Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

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


China US Green Spend

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.


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 1995, AR2, Working Group III, Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change,

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

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 1992, FCCC/INFORMAL/84. GE.05-62220 (E), accessed August 30, 2014



Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Widener University School of Law