1.5 degree C warming limit should be adopted is to be completed in 2015. In addition, some scientists, including former NASA scientist James Hansen who is now at Columbia University, believe that atmospheric concentrations are already too high and that atmospheric concentrations of ghg should actually be lowered from their current levels of approximately 400 ppm CO2 to 350 ppm CO2 to prevent dangerous climate impacts. If, of course, there is a consensus that the current warming limit should be lower than 2 degrees C, the slopes in the above chart would need to be even steeper. (For a good introduction to the implications of the 2 degree C warming limit see the short video by International Geosphere Biosphere Programme)
Although there has been some very limited discussion of this in the US press, the staggering global challenge entailed by keeping global emission within a roughly 250 gigaton budget, not to mention a budget premised on 1.5 degrees C, does not take into account the additional undeniable need of high-emitting nations, states, and regional governments to take equity and distributive justice into account in setting ghg emissions reduction targets is not being covered in US media hardly at all.
b. The Justice or Equity Issue
Under any reasonable interpretation of what equity and justice requires, high-emitting nations and regions (including the United States federal government and US states) will need to reduce their ghg emissions at significantly greater rates than lower emitting government entities because of: (1) significantly higher per capita emissions in developed nations (2) the dramatically higher historical emissions of most developed countries compared to poorer countries, and (3) the need of poor countries to be able to aspire to economic growth rate that will get them out of grinding poverty. If equity is not taken into account in setting national ghg targets, poor countries will have their much lower per capita emissions levels frozen into place if national governments set targets based upon equal percentage reduction amounts. And so there are at least three very strong reasons why any target of a high emitting nation or state government must take justice into account in setting its emissions reduction target:
(1) Allocating emissions among nations to achieve a global target is inherently a problem of distributive justice. To not take justice into account in quantifying ghg emissions targets guarantees an unjust global response to climate change.
(2) All nations including the United States have already agreed to reduce their emissions based upon “equity,” not national self-interest when they ratified the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change.
(3) To not consider justice when a developed nation sets a ghg reduction target would be extraordinarily and obviously unfair to poor, low emitting nations, many of which are most vulnerable to the harshest climate change impacts and have done little to cause the existing problem.
The numbers in the above chart are based upon an equity framework known as Contraction and Convergence (C&C). The C&C framework consists of reducing overall emissions of ghg to a safe levels from all nations (contraction) and each nation bringing its emissions eventually to equal per capita levels for all countries (convergence). Although justification of the C&C framework is beyond the scope of this entry, we will argue in a future article that it is the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks receiving international attention and therefore should be adopted by the international community as it can be adjusted to take other distributive justice issues into account not expressly initially considered in the C&C framework such as historical emissions and the need of poor-developing countries to grow economically. Because nations can negotiate the convergence date in the C&C framework, it is also a good tool to negotiate a global solution to climate change. It is therefore the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks under serious consideration by the international community although there are other equity frameworks that have some supporters including the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework (GDR). (We will explain our position on these issues in much more detail in a future entry.)
Yet, for the purposes of showing the utter inadequacy of existing US federal government and US state commitments, the C&C framework is very useful because other equity frameworks which have received some attention and respect in international discussions of what equity requires of nations would require even steeper reductions for the US and US state governments. For instance the GDR framework would require the US to be carbon negative by between 2025 and 2030. The C&C framework is therefore a very non-controversial way of demonstrating the utter inadequacy of developed nations ghg emissions reductions commitments because other equity frameworks would require even greater reductions from developed countries.
The above chart demonstrates the implications of this recent science for US states as well as the inadequacy of the US federal government commitment in light of a total global budget limitation of approximately 250 gigatons of carbon equivalent emissions.. The steepness of the curves in this chart are driven both by the limitations of the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget and the need to take equity into account. (The Global Commons Institute has a computer graphic tool on its web site, the Carbon Budget Accounting Tool, that allows those who would like to consider alternatives to the 250 gigaton budget to visualize the effects of other budget numbers on the shape of the ghg reductions pathways needed, the differences in environmental impacts, and many other policy considerations.)
Like any attempt to determine what a ghg national target should be, the above chart makes a few assumptions, including but not limited to, about what equity requires not only of the United States but of individual states, when global emissions will peak, and what the carbon emissions budget should be to avoid dangerous climate change. Although different assumptions would lead to different slopes of the emissions reductions pathways that are needed to remain below the 250 gigaton global carbon limitation, the chart depicts very reasonable assumptions about what needs to be done to stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget while taking equity into account. And so, without doubt the US government and US state’s targets are woefully inadequate. To stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget, total US emissions which will be comprised of emissions from all states must achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Even the most aggressive US state targets are woefully short of this goal. In addition most US states have no emissions reduction target at all. The US will need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and this national requirement will will require US states to work together to achieve carbon neutrality. The US government could achieve the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 by relying on different approaches in different states, yet the individual states must assume they have a duty to limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions and in the absence of a federal plan that would allow them to do otherwise, states must achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the above chart is a good example of what is required of them in total.
II. The Second Chart-US States Existing Commitments Compared to an 80% Reduction By 2050.
A few states have set ghg emissions reduction targets of 80 % by 2050. The next chart shows the quantify of reductions that each state would need to achieve to reach an 80% reduction by 2050 although we have already established above that the most recent science would require each state to achieve carbon neutrality by 2o50.
What is notable about this chart is that most US states have made no ghg emissions reductions commitments at all, only a few have made a commitment of an 80% reduction by 2050 which is still not stringent enough to meet the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and that some states such as Texas need to achievehuge emissions reductions if the US is going to do its fair share of staying within the 250 metric gigaton carbon equivalent budget.
These charts help visualize the enormity of the challenge facing the United States federal government and US state governments in light of the challenge facing the world as understood by the vast majority of mainstream scientists. There has been almost no coverage of this reality in the US media.
As explained above, there are two kinds of issues that need to be understood to comprehend what governments must do when setting ghg emissions targets. The first is the need to set any target in light of a total global ghg emissions limitation or budget entailed by the need to limit ghg emissions to levels that will not cause dangerous climate change. This, as we have seen, is sometimes referred to as the carbon budget issue. The second is the need of governments to set their emissions target only after considering what distributive justice requires of them. This sometimes referred to as the equity or justice issue. Any propose ghg emissions target must take positions on
these two clusters of issues in fact they implicitly do this. Yet government rarely explain what assumptions about the carbon budget and equity and justice issues they have made when setting their target.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Science and Technology, Nanjing China
A new peer-reviewed study by Dr. Robert Brulle from Drexel University documents how the funding of the climate change disinformation campaign has shifted in the last few years from corporations and some politically conservative foundations to pass-through 501(c) (3) foundations like Donors Trust and Donors Capital, whose funders cannot be traced.
Ethics and Climate Change has explained in great detail in 13 separate articles available in the Start Here and Index tab on this site under “Disinformation Campaign and Climate Ethics” why the climate change disinformation campaign is ethically abhorrent, and, in fact, is some new kind of crime or assault against humanity, gross human rights violation, or other kind of villainy. This is so, as explained in these articles, because although skepticism in science should be encouraged, the climate change disinformation campaign has engaged in tactics which can’t be understood as responsible skepticism. These tactics have included: (1) lying or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science, (2) cherry-picking climate science, (3) making specious claims about “bad” science, (4) focusing on what is unknown while ignoring what is not in dispute about climate change science, (5) using think tanks, front groups, and AstroTurf organizations to hide the real parties in interest, (6) manufacturing bogus science in conferences or publishing in non peer-reviewed journals, (7) hiring public relations firms to convince citizens that there is no basis for mainstream scientific conclusions about climate change, and (8) cyber-bullying climate scientists and journalists. These tactics are not responsible skepticism but morally abhorrent misinformation.
The new study reviews the sociological literature on the climate change disinformation campaign while examining what is known about funding for this phenomenon. Major conclusions of the study include:
Conservative foundations have bank-rolled denial. The largest and most consistent funders of organizations orchestrating climate change denial are a number of well-known conservative foundations, such as the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation. These foundations promote ultra-free-market ideas in many realms.
Koch and ExxonMobil have recently pulled back from publicly visible funding. From 2003 to 2007, the Koch Affiliated Foundations and the ExxonMobil Foundation were heavily involved in funding climate-change denial organizations. But since 2008, they are no longer making publicly traceable contributions.
Funding has shifted to pass through untraceable sources. Coinciding with the decline in traceable funding, the amount of funding given to denial organizations by the Donors Trust has risen dramatically. Donors Trust is a donor-directed foundation whose funders cannot be traced. This one foundation now provides about 25% of all traceable foundation funding used by organizations engaged in promoting systematic denial of climate change.
Most funding for denial efforts is untraceable. Despite extensive data compilation and analyses, only a fraction of the hundreds of millions in contributions to climate change denying organizations can be specifically accounted for from public records. Approximately 75% of the income of these organizations comes from unidentifiable sources..
The new study also concludes that the climate change disinformation campaign is what is known in the sociological literature as a “counter-movement.” Social movements such as that which has arisen to reduce the threat of climate change are often opposed by a “counter-movement” which seeks to undermine the goals of the social movement. Social movements usually seek to frame public policy issues as matters requiring government action while counter-movements work to frame the issue in the mind of the public to undermine the case for government action. This creates cultural contests over the appropriate frame for the public advocated by social movements and counter-movements.
Counter-movements are “networks of individuals and organizations that share many of the same objects of concern as the social movements that they oppose. They make competing claims on the state on matters of policy and politics and vie for attention from the mass media and the broader public. Counter-movements seek to maintain the currently dominant frame and thus maintain the status quo by opposing, or countering, the efforts of movements seeking change. Significantly, counter-movements typically originate as the social change movement starts to show signs of success in influencing public policy, and threatening established interests. These counter-movements typically represent economic interests directly challenged by the emergent social movement.”
According to Brulle, the climate change disinformation campaign is a well-funded and organized counter-movement effort to undermine public faith in climate science and block action by the U.S. government to regulate emissions. This counter-movement involves a large number of organizations, including conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, trade associations and conservative foundations, with strong links to sympathetic media outlets and conservative politicians.
The new study also identifies the level of funding to the major organizations engaged in the climate change disinformation campaign and the amount of funding being provided to these organizations. The study ranks these organizations as follows with funding amounts in millions:
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, $86.7, 16%
Heritage Foundation, $76.4, 14%
Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, $45.4, 8%
Manhattan Institute Policy Research, $33.1, 6%
Cato Institute, $30.6, 5%
Hudson Institute, $25.5, 5%
Altas Economic Research Foundation, $24.5, 4%
Americans for Prosperity Foundation, $22.7, 4%
John Locke Foundation, $18.0, 3%
Heartland Institute, $16.7, 3%
Reason Foundation, $15.0, 3%
Media Research Center, $14.5, 3%
Mercatus Center, $14.3, 3%
National Center for Policy Analysis, $13.9, 3%
Competitive Enterprise Institute, $12.5, 2%
State Policy Network, $12.0, 2%
Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, $11.4, 2%
Independent Womens Forum, $7.4, 1%
Landmark Legal Foundation, $7.0, 1%
FreedomWorks Foundation, $5.3, 1%
49 Other Organizations < 1%, $63.7, 11%
The new report also identifies foundation funding source of these organizations and ranks them as follows in millions:
Donor Trust/Donors Capital Fund, $78.8, 14%
Scaife Affiliated Foundations, $39.6, 7%
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, $29.6, 5%
Koch Affiliated Foundations, $26.3, 5%
Howard Charitable Foundation, $24.8, 4%
John William Pope Foundation, $21.9, 4%
Searle Freedom Trust, $21.7, 4%
John Templeton Foundation, $20.2, 4%
Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking, $13.7, 2%
Smith Richarson Foundation, Inc., $13.5, 2%
Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, $13.1, 2%
The Kovner Foundation, $12.8, 2%
Annenberg Foundation, $11.3, 2%
Lily Endowment Inc., $10.3, 2%
The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, $10.0, 2%
ExxonMobil Foundation, $7.2, 1%
Brady Education Foundation, $6.8, 1%
The Samuel Roberts Foundation, Inc., $6.7, 1%
Coors Affiliated Foundations, $6.2, 1%
Lakeside Foundation, $5.8, 1%
Herrick Foundation, $5.7, 1%
118 Others < 1%, $170.4, 31%
Because much of the funding for the climate change disinformation campaign has shifted to organizations that prevent tracing the actual donors who are receiving a tax deduction for their contributions, a case can be made that tax payers are paying for the disinformation campaign. The new funding scheme also prevents citizens from knowing where the funding is coming from, facts which are necessary to understand who the parties in interest are behind the counter-movement. Because the tactics of the disinformation are so ethically reprehensible, the new funding scheme most likely shields large funders from public scrutiny that would reveal ethically abhorrent behavior.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School Of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University School of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China
During the climate negotiations in Warsaw that concluded late Saturday, some of the most prominent US media institutions finally acknowledged that ethics and justice issues were at the very center of the most contentious issues in dispute.
For instance, the New York Times ran a story on November 16 entitled: Growing Clamor About Inequities of Climate Crisis. This article expressly acknowledged that growing demands about ethics and justice have become an emotionally charged flash point at the Warsaw climate negotiations
The Washington Post reported that: Hundreds of activists march for climate on sidelines of UN talks in Warsawand in this story there was acknowledgment that the ethics and justice issues were the central focus of unresolved issues on national ghg emissions reduction commitments and funding needed funding for poor, vulnerable nations for adaptation and climate change caused losses and damages.
This recent recognition of the importance of ethics and justice issues in international climate change negotiations marks a possible sea change in on how the US press has thus far covered international climate change issues. Yet it is too early to predict such a transformation will actually take place and reason to believe that the US media still does not understand the practical importance for US climate policy that an ethical focus on climate change entails. In fact there is no evidence that the US press understands the policy significance for the US if climate change is understood as a civilization challenging global distributive justice problem.
As we have frequently reported in EthicandClimate.org over the last several years, (See articles on the website on the US media in the Index), the US media has been utterly ignoring the climate change justice issues that increasingly have become the most contentious issues in dispute in the international search for a global solution to climate change.
Although there has been a US press presence at international climate negotiations since they began over 20 years, the US media reports on the climate negotiations has usually focused on the failures and small success of previous negotiations. Also, sometimes the US press also has reported on specific disagreements among nations on contentious issues in negotiations. And so, the US media has covered climate negotiations like they would a baseball game, that is they usually focus on the score, who batted in the runs, and who prevented runs from scoring.
In the meantime, during the debates about US domestic policy on climate change that have been taking place for almost thirty years, the US media has reported on climate issues almost exclusively by focusing on issues of scientific certainty about climate change impacts and economic cost to the US economy. This phenomenon is partly attributable to the fact that economic interests opposed to US climate change policies have skillfully and successfully framed the US climate change debate as a matter about which there is insufficient scientific evidence or too much adverse impact on the US economy to warrant action. And so, although climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice, the US media has largely ignored the justice issues particularly in regard to their significance for US policy. For instance, if the the US not only has economic interests in the climate change policies in political debate but also obligations and duties to poor vulnerable nations to not cause them great harm from US ghg emissions, the United States may not justify failure to act to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of economic cost to the US.
Yet now that the scientific community is telling the world that is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and that there is a very small amount of ghg emissions that can be admitted by the entire world if the international community seeks to have any reasonable hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, the ethics and justice issues are becoming undeniable and it is almost possible to ignore that the ethics and justice issues are at the very center of international disputes about how to structure a global climate solution. And so, cries about the justice issues will mostly likely continue to become louder in the future. This is so because if the entire global community must limit total global ghg emissions to a specific number of tons of ghgs and this number requires radical ghg emissions reductions from the entire global community, the obvious question becomes what is any nation’s fair share of allowable emissions. And so, issues of climate justice may no longer be ignored, in fact, the longer the world waits to arrive at a global solution to climate change the more important and visible the ethics and justice issues will become. For this reason, it will become more and more difficult for the US press to ignore the practical significance of ethics and justice questions.
At the center of the Warsaw negotiations was not only the question of what was each countries fair share of safe total allowable greenhouse gas submissions, but also what does justice require of high-emitting countries to both pay for the costs of climate adaptation and compensation for damages for poor vulnerable countries that have done very little to cause climate change.
And so this new interest in ethics and justice about climate issues could become a growing media focus. However, this recent new interest of the US media is not evidence that the US press has begun to pay attention to the implications of these issues for US climate change policy. In fact, there is no evidence that the US media has figured out how the ethics and justice issues will need to radically transform how domestic climate change policy is debated in the United States. We will know that the US media this is seriously paying attention to the ethical dimensions of climate change if it examines the following questions when it covers US climate change policy debates.
1. What is the ethical justification for any proposed US greenhouse gas reduction target in light of the fact the US has duty to reduce its emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions. In setting a ghg emissions reduction target, what ethical obligations to nations and people outside the US has it taken into account.
2. If the United States is a very large emitter of gigs compared to most other nations in terms of historical and per capita emissions, why doesn’t the United States have an ethical duty to fund reasonable climate change adaptation measures in and losses and damages of poor developing countries that have done little or nothing to cause human-induced warming.
3. If a US politician argues in opposition to proposed US climate policies on the basis of cost to the US economy, why doesn’t that politician acknowledge that in addition to US economic economic interests, that the United States has duties to people around the world and future generations to reduce ghg US emissions.
4. If United States actually has ethical duties for the rest of the world to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, why is there no national policy encouraging everyone in the United States including individuals and corporations to reduce unnecessary ghg emissions.
5. On what basis may the United States argue that it need not reduce US ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global missions because China or some other developing country has not yet adopted strong climate change policies, given that any US ghg emissions in excess of the US fair share of safe total omissions is harming hundreds of thousands of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor,
Widener University School of Law
Visiting Professor, Nagoya University School of Law
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology
Negotiations on the international climate regime have begun in Warsaw at a time when the scientific community, including the IPCC in its recent report on the Physical Basis for Climate Change Science and UNEP in its just released Emissions Gap Report, are advising the international community that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
The Warsaw agenda includes numerous topics that raise profound ethical and justice issues which not only must be faced to achieve a global climate change solution but which are also increasingly at the center of the most contentious issues in the international climate negotiations. Despite this fact, the international media, at least in most developed countries, is utterly failing to report on the ethical and justice dimensions of issues that are so central to achieving a favorable outcome in Warsaw. The failure of the media to continue to report on these issues almost guarantees that nations will continue to ignore their ethical obligations, a prospect which surely dooms the development of an adequate global climate regime.
This is the first entry in a multi-part series which will first examine the ethical dimensions of major issues under consideration in Warsaw and then, at the conclusion of COP-19, report on what was accomplished in Warsaw on these ethical issues.
Among Warsaw issues examined in this series through an ethical lens will be:
1. The extent to which nations make ghg emissions reductions commitments based upon “equity” rather than national interest alone.
2. The willingness of nations to agree to a new treaty that is to be completed in 2015 and that comes into effect in 2020 that includes a format for emissions reductions that takes equity and justice seriously.
3. The willingness of high-emitting nations to finance adaptation and climate change reduction strategies in vulnerable, developing counties.
4. The willingness of those nations most responsible for human-induced warming to agree to finance the value of losses and damages from climate change that can’t be avoided.
5. The extent to which some nations more than others are barriers to an urgently needed global climate change treaty.
6. The willingness of nations to accept a new climate change treaty that is sufficiently legally binding that it provides adequate sanctions for those who do not comply with their promises.
The next entry in the series will look at the ethical issues entailed by the need for national emissions reductions commitments to be based on “equity” and “justice”.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law
Visiting Professor, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan
Part-time Professor, Nanjing University for Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China
The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal today reported on a new study by the University of Texas that found leakage rates of methane from natural gas fracking operations are lower than previously stated by US EPA. This report found that direct measurements of methane emissions from 190 onshore natural gas sites in the United States indicate that methane emissions from completed wells are are lower than commonly thought although the report also acknowledged that emissions from pneumatic controllers and other equipment associated with natural gas production facilities were higher than previously estimated.
The report also concluded that taking into account the lower emissions from completed wells and the higher emissions from other equipment, actual methane emissions are most likely 20% lower than previously estimated.
This report has created a large buzz on the internet because at issue is whether natural gas is a bridge fuel to lower the threat of climate change. If the methane leakage rate is less than 3.6%, then it is widely assumed that natural gas is better than coal. That is, if leakage levels are below this level it is generally assumed that switching to natural gas lowers the US carbon footprint and therefore greater natural gas production should be supported by citizens concerned about climate change. As a result the methane leakage rate issue has gathered enormous interest in climate change policy discussions.. Studies of methane leakage rates have reached widely different conclusions about actual leakage rates in part because different studies have used different: measurement methodologies, types of wells measured, portions of the the entire natural gas production process, and assumptions about leakage in the gas distribution process. The recent University of Texas study acknowledges that there are elements of the natural gas production to consumption cycle that were not fully considered. And so, it is likely that scientific conclusions about methane leakage rates will continue to change from study to study in the next few years.
Because natural gas may produce less CO2 equivalent per unit of energy produced, natural gas companies are pushing natural gas as at least a short- to medium-term solution to climate change
Yet, as we have written about before, there is one extraordinary important issue about the link between natural gas production and climate change that is rarely being reported on in the US press nor is it usually part of the US debate about natural gas fracking and its impact on climate change.
The methane leakage debate usually assumes if the methane leakage rate is low enough, switching from coal to natural gas as fuel should be welcomed by proponents of action on climate change. Yet what is notably missing in the media discussion of this issue is the urgency of moving to non-fossil fuels or energy technologies that produce very, very low carbon emissions to give the world any hope of prevent catastrophic climate change.
Even if natural gas combustion creates approaching 50 percent less CO2 equivalent per unit of energy produced, an amount which is well beyond best case on ghg emission reductions, it will not create the much greater emissions reductions necessary in the next 30 years to give any hope of limiting warming from exceeding levels that will cause catastrophic impacts. In short, natural gas combustion can’t produce the the emissions reductions that are needed just a few decades to put the world on a safe ghg emissions pathway. Also investment in natural gas facilities may delay the needed rapid switch to non-fossil fuels. Although natural gas switching might help reduce the threat of climate change threat if methane leakage rates are at the lower end of the range discussed in the scientific literature in the very short term, the world needs massive investment in non-fossil technology as soon as possible.
In addition if coal combustion were to be replaced now by non-fossil fuel energy, it would help immediately much more than conversion of coal to natural gas combustion does in putting the world on an urgently needed ghg emissions reduction pathway needed to prevent catastrophic warming.
In addition, large investments in natural gas combustion facilities will likely make it harder to switch to non-fossil energy because these investors will likely demand a return on their investment in the natural gas plants before they are shut down.
Large investment in cheaper natural gas may also increase energy demand to levels that result in greater total releases of ghgs even assuming that natural gas produces less CO2 equivalent on a BTU basis than coal.
It is simply irresponsible for the US media to report on the methane leakage issue without explaining the urgency of moving to non-fossil energy.
Of great concern, some natural gas companies are on the one hand claiming that natural gas is better for the climate change while they fight legislation to increase the US share of renewable energy. A strong ethical case can be made that any political support for natural gas as a short-term bridge fuel should be conditioned on the natural gas industry promising to stop lobbying against rapid scale up of renewable energy programs.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law,
Widener University School of Law
Visiting Professor, Nogoya University, Nogoya. Japan
Many observers of the state of global response to climate change have concluded that there is no hope in preventing devastating climate change harms unless nations and individuals understand that they have ethical and moral responsibilities that are not captured by framing climate change as a matter of economic interest or welfare maximization alone not to mention that framing climate change policies as matters of economic interest distorts and ignores ethical responsibilities. For this reason, there is a growing consensus among serious observers of national commitments on climate change, that the only hope to increase national ghg emissions emissions reductions targets to levels that will avoid dangerous climate change impacts is to find ways to assure that national ghg targets are based upon “equity” and justice.
A New York Times article on September 11, 2013 makes a greatly misleading claim about the moral basis for action on climate change. The article, Counting the Cost of Fixing the Future, by Edwardo Porter, erroneously claims that a moralist would respond to climate change by demanding that the price on carbon be significantly higher than what the business world would recommend the price should be ($65.00/ ton versus $13.50 /ton). Although the article doesn’t say explicitly that that if the social cost of carbon is high enough there are no moral objections to using welfare maximization considerations as the basis for determining the acceptability of climate change policies, this is implied by the article because the use of the social cost of capital calculations by policy-makers is almost always used in cost-benefit analyses. The problem with this claim is that there is an unexamined premise in this article that is deeply ethically flawed. The article assumes that whether a government should act to prevent climate change depends upon whether a proposed government climate change policy will increase welfare after the social cost of carbon is calculated and compared to the costs entailed by reducing greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions. There are strong strong moral and ethical reasons against using the social cost of carbon in this way.
Whether a nation or individual should act to prevent climate change is a matter of justice, not simply a matter of economic efficiency or welfare maximization. Although some utilitarians might agree that government policy should maximize welfare or utility, there are strong ethical objections to a nation basing its climate policy on the basis of welfare maximization alone. Moral problems with the use of the social cost of carbon calculations in cost-benefit determinations used to determine whether a government should act to reduce the threat of climate change include the following:
Some governments and individuals more than others are more responsible for climate change because they have much higher emissions of ghg in total tons, per capita levels, and historical contributions to elevated atmospheric concentrations. Justice requires that these considerations be taken into account in determining emissions reductions targets.
Some of the poorest people in the world who have done almost nothing to cause climate change are the most vulnerable to climate change. These people will suffer the most if governments and individuals refuse to reduce their emissions based upon “efficiency” or “welfare maximization” considerations. These people have not consented to be harmed because costs to polluters of reducing their emissions are high. “Efficiency” and “welfare maximization” justifications unjustly sacrifice vulnerable people to the economic prosperity of the entire community.
The harms to vulnerable people from climate change are not mere reductions in economic welfare, they include catastrophic loses to life and damages to ecological systems on which life depends.
Damage estimates on which the social cost of carbon are based are not evenly distributed. Some places more than others face catastrophic risk. People in these places have not consented to be harmed. Theories of procedural and distributive justice prevent these people from being harmed without their consent.
Climate change will interfere with the enjoyment of human rights. Those who violate the human rights of others may not use “efficiency” or “welfare maximization” justifications for violating the human rights of others.
Nations and individuals have ethical and moral duties to reduce the threat of climate change, not simply economic interests.
These are only a few of the ethical and moral problems with the use of social cost of carbon calculations in cost-benefit analysis as justification for non-action on climate change. For additional ethical problems with economic arguments made about the acceptability of climate change policies see articles on this website under the category Economics and Climate Change Ethics in the Index.
The New York Times article makes a claim about what moralists would do which is very misleading because it implies that as long as the calculation of the social cost of carbon is high enough, there are no moral objections with the use of welfare maximization calculations as the basis of climate change policy.
The New York Times article should have acknowledged that there are ethical objections to a nation basing its climate policies on cost-benefit analyses. One of the reasons why there has been a widespread failure of citizens to understand their ethical responsibilities to reduce the threat of climate change is because free-market fundamentalist ideologies have successfully framed the climate change debate as a matter of economic interest rather then global responsibility. The New York Times article implicitly continues to encourage people to look at climate change policies as a matter of economic self-interest rather than ethical obligation. This both distorts and hides obvious ethical problems with national and individual responses to climate change.
The New York Times reported on August 19 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will soon issue its 5th assessment report that will state that the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change has increased from a 90% probability in 2007 to a 95% probability in the new report. This new report, according to the New York Times, will assert that expected warming in this century will lead to wide-spread melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty growing food and massive changes in plant and animal life, probably including a wave of extinctions. Yet such predictions about climate change’s impacts have been made for well over thirty years.
One might ask whether the change in confidence levels from 90% to 95% makes a difference as a matter of ethics. We believe it does not because those causing climate change have had clear ethical duties to reduce the threat of climate change once they were put on notice that their actions were likely putting others at great risk. This is information that was widely available three decades ago. Ethical duties to not create harm begin once someone is put on notice that their behavior is likely to cause great harm particularly in regard to actions about which:
Waiting to take action will make the problem worse;
Delays will make it much harder to prevent catastrophic impacts;
Those who are most at risk have not consented to be placed at further risk;
The harms from the dangerous behavior are not mere inconveniences but potentially catastrophic destruction of life and ecological system on which life depends;
Much of the science on which the projections of catastrophic harms is based is not controversial and has been well established for many decades;
The vast majority of the scientists that do peer-reviewed science on climate change support the conclusion that humans are likely changing the Earth’s climate in ways that will create great harms for the most vulnerable people on the planet.
Under these circumstances, one does not need complete certainty before ethical obligations to do no harm are triggered. Once someone is put on notice that his or her behavior is greatly dangerous, they have a duty to stop the dangerous behavior. This duty is particularly strong when the harms are potentially great as they are in the case of climate change. This ethical duty to cease dangerous behavior is widely recognized in criminal codes around the world that make many kinds of dangerous behavior criminal. In the United States, for instance, reckless driving and reckless endangerment are criminal violations. (For more on ethics and uncertainty see, On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.)
Some economists will argue that a change from 90% to 95% confidence levels is ethically relevant when calculating expected utility from climate change policies when cost-benefit analyses of policies are applied to climate change policies. Yet, as we have explained in many articles on this subject, cost-benefit analysis is a deeply ethically problematic policy tool for climate change. Its use seeks to find polices which maximizes utility while ignoring questions of distributive justice, ethical obligations based upon duties to prevent harm, human rights violations, procedural justice considerations that would give victims of harms rights to participate in decisions that impose risks, and many other ethical issues. (See, Ethical Issues Entailed By Economic Arguments Against Climate Change Policies.)
We do not deny that higher levels of confidence that activities are harming others strengthen the ethical duty to take action, however the duty to reduce ghg emissions has existed since the scientific community has been describing the threats of climate change three decades ago.
Insistence on absolute certainty before governments intervene in markets on climate change has been a tactic of the climate change disinformation campaign on climate change for several decades. As a matter of ethics high-emitting nations and individuals have had clear ethical duties to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions for over thirty years.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law
Visting Professor, Nagoya University, Nogoya, Japan