Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Improving IPCC Working Group III’s Analysis on Climate Ethics and Equity, Second In A Series.


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This is the second in a three part series examining the ethical and justice issues discussed by the IPCC Working Group III in its 5th Assessment Report (AR5) . In the first entry in  this series we concluded that although the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable improvement over prior IPCC reports in regard to identifying ethical and equity issues that should be considered in developing climate change policy, some criticisms are also warranted of how IPCC has articulated the significance and implications of the ethical, justice, and equity principles that should guide nations in developing climate change policies.

In short, we will argue improvement is possible in how IPCC deals with ethics, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change policy-making despite very significant improvements on these matters in the AR5 report compared to prior IPCC reports.

In this entry we will examine several preliminary ethical and justice issues raised by the new IPCC Working Group III Chapter 3, on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts.  The last entry will continue the examination Chapter 3 and then turn to Chapter 4 on Sustainable Development and Equity.

As a preliminary matter, one of the challenges that IPCC faces in its mandate on of ethics and justice issues relevant to climate change policy-making is that it is not IPCC’s role to be prescriptive in deciding what governments should do. It’s mandate is to synthesize the extant social-economic and scientific literature for policy-makers. In this regard, the IPCC chapter on ethics said expressly:

This chapter does not attempt to answer ethical questions, but rather provides policymakers with the tools (concepts, principles, arguments, and methods) to make decisions. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 10)

And so it is not IPCC’s role to do ethical analyses of policy issues that raise ethical questions. IPCC can, however, distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive questions that arise in relevant socio-economic literature about climate policy-making, identify important ethical and justice issues that arise in this literature, where there is a consensus on ethics and justice issues in the relevant literature describe the consensus position, where there is no consensus on ethical and justice issues describe the range of reasonable views on these issues, and identify hard and soft law legal principles relevant to how governments should resolve ethical and justice issues that must be faced by policy-makers.

There are several subjects in climate change policy-making which raise important ethical and justice issues. They include policy judgements about:

  1. how much warming will be tolerated, a matter which is implicit but rarely identified when nations make ghg emissions reduction commitments,
  2. any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, matters which are referred to by the IPCC usually as burden-sharing or effort-sharing considerations and a matter taken up in chapter 4 of IPCC, Working Group III chapter on sustainability and equity,
  3. any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those who are harmed by climate change,
  4. when a nation is responsible for its ghg emissions given differences in historical and per capita emissions among nations,
  5. responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations,
  6. how to evaluate the effects on and responsibilities to others of climate change technologies that are adopted in response to the threat of climate change, including such technologies as geo-engineering or nuclear power, for instance,
  7. who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, a topic usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice,
  8. the policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change,
  9. the responsibility of not only nations but subnational governments, entities, organizations, and individuals for climate change,
  10. when economic analyses of climate change policy options can prescribe or limit national duties or obligations to respond to the threat of climate change,
  11. ethical and justice implications of decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty,
  12. whether action or non-action of other nations is relevant to any nation’s responsibility for climate change,
  13. how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation,
  14. when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science,
  15. who is responsible for climate refugees and what their responsibilities are.

nw book advOn some of these issues, the recent IPCC report included a good summary of the extant ethical literature, on other issues important gaps in IPCC’s analysis can be identified, and lastly on a few of these issues, IPCC Working Group III is silent. IPCC reports cannot be expected to be exhaustive on these matters and therefore gaps and omissions in the IPCC reports in regard to ethics and justice issues relevant to policy-making is not necessarily a criticism of IPCC and is here pointed out only for future consideration. In fact, IPCC’s work on the ethical limits of economic arguments is a particularly important contribution to the global climate change debate. What is worthy of criticism, however, is if IPCC’s conclusions on guidance for policy-makers is misleading on ethics and justice issues.

II. Ethical Issues Raised by Economic Arguments About Climate Policy

Perhaps the most important practical ethical and justice issues raised by Working Group III’s work on ethics is its conclusions on the ethical and justice limitations of economic analyses of climate change policy options. This topic is enormously practically important because nations and others who argue against proposed climate change policies usually rely on various economic arguments which often completely ignore the ethical and justice limitations of these arguments (In the case of the United States, see Brown, 2012.) Because most citizens and policy-makers have not been trained in spotting ethically dubious claims that are often hidden in what appear at first glance to be “value-neutral” economic arguments, IPCC’s acknowledgement of the ethical limitations of economic arguments is vitally important.  It is also practically important because the first four IPCC reports, although not completely ignoring all ethical and justice problems with economic arguments about climate change policies, failed to examine the vast majority of ethical problems with economic arguments against climate change policies while making economic analyses of climate change policies the primary focus of Working Group III’s work thereby  leaving the strong impression that economic analyses, including but not limited to cost-benefit analyses, is the preferred way to evaluate the sufficiency of proposed climate change policies.  On this matter, the AR5 report has made important clarifications.

The AR5 III report included a section on this very issue entitled: Economics, Rights, and Duties which we reproduce here it  its entirety because of its importance to this discussion,  followed by comments in bold italics:

Economics can measure and aggregate human wellbeing, but Sections 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 explain that wellbeing may be only one of several criteria for choosing among alternative mitigation policies.

Other ethical considerations are not reflected in economic valuations, and those considerations may be extremely important for particular decisions that have to be made. For example, some have contended that countries that have emitted a great deal of GHG in the past owe restitution to countries that have been harmed by their emissions. If so, this is an important consideration in determining how much finance rich countries should provide to poorer countries to help with their mitigation efforts. It suggests that economics alone cannot be used to determine who should bear the burden of mitigation.

What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take into account of justice and rights in general. However, distributive justice can be accommodated within economics, because it can be understood as a value: specifically the value of equality. The theory of fairness within economics (Fleurbaey, 2008) is an account of distributive justice. It assumes that the level of distributive justice within a society is a function of the wellbeings of individuals, which means it can be reflected in the aggregation of wellbeing. In particular, it may be measured by the degree of inequality in wellbeing, using one of the standard measures of inequality such as the Gini coefficient (Gini, 1912), as discussed in the previous section. The Atkinson measure of inequality (Atkinson, 1970) is based on an additively separable social welfare function (SWF), and is therefore particularly appropriate for representing the prioritarian theory described in Section 3.4.6 . Furthermore, distributive justice can be reflected in weights incorporated into economic evaluations as Section 3.6 explains.

Simply identifying the level of inequality using the Gini Index does not assure that the harms and benefits of climate change policies will be distributed justly. For that a theory of just distribution is needed. The Gini index is also at such a level of abstraction that it is very difficult to use it as a way of thinking about the justice obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change. Even if there is strong economic equality in a nation measured by the Gini index, one cannot conclude that climate change policies are distributively just.

Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. For example, a CBA might not show the drowning of a Pacific island as a big loss, since the island has few inhabitants and relatively little economic activity. It might conclude that more good would be done in total by allowing the island to drown: the cost of the radical action that would be required to save the island by mitigating climate change globally would be much greater than the benefit of saving the island. This might be the correct conclusion in terms of overall aggregation of costs and benefits. But the island’s inhabitants might have a right not to have their homes and livelihoods destroyed as a result of the GHG emissions of richer nations far away. If that is so, their right may override the conclusions of CBA. It may give those nations who emit GHG a duty to protect the people who suffer from it, or at least to make restitution to them for any harms they suffer.

Even in areas where the methods of economics can be applied in principle, they cannot be accepted without question (Jamieson, 1992; Sagoff, 2008). Particular simplifying assumptions are always required, as shown throughout this chapter. These assumptions are not always accurate or appropriate, and decision‐makers need to keep in mind the resulting limitations of the economic analyses. For example, climate change will shorten many people’s lives. This harm may in principle be included within a CBA, but it remains highly contentious how that should be done. Another problem is that, because economics can provide concrete, quantitative estimates of some but not all values, less quantifiable considerations may receive less attention than they deserve.

This discussion does not adequately capture serious ethical problems with translating all values into monetary units measured by willingness to pay or its surrogates nor that such transformation may greatly distort ethical obligations to do no harm into changes in commodity value.

The extraordinary scope and scale of climate change raises particular difficulties for economic methods (Stern, forthcoming). First, many of the common methods of valuation in economics are best designed for marginal changes, whereas some of the impacts of climate change and efforts at mitigation are not marginal (Howarth and Norgaard, 1992). Second, the very long time scale of climate change makes the discount rate crucial at the same time as it makes it highly controversial (see Section 3.6.2 ). Third, the scope of the problem means it encompasses the world’s extremes of wealth and poverty, so questions of distribution become especially important and especially difficult. Fourth, measuring non‐market values—such as the existence of species, natural environments, or traditional ways of life of local societies—is fraught with difficulty. Fifth, the uncertainty that surrounds climate change is very great. It includes the likelihood of irreversible changes to societies and to nature, and even a small chance of catastrophe. This degree of uncertainty sets special problems for economics. (Nelson, 2013) (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 12-13)

Again this discussion does not adequately describe the ethical problems with economic determinations of all values. In fact it leaves the impression that if non-market values can be discovered the problems of transforming all values to commodity values are adequately dealt with.

Chapter 3, also includes additional statements about the ethical limits of economic reasoning sprinkled throughout the chapter. They include:

1. Most normative analyses of solutions to the climate problem implicitly involve contestable ethical assumptions.(IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg.10)

2. However, the methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They can be based on ethical principles, as Section 3.6 explains. But they cannot take account of every ethical principle. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not to taking account of justice and rights (with the exception of distributive justice − see below), or other values apart from human wellbeing. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)

And so Chapter 3 of the IPCC report contains a number or clear assertions  about the ethical limitations of economic arguments. However there are important gaps missing from this analysis. Also several sections of Chapter 3 that can be interpreted as claims that policy makers are free to choose economic reasoning as justification for climate policies. That is, some of the text reads as if a policy-maker is free to choose whether to base policy  on economic or ethical and justice considerations, choosing between these two ways of evaluation is simply an option. Some of these provisions follow with responses in italics

Chapter 3 page 6 says:

Many different analytic methods are available for evaluating policies. Methods may be quantitative (for example, cost‐benefit analysis, integrated assessment modeling, and multi‐criteria analysis) or qualitative (for example, sociological and participatory approaches). However, no single best method can provide a comprehensive analysis of policies. A mix of methods is often needed to understand the broad effects, attributes, trade‐offs, and complexities of policy choices; moreover, policies often address multiple objectives  (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Although economic analyses can provide policy-makers with valuable information such as which technologies will achieve ethically determined goals at lowest cost, thereby providing criteria for making remedies cost-effective, there are serious ethical problems with cost-benefit analyses used prescriptively to set emissions reductions targets. Some of these are alluded to in IPCC Chapters 3 and 4, others are not acknowledged. Because of the prevalence of cost-benefit justifications for climate change policies, future IPCC reports could make a contribution by identifying all of the ethical issues raised by cost-benefit analyses.

 Any decision about climate change is likely to promote some values and damage others. These may  be values of very different sorts. In decision making, different values must therefore be put together or balanced against each other. (IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

This provision can be understood as condoning a consequentialist approach to climate policy that fails to acknowledge deontological limits. Since when any nation makes policy on climate change it affects poor people and vulnerable nations around the world, there are serious procedural justice issues which go unacknowledged in this section and,  for the most part, all throughout Chapter 3. Nowhere does the chapter acknowledge that when a climate policy is  under development at the national level,  nations have no right to compare costs to them of implementing policies  with the harms to others that have not consented to the method of valuation being used to determine quantitative value.

Ideally, emissions should be reduced in each place to just the extent that makes the marginal cost of further reductions the same everywhere. One way of achieving this result is to have a carbon price that is uniform across the world; or it might be approximated by a mix of policy instruments (see Section 3.8 ). (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

This statement fails to acknowledge that emissions reductions amounts should be different in different places according to well accepted principles of distributive justice. Although other sections of the chapter acknowledge that responsibility for climate change is a matter of distributive justice, this section and others leave the impression that climate policy can be based upon economic efficiency grounds alone. The way to cure this problem is to continue to reference other sections that recognize ethical limits in setting policy on the basis of efficiency.

(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Since, for efficiency, mitigation should take place where it is cheapest, emissions of GHG should be reduced in many developing countries, as well as in rich ones. However, it does not follow that mitigation must be paid for by those developing countries; rich countries may pay for mitigation that takes place in poor countries. Financial flows between countries make it possible to separate the question of where mitigation should take place from the question of who should pay for it. Because mitigating climate change demands very large‐scale action, if put in place these transfers might become a significant factor in the international distribution of wealth. Provided appropriate financial transfers are made, the question of where mitigation should take place is largely a matter for the  economic theory of efficiency, tempered by ethical considerations. But the distribution of wealth is amatter of justice among countries, and a major issue in the politics of climate change (Stanton, 2011). It is partly a matter of distributive justice, which economics can take into account, but compensatory justice may also be involved, which is an issue for ethics. (Section 3.3).(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

There are a host of  potential ethical problems with mitigation taking place in one part of the world to satisfy the ethical obligations of a nation in another part of the world which is emitting above its fair share of safe global emissions that are not mentioned in this article. Included in these problems are:

  • Environmental Sufficiency. There are many technical challenges in assuring that a project in one part of the world that seeks to reduce ghg by an amount that otherwise would be required of a polluter will actually succeed in achieving the reductions particularly when the method of reduction is reliant on biological removal of carbon.
  • Permanence. Many proposed projects for reducing carbon in one part of the world to offset reductions ethically required in another part of the world raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by the project will stay out of the atmosphere forever, a requirement that is required to achieve the environmental equivalence to ghg emissions reductions that would be achieved at the source.
  • Leakage. Many proposed projects used to offset emissions reductions of high-emitters raise serious questions about whether carbon reduced by a project at one location will result in actual reductions in emissions because the activity which is the subject of the offset is resumed at another location.
  • Additionality. A project that is proposed in another part of the world to offset emissions reductions of a high-emitting entity may not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons.
  • Allowing Delay In Investing In New Technology. The ability to rely on a cheaper emissions reductions project in another part of the world as a substitute of reducing emissions creates an excuse for high-emitting entities to delay investment in technologies that will reduce the pollution load. This may create a practical problem when emissions reductions obligations are tightened in the future. 

Chapter 3 also treats other important ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. They include:

3.3 Justice, equity and responsibility,

3.3.1 Causal and moral responsibility

3.3.2 Intergenerational justice and rights of future people

3.3.3 Intergenerational justice: distributive justice

3.3.4 Historical responsibility and distributive justice

3.3.5 Intra‐generational justice: compensatory justice and historical responsibility

3.3.6 Legal concepts of historical responsibility

3.3.7 Geoengineering, ethics, and justice

3.4 Values and wellbeing

3.4.1 Non‐human values

3.4.2 Cultural and social values

3.4.3 Wellbeing

3.4.4 Aggregation of wellbeing

3.4.5 Lifetime wellbeing

3.4.6 Social welfare functions

3.4.7 Valuing population

III. Some Additional Gaps In Chapter 3

Some of the gaps in Chapter 3 on ethical issues raised by climate change policy-making include: (1) ethics of decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty, (2) whether action or non-action of other nations affects a nation’s responsibility for climate change, (3) how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation, (4) when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science, and (5) who is responsible to for climate refugees and what are their responsibilities.

The last entry in this series will continue the analyses of IPCC  Chapter 3 on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts and Chapter 4 on Sustainability and Equity.


Brown, 2012,  Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change Ethics In Light of a Thirty-Five Year Debate, Routledge-Earthscan, 2012

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change, –


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Reference and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of  Law



As an Ethical Matter, Pennsylvania State Environmental Official May Not Rely on His Uninformed Opinion on Climate Change Science



climate change and Penndisinformation

As we have explained in a previous article in Ethicsandclimate, government officials who have responsibility for policies that may affect climate change may not rely on their own uninformed opinion on climate change science. They have an ethical duty, unlike ordinary citizens, to take positions on climate change that are informed by a scientifically sound understanding of human-induced warming. That is they have a responsibility to go beyond uninformed opinion on the science of climate change as long as mainstream scientists are claiming that people within their jurisdiction are greatly threatening others and ecological systems outside their jurisdiction. Ethics requires that they not engage in willful blindness or unexamined ignorance if mainstream scientists are concluding that their constituents are greatly harming others.

Despite a firestorm over comments he made about climate change, by a vote of 42-8 on December 11, 2013 the Pennsylvania Senate voted to confirm Christopher Abruzzo as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.  ( 2013) Abruzzo touched off controversy last week when he told lawmakers during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was unaware of any “adverse impacts” of climate change on human beings or animals. (Cusick, 2013)

Abruzzo also told the committee that although he does believe climate change is occurring and that it seems to be at least partially attributable to human factors, he does not view it as harmful and sees no reason for Pennsylvania to adopt new policies to address it. He further said, “I think Pennsylvania’s already doing at least its fair share.” (Cusick, 2013)

Given that he will head the state agency responsible for protecting Pennsylvania’s environment, Mr. Abruzzo’s comments demonstrate astonishing ignorance about the science of climate change, Pennsylvania’s role in contributing to the problem, and the civilization challenging magnitude of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that the scientific community says are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.

Just last week, the US Academy of Sciences issued a new report about abrupt and potentially catastrophic events triggered by climate change. (US Academy, 2013) The report warned that the Earth is already seeing some abrupt changes like fast retreat of summer Arctic sea ice and that there is also a real risk that other rapid and drastic shifts could follow in the coming decades if the Earth keeps warming. These harsh impacts included widespread plant and animal extinctions and the creation of large “dead zones” in the ocean, the very kind of thing Mr. Abruzzo claimed to be unaware of.

Abruzzo’s blindness also appears to include ignorance of the civilization challenging magnitude of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions that the scientific community has identified as necessary to prevent harsh climate change impacts. This September, for instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international organization created by the world’s governments to synthesize the peer-reviewed climate science, issued a report on this very subject. (IPCC, 2013) This report contained an emissions budget on total CO2 emissions for the entire world. If the international community does not emit greenhouse gases greater than the budget according to IPCC, there is 66% chance of preventing very dangerous warming. The IPCC said that for warming to remain below dangerous levels, the total amount of CO2 that may be emitted is 431 gigatons. This further means that the budget would be completely used up by current emissions by around 2044, just over 30 years from now. When other greenhouse gases that are being emitted around the world are taken into consideration, the remaining CO2 equivalent emissions budget is reduced to approximately 270 gigatons. (Carbon Briefing, 2013) This fact has led the climate scientists to strongly warn the international community that it is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and means the world will exceed the budget in 25 years at current emissions rates.

DEP Secretary designate Abruzzo is also staggeringly misinformed when he claimed that Pennsylvania is doing “its fair share.” According to a State DEP 2009 plan on climate change which was prepared at the end of the Rendell administration, Pennsylvania contributes a full 1 percent of the entire world’s greenhouse gas emissions and 4 percent of the United States contribution. (Pa DEP, 2009) The Pennsylvania population of approximately 12,742,886 is approximately 0.18 percent of global population of slightly over 7 billion people.

A strong case can be made that Pennsylvania should, as a matter of basic fairness, limit its emissions to achieve a greater percentage of greenhouse gas emissions reductions than required of the entire world to avoid dangerous climate change. This is so because, like all US states and most of the world’s developed nations, greenhouse emissions levels from Pennsylvania far exceed most of the world in per capita emissions, not to mention historical emissions that remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Because it has been determined that the entire world must reduce its emissions by over 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to prevent dangerous climate change, high-emitting nations or governments around the world, including US states, will need to reduce their emissions at levels greater than 80% on the basis of equity and fairness. To require each nation or government to reduce emissions by the same percentage amount would freeze into place unjust emission levels for high-emitting governments. For instance, if all nations need only reduce their emissions by equal percentage amounts, then a high emitting nation like the United States that emits CO2 at a rate of 17.3 tons per capita would be allowed to emit at a level 10 times more per capita than a country like Vietnam that emits 1.7 tons of GHG per capita. (World Bank, 2013)

An issue brief for New York State recently recognized the need of New York to set greenhouse gas emission targets on the basis of equity. (NY Statem When fairness is taken into account, the New York report acknowledged that New York must reduce its emissions by at least 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. And so, Pennsylvania is emitting climate change causing emissions far above its fair share of safe global emissions.

Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials, like Mr. Abruzzo, may not simply rely on their personal opinion as a matter of ethics. This is so because they have some power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions. That is, government officials have more responsibility than the average citizen to understand the state of climate change science because the government official can uniquely prevent harm that their constituents or governments are causing. And so when government officials, like Mr. Abruzzo, are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may hide behind willful blindness.

Yet, Mr. Abruzzo and the Corbett administration appear to have no interest in reducing Pennsylvania’s greenhouse gas emissions to meet Pennsylvania’s global obligations.


Philly. com, 2013, Abruzzo confirmed as Pa. secretary of DEP,

Carbon briefing. 2013, Making sense of the IPCC’s new carbon budget,’s-new-carbon-budget/

Cusick, M., 2013, Corbett’s pick to run DEP does not view climate change as harmful.,State Impact Pennsylvania,

IPCC, 2013, Climate Science, The Physical Basis,

New York State, (NY State), 2009, Climate Change Issue Brief, New York Energy Plan 2009,

Pa DEP, 2009, DEP Pennsylvania Final Climate Change Action Plan,, 2013, Abruzzo Confirmed as Pa Secretary of DEP

US Academy of Science, 2013, Abrupt Climate Change: Anticipating the Surprises, x

World Bank, (2012b), CO2 Emissions (Metric Tons Per Capita),


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Windener University School  of Law

Visting Professor, Nagoya University,

Nagoya, Japan

Part-time Professor,

Nanjing University Information Science and Technology

Nanjing, China