Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

How US Climate Change Law Must Be Reconciled With Existing International Law and Ethical Obligations.


The following video explains how US law on climate change must be upgraded  to be consistent with a body of international law on climate change that has developed over the past 20 years as well as ethical obligations the United States has under law and ethical theory.

Debate about climate change policy in the United States has almost always assumed that US policy-makers can look to US economic interests alone in establishing US climate change policies. This video explains why US domestic law on climate change must be consistent with existing provisions of international law and US ethical obligations,



The site will soon post a written summary of the material in this video,




Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law


Going Deeper On What Happened In Durban: An Ethical Critique of Durban Outcomes.

I. Introduction: What Is Missing In Reporting About The Durban Outcome?

It has now been two weeks since negotiations at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were completed in the early morning of Sunday, December 11, 2011 in Durban, South Africa. We will claim that there is something missing from the reporting of what happened in Durban that is crucial if one aspires to think critically about the Durban outcomes. That is, reporting on Durban has for the most part missed the biggest story, namely that most nations continue to act as if they have no obligations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emission, that the positions they have been taking on most major climate issues fail any reasonable minimum ethical test, that an acknowledgement that nations not only have interests but duties and responsibilities continues to be the key missing element in the negotiations, and that some nations in particular have lamentably not only failed to lead on climate change but are continuing to take positions that not only fail to satisfy their immediate international duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but also encourage irresponsible behavior of other nations.

Among these nations are the United States, Canada, Russia, and Japan and several developing countries. As we shall see, these countries, among others, have continued to negotiate as if: (a) they only need to commit to reduce their greenhouse gas emission if other nations commit to do so, in other words that their national interests limit their international obligations, (b) any emissions reductions commitments can be determined and calculated without regard to what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, (c) large emitting nations have no duty to compensate people or nations that are vulnerable to climate change for climate change damages or reasonable adaptation responses, and (d) they often justify their own failure to actually reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the inability to of the international community to reach an adequate solution under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. We are not saying that these countries were exclusively the blame for disappointing Durban outcomes, there is plenty of blame to go around. Yet, some countries have distinguished themselves by their positions that are obviously based upon national economic interest rather than a fulfillment of global responsibilities.

Although the leadership in the United States and other nations that are failing to make commitments congruent with their ethical obligations will no doubt claim that their position in the international climate negotiations is limited by what is politically feasible in their countries, the world needs national leaders who are prepared to urge their nations to make commitments congruent with their ethical obligations, not on national self-interest alone. (For an example of national leadership that fulfilled this requirement, see, Brown, 2009)

As has been the case for recent COPs, commentators about achievements at COP-17 are split on whether these negotiations accomplished some important positive steps toward an eventual meaningful global solution to climate change or whether Durban must be understood as another tragic international failure to come up with an adequate solution to the immense threat of human-induced warming. (For a good articulation of these two views, see: Light, 2011 and Hertsgaard, 2011)

As we shall see this difference of opinion about how to characterize Durban outcomes is ultimately a disagreement about whether each COP outcome should be judged on the basis of what is politically feasible at that moment in history in which the COP takes place or whether what is politically feasible at any moment in history should itself be critically reflected on. If one judges Durban outcomes on the basis of what was deemed politically feasible coming into Durban, one can reasonably draw positive conclusions about Durban outcomes. But if one reviews Durban outcomes from the standpoint of what nations should agree to in light of their ethical and moral responsibilities, Durban is another tragic missed opportunity.

ClimateEthics has frequently explained that the key missing element in international climate negotiations as well as in the development of domestic climate change policies for most nations has been acknowledgement that nations not only have economic interests that can be affected by climate change policies but also have duties, responsibilities, and obligations to protect people around the world and the natural resources on which life depends. (See for example, Brown, 2010a) This is so because climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical and moral problem and the failure to acknowledge and act on this has been responsible for an inadequate global response to climate change’s immense threat during the twenty years of international negotiations that have sought to reach agreement on a global solution. That is the major problem with international climate negotiations is that most nations are approaching the negotiations has if their economic interests trump their global responsibilities.

If climate change is an ethical problem, then practical consequences for national positions on climate change follow. (See, Brown, 2011 for a discussion of specific practical consequences that follow from recognition that climate change is an ethical problem) These consequences include that nations should commit to do what their ethical responsibilities, obligations, and duties requires of them without regard to whether all other nations are agreeing to do so.

This post examines concretely what happened in the recently concluded Durban climate change negotiations with the goal of explicating why the lack of acceptance of duties and responsibilities, that is lack of acceptance that climate change is an ethical problem, continues to be the major barrier to achieving an adequate global approach to reduce the threat of climate change. Unless, the international community can convince or cajole nations to make commitments consistent with their ethical obligations, then international climate negotiations are likely to continue to be plagued by the failure to tackle the most difficult climate change issues.

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