Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

New Very Helpful Website on Climate Equity

 

 

The World Resources Institute (WRI) has created a new very helpful website that allows visual comparisons of up to four nations at a time up and up to eight of 24  variables at a time relevant to determining what equity requires of nations in formulating their climate policies. The website is called Equity Tracker and is available at:  http://cait2.wri.org/equity/ 

The above picture from the website demonstrates how one could visualize differences between nations on factors relevant to what equity requires of them and thereby understand why some nations must make much  deeper cuts than others as a matter of equity and justice.  This information could be very valuable in deepening citizen and government reflection on ethical, justice, and equity problems with national responses to climate change. As a matter of equity, for instance, the website help one quickly visualize why the United States must make deeper percentage cuts in its ghg emissions than India and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not to mention China, for instance.

One minor criticism of the site is, however, in order. Although the website is very helpful to both help visualize and understand facts relevant to determinations of what equitable principles should guide national climate policy formation, particularly in regard to ghg emissions reduction targets, lamentably the site could be interpreted to leave the mistaken impression that equity could mean anything.  In fact the site says that the meaning of equity “depends upon the lens through which one views it.” The site could be improved if it included a reference to the IPCC discussion in Chapters 3 and 4 of Working Group III’s recent report which, among other things,  identifies  ethical limitations of economic arguments about climate policies and only a  limited number of considerations that should be considered in determining what equity means. For a summary of the IPCC conclusions on these issue see IPCC, Ethics, and Climate Change: Will IPCC’s Latest Report Transform How National Climate Change Policies Are Justified?. and Improving IPCC Working Group III’s Analysis on Climate Ethics and Equity, Second In A Series on this website.

The other idea one must understand to effectively criticize national ghg commitments is the policy implications of a carbon budget that must be maintained to limit warming to 2 degrees C.  If a citizen understands the equity considerations and the extraordinary urgency of lowering global emissions to limit warming to 2 degrees C,  then citizens can then effectively criticize their nation’s ghg emissions target. The following is one depiction of a carbon budget prepared by the Global Commons Institute with three different reductions pathways that make different assumptions about when global ghg emissions peak.

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By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

May Any Nation Such as the United States or China Make Its Willingness to Reduce Its GHG Emissions Contingent On What Other Nations Do?

 

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I. Introduction

In the United States and in several developed countries including Australia and Canada, for instance, opponents of national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions frequently have made several arguments in opposition to proposed climate change policies.  Most of these arguments have been of two types.

First, opponents of national climate policies have argued that there is insufficient scientific certainty about human causation of adverse climate impacts to warrant action because of the costs of reducing greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions might entail unnecessary expenditures if the mainstream scientific view on climate impacts turns out to be false.

Second proposed climate change policies are too costly. These cost arguments have taken several forms. They have included claims that the proposed ghg emissions reduction policies: (a) will unacceptably reduce national GDP, (b) will destroy jobs, (c) will destroy specific industries, (d) are not justified by cost-benefit analyses or other welfare maximization measurements, or (e) are just too costly.

Another very common argument made in opposition to national ghg emissions reductions policies that implicitly rests on claims of excessive costs is the frequent claim that it is unfair to the United States, or some other country, to be required to reduce its emissions as long as another country, e.g. China or India, is not willing to reduce its ghg emissions in similar ways.

This paper will examine whether a nation may make its willingness to reduce its ghg emissions contingent on what other nations do through an ethical lens after very briefly examining ethical problems with other cost justifications for a nation’s unwillingness to reduce it ghg emissions.

II. Ethical Problems with Cost Justifications for a Nation’s Unwillingness to Reduce its GHG Emissions.

As a matter of ethics all nations have clear duties reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of global emissions because nations have ethical duties to not harm other people and nations. These ethical duties can be derived both from various ethical theories and international law. For instance, as an example from climate law, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, nations agreed that nations have 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 regard to the ethical basis for concluding that nations have duties to not harm others a recent conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is relevant

Common sense ethics (and legal practice) hold persons responsible for harms or risks they knowingly impose or could have reasonably foreseen, and in certain cases, regardless of whether they could have been foreseen. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 49)

Cost arguments are almost always arguments about self-interest that usually ignore duties and responsibilities to others.

Whether a nation or individual should act to prevent climate change is a matter of justice, not simply a matter of economic efficiency, national welfare maximization, or economic self-interest alone. This is so because 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 ghg concentrations. Yet each nation must reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions because it has a duty to not harm others and 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” or national costs considerations alone. In addition, those most vulnerable to climate change have not consented to be harmed because costs to polluters of reducing their emissions are high.

In regard to these ethical limits of costs arguments, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Working Group III report recently confirmed these conclusions when it stated:

  • “Efficiency” and “welfare maximization” justifications unjustly sacrifice vulnerable people to the economic prosperity of high emitting nations and individuals. The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. …They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)
  • What ethical considerations can economics and justice can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, 2014.AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 25)
  • Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. (IPCC,2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3,pg. 24)

Yet, of course, what is any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions is a matter of distributive justice about which reasonable people may disagree. In fact, some very low emitting nation’s and people may be able to argue that they need not yet cut their ghg emissions because they have not yet exceeded their fair share of safe global emissions. Yet almost all nations are without doubt emitting at levels above their fair share of safe global emissions because total global emissions must be cut by as much as 95 percent by 2050 to prevent dangerous climate change. This is particularly true for all developed nations such as the United States which have very high per capita and historical emissions.

Although reasonable people may disagree on exactly what any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, this does not mean that any national articulation of what is fair passes ethical scrutiny.

In this regard, the recent IPCC report also agreed when it said:

  •  There is a basic set of shared ethical principles and precedents that apply to the climate problem…[and] such principles… can put bounds on the plausible interpretation of equity in the burden sharing context…[and] are important in establishing what may be reasonably required of different actors.  (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 48)

The recent IPPC report identified the considerations that have been discussed in the ethics literature as being relevant for determining what fairness requires in allocating national responsibility for national ghg emissions reductions. They include; (a) responsibility for causing the climate problem, that is historical levels of emissions, (b) capacity or ability to pay for ghg emissions reductions, (c) equality or giving each human being an equal right to use the atmosphere as a sink for ghg emissions, and (d) the right to development a concept which is usually understood to give poorer nations an exception from the obligations to reduce ghg emissions so that they can meet basic needs. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WGIII pp 52-56)

And so ethics requires each nation to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions where what is fair must be based upon morally justifiable reasons for allocating national ghg emissions reductions’ burdens yet in determining what are morally relevant factors there are only a limited number of considerations that are recognized by ethicists to be morally relevant.  None of these considerations are costs to reduce ghg emissions of high-emitting nations or people.

III. The Ethics Of One Nation Making Its GHG Reductions’ Commitment Contingent Upon Other Nations Doing the Same.

All nations that are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to immediately reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do. This is so because climate change obligations are a matter of global justice, not national interest alone, and justice requires all nations to reduce their ghg emissions to levels that are distributively just and sufficient in magnitude to in combination with the reductions of other nations to prevent dangerous climate change.

The duty to cease activities that harm others is not diminished if others who are contributing to the harm fail to cease their harmful behavior. This is so because no nation or person has a right to continue destructive behavior on the basis that others who are contributing to the harm of others have not ceased their destructive behavior.

For example, it would be absurd for one of two factories that are poisoning people downstream by their discharges of toxic substances to argue that it has no obligation to reduce toxic discharges until the other factory agrees to reduce its toxic discharges. One of two persons beating up an innocent victim cannot defend his actions on the basis that he had no duty to stop the beating as long as the other person continued to assault the victim.

Yet climate change is an analogous problem because some very high-emitting countries are largely causing great harm to very low-emitting poor countries who can do little by themselves to protect themselves from the great harm. Those poor nations who are the most vulnerable victims of climate change are appropriately dismissive of arguments from high-emitting countries that justify their unwillingness to change the status quo on the basis that other high-emitting countries have not reduced their emissions.

May the United States, or other nation, refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions as long as another nation, for instance China, will not act accordingly? As a matter of ethics, for reasons stated above, no nation may refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions levels on the basis what other nations do.

May China, or other developing nation refuse to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis that another developed nation has refused to act according to levels required of them?

Any nation’s obligation, including China’s, to reduce its ghg emissions is terminated only when its ghg emission levels are  below levels required by fair global allocations that will prevent dangerous climate change. Although even if  a nation is emitting at levels below its fair share of safe global emissions an argument can be made that any nation that could reduce its ghg emissions further should do so to avoid catastrophic harm to others. This so because climate change is violating the human rights of poor people around the world and human rights theory requires governments that have the ability to prevent human rights violations should do so even if they are not at fault.

Without doubt as a matter of ethics, all nations, at a minimum, have a duty to keep ghg emissions below their fair share of safe global emissions independent of what other nations are doing.

Although as we have seen what fairness requires is a matter about which different ethical theories might reach different conclusions, a claim by almost any nation in the top 80 percent of global per capita emissions that it is already below its fair share of safe global emissions is highly unlikely to pass scrutiny on the basis of any conceivable ethically theory.

And so, the United States, along with other high-emitting nations, must act now because it cannot make a credible case that US ghg emissions are already below the US’s fair share of safe global emissions levels. This is true because most mainstream scientists have concluded that the world must reduce total global emissions by as much as 90 to 80 percent below existing levels to stabilize GHG atmospheric concentrations at minimally safe atmospheric ghg concentrations and most developed nations and China are very high emitters in both historical and per capita emissions. Therefore what is a fair reduction levels for these high-emitting countries will need to be reductions at greater levels than required of the entire world.

Yet, some very low-emitting developing countries might be able to make a credible case that their current ghg emissions levels are still below their fair share of safe global emissions. And so although some poor low-emitting nations might be able to substantiate a claim that their existing ghg emissions levels don’t yet trigger immediate emissions reductions obligations, the United States and all developed nations and China are not members of this group. For this reason, the US, developed nations, and even high-emitting developing nations have a duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and this obligation is an international responsibility that is unaffected by the actions of other nations.

In addition, it is ethically problematic for the United States or another developed nation to assert that other nations must reduce their emissions to levels commensurate with US reductions. In fact, for the United States to make any claim on any other nation that it must reduce its emissions in the same amount as the US emissions reductions, it would have to make the case that the nation was already exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions coupled with the claim that to achieve fair emissions levels the nation would have to reduce emissions to the same level committed to by the United States. But even then, as we have seen, the United States could not makes its emissions reduction commitments contingent on what another nation did.

A variation of the argument that a country like the United States need not reduce its ghg emissions unless other nations do so is the claim that it will not make a difference in the harms experienced by those vulnerable to climate change if the United States reduces its ghg emissions and others fail to do so.  Yet this claim is not factually true. Any nation which is emitting ghg emissions above its fair share is contributing to the harms of people and nations who are harmed by climate change. Although it is obviously true that unless all nations reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global ghg emissions, some nations and people will be harmed by climate change, yet these harms will be worse so long as each nation refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions. Although the most damaging harms may be caused by those nations who refuse to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share, all nations emitting ghgs above their fair share make the harms worse.

Countries like the United States are not being asked to reduce China’s fair share of safe global emissions, they are only expected to reduce the US ghg emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions. For this reason, also, the US may not as a matter of ethics fail to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions because other countries have failed to do so.

IV. Conclusion

In conclusion, nations have an ethical responsibility to reduce ghg emissions that harm others for as long as they are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. This duty exists regardless of efforts undertaken by other nations to reduce their ghg emissions.

References:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 1995, AR2, Working Group III, Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change, https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml#1

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 1992, FCCC/INFORMAL/84. GE.05-62220 (E)  unfccc.int/resource/docs/convkp/conveng.pdf, accessed August 30, 2014

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University School of Law

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

 

 

 

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

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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