Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Property Rights and Sustainability

 

property rights and sustainability

 

This article will examine potential conflicts between sustainable development and property rights in light of: (a)  the recent rise of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign that has rapidly gained traction in the United States, (b)  a new book on the subject, and (c) a recent US Supreme Court decision of June 23, 2013.

As we have seen in several recent articles on this website, there is a new, surprisingly successful attack on sustainability in the United States that claims that local and regional planning that includes environmental, energy, transportation, traffic minimization, and land use provisions is the manifestation of a surreptitious United Nations plot to undermine United States sovereignty to impose a Marxist/socialist new world order. See the last in a three part series, Responding To the Anti-Agenda 21 Disinformation Campaign: A Rigorous Look At The Campaign’s Untruthful Claims.

Although the claims that have been made by activists in the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so looney, absurd, and woefully ignorant of international law that some who have been aware of this recent development have chosen to ignore it on the basis that it could never achieve traction in a modern democracy in the 21rst Century,  this right wing attack on sustainability has emerged all across the United States. As we have explained in considerable detail in past articles in this series, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been remarkably successful in the last two years in preventing local communities from implementing plans necessary to achieve their democratically derived community aspirations to implement local sustainability programs.

The anti-Agenda 21 Campaign has been successful, at least in part, by claiming that sustainable development and Agenda 21 undermines property rights.  They make this claim despite the fact that, as we have shown in previous papers in this series, Section 8.18 of Agenda 21 provides that governments and legislators should establish judicial and administrative procedures for legal redress and remedy of actions affecting environment and development that may affect rights. Agenda 21, section 10.5 also expressly says that property rights should be taken into account in land use decisions. And so, not only is there no support for the claim that Agenda 21 encourages the reduction of property rights, as we have seen, Agenda 21 says the exact opposite.

It would appear that activists in the anti-Agenda 21 campaign believe that property ownership conveys the right to use property without limit and with no or few responsibilities to protect the environment or ecological systems.

Although Agenda 21 does not undermine property rights are there potential conflicts between sustainability and property rights? A new book has been published that looks at potential conflicts between property rights and sustainability. The book is Property Rights and Sustainability: the Evolution of Property Rights to Meet Ecological Challenges which is edited by David Grinlinton and Prue Taylor. This book seeks to determine  how to reconcile the exercise of freedom to use one’s property as one pleases with the responsibility to protect ecological resources.  The book contains 15 chapters that examine potential conflicts between property rights and the responsibilities of property owners not to harm the environment. The book further identifies ways of reforming property law to establish clearer obligations to protect the environment.  Although all authors in this volume acknowledge the importance of retaining property rights they also examine the need of property law to more clearly establish responsibilities that owners have to protect the environment.

All of the chapters in this book acknowledge social benefits from secure property rights, however most of the chapters in the book assume that the property law must also be clearer about the obligations of property owners to avoid harming the natural resource base on which life depends.

In the opening chapter, Grinlinton and Taylor argue that property rights law prioritizes economic interests over ecological obligations.

In chapter two, Klause Bosselmann argues that current property laws inappropriately give priority to individual entitlements over collective responsibilities. Bosselmann further claims that the property law’s unfinished business is to reconcile private rights with public duties.

Eric Freyfogle argues that is not right to pay land owners to forgo actions that are harmful to others.

J. Ronald Engel argues that property law needs to reflect an understanding of moral obligations property owners have that are understood through reflection on covenants that ground the social contract.

Peter Horsley criticizes current property law by claiming that it is based upon assumptions that humans own nature rather than an understanding of the relationship between humans and nature, namely that humans are part of nature. Property law according to Horsely fails to prevent many small cumulative impacts on nature, ignores the carrying capacity of ecosystems, and fails  to protect ecosystem integrity. Thus, according to Horsely the current focus on “rights” is causing growing harm to the natural world on which we depend.

Samuel Alexander claims that the overriding objective of property laws is to facilitate economic growth as efficiently as possible.

Nicole Graham claims that the meaning of property rights has always evolved over time and that recent steps to solve environmental problems by use of economic markets has been built on six myths about markets. These myths are: (1) rights and profits are not accompanied by responsibilities and costs; (2) the fragmentation of property into multiple and concurrent interests is a good thing; (3) market players make rational choices with perfect information; (4) environmental products can be accurately valued; (5) the demand for environmental products is responsive to price signals; and (6) environmental markets can solve environmental problems.

Craig Anthony (Toni) Arnold agues that the dominant idea about property is that it is a “bundle of rights” that leads to property owners becoming abstracted from ecological systems. He thus argues that property should be understood as a web of interests rather than as a “bundle of rights.”

Successive chapters by Veronica Strong, Nin Thomas, and Lee Golden examine differing cultural approaches to property.

Concluding chapters by David Grinlinton, Ann Brower and John Page, Elmarie van der Schyff, and Amokura Kawharu look at changing conceptions of property and the challenge of accommodating principles of sustainability to the ownership of and use of natural resources.

This new book claims that there may be a need to modify property rights to protect ecological systems although none of the chapters call for private interests in property to be completely replaced by public interests.

This book is an excellent summary of issues that arise when property rights conflict with the protection of the environment.

Yet there are open questions about how frequently environmental protection objectives contained in land us plans, regulations that constrain land uses to achieve environmental protection goals, or permit conditions actually conflict with property rights.

As we have explained in considerable detail in prior entries on this subject, Agenda 21 does not call for changes in property rights. In fact, Agenda 21 urges that property rights be protected. We now, however, look at whether many of the issues that have arisen in some of the local and regional controversies violate the property rights protection under the US Constitution.

To determine the magnitude of any conflict between sustainability and property rights, it is first necessary to look at how courts have articulated when government regulation violates property rights. A comprehensive article on whether there is a conflict between sustainability policies has been published recently. This article is: Does Sustainability Require a New Theory of Property Rights? (Circo. 2009) In this article, Circo concludes that under US constitutional law:

When the contested government action merely regulates land use without physically interfering with possession, the adversely affected landowner will have no right to compensation (a takings claim) absent a showing that the restriction denies the owner “all economically viable use of the land” or that it imposes burdens that bear no relationship to the regulation’s public benefits. In other words, unless the regulation virtually prohibits any valuable use of the land, courts will use a deferential balancing test to determine how far government regulation may go.

 Circo’s summary of takings law goes on to conclude:

The leading land use cases reflect the traditional theory that government may impose significant, even highly intrusive, restrictions on property rights for police power purposes. The usual test is that a police power imposition on property rights is valid unless it is “clearly arbitrary and unreasonable, having no substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.” Notice the two elements involved: the limitation on property rights must be for a valid police power function (health, safety, morals, or general welfare) and the limitation imposed must bear at least some relationship to that police power purpose (must not be arbitrary or unreasonable).

 Thus it is clear that it is not a violation of property rights for government to impose reasonable restrictions on land use necessary to protect the environment unless the restrictions completely eliminate the use of the property by the owner.

20130529_NoUseofPrivateProperty

Yet the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has asserted that land-use restrictions such as those that require land owners to install stream buffers when necessary to protect water quality, zoning ordinances that attempt to assure that development does not exceed the carrying capacity limits of ecological systems such as the maximum sustainable yield of groundwater, or regulations that require the protection of wetlands are an infringement of property rights. But as Circo’s analysis makes clear, property rights are not unlimited, and the US courts have almost always upheld reasonable regulation of land needed to protect the environment.

However, if government restricts any reasonable use of land to achieve sustainability goals, this would likely be seen by US courts as a violation of property rights. Yet courts do not see property rights as giving land owners the right to use the land in such a way that it adversely affects the environment.

Does this mean that any proposed government restriction on land use  in the name of sustainable development would not conflict with property rights as currently understood under US constitutional law? Here Circo sees at least one kind of government regulation urged by the idea of sustainability that could create conflicts between property rights and sustainability. That is in cases where governments limit the use of natural resources for the sole benefit of future generations. In such a case, Circo sees a potential conflict between sustainability and land use. It is in such cases where the issues of concern in the book discussed above arise. Yet, most environmental restrictions on the use of land that don’t prevent the land owner from using his or her land are not prohibited by property rights in the United States. And so, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign’s claims that sustainability undermines property rights is also not true for two reasons. As we have seen Agenda 21 calls for the protection of property rights. Also most of the land-use provisions under attack by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign do not violate property rights under. The general rule that environmental restrictions on land use do not entail an unlawful taking of property under the US constitutional law was set out in the Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U. S. 365 (1926).  This case held that insisting that landowners internalize the negative externalities of their conduct is a hallmark of responsible land-use policy and limitations on land use do not create and unconstitutional taking.

However a recent case by the US Supreme Court,  identifies a  potential  infringement on property rights when government imposes unreasonable conditions on land-use permits or approvals.  In Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, No. 11-1447, 570 U.S. __ (2013), the court   concluded that there could be an unconstitutional taking of property if governments condition the issuance of permit to mitigate adverse environmental protection goals when the condition lacks an essential nexus and rough proportionality to those impacts. Otherwise there is no taking.

For the limited number of issues raised by sustainability that actually conflict with property rights, the book Property Rights and Sustainability: the Evolution of Property Rights to meet Ecological Challenges is good introduction to the issues that should be considered on matters where there is a conflict between protecting the environment and property rights.

 By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainbility Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

An Opportunity to Learn About Links Between Global Governance and Environmental Ethics

 

sustain 2

 

earthethics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those who desire to achieve greater traction for ethical principles in guiding solutions to global sustainability problems including but not limited to climate change need to understand the barriers and opportunities presented by current global governance regimes. Although many, if not most sustainability problems, can be adequately dealt with at the national, regional, or local government level, some sustainability problems can not be solved without global cooperation that is mindful of the strengths and weaknesses of global institutions and the role of international law.

Professionals in law, environmental planning and science, policy makers, researchers and students of international law and governance with respect to sustainability and the natural environment require an understanding of the ethical questions at the center of international environmental and sustainability controversies in order to achieve greater traction for ethical principles in government decision-making.  Also a  comprehension of the strength and weaknesses of global governance systems is essential for those who seek to work on ethically based global solutions to the world challenging global sustainability issues.

Anyone interested in these issues has an opportunity to attend a program on International Law, Global Governance, And The Earth Charter Principles. The Earth Charter Center for Education for Sustainable Development’s program aims to empower participants who attend to become competent leaders for sustainability and help them enhance their knowledge at the intersection of international law, global governance, and the Earth Charter. This course will help deepen understanding of global governance systems, international environmental law instruments, and other legal  options to make global governance more responsive to ethical principles. The program will be held from July 3-7 in Costa Rica and applications are open. Please, find all the relevant information here: http://www.earthcharter.org/lawprogramme

By: 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

Responding To the Anti-Agenda 21 Disinformation Campaign: A Rigorous Look At The Campaign’s Untruthful Claims.

lies.abolish the un

 

 

Agenda_21_Cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two new documents are available to help those interested in responding to  the anti-Agenda 21 campaign that has been the subject of the last two papers on Ethicsandclimate.org  that is undermining local and regional land use and sustainable development planning in the United States.

As we have explained in the last two articles, an anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been surprisingly successful in the United States in undermining land-use, transportation, and energy planning at the local and regional level. The Tea Party in the United States appears to have a new focus: they are fighting local and regional government land-use and sustainable development planning on the basis that it is part of a United Nations plot to undermine national sovereignty and impose a Marxist/socialist new world order.

The first article in this series on Ethicsandclimate.org described the rapid success of this phenomenon and critically looked at four claims frequently made by this campaign. The second article continued the critical examination of nine additional claims frequently made by anti-Agenda 21 activists. The second paper also reviewed the anti-Agenda campaign’s claims as a matter of ethics.

Although the claims that have been made by activists in the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so looney, absurd, and woefully ignorant of international law that some who have been aware of this recent development in US history have chosen to ignore it on the basis that it could never achieve traction in a modern democracy in the 21rst Century. Yet as we have explained in considerable detail in past articles in this series, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been remarkably successful in the last two years in preventing local communities from implementing plans necessary to achieve their democratically derived community aspirations concerning. among other things, protection of air and water quality, reducing traffic congestion, creating bike lanes, improving public transportation, reducing carbon emissions that are contributing to climate change, and land-use and energy planning.

As we have demonstrated in the past two articles, the claims made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21. They are also deeply misleading about what Agenda 21 is, its legal affect on the the United States, and staggeringly inconsistent with international law.

A new paper is now available that combines the previous two entries in Ethicsandclimate.org while expanding on them. This paper is designed to be a rigorous reference for those who want to respond to the claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign in detail.

This first paper is:

TheAnti-Agenda21 Disinformation Campaign in the United States: An Ethical Critique of an Attack on Sustainability

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2277882

Also available  is a one page paper that can be used more easily by those interested in responding to this campaign. This one page paper is a summary of the longer paper above. The paper is:

Responses to Claims Made By The Anti-Agenda 21 Campaign

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2279098

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.

400ppm

This  article seeks to explain in understandable terms why nations must not only aggressively respond to climate change but respond at levels required of them by equity if the world is going to have any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change. And so, this article seeks to help citizens around the world understand why their nations must create climate change policies consistent with their equitable obligations and that if their nations fail to respond on the basis of equity, there is vey little hope of an adequate global solution emerging that has any potential of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Once again there has been some renewed interest in responding to climate change this week in response to the announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that carbon dioxide (CO2) atmospheric concentrations have reached 400 ppm (parts per million). This concentration of CO2 is not only higher than experienced in the last 3 million years of Earth’s history  (Kunzig, 2013), it is additional evidence that the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.  NOAA posted on its website Wednesday night, May 9, that the daily average for CO2 was 400.03 ppm. (Kunzig, 2013)   The last time the concentration of the CO2 reached this mark, horses and camels lived in the high Arctic and seas were at least 30 feet higher. (Kunzig, 2013) This sea level  rise would  inundate major cities around the world and cause harm to hundreds of millions around the world when temperatures finally responded to these elevated greenhouse gas (ghg) atmospheric concentrations.

Although this story made it to the front page of the New York Times, (see Schuetze 2013), the US press continues to fail to educate American citizens fully about the seriousness of the problem that the world is facing particularly in regard to the urgent need of nations to take immediate steps to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global ghg emissions.  Ethicsandclimate.org has previously examined the failure of the US press to communicate to American people the importance of the equity issue in formulating US policy. (See, The US Media’s Grave Failure To Communicate The Significance of Understanding Climate Change as A Civilization Challenging Ethical Issue.Yet, as we will explain, in light of the rapidly decreasing amount of time remaining for the world to prevent dangerous climate change, there is now more than ever a need to increase political support at the national level around the world for the adoption of policies on climate change that reflect each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions.

rich countriesWhen almost all nations around the world agreed to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), they promised  to adopt policies and measures to limit warming based upon “equity” to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. (UNFCCC, Art. 3) Up until very recently it was possible for nations to ignore that they had a responsibility to reduce their ghg emissions to levels based upon “equity.” And so many, if not most, nations have been entering international climate negotiations as if they need only look to their national economic interest to determine what ghg emissions reductions commitments they need to make under the UNFCCC. However, now that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the urgent need of nations to reduce their emissions to levels required of them on the basis of equity and basic fairness is now obvious and undeniable. This was not the case only a few years ago.  For instance, just three years ago it was possible for the United States to ignore what was required of it as a matter of basic fairness because nations were happy when the United States made any commitment to reduce its ghg emissions having refused to do so from the early 1990s through 2010. Any US commitment was viewed as a positive step. And so, when President Obama made a voluntary commitment in 2010 in Copenhagen to reduce US emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, it was widely celebrated throughout the international community even though most observers knew this commitment was far short of what justice required of the United States. Yet just two years later in Qatar, the same US commitment was almost universally condemned on justice grounds. (See: Qatar: Bumping Up Against Climate Change Limitations On Human Activities Makes Ethical and Justice Issues Unavoidable) 

The importance of each government entity’s responsibility to limit their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions has become undeniably obvious to most observers of international climate negotiations now that it has become clear to all that there is precious little time for the global community to avoid dangerous climate change. The central importance of the need to get nations to respond to climate change on the basis of “equity” becomes very obvious once a number of scientific aspects of climate change are fully understood. However, too few people understand these scientific aspects of climate change and the press is failing to educate citizens about these issues.

Slide2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To fully understand the importance of national responses on the basis of “equity” it is necessary to understand some features of climate change that make it unlike any other environmental problem facing the world. The atmosphere is like a bathtub, it has limited volume. Nations have been filling up the atmospheric bathtub since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the late 1790s. Because CO2 is long-lived in the atmosphere, the bathtub continues to fill up with CO2 even if rates of CO2 emissions slow down somewhat unless all ghg emissions are reduced to the rate at which the Earth’s natural carbon cycle can remove CO2, an amount which is less than 20% of existing emissions levels. Decreasing ghg emissions does not prevent global atmospheric concentrations from increasing unless they are cut back globally by huge amounts. And so to prevent dangerous climate change nations have to do much more than cut back on the ghg emissions levels that they are entering the atmosphere, they have to cooperate to prevent the level in the bath tub from reaching levels that will cause dangerous climate change. As we shall see, this is a level that the world is fast approaching. Furthermore because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere it makes no difference where on Earth the ghgs come from, the atmospheric concentrations of ghg continue to rise without regard to location of the source of emissions.

What makes the current climate change threat so ominous is that the levels of CO2 that have been building up for over 200 years are quickly approaching levels that could trigger dangerous climate change as emissions are increasing in many parts of the world.

In our experience, most Americans don’t understand the scale of the climate change facing the world. In Copenhagen in 2010 the international community agreed to set as a goal warming limit of 2°C not withstanding there are some scientific evidence to believe that the warming limit should be lower at 1.5 °C. The 2°C warming limit was chosen because there is strong scientific evidence that warming above 2°C could trigger rapid nonlinear climate change thereby threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world and the ecological systems on which they depend. Even if 2°C warming doesn’t trigger nonlinear warming, this amount of warming will cause great harm around the world to people and places that have done little to cause climate change.

The following graph describes the staggering challenge facing the world if the international community desires to limit warming to 2°C.  The graph depicts three different emissions reductions pathways where the steepness of ghg emissions reductions needed to limit 2°C depend upon when global emissions levels peak, that is in 2015, 2020, or 2025. Despite over twenty years since the international community agreed in 1992 to adopt policies and measures based upon equity to prevent dangerous climate change, global ghg emissions levels continue to rise despite a global economic turn down in 2008. Global CO2 emissions grew 3 percent in 2011 and were estimated to rise 2.6 in 2012. (Morello, 2012).  Since the international community began to negotiate a climate change solution, rather then emissions levels diminishing they have  grown to 58 percent above the 1990 emissions level in 2012 (Morello, 2012). And so, the world is facing the urgent need to reduce ghg emissions at hard to imagine rates as seen in the following graph where the different colored lines on this chart represent different assumptions about climate sensitivity. This graph shows that if the world waits to act together to prevent ghg emissions from rising until 2020 or 2025, the world will need to reduce ghg emissions at staggering reduction levels after the peak years.

three reductions pathways

 

 

 

 

(Anderson, K.. 2012)

On the basis of the magnitude of the ghg emissions reductions challenge facing the world, mainstream scientists around the world are now emphatically trying to get the world’s attention about the urgency of the need to act dramatically to prevent dangerous climate change. Yet there has been little discussion in the media about the importance of equity in national responses to this global emergency coupled with the fact that one needs to understand other aspects of the climate change problem to fully understand the importance of requiring nations to reduce their emissions based upon “equity.”

Once one identifies an atmosphere ghg concentration level that will serve as a goal for preventing dangerous warming it is a relatively straightforward calculation to identify the remaining amounts of ghg emissions that can be emitted worldwide to prevent atmospheric ghg concentrations from exceeding the maximum concentration goal. This calculation is the basis for determining an emissions budget. Because there is some uncertainty about climate sensitivity, that is how much warming the Earth will experience at different atmospheric ghg concentrations, different atmospheric ghg concentration goals create different levels of probability of limiting warming to 2°C.  The following chart identifies the quantity of ghg emissions in gigatons of CO2 equivalent that the world may emit to achieve different levels of probability that the 2° C warming limit will not be exceeded. Therefore we see from this chart that if the entire world is assumed to be allowed to emit no more than 886 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 equivalent, this budgetary limit creates between a 8% and 37%, with a best estimate of 20%, probability that temperatures will exceed the warming limit of  2°C.   At the upper end of this chart, a 1437 Gt CO2 budgetary limit creates a probability of between 29 to 70 probability, with a best estimate of 50%, that the  2°C warming limit will be exceeded.

The chart also shows that if the world emits ghgs at levels projected at 56 Gt per year, then, assuming that the world chooses to live with a budget of 886 Gt CO2 which gives the world an 80% probability that future warming will be limited to 2°C, then after12 years there will be zero emissions left in the budget.  The chart also demonstrates that even if the world chooses to run the risk of accepting a 50% probability that the 2°C warming will be exceeded then world can only emit greenhouse gases at projected levels for 22 years.
budget

As gloomy as this picture in regard to the remaining global ghg emissions budget, we have not yet explained why getting nations to commit to reduce their emissions to levels required of them by equity is so important and indispensable for thinking clearly about how the world must respond to the threat of climate change. And so, now, for the first time, we can explain the importance of “equity” in guiding international responses to climate change.

 

Slide3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Returning to the use of a bathtub as a metaphor for the atmosphere, we note that there is already elevated levels of ghg (metaphorically water) in the bathtub that have risen to current levels from over 200 years of human activities. That is CO2 has increased in the atmosphere from 280 ppm to 400 ppm since the beginning of the industrial revolution. If we assume that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 equivalent should be limited to 450 ppm to give the world a 50% chance of keeping warming from exceeding the 2°C warming limit, atmospheric concentrations have increased already by120 ppm from pre-industrial levels and only 50 ppm of atmospheric space are  left to allocate to the entire world.  The 120 ppm increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations that has already been put into the bathtub by human activities has overwhelmingly been caused by activities in some rich, developed countries much more than poor developing countries.  The following chart shows which countries have contributed the most elevated concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.
cummualative over time

(EPA, 2002)

And so some countries more than others have contributed far more than others to elevated ghg concentrations. Given that there’s only 50 ppm of atmospheric space left to allocate (assuming and atmospheric goal of 450ppm giving approximately a 50 % chance of exceeding  the 2°C) and some developing countries desperately need to use the remaining atmospheric space to escape grinding poverty, it is obviously unfair or inequitable to require all countries to reduce emissions by the same amount.

Percapita nationaFurthermore, the above chart demonstrates that some countries including the United States, Canada,  and Australia, for instance, far exceed others in per capita levels of emissions from their citizens compared to other countries such as India.

If it is determined that the entire world must reduce its emissions by 80% below 1990 levels to prevent dangerous climate change, high-emitting nations or governments around the world, including the US, Canada, and Australia, will need to reduce their emissions to even greater levels on the basis of equity and fairness. To require each nation or government to reduce emissions by the same percentage amount would freeze into place unjust emission levels for high-emitting governments and very low emissions rates for poor developing countries.  For this reason, almost all the nations of the world, including the United States in 1992 when it ratified the UNFCCC, agreed that each nation must reduce its emissions on the basis of “equity” to prevent dangerous climate change. (UNFCCC, 1992: Art 3, Para 1) If all nations need only reduce their emissions by equal percentage amounts, then a high-emitting nation like the United States that emits ghg at rate of 17.3 tons per capita would be allowed to emit at a level 10 times more per capita than a country like Vietnam that emits 1.7 tons of ghg per capita. (World Bank, 2012b) As a result, all nations have agreed that national targets must be based upon fairness or equity.

Given that the entire world has only 50 ppm of atmospheric space left to allocate to give the world a reasonable expectation of preventing dangerous climate change, the equitable and fairness dimensions of national ghg emissions reductions commitments become obvious and crucial to increasing the ambition of nations to reduce their ghg emissions. Yet most citizens seem completely unaware of the equity issues entailed by climate change and many high-emitting nations are ignoring their equitable responsibilities.

However, the ability of nations to ignore what equity requires of them will become more and more difficult as the world wakes up to the hard-to-imagine stringent carbon budget that the world must face to avoid catastrophe warming. In addition the longer nations wait to respond to climate change on the basis of equity, the more difficult it will be in the future to do so because the steepness of their emissions reductions pathways needed to comply with what equity requires increases the longer nations wait to respond appropriately.

References:

Anderson, Ken, (2012) , Climate Change Going Beyond Dangerous, Brutal Numbers, Tenous Hope,  http://whatnext.org/resources/Publications/Volume-III/Single-articles/wnv3_andersson_144.pdf

EPA, (2002), CO2 emissions by country (http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/)

Kunzig, Robert, (2013) National Geographic News,  Climate Milestone: CO2 Level Passes 400 ppm,  National Geographic, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/05/130510-earth-co2-milestone-400-ppm/

Morello, (2012), Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning Rise into High-Risk Zone, Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=global-co2-emissions-from

Open Source, (2013) http://ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/what-we-dont-know

 World Bank, (2012), CO2 Emissions (Metric Tons Per Capita), http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change  (UNFCCC), (1992), http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/background/items/1349.php

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainable Development Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail. com

Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed: Disinformation Campaign About Sustainable Development Emerges In the United States

Editor’s note: The following guest entry by Professor John Dernbach of Widener University School of Law is being reproduced here because it is a response to an emerging disinformation campaign about sustainable development that appears to be  growing in the United States recently. This attack on sustainability and reasonable land use planning raises many of the same ethical issues discussed frequently on Ethicsandclimate under the topic of “climate change disinformation campaign.” Future posts on this web site will further develop the ethical issues entailed by this kind of attack on sustainable development because such attacks raise ethical issues for climate change policy formation as climate change policies should consider environmental, economic, and social goals of policies, the essential idea of sustainable development. In the following post, Professor Dernbach explains the emerging disinformation campaign which untruthfully characterizes Agenda 21, the international agreement on sustainable development which was finalized at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The attacks attempt to convince citizens and local and regional governments that reasonable land use planning is the implementation of a United Nations scheme that will decrease individual liberty and diminish property rights.  This post was originally posted on the website of the American College of Environmental Lawyers at http://www.acoel.org/post/2013/03/27/AGENDA-21-A-GUIDE-FOR-THE-PERPLEXED-.aspx

Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed

At a local government meeting on a land use plan, officials hear opposition based on the claim that it is tainted by Agenda 21.  A state public utility commission considering smart meters hears similar claims.  They are confused: what is Agenda 21 and why does it matter?

A well organized campaign against Agenda 21, spread by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the John Birch Society, exists well outside the realm of ordinary environmental law work.  But it is beginning to affect that work.  The real target of this campaign, moreover, is not Agenda 21 but sustainable development—a common sense approach to reconciling environment and development that provides the basis for our environmental and land use laws.  Environmental lawyers thus need a basic understanding of what Agenda 21 is and what it is not.

Agenda 21 is a comprehensive public strategy for achieving sustainable development. It was endorsed by the U.S. (under the presidency of George H.W. Bush) and other countries at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.  Agenda 21 stands for two broad propositions: 1) environmental goals and considerations need to be integrated into all development decisions, and 2) governments and their many stakeholders should work out the best way to integrate environment and development decisions in an open and democratic way.

Agenda 21 contains an almost encyclopedic description of the best ideas for achieving sustainable development that existed in 1992.  On land use, it specifically counsels respect for private property.    It contains a detailed description of the role that many nongovernmental entities, including business and industry, farmers, unions, and others, should play in achieving sustainability.

Agenda 21 endorses, and to a great degree is based upon, ideas that were already expressed in U.S. environmental and natural resources laws.  Its core premise is espoused in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.  Long before Agenda 21, NEPA set out “the continuing policy of the Federal government” to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans” (42 U.S.C. § 4331).

Ironically, Agenda 21 was never taken seriously as such in the United States; there has never been much enthusiasm here for following international agreements.  It is not a legally binding treaty; it contains no provisions for ratification, for example.  Agenda 21 also says nothing about new ideas like green building, smart growth, and smart meters.  But sustainable development as an idea—achieving economic development, job creation, human wellbeing, and environmental protection and restoration at the same time—is gaining traction.

In response, opponents are attacking sustainability by making false statements about Agenda 21.  They say that Agenda 21 is opposed to democracy, freedom, private property, and development, and would foster environmental extremism.  For many opponents, the absence of a textual basis in Agenda 21 for such claims (in fact, the text explicitly contradicts all of these claims) is not a problem.  First, they are attacking a document that is not well known, and so they count on not being contradicted.  Second, the false version of Agenda 21 fits a well known narrative that is based on fear of global governance and a perceived threat of totalitarianism, and on distrust of the United Nations.  Indeed, the absence of information to support such fears only deepens their perception of a conspiracy.  According to this view, moreover, people who talk about sustainable development without mentioning Agenda 21 are simply masking their true intentions.

Far-fetched, you say?  Well, consider this: in 2012, Alabama adopted legislation that prohibits the state or political subdivisions from adopting or implementing policies “that infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to ‘Agenda 21’” (Ala. Code § 35-1-6).  This, of course, could chill a variety of otherwise ordinary state and local decisions.  Similar bills are pending in state legislatures across the country.

In a variety of other places, elected officials and professional staff who have worked with stakeholders for years to produce specific land use and energy proposals find their work mischaracterized as the product of Agenda 21, even though they have never heard of it.   Agenda 21’s lack of direct relevance to the specific proposals should, but does not always, provide an answer to such claims.

The campaign against Agenda 21 has no serious empirical or textual foundation.  But it can work against sustainability and good decisions—and cost time and money—when clients and their lawyers don’t recognize it for what it is.

By:

Professor John Dernbach

Distinguished Professor

Widener University School of Law.

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

Ethicsandclimate.org has critically examined US President Obama’s approach to climate change on several occasions. See, for instance:

Ethicsandclimate.org 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, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmfoQZMzsh8)

 

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 Ethicsandclimate.org 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.

 

References:

 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, EthicsandClimate.org. EthicsandClimage.org, http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2008/06/08/nations-must-reduce-greenhouse-gas-emissions-to-their-fair-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, EthicsandClimate.org http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2008/05/19/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? EthicsandClimate.org, http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/08/29/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? EthicsandClimate.org. http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2009/01/06/ethical-problems-with-some-of-the-obama-teams-approach-to-climate-change/

Cook, John (2010) Ten Human Indicators on Climate Change, Skeptical Science, http://www.skepticalscience.com/10-Indicators-of-a-Human-Fingerprint-on-Climate-Change.html

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: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3ddb8f804.html [accessed 1 September 2012]

Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC 2007) The AR4 Synthesis Report, Section 2(4) Attribution of Climate Change.  http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/mains2-4.html

Lacey, Stephen (2012) RepublicanConventionRecap: AsExpertsWarnTheDoorIsClosingOnClimate, TheGOPMocksTheProblem, Think Progress, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/08/31/783341/republican-convention-recap-as-experts-warn-the-door-is-closing-on-climate-the-gop-mocks-the-problem/?mobile=nc

 Romney, Mitt (2011) We Don’t Know What’s Causing Global Warming, You Tube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmfoQZMzsh8)

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

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown 57@gmail.com

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.

References:

Brown, Donald (2011) The US Academy of Sciences’ Reports On Climate Change and The US Moral Climate Change Failure. EthicsandClimate.org. http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2011/05/25/praise_and_ethical_criticism_of_the_united_states_academy_of_sciences_reports_on_climate_change/

Romm, Joe (2012) The Sounds of Silence on Science: The Country Is on Fire, But Obama Isn’t, Climate Progress,  http://thinkprogress c.org/climate/2012/08/15/696291/the-sounds-of-silence-on-science-the-country-is-on-fire-but-obama-isnt/

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, http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/EPAactivities.html

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, http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCIQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.rollingstone.com%2Fpolitics%2Fnews%2Fready-for-the-fight-rolling-stone-interview-with-barack-obama-20120425&ei=G-g7UIb_DYK56wHs5YHQDg&usg=AFQjCNFNQr8p0NP4-39vBQkEEL8Git1O2A&sig2=NwVTv8vmklSpVFwu_-kLJA

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown@mail.widener.edu

 

 

 

Introduction to Climate Ethics, Video- Part Two

Why is it practically important to identify the ethical questions that need to be faced in making climate change policy? A new video, 14 minutes long, is the second in a two part introduction on the basics of climate change ethics that answers this question. Part two identifies a number of specific civilization challenging ethical issues, looks at these issues briefly, and makes the case for the urgent practical need to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of these issues. Part one in this series explained why climate change must be understood essentially as an ethical problem and why this understanding has profound practical consequences foe policy. Par one is found on this web site and is 11 minutes long. This second part takes up the issues introduced in part one in the context of several specific climate change ethical issues.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown@widener.mail.edu

 

New Book Describes Ways To Accelerate US Transition To Sustainability-Including A Greater Emphasis On Ethics.

As the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro in June in an attempt to make global course corrections needed to move the world to sustainable future, a new book was published that rigorously examines what has happened and failed to happen on sustainability in the United States. In Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, Professor John Dernbach, with the input from 51 contributing authors, including this author, after looking closely at US sustainability successes and failures, deduces from this experience a strategy to rapidly improve US sustainability performance. (Dernbach et al, 2012)

The idea of sustainable development was placed on the front burner internationally at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. As most educated citizens know, this concept called for the integration of economic, environmental, and social justice goals in policy formation and human practices at international, national, regional, and local scales around the world. The idea of sustainable development was a positive step forward in human history because humans frequently have pursued either economic, environmental, or social goals individually in isolation from each other. That is, for instance, governments at all scales have frequently pursued economic development without regard to how new economic activity might affect the environment or social justice. The great wisdom of the concept of sustainable development is this insight that pursuit of economic, environmental, or social justice goals in isolation from each other will likely have adverse impacts on the goals not considered.

Acting As If Tomorrow Matters rigorously describes what has happened or failed to happen in the United States in the 20 years since the idea of sustainability got widespread international attention at Rio. To seriously examine what needs to be done to move the world on a sustainability path there is no shortcut to a thorough, ambitious, and rigorous analysis of what has happened and failed to happen. This is particularly true of a concept like sustainable development that creates immense policy challenges because of the ambitiousness of this idea’s scope. And so, if one wants to know what has happened on sustainability, there is no escaping the need to go deep on matters that are both wide ranging and complex and that have been unfolding for 20 years.

Because of the sheer complexity of the idea of sustainable development any serious analysis of progress must rely on experts and analysis beyond the disciplinary kens of most individual human beings. One of the most significant contributions of this new book is to make even veteran sustainability watchers aware of sustainability developments in areas that they have not been following. No one person can be an expert on even the major developments in environmental protection, economic development, and human flourishing. There is simply too much to follow. And so, another virtue of this book is that Professor Dernbach has obtained the cooperation of 51 renowned experts to compile the synthesis of US sustainability successes and failures.

This new book examines progress in such diverse policy subjects as: (a) links between environmental protection and public health outcomes, (b) relationships between consumption and population, (c) connections between poverty and unemployment, (d) links between the built environment and sustainability outcomes, (e) national, regional, and local governments successes on sustainability, and (f)  achievements in sustainability education, just to name a few.

Even sustainability experts, including myself, who  have been deeply been immersed in sustainable development issues since the Earth Summit in 1992 will learn from this book about sustainability progress and failures of which they were unaware .  Therefore, perhaps the greatest contribution of this new book is to make those working to make sustainability a reality aware for the first time of achievements, failures, and case studies relevant to sustainability’s future progress. I, for instance was unaware of many sustainability developments discussed in this book such as: (a) the fact that some US states now require that climate change impacts be described in any environmental impact study, (b) the impressive number of programs or projects on sustainability at the local government level in the United States, (c) that 1000 US mayors have joined a mayors’ climate change prevention program, and (d) that the city of Chicago has over 400 green roofs.  And so even the most experienced sustainability expert will get ideas from this book about how to improve the US sustainability performance.

Acting As If Tomorrow Matters not only describes progress on sustainability, it makes it clear that US performance on many sustainability issues has been a dismal failure on some matters. In fact, another virtue of this book is that in describing obstacles to sustainability it does not pull punches. The book makes clear that despite modest success on some sustainability issues, the US has failed to adequately implement the concept because of some persistent obstacles that have been blocking US progress. In this regard, the book discusses the following barriers to US progress: habits, lack of urgency, confusion about sustainability options, unsupportive law and governance, and perhaps most importantly strong political opposition to sustainability policy proposals.

The book also makes recommendations on how to overcome these obstacles including developing better sustainability choices, improving law for sustainability, and perhaps most importantly, the need for a new sustainability social movement.

Woven throughout the book are implicit and express claims that sustainable development must be understood essentially as an ethical and moral matter because what is at stake is the very future of the quality of life on earth. Sprinkled throughout the book are references to morality and ethics including discussions of  religious and moral leaders who have been provoking wider public discussion of the ethical dimensions of sustainability.   This inclusion of ethics in what is otherwise a policy book makes it unique among serious analyses of sustainability achievements and failures.

The importance of seeing sustainability problems as ethical matters becomes apparent when one considers the comments of some observers that have criticized the very idea of sustainable development because there is no precise definition of the idea that would allow for its unambiguous implementation when there are conflicts between environmental, economic, and social goals. Yet this is where ethics and morality become so very important.

In this regard, one minor suggestion for improvement of the conclusions in this excellent book is to call for even greater acknowledgement of the need to stress the importance of the ethical dimensions of sustainability. This is so because the implementation of the concept of sustainable development needs to look to other ethical principles to resolve conflicts among environmental, economic and social goals.  For instance:

  •  During a 30 year debate about climate change policy action the United States’ opponents of domestic legislative action have objected on the grounds that new climate change policies will unacceptably increase costs to some industries, reduce US GDP,  or make US industry non-competitive compared to other global players. Yet these arguments completely ignore US ethical obligations to the victims of climate change to refrain from harming them, creating human rights violations, or destroying ecological systems on which life depends. To resolve conflicts between increased economic costs of climate change policies and protection of the most vulnerable, ethical principles need to be consulted.
  • When questions of scientific uncertainty have arisen in opposition to sustainability policymaking ethical considerations about who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof need to be considered. Yet policy debates have almost always ignored these ethical questions about scientific uncertainty that policy-makers must face in decision-making.
  •  Cost-benefit analyses of sustainability programs almost always ignore questions of distributive and procedural justice that are particularly important for poor, vulnerable people around the world. Ethics demands that these justice issues be considered in policy-making.

 

And so, in some controversial sustainability matters, ethical considerations have been the key missing element in policy disputes. For this reason, applied ethical analyses should be at the tip of the spear of the new sustainability social movement called for in this book.  Any sustainability social movement should follow actual concrete sustainability issues to identify the ethical issues that need to be considered to move forward on the sustainability path.

And so Acting As If Tomorrow Matters makes a significant contribution to moving the United States forward on the path toward sustainable development. Following perhaps the key recommendation in this book, interested sustainability advocates should work together to create a new social movement on sustainability armed with what we can learn from the sustainability successes and failures discussed in this book.

Those interested in the book can find more information at the book’s website: http://www.actingasiftomorrowmatters.com/

 References:

 Dernbach, J. (2012) Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, Environmental Law Institute Press, Washington, D.C.

By:

 

Donald A. Brown,

Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown@mail.widener.edu.