Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Do US GHG Emissions Commitments Pass Ethical Scrutiny?


A. The US GHG Emissions  Reduction Targets

Although the Obama administration has over the last year or two taken significant steps to reduce US greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions that have been widely welcomed by many nations, do the current US ghg reduction targets represent the US fair share of safe global emissions?  This post examines the question of whether the current US commitments to reduce US ghg emissions are adequate as a matter of justice and ethics.

On November 11, 2014, the Obama Administration announced a new US commitment on reducing its ghg emissions in a deal with China. (US White House, 2014) The United States pledged to cut its emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 while retaining a prior pledge to reduce US ghg emissions by 80% below 2005 by 2050.

All nations have agreed to negotiate a new climate agreement with binding force at the twenty first Conference of the Parties (COP21) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in December 2015. To prepare for the Paris negotiations, countries have agreed to publicly outline what post-2020 climate actions they intend to take, known as their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The INDCs will largely determine whether the world is on a path to avoid catastrophic climate change by avoiding additional warming of no more than  2°C.

On March 31, 2015, the United States submitted its INDC to the Secretariat of  the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which reiterated the ghg emissions reduction targets announced in November. (US, 2015)

The US March announcement on its reduction targets for 2025 was met with mostly, but not uniformly, positive responses from nations around the world because the new commitments were a significant increase over the US commitment made in 2009 to reduce US ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions levels by 2020. The new US commitments were also welcomed because the United States has a record that spans several decades of being a major obstacle to achieving an adequate global solution to climate change. (For a discussion of the role that the United States has played in international climate negotiations, see Brown, 2002 and Brown, 2012) The Obama administration ghg reduction targets were seen by many as a constructive change in the US role in international efforts to find a global solution to climate change.

new book description for website-1_01Although there has been a positive response to the Obama commitments to reduce US ghg emissions, there is also great international concern that national INDCs, including the US commitments, are not nearly ambitious enough to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact there is a strong consensus among nations that unless nations reduce their ghg emissions to levels that represent each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, there is little hope of preventing catastrophic warming.

The United States along with almost every country in the world agreed when it ratified the UNFCCC to adopt policies to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system on the basis of “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Thus the United States has agreed that it should reduce its  ghg emissions to levels required of it on the basis of equity and justice.

In addition there are several features of climate change that scream for attention to understand it and respond to it as an ethical and moral problem. These features include: (a) it is a problem caused by some nations and people emitting high-levels of ghgs in one part of the world who are harming or threatening tens of millions of living people and countless numbers of future generations throughout the world who include some of the world’s poorest people and who have done little to cause the problem, (b) the harms to many of the world’s most vulnerable victims of climate change are potentially catastrophic, (c) many people most at risk from climate change often can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments; their best hope is that those causing the problem will see that justice requires them to greatly lower their ghg emissions, and, (d) to protect the world’s most vulnerable people, nations must act quickly to limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions.

A major significance for policy of understanding climate change as a moral and justice issue, is that nations may not look at economic self-interest alone in formulating policies, they must consider their ethical and moral obligations to those who are most vulnerable to climate change.

For these reasons, it is important to review the US ghg emissions reduction commitments through the lens of justice and equity.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) “equity” under the UNFCCC covers both distributive justice issues and procedural justice. (IPCC, 2015, chap 4, 4.2.2)

The rules under which nations are making commitments in their INDCs before the Paris COP under the UNFCCC do not include a definition of or benchmark for determining what “equity’ requires of nations.  Yet nations are encouraged to explain how they took environmental ambition and fairness into account in establishing their INDC. More specificly at UNFCC COP-20 in Lima, nations agreed to explain in its INDC:

“how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2. (UNFCCC, 2014, emphasis added)”

Although reasonable disagreements exist about what equity and justice requires of nations in setting their INDCs as demonstrated by numerous proposed equity frameworks discussed by the recent IPCC chapter in the 5th Assessment Report on equity (IPCC, 2014, chapter 4), the national commitments that are based upon national economic interests alone clearly fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. This is so because as IPCC said recently “reasonable interpretations of equity are limited to only a few plausible kinds of considerations namely responsibility, equality, capacity, and rights of developing countries to develop.” (IPCC, 2014, chapter 4. 48-52) If there is any doubt that economic self-interest is not compatible with the idea of “equity” it also is an unacceptable basis for establishing national climate change policies because economic self-interest is also inconsistent with well established international legal principles including:

  • the “polluter pays” principle of the Rio Declaration (UN, 1992: Principle 16),
  • the “no harm” principle recognized in the UNFCCC (UNFCCC, 1992: Preamble)
  • what is required of nations who fail to fulfill and protect human rights of citizens (For discussion of the implications for policy of a human rights approach to climate change policy see, Brown and Brown, 2014).

And so although it may not be possible to say precisely what equity requires of nations in advance, strong arguments can be made that some national commitments fail to satisfy reasonable interpretations of what equity requires. Or saying this another way, although policy makers may disagree on what perfect justice requires, they may all strongly agree that certain positions  are  unjust.

In the absence of a court adjudicating what equity requires of nations in setting their national climate change commitments, a possibility but far from a guarantee under existing international and national law (for an explanation of some of the litigation issues, Buiti,2011), the best hope for encouraging nations to improve the ambition of their national emissions reductions commitments on the basis of equity and justice is the creation of a mechanism under the UNFCCC that requires nations to explain their how they quantitatively took equity into account in establishing their INDCs and why their INDC is consistent with the nation’s ethical obligations to people who are most vulnerable to climate change and the above principles of international law.

B. The US Justification for Its GHG Emissions Reduction Targets.

Although the United States asserted without explanation when it submitted its INDCs to the the UNFCCC Secretariat that the US commitments were” fair and ambitious,” (US, 2015), the United States has also acknowledged the commitment was based upon what is achievable under existing US law rather than what may be required of the United States by ethics, justice, and basic fairness.

The US justification for its new 2025 commitment is as follows:

The target is grounded in intensive analysis of cost-effective carbon pollution reductions achievable under existing law and will keep the United States on the right trajectory to achieve deep economy-wide reductions on the order of 80 % by 2050. (US White House, 2014)

According the US White House, the 80% reduction commitment by 2050 is based upon a commitment made by the United States to the G8. (Light, 2014)
The US has not asserted that the 26% to 28 % reduction below 2005 emissions reduction commitment by 2025 or 80% reduction below 2005 emissions by 2050 aspiration represents the US fair share of safe global emissions.

In regard to the 80% reduction commitment by 205o, the United States has asserted that this number was taken from the 2009 G8 Declaration on Climate Change which stated that:

We recognize the broad scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C. Because this global challenge can only be met by a global response, we reiterate our willingness to share with all countries the goal of achieving at least a 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050, recognizing that this implies that global emissions need to peak as soon as possible and decline thereafter. As part of this, we also support a goal of developed countries reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in aggregate by 80% or more by 2050 compared to 1990 or more recent years. (G8, 2009)

The Obama administration has thus explicitly acknowledged that the current 2025 commitment is based upon what is currently achievable under existing law rather than on what ethics and justice would require of the United States while the commitment to reduce ghg emissions by 80% by 2050 is based on a promise made to the G8 in 2009 which did not expressly consider the implications of a carbon budget described by IPCC in 2013. (see below)

C. Why the US Commitments Are Inadequate

Although it is speculation, it would appear that the reference by the United States to an 80% reduction commitment by 2050 originally made to the G8 was influenced by a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007, p776) which concluded that developed nations needed to reduce ghg emissions by 25% to 40% below 1990 emissions levels by 2020 and 80% to 95% by 2050 for the world to have any reasonable chance of limiting warming to 2°C. If this is the case, the US government has not explained why the US believes it need only achieve the lower end of the 80% to 95% reduction goal for 2050 emissions for developed nations identified by the IPCC in 2007 nor why the current reduction commitment of 26% to 28% below 2005 emissions by 2025 is justified given the much higher 25% to 40% reduction targets by 2020  were recommended by the IPCC in 2007 for developed nations.

It would also appear when determining any of its ghg commitments that the United States has not considered the most recent carbon budget identified by the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report. (IPCC, 2013, p27). A carbon budget is a limit of total ghg emissions for the entire world that must constrain total global emissions to have any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C or any other temperature limit. The IPCC budget defines a limit of future carbon emissions of approximately 270 gigatonnes carbon (GtC) to have a 66% chance of limiting the warming to 2°C. (Pidcock, 2013). The 2°C warming limit has been agreed to by the international community including the United States as necessary to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change. The US has agreed several times, including in the G8 agreement above, on the need for it to adopt policies that will, working with others, prevent warming from exceeding the 2°C warming limit.

Because any US ghg target is implicitly a position on the US fair share of safe global emissions, any US emissions reduction target may only be justified as a matter of ethics and justice by explaining why the US commitment is a fair share of an acceptable global carbon emissions budget. Yet, the Obama administration has made no attempt to explain or justify why its emissions reduction goals are just and equitable in reference to a global carbon budget or a warming limit. As we have seen, the United States has asserted that its INDC is ambitious and fair but has given no explanation of how the United States justified this conclusion.

If the total carbon budget to give the world a 66% chance of keeping warming below 2°C is 270 gigatons carbon (GtC), then because the US population is 5 % of world population, a case can be made that the United States carbon budget must be below 13.5 GtC even before this number is adjusted on the grounds of fairness or equity that takes into account the US’s world leading share of historical emissions. Because  the US is currently emitting 1.44.GtC per year, the US will have zero emissions to allocate to itself in 9.4 years at current emissions rates.

In any event the US INDC, as well as all INDCs, should be expressed as a total number of carbon tons rather than as a percent reduction by a specific year given that a carbon budget requires nations to fairly allocate the remaining carbon budget necessary to limit warming to 2°C.  Because keeping global emissions within a global carbon budget requires all nations to live within their allocated budget for the entire period, the US commitment should identify the total number of tons as a percentage of the global carbon budget it is allocating to itself.  This is so because identifying a percentage reduction by a date in the future would not prevent a nation from far exceeding its budget allocation before the target date even if the percent reduction committed to is achieved by the target date.   For this reason, nations should express their INDCs for emissions reductions in tons rather than in percent reductions by a specific date.

During a speech at Georgetown University in June 2013, President Obama did acknowledge in very general terms that the United States has responsibility for climate change when he said:

[A]s the world’s largest economy and second-largest carbon emitter, as a country with unsurpassed ability to drive innovation and scientific breakthroughs, as the country that people around the world continue to look to in times of crisis, we’ve got a vital role to play. We can’t stand on the sidelines. We’ve got a unique responsibility. (Obama, 2014)

Although President Obama thus acknowledged US responsibility to the world to take effective action on climate change, the US has not explained how this responsibility is linked quantitatively to any US ghg reduction commitment.

There are several reasons for concluding that the US INDC fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

First, as one observer noted about the fairness of the US-China agreement:

“ [U]nder such an agreement the United States would come down “marginally” from its current 18 tonnes per capita and China would increase from its current seven-eight tonnes. Both the polluters would converge at 12-14 tonnes a person a year. This is when the planet can effectively absorb and naturally cleanse emissions not more than two tonnes a person a year.” (Narain, 2014)

Second, the US has admitted that its commitment on its 2025 emissions reductions of 26% to 28% is simply based on what is achievable under existing law not what is required of the US as a matter of justice.

Third  the debate about climate change in the United States for over 35 years reveals that opposition to stronger policies to reduce US ghg emissions has successfully blocked stronger US policies by making two kinds of arguments.

The first  argument has been that there is insufficient scientific certainty about human causation of harmful climate change to warrant climate policies given the likely costs of climate change policies to certain sectors of the US economy.

The second argument which has blocked stronger US climate change policy for the last few decades is based on claims that proposed climate law and policies would impose unacceptable costs on the US economy. The cost arguments have taken several forms. (Brown, 2012b, p57) These arguments have included that proposed  policies would destroy jobs, reduce US GDP, damage specific industries such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that proposed climate policies and legislation are unaffordable. (Brown, 2012b, p57).

It is therefore clear that the actual basis for current US positions on climate change have not been identified by the the Obama administration, which likely is doing as much as it can under existing law. Rather the actual basis for current US climate policies includes arguments which  have successfully prevented the US Congress from passing  more ambitious US climate change policies. Therefore in the US,  to determine the actual reasons for domestic action on climate change it is not sufficient to examine the claims of the administrative branch of government alone, one must examine the arguments made by opponents of climate change that have successfully blocked stronger climate change action by the government. And so, one cannot escape the conclusion that the basis for the US commitments on climate change include alleged unacceptable costs of more aggressive climate change policies to the US  economy, matters of economic self-interest rather than global responsibility.

Although both the scientific uncertainty and cost arguments made in opposition to US climate law and policies can be shown to be ethically problematic because they ignore US ethical obligations to others (see Brown, 2012b, pp57–137), these arguments neither have been examined in the US press nor identified by the US government. With very few exceptions, the US press has utterly failed to cover climate change as an ethical and moral issue while focusing on the scientific and economic arguments against taking action that have been made by opponents of US climate change policies for almost 30 years. (Brown, 2009 ; Brown, 2012a) By focusing on the cost issues to the US economy, the US press has reinforced the ethically problematic notion that cost to the US economy alone is an acceptable justification for inaction on climate change.

The US debate on climate change has ignored the fact that when the United States ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 it agreed that nations:

“[H]ave, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law… the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” (UNFCCC, 1992, Preamble)

As explained above, the United States government has not explained how the US ghg emissions reduction commitments took into consideration justice and equity issues in establishing US emissions reduction targets. Although the Obama administration is likely doing as much as it can under existing law, it would have to admit that its current commitments do not represent the US fair share of safe global emissions.

Reasonable arguments can be made about which of the equity frameworks that have attracted international attention and respect should be applied to any nation’s INDC.  An examination of the arguments for and against specific equity frameworks that have received international attention and respect is beyond the scope of this article.  (For a discussion of the merits of various equity frameworks see, Brown, 2014)  However, it is not necessary to agree on an equity framework to conclude that some national commitments fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. As we noted above it is not necessary to know what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. The US current ghg emissions reductions commitments clearly fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny for reasons stated here and summarized below. The United States had an opportunity to explain its justification for why its INDC was fair and sufficiently ambitious when it submitted its INDC. In fact the decision at COP 2o in Lima in December of 2014 encouraged the United States and all countries to explain why its INDC was fair and sufficiently ambitious to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States chose not to do this.

D. Summary 

In summary, a strong case can be made that the US emissions reduction commitment for 2025 of 26% to 28% clearly fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny when one considers: (a) the 2007 IPCC report on which the US likely relied upon to establish a 80% reduction target by 2050 also called for 25% to 40% reduction by developed countries by 2020, and (b) although reasonable people may disagree with  what “equity” means under the UNFCCC, the US commitments can’t be reconciled with any reasonable interpretation of what “equity” requires, (c) the United States has expressly acknowledged that its commitments are based upon what can be achieved under existing US law not on what is required of it as a mater of justice, (d) it is clear that more ambitious US commitments have been blocked by arguments that alleged unacceptable costs to the US economy,  arguments which have ignored US responsibilities to those most vulnerable to climate change, and (e) it is virtually certain that the US commitments can not be construed to be a fair allocation of the remaining carbon budget that is available for the entire world to limit warming to 2°C.


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