Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

On The Moral Imperatives Of Speaking Publicly About the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change-And How It Must Be Done.

I. Introduction

One of the great privileges of writing ClimateEthics is that it exposes the writer to the good, bad, and ugly of climate change arguments being made around the world. Actually quite frequently we receive thoughtful comments that force us to go a little deeper and in some cases correct mistakes or correct reasonable misinterpretations. Often we get inspiring comments.

One such example of this was a comment received on another website, Climate Progress, to an article of ours that they had cross-posted from Jeff Huggens. See,

Mr Huggens said in part:

MANY MORE PEOPLE should be speaking out about these arguments. If only a dozen ethicists, moral philosophers, and others are conveying the strong argument in clear ethical/moral terms, the lack of others speaking out defeats the entire enterprise. People (the public, the media, and so forth) naturally wonder, if only 1 percent of all ethicists, spiritual leaders, moral philosophers, other philosophers, “wise women and men”, and so forth are speaking out in ethical/moral terms, then those ethical/moral arguments must truly be “not all that important”, or “highly controversial and not broadly accepted”, or “only held by theoretical folks”, or whatever. So, the efforts of the one percent or two percent of folks who DO speak out in those terms are somewhat nullified, in reality, if more and more people in the fields that are supposed to have views on such matters do not also join in to form a larger chorus of voices. In this sense, and for this reason, choosing to be silent, or indifferent, or “too busy” to take a stand on this IS making a choice — that is, one of indifference.

We believe that those who understand the ethical dimensions of climate change have a duty to speak up strongly because with knowledge comes responsibility.

II. How this Must Be Done

Now, one important reservation needs to be made, however, at this point. We believe that identifying the ethical issues entailed by climate change arguments will lead to three possibilities and all need to acknowledge this:

One, on some issues there will be an overlapping consensus among diverse ethical theories about what should be done. For example, no nation or individual may deny, given what is now indisputable about the threat of climate change even if some uncertainties about actual impacts are acknowledged, that they have immediate obligations to others to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. We believe all ethical systems and views require this. Yet nations are frequently acting as if only their national self-interest counts. And fewer individuals have recognized their duties on this. (A matter that we expect to write a lot about in the near future.) Particularly in regard to the assertion that nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses and individuals have duties and responsibilities to others we need people of conscience to speak out.

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Are Ethical Arguments for Climate Change Action Weaker Than Self-Interest Based Arguments? Why Taking Ethical Arguments Off the Table Is Like A Soccer Team Unilaterally Taking The Goalie Out of the Net.

I. Introduction

Many commentators to ClimateEthics argue that since people are self-interested beings, it is more important to make arguments in support of climate change based upon self-interest rather than ethical arguments. Some go so far to assert that people don’t care about ethics and therefore only self-interest-based arguments should be used to convince people to enact domestic climate change legislation. In other words, they argue:”get real” only self-interest arguments matter.

This view has dominated much discussion of climate change policy in the United States. No U.S. politician known to ClimateEthics has been expressly making the ethical arguments that need to be made in response to objections to proposed climate change policies. As ClimateEthics has previously reported, this is not the case in at least a few other parts of the world. See, The Strong Scottish Moral Leadership On Climate Change Compared To The Absence Of Any Acknowledged Ethical Duty In The US Debate.

Almost all arguments in the United States in support of climate change policies have been different self-interest based arguments such as climate change policies will protect the United States against adverse climate caused damages in the United States, create good green jobs, or are necessary to prevent national security risks to the United States that might be created if millions of people become refugees fleeing diminished water supplies or droughts that are adversely affecting food supplies. There are no known politically visible arguments being made in the United States that argue that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because it has duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others. In particular, there has been no coverage of the specific ethical arguments for climate change legislation in the mainstream media except with a very few infrequent exceptions.

More specifically, when opponents of climate change policies make self-interest based arguments against the adoption of policies such as cost to the United States, there are no follow-up questions asked by the press about whether those who argue against climate change policies on grounds of cost to the United States are denying that the United States has duties or responsibilities to those outside the United States to prevent harm to them
Now ClimateEthics agrees, of course, that if the consensus view of climate change science is correct, enlightened self-interest would support strong climate change policies. As an example, most economists now support action on climate change because they believe the costs of doing nothing are greater than the costs of taking action. In fact, there are many reasons why enlightened self-interest would support action on climate change. Yet what we explore here is not whether enlightened-self interest supports climate change policies, of course it does, but whether self-interest arguments are actually stronger than ethical arguments. Although the conclusions reached in this post are initially counter-intuitive, we here explain why ethical arguments are in some ways much stronger arguments than self-interest based arguments and the failure to look at climate change policies through an ethical lens has practical consequences. This, as we shall see, is particularly true of arguments made against climate change policies. And so ethical arguments may be no stronger then self-interest based arguments for some things, but they are actually indispensable for understanding what is wrong with certain arguments made against adopting climate change policies.
In fact, ClimateEthics believes that an appeal to self-interest alone on climate change, a tactic followed both by the Clinton and Obama administrations for understandable reasons, has been at least partially responsible for the failure of the United States to take climate change seriously. We have written about this in some detail at Climate Ethics in and entry entitled “Having We Been Asking the Wrong Questions Scientists.?

We would like now to explain in greater detail why taking the ethical reasons for support of climate change policies off the table in the debate about climate change is tantamount to a soccer team unilaterally taking the goalie out of the net. In other words, a case can be made that the ethical arguments are actually much stronger than self-interest based arguments at least in some very important ways. Therefore the failure to make the ethical arguments for climate change policies should be a concern because such failure has practical consequences.

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A Comprehensive Ethical Analysis of the Copenhagen Accord.

I. Introduction
If climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical problem, what can be said about the positions taken by governments and results achieved at the recently concluded Copenhagen conference?
To evaluate what happened in Copenhagen one must understand that the Copenhagen meeting was only the last in  almost two decades of meetings that have failed to achieve a global solution to climate change. Copenhagen was the 19th meeting of governments from around the world that have been meeting every year since 1990 to forge a comprehensive climate change regime. Copenhagen was also the 15th conference of the parties (COP-15) since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came into effect in 1994. (UN, 1992)
For more than twenty years some nations have been taking positions on climate change that raise serious ethical concerns. Copenhagen meeting was no exception. However, as we saw in a prior ClimateEthics post, there were two issues that arose with a new force in Copenhagen. They were the intensity and frequency of calls for: (a) global justice, and (b) increased funding for adaptation programs in vulnerable developing countries. See, ClimateEthics, Two Climate Change Matters Move To Center Stage In Copenhagen With Profound Implications for Developed Nations: Ethics and Adaptation,
Yet, at the conclusion of the Copenhagen conference, as we shall see, little was accomplished in response to these issues or the other climate change disputes that have now plagued climate negotiations for almost two decades. Although, as we shall see, some have pointed to a few positive Copenhagen outcomes, most observers have judged COP-15 to be a disaster.
This post begins with an analysis of what actually happened in Copenhagen and contains the following sections:
• The path to the Copenhagen Accord
• Arguments about whether Copenhagen was a disaster or a positive step forward.
• Analysis of the “disaster-step forward” controversy
• Ethical analyses of the Copenhagen Accord
• Climate change ethics after Copenhagen
II. The Path To The Copenhagen Accord
The Copenhagen conference took place from December 7-19, 2009. Copenhagen was intended to be the culmination of a two-year negotiating process that was agreed to in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007.
In 1990 negotiations began that led in 1992 to opening for signature and ratification of the UNFCCC. This treaty itself does not contain binding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions limitations for countries but nevertheless includes numerous other binding national climate change obligations.
To understand the significance of what happened in Copenhagen, it is necessary to understand the goals and objectives for an international climate regime that were originally set out in the UNFCCC. Among other things, for instance, the parties to the UNFCCC agreed that: (a) They would adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, (b) Developed countries should take the first steps to do this, and (c) Nations have common but differentiated responsibilities to prevent climate change, (d) Nations may not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking action, and (e) Nations should reduce their GHG emissions based upon “equity.” (UN, 1992) As we shall see, some national proposals in Copenhagen, seventeen years after the UNFCCC was agreed upon, failed to abide by many promises made by governments in the UNFCCC.
As of December 2009, the UNFCCC had 192 parties, a number that includes almost all countries in the world including the United States which ratified the UNFCCC in 1994.
The UNFCC is a “framework” convention because it has always been expected that additional requirements would be added to the framework in updates that are known as “protocols” or in annual decisions of the conferences of the parties.
The first major addition to the UNFCCC was the Kyoto Protocol which was negotiated in 1997 because the international community had been convinced by emerging climate change science that developed nations needed to be bound by numerical emissions reductions targets. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on February 16, 2005 and currently has 190 parties. The United States is the only developed country that never ratified the Kyoto Protocol.
Under the Kyoto, Protocol, the developed countries agreed to reduce their overall emissions of six greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels between 2008-2012. The developing countries had no binding emissions reductions obligations under Kyoto.
The Copenhagen negotiations were necessary because the emissions reductions obligations of developed countries set out in the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012.
At climate negotiations at COP-13 in Bali, Indonesia in 2007, parties to the UNFCCC agreed to replace the Kyoto Protocol with an agreement that would create a second commitment period under the UNFCCC and would include binding emissions reductions for developed countries and new programs on adaptation for developing countries, deforestation, finance, technology transfer, and capacity building. This agreement is referred to as the Bali Roadmap which also called for articulating a “shared vision for long-term cooperative action,” including a long-term global goal for emission reductions.
The Bali decision also recognized that developing countries could make contributions to solving the climate change through the development of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), that is climate change strategies for developing countries. The NAMAs, however, would not constitute binding emissions reduction requirements for developing countries in contrast to the binding obligations of developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol that would be further developed in Copenhagen.
At Bali the parties also agreed on a two-year negotiating process to achieve the objectives of the Bali Roadmap. Under this action plan, nations would proceed on two negotiation tracks. One under the UNFCCC and the other under the Kyoto Protocol. The first track was know by the acronym “AWG-KP,” standing for the Ad hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol. The second track was referred to as “AWG-LCA,” standing for the Ad hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action. The Bali agreement also included a deadline for concluding these negotiations in Copenhagen in December of 2009.
Intense negotiations in preparation for Copenhagen took place during the two years between Bali and Copenhagen including four separate meetings in 2009 alone. In these deliberations, many contentious issues surfaced. Among other things, these disputes included particularly strong disagreements about the magnitude of developed country emissions reduction commitments and institutional arrangements and funding amounts for financing developing country needs for technology cooperation, adaptation, reducing emissions from deforestation, and capacity building.
Although some progress was made on a few issues in the two year lead-up to Copenhagen, little progress was made on the major issues and particularly on commitments for GHG emissions reductions and funding for adaptation, deforestation programs, and technology transfer.

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Two Climate Change Matters Move To Center Stage In Copenhagen With Profound Implications for Developed Nations: Ethics and Adaptation

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of reports from the Copenhagen climate change negotiations.

I. Introduction.

There is something new in the air here in the Copenhagen climate change negotiations.These new developments have profound implications for the international community but particularly for developed nations such as the United States, Australia, Canada, and the European Union countries.

I have been participating in international climate change negotiating sessions since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 including seven conference of the parties (COPs) under the United States Framework Convention on Climate Change. I also negotiated climate change and other environmental issues for the United States EPA at the United Nations from 1995 to 1998. This experience leads me to conclude that there are two new big stories here in the Copenhagen that have implications far beyond those generated by the perennial climate change debates about whether nations should make meaningful commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, the world is still watching which nations will make significant greenhouse gas reduction commitments. Yet other climate change issues are pushing to be the central focus in  Copenhagen.

II. Ethics and Climate Change.

The first is the frequency and centrality in which the claim that climate change is an ethical problem, that is responses to climate change must be guided by ethical, justice, and human rights considerations. Unlike previous years, the agenda in Copenhagen has included dozens of meetings and side-events expressly devoted to the ethical dimensions of climate change. In addition claims that climate change raises ethical issues have also been frequently heard in other Copenhagen meetings and events devoted to other topics. Clearly, developing countries and NGOs have been successful in turning up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.
Of course, one occasionally heard that climate change triggers ethical issues at prior climate change COPs, yet here in Copenhagen it is as if the ethical, justice, and human rights dimensions of climate change has become the central organizing principle for resolving climate change disputes. As we shall see, this development has important practical consequences.

However, despite the apparent growing recognition that climate change is an ethical, justice, and human rights issue, many nations continue to negotiate as if national economic interest alone is a sufficient justification for domestic climate change policies on the slate of Copenhagen issues under consideration including greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments, and funding adaptation, technological transfer, and programs that will prevent deforestation. Yet, if climate change is an ethical issue, several practical consequences follow.

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