Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

US Media Fails to Educate The Public About Links Between Greater Natural Gas Use and Climate Change

methaneleakageThe New York Times and the Wall Street Journal  today reported on a new study by the University of Texas that found leakage rates of methane from natural gas fracking operations are lower than previously stated by US EPA. This report found that direct measurements of methane emissions from  190 onshore natural gas sites in the United States indicate that methane emissions from completed wells are are  lower than commonly thought although the report also acknowledged that emissions from pneumatic controllers and other equipment associated with natural gas production facilities were higher than previously estimated.

The report also concluded that taking into account the lower emissions from completed wells and the higher emissions from other equipment, actual methane emissions are most likely 20% lower than previously estimated.

This report has created a large buzz on the internet because at issue is whether natural gas is a bridge fuel to lower the threat of climate change. If the methane leakage rate is less than 3.6%, then it is widely assumed that natural gas is better than coal.  That is, if leakage levels are below this level it is generally assumed that switching to natural gas lowers the US carbon footprint and therefore greater natural gas production should be supported by citizens concerned about climate change. As a result the methane leakage rate issue has gathered enormous interest in climate change policy discussions.. Studies of methane leakage rates have reached widely different conclusions about actual leakage rates in part because different studies have used different: measurement methodologies, types of wells measured, portions of the the entire natural gas production process, and assumptions about leakage in the gas distribution process. The recent University of Texas study acknowledges that there are elements of the natural gas production to consumption cycle that were not fully considered.  And so, it is likely that scientific conclusions about methane leakage rates will continue to change from study to study in the next few years.

Because natural gas may produce less CO2 equivalent per unit of energy produced, natural gas companies are pushing natural gas as at least a short- to medium-term solution to climate change

Yet, as we have written about before, there is one extraordinary important issue about the link between natural gas production and climate change that is rarely being reported on in the US press nor is it usually part of the US debate about natural gas fracking and its impact on climate change.

The methane leakage debate usually assumes if the methane leakage rate is low enough, switching from coal to natural gas as fuel should be welcomed by proponents of action on climate change. Yet what is notably missing in the media discussion of this issue is the urgency of moving to non-fossil fuels or energy technologies that produce very, very low carbon emissions to give the world any hope of prevent catastrophic climate change.

We explained the  urgency of moving quickly to non-fossil energy in considerable detail in the recent entry on this website in  Ethical Issues with Relying on Natural Gas as a Solution  to Climate Change

Even if natural gas combustion creates approaching 50 percent less CO2 equivalent per unit of energy produced, an amount which is well beyond best case on ghg emission reductions,  it will not create the much greater emissions reductions necessary in the next 30 years to give any hope of  limiting warming from exceeding levels that will cause catastrophic impacts.  In short, natural gas combustion can’t produce the the emissions reductions that are needed just a few decades to put the world on a safe ghg emissions pathway.  Also investment in natural gas facilities may delay the needed rapid switch to non-fossil fuels. Although natural gas switching might help reduce the threat of climate change threat if  methane leakage rates are at the lower end of the range discussed  in the scientific literature in the very short term, the world needs massive investment in non-fossil technology as soon as possible.

In addition if coal combustion were to be replaced now by non-fossil fuel energy, it would help immediately much more than conversion of coal to natural gas combustion does in putting the world on an urgently needed ghg emissions reduction pathway needed to prevent catastrophic warming.

nw book advIn addition, large investments in natural gas combustion facilities will likely make it harder to switch to non-fossil energy because these investors will likely demand a return on their investment in the natural gas plants before they are shut down.

Large investment in cheaper natural gas may also increase energy demand to levels that result in greater total releases of ghgs even assuming that natural gas produces less CO2 equivalent on a BTU basis than coal.

It is simply irresponsible for the US media to report on the methane leakage issue without explaining the urgency of moving to non-fossil energy.

Of great concern, some natural gas companies are on the one hand claiming that natural gas is better for the climate change while they fight legislation to increase the US share of renewable energy.  A strong ethical case can be made that any political support for natural gas as a short-term bridge fuel  should be conditioned on the natural gas industry promising to stop lobbying against rapid scale up of renewable energy programs.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law,
Widener University School of Law
Visiting Professor, Nogoya University, Nogoya. Japan



An Ethical Analysis Of US Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s Views On Climate Change

Editor’s Note: This entry contains both a video and a the text on which the video was based that examines the views of US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney on climate change though an ethical lens. The text follows the video.



I. Introduction has critically examined US President Obama’s approach to climate change on several occasions. See, for instance: now turns to an ethical analysis of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s views on climate change. Although Mitt Romney’s position on climate change appears to have changed over time (at one time supported policies to reduce the threat of climate change), he recently has opposed legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gases citing  two reasons. In an October 2011 he asserted in response to a question about his view on climate change that he was opposed to climate change legislation because:

  1.  He did not know whether climate change was human caused.
  1. Climate change is a global problem and the US should not spend huge amounts of money on a problem that is global in scope.

(See: Romney : We Don’t Know What’s Causing Global Warming,


In addition, during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention on August 30, 2012, Romney commented on climate change by asserting that President Obama would try to stop raising seas and heal the planet while he would help American families, thus implicitly implying that he would not support climate change legislation while he was President (Lacey, 2012).


II. Ethical Analysis Of Romney’s Opposition To Climate Change Policies

 Should Mitt Romney’s opposition to government action on climate change be understood as a profound ethical lapse? The potential ethical significance of an unwillingness to act on climate change is obvious once one understands that:

  •  High emitting nations and individuals are putting tens of millions of the world’s poorest people at risk.
  • Tens of thousands of deaths and other harms caused by climate change are already attributable to human-induced warming, that is climate change is not just a civilization challenging  future problem but the present cause of misery to some humans in some parts of the world.
  • Even if the international community could stabilize atmospheric concentrations of  greenhouse gas emissions at current levels further warming will continue for as much as 100 years because of thermal lags in the climate system.
  • The mainstream scientific view holds that the world is likely running out of time to prevent rapid, nonlinear, and potentially catastrophic warming.


These facts are held by mainstream scientific view on climate change, a view supported by every academy of sciences in the world that has taken a position including theUnited States Academy of Sciences, 97 to 98% of the scientists that actually do climate science research, and over 100 scientific organizations in the world whose members have relevant expertise.


In light of the above, Mitt Romney’s position on human-induced warming is a stunning moral failure.  We now investigate in more detail ethical problems with the specific justifications articulated by Romney so far for his unwillingness to support climate change legislation.


  1. Ethical analysis of opposing greenhouse gas reduction policies on the basis of lack of scientific evidence of human causation.


It is not clear from candidate Romney’s stated position about human causation of observable warming whether he is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation or alternatively that there is significant scientific uncertainty about links between human activities and observed warming.


If Romney is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation of warming this is either a lie or reckless disregard for the truth. That is any claim that there is no evidence that observed warming is caused by human activity is demonstratively false. In fact there are numerous independent and robust lines of evidence that humans are mostly responsible for the undeniable warming the world is experiencing. This evidence includes:

Fingerprints of Human Causation of Climate Change

(Cook 2010)

  • Multiple climate fingerprints of human causation including how the upper atmosphere is warming in comparison to the lower atmosphere, nights are warming faster than days, the upper limit of the troposphere is rising as the world warms, more heat is returning to Earth, less oxygen is being found in atmosphere as CO2 rises, and ocean temperature change patterns can’t be attributed to factors that drive natural climate variability.


  • Multiple studies (called attribution studies) designed to statistically test the probability that observed warming could be attributed to natural variability.


  • Measures of isotopes of CO2 that support the conclusion that the CO2 appearing in the atmosphere is from fossil fuels combustion.


  • Close correlation between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global consumption of fossil fuel and deforestation.


  • Inability to attribute observed warming to known causes of natural climate    variability.


  • Uncontestable scientific understanding that as greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere the Earth’s climate will warm to some extent.


It is clearly untruthful to claim that there’s no evidence of human causation of observed warming.

Perhaps, Romney is claiming, however, not that there is no evidence of human causation, but rather that there is significant scientific uncertainty about whether warming can be attributed to human activities. Yet the mainstream scientific view on this issue is that it is more than 90% certain that observable warming is primarily caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities including the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation (IPCC, 2007). The mainstream scientific view, as we have seen, is supported by the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world a fact in itself that has moral significance.


Even assuming for the sake of argument that there is more scientific uncertainty about human causation of warming than that recognized by the mainstream scientific view,  as we have explained in before in numerous articles (See. e.g. Brown, 2008a), using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for non-action on climate change does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny due to certain features of the climate change problem including:

  •  The enormous adverse potential impacts on human health and the environment from human-induced climate change articulated by the consensus view.
  •  The disproportionate climate change impacts on the poorest people of the world.
  •  The real potential for potentially catastrophic climate surprises recognized by the mainstream scientific view.
  •  The fact that much of the science of the climate change problem has never or is not now in dispute, even if one acknowledges some remaining uncertainty about timing or magnitude of climate change impacts.
  •   The fact that climate change damage is probably already being experienced by some people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world in the form of rising seas and increased strength of tropical storms and more frequent and intense droughts and floods.
  •  The strong likelihood that serious and irreversible damage will be experienced before all the uncertainties can be eliminated.
  •  The fact that the longer nations wait to take action, the more difficult it will be to stabilize greenhouse gases at levels which don’t create serious damage.
  •  The fact that those who will be most harmed by climate change have rights to be consulted about decisions that dare made to take no action on climate change on the basis of basis scientific uncertainty.
  •  The fact that the mainstream view holds that  the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.


Given these features of the climate change problem, it is inconceivable that any ethical system would condone an excuse for non-action on climate change based upon scientific uncertainty. This is particularly true because if the consensus view is wrong about the magnitude and timing of climate change  it could be wrong in both directions, that is, climate change impacts could be much worse and more rapid than the impacts identified by IPCC and the US Academy of Sciences even if they also could be less harmful in regard to timing and magnitude.

All major ethical systems would strongly condemn behavior that is much less threatening and dangerous than climate change. That is deontological, utilitarian, justice, ecocentric, biocentric, and relationship based ethics would not condone using scientific uncertainty as justification for not reducing high levels of greenhouse gas emissions given what is not in dispute among mainstream climate scientists (See Brown, 2002: 141-148). For this is a problem that if not controlled may cause the death of tens or hundreds of thousands of helpless victims caused by intense storms and heat waves, the death or sickness of millions that may suffer dengue fever or malaria, the destruction of some nations’ ability to grow food or provide drinking water, the devastation of forests and personal property, and the acceleration of elimination of countless species of plants and animals that are already stressed by other human activities. In summary, global warming threatens many of the things that humans hold to be of most value, i.e., life, health, family, the ability to make a living, community, and the natural environment.

The ethical duty to avoid risky behavior is proportional to the magnitude of the potential harm. Because climate change is likely to cause death to many, if not millions of people, through heat stroke, vector borne disease, and flooding, annihilate many island nations by rising seas, cause billions of dollars in property damage in intense storms, and destroy the ability of hundreds of millions to feed themselves in hotter drier climates, the duty to refrain from activities which could cause global warming is extraordinarily strong even in the face of scientific uncertainty about consequences.

Therefore, the nature of the risk from climate change is enormous and using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for doing nothing is ethically intolerable.

In fact that there is wide spread cross-cultural acceptance of the idea that one should not engage in very risky behavior that could cause great harm to things which people attach great value to is a conclusion that is clear from the acceptance of the “precautionary principle” in a growing number of international treaties including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN, 1992, Article 3). Under the precautionary principle agreed in the climate change convention, nations promised not to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking cost-effective action. This is an additional ethical reason why scientific uncertainty cannot now be used by nations as an excuse for refusing to make reductions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, in addition to the strong ethical reasons identified  sbove, a nation may not break a promise made to other nations in the UNFCCC to not use scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change.


II. Ethical Duty To Act Does Not Depend On Other Nation’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Commitments

As we have seen, Presidential candidate Romney has also indicated that he would not support US domestic change legislation because it is a global problem and  the United States should not spend money on such a global problem. It would appear that Romney is objecting to US expenditures to reduce greenhouse gases as long as other nations are not also committing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions although it is not clear why Romeny would object to US action on climate change on the basis that is a global problem. Implicit in this justification appears to be the unstated assumption that no nation need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global missions until other nations act accordingly. Yet  this excuse for non-action on climate change also does not withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.

Because current greenhouse gas levels are already harming people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world according to the consensus climate change scientific view, and even if global  atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases could be stabilized at current levels, an extraordinarily difficult goal to achieve, climate change-caused harms will grow in the years ahead. For this reason, current levels of total global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced significantly to avoid future harms especially to those who have done little to cause the existing problem.

Yet, not all nations have equal responsibility to reduce greenhouse emissions given differences among nations in current and past emissions levels and steps already taken to reduce national emissions. However, all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions if they are exceeding their fair share (See Brown 2008). Although reasonable people may disagree on what fairness requires because different theories of distributive justice reach different conclusiosn about how to allocate responsibility, no developed nation may reasonablly make the argument that they are justified in not reducing greenhouse gas emissions subatanially because of the cilization challenging magnitude of emissions reductions that are needed to stabilze atmospheric concentrations at safe levels and the hugely disproportionate emissons levels attributable to developed nations.

As a matter of distributive justice, no nation nay deny that it has a duty to keep its national emissions levels below its fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore if a nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions, that nation has an ethical duty to reduce emissions and this duty does not depend upon what other nations are doing.

Although some developing nations can make a presentable argument that they could increase greenhouse gas emissions without exceeding their fair share of global emissions, the developed nations, including the United States cannot make this argument because it is known that existing total global emissions levels need to be significantly reduced and the developed nations are very high emitting nations compared to most nations in the world. For this reason, the United States and other developed nations, along with perhaps a few developing nations, have an immediate duty to begin to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and this obligation is compelled by basic justice, not a need for leadership.

The duty to reduce emissions 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 causing damage have not ceased their destructive behavior. The only question that needs to be examined to trigger a responsibility to begin to make immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions  is whether the nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions.

In addition to principles of distributive justice, developed nations have another strong reason why they must reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, they promised to do reduce their emissions based upon “equity” in the Untied Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system. Violating a provision of an international agreement such as the UNFCCC is considered a wrongful act under international law, and is therefore an unethical action for consenting nations (See, e.g., International Law Commission Draft Articles on State Responsibility Art. 2(a) & (b), 2001). Since parties to the UNFCCC also agreed that Annex I countries, that is developed countries, would take the lead in combating climate change and modifying future trends, Annex I countries must undertake policies and measures to limit their emissions regardless of actions taken by non-Annex I country parties. This is now a matter of international law as well as a principle of distributive justice.

For these reasons, high emitting nations in particular have a legal and ethical responsibility to reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. This duty applies regardless of efforts undertaken by other nations.

And so, Republican presidential candidate Romney may not justify a refusal of the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions  to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that other nations refuse to do so. All that is being asked of United States is that it limit its greenhouse gas emissions to  it’s fair and just share. It is not being asked to solve the problem for the rest of the world.

For these reasons, the United States may not refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emission because not all nations have acted accordingly. Such a conclusion is ethically absurd.


III. Conclusion

 For all these reasons, US presidential candidate Romney’s position on climate change fails to pass minimal ethical scrutiny.



 Brown, Donald (2002) American Heat, Ethical Problems with The United States Response to Global Warming, Rowman and Littlefield, Lantham Maryland.

 Brown, Donald (2008) Nations Must Reduce Greenhouse Gas EmissionsToTheirFair Share of Safe Global Emissions Without Regard To What Other Nations Do,,

Brown, Donald (2008a) The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty,

 Brown, Donald (2012) The Silence of  US President Obama on  Climate Change-A Serious Ethical Lapse?,

Brown, Donald (2009) Ethical Problems With Some of Obama Team’s Approach to Climate Change?

Cook, John (2010) Ten Human Indicators on Climate Change, Skeptical Science,

International Law Commission (2001) Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, Supplement No. 10 (A/56/10), chp.IV.E.1, available at: [accessed 1 September 2012]

Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC 2007) The AR4 Synthesis Report, Section 2(4) Attribution of Climate Change.

Lacey, Stephen (2012) RepublicanConventionRecap: AsExpertsWarnTheDoorIsClosingOnClimate, TheGOPMocksTheProblem, Think Progress,

 Romney, Mitt (2011) We Don’t Know What’s Causing Global Warming, You Tube,

United Nations (UNFCCC) (1992) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN Document, A: AC237/18, 29 May 1992.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law


The Silence of US President Obama on Climate Change-A Serious Ethical Lapse?

Editor’s note on the following entry. On the very day that the following entry was posted, President Obama mentioned climate change for the first time in a long time  in a speech at the University of Iowa by claiming that recent fleet fuel efficiency standards adopted by his administration will make climate change less threatening for the planet. (See Obama Speech) Yet, it is too early to tell whether President Obama will speak out strongly on climate change in a way that the following post argues is his ethical responsibility. We also note that this speech does not include many of the ideas about climate change that the following post argues should be part of the US President’s message on climate change.



US President Obama has been silent on climate change for two years even when discussing related issues such as the severe drought affecting large parts of the United States.  With the exception of a Rolling Stone article in which President Obama was quoted as saying that he expected climate change to become an issue in the upcoming presidential election, nothing has been heard from the US President on climate change since the US Congress failed to pass a climate bill in 2010. (To see the Obama quote on climate change, see Wenner 2012.) The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Obama administration has been somewhat quietly issuing regulations under the Clean Air Act that will create very modest US reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from some new stationary and mobile sources, yet these regulations will not come close to reducing US greenhouse gas emissions to levels that represent the US fair share of safe global emissions. (For a discussion of US EPA regulations on greenhouse gases, see, EPA 2012) Although US EPA has today announced a new fleet fuel efficiency rule for US automakers that will double fleet efficiency by 2025, these rules will not produce overall US greenhouse emissions reductions congruent with levels the consensus scientific view has concluded are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change. (For a description of the EPA auto rules, see Vlassic, 2012)  Although the majority of US citizens now believe climate change is human-caused according to recent polls, very few Americans seem to understand the civilization challenging scope of the problem, a fact that can be attributed to a failure of US political leadership.

Several commentators have strongly criticized President Obama for failing to make climate change a political issue for the last two years.  For instance, Joe Romm of Climate Progress has frequently written critically about President Obama’s silence including a recent article entitled The Sounds of Silence on Science: The Country Is on Fire, But Obama Isn’t (Romm 2012).

Those criticizing US President Obama for failing to make climate change a high profile political issue in the last several years often point to the practical need to build a political mandate in the US to enact federal climate change legislation coupled with the urgency of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unless climate change is kept alive as a political issue, so the argument goes, no US congressional action is likely. And so the US White House silence on climate change has been criticized as a practical political failure to make progress on an issue about which the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous harms.

In addition to being a practical political failure, can the White House silence on climate change also be understood to be a serious ethical and moral failure even if legislative action is not likely because of the current political opposition by those who control Congress?  If the US President’s silence  is an ethical issue, then the President should talk about climate change not solely as a consideration in developing  political strategy, but because he has a duty to do so.

A strong argument can be made that the failure of the head of state in a high-emitting country to encourage his or her country’s citizens to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not just a practical political mistake but a serious ethical failure. This is so because, among other reasons, all nations have duties that they have expressly acknowledged in several international agreements including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to prevent activities within their jurisdiction from causing harm of to others beyond their borders. In the UNFCCC, nations have agreed to:

  • Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (UN 1992a: Preface, emphasis added).
  •  The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof (UN 1992a: Art. 3, emphasis added).
  •  The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent, or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost (UN 1992a: Art 3, emphasis added).

 These provisions of international law have been agreed to by all nations and establish clear national responsibilities for developed nations in particular to prevent harm from climate change to others beyond their jurisdiction, to help pay for damages of those beyond their borders who are harmed by domestic activities, and to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for failing to take protective action.  And so, the above international law provisions, among others, make it clear that nations have responsibilities, duties, and obligations to others to prevent climate change damage- caused harms.

 In addition to these agreed to international norms almost all ethical theories require that individuals refrain from harming others without regard to where they are located. In addition almost all religions have versions of the Golden Rule that also create a mandate to not harm others. Because government action is a way for individuals to achieve their collective individual ethical responsibilities, governments should act in conformance with the obligations of individuals required by the Golden Rule.

 Climate change is a problem caused by some who are emitting greenhouse gases at levels above their fair share of safe global emissions. In addition, climate change is not just a civilization challenging future problem but a current problem which is already causing human deaths and harms to ecological systems around the world in the form of diseases, drought, floods, and damages from intense storms. In addition, the mainstream scientific view holds that the current harms to human health and ecological systems now visible will grow in the years ahead putting tens of millions of the world’s poorest people at great risk to harsh consequences.

As chief executive officer of the United States, the US President has the responsibility to assure that the nation complies with its international obligations. The inability of the US President to convince the US Congress to pass climate change legislation is not an excuse for him or her to be silent on climate change as long as the United States could make progress in reducing its emissions through other means.

Without doubt, government leaders and especially the President could help citizens understand that responsible citizenship requires them to refrain from unnecessary or wasteful activities that create greenhouse gas emissions.  The US President could encourage US citizens, states, sub-national governments, organizations, and businesses to take steps to reduce their carbon footprint through voluntary actions, measurement of greenhouse gas emissions, development of plans that set voluntary targets for emissions reductions, and monitoring achievements.

The US President also could give positive publicity to individuals, local and regional governments, universities, businesses and organizations that achieve notable success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama should also speak up forcefully against the climate change disinformation campaign that is now well-documented while reminding Americans that the US Academy of Sciences has concluded at least four times over the last several decades that human-induced warming is a great risk to people and ecological systems around the world. (For a discussion of US Academy of Science Reports on climate change, see Brown 2011)

The US President should also help US citizens understand that reducing US greenhouse gas emissions is not only in the US interest but also something which is strongly required by ethics and justice. If he did this, he would help US citizens respond to those who oppose climate change policies on economic grounds alone, that in addition to US economic interests, Americans have responsibilities to the victims of climate change to  prevent the harsh climate change impacts which  are predicted by mainstream science.

And so, US presidential leadership is urgently needed to help minimize the harm that US greenhouse gas emissions are now contributing to in parts of the world. Those who have followed international climate negotiations since they began in the late 1980s know that the US has not only failed to adopt a climate change national strategy that it could commit to help create a global solution to the global problem of human-induced warming but has often been a barrier in international negotiations seeking to achieve a just global solution.

And so the failure of US national leadership on climate change is a significant ethical failure. Every day the US waits to take meaningful action to reduce the threat of climate change, the problem gets worse. Two years of silence, is two years of missed opportunity to begin to align US greenhouse emissions with US ethical obligations. The United States has failed for over 30 years since the US Academy of Sciences first warned Americans that human-induced climate change was a looming threat. (For a discussion of reports of the US Academy of Science, see Brown, 2011.) After 30 years of US inaction on climate change, the US President has a duty to loudly speak up and encourage US citizens to reduce the threat of climate change.


Brown, Donald (2011) The US Academy of Sciences’ Reports On Climate Change and The US Moral Climate Change Failure.

Romm, Joe (2012) The Sounds of Silence on Science: The Country Is on Fire, But Obama Isn’t, Climate Progress,  http://thinkprogress

United Nations (UNFCCC) (1992) ‘United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’, UN Document, A: AC237/18, 29 May 1992.

United States Environmental Protection Agencey (EPA) (2012) What is EPA Doing? Climate Change,

Vlassic. Bill (2012) US Sets High Long-Term Fuel Efficiency Rules for Automakers, New York Times, August 29, 2012: B!

Wenner, Jann (2012) Ready for a Fight: The Rolling Stone Interview of Obama, Rolling Stone,



Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law




Wind Power Ethics

I. Introduction

This paper examines ethical issues entailed by wind power, a technology that holds great hope for reducing the threat of human-induced warming but like all climate change solutions has several potential adverse environmental impacts. Recently opposition to wind projects has grown in the United States and several other countries as opponents have objected on the basis of potential adverse environmental and social impacts from proposed wind projects.

Wind Turbines

Wind power is a hopeful solution to the threat of climate change because it consumes neither fuel nor water and emits no greenhouse emissions strictly related to electricity production. Yet wind power can cause some adverse impacts to wildlife including deaths to birds and bats and some potential harms to people living near wind projects through the aesthetic degradation of natural landscapes and noise irritation to nearby residents. Transmission lines built to move wind power from project sites to electrical grids can create adverse land impacts of several different types. However, care in locating wind power projects can minimize or sometimes eliminate these potential adverse environmental and social impacts.

II. Ethical Analysis of Wind Power Project

A.     Ethical Issues That Arise Because Wind Power Is a Potential Solution to Climate Change

Because climate change is a civilization challenging threat to human health and ecological systems on which life depends, solutions to climate change including wind power must be evaluated in relation to the problem for which they are a potential solution. Because climate change has existing and growing devastating impacts on current humans, future generations, ecological systems on which life depends, any ethical analysis of solutions to human-induced warming including wind power must take into account the responsibilities of those who are causing or contributing to climate change to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate in great detail the magnitude of potential adverse environmental impacts from wind power. Without doubt, wind projects have been known to kill some birds and bats, interfere with the aesthetic enjoyment of some landscapes, and create some noise problems for people living very close to large wind projects. However, proponents of wind power argue that wind power’s adverse environmental impacts are minor compared to other energy technologies that would constitute alternatives to wind power or that are currently the source of electrical generation.  Thus they argue that wind power is very environmentally benign compared to available electricity generating alternatives. In addition they argue that any adverse impacts that could be caused by wind power can be avoided or greatly minimized through thoughtful project siting decisions.

To the extent that wind power projects can be implemented in ways that minimize or avoid adverse impacts to wildlife, aesthetic values, or harmful land uses, wind power projects should be located, designed, and constructed to minimize these adverse impacts. Yet the adverse impacts to wildlife and birds, landscapes, water, human health, and ecological systems are likely to be much greater from human-induced warming than from wind power projects. Wind power projects may kill some birds and bats if unwisely located, but climate change is likely to kill entire species of birds and bats and other wildlife not threatened by wind power. In addition fossil fuel generated energy causes adverse impacts to human health and ecological systems that are not caused by wind power.

Climate change is not only a future catastrophic problem, it is already believed to be killing people around the world in increased vector borne disease, droughts, heat waves, floods, and intense storms. Wind power has not caused these problems at all.

Some regions of the world are already clearly affected by human-induced warming. For instance, according to the IPCC, precipitation that can cause deadly floods is already increasing significantly in eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia, while precipitation is declining in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia  and contributing to diminished food supply and freshwater needed for agriculture and drinking (IPCC 2007: 17).  Climate change-caused harms that are already being experienced by some people are of many types including, but not limited to, death, disease, ecological harm, floods and droughts, rising seas, more intense storms, and increased heat waves (IPCC 2007). These harms will grow in the years ahead even if it is possible for the international community to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions at current levels. That is, increased warming will continue even if atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are held constant because of thermal lags in the oceans and other delays in the climate system. It is simply too late to prevent additional climate change-caused suffering. To stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at current levels will require huge reductions from current emissions levels. Therefore those who are opposing wind power projects are very likely already contributing to environmental destruction and human suffering around the world. This fact, as a matter of ethics, should disenfranchise those opponents of wind power who object because of potential harms to themselves as long as they are contributing to much worse environmental harms to others from climate change.

All major ethical systems hold that people have obligations not to harm others, regardless of where they are located around the world. That is, utilitarian, rights-based theories, and justice-based ethical theories hold that humans have duties to not harm others regardless of their location (Brown 2012: Chapter 7).  Different ethical theories will reach different conclusions about how duties should be allocated among people who are causing great harm to others but almost all ethical theories agree that human beings have duties to not harm others without regard to where in the world they live. Because individuals have duties to not harm others, governments have duties to not harm others outside their jurisdictions because these governments are the locus for creating policies that achieve the duties and responsibilities of their citizens (Brown 2012: Chapter 8). For this reason, both the governments themselves have duties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under their control to their fair share of safe global emissions and individual citizens have duties to do all in their power to assure that their governments reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels required by distributive justice because: (a) governments in a democracy can be understood to be a means of implementing the collective responsibilities of their citizens, and (b) individuals also have responsibilities to not harm others. For this reason, individuals that are emitting greenhouse gases in excess of their fair share of safe global emissions not only have duties to generate their power needs from more climate friendly technologies such as wind power, they have duties to support government policies to reduce the threat of climate change through greater reliance on renewable energy.

It is quite clear that the vast majority of regional and local governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in developed countries may not reasonably argue that they are not far exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions because of the enormous reductions in current levels of greenhouse gas emissions that will be necessary to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at safe levels.

Climate change will put into jeopardy the very lives, health, and indispensable natural resources upon which lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world depend, while most gravely threatening the poorest people who are also usually the most vulnerable. And so, climate change is a threat to things that are the minimum material conditions for human life and it is interference with the dignity of human life that is usually the predicate for recognizing that human rights have been violated. In fact, climate change is currently threatening the very existence of nations like the Maldives and Kiribati. These facts demonstrate that excess greenhouse gas emissions violate basic human rights, a conclusion that strengthens the obligations of individuals and governments to replace fossil fuel energy with renewable energy. And so wind power projects not only satisfy the ethical obligations of individuals in regard to future energy consumption, they help individuals meet their obligations to reduce the harms that are coming from their existing energy consumption practices.

For these reasons those who object to wind power projects on the basis of some adverse harm to themselves may not object to wind power projects or other comparatively benign renewable energy technologies that could lower their carbon footprint unless they can demonstrate that they are not currently exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. This is particularly the case when the adverse impacts from wind power on which they base their objection are harms to themselves while they to continue to engage in activities that are generating significant levels of greenhouse gases that are undoubtedly exacerbating great harms to tens of millions of people around the world. For this reason, no person who  is responsible for emitting greenhouse gas emissions at levels greater than their fair share of safe global emissions should be able to object to wind farm projects other than to assure that any new wind power project minimizes avoidable adverse impacts.

B. Other Ethical Issues Entailed By Wind Power Projects

So far we have only discussed ethical issues that arise because wind power has the potential of significantly reducing carbon footprints of those who are contributing to human-induced warming. There are other ethical issues that arise when wind power projects that have not been adequately considered in this paper thus far, but, which are beyond the scope of this paper. These ethical issues include:

  •  The need to assure that the process of approving wind power projects with ethical norms designed to prevent corruption and conflicts of interest in the approval process (for a good discussion of these issues see, Sutton 2012).
  • The need to assure that all potential adverse environmental and social impacts that could be caused by proposed wind power projects are adequately identified (see Sutton 2012).
  • Ethical issues that arise because of the deceptive practices of some corporations and free-market fundamentalist organizations that have created front groups and astroturf groups (fake grassroots groups) that disguise the real parties in interest.  (Goldenberg 2012). This funded opposition is ethically troublesome because it uses deceptive tactics designed to give the false impression that opposition to wind power projects is a spontaneous “bottom-up” citizen opposition when it has sometimes been funded by those who have economic interests in maintaining or increasing fossil fuel consumption (Goldenberg 2012).



Brown, Donald (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Ethics, Routledge Earthscan, London, in press

Goldenberg, Susan (2012) Conservative Thinktanks Step Up  Attacks Against Obama’s Clean Energy Strategy, The Guardian, http://www. guardian. co. uk/environment/2012/may/08/conservative-thinktanks-obama-energy plans

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007), Summary For Policy Makers, Synthesis Report, Contribution to Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland, Available at: http://www. and data/ar4/syr/en.contents.html.

Sutton, Victoria (2012), Wind Energy Law and Ethics: A Meeting of Kant, Leopold, and Cultural Relativism, html



Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law