Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Five Common Arguments Against Climate Change Policies That Can Only Be Effectively Responded To On Ethical Grounds

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Ethics and climate has explained in numerous articles on this site why climate change policy raises civilization challenging ethical issues which have practical significance for policy-making. This article identifies five common arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to proposed climate change laws and policies that cannot be adequately responded to without full recognition of serious ethical problems with these arguments. Yet the national debate on climate change and its press coverage in the United States and many other countries continue to ignore serious ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies. The failure to identify the ethical problems with these arguments greatly weakens potential responses to these arguments. These arguments include:

 1. A nation should not adopt climate change policies because these policies will harm the national economy.

This argument is obviously ethically problematic because it fails to consider that high emitting governments and entities have clear ethical obligations to not harm others.  Economic arguments in opposition to climate change policies are almost always arguments about self-interest that ignore strong global obligations. Climate change is a problem that is being caused mostly by high emitting nations and people that are harming and putting at risk poor people and the ecological systems on which they depend around the world. It is clearly ethically unacceptable for those causing the harms to others to only consider the costs to them of reducing the damages they are causing while ignoring their responsibilities to not harm others.

new book description for website-1_01 It is not only high emitting nations and corporations that are ignoring the ethical problems with cost-based arguments against climate change policies. Some environmental NGOs usually fail to spot the ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies based upon the cost or reducing ghg emissions to the emitters. Again and again proponents of action on climate change have responded to economic arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change by making counter economic arguments such as climate change policies will produce new jobs or reduce adverse economic impacts that will follow from the failure to reduce the threat of climate change.  In responding this way, proponents of climate change policy action are implicitly confirming the ethically dubious notion that public policy must be based upon economic self-interest rather than responsibilities to those who will be most harmed by inaction. There is, of course, nothing wrong with claims that some climate change policies will produce jobs, but such assertions should also say that emissions should be reduced because high-emitters of ghgs have duties and obligations to do so.

 

2. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act to reduce their emissions because this will put the nation that reduces its emissions in a disadvantageous economic position.

Over and over again opponents of climate change policies at the national level have argued that high emitting nations should not act to reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act accordingly. In the United States, for instance, it is frequently said that the United States should not reduce its ghg emissions until China does so.  Implicit in this argument  is the notion that governments should only adopt policies which are in their economic interest to do so.  Yet as a matter of ethics, as we have seen, all nations have a strong ethical duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and national economic self-interest is not an acceptable justification for failing to reduce national ghg emissions. Nations are required as a matter of ethics to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global  emissions; they are not required to reduce other nations’ share of safe global emissions. And so, nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.

3. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions as long as other nations are emitting high levels of ghg because it will do no good for one nation to act if other nations do not act.

A common claim similar to argument 2 is the assertion nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until others do so because it will do no good for one nation to reduce its emissions while high-emitting nations continue to emit without reductions. It is not factually true that a nation that is emitting ghgs at levels above its fair share of safe global emissions is not harming others because they are continuing to cause elevated atmospheric concentrations of ghg which will cause some harm to some places and people than would not be experienced if the nation was  emitting ghg at lower levels. And so, since all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, nations have a duty to reduce the harm that they are causing to others even if there is no adequate global response to climate change.

4.  No nation need act to reduce the threat of climate change until all scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts are resolved.

Over and over again opponents of climate change policies have argued that nations need not act to reduce the threat of climate change because there are scientific uncertainties about the magnitude and timing of  human-induced climate change impacts. There are a host of ethical problems with these arguments. First, as we have explained in detail on this website under the category of disinformation campaign in the index, some arguments that claim that that there is significant scientific uncertainty about human impacts on climate have been based upon lies or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science. Second, other scientific uncertainty arguments are premised on cherry picking climate change science, that is focusing on what is unknown about climate change while ignoring numerous conclusions of the scientific community that are not in serious dispute. Third. other claims that there is scientific uncertainty about human induced climate change have not been subjected to peer-review. Fourth some arguments against climate change policies  on the basis of scientific uncertainty often rest on the ethically dubious notion that nothing should be done to reduce a threat that some are imposing on others until all uncertainties are resolved. They make this argument despite the fact that if high emitters of ghg wait until all uncertainties are resolved before reducing their ghg emissions:

  • It will likely be too late to prevent serious harm if the mainstream scientific  view of climate change is later vindicated;
  • It will be much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm if nations wait, and
  • The argument to wait ignores the fact that those who will be harmed the most have not consented to be put at greater risk by waiting.

For all of these reasons, arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change based upon scientific uncertainty fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

5. Nations need only set ghg emissions reduction targets to levels consistent with their national interest.

Nations continue to set ghg emissions reductions targets at levels based upon their self-interest despite the fact that any national target must be understood to be implicitly a position on two issues that cannot be thought about clearly without considering ethical obligations. That is, every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on : (a) a safe ghg atmospheric stabilization target; and (b) the nation’s fair share of total global ghg emissions that will achieve safe ghg atmospheric concentrations.

A position on a global ghg atmospheric stabilization target is essentially an ethical question because a global ghg atmospheric concentration goal will determine to what extent the most vulnerable people and the ecological systems on which they depend will be put at risk. And so a position that a nation takes on atmospheric ghg atmospheric targets is necessarily an ethical issue because nations and people have an ethical duty to not harm others and the numerical ghg atmospheric goal will determine how much harm polluting nations will impose on the most vulnerable.

Once a global ghg atmospheric goal is determined, a nation’s ghg emissions reduction target is also necessarily implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global ghg emissions, an issue of distributive justice and ethics at its core.

And so any national ghg emissions target is inherently a position on important ethical and justice issues and thus setting a national emissions reduction target based upon national interest alone fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

10 Reasons Why “Contraction and Convergence” Is Still The Most Preferable Equity Framework for Allocating National GHG Targets .

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(The Contraction and Convergence Equity Framework)

I. Introduction

Perhaps the most challenging policy issue raised by climate change is how to fairly allocate responsibility among nations, regions, states, organizations, and individuals to reduce global greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions to non-dangerous levels. This problem is generally referred to as the problem of “equity” in the climate change regime. It a central issue in climate change policy formation because each government policy on reducing the threat of  climate change is implicitly a position on that government’s fair share of safe global emissions. In addition, climate change will continue to get worse unless each country reduces its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions.  Therefore, “equity” is not only a challenging issue in forming climate policies, it is perhaps the most critical policy question facing the international community.

This article identifies 10 reasons why the equity framework known as “contraction and convergence” (C&C) is the most preferable of all the equity frameworks under serious discussion around the world.  The end of this paper will acknowledge some alleged limitations of C&C yet explain why these limitations should be dealt with in one of several possible ways while adopting the C&C framework internationally.

C&C was first proposed in 1990 by the London-based non-governmental Global new book description for website-1_01Commons Institute. (Meyer, 2000) ( GCI, 2009) Basically, C&C is not a prescription per se, but rather a way of demonstrating how a global prescription could be negotiated and organized. (Meyer, 1999:305) Implementing C&C requires two main steps. As a first step, countries must to agree on a long-term global stabilization level for atmospheric ghg concentrations. Although a warming limit of 2 degrees C has been preliminarily agreed to in international negotiations, subject to the acknowledged need to examine whether the limit should be reduced to 1.5 degrees C in studies that are underway, once a warming limit is finalized it must be translated into a ghg atmospheric concentration goal and then a global ghg emissions budget can be calculated. As a second step, countries need to negotiate a convergence date, that is a date at which time the emissions allocated to each country should converge on equal per-capita entitlements (“convergence”) while staying within the carbon budget. During the transition period, a yearly global limitation is devised which contracts over time as the per-capita entitlements of developed countries decrease while those of most developing countries increase. C&C would allow nations to achieve their per capita based targets through trading from countries that have excess allotments.

And so the heart of C&C is the idea that justice requires that rights to use the atmosphere as a carbon sink must be based upon the idea that all human beings have an equal right to use the global commons, the Earth’s atmosphere. Because it would be impossible to achieve equal per capita emissions allocations in the short-term, C&C allows higher emitting nations to converge on a equal per capita target at some future date thus giving these nations some time to achieve an equal per capita target goal.

II. 10 Reasons To Support C&C

C&C is the most preferable equity framework  for the following reasons:

1.  Climate change is a classic problem of distributive justice. Distributive justice holds that all people should be treated as equals in any allocation of public goods unless some other distribution can be justified on morally supportable grounds. And so distributive justice entails the idea that at all allocations of public goods should start with a with a presumption of equal rights to public goods. Yet, distributive justice does not require that all shares of public goods be equal but put puts the burden on those who want to move away from equal shares to demonstrate that their justification for their requested entitlement to non-equal shares is based upon morally relevant grounds. Therefore someone cannot justify his or her desire to use a greater share of public resources on the fact that he or she has blue eyes or that he or she will maximize his or her economic self-interest through greater shares of public goods because such justifications fail to pass the test of morally supportable justifications for being treated differently. Because C&C ends up at some time in the future with equal rights for all individuals to use the atmosphere as a sink, it is strongly consistent with theories of distributive justice. Although distributive justice would also allow for other morally relevant considerations to be considered in allocating ghg emissions that diverge from strict equality, including such considerations as historical ghg emissions levels, these other considerations can be built into a C&C framework either by negotiating the convergence dates in a C&C regime or in side-agreements on such issues as financing technologies for low-emitting nations at levels that would allow them to achieve per capita emissions limitations.  C&C therefore is strongly consistent with theories of distributive justice because equal per capita emissions is the ultimate outcome of C&C even if that outcome is modified to take into account other legitimate equitable issues in negotiations by changing the convergence date or in side-agreements that finance compliance for poor nations that need assistance in achieving equal per capita emissions limitations.

2.  Allocating ghg emissions on an equal per capita emissions basis is consistent with the virtually universally recognized ethical idea that all people should treat others as they wish to be treated. And so basing allocations on equal rights is  the least contentious of all ethical theories of how to allocate public goods. Although there are are other ethically relevant facts that arguably should be considered in an allocation of ghg emissions such as economic capability to reduce emissions  or historical emissions levels, these considerations are more controversial ethically particularly in  regard to how they are operationalized in setting a numeric targets and therefore are more amenable to negotiated settlements on issues such as when convergence on equal per capita levels will  be achieved rather than in setting basic allocation target levels.

3. Equal per capita emissions levels are also consistent with human rights theories about the duty to prevent climate change. That is, human rights are based upon the uncontroversial ethical theory that humans should treat each other as they would like to be treated because all people, regardless of where they are,  should be treated with respect. Since the outcome of C&C is equal per capita rights, it is completely consistent with the idea of treating all people with equal respect, the foundation of human rights obligations. Because climate change undeniably violates several non-controversial human rights including the right to life, security, and food among other rights, climate change is widely acknowledged as a human rights problem. If climate change allocations are considered to be in fulfillment of human rights duties, then arguments based upon economic self-interest in setting ghg emissions targets are not an acceptable justification for avoiding human rights obligations. This is so because human rights obligations are viewed to ethically trump other values such as economic self interest or utility maximization as has been explained in significant detail in recent entries on this website. If human rights are violated by climate change, costs to those causing climate change entailed by policies to reduce the threat of climate change are not relevant for policy. That is if a person is violating human rights, he or she should desist even if it is costly to them. Therefore because a C&C framework has the strongest obvious link to human rights, if it were agreed to by the international community it would provide a strong argument against those who refuse to limit their emissions to an equal per capita level on the bases of cost to them.

4. Setting a ghg emissions target based upon distributive justice requires consideration of facts determined by looking backward, such as levels of historical ghg emissions, and issues determined by looking forward, such as what amount of the global commons should each individual be entitled to for personal use. Only equal per capita entitlements to the use a global commons satisfies future focused allocations issues without ethical controversy.  And so an allocation that converges on equal per capita emissions allocations sometime in the future is more than any other allocation framework likely to be seen as universally just as far as future entitlements issues are concerned. And so, the C&C should be supported because it is most consistent with equal entitlements to use global commons resources.

5, The C&C framework is the simplest of the dozen or so equity allocation frameworks which have been seriously considered in international climate change negotiations. Because it is simpler, it will likely be easier to negotiate than the other equity frameworks which have received serious consideration. Its simplicity is derived from the fact that its focus is narrowly on climate change justice issues. Thus it is not complicated by other global injustice issues which are not climate change related yet which are considerations in some other equity frameworks . For instance, other proposed ghg allocation formula try and remedy economic injustice among nations, issues which are worthy of international attention yet greatly complicate the ethical issues which need to be considered in setting ghg targets. Because C&C is simple, it is very pragmatic.

6. Objections to equal per capita allocations have sometimes been made by representatives from high emitting nations such as the United States because of the enormous ghg emissions reductions which would be required of it to reach equal per capita emissions levels of diminishing allowable safe global emissions.  Yet emissions reductions that would be required of high emitting nations under other proposed equity frameworks would be even steeper because they take into considerations issues such as, for example, historical emissions, economic wealth of nations, and ability of nations to pay. For this reason C&C holds the best chance of being accepted by the international community compared to other equity frameworks provided other issues that raise legitimate equity concerns including historical emissions levels are taken into account in some way in climate negotiations. These other justice concerns should be understood to be refinements of C&C rather than replacements of C&C because the C&C framework was always flexible enough to take into account additional issues relevant to distributive justice.

7. Many observers of international global efforts to achieve a solution to climate change argue that there has been too much emphasis on the obligations of nations while obligations of individuals and regional governments have largely been ignored. These observers argue that this focus on nations has helped high-emitting individuals and regional governments to largely escape public scrutiny. Because C&C obligations are premised on determining the obligations of nations based upon equal per capita shares, C&C can be seamlessly applied to state and regional governments and individuals around the world. If, for instance, a C&C framework determines that the world should converge on a per capita emissions target of 2 tons per person by 2025, it is therefore a straightforward deduction to argue that all individuals around the world  should limit their emissions to be below 2 tons per person by 2025 at a minimum.

8. Some of the issues that proponents of other equity frameworks have argued  should be considered in allocating national emissions targets such as historical emissions or the level of economic development in poor countries are already in serious consideration in international climate change negotiation agenda focused  on such matters as: (a) financial responsibility for adaptation, (b) responsibility for loses and damages for climate change, and (c) financing of climate friendly technologies for developing countries. Because of this the ethical issues raised by historical emissions or economic ability of nations to achieve a per capita allocation could be relegated to other issues already being negotiated in international climate change negotiations while emissions allocations targets are allocated on the basis of C&C.

9. Establishing a norm that each person is only entitled to emit ghgs on an equal per capita basis would also help to draw lines about other contentious ethical issues raised by climate change such as how to count responsibility for historical emissions. Determining how to translate historical emissions into legal obligations raises a host of contentious issues including when to start counting historical emissions. This question could be simplified by first determining reasonable per capita emissions at various moments in history. In addition, determining  liability for future excess emissions could be simplified if there was an agreement on acceptable per capita emissions. And so looking at the problem of climate change through a per capita lens helps draw lines about other climate change policy matters which will need to be faced. Therefore the  establishment of a C&C framework would help with other policy questions that must be faced in the future.

10. Many have argued that responsibility for reducing ghg emissions should not only be based upon production of ghgs within a nation, the current presumption of international negotiations, but on products consumed  in a nation but produced in another nations in processes which emitted ghgs.  Although this shift from production ghg to consumption related ghg as a way of establishing national responsibility to achieve ghg emissions reduction targets is not likely to happen in the short-term, those who desire to assign liability on the basis of consumption could also use the C&C framework more easier than other proposed equity frameworks.

III. Limitations of C&C

Other proposed equity frameworks were developed to deal with a few alleged  limitations of C&C. (As we have explained, C&C was always flexible enough to deal with additional issues relevant to distributive justice and therefore these alleged criticisms did not take into considerations the inherent flexibility of C&C.)

For instance, a second allocation formula which has received serious attention by the international community is the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework ( GDR) (Baer et al., 2008). GDR was developed, according to its proponents, because C&C does not leave adequate ghg emissions to allow developing nations to develop to levels that would allow them to escape grinding poverty. And so, proponents of GDR argue that any targets developed under a C&C framework will not be fair to poor nations and therefore will not be accepted by developing nations. We agree that several additional equitable issues  including the justice dimensions of historical emissions levels must be dealt with for a C&C approach to be fair to low-emitting poor countries because emissions targets simply based upon equal per capita emissions to allocate the extraordinarily small carbon budget that is left to avoid dangerous climate change will leave almost nothing for low emitting nations to grow economically. The questions is not whether these issues need to be considered in setting targets, but rather how they are considered while maintaining the moral force of equal per capita rights to use the atmosphere as a carbon sink.

The Brazilian government has also developed a proposed equity framework based upon the need to take historical emissions levels seriously. Both the proposed GDR framework and the proposed Brazilian framework more directly deal with legitimate justice issues which are not expressly initially dealt with under C&C.  Yet C&C can be adopted in combination with other agreements and adjustments to C&C assumptions that deal directly with the equitable issues more directly considered by the other proposed equity frameworks. For instance, the convergence dates in the C&C framework can be modified to take into consideration s0me historical emissions issues. In addition, separate agreements on such matters  as financing carbon friendly technologies in poor, low emitting nations can deal with issues of need to assist developing nations achieve otherwise just ghg emissions targets.

In summary, some of the alleged limitations of  C&C can be dealt in other agreements while retaining the basic structure of C&C.  And so, for the 10 reasons above, the C&C should be adopted by the international community not withstanding the legitimate need to consider other issues relevant to distributive justice in setting ghg emissions reduction targets including levels of historical emissions and financial ability of poor nations to comply with per capita emissions limitations. For this reason, C&C is the most preferable and practical equitable framework for allocating climate change obligations among governments.

References:

Baer, P., Athanasiou, T., Kartha, S., and Kemp-Benedict, E., (2008). The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework, Second Edition, November 2008. www.ecoequity.org/docs/TheGDRsFramework.pdf

Global Commons Institute, (GCI), ) 2010. http://www.gci.org.uk/

Meyer, A., (2000, Contraction and Convergence, The Global Solution to Climate Change, Ttones, UK: Green Books,

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law and Professor, Widener University School of LawPart-time Professor, Nanjing University of Science Information and Technology, Nanjing, China

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

“Rebirth Of the Sacred”: Responses to the Dysfunctional Economic and Political Systems Responsible For Global Environmental Crises

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Because of the global scale and deepening urgency of  problems like climate change, there is a growing consensus among many hard and behavioral scientists, ethicists, and international lawyers that there is a need for massive changes in the political, economic, and social systems that are the current dominant ideological frameworks for coordinating human behavior on Earth.

Rebirth of the Sacred,” a new book by Robert Nadeau, includes important deeply interdisciplinary analyses of the causes of the human failures to protect the global environment ending with a call for a new synthesis of science, ethics, and religion that would form the basis for a world-wide social movement.

The book not only includes trenchant analyses of why current global economic and political systems are dysfunctional, it also contains very valuable explorations of many findings of contemporary physics, biology, and brain science which could form the basis of  a new deeper understanding of the fact that all people around the world are part of one human community dependent upon the global environment. And so the book not only helps explain what is wrong with human affairs at a time of growing global environmental crises, it points to a way forward.

The book makes a very compelling argument about why neoclassical economic theory which is now dominating public policy prescriptions globally is based upon obsolete and scientifically disproven assumptions of 18th Century physics. As we have written about extensively on this website, there are numerous serious ethical problems with most economic analyses of climate change policy options which are based upon neoclassical economic assumptions.  This new book, however, demonstrates that the neoclassical economic theory which both dominates global economic policy and often undermines climate change policy-making is not only deeply ethically flawed but also scientifically discredited. Thus the book’s explanation of the scientifically problematic assumptions of neoclassical economics is a valuable contribution to generating a better global understanding of what is wrong with the economic discourses that continue to be enormously influential in global affairs. For instance, the book explains why the widely held assumption that global markets, with a few minor government interventions, will solve pressing human problems is scientifically unsupportable.

Of particular value is the book’s explanation of recent brain science’s understanding of links between brain structure and human morality. In this regard the book concludes as follows which I now quote directly because of its potential importance:

There is now a growing consensus in both the hard and behavioral sciences that the human capacity to engage in spontaneous moral behavior is a product of evolution and is innate. And research in the behavioral sciences strongly suggest that the moral concepts and emotions associated with this behavior are universal in spite of the differences in standards for ethical behavior in diverse cultural contexts. For example, anthropologists Donald Brown (no relation to me) has compiled an impressively long list of these universal moral concepts and emotions, which includes distinctions between right and wrong; empathy; fairness; rights and obligations; prohibitions against murder, rape and other forms of violence; shame; taboos; and sanctions for wrongs against the community.

Studies done by anthropologists in existing hunter-gatherer tribes display a strong belief in fairness and reciprocity, a great capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a pronounced willingness to work cooperatively for the good of the entire community. And numerous studies done on both children and adults living in highly industrialized Western countries have revealed that a violation of the expectation that others will display a sense of fairness evokes feedbacks from the limbic system associated with outrage and indignation.

(Nadeau, 2013: 33)

nw book advAnd so the book argues that there are some moral universals which are consistent with scientific understanding of how the brain works and which can be appealed to to guide global behavior on serious global problems like climate change.

The book also describes important insights from brain science about the evolutionary development of some common universal moral responses by explaining differences in the brain structure that are responsible for nonverbal, spontaneous moral behavior triggered by mirror neurons and verbal, analytical responses to moral problems initiated in other parts of the brain. This distinction helps explain why some feelings of sympathy for others is felt at a deep level before rational cognition is experienced.

All of this is extraordinarily important for climate change ethics because it provides a scientific basis for the hope that appeals to morality and ethics can lead eventually to policy on climate change that is fair and just. That is, if these moral universals exist, then they can be used authoritatively to help people around the world see what is wrong with the dominant economic and political systems which are now structuring responses to global issues including climate change. This is extremely important because the dominant economic frames prescribing public policy outcomes pretend to be “value-neutral,” that is simply factual descriptions of the way the world works. To build social movements that change these frames, citizens around the world need to understand how these frames violate widely held ethical and moral values. For instance, the widely used justification for support of the existing global order is that markets will always lead to the best policy outcomes, yet not only is this claim dubious on scientific grounds as explained in this book, because unfettered markets can lead to  unfair and unjust outcomes which are inconsistent with universally held ethical beliefs, an appeal to ethics and justice has the potential to generate wide-spread social opposition to using market ideology to solve serious global  problems. If there is universal consensus on some moral issues, then generating wider understanding of how dominant discourses prevent attainment of these ethical and moral goals is a potent strategy for social change.

The book ends with a call for a new conversation between religion and science on the world’s most dangerous issues, a conversation in which religious sensibilities do not conflict with a scientific understanding of the evolution of the cosmos or moral sensibilities now understood by brain science. Yet an argument can be made that the first order problem is to achieve greater understanding of the moral bankruptcy of the dominant economic and political discourses which are leading to the current global crises. If this is true, all sectors of society, including religion and science, must help people understand how dominant economic and political discourses lead to ethically bankrupt outcomes.

Rebirth of the Sacred contains important insights about why dominant economic and political discourses lead to current global environmental crisis.  Yet the best hope for changing the status quo may be if people armed with this understanding help others see why the status quo is morally bankrupt.

Reference:

Nadeau, Robert, 2013, Rebirth of the Sacred, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law and Professor,

Widener University School of Law

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

Nanjing, China

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

Ethical and Justice Issues At the Center of the Warsaw Climate Negotiations-Issue 1, Equity and National GHG Emissions Reductions Commitments in the Short-Term

equity and ambitionThis is the second in a series of papers which will examine the ethical and justice issues that are at the center of the Warsaw climate negotiations, often referred to as the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP-19). The first in the series can be found on Ethicsandclimate.org. This paper looks at the ethical issues entailed by the need for nations to dramatically increase their ghg emissions reductions commitments immediately, that is in the short-term, to levels that equity and justice would require of them.

Each year in international negotiations, pleas of vulnerable developing nations have become louder calling for developed nations to respond to climate change in ways that are consistent with their ethical obligations. For the most part, this had utterly failed to happen. Yet, up until a few years ago, nations could ignore their ethical responsibilities provided they made any commitments at all to reduce their ghg emissions. As a result, nations have failed to adopt climate change policies consistent with their equitable obligations despite the fact that all nations who are parties to the UNFCCC agreed, when they became parties, to reduce their emissions to levels required of them based upon “equity” to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

Although most nations have now made some commitments that have included ghg emissions reductions targets starting in the Copenhagen COP in 2009, almost all nations appear to be basing their national targets not on what equity would require of them but at levels determined by their economic and national interests. In fact, in many cases when governments have been asked why they have not made more ambitious commitments, they have cited national economic justifications or their unwillingness to make more stringent commitments until other nations do so, excuses which are also based upon national interest rather than national global obligations. And so, for the most part, nations have entered the international climate negotiations as if their commitments to an urgently needed climate change global solution can be based on national interest rather than global responsibilities.

However the longer nations have waited to respond adequately to climate change, the more difficult it has becomes to ignore what ethics and justice requires of them because climate science is telling the international community that it must immediately adopt a global approach to climate change which is much more ambitious than current national commitments will provide. And so despite the fact that some vulnerable nations have been screaming for climate justice for at least two decades, in the last few COPs equity and justice has moved to the center of the most contentious issues in dispute. Now there is no escaping the international community from reviewing   national commitments through a justice lens. The smaller the available budget becomes to avoid dangerous climate change, the more obvious the justice issues become.

Nations must both increase emissions reductions commitments immediately to give the world any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change while also agreeing to an international framework on future ghg emissions which will limit global ghg emissions in the medium- and long-term. And so, some aspects of the Warsaw agenda are focused both on increasing ghg emissions commitments in the short-term while at the same time working toward a new climate change treaty which will include a framework for national ghg emissions reductions after 2020. This paper looks at the equitable aspects of the need for more ambition in national ghg emissions commitments in the short-term while the next entry will look at ethics and justice issues entailed by the need for a new climate change treaty that was agreed to in prior COPs and that is scheduled to come into effect in 2020.

An adequate global climate change solution will need to limit total global ghg emissions to levels which will prevent atmospheric concentrations of ghgs from accumulating to dangerous levels and to do this any solution will also need to allocate total global emissions levels among all nations. Therefore each nation must agree to limit is emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions both in the short- and longer-term. There is now no way of escaping this urgent reality.

Up until now, nations could pretend that baby steps toward a global solution were acceptable progress. The urgency of finding a global climate change solution now makes it clear that such pretense is foolish self-deception.

Since the last COP in Qatar last year, there have been two prestigious scientific reports that have made it even more abundantly clear that much greater ambition from nations on their previous ghg emissions reduction commitments based upon equity are urgently needed. In 2013, IPCC in its recent Working Group I Report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change  and UNEP in its just released the Emissions Gap Report are advising the international community that the world is quickly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.

The UNEP report is particularly relevant to the short-term situation given that the international community has agreed to limit future warming to prevent catastrophic warming to  2° C or perhaps 1.5° C if later studies demonstrate that a 1.5° C warming limit is necessary to prevent catastrophic harms.

The UNEP report found that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, ghg emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level that would provide a likely chance of remaining on the least-cost pathway.

To be on track to stay within the 2° C target and head off very dangerous climate change, the report says that emissions should be a maximum of 44 GtCO2e by 2020 to set the stage for further cuts needed keep warming from exceeding the 2° C target.

Since total global ghg emissions in 2010 already stood at 50.1 GtCO2e, and are increasing every year, reaching a 44 GtCO2e target by 2020 is extraordinarily daunting and much greater ambition is needed from the global community than can be seen in existing national ghg emissions reduction commitments.

UNEP pointed out in its report that the 44 GtCO2e target by 2020 is necessary to have any hope of achieving even greater cuts needed after 2020 when total emissions must be limited to sharply declining total emissions limitations. Moreover if the world continues under a business-as-usual scenario, which does not include pledges, 2020 emissions are predicted to reach 59 GtCO2e, which is 1 GtCO2e higher than was estimated in a UNEP report issued in 2012. Without doubt increasing the ambition of national ghg commitments is urgently needed to provide any reasonable hope of limiting warming to non-catastrophic levels.

The September, 2013, IPCC issued a report which contained a budget on total carbon emissions that the world needs to stay within to give a 66% chance of preventing more than the 2° C  warming that attracted world attention despite the fact that it has been widely criticized as being overly optimistic. This budget is an upper limit on total human CO2 equivalent emissions from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the day we stop burning carbon. The IPCC said that for warming to remain below last 2° C warming limit, the total amount of CO2 must be less than 1000 billion tons.

The IPCC report estimated that we’ve already used 531 billion tons of that budget as of 2011 by burning fossil fuels for energy as well as by clearing forests for farming and myriad other uses. That means would mean that there is 469 tons left in the emissions budget. This further means that the budget would be completely used up by current emissions by around 2044, just over 30 years from now.

Yet, the IPCC budget is likely significantly overly optimistic because ghg emissions other than CO2 are being emitted which the IPCC recent budget did not take into account. Factoring in the other ghgs brings the overall cumulative budget down from 1 trillion tons of carbon to 800 billion tons.

With that in mind, the remaining budget is even smaller, leaving just 269 billion tons of carbon left. This figure screams for a radical increase in short-term and long-term ghg emissions national ghg emissions commitments. For this reason, climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice.

The IPCC report also said that a possible release of ghg thawing permafrost and methane hydrates — which are “not accounted for in current models” — would shrink the remaining budget even further.

So why is equity and justice considerations so vital to increasing national ambitions? There are several reasons for this. First some countries much more than others are contributing to global atmospheric ghg concentrations on a per capita and total tons basis. Other countries more than others have contributed much more historically to existing elevated ghg atmospneric concentrations as they pursued higher levels of economic growth. And some countries more than others should be allowed to increase energy use to emerge from grinding poverty especially since they have done almost nothing to cause the existing crisis. And so, climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice and no matter what ethical considerations are taken into account to define an arguably distributively just allocation of ghg emissions targets among nations, many national commitments utterly and obviously flunk any ethical test. Yet the international press is not covering this aspect of this civilization challenging problem.

Ethics and justice demand that high-emitting nations and individuals reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Furthermore, it is already a settled principle in international law that polluters should pay for their pollution, that nations should reduce their emissions to prevent dangerous climate change on the basis of ‘equity,’ not national interest, and that nations should prevent their citizens from doing harm to people outside their national jurisdictional boundaries. These rules collectively mean that nations may not base their climate change national strategies on national interest because they they have duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others that they must take into account when setting national climate change policy. Yet hardly any nations are explaining their national ghg emissions reductions commitments on the basis of how they are congruent with their equitable obligations and the international media for the most part is ignoring this vital part of this civilization challenging drama unfolding in Warsaw.

 

equity and climate change

In addition, every national ghg emissions target is already implicitly a position on the nation’s appropriate fair share of safe global emissions because it is a global problem about which each nation must do its fair share. Any national ghg emissions reduction target is a statement about the nation’s commitment to solve a global problem which is putting hundreds of millions of existing people at risk and countless members of future generations.

nw book advFurthermore, practically the nations of the world are not likely to increase ghg emissions targets unless those nations who are already exceeding their global fair share agree to reduce their ghg emissions. And so national ghg emissions reductions based on ethics and justice are both required on the basis of morality and are urgently practically needed. The obvious place to look for increases in ambition in national commitments is from nations that are obviously above emissions reduction levels that equity would require of them.

As we shall see in the next paper on a longer-term framework for national emissions, there are several competing ethical frameworks for what constitutes any nations fair share of safe global emissions. However, that does not mean that any position on “equity”  passes minimum ethical scrutiny. And without any doubt, national ghg emissions targets based upon national economic interest alone flunks any ethical analysis because climate change requires nations to take into account how their ghg emissions are gravely harming the hundreds of millions of people around the world who are vulnerable to climate change in setting national climate change policies. That is under any conceivable ethical theory, nations must set ghg targets based upon their duties to not harm others, not self-interest alone. High-emitting nations are therefore obviously failing to set ghg emissions targets based upon their ethical obligations. In fact, as we have seen, nations often have admitted that their targets have been based upon self-interest not global duties.

Slide3For this reason, a key issue on the Warsaw agenda is the ethical dimensions of short-term ghg emissions targets and the need for high-emitting nations in particular to increase their commitments.

However, unfortunately at this moment, it is unlikely that countries will increase their emission reduction proposals in Warsaw. In fact, in some countries recent national policy changes call into question their capability to reach even their inadequate 2020 targets. Along this line, for instance, a recent backwards step of Australia was announced that it intends to abolish its newly established carbon pricing mechanism.

This series will report on what happened in Warsaw on short-term ghg targets and equity at the conclusion of the Warsaw conference

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,

Windener University School of Law

Harrisburg, Pa.

Visting Professor, Nagoya University

Nagoya, Japan

Part-Time Professor

Nanjing University of Science Information and Technology

Nanjing, China

dabrown57@gmail.com

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

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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

 

 

 

An Ethical Analysis of Obama’s Climate Speech, the Adverse Political Reaction to It, and the Media Response.

 

aboma under water climate and obama

mcconnell_thumb Joe Manchin

 

On June 25th, President Obama gave a major speech on climate change in which he announced what his administration would do to reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions in the United States. Although the US Congress has continued to fail to act on climate change since climate negotiations began in 1990, President Obama identified administrative actions that he would take that did not depend upon US congressional action. As we shall see, the speech was significant for some of the ethical issues touched upon in the speech.

As expected some US politicians vigorously attacked the speech on the basis that the announced actions would destroy jobs and the US coal industry. We now look at this speech, the political response to it, and the US media reaction through an ethical lens.

In light of the US’s strong moral duty to take action to reduce the threat of climate change that has been virtually ignored by most previous US leaders. many parts of this important speech are worthy of praise.

President Obama promised to use this authority under the federal Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gases from electric power plants. He also dismissed climate change skeptics as Flat Earthers and urged US citizens at all levels to take steps to reduce climate change causing emissions and push back against those who would work to undermine US policy to reduce the threat of climate change. He further announced  plans to double wind and solar power while increasing the use of renewable energy in federal facilities to 20 % in 7 years.  He also identified a number of policy responses to reduce energy demand with the goal of significantly reducing the waste of energy.

In response to climate skeptics he said:

So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They’ve acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.

He also acknowledged some US responsibility to help developing nations transition to clean energy and announced a number of policy initiatives in support of this goal.

In regard to the the ethical responsibility of the United States to reduce the threat of climate change, President Obama said:

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

This statement is very significant for its ethical implications.  In fact, this is the strongest statement of any US President in regard to acknowledging that US policy on climate change can not solely be based upon US interests alone. That is, it is notable for its recognition of US responsibility to act on climate change. Thus, in addition to US interests in climate change policies, President Obama acknowledged that the United States has obligations, responsibilities, and duties to act. This fact has profound significance for US climate change policy.  It means, that the US must consider its obligations to others not to harm them through our ghg emissions. Yet, as we have seen over and over again, US climate change policies are usually debated in the United States as if only US interests count.

This speech also acknowledged that it is probably too late to avoid the need of nations to adapt to climate change’s adverse impacts.This is so because even if aggressive action it taken on climate change around the world, some adverse climate change impacts are inevitable. Notable in this regard was the speech’s acknowledgement that:

We’re going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition — not just here in the United States but around the world.

And so, President Obama seems thus to acknowledge US obligations to help developing nations to adapt to climate change.

Another part of the speech with ethical significance is remarks about a new climate change treaty that was agreed to in Durban, South Africa that is to be completed in 2015 and come into effect in 2020. In this regard, President Obama said:

Two years ago, we decided to forge a new agreement beyond 2020 that would apply to all countries, not just developed countries. What we need is an agreement that’s ambitious — because that’s what the scale of the challenge demands. We need an inclusive agreement -– because every country has to play its part. And we need an agreement that’s flexible — because different nations have different needs.

This statement is of considerable ethical significance because it acknowledges that different nations have different responsibilities and needs in regard to climate change policies. This idea was agreed to by the United States but has largely been ignored. In ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 under then president George H. W. Bush, the United States promised to reduce its ghg emissions based upon “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities” to prevent dangerous climate change. This  idea, which entails looking at the US response to climate change through the lens of distributive justice, has been almost completely ignored by the US Congress and former US presidents. It is also an idea that entails that the United States must reduce its emissions more aggressively than developing nations that have done significantly less to cause increasing atmospheric ghg concentrations.

This statement also implicitly acknowledges that all nations. including the United States, have an ethical duty to increase the ambitiousness of its ghg emissions reductions commitments in climate negotiations that are under discussion until 2015.

President Obama also acknowledged our ethical responsibility to future generations to reduce the threat of climate change when he said:

Our founders believed that those of us in positions of power are elected not just to serve as custodians of the present, but as caretakers of the future.  And they charged us to make decisions with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of our own political careers. That’s what the American people expect. That’s what they deserve.

And so as a matter of ethics, President Obama acknowledged that the US has a special responsibility to act on climate change in response to our ethical obligations, not our national interests alone , in proportion to our responsibility as a matter of distributive  justice and our obligations to future generations  while at the same time assisting vulnerable developing nations to adapt to the inevitable adverse climate impacts that now can not be avoided.

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President Obama also ended his speech with a call to recognize the sacred importance of protecting Earth by recalling the astonishment of the astronauts when they saw the Earth from outer space as they came around the moon for the first time.

For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.

“It makes you realize,” that astronaut said all those years ago, “just what you have back there on Earth.” And that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface, containing everything we hold dear — the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity — that’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, I’m absolutely sure we’ll succeed.

 And so as, a matter of ethics, Obama’s speech was laudable and historically significant in many respects. That is not to say, however, that the Obama speech cannot be criticized for some omissions in regard to the US’s ethical obligations for climate change. These omissions included: (a)  the lack of recognition that dependence on natural gas as a bridge fuel for reducing the US carbon footprint raises several ethical questions, a matter reviewed here in detail, (b) acknowledgment of the US special responsibility for climate change for its unwillingness to take action on climate change for over 20 years since it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, see, The World Waits In Vain For US Ethical Climate Change Leadership As the World Warms, and, (c) failing to communicate the extreme urgency of quickly and significantly reducing ghg emissions in the next few years to give the world any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, see, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.  In this regard, Obama’s speech utterly failed to acknowledge the magnitude of the ghg emissions reductions that are  ethically required of the United States in the next decade.

And so, all in all, the Obama speech can be praised for its express recognition of many of the ethical ethical obligations entailed by climate change despite some quibbles about a few ethical issues not covered well.

As was expected, the political opposition in the US to the speech was rapid and intense. For instance Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that Obama’s plan on climate change was was a “war on coal” and on jobs.

Senator Joe Manchin, D-WV, went further saying that the Obama climate plan was not just a “war on jobs” and a “war on West Virginia,” but also, a “war on America.”

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Senator James Inhofe, R-Ok, who has consistently claimed that the  mainstream scientific view on climate is a “hoax,” said the Obama plan will cost the US economy $400 billion a year while ranting about other aspects of the Obama climate plan.

The most frequent justifications for the strong opposition to the Obama climate plan have been the claimed severe economic harms to the US economy, lack of scientific certainty on adverse climate impacts, and the inability of the United States acting alone to prevent climate change.

As we have explained in considerable detail before, these excuses utterly fail to withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.

Economic harm arguments made in opposition to Obama’s climate plan, for instance, even if true, both fail to recognize the ethical obligations that the United States has to not harm others through our ghg emissions and to acknowledge the costs of not acting. US climate policy cannot be based upon US interests alone. The United States has obligations to others. In addition, economic arguments for not acting on climate change ignore obligations that nations have if they are creating human rights violations and duties entailed  by distributive justice. These are only a few of the ethical problems with economic arguments made in opposition to US climate change policies.  For a detailed ethical analyses of economic arguments made  in opposition to US climate change policies, see Ethicsandclimate.org index under Economics and Climate Ethics. 

Scientific certainty arguments made in opposition to climate change fail as a matter of ethics for a  host of reasons including the fact that almost all of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world and the vast majority of scientists that do peer-reviewed science support the consensus view that has concluded that climate change is  a growing civilization challenging threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends around the world, uncertainty in these situations raises ethical questions about burdens and quantity of proof, those most vulnerable to climate change have not consented to be put at risk from climate change, and the longer the world waits to reduce the threat of  climate change the worse the  problem becomes. For detailed ethical analysis of scientific uncertainty arguments made in opposition to climate change, see Ethicsandclimate.org index under Scientific Uncertainty and Climate Ethics.

Arguments in opposition to action on climate change based upon the claim that the  United States  acting alone will not significantly reduce the threat of climate change fails any ethical test because all nations  have a duty to act to reduce their emissions to their fair share without regard to what other nations do. For detailed ethical analysis of this issue, see, Ethical Issues Raised By US Blue Dog Democratic Senators’ Opposition to Climate Legislation – When May a Nation Make Domestic GHG Reduction Commitments Contingent on Other Nations’ Actions

And so, the arguments made in opposition to the Obama speech fail to withstand  ethical scrutiny.

The US media response to the Obama speech and the political response thereto has once again completely ignored the ethical problems with the strong political opposition to the speech. As we have noted over and over again in regard to the US media coverage of the US response to climate change, the US press is utterly failing to cover ethical issues entailed by opposition to climate change policies in the United States. This is particularly true of economic and scientific uncertainty arguments made in opposition to proposed US climate change policies. Nor is the US press covering ethical issues entailed by the urgency and  magnitude of the need to reduce ghg emissions  given that the world is likely  running out of time to prevent warming of 2 degrees C, a warming amount which is widely believed could create rapid, non-linear climate change. For a discussion of this issue, see: On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To What Equity Requires of Them In Their Responses to Climate Change.

One might ask why the US media is failing to cover the obvious ethical questions raised by climate change issues given that the ethical issues have profound consequences for climate change policy and climate change raises obvious civilization challenging ethical issues. We  might ask why the US press is failing to cover the ethical and justice issues entailed by climate change given that vulnerable countries around the world have been screaming for developed nations including the United States to respond in accordance with their ethical obligations. Is the US  press so connected to the economic interests of the United States, that it is blind to the US ethical obligations for climate change? If the US press has not been corrupted by the economic interests of the United States, the only plausible explanation for the US media’s failure to cover the  ethical issues raised by climate change is that the reporter’s covering climate  change don’t understand the civilization challenging ethical issues raised by climate change. If this is the explanation, there is a huge practical need to demand that the US press turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.

By:

Donald  A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Widener University School of Law.

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

Equity Remains At The Center of Bonn Climate Change Talks

 

equity and climate change

 

In a recent article in Ethicsandclimate.org, we explained why there is an urgent need of nations to respond to climate change be reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to levels required of them by “equity” to give the world any hope of  limiting warming to tolerable amounts. On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity

This article was written to explain in simple terms why national responses on the basis of equity are an indispensable ingredient in any global solution to climate change.  This article was also written because the media in the United States and other parts of the world are utterly failing to explain the importance of equity in national responses to climate change. This failure makes it easier for economic interests who perceive that they will be harmed if a nation reduces  its carbon emissions to manipulate the public with such arguments as the United States should not reduce its emissions because China is the largest polluter in the world. Citizens around the world need to understand that all nations have a duty to reduce their emissions to levels required of them by equity regardless of what other nations do to retain any reasonable hope of finding a global solution to climate change.

Since posting this article, nations have met under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bonn in early May, 2013 and in the first two weeks of June. In these meetings, equity continued to be a major focus of concern because of increasing scientific awareness of the urgent need of nations to increase their ambition in their greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reduction commitments to have any hope of preventing dangerous climate change.

Equity was not the only important issue under consideration at the Bonn  new book description for website-1_01meetings. Other significant issues under discussion were loss and damages, REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), market mechanisms under the UNFCCC, NAMAs (nationally appropriate mitigation actions for developing countries), and technology transfer, and completion of the architecture for the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol.

However, perhaps the most important issues in discussion in Bonn were those relating to structuring a new global climate change treaty that the world has agreed to complete by 2015 in Paris under the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform referred to by acronym ADP. These discussions focused on finding agreement on pre-2020 ambition national emissions reductions commitments and a framework for post-2020 agreement, carried out in two different work streams.

Parities working under the ADP are working to get a comprehensive deal by the 2015 deadline. The Bonn meeting marked the beginning of that “road to Paris” where 2015 COP-21 that is expected to finalize a new climate change agreement with legal significance that will come into force in 2020 .

equity and ambitionParties at the May Bonn meeting stressed the need for nations to align their commitments on the basis of  equity as required by the UNFCCC.  During the May Bonn meeting some developing countries argued in behalf of a proposal by Brazil that developed countries must take the lead on emissions reductions that took into account historical responsibility.

Other equitable frameworks were also discussed in May including frameworks known as “contraction and convergence,” “greenhouse development rights,” the “Indian Proposal,” and others.

There was also discussion on a new framework that is based upon the idea that all people everywhere should have the same right to use global atmospheric space.

A number of Parties spoke of the urgent need to close the ambition gap, as well as the quantification of the amount of adaptation that will be required in the light of the current scientific assessment of adaptation needs should current commitments not be met.

At the just concluded Bonn meeting in June, there was very little progress made in getting nations to increase their ambition based upon equity or on agreement about what equity requires. Although the June Bonn meeting saw some modest  progress on a few issues including REDD, little progress was made on the substantive content of future national commitments under the new treaty to be negotiated by 2015.  These issues will be taken up again in Warsaw at the next conference of the parties under the UNFCCC in mid-November.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

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

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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

 

 

Why Politicians May Not Ethically Rely on Their Own Uninformed Opinion About Climate Science and 10 Questions That The Press Should Ask Politicians About Climate Science In Light of This Responsibility.

Marco Rubio, a US Senator from Florida, recently said that he was not sure the climate change was human caused. This is one of the reasons why he’s unwilling to support US government action to reduce the threat of climate change.  Many other US politicians have also recently said they will not support legislation to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions because they are not convinced that climate change happening or is human-caused. In fact, 7 out of 8 Republican candidates for the US presidency proclaimed they didn’t believe that climate change was a problem. (Skeptical Science) When these politicians are asked about the basis for their positions on climate change, they almost always respond by saying such things as they “have heard that there is a disagreement among scientists” or similar responses that strongly suggest they have informed an opinion on climate change science without any understanding of the depth of the scientific evidence on which the scientific consensus view 0f climate change has been based. For instance, US politicians frequently assert that it is an open question whether humans are causing the undeniable warming that the Earth is experiencing, thus exposing ignorance of dozens of lines of independent robust evidence of human causation including attribution studies, finger print analyses,  strong evidence that correlates fossil fuel use to rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and other physical and chemical evidence.

Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials who have the power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not as a matter of ethics justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions on climate science. This is so because government officials, unlike ordinary citizens, have the power to prevent or minimize great harms to millions of people around the world that mainstream scientists have concluded that their constituents or governments that they represent are causing or contributing to. That is, a 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 with the power to enact climate change policies are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may not appeal to their uninformed opinion on climate science as justification for not taking action.


The government official is like the railroad official who has been told by employees who are in a position to know the location of the company’s trains that there is a runaway train hurtling toward a bus full of children that is stuck on the track, when the official has the ability to divert the train onto a track on which no humans will be harmed.

In the case of climate change, government officials should know that 97 of every 100 scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science research and in the  United States by the most prestigious scientific organizations including the US National Academy of Sciences that greenhouse gases coming from his constituents threaten catastrophic harm not only to his constituents but to millions of people around the world, most of whom have done little to cause climate change.

In the case of climate change, the US politician not only has the power, working with colleagues, to prevent great harm caused by his or her constituents, he or she has the responsibility to prevent his or her constituents from harming others outside United States. This responsibility was expressly agreed to by the United States when it ratified the United Nations Convention on Climate Change which contains the following acknowledgment of the US governments responsibility to prevent harm to those outside the United States in the convention’s Preamble:

Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. (UNFCCC Preamble)

In the case of climate change, the people that will be harmed (those in our metaphorical bus) are not only the constituents of the politician but hundreds of millions of people around the world that have done little or nothing to cause climate change.

 

The vast majority of climate scientists and over 100 scientific organizations whose members have climate science expertise have concluded that humans are causing climate change and human-induced climate change creates catastrophic threats for the human race and particularly for hundreds of millions of poor people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts.  Although there are some differences among some mainstream scientists about some of the details of the consensus view, an open letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s which was endorsed by 18 of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the United States summed up the nature of the scientific consensus as follows:

As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer- reviewed science. (AAAS 2009)

Though scientific consensus must always be open to responsible skepticism given: (a) the strength of the consensus on this topic, (b) the enormity of the harms predicted by the consensus view, (c) an approximately 30 year delay in taking action that has transpired since a serious climate change debate began in the United States in the early 1980s, (d)  a delay that has made the problem worse while making it more difficult to achieve ghg emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change because of the steepness of reductions now needed, no politician can ethically justify his or her refusal to support action on climate change based upon a personal opinion that is not supported by strong scientific evidence that has been reviewed by scientific organizations with a wide breadth of interdisciplinary scientific expertise.  Because any further delay will make the climate change threat worse, US politicians have a duty to support policies that will reduce the threat of climate unless they can produce strong scientific evidence that has been fully vetted by respectable scientific institutions that climate change is not the threat entailed by the scientific consensus view.

In this situation the government official has a strong duty to go beyond his or her own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions that have the breadth of expertise to consider one study in the context of thousands of other studies in climate change science. And so, government officials may not justify their refusal to act simply on the basis of  their personal opinion.

Because politicians have an affirmative duty to initially rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand any politician’s views that oppose action on climate change policies on scientific grounds. The US press has almost always failed to probe the justifications of those opposing action on climate change on scientific grounds. For this reason, journalists should ask politicians that claim there is not sufficient scientific support for government action climate change the following questions:

1. What specific scientific references and sources do you rely upon to conclude that there is a reasonable scientific dispute about whether human actions are causing dangerous climate change?

2. Are you aware that the United States Academy of Sciences and almost all respected scientific organizations whose membership includes scientists  with expertise relevant to climate change science support the scientific consensus view that holds has that the planet is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual?

3.  On what basis do you disregard the conclusions that humans are causing dangerous climate change held by the United States Academy of Sciences, over a hundred scientific organizations whose membership includes experts with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, and 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?

4. When you claim that the United States need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven that human-induced climate change will not create adverse impacts on human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?

5. When you claim that the United States should not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken will very likely make it too late to prevent dangerous human-induced climate change harms according to the consensus view?

6. Do you deny that those who argue that they should be allowed to continue to emit greenhouse gases at levels that may be dangerous should assume the burden of proof that their actions are safe given the strength of the consensus view on climate change science?

7. Do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in a decision about whether to act to reduce the threat of climate change in the face of scientific uncertainty?

8. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the Untied States in 1992 agreed to the following under Article 3, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?

The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost.

(UNFCCC, Art 3)

 9. If you claim that the climate change impacts predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have not reached a level of scientific certainty that warrants action, do you agree that climate change impacts predicted by IPCC could be wrong in both directions, potentially leading to even harsher adverse impacts than those predicted?

10. Given that for over 20 years since international climate change negotiations began, the United States has refused to commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions based upon the justification that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms the health and ecological systems on which life depends of others, should the United States be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?

By:

dabrown57@gmail.com

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

 

 

A short video : Can The United States Justify Its Unwillingness to Reduce Its GHG Emissions on the Basis of US Economic Interest Alone?

Some US politicians claim that the US need not reduce its GHG emissions because it is not in the US economic interest to do so. This short vide explains why the US has ethical duties to the rest of the world to reduce US ghg emissions, not only economic interests.

By:

Donald A Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com