Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

An Ethical Examination of How The US Press Has Covered Links Between Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

 

US President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie Inspect Damages from Hurricane Sandy., October 31, 2012

I-Introduction

In this paper we examine through an ethical lens how the controversy about links between Hurricane Sandy and climate change have been covered by the US media. In the last two weeks the mainstream media has awoken, at least temporarily, from a slumber about climate change because of the enormous damages from Sandy and their potential links to human-induced warming. Although this renewed attention to climate change should be welcomed, in the last entry on EthicsandClimate.org we identified several crucial missing features of climate change in the renewed press coverage of climate change that citizens need to know to understand why climate change is such a civilization challenging threat. These missing features include: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about climate change, (b) the magnitude and urgency of the emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, (c) the barrier that the United States has been to finding a global solution for over 20 years, (d) the nature of the climate change disinformation campaign, and (e) the significance for policy of the fact that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical problem.

Ethicsandclimate.org has frequently explained the practical significance for policy of the fact that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical problem. We now look at the recent press coverage of the links between hurricane damage and climate change to identify how recognition of the ethical dimensions of climate change would affect the way the press covers links between hurricane damage and climate change.

II. Scientifically Understood Links Between Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

Hurricane Sandy has produced a flurry of media activity on the possible links between climate change and the damage from Sandy in the Northeastern United States.  For a sampling of various ways the US media has discussed possible ways of understanding this connection see the blog Residence on Earth: Articles about Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change.

Much of the press coverage makes the claim that there are links between Hurricane Sandy and climate change by pointing to the elevated ocean temperatures that have been caused by human-induced climate change, increased wind speed that is fueled by elevated ocean water temperatures, greater amounts of water that is transported into the atmosphere from the oceans in a warming world and dumped as rain during the storms, and rising sea levels that make storm surges worse.

Those opposing action on climate change often deny that one can link Hurricane Sandy to climate change.

A website whose mission is to oppose action on climate change, ClimateDepot, lists the following statements, among many others, of those who claim that there is no link between Hurricane Sandy and climate change:

  • Meteorologist Hoerling of NOAA: ‘The immediate cause is most likely little more than the coincidental alignment of a tropical storm with an extratropical storm. Both frequent W. Atlantic in Oct….nothing unusual with that’
  • Prof. Pielke Jr.: ‘We’ve done long-term trends with respect to hurricane damage in the United States, and it’s very safe to say that regardless of how [Sandy] plays out, there’s a century-long time series with no trend in it — and that’s in damage, the number of landfalls, or the intensity of storms at landfall. So, if you are looking for signals of long-term climate change, focusing in on any one storm is the wrong way to go about it to begin with’
  • Houston Chronicle’s Science guy Eric Berger: ‘…it is a big stretch to go from there to blaming Sandy on climate change. It’s a stretch that is just not supported by science at this time’

(Climatedepot 2012)

The mainstream scientific view on climate change, a view as we have previously explained in Ethicsandclimate.org that is supported by every Academy of Science in the world, almost all scientific organizations whose members have expertise relevant to climate science, and over 97% of scientists that do peer-review climate change science, holds that human-induced climate change is making the world warmer and sea level rise in predictable and measurable amounts. The mainstream view also holds that a warmer world will create more intense storms for a variety of reasons including that there will be more water vapor in the atmosphere in a warming world. There is now very strong evidence that the frequency of extreme weather events is increasing even if the record is not yet clear as to whether hurricanes are increasing in frequency.

Scientists know with high levels of certainty that climate change has increased Earth’s temperature, and that this warming has fueled more heat waves, more intense precipitation, more intense droughts, and more wildfires.

It is also true that scientists dont know for sure that climate change will make hurricanes more frequent but if hurricanes are formed they will increase damages because:

  • Higher sea levels will make storm surges more destructive
  • Warmer sea surface temperatures will fuel wind speed

Other potential links between Sandy and climate change are:

  • More moisture in the atmosphere causes larger amounts of rain fall
  • The unusual path of Sandy may have been affected by an unusual high pressure system which has links to climate change.

(Romm, 2012a)

As Joe Romm has stated:

The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be….

(Romm, 2012a)

Because very destructive hurricanes existed before impacts from climate change were measurable, one cannot simply point to high damages alone from a hurricane and deduce that the damages by themselves unequivocally demonstrate the link between hurricane damages and climate change. However one can point to elevated sea levels and sea surface temperatures caused by climate change and conclude that the hurricane damages will on average increase because of climate change.

We therefore conclude that strong connections can be made about the damages to be expected from hurricanes even though one cannot attribute the initiation of any hurricane to climate change alone.

III. Ethics, Hurricanes, and Climate Change.

So far, almost the entire controversy  created by Hurricane Sandy and its connection to climate change as discussed in the US media has been about whether one can attribute direct causation of Sandy to climate change. This is a scientific question and as we have seen there are strong scientific grounds for linking the magnitude of damages from Sandy to climate change, despite the fact that some uncertainties still remain about whether climate change increases the frequency of hurricanes. This issue has not been completely resolved.

Interest in the US press about whether there are links between climate change and hurricane damages appears to be motivated largely by the question of whether adopting climate change policies in the US will prevent even costlier damages to the United States.  Most of the press coverage about links between Sandy and climate change follows this line of reasoning at least implicitly. That is the press coverage has treated issues about connections between Sandy and climate change as an issue of interest relevant to national calculations of costs and benefits that would flow from adopting climate change policies. Yet such reasoning ignores several ethical conclusions entailed by understanding that climate change could greatly increase harms to some. These conclusions are:

  • Those causing potential serious harms to others have duties and responsibilities to those that they may harm including those outside the United States, and not just economic interests in preventing harms to themselves,
  • It is not necessary to establish complete proof that one is harming others before duties to avoid potential harm to others are triggered. A person need only be on notice that his or her actions may be harming others to establish the duty to cease activities that could harm them particularly in cases where the harm to others is grave and the uncertainties cannot be resolved in a timely fashion before the harms are experienced.
  • The stronger the possibility that one may harm others, the greater the duty to avoid activities that may harm them.

This ethical reasoning exposes serious problems with how the press has covered the controversy about links between climate change and Hurricane Sandy. The press has treated the issue as if  only two possibilities exist. Either there is a link between climate change and the damage caused by Sandy or there is no link. As we have seen this framing ignores the responsibilities of those putting others at risk  that are entailed once it is established that links are likely. As we have seen, the science of climate change has long passed this threshold trigger for action.

The US press has also largely ignored likely ties to climate change when extreme weather events in the last few years have taken place in other parts of the world that have wrecked havoc on hundreds of thousands of people including killer floods in Pakistan, Brazil, China, and Australia.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report in March of last year that linked climate change to increased extreme weather around the world including floods, heat waves, droughts, and heavy precipitation. (IPCC 2012).  And so, the US press coverage of Hurricane Sandy can be criticized for not helping Americans understand links between their greenhouse gas emissions and other extreme weather damages around the world. High levels  of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are harming others around the world through extreme weather events.

References:

Romm, Joe (2012a), How Does Climate Change Make Superstorms Like Sandy More Destructive? http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/10/31/1117091/how-does-climate-change-make-hurricanes-like-sandy-more-destructive/

Romm, Joe (2012b), Must-Read Trenberth: How To Relate Climate Extremes to Climate Change http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/03/25/451347/must-read-trenberth-how-to-relate-climate-extremes-to-climate-change/

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2012). Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and
Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation http://www.ipcc.ch/news_and_events/docs/srex/srex_press_release.pdf

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

Will Hurricane Sandy Remedy The US Media’s Grave Failures To Adequately Cover Climate Change?

 

 

(CBS News, 2012)

 

 

Hurricane Sandy is clearly responsible for a renewed interest in the American press about climate change.  For a  good sample of how the US media has, at least for the short-term, woken up to climate change see an excellent summary of  press coverage of links between Sandy and climate change on the website Residence on Earth at www.anothergreenblogg.wordpress.com,

Will this new interest in human-induced global warming lead to a cure of the grave US media failures to  communicate adequately to the American people the urgency and magnitude of the threat to the world entailed by climate change?

Some of the press coverage of climate change after Sandy is likely to improve. For instance, there is some hope after Sandy that the press will no longer ignore the monumental scale of the potential damages  to the United States as our planet continues to heat up.  As the Los Angeles Times recently reported:

Perhaps the most important message from Sandy is that it underscores the enormous price of underestimating the threat of climate change. Damage increases exponentially even if preparations are only slightly wrong. (Linden 2012)

And so Sandy may convince Americans that the threat of climate change is real and the damages of inaction are immense. However, there is very little evidence in the most recent reporting in the US press on Sandy and climate change that other grave failures of the American media to cover climate change will be remedied.  In fact US media reporting on climate change in the last few weeks has focused primarily on whether Sandy demonstrates that the threat of climate change is real.  Still missing  from mainstream media coverage of climate change are the 5 features on climate change that US citizens must understand to fully comprehend the urgent need of United States government to enact strong policies to reduce US emissions of greenhouse gases. As we have  explained in the last six articles on EthicsandClimate.org missing from US media coverage of climate change are:

  • the nature of the strong scientific consensus on climate change,
  •  a clear understanding of the magnitude and the urgency of total greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic warming,
  • a recognition a of the practical significance for policy that follows from an understanding that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical issue, 
  • acknowledgments  that the United States has been a significant barrier to finding a global solution to climate change for over 2 decades, and
  • an understanding of the nature of the well-organized, well-financed disinformation campaign that has been operating in the United States for over 20 years and that has been funded largely by fossil fuel interests and free market fundamentalist foundations.

EthicsandClimate.org has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of the US Media on Climate Change that can be found at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/

In previous entries, Ethicsandclimate.org examined the failure of the US media to communicate about: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change, (b) the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change,(c) the practical significance for policy that follows from understanding climate change as essentially an ethical problem, (e) the consistent barrier that the United States has been to finding a global solution to climate change in international climate negotiations, and (f)  the failure of the US media to help educate US citizens about the well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign.

Unless these other features of climate change are understood, there is a huge risk that Americans will not support strong climate change policy measures of the scale needed in the United States.

References:

Linden, E. (2012) Sandy and The Winds of Change, Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-linden-sandy-climate-change-20121102,0,2994914.story

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

The US Media’s Grave Failure To Communicate The Significance of Understanding Climate Change as A Civilization Challenging Ethical Issue.

I. Introduction

This is the fourth entry in a series that is examining grave communications failures of the US media in regard to climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world.  EthicsandClimate.org has recently developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/

This is the third paper that examines in more detail the issues briefly examined in the video. In the last two entries we examined the failure of the US media to communicate about: (1) the strong scientific position on climate change, and (2) the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reduction necessary to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. In this post we look at the failure of the US press to communicate about the significance for policy of seeing climate change as an ethical issue.

Subsequent posts will examine the following additional communication failures of the US media:

  •  The consistent barrier that the United States has been in developing a global solution on climate change for over 20 years.
  •  The nature of the climate change disinformation campaign in the United States.

II. Significance of Understanding Climate Change as A Civilization Challenging Ethical Issue.

There has been almost no coverage in the American press about the ethical duties of governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals to reduce the threat of climate change other than occasional general assertions by some activists or members of a religious groups referring to climate change as a moral issue. When substantive issues about climate change policies have been debated in the United States, there has not been a whimper in the US press about the ethical dimensions of climate change in general or the ethical implications for specific issues under consideration.

 The evidence for this widespread failure to understand the practical significance of seeing climate change as a moral issue includes the almost universal failure of the press or advocates of climate change policies to ask businesses, organizations, or individuals who oppose national climate change policies on the grounds of economic cost alone, whether they deny that, in addition to economic interests, nations must comply with their obligations, duties, and responsibilities to prevent harm to millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world. In the United States and other high-emitting nations there is hardly a peep in the US media about the practical consequences of seeing climate change as a world-challenging ethical problem.

If climate change is understood as essentially an ethical problem, several practical consequences for policy formation follow. Yet it is clear that there has been widespread failure of those engaged in climate change policy controversies to understand the enormous practical significance for policy formation of the acknowledgement that climate change is a moral issue.

Given the growing urgency of the need to rapidly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and the hard-to-imagine magnitude of global emissions reductions needed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at reasonably safe levels, the failure of many engaged in climate change controversies to see the practical significance of understanding climate change as an ethical problem must be seen as a huge human tragedy.

Without doubt, there are several reasons why climate change must be understood essentially as a civilization challenging ethical problem. yet very few people appear to understand what practical difference for policy formation follows if climate change is understood as an ethical problem.

Why is climate change fundamentally an ethical problem?

First, climate change creates duties, responsibilities, and obligations because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries or rich people in developed and developing countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people. That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who have done little to cause the immense threat to them.

Second, climate-change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world. Climate change harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat, and intense storms, damages to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. In fact, climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are potentially catastrophic. Yet there is growing evidence that greenhouse gas levels and resulting warming may be approaching thresholds that could lead to losing control over rising emissions.

Third, climate change must be understood to be an ethical problem because of its global scope. If other problems are created at the local, regional, or national scale, citizens can petition their governments to protect them from serious harms. But at the global level, no government exists whose jurisdiction matches the scale of the problem. And so, although national, regional, and local governments have the ability and responsibility to protect citizens within their borders, they have no responsibility to foreigners in the absence of international law. For this reason, ethical appeals are necessary to motivate governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.

Although a few people  have acknowledged that climate change must be understood as an ethical problem, the practical significance for policy formation that follows from this recognition appears to be not widely understood. The following are ten practical consequences, among many others, for policy formation that flow from the acknowledgement that climate change is an ethical problem. Although there are some climate change ethical issues about which reasonable ethical principles would reach different conclusions about what ethics requires, the following are conclusions about which there is a strong overlapping consensus among ethical theories. The ethical basis for these claims have been more rigorously worked out in prior articles on Ethicsandclimatge.org and are not repeated here.

If climate change is an ethical problem, then:

1. Nations or sub-national governments may not look to their domestic economic interests alone to justify their response to climate change because they must also comply with their duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to prevent climate-change caused harms.

2. All nations, sub-national governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Although different theories of distributive justice would reach different conclusions about what “fairness” requires quantitatively, most of the positions taken by opponents of climate change policies fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny given the huge differences in emissions levels between high and low emitting nations and individuals and the enormity of global emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. Any test of  “fairness” must look to principles of distributive or retributive justice and must be supported by moral reasoning.

3. No nation may refuse to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that some other nations are not reducing their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. All nations must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.

4. No national policy on climate change is ethically acceptable unless it, in combination with fair levels of greenhouse gas emissions from other countries, leads to stabilizing greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations at levels that prevent harm to those around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change. This is so because any national position on climate change is implicitly a position on adequate global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration stabilization level and all nations have a duty to prevent atmospheric greenhouse concentrations from exceeding levels that are harmful to others.

5. Because it has been scientifically well established that there is a great risk of catastrophic harm from human-induced change (even though it is acknowledged that there are remaining uncertainties about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts), no high-emitting nation, sub-national government, organization, business, or individual of greenhouse gases may use some remaining scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts as an excuse for not reducing its emissions to its fair share of safe global greenhouse gas emission on the basis of scientific uncertainty. The duty to prevent great harm to others begins once a person is on notice that they are potentially causing great harm, not when the harm is absolutely proven.

6. Those nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals that are emitting greenhouse gases above their fair share of safe global emissions have obligations, duties, and responsibilities for the costs of adaptation or damages to those who are harmed or will be harmed by climate change.

7. Given the magnitude of potential harms from climate change, those who make skeptical arguments against the mainstream scientific view on climate change have a duty to submit skeptical arguments to peer-review, acknowledge what is not in dispute about climate change science and not only focus on what is unknown, refrain from making specious claims about the  mainstream science of climate change such as the entire scientific basis for climate change that has been completely debunked, and assume the burden of proof to show that emissions of greenhouse gases are benign.

8. Those nations or entities that have historically far exceeded their fair share of safe global emissions have some responsibility for their historic emissions. Although the date at which responsibility for historic emissions is triggered is a matter about which different ethical theories may disagree, at the very least nations have responsibility for their historical emissions on the date that they were on notice that excess greenhouse gas emissions were dangerous for others, not on the date that danger was proven.

9. In determining any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, the nation must either assume that all humans have an equal right to use the atmosphere as a sink for greenhouse gases, or identify another allocation formula based upon morally relevant criteria. All nations have an ethical duty to explain why any deviation from per capita greenhouse gas emissions is ethically justified.

10. Some economic tools frequently used to evaluate public policy on climate change such as cost-benefit analysis that doesn’t acknowledge responsibility for allocating the burdens for reducing the threat of climate change on the basis of distributive justice are ethically problematic.

Given that climate change is obviously an ethical problem, and that if climate change is understood as an ethical problem it has profound significance for climate policy, the utter failure of the US media to cover climate change as an ethical problem is an enormous practical error and tragedy.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

How US Climate Change Law Must Be Reconciled With Existing International Law and Ethical Obligations.

 

The following video explains how US law on climate change must be upgraded  to be consistent with a body of international law on climate change that has developed over the past 20 years as well as ethical obligations the United States has under law and ethical theory.

Debate about climate change policy in the United States has almost always assumed that US policy-makers can look to US economic interests alone in establishing US climate change policies. This video explains why US domestic law on climate change must be consistent with existing provisions of international law and US ethical obligations,

 

 

The site will soon post a written summary of the material in this video,

]

By:

 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

Introduction To The Ethics of Climate Change -Video Part One

EthicsandClimate.org will be publishing videos that explain basic climate change ethical issues starting with this post.

This first video is about 14 minutes long and  introduces basic climate change ethics issues, explains why climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical question, identifies some important practical consequences of framing climate issues as ethical questions, and introduces very briefly a few of the many civilization challenging ethical questions raised by climate change.

Part 2 in this series will introduce specific ethical issues entailed by climate change

By

Donald A. Brown, Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law

dabrown@widener.mail.edu

 

The Practical Importance of Seeing Climate Change as an Ethical Problem.

Why is practically important for policy-making to see climate change as an ethical problem?
ClimateEthics begins with this entry using YouTube technology to explain the ethical dimensions of cliamte change. The following is our first attempt to do this. This video explains why it is practically important to understand climate change policy issues as ethical questions. We hope to improve our ability to do this in the future. This entry is 16 minutes long. It argues that it is practically important to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.

Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University
dab57@psu.edu