Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Visuallizing Why US National and US State Governments’ GHG Reductions Commitments Are Now Woefully Inadequate in Light Of Recent Science.

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.

US states and federal reductions

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.

states 80 percent

This chart can be examined in higher resolution on the Global Commons Institute website at: http://www.gci.org.uk/images/Emissions_Cuts_States_by_State.pdf

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.

III. Conclusions

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.

By:

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

dabrown57@gmail.com

Has Discussion Of What “Equity” Requires Of Nations To Reduce GHG Emissions Disappeared From Climate Negotiations? If So, What Should Be Done About It?

ambition and equity

I. Introduction

Has the leadership of international climate negotiations under the UNFCCC lost the desire to require nations to expressly examine what “equity” requires of them? Recently there has been no evidence that the UNFCCC Secretariat or the leadership of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (known as the ADP) has any intention of discussing the meaning or practical significance of “equity” in climate negotiations. This paper examines: (a) what has happened recently in climate negotiations in regard to national obligations to reduce ghg emissions reductions on the basis of equity and justice, (b) arguments that have been made in support of ignoring express discussion of equity and justice issues in climate negotiations, (c) arguments in support of a greater focus on equity and justice at both the international and national levels, and (d) what should be done to increase the focus on equity and justice in light of the resistance of nations to acknowledge their equitable and justice obligations.

II. Recent Disappearance of Equity In Climate Negotiations

The ADP is a subsidiary body under the UNFCCC. It was established in 2011 with the mandate to develop a “protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015 and to come into effect in 2020.

While there have been negotiations under way on the new agreement, there has also been an attempt to increase national commitments on greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions in the short-term because mainstream science is telling nations that much greater reductions in emissions are necessary in the next few years to maintain any hope of keeping warming below 20 C, a warming limit that all nations have agreed should not be exceeded to give some hope of preventing catastrophic warming. In fact, the international community has understood that much more ambitious commitments are necessary, both in the short- and long-term to maintain any hope of keeping warming to tolerable levels. For this reason, the agendas of the last few Conferences of the Parties (COP) UNFCCC meetings have sought to increase the ambition of nations to increase their ghg emissions reductions commitments both in the short- and long-term. There has also been a fairly wide-spread understanding that the international community will not avoid very dangerous climate change unless nations increase their national commitments to levels required of them based upon equity while working with other nations to keep atmospheric concentrations of ghg from exceeding dangerous levels.

Two years ago it appeared as if the ADP was proceeding to seek some agreement on what equity requires under the UNFCCC. In May of 2012, the UNFCCC held a workshop on equity in Bonn. A report on the workshop is on available.  As expected, nations were not able to come close to agreeing on what equity requires at this initial Bonn workshop. Yet, the workshop concluded that a work program on equity is needed and made a decision that “equity” should be taken up at COP-18 in Doha, Qatar.

nw book advThere was no focused discussion of “equity” in Qatar despite the recommendation from the Bonn workshop. The United States opposed language in the final Qatar document that included language on “equity” according to the report on COP-18 by the Earth Negotiation Bulletin http://www.iisd.ca/vol12/enb12567e.html. Is this the reason why discussions on “equity” were not resumed in Qatar? The public record is not clear.

Nor was there any focused discussion on “equity” in Warsaw at COP-19 with the exception of a proposal pushed by the Brazilian government and 130 other nations to define equity in a way that took historic responsibility into account. The United States, the EU, Canada, and Australia refused to discuss this proposal.

And there was virtually no discussion of what equity would require of nations in regard to emissions reductions commitments in the last few years at the UNFCCC annual meetings which seek to create an adequate global solution to climate change.

The Warsaw meeting did discuss “co-benefits of climate change commitments” at the urging the UNFCCC leadership thereby implicitly reverting to a category of self-interest rather than national obligation. Co-benefits were discussed presumably to convince nations that it was in their national economic interest to adopt climate policies, a tactic which may implicitly confirm the notion that national economic interest rather than national obligations should be the basis for climate change policy.

And so it would appear that discussions of what equity would require of nations to increase their ghg emissions reductions commitments is no longer on the UNFCCC agenda.

Yet nations have already agreed under the UNFCCC to adopt programs and measures to prevent dangerous climate change based upon equity and common but differentiated responsibilities. We might add, however, even if nations did not agree to reduce their emissions based upon equity, basic and uncontroversial theories of justice would require nations to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. However most nations are making ghg reduction commitments based upon national economic interest, not on their fair share of safe global emissions.

Differences among nations about the significance of equity and justice plagued the Warsaw meeting in regard to funding for adaptation and loss and damages, yet the ADP discussions never took up express consideration of what equity would require in regard to these issues either.

equity and ambitionThis failure to discuss equity is somewhat curious given that there has been a strong level of agreement among many observers to and commenters on the climate negotiations that if nations are going to increase their ambition on ghg emissions reduction to levels that prevent catastrophic warming, they will need to make commitments based upon their equitable obligations to keep atmospheric ghg concentrations to safe levels rather than on self-interest. That is, without a recognition by nations of their ethical and justice obligations to the rest of the world to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, there is little hope of preventing catastrophic warming.

Based upon the negotiations in Warsaw at COP-19, it would appear that the future treaty that was agreed to in Durban in 2011 and is to be finally negotiated in Paris in 2015 will be comprised of “bottom-up” pledges without any formal recognition or operational definition of equity. Although it is possible that “equity” could be taken up in a meeting scheduled for March in Bonn this coming year, it would appear that at least for the moment, the UNFCCC secretariat has abandoned any hope of getting nations to operationalization “equity” in the negotiations.

In fact, several observers of the negotiations have advised the international community to abandon any direct discussion of “equity” because it is too contentious. This paper reviews some of the reasons that have been advanced for avoiding any direct negotiation of what “equity” requires along with arguments for resumption of negotiations expressly focused on equity. Finally this paper argues for continuance of a discussion on “equity” that anticipates some of the problems that have arisen when equity has been previously discussed in the negotiations.

III. Arguments Against Direct Negotiation of “Equity”

Several observers of the climate negotiations have counseled against any further direct negotiation of “equity” because it is too contentious and will not likely lead to agreement.

For instance, a recent World Bank paper recommends that climate negotiations abandon attempts to achieve national ghg emissions reductions commitments based upon “equitable” obligations after a somewhat rigorous review of the extant literature on “equity” and a brief summary of what has happened in the negotiations. The paper is entitled “Equity in Climate Change, An Analytical Review.” The paper identifies four formula or frameworks for operationalizing equity under the UNFCCC that have appeared in the relevant literature. These include emissions allocated: (i) equally on a per capita basis; (ii) inversely related to historic responsibility for emissions; (iii) inversely related to ability to pay; and (iv) directly related to future development opportunities.

The paper argues that none of these formulae have attracted sufficient support because each is dramatically inconsistent with many nations’ national interest and therefore will not likely receive the level of consensus required in international negotiations. In light of the fact that any attempt to reach consensus on the operationalization of equity will run into conflicts with national interest, the paper recommends a completely new approach that would fund a new carbon revolution while abandoning the current approach in which nations make individual emissions reductions commitments consistent with what equity requires of them. Equity considerations, according to the paper, would then play a role, not in allocating a shrinking emissions budget, but in informing the relative contributions of countries to funding a technological revolution.

The World Bank paper further asserts that conflicts of interest are created by any of the equity formulas that have been advanced that are both inherent and stron. They are inherent because any allocation must distribute a fixed aggregate carbon budget. They are strong because the budget is not really fixed but shrinking dramatically relative to the growing needs of developing countries. Since mainstream science has concluded that drastic compression in aggregate emissions is now necessary to keep temperatures below dangerous levels, shrinking emissions budgets are likely to require even greater ghg emissions reduction commitments that are in even greater conflict with national interests.

Therefore, the paper recommends abandoning negotiations about “equitable” emissions reduction commitments and attack climate change through commitments on funding climate friendly technologies.

Others have also recommended abandonment of “equity” considerations because any reasonable definition of equity would require nations to agree to cuts that were not in their national interest coupled with the fact that there is no consensus about what equity requires. It would appear that these people believe that if nations cannot agree on what equity requires it is unproductive to discuss equity in climate negotiations. They appear to fear that discussions of equity will lead to no agreement.

IV. Justification For Requiring Nations to Agree on Equitable Responsibilities

There are several reasons why nations should be required to make emissions reductions expressly consistent with what fairness and equity require of them including the following:

1. Nations have been entering negotiations as if only economic national interest counts and in so doing have failed to make emissions reductions commitments based upon equity that in the aggregate will avoid dangerous climate change. In fact, when some nations have been asked to explain why they have not made more ambitious commitments, they have frequently justified their unwillingness to make greater commitments because such reductions are not in their economic interest. For this reason, it is likely a practical mistake to not insist that any national commitment conforms to some reasonable definition of what equity requires. To ignore this obligation is to encourage the continued dominance of national self-interest in national responses to climate change.

2. Although there is some reasonable disagreement on what equity requires, this fact should not relieve nations of the obligation to demonstrate that their emissions reductions commitments are based upon reasonable expectations of fairness and distributive justice. Some nations seem to be arguing that because there are differences among nations about what equity requires, this is justification for totally ignoring equity and justice issues entailed by making allocations among nations. Because allocation of national ghg emissions is inherently a matter of justice, nations should be required to explain how their ghg emissions reduction commitments both will lead to a specific atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration that is not dangerous, that is, what remaining ghg CO2 equivalent budget they have assumed that their commitment will achieve, and on what equitable basis have they determined their fair share of that budget. Any national ghg emissions reduction is implicitly a position on a safe atmospheric ghg concentration and that nation’s fair share of total global emissions that will reach that target. Because of this, nations should be required to expressly disclose their assumptions on safe global emissions and what fairness requires of them because such assumptions are implicit but usually hidden in their commitment.

3. Although there may be some reasonable disagreement of what equity requires among various equitable frameworks that have been proposed, this does not mean that any proposal for what equity requires is entitled to respect. The problem of allocating emissions reductions among nations is a classic problem of distributive justice. Distributive justice allows people to be treated differently but requires that those who want to be treated differently from others in some distribution of public goods identify a morally relevant justification for being treated differently. For instance, a person whose justification for obtaining a larger share of food is the fact that he or she has blue eyes will not pass ethical scrutiny because the color of someone’s eyes is not a morally relevant justification for different treatment. Similarly a nation’s justification for the refusal to reduce ghg emissions is that reductions in emissions will affect the nation’s economic interest is not a morally relevant justification for refusing to cut ghg emissions. If it were any polluter could justify continuing to pollute as long as pollution controls cost the polluter money. Because many of the justifications for national ghg emissions commitments are based upon economic self-interest, rather than ethical duty to others, these justifications fail to satisfy minimum ethical scrutiny. And so, strong claims can be made that certain justifications for national commitments on ghg emissions reductions fail to pass any reasonable ethical analysis even though one cannot say absolutely what perfect justice requires. It is therefore fairly easy to spot ethical problems with national ghg commitments even though one cannot claim unambiguously what justice requires. Therefore it is possible to get traction for ethics and justice issues despite disagreement on what justice precisely requires.

4. Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity and justice may require of national ghg emission reduction commitments, there are only a few considerations that are arguably morally relevant to national climate targets. In discussing equity and the distributive justice of national commitments, the relevant criteria for being treated differently that have been recognized by serious participants in the debate about equity include: (a) per capita considerations, (b) historical considerations, (c) luxury versus necessity emissions, (d) economic capacity of nations for reductions, (e) levels of economic development, and (f) and combinations of these factors. The fact that reasonable people may disagree about the importance of each one of these criteria does not mean that anything goes as a matter of ethics and justice. In addition, the positions actually taken by nations on these issues in the negotiations utterly fail any reasonable ethical scrutiny. For this reason, discussions on equity should focus heavily on the obvious injustice of national positions on these issues rather than worrying about what perfect justice requires. Some reasonable compromise among these criteria should be a goal of the negotiations. In fact, a global framework for equity would include some forward looking considerations including per capita considerations and backward looking considerations such as historical responsibility from a specific date, modified by certain economic considerations including economic ability to respond rapidly and perhaps differences between necessity emissions and luxury emissions.

 5. The insight that nations will not agree to what equity requires of them because it is not in their national interest should not be the basis for abandoning an equitable approach to climate change as recommended by the above referenced World Bank paper because national interest is not a morally acceptable justification for national climate change policy yet it is likely to remain the criteria for setting national climate change policy unless a nation is shamed for its ethically bankrupt position on climate change. The fact that changes in national responses to ethically unacceptable behavior can be demonstrated from the spread of human rights around the world which can be attributed to shaming nations for their failure to provide human rights protections. The same naming and shaming approach to equity and national ghg emissions reductions commitments should be followed on climate change emissions reductions commitments by adopting better understanding of the ethical bankruptcy of some nations’ approach to climate change.

6. The need to turn up the visibility on the ethical and equitable unacceptability of national ghg commitments is not only important to get nations to increase their emissions reductions commitments in international negotiations, it is also important to change the way climate change policies are debated at the national level when climate change policies are formed. For instance, when some nations including the United States and New Zealand have debated climate change policies at the national level there has been a complete failure to acknowledge that proposed policies must respond to the nation’s equity and ethical obligations. Because of this, national economic interest rather than global obligation dominates debates on proposed climate policies at the national level. There is an important need to change the focus of national debates on climate change policies at the national scale so that citizens understand the ethical problems with their country’s national commitments. And so, there is an important need to increase awareness of the equity and justice issues entailed by national climate change policy debates.

V. How To Make Equity Part Of National Responses To Climate Change

For the reason stated above, there is an urgent need to increase the focus in international climate negotiations and at the national level on equity and justice and simply ignoring these issues because they are difficult or contentious is likely a huge practical mistake that has potential catastrophic consequences. However, given the resistance thus far on nations’ willingness to openly discuss the equity and justice dimensions of their climate policies, the first order question is how to do this. Because of the unwillingness of nations to agree on what equity requires of them, initial steps should be taken to increase awareness of the ethical and justice failures of national responses to climate change.

1. The first priority is to achieve a wider understanding of the utter failure of national commitments thus far to deal with the equity and justice issues. The UNFCCC secretariat has the authority to ask nations specific questions. In the past, when the nations have been asked questions about their position on equity, the questions have been too general with insufficient follow up. Along this line each nation should be asked to answer a series of questions about their ghg emissions commitments which include but are not limited to the following:

A. What specifically is the quantitative relevance of your emission reduction commitment to a global ghg emissions budget to keep warming below a 1.5 °C or 2°C warming target. In other words how does your emissions reduction commitment, in combination with others, achieve an acceptable ghg atmospheric concentration that limits warming to 2°C or the 1.5°C warming limit that may be necessary to prevent catastrophic warming?

B. What is the atmospheric ghg concentration level that your target in combination with others is aiming to achieve?

C. How specifically does your national commitment take into consideration your nation’s undeniable obligation under the UNFCCC to base your national climate change policy on the basis of “equity.” In other words, how have you operationalized equity quantitatively in making your emissions reduction commitments?

D. What part of your target was based upon “equity”?

E. Are you denying that nations have a duty under international law to assure that:

a. the “polluter pays”;

b. citizens in their country not harm other people outside their national jurisdiction under the “no harm” principle; and,

c. your country should have applied the precautionary approach to climate change policy since 1992 when the UNFCCC was adopted?

F. How does your national ghg target commitment respond to these settled principles of international law?

G. In debating national climate policy, to what extent have you apprised citizens of your country that nations have ethical and justice responsibilities to other vulnerable people and nations?

H. To what extent have you informed high emitting entities and individuals within your nation that they have ethical responsibilities to decrease their ghg emissions in cases when this can be done without a major sacrifice to an entities or individual interest.

2. Because debates about climate change policy formation at the national level have often ignored questions of equity and fairness, there is a need to publicize how debates at the national level about proposed climate change policies acknowledge or ignore questions of equity, ethics, and distributive justice. To accomplish this, researchers around the world should be requested to report on and document how ethics and equity issues are being considered in public policy debates about national policy within each country.  This analysis should determine, among other things, the extent to which the debate about climate policy has specifically considered an atmospheric ghg concentrations goal and on what equitable and distributive justice basis has the target commitment selected.

3. There is a need to establish an international data base on how nations have considered equity and distributive justice issues at the national level and specific excuses that nations have relied upon for their failure to support an ethically justifiable international climate regime.

4. The starting point for any negotiations session under the UNFCCC should be a submission by each government on their position on their equitable obligations for issues under negotiation. This submission should be detailed to include specific ethical issues under consideration during each negotiation.

5. Each nation should be required to identify what policy steps it is taking to provide, protect, and fulfill the human rights that may be adversely affected by climate change to both people in their own country and vulnerable people around the world.

6. As part of climate negotiations, each national commitment to reduce ghg emissions should be reviewed by a panel of experts who would evaluate each national commitment to reduce ghg emissions on its merits as a matter of distributive justice.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,

Widener University School of Law,

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Visiting Professor, Nagoya University,

Nagoya, Japan

Part-time Professor, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

The Ethical and Justice Issues At the Center of the Warsaw Climate Change Negotiations-Issue 2, Equity and National GHG Emissions Reductions Commitments in the Medium- to Long-Term

 

climate justice

This is the third paper in a series which is looking at the ethical and justice issues entailed by the Warsaw climate change negotiating agenda. This paper looks at issue two, namely, the ethics and justice issues entailed by the need to find a global solution to climate change that includes national ghg emissions targets after 2020. The last entry looked at ethical issues entailed by the need to increase the ambition of national emissions targets before 2020 when a new climate change treaty that will be negotiated by 2015 comes into effect.

new book description for website-1_01The issues of long-term national commitments to reduce ghg emissions is being negotiated in Warsaw under the Durban Platform. The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) is a subsidiary body of the UNFCCC that was established by a decision of the Durban COP in December 2011. The mandate of the ADP is to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015 in order for it to be adopted at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020. Among many other issues, the new treaty will need to take a position on several issues relating to national ghg emissions obligations after 2020.

The last entry in this series examined some of the most recent scientific evidence that has concluded that the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change. The staggering magnitude of the challenge facing the international community to limit warming to 2 degrees C can be visualized by understanding the following chart that depicts three ghg emissions reductions pathways which would allow the world to stay within a specific remaining budget to achieve a specific atmospheric concentration of ghgs. As we explained in the last entry, the IPCC has in September of this year described a budget that would give the world a 66% confidence of preventing the 2 degree C warming limit which the international community has agreed upon.

Any atmospheric ghg concentration target can only state the warming that will be experienced at the concentration limited by  a probability statement because there is scientific uncertainty about climate sensitivity, a term which is used to describe the warming that will be caused by different concentration of atmospheric ghgs. The level of certainty that we should seek to limit warming to a specific atmospheric concentration is itself an ethical question, not just a scientific question which often goes unexamined by the scientific community when discussing warming limits and emissions budgets to achieve warming limits.

One might ask why the budget prepared by IPCC was not based upon achieving the 2 degree C with much higher levels of certainty, a question which is not discussed in the IPCC report, yet one might speculate that IPCC’s failure to discuss a budget that would assure 100% certainty that the 2 degree C warming limit would not be exceeded was because it would leave no remaining budget for additional ghg emissions. The international community has already emitted so much CO2 that limiting warming to 2 degrees C with very high levels of certainty would mean that future emissions must be negative emissions, that is activities which remove ghg from the atmosphere while immediately ceasing ghg emissions activities.

As we have seen in the last entry, if the IPCC budget would have included all ghgs that have been emitted, it would have concluded that there remains only 269 billion tons of CO2e left to be emitted by the entire global community to stay within an emissions budget that will give a 66% confidence that the 20C warming limit would not be exceeded. Achieving the global reductions entailed by this budget is a civilization challenging problem of the highest magnitude.

The following chart prepared by the Global Commons Institute provides a visualization of the enormity of the challenge entailed by a budget of approximately 242 billion tons. This chart shows 3 different potential missions reductions pathways which will stay within the budget which differ depending upon how fast the needed emissions reductions are begun. The later global emissions peak and begin to be reduced, the steeper the emissions reductions pathways must become. This fact alone leads to the conclusion that any delay in emissions reductions has ethical significance because the steeper emission reductions are needed, the more difficult, if not impossible, it becomes to achieve the needed reductions. For this reasons, those who have been advocating for a delay in implementing a very aggressive ghg emissions policy can be understood to be engaged in ethically troublesome activities because it is alreadly likely to be too late to prevent some very serious consequences from climate change to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Slide22

This chart, being a depiction of total global emissions reductions pathway, does not attempt to display what the emissions reductions pathway in any one nation would be if equity and justice were to be taken seriously by nations. High emitting nations will need even steeper reductions in global missions than those depicted in the above  chart. If there is any hope of achieving the global emotions needed to limit warming to 2°C, as we explained in the last entry in the series, nations will need to limit their emissions based upon equity. Yet, equity-based emissions for high emitting developed countries will lead to an even greater challenge for high emitting nations. The following chart, also prepared by the Global Commons Institute, depicts what the US share of total global missions must be if United States were to agree on a per capita allocation of the remaining global budget to satisfy its clear obligations to take equity into account although this chart would change depending upon when nations would agree on equal per capita shares and when global emissions peaked. Nevertheless it is helpful to demonstrate the enormity of the challenge entailed by the undeniable need to take equity into account by depicting the consequences for one nation as this chart does.

Slide23

This chart uniquely shows why the United States and other high-emitting nations likely do not want to discuss “equity” in the Warsaw climate negotiations. If United States and other high-emitting nations were to take seriously its obligation to reduce its emissions based upon equity or distributive justice, such a decision would create an enormous challenge for them. And so, it would appear that the United States and several other developed countries have entered the Warsaw negotiations as if they can ignore the equity and justice issues while justifying their national ghg reductions commitments ultimately on the basis of national economic interest.

However, emissions reductions commitments based upon national economic interest can not be understood to satisfy any reasonable definition of equity or plausible formula for distributive justice.

Distributive justice does not require that all parties be treated equally. But distributive justice does require that parties who want to be treated differently justify their different treatment on the basis of morally relevant criteria. For instance, according to theories of distributive justice, I cannot justify my desire for more food on the basis that I have blue eyes. The color of my eyes it not a relevant basis for unequal treatment when it comes to food distribution. For the same reason, a justification for national ghg emissions reduction target commitments  based upon national economic interest alone that does not consider global responsibilities does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. It is totally ethically bankrupt.

Many commentators on the “equity” issue arising in international climate negotiations dismiss any plea for “equitable” allocations on the basis that because different people reach different conclusions about what equity requires the search for an equitable global solution to climate change should be abandoned. For instance it has been reported that the United States has resisted discussing equity on the basis that there is no objective way of determining what equity requires.

Yet the fact that different people reach different conclusions about what equity means does not mean that all opinions about what acting equity means or entitled to respect. As we’ve seen, theories of distributive justice require that people want to be treated differently identify morally relevant criteria for being treated differently. As we have seen, the color of my eyes is not a morally relevant criteria were being treated differently. Similarly my race is not a morally relevant justification for giving me the right to vote above others.

The world urgently needs a deeper conversation about equity and justice and national climate change policies.

To move the equity debate along, nations should be required to specify specifically how their emissions reductions commitments deal with both the enormity of the challenge entailed by the global emissions budget identified by the IPCC and how their emissions reductions target specifically can be justified on the basis of equity and justice.

Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity and justice may require of any national ghg emission reduction commitment, there are only a few considerations that are arguably morally relevant to national climate targets. This entry will end with the identification of a few equity frameworks that have received serious attention in the international community. It is important to stress, however, that although there is some legitimate disagreement about which of these formats to follow in international negotiations, almost all national emissions reductions commitments of large emitting countries fail to pass any reasonable ethical scrutiny. In discussing equity and the distributive justice of national commitments, the relevant criteria for being treated differently that have been recognized by serious participants in the debate about equity include: (A) per capita considerations, (B) historical considerations, (C) luxury versus necessity emissions, (D) economic capacity of nations for reductions, (E) levels of economic development, and (E) and combinations of these factors.

The fact that reasonable people may disagree about the importance of each one of these criteria does not mean that anything goes as a matter of ethics and justice. In addition, the positions actually been taken by nations on these issues in the negotiations utterly fail any reasonable ethical scrutiny. For this reason, concerned citizens of the world should focus heavily on the obvious injustice of national positions on these issues rather than worrying about what perfect justice requires.

In addition, in all probability, a global framework for equity would include some forward looking considerations including per capita considerations and backward looking considerations such as historical responsibility from a specific date, modified by certain economic considerations including economic ability to respond rapidly and perhaps differences between necessity emissions and luxury emissions.

We would stress, it is not as necessary to get immediate agreement on the final framework as it is to achieve a wider understanding of the utter failure of national commitments thus far to deal with the equity and justice issues. Along this line each nation should be asked to answer a series of questions about their commitments which include:

A. What specifically is the quantitative relevance of your emission reduction commitment to a global ghg emissions budget to keep warming below the 2°C warming target. In other words how does your emissions reduction commitment in combination with others achieve an acceptable ghg atmospheric concentration that limits warming to 20C.

B. What is the atmospheric ghg concentration level  that your target in combination with others is aiming to achieve?

C. How specifically does your national commitment take into consideration your nation’s undeniable obligation under the UNFCCC to base your national climate change policy on the basis of “equity.” How have you operationalized equity?

D. What part of your target was based upon “equity.”

E. Are you denying that nations have a duty under international law to assure that:

a. the “polluter pays,”

b. that nations have a duty to assure that citizens in their country not harm other people outside their national jurisdiction,

c. nations should have applied the precautionary approach to climate change policy since 1992 when the UNFCCC was adopted?

F. How does your national ghg target commitment respond to these settled principles of international law?

As we have noted, citizes of the world need to increase international understanding of the failure of nations to respond to equity and distributive justice. The following equitable framework formats are among others in serious discussion in international climate negotiations about what “equity” requires. However, as we have argued, it is more important in this moment in history to achieve a higher level of understanding of the utter injustice of national ghg emissions commitments than it is to get agreement on what perfect justice requires. This is particularly because, the international media, for the most part, is utterly failing to cover the obvious ethical unacceptability of most national commitments on climate change.

Contraction and Convergence (C&C) is a proposed global framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. Conceived by the Global Commons Institute [GCI] in the early 1990s, the Contraction and Convergence strategy consists of reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gases to a safe level (contraction), resulting from every country bringing its emissions per capita to a level which is equal for all countries (convergence). It is intended to form the basis of an international agreement which will reduce carbon dioxide emissions to avoid dangerous climate change, carbon dioxide being the gas that is primarily responsible for changes in the greenhouse effect on Earth. C&C does not require immediate per capita emissions per country but allows a later convergence on capita allocations to deal with other equitable considerations.

Greenhouse Development Rights is a framework wherein the burdens for supporting both mitigation and adaptation are shared among countries in proportion to their economic capacity and responsibility. GDRs seeks to transparently calculate national “fair shares” in the costs of an emergency global climate mobilization, in a manner that takes explicit account of the fact that, as things now stand, global political and economic life is divided along both North/South and rich/poor lines.

Equity in the Greenhouse, South-North dialogue is a global “multi-stage approach,” based on principles of: responsibility; capability; mitigation potential; right to development.

Brazilian Historic Responsibility is based primarily on historic responsibility for emissions: developed countries are each allocated emissions cuts based on the total contribution of their historic emissions (going back to 1800s) to the current global temperature increase.

Oxfam has proposed an approach, subsequently supported by various other NGOs, that uses a calculated responsibility and capability index to allocate an overall developed country target of 40%, and allows for a climate finance budget of $150bn to be allocated using the same method. Developing countries individual need for financing is assessed in line with available economic capability, taking into account intra-national inequality, and hence climate finance is provided on a sliding scale (below a minimum ‘available capability threshold’).

The EU has (e.g. EU Commission Proposal of 2009) suggested a method for distributing targets amongst Annex 1 countries that includes starting with an overall target for Annex 1 countries of 30% below 1990 levels by 2020 and allocating this target on the following basis: GDP per capita, addressing the capacity to pay for emission reduction within a country and through the global carbon market [capacity]; GHG per GDP, addressing the opportunities to reduce GHG emissions within one economy [capacity/mitigation potential]; Change of GHG emissions between 1990 and 2005, rewarding early action by developed countries to reduce emissions [reward early action/recognize latent mitigation potential]; Population trends over the period 1990 – 2005, recognizing different population trends between countries and as such different pressures on the projected emission evolution [equal rights to pollute]

There is a need to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change for many reasons including the fact that ethically dubious positions of nations are being hidden in self-interested arguments made in opposition to climate change policies and there is no hope of meeting the 2 degree C  warming target without a serious national response based upon equity.

One need not seek agreement on what ethics requires to get traction on ethical issues because most opposition to action on climate change fails to survive minimum ethical scrutiny. The key is to spot the injustice of positions not on getting agreement on what justice requires.

The longer the world waits to develop a global approach to climate change, the more central the ethics questions become about the most contentious issues in consideration.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,

Widener University School of Law

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Visting Professor, Nagoya University,

Nagoya, Japan

Part-time Professor

Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology

Nanjing, China

dabrown 57@gmail.com

 

 

Ethical and Justice Issues In Contention At the Warsaw Climate Negotiations-The First In A Series Of Reports.

warsaw

 

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”.

 

 By:

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

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

A New Web Site Enables Climate Policy Makers To Fulfill Their Ethical Responsibility to Understand The Significance of Policy Choices

aubreyAs we have explained from many angles on this website, climate change is a civilization challenging ethical problem. We have also explained why nations urgently need to immediately respond to their ethical obligations in making national emissions commitments under the UNFCCC.  In addition, ethics requires those engaged in dangerous behavior to understand the effects of their policy choices and respond to their ethical obligations. Yet complex interactions of ghg emissions levels, atmospheric ghg concentrations, the climate system’s response to atmospheric ghg concentrations, and how policy options must consider the magnitude of the global threat as it changes in time make it difficult for policy makers and NGOs to visualize and understand the significance of climate policy choices. And so ethics requires policy makers to understand these complex interactions, yet the sheer complexity of these interactions makes clear understanding of the significance of policy options very challenging.

We have also explained on this website how the debate on climate change in the United States and several other high-emitting nations is largely ignoring national ethical responsibilities. If nations are to take their ethical obligations seriously, they need to understand the extreme urgency of increasing their ghg emissions reduction targets to comply with their ethical obligations. Yet to understand their ethical obligations policy-makers must understand  the significance of policy choices. And so ethics requires climate change policy-makers to understand many complex scientific issues.

Ethics would also hold nations morally responsible for the failure to do this. Delay makes the climate change problem worse. Yet understanding how delay makes achieving the goals of preventing dangerous climate change extraordinarily more challenging also requires some knowledge about how increasing atmospheric concentrations affect global emissions reductions pathways options.   In addition, because each national emission reduction target commitment must be understood as an implicit position of the nation  on safe ghg atmospheric concentration levels, setting national ghg emissions goals must be set with full knowledge of how any national target will affect the global problem.

However, a clear understanding of how national emissions reductions commitments affect global climate change impacts requires an understanding of complex relationships between atmospheric ghg concentrations, likely global temperature changes in response to ghg atmospheric concentrations, rates of ghg emissions reductions over time and all of this requires making assumptions about how much CO2 from emissions will remain in the atmosphere, how sensitive the global climate change is to atmospheric ghg concentrations, and when the international community begins to get on a serious emissions reduction pathway guided by equity considerations. The problem in understanding these variables  is a challenge  that no static graph can capture.

A new website should be of great value to policy-makers to view  and understand the relationship between their national emissions reduction strategies and the global climate change problem, issues that must be considered in setting national ghg targets as a matter of ethics.  This tool is the Carbon Budget Accounting Tool (CBAT) which is available at http://www.gci.org.uk/cbat-domains/Domains.swf

Some features of CBAT are still under development, yet the site is already practically useful to policy-makers.

The CBAT has been developed by the Global Commons Institute founded in the United Kingdom in 1990 by Aubrey Meyer as an organization to find to a fair way to tackle climate change.

ContractionAndConvergence

 

The CBAT tool allows visualization of  any  national response for reducing national ghg emissions commitments based upon the idea of contraction and convergence, one of several equity frameworks under discussion in international climate negotiations,  but is also of value for visualizing the policy significance of other equity frameworks that are under discussion internationally.

CBAT allows those interested in developing a global solution to visualize the otherwise complex interactions of international carbon budgets, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, ghg emissions reductions commitments, the effect of a nation taking its ethical obligations seriously, resulting temperature, ocean acidification, and seal level rise,

The CBAT model should be very useful for all who hope to understand future climate change policy options and the scale of the global challenge facing the world. This writer has been engaged in climate change policy options since the 1992 Earth Summit at which the United Nations Framework Convention was opened for signature and have attended most of the Conference of Parties under the UNFCCC since then. Yet even though I have significant experience and knowledge about future climate change policy challenges, the CBAT model helps me visualize the significance of certain policy options facing the world.

Because ethics requires policy-makers to understand the policy implications of their policies, understanding the complex interactions of the variables displayed on the CBAT is indispensable for national climate change policy-makers as a matter of ethics.

By:

new book description for website-1_01

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University School of Law

Visiting Professor, Nagoya University School of Law

Nagoya Japan

dabrown57@gmail.com

New York Times Article Misleads On The Moral Acceptability of Climate Change Policies.

cost-bene

money burrning

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.

new book description for website-1_01Whether 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.

 

By: 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

Ethical Issues with Relying on Natural Gas as a Solution to Climate Change

natural gas

 

Is Natural Gas Electricity Combustion A Solution to

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I. Introduction

Interest in tackling climate change in the United States has increased somewhat recently in response to global CO2 atmospheric concentrations reaching 400 ppm, although there is almost no hope of new federal legislation soon.  Many claims have been made recently that increased use of natural gas is an important element in any US response to climate change. In this regard, the natural gas industry has made a considerable effort to convince citizens that natural gas from hydraulic fracking is part of the solution to climate change. As an example, the following is from a gas industry website.

Because carbon dioxide makes up such a high proportion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, reducing carbon dioxide emissions can play a pivotal role in combating the greenhouse effect and global warming. The combustion of natural gas emits almost 30 % less carbon dioxide than oil, and just under 45 % less carbon dioxide than coal.

One issue that has arisen with respect to natural gas and the greenhouse effect is the fact that methane, the principle component of natural gas, is itself a potent greenhouse gas. Methane has an ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. According to the Energy Information Administration, although methane emissions account for only 1.1 % of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they account for 8.5 % of the greenhouse gas emissions based on global warming potential. Sources of methane emissions in the U.S. include the waste management and operations industry, the agricultural industry, as well as leaks and emissions from the oil and gas industry itself. A major study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Gas Research Institute (GRI), now Gas Technology Institute, in 1997 sought to discover whether the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from increased natural gas use would be offset by a possible increased level of methane emissions. The study concluded that the reduction in emissions from increased natural gas use strongly outweighs the detrimental effects of increased methane emissions.  More recently in 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University released “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas”, a report comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the Marcellus Shale region with emissions from coal used for electricity generation.  The authors found that wells in the Marcellus region emit 20 percent to 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal used to produce electricity.

(Naturalgas. org, 2013)

The interest in natural gas combustion as a potential solution to climate change has been gaining because US ghg emissions have fallen somewhat as natural gas from hydraulic fracturing technologies has been rapidly replacing coal in electricity sector generation.  In this regard, for instance, Reuters recently reported in regard to recent drops in US ghg emissions that:

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy use in the first quarter of this year fell to their lowest level in the U.S. in 20 years, as demand shifted to natural gas-fired generation from coal-fired electricity due to record low gas prices, the energy department said.

 (Reuters, 2012)

The US  natural gas industry has often argued that a switch to natural gas will significantly reduce ghg emissions from the electricity sector because natural gas emits almost 50 % less COper unit of energy produced than  coal combustion.  For this reason, natural gas is often referred to as a “bridge fuel.” (See, e.g, Kirkland)

The following chart shows the amount of pollutants including CO2 from natural  gas, oil, and coal combustion.

coalandnaturalgas

As we can see from this chart, natural gas combustion as a source of electricity generation produces about 70 % of the CO2 as oil and 56 % of the CO2 compared to coal without including methane leakage amounts, a matter discussed below. Yet controversies remain about whether natural gas should be understood as a solution to climate change and if so to what extent. This article first identifies the controversies and then reviews these issues through an ethical lens.

II. The Controversies

Two controversies about the efficacy of switching from coal to natural gas combustion in the production of electricity need to be resolved before conclusions on the beneficial effects of natural gas in reducing ghg emissions can be made. These controversies are: (a) Lingering issues about methane leakage rates, and (b) The inability of current natural gas combustion technology to achieve the magnitude of ghg emissions required to prevent dangerous climate change particularly in the medium- to long-term.

A. Unresolved Methane Leakage Rates

Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent ghg. Natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing is known to leak methane. It is usually assumed that replacing coal with gas would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as long as the leakage of methane into the air from gas production does not exceed 3.6%. (Reuters, 2012)  Yet significant controversies remain about actual methane leakage rates. In this regard recently there has been a flurry of conflicting papers about methane leakage rates from natural gas production. For instance, US EPA concluded that methane leakage was 2.4% of total natural-gas production in 2009. Other recent studies have found leakage rates of 4%  and 9% from hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado and Utah. (Tollefson, 2013)  As a result, no rational climate change action plan or ghg inventory should ignore controversies about methane leakage from hydraulic fracking operations. Until methane leakage rates are scientifically determined, any ghg inventory or projection of future emissions should identify the range of leakage rates that appear in the extant literature.  In addition to leakage rates from natural gas production facilities, methane leakage is also known to occur in natural gas transmission lines as well as from vehicles powered by natural gas and other end uses of natural gas. Therefore, actual methane leakage rates into the atmosphere from natural gas need to be based on the sum of leakage from all of these sources that include production, transmission, and end use.

Because methane leakage rate controversies are not yet resolved, any climate change action plan must be transparent about the limitations of predicting ghg emissions from natural gas consumption and fully identify all uncertainties about leakage rates.

(b) The Need To Move Aggressively To Non-Fossil Renewable Energy Even If Natural Gas Proves to Be A Short-Term Bridge Fuel

To understand why natural gas combustion in the electricity sector is not likely be an adequate solution to climate change in the  long-term, it is necessary to understand the scale of the problem facing the world. The international community agreed in climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 that the international community should limit warming to 2°C to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact, countries agreed to further assess whether the 2°C warming limit needs to be replaced by a more stringent 1.5°C warming limit to avoid dangerous climate change impacts. This conclusion was confirmed in climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010, in Durban in 2011, and in Doha in 2012. A 2°C warming limit was chosen because there is substantial scientific evidence that warming above 2°C could trigger rapid, non-linear climate change threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends. Even if rapid climate change is not triggered if the 2°C warming is exceeded, this amount of warming will create huge harms to some people and nations around the world. Stabilizing CO2 equivalent concentrations at 450 ppm would only result in a 50% likelihood of limiting global warming to 2°C, and that it would be necessary to achieve stabilisation below 400 ppm to give a relatively high certainty of not exceeding 2°C.  (Report of the Scientific Steering Committee of the International Symposium on the Stabilization of Greenhouse Gases)

Limiting warming to 2°C or less will require reductions in global ghg emissions below current emissions by as much as 80 percent by mid-century for the entire world and as we explained in the a recent article on “equity” at even greater reduction levels for most developed countries. (see On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.) 

And so, the challenge facing the world to limit future warming to tolerable levels is extraordinarily daunting and will likely require a level of global cooperation far beyond any other previous  human problem.

Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change requires immediate action. The entire world will need to peak its ghg emissions as soon as possible followed by emissions reductions at extraordinarily ambitious rates over the next 30 years. The longer it takes for world ghg emissions to peak and the higher ghg emissions levels are when peaking is achieved, the steeper global emissions reductions need to be to prevent dangerous levels of warming. The following chart shows the emissions reduction pathways that are needed in this century to give the world any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C, assuming global emissions continue to rise at current levels during the next few years.

three reductions pathways

(Anderson, 2012)

And so it is clear that the later the peaking of total global emissions, the steeper the reduction pathways that are needed.

Further scientific analysis may reveal that methane leakage rates may be small enough to provide climate change emissions reduction benefits when coal combustion of electricity production is replaced by natural gas combustion. As we have seen this is an ongoing controversy about which further scientific analysis is needed.  Still, as explained below, given the enormity of global reductions of ghg emissions that are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, natural gas is likely only to be a short-term bridge fuel. (IEA, 2012)

This is so because according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, natural gas can play at best a limited, very temporary role “if climate objectives are to be met.” That is, greater ghg emissions reductions are needed to prevent 2°C warming than those that can be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas combustion. And so most observers argue that the only viable response to the threat of catastrophic climate change is rapid deployment of existing carbon-free technology. (IEA, 2012) Even if natural gas combustion creates a 50 percent less CO2 per unit of energy produced, an amount which is beyond best case on ghg emission reductions,  it will not produce the greater emissions reductions necessary in the next 30 years necessary to give any hope of restricting warming to potentially catastrophic levels.  In short, natural gas combustion cant get us where we need to be just a few decades out. It might help in the short term, but we need 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 with putting the world on an urgently needed ghg emissions reduction pathway that gives more hope of preventing catastrophic warming.

There  are also other significant benefits of moving quickly to non-fossil fuels. For instance, according to IEA report, fuel savings from investment in non-fossil fuel technologies will pay for the investments. (IEA, 2012)  Even if natural gas is a short-term bridge fuel, delay in investing in non-fossil fuel technologies may make it impossible to meet the emissions reductions targets needed to prevent dangerous climate change. For this reason, any climate action strategy must look at emissions reductions pathways beyond 2020 necessary to limit warming to 2oC and consider what amounts of non-fossil energy are needed through 2050. Because huge amounts of non-fossil energy will very likely be required to allow the United States and other developed nations reduce their  carbon foot-print to levels required to meet their fair share of safe global emissions, the more rapid the ramp up of non-fossil energy the easier it will be to reach acceptable ghg emissions levels in the years ahead.

Furthermore, the IEA report makes it clear that abundant cheap natural gas could push renewables out of the market unless there is a price on carbon or aggressive economic support for non-fossil renewable energy.  It is  also possible that cheaper natural gas prices may lead to higher rates of consumption of electricity creating higher CO2 emissions. For this reason, any reliance on natural gas combustion as a method of reducing CO emissions must provide for ramped up commitments to non-fossil fuel sources of energy at levels needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Reliance on natural gas alone will not achieve the 80%-95%  reductions required of developed nations to prevent dangerous climate change.

Barriers to much more aggressive use of non-fossil combustion appear to be a lack of political will coupled and arguments about prohibitively high costs of non-fossil energy. We will now examine these issues through an ethical lens.

III. Ethical Analysis of the Natural Gas and Climate Change Controversies

Natural gas hydraulic fracturing technologies have created issues about social and environmental impacts that are beyond the scope of this article. Here we more narrowly examine ethical questions raised by reliance on natural gas as a solution to climate change.

Depending on how the methane leakage controversy is resolved, switching from coal combustion to natural gas combustion could help lower ghg emissions from the electricity sector in the short term.  Given that the United States has strong ethical responsibilities to rapidly reduce its carbon footprint, a matter examined extensively in Ethicsandclimate.org, one might initially conclude that as a matter of ethics switching to natural gas from coal combustion is ethically justifiable as a short-term strategy. Yet, undeniably replacement of coal combustion with non-fossil energy would create a much greater reduction in the long run in the US carbon footprint than a shift to natural gas from coal combustion would alone.  As we noted above, objections to moving immediately to non-fossil energy are lack of political will and cost arguments. We  now look at these political and cost arguments through an ethical lens.

A. The United States and Other High-Emitting Nations Have A Duty to Reduce Their Carbon Footprint As Rapidly and Dramatically As Reasonably Possible

No reasonable ethical theory could justify current US projected ghg emissions, including projected reductions that are expected to come from increased substitution of coal with natural gas at least in the medium to long term. This is so for many reasons including, first, as we have explained in considerable detail in the recent article on climate change equity, US emissions far exceed global averages in per capita emissions, the US is by far the largest contributor to historical emission which have raised atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from approximately 280 ppm to 400 ppm, and the world is now running out of time to limit warming to non-dangerous levels. Because, as we have demonstrated in the recent article on “equity” and climate change, there are approximately 50 ppm of CO2 equivalent atmospheric space that remain to be allocated among all nations to give the world approximately a 50% chance of avoiding a 2oC warming and developing nations that have done little to elevate atmospheric CO2 to current levels need a significant portion of the remaining atmospheric space , high emitting developed nations need to reduce their emissions as fast as possible to levels that represent their fair share of the remaining acceptable global budget. (See On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.) For this reason, high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to reduce their ghg emissions as fast as possible to their fair share of safe global emissions.  Without doubt, this means that the United States has an ethical duty to reduce emissions both in the short and long run faster than switching to natural gas combustion from coal sector will allow by itself.

As we have previously explained in EthicsandClimate.org there is now a scientific consensus that developed countries must limit their ghg emissions by as much as 25% to 40 % below 1990 emissions levels by 2020 and between 80% and 95% below1990 levels by 2050 to have any reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous climate change which would require atmospheric ghg concentrations to be stabilized at 450 ppm. (IPCC, 2007: 776)   (Also see, What You Need To Know to Understand the Scale of the Climate Change Problem and The Continuing US Press Failure to Report on the Urgency of this Civilization Challenging Threat) 

The actual amount of emissions reductions that are needed between now and 2020 is somewhat of a moving target depending on the level of uncertainty that society is willing to accept that a dangerous warming limit will be exceeded, the most recent increases in ghg emissions rates, and assumptions about when global ghg emissions peak before beginning rapid reduction rates.

One new study shows that we have to reduce emissions even more than scientists initially thought in order to avoid climate change’s worst impacts. A paper published in Energy Policy on February 20, 2013 by Michel den Elzen and colleagues examines new information on likely future emissions trajectories in developing countries.  (Ezden, 2013) As a result, the report finds that developed countries must reduce their emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 2°C, thus preventing some of climate change’s worst impacts.

As we have seen above, to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change the entire world will need to peak its emissions in the next few years followed by emissions reductions at hard to imagine rates over the next 30 years.

As we have also explained in EthicsandClimate. org, US reductions need to be much greater than average reduction levels required of the entire world as a matter of equity because the United States emissions are among the world’s highest in terms of per capita and historical emissions and there is precious little atmospheric space remaining for additional ghg emissions if the world is serious about avoiding dangerous climate change.  (See, What You Need To Know to Understand the Scale of the Climate Change Problem and The Continuing US Press Failure to Report on the Urgency of this Civilization Challenging Threat)

No matter what reasonable assumptions are made about carbon budgets that need to guide the world’s response to avoid dangerous climate change, as a matter of ethics, the US has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions both in the short and long run to levels much greater than switching to natural gas combustion from coal will accomplish by iteslf.

Even if switching to natural gas in the short term reduces the US carbon footprint somewhat, it is still not sufficient by itself to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations without other policy interventions including putting a price on carbon or rapid ramp up of renewable energy. Given that the natural gas is likely to reduce costs of electricity production, there is also some risk that with lower costs demand for electricity will increase which will undermine both incentives for finding increases in efficiency while raising ghg emissions levels. For this reason, the United States needs to create an emissions reduction target consistent with its obligations to the world. (See,  On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.)

Although ethical reflection on benefits of short term switching to natural gas reveals the above ethical questions, long-term reliance on natural gas as a climate change solution raises greater issues of ethical concern. This is so because although switching to natural  gas combustion from coal can reduce temporarily the US carbon footprint when coupled with the right policy measures, there is no hope that natural gas combustion alone can achieve the huge emissions reductions necessary to put the United States on an emissions reduction pathway that matches the US ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States urgently needs to adopt policies that will ramp up its use of non-fossil energy immediately. Investment in natural gas combustion could delay investment in non-fossil energy. Moreover the amount of non-fossil energy needed to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations requires the United States to begin immediately as a matter of ethics. The longer the United States waits to move more aggressively to increase the share of non-fossil energy, the more difficult, if not impossible, it will be to meet non-fossil energy needs a few decades from now. And so as a matter of ethics a strong case can be made that the United States needs immediately to adopt policies designed to aggressively increase levels of  non-fossil energy.

And so if political will is a barrier to greater use of non-fossil energy, politicians resisting greater commitment to non-fossil energy are most likely supporting positions that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

The fact that much greater US commitments to renewable energy are feasible is demonstrated by looking at achievements of other nations.  Germany, for instance, has set a goal of 100% renewable energy in its electricity sector by 2050. (The Gaurdian, 2010) Germany’s Environment Agency’s study found that switching to 100 % green electricity by 2050 would have economic advantages, especially for the vital export-oriented manufacturing industry (The Gaurdian, 2010) It would also create tens of thousands of jobs.

B. Ethical Analysis of Cost Arguments In Opposition to Non-Fossil Electricity Generation

There are many factual issues that could be contested in regard to any argument that switching to a non-fossil  fuel future is cost-prohibitive. As we have seen, for instance, Germany claimd that an aggressive move to a non-fossil future has economic benefits. (For a good discussion of economic arguments for aggressive policies in support of renewable energy see, Germany Energy Transition, Henric Boll, 2012)

Cost arguments made in opposition to aggressive policies in support of a non-fossil future many not only be challenged on a factual basis but also on an ethical basis.  There are several ethical issues raised by such cost arguments that have been extensively looked at in prior articles in EthicsandClimate.org. These ethical issues include

  •  Cost arguments are often deeply ethically problematic because they ignore duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce ghg emissions. That is, cost arguments usually appeal to matters of self-interest and ignore responsibilities to others including the tens of millions of poor people around the world that are already suffering from climate change impacts or who are much more vulnerable to much harsher climate change impacts in the future than the United States is.
  •  Cost arguments are ethically problematic if they fail to examine the costs of non-action and only consider the costs to high emitters of reducing ghg emissions. Given that most economists now believe that costs of non-action far exceed costs of reducing the threat of climate change, costs considerations that only consider costs to polluters are both deeply ethically troublesome and radically incomplete.
  • Costs arguments may not be made against climate change policies if greenhouse gas emissions lead to serious human rights violations of victims who have not consented to be put at risk.
  • Cost arguments often translate all values to economic values measured in markets and thereby transform some things that victims hold have sacred value into commodity value.
  • Cost arguments usually ignore questions of distributive justice while arguing that government policy should be based upon maximizing economic efficiency or utility.  Distributive justice issues that are frequently ignored by the use of cost arguments to oppose climate policy include the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world that have done little to cause the problem
  • Cost arguments usually ignore issues of procedural justice including the right of victims to consent to being put at risk to climate change impacts.
  • Cost arguments alone usually ignore well settled norms of international law including the “polluter pays” and “no harm” principles that the United States and almost all other nations have agreed to in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In conclusion, we have identified strong ethical arguments that support the need to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion in the United States and other developed countries while implicitly acknowledging that there could be some short-term benefit if coal combustion is replaced by natural gas, a conclusion that only can be reached with better understanding of the methane leakage issues. Yet even if there is some short-term benefit from substituting natural gas for coal combustion, there is no ethical basis for doing this without simultaneously aggressively ramping up non-fossil fuel electricity combustion.  We note that some in the natural gas industry and their political  supporters continue to oppose policies designed to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion at the same time claiming that natural gas is a solution to climate change. Because the failure to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion Under the circumstances discussed in this article,  such opposition is ethically problematic.

By:

Donald A Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

A Video: Even Monkeys Would Get Climate Change Justice. Why Don’t Governments and the Press?

Many of the positions taken by some governments and individuals on climate change are so obviously unjust and unfair, that monkeys would get the injustice this video argues. Monkeys are believed to be capable of responding to obvious unfairness as this video demonstrates when one monkey is given a cucumber (which monkeys don’t like that much) and another is give a grape (which some monkeys love). The monkey who gets the cucumber throws it back at the trainer when the monkey sees the other monkey getting a beloved grape.

The more serious point of this video is that those who desire to see that ethics and justice become more influential in climate change policy formation need to help others spot the injustice of actual positions being taken by governments and others on climate change policy issues rather than focus on perfect justice. Many positions of governments on climate change fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny yet ethics and justice issues are largely being ignored in discussions of climate change policies at least in the United States. Although there is a growing literature on the ethical dimensions of climate change, most of this literature is focused on theoretical ethical questions rather than on the injustice of positions actually being taken about climate policies.

A new book, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Change Ethics, explains these matters in more detail and makes recommendations about how to give ethical consideration in climate change policy formation.

The purpose of this video is to encourage the press, NGOs, and concerned citizens around the world to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change. Despite a thirty-five year debate on climate change, for the most part, governments, NGOs, organizations, and individuals are ignoring the ethical dimensions of climate change even though an increased focus on ethics and justice is needed to move the world to a global solution to this immense threat.  The video argues that ethics is the crucial missing element in the climate change debate and if an ethical framing of most climate change policy issues were taken seriously it would transform how the public debate on climate change takes place.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

An Ethical Examination of How The US Press Has Covered Links Between Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

 

US President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie Inspect Damages from Hurricane Sandy., October 31, 2012

I-Introduction

In this paper we examine through an ethical lens how the controversy about links between Hurricane Sandy and climate change have been covered by the US media. In the last two weeks the mainstream media has awoken, at least temporarily, from a slumber about climate change because of the enormous damages from Sandy and their potential links to human-induced warming. Although this renewed attention to climate change should be welcomed, in the last entry on EthicsandClimate.org we identified several crucial missing features of climate change in the renewed press coverage of climate change that citizens need to know to understand why climate change is such a civilization challenging threat. These missing features include: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about climate change, (b) the magnitude and urgency of the emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, (c) the barrier that the United States has been to finding a global solution for over 20 years, (d) the nature of the climate change disinformation campaign, and (e) the significance for policy of the fact that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical problem.

Ethicsandclimate.org has frequently explained the practical significance for policy of the fact that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical problem. We now look at the recent press coverage of the links between hurricane damage and climate change to identify how recognition of the ethical dimensions of climate change would affect the way the press covers links between hurricane damage and climate change.

II. Scientifically Understood Links Between Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

Hurricane Sandy has produced a flurry of media activity on the possible links between climate change and the damage from Sandy in the Northeastern United States.  For a sampling of various ways the US media has discussed possible ways of understanding this connection see the blog Residence on Earth: Articles about Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change.

Much of the press coverage makes the claim that there are links between Hurricane Sandy and climate change by pointing to the elevated ocean temperatures that have been caused by human-induced climate change, increased wind speed that is fueled by elevated ocean water temperatures, greater amounts of water that is transported into the atmosphere from the oceans in a warming world and dumped as rain during the storms, and rising sea levels that make storm surges worse.

Those opposing action on climate change often deny that one can link Hurricane Sandy to climate change.

A website whose mission is to oppose action on climate change, ClimateDepot, lists the following statements, among many others, of those who claim that there is no link between Hurricane Sandy and climate change:

  • Meteorologist Hoerling of NOAA: ‘The immediate cause is most likely little more than the coincidental alignment of a tropical storm with an extratropical storm. Both frequent W. Atlantic in Oct….nothing unusual with that’
  • Prof. Pielke Jr.: ‘We’ve done long-term trends with respect to hurricane damage in the United States, and it’s very safe to say that regardless of how [Sandy] plays out, there’s a century-long time series with no trend in it — and that’s in damage, the number of landfalls, or the intensity of storms at landfall. So, if you are looking for signals of long-term climate change, focusing in on any one storm is the wrong way to go about it to begin with’
  • Houston Chronicle’s Science guy Eric Berger: ‘…it is a big stretch to go from there to blaming Sandy on climate change. It’s a stretch that is just not supported by science at this time’

(Climatedepot 2012)

The mainstream scientific view on climate change, a view as we have previously explained in Ethicsandclimate.org that is supported by every Academy of Science in the world, almost all scientific organizations whose members have expertise relevant to climate science, and over 97% of scientists that do peer-review climate change science, holds that human-induced climate change is making the world warmer and sea level rise in predictable and measurable amounts. The mainstream view also holds that a warmer world will create more intense storms for a variety of reasons including that there will be more water vapor in the atmosphere in a warming world. There is now very strong evidence that the frequency of extreme weather events is increasing even if the record is not yet clear as to whether hurricanes are increasing in frequency.

Scientists know with high levels of certainty that climate change has increased Earth’s temperature, and that this warming has fueled more heat waves, more intense precipitation, more intense droughts, and more wildfires.

It is also true that scientists dont know for sure that climate change will make hurricanes more frequent but if hurricanes are formed they will increase damages because:

  • Higher sea levels will make storm surges more destructive
  • Warmer sea surface temperatures will fuel wind speed

Other potential links between Sandy and climate change are:

  • More moisture in the atmosphere causes larger amounts of rain fall
  • The unusual path of Sandy may have been affected by an unusual high pressure system which has links to climate change.

(Romm, 2012a)

As Joe Romm has stated:

The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be….

(Romm, 2012a)

Because very destructive hurricanes existed before impacts from climate change were measurable, one cannot simply point to high damages alone from a hurricane and deduce that the damages by themselves unequivocally demonstrate the link between hurricane damages and climate change. However one can point to elevated sea levels and sea surface temperatures caused by climate change and conclude that the hurricane damages will on average increase because of climate change.

We therefore conclude that strong connections can be made about the damages to be expected from hurricanes even though one cannot attribute the initiation of any hurricane to climate change alone.

III. Ethics, Hurricanes, and Climate Change.

So far, almost the entire controversy  created by Hurricane Sandy and its connection to climate change as discussed in the US media has been about whether one can attribute direct causation of Sandy to climate change. This is a scientific question and as we have seen there are strong scientific grounds for linking the magnitude of damages from Sandy to climate change, despite the fact that some uncertainties still remain about whether climate change increases the frequency of hurricanes. This issue has not been completely resolved.

Interest in the US press about whether there are links between climate change and hurricane damages appears to be motivated largely by the question of whether adopting climate change policies in the US will prevent even costlier damages to the United States.  Most of the press coverage about links between Sandy and climate change follows this line of reasoning at least implicitly. That is the press coverage has treated issues about connections between Sandy and climate change as an issue of interest relevant to national calculations of costs and benefits that would flow from adopting climate change policies. Yet such reasoning ignores several ethical conclusions entailed by understanding that climate change could greatly increase harms to some. These conclusions are:

  • Those causing potential serious harms to others have duties and responsibilities to those that they may harm including those outside the United States, and not just economic interests in preventing harms to themselves,
  • It is not necessary to establish complete proof that one is harming others before duties to avoid potential harm to others are triggered. A person need only be on notice that his or her actions may be harming others to establish the duty to cease activities that could harm them particularly in cases where the harm to others is grave and the uncertainties cannot be resolved in a timely fashion before the harms are experienced.
  • The stronger the possibility that one may harm others, the greater the duty to avoid activities that may harm them.

This ethical reasoning exposes serious problems with how the press has covered the controversy about links between climate change and Hurricane Sandy. The press has treated the issue as if  only two possibilities exist. Either there is a link between climate change and the damage caused by Sandy or there is no link. As we have seen this framing ignores the responsibilities of those putting others at risk  that are entailed once it is established that links are likely. As we have seen, the science of climate change has long passed this threshold trigger for action.

The US press has also largely ignored likely ties to climate change when extreme weather events in the last few years have taken place in other parts of the world that have wrecked havoc on hundreds of thousands of people including killer floods in Pakistan, Brazil, China, and Australia.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report in March of last year that linked climate change to increased extreme weather around the world including floods, heat waves, droughts, and heavy precipitation. (IPCC 2012).  And so, the US press coverage of Hurricane Sandy can be criticized for not helping Americans understand links between their greenhouse gas emissions and other extreme weather damages around the world. High levels  of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are harming others around the world through extreme weather events.

References:

Romm, Joe (2012a), How Does Climate Change Make Superstorms Like Sandy More Destructive? http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/10/31/1117091/how-does-climate-change-make-hurricanes-like-sandy-more-destructive/

Romm, Joe (2012b), Must-Read Trenberth: How To Relate Climate Extremes to Climate Change http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/03/25/451347/must-read-trenberth-how-to-relate-climate-extremes-to-climate-change/

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2012). Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and
Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation http://www.ipcc.ch/news_and_events/docs/srex/srex_press_release.pdf

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

The Grave US Media Failure to Communicate About The Consistent Barrier That The United States Has Been To Finding A Global Solution to Climate Change.

I. Introduction

This is the fifth in a series of articles that examines grave communications failures of the US media about climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world.  EthicsandClimate.org has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change that can be found at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/

This is the fourth paper that examines in more detail the issues briefly examined in the video. In previous entries we examined the failure of the US media to communicate about: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change, (b) the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change, and (c) the practical significance for policy that follows from understanding climate change as essentially an ethical problem.  In this paper we look at the failure of the US media help educate US citizens about the consistent barrier that the US has been in international climate negotiations that have sought for over twenty years to find a global solution to prevent harsh climate change impacts.

The last paper in the series will examine the failure of the US media to help Americans understand the well-organized, well-financed climate change disinformation campaign.

II. The World Waits In Vain For US Leadership On Climate Change.

Most Americans are completely unaware that the United States has consistently been a barrier to achieving a global solution to climate change despite the fact that the United States is an indispensable party to a global climate change solution. To understand the importance of the US solving the global climate change problem, one must keep in mind that: (a) the United States is by far the largest historical emitter of global greenhouse gases that have caused the existing problem, (b) the United States is near the top of national greenhouse gas emitters on a per capita basis, (c) the United States is second only to China in total tons of greenhouse gases emitted, and (d) the United States has the worst record among developed countries in making commitments to a global climate change solution.

Although the United States is an indispensable participant in solving climate change because of the size of the US contribution to the global problem, the United States has a dismal record in over twenty years of international efforts to achieve a global solution to this civilization-challenging global problem. In American Heat, Ethical Problems With the United States Response To Global Warming, (Brown, 2002), this writer documented in detail the negative role in achieving a global approach to climate change that the United States played in the first decade of climate change negotiations from the late 1980s through the year 2000. Among other things during the negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) between 1990 and 1992, the United States, virtually standing alone, successfully prevented the UNFCCC from including enforceable national emissions reductions targets for developed nations.

In a book to be published this month, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Ethics, this writer documents in detail the failure of the United States to be a leader since the conclusions of the UNFCCC negotiations in 1992, (Brown 2012).

Among other things, since the UNFCCC negotiations:

  • The United States has been the only developed country in the world to fail to ratify to the Kyoto Protocol and thereby commit itself to a binding interim emissions reduction target.
  • George W. Bush announced that the United States was not only unwilling to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it was withdrawing the United States from the Kyoto Treaty all together.
  • When President Obama was elected, there was wide-spread hope the United States would change course on climate change. Yet, the United States under President Obama has approached climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, Cancun in 2010, and South Africa making only a voluntary commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions levels by 2020 thereby making the US promise: (a) the weakest of all of the developed country commitments, and (b) far short of what is required of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.
  • Although there is evidence that President Obama hope to make the United States, for the first time, a responsible participant in an adequate global approach to climate change, since the Republicans took over the US House of Representatives in November of 2010, the United States hast been unable to make meaningful national commitments on climate change and will not likely to be able to do so until well into 2013 at the very earliest.
  • There is no evidence that the United States is willing to make commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to  levels consistent with what the world needs to do to prevent dangerous climate change, a matter discussed in the second paper in this series.

Although there are several countries that have frequently failed to respond to what justice would require of them to reduce the threat of climate change, the United States, more than any other country, has consistently failed to respond to its ethical duties to reduce its emissions to the its fair share of safe global emissions during the over two decades that the world has been seeking a global agreement on how to respond to climate change.

Because the United States is such a vital player in any global solution to climate change, the United States response to its obligations to reduce the global threat of climate change has been an immense impediment to an urgently needed global climate change solution. And so the world continues to wait for ethical leadership from the United States on climate change as significant damages are becoming more visible around the world. As the world is running out of time to prevent significant climate change, the United States continues to ignore its global obligations. Yet coverage of climate change debates in the US media rarely mention the negative role the United States has been playing in developing a global solution.

The world awaits US leadership on climate change at a time when human-induced climate change harms are becoming more obvious. Yet there is little evidence that US citizens understand their obligations to poor people around the world for climate change damages and the United States has been significantly responsible for delays in reaching a global solution to climate change.  This is both a tragic failure of  domestic leadership and a failure of the US press to help educate Americans about the negative role the US has played in finding a global solution to climate change.

References:

Brown, D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems With the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman and Littlefield.

Brown, D.  (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Change Ethics, Routledge/Earthscan.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com