Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Lessons Learned From How Nations Are Actually Considering or Ignoring Ethics and Justice In Formulating Climate Policies.

Research Project on Ethics and Justice in Formulating

If to avoid catastrophic climate change nations must increase their commitments  to reduce ghg emissions to levels required of them based upon ethics and justice, how are nations actually considering or ignoring ethics and justice in formulating their climate change policies and what lessons can be learned from this?

A project of Widener University School of Law and Auckland University School of Architecture and Planning has examined how 17 nations have actually considered or ignored ethics and justice in formulating national climate change policies as the first phase of the project’s continuing investigation of these questions.  These nations include: Australia, Bolivia, Canada, China, Fiji, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mauritius, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, Uganda, and the United States of America.

 These reports can be found either in a free book downloadable on the project’s website,  or posted directly on the website.

 The following section summarizes the lessons learned from the above national reports which can be found on this website or in the book which can be downloaded here.
1. Some high-emitting nations have expressly stated that they will not adopt climate change policies that harm their economy thus ignoring their obligations to others as a matter of ethics, justice, and international law. These nations, for example, include Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
.2. Although any national ghg emissions reduction commitment is implicitly a position on two ethical questions, namely, first, what safe atmospheric ghg concentration level the commitment is designed to achieve and, second, what equity framework or principles of distributive justice the percent reduction is based on, no nation has explained quantitatively how its commitment is related to an atmospheric carbon budget or an equity framework
3. Although some nations acknowledge that their climate policies should be guided by ethical principles, for instance, South Africa and Japan, even these nations have not expressly explained quantitatively how their commitments were guided by ethical principles and appear to have based their commitments on economic self-interest at least in part.
4. A few nations have acknowledged that their ghg emissions commitments  need to limit warming to 2 degree C and be derived from a fair  equitable framework, yet even these nations have not explained how their specific emissions reduction commitments can be understood to be consistent with an emissions reduction pathway that will limit warming to 2 degree C. In fact, despite the almost universal acceptance by nations of the 2 degree C warming limit, the actual ghg emission targets and timetables chosen by almost all nations do not meet the levels of emissions reductions specified by IPCC as necessary to keep atmospheric concentrations below 450 ppm and thereby achieve the  2 degree C warming limit. As a result the world is currently on target to hit warming of 3.7 degree C by 2100.
5. Those developed nations that have acknowledged that they should act to limit warming to to 2 degree C warming have not adopted emissions reduction targets at levels the IPCC recently concluded would be necessary to limit warming to 2 degree C of 25% to 40% by 2020.
6. All nations, including those nations that acknowledge that their policies must be based upon a fair share of a safe global emissions, appear to have actually based their emissions reduction commitment at least in part on national economic self-interest rather than global responsibility.
7. In some nations it is not possible to determine the actual normative basis for the government’s commitment simply by examining what the national government claims is its normative justification; one must understand the arguments made against stronger national climate change policies made by those who have successfully opposed stronger climate action. For instance, the United States commitment is based upon what is currently achievable under existing law. Because stronger laws have been successfully blocked by opponents of strong climate change policies on the basis that stronger laws will harm the US economy, destroy specific industries, and destroy jobs, the actual US climate change policies are based upon US economic interests, a fact not clear from examining the statements of the US federal government alone.
8. Some non-Annex 1 countries including China and Mauritius claim that their non-Annex 1 status is justification for making no binding commitments to reduce their ghg emissions even though a substantial percentage of their population has very high income and high per capita emissions. For instance China per capita emissions are 7.1 tons while the US is 16.4 tons per capita, 10% of Chinese have ghg per capita are well above 10 % of US citizens ghg per capita., China has more than 1.123 millionaires and more people with wealth over 50 million than any country except USA. By 2018 China is expected to have 2.1 millionaires. One of the ethical issues raised by these facts is is whether nations which may have much smaller national emissions reductions commitment obligations for the nation derived from an acceptable equity framework should nevertheless be expected to limit activities of individuals causing high levels of ghg emissions
9. Some nations including Australia and New Zealand have expressly made their commitments to reduce climate change policies contingent on the willingness of other nations to make commensurate commitments thus implicitly claiming they have no obligation to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions unless other nations do so. The justification for this approach is not stated in the national commitments and is ethically dubious.
10. NGOs who support stronger climate change policies in many nations are failing to frame climate change issues on the basis of ethics, justice, and equity including those in Australia, Canada, and the United States
11. Several developing nations including Bolivia – have asserted that they have no obligation to make commitments to reduce ghg emissions unless the costs of reductions are funded by developed nations without identifying an equity framework which justifies this conclusion. South Africa and other developing nations have made commitments while also claiming that some of their commitments are contingent on funding from developed nations without explaining why some of the commitments should be funded according to an equity framework to justify which part of their climate change policies must be funded by developed nations. For this reason developing nations need to take a position on an equity framework that would apply to all developing countries.
12. Bolivia claims that funding for mitigation and adaptation in developing nations should be understood as the climate “debt” of developed countries in response to their historical, high-level per capita, and failure to fund adaptation but has not offered an equity framework to operationalize this claim. Bolivia draws strongly and explicitly upon ethical justifications for requiring deep cuts in national ghg emissions by other nations, together with financial contributions and holistic mitigation and adaptation measures, capable of both reducing poverty and vulnerability to climate change yet has not identified an equity framework that could be applied at the global scale.
13. Several countries including Bolivia, Fiji, South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda have asserted that domestic justice issues need to be considered to reduce domestic poverty in setting national climate policies although they have not offered an equity framework to operationalize this idea at the global scale. Their positions appear to argue that domestic justice obligations can trump global responsibilities.
14. Bolivia has claimed that 6% of GDP of developed nations should be devoted to funding climate change needs in developing nations but has not explained the equity framework that supports this conclusion.
15. Most developing countries  including Bolivia strongly support a “loss and damages” mechanism while some developed nations oppose this mechanism. The United States denies any responsibility for losses and damages in other countries.
16. Several countries including Canada have made commitments to reduce ghg emissions but not adopted the regulatory programs needed to achieve their commitments.
17. Several governments including Canada have domestic legal obligations to protect vulnerable minorities from climate change which they are not fulfilling.
18. Although meaningful local and regional climate change programs and strategies can be found in many nations, many national governments have done little or nothing to encourage local or regional governments to adopt policies that will limit ghg emissions even though for some activities that cause ghg emissions in the nation only regional and local governments have legal authority to require lower emissions. For instance in the United States, local and state governments regulate aspects of transportation and land use not regulated by the federal government,
19. Most nations have not created programs to encourage individuals to greatly reduce their carbon footprint.
20. Some non-Annex 1 countries have set meaningful ghg emissions targets including Mauritius and South Africa but depend on funding from developed nations to achieve some of the climate goals. South Afrrica, despite being a non-Annex 1 country, has acknowledged its status as the highest ghg emitter on the African continent and announced a voluntary emissions reduction target, the objective of which is to make a ‘fair contribution’ to keep global concentrations within the range required to keep within the 2 degree C warming limit. South Africa openly acknowledges the need to voluntarily respond to climate change despite being a poor developing country. Yet the actual emissions reduction target identified by South Africa does not explain how it is quantitatively linked to an atmospheric concentration goal that will achieve a warming limit or why its emissions reduction target represents South Africa’s fair share of safe global emissions. In fact, the South African target, because it is a commitment below business as usual, allows for large increases in South African ghg emissions by 2020 and 2025 without explaining how these increases are consistent with a specific understanding of what equity requires.
21. No developed country has explained how their contributions to the major climate funds relate in any quantitative way to their obligations under the UNFCCC for adaptation, mitigation, or losses and damages.
22. Almost all nations need to increase awareness among citizens and the press of the policy significance of the ethical and justice dimensions of climate change.
23. In some high-emitting developed nations including the United States the media is utterly failing to cover the ethics and justice dimensions of national climate change commitments.
24. In the case of EU member states, the collective decision making process of the EU does not seem to have led to any greater ethical analysis at the national level for individual EU nations including the Netherlands and Italy when these nations set their emissions reduction targets.
25. A few developing nations including South Africa and Uganda recognize the need to take positive action on climate change because they recognize the need and the responsibility toward their own nationals (South Africa and Uganda).
26. Two national reports revealed some reference to the concept of contraction and convergence, but no nation is implementing this approach.
27. No national reports deny responsibility for contributions to adaptation and loses and damages, but no nations have made an express link between their ethical responsibility for supporting adaption and compensation for losses and danages in vulnerable countries and what they have committed to. Adaptation contributions seem to be left to the largess or interests of individual nations, leaving them free to withdraw (e.g., Australia) or determine the scale and nature of contributions. Even when a nation is a major contributor to adaptation (e.g., Japan), its activity is not explicitly linked to its own emissions targets.
28. There was a noticeable absence of explicit use of the concept of climate justice by developed nations. In contrast, Bolivia is using the concept of climate debt to mean liability for historic and continuing emissions and failure to take mitigation and adaptation actions. As the Bolivian report details, Bolivia is the champion on climate justice with a highly developed and multi-faceted concept that includes demands for a compensation mechanism beyond provision for adaptation of developing states.
Recommendations on how to improve consideration of ethics and justice in policy formation in light of these lessons learned include:
a. All nations should be required to explain quantitatively how their emissions reductions commitments will achieve an acceptable warming limit and on what equity framework or principles of distributive justice their percent emissions reductions is based.
b. There is an urgent need in most nations to raise public awareness of the ethical and justice issues entailed by climate change policymaking in general and ghg emissions commitments in particular. Along this line there are several issues in particular about which greater awareness is needed including greater public understanding of the ethical implications of any nation’s ghg emissions reduction commitment in regard to an atmospheric stabilization goal the commitment is seeking to achieve and the coherence or lack there of the national commitment to an acceptable equity framework.
c. An international mechanism under the UNFCCC is urgently needed that helps other nations and civil society to understand the lack of conformity of national ghg emissions targets with principles of ethics and justice. This mechanism should provide that any government’s positions on their climate change commitments can be questioned by other governments and NGOs in regard to the adequacy of the commitment to achieve a warming limit and the fairness of the reductions. This mechanism must also require governments to respond to these questions.
d. The media, NGOs, education institutions, academia, businesses and other social actors must all become involved in lifting both public awareness of the ethical and justice implications of national climate policy.
e. NGOs should justify their policy and action recommendations on ethical grounds.
f. Nations should be required to explain how their commitments to fund adaptation and losses and damages in poor vulnerable nations link to their ethical obligations to provide funding.
g. Training for policy-makers, national politicians, and NGOs on the ethical issues inherent in climate change policy is urgently needed.       
Additional Researchers Sought

The project is looking for additional researchers for other countries who will agree to answer 10 questions about how a nation has considered or ignored ethics and justice in formulating their national climate policies. Instructions for researchers who would be willing to complete the research for other countries are also available on

The report on the United States found on the website contains a new analysis of the extent to which the United States took ethics and justice into account when President Obama committed to new emissions reductions in its announcement with China in November.
The project actively seeks comments on these reports. As new commitments are expected to made by the end of March to the UNFCCC under the Lima Call To  Action which may include for the first time information on the adequacy and fairness of thee emissions targets, the project hopes to up date these reports as new commitments are made.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor
Widener University School of Law

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