Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Improving IPCC Working Group III’s Analysis on Climate Ethics and Equity, Second In A Series.


jutice climate


This is the second in a three part series examining the ethical and justice issues discussed by the IPCC Working Group III in its 5th Assessment Report (AR5) . In the first entry in  this series we concluded that although the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable improvement over prior IPCC reports in regard to identifying ethical and equity issues that should be considered in developing climate change policy, some criticisms are also warranted of how IPCC has articulated the significance and implications of the ethical, justice, and equity principles that should guide nations in developing climate change policies.

In short, we will argue improvement is possible in how IPCC deals with ethics, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change policy-making despite very significant improvements on these matters in the AR5 report compared to prior IPCC reports.

In this entry we will examine several preliminary ethical and justice issues raised by the new IPCC Working Group III Chapter 3, on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts.  The last entry will continue the examination Chapter 3 and then turn to Chapter 4 on Sustainable Development and Equity.

As a preliminary matter, one of the challenges that IPCC faces in its mandate on of ethics and justice issues relevant to climate change policy-making is that it is not IPCC’s role to be prescriptive in deciding what governments should do. It’s mandate is to synthesize the extant social-economic and scientific literature for policy-makers. In this regard, the IPCC chapter on ethics said expressly:

This chapter does not attempt to answer ethical questions, but rather provides policymakers with the tools (concepts, principles, arguments, and methods) to make decisions. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 10)

And so it is not IPCC’s role to do ethical analyses of policy issues that raise ethical questions. IPCC can, however, distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive questions that arise in relevant socio-economic literature about climate policy-making, identify important ethical and justice issues that arise in this literature, where there is a consensus on ethics and justice issues in the relevant literature describe the consensus position, where there is no consensus on ethical and justice issues describe the range of reasonable views on these issues, and identify hard and soft law legal principles relevant to how governments should resolve ethical and justice issues that must be faced by policy-makers.

There are several subjects in climate change policy-making which raise important ethical and justice issues. They include policy judgements about:

  1. how much warming will be tolerated, a matter which is implicit but rarely identified when nations make ghg emissions reduction commitments,
  2. any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, matters which are referred to by the IPCC usually as burden-sharing or effort-sharing considerations and a matter taken up in chapter 4 of IPCC, Working Group III chapter on sustainability and equity,
  3. any nation’s responsibility for funding reasonable adaptation and compensation for losses and damages for those who are harmed by climate change,
  4. when a nation is responsible for its ghg emissions given differences in historical and per capita emissions among nations,
  5. responsibility for funding technology transfer to poor nations,
  6. how to evaluate the effects on and responsibilities to others of climate change technologies that are adopted in response to the threat of climate change, including such technologies as geo-engineering or nuclear power, for instance,
  7. who has a right to participate in climate change policy-making, a topic usually referred to under the topic of procedural justice,
  8. the policy implications of human rights violations caused by climate change,
  9. the responsibility of not only nations but subnational governments, entities, organizations, and individuals for climate change,
  10. when economic analyses of climate change policy options can prescribe or limit national duties or obligations to respond to the threat of climate change,
  11. ethical and justice implications of decisions must be made in the face of scientific uncertainty,
  12. whether action or non-action of other nations is relevant to any nation’s responsibility for climate change,
  13. how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation,
  14. when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science,
  15. who is responsible for climate refugees and what their responsibilities are.

nw book advOn some of these issues, the recent IPCC report included a good summary of the extant ethical literature, on other issues important gaps in IPCC’s analysis can be identified, and lastly on a few of these issues, IPCC Working Group III is silent. IPCC reports cannot be expected to be exhaustive on these matters and therefore gaps and omissions in the IPCC reports in regard to ethics and justice issues relevant to policy-making is not necessarily a criticism of IPCC and is here pointed out only for future consideration. In fact, IPCC’s work on the ethical limits of economic arguments is a particularly important contribution to the global climate change debate. What is worthy of criticism, however, is if IPCC’s conclusions on guidance for policy-makers is misleading on ethics and justice issues.

II. Ethical Issues Raised by Economic Arguments About Climate Policy

Perhaps the most important practical ethical and justice issues raised by Working Group III’s work on ethics is its conclusions on the ethical and justice limitations of economic analyses of climate change policy options. This topic is enormously practically important because nations and others who argue against proposed climate change policies usually rely on various economic arguments which often completely ignore the ethical and justice limitations of these arguments (In the case of the United States, see Brown, 2012.) Because most citizens and policy-makers have not been trained in spotting ethically dubious claims that are often hidden in what appear at first glance to be “value-neutral” economic arguments, IPCC’s acknowledgement of the ethical limitations of economic arguments is vitally important.  It is also practically important because the first four IPCC reports, although not completely ignoring all ethical and justice problems with economic arguments about climate change policies, failed to examine the vast majority of ethical problems with economic arguments against climate change policies while making economic analyses of climate change policies the primary focus of Working Group III’s work thereby  leaving the strong impression that economic analyses, including but not limited to cost-benefit analyses, is the preferred way to evaluate the sufficiency of proposed climate change policies.  On this matter, the AR5 report has made important clarifications.

The AR5 III report included a section on this very issue entitled: Economics, Rights, and Duties which we reproduce here it  its entirety because of its importance to this discussion,  followed by comments in bold italics:

Economics can measure and aggregate human wellbeing, but Sections 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 explain that wellbeing may be only one of several criteria for choosing among alternative mitigation policies.

Other ethical considerations are not reflected in economic valuations, and those considerations may be extremely important for particular decisions that have to be made. For example, some have contended that countries that have emitted a great deal of GHG in the past owe restitution to countries that have been harmed by their emissions. If so, this is an important consideration in determining how much finance rich countries should provide to poorer countries to help with their mitigation efforts. It suggests that economics alone cannot be used to determine who should bear the burden of mitigation.

What ethical considerations can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take into account of justice and rights in general. However, distributive justice can be accommodated within economics, because it can be understood as a value: specifically the value of equality. The theory of fairness within economics (Fleurbaey, 2008) is an account of distributive justice. It assumes that the level of distributive justice within a society is a function of the wellbeings of individuals, which means it can be reflected in the aggregation of wellbeing. In particular, it may be measured by the degree of inequality in wellbeing, using one of the standard measures of inequality such as the Gini coefficient (Gini, 1912), as discussed in the previous section. The Atkinson measure of inequality (Atkinson, 1970) is based on an additively separable social welfare function (SWF), and is therefore particularly appropriate for representing the prioritarian theory described in Section 3.4.6 . Furthermore, distributive justice can be reflected in weights incorporated into economic evaluations as Section 3.6 explains.

Simply identifying the level of inequality using the Gini Index does not assure that the harms and benefits of climate change policies will be distributed justly. For that a theory of just distribution is needed. The Gini index is also at such a level of abstraction that it is very difficult to use it as a way of thinking about the justice obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change. Even if there is strong economic equality in a nation measured by the Gini index, one cannot conclude that climate change policies are distributively just.

Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. For example, a CBA might not show the drowning of a Pacific island as a big loss, since the island has few inhabitants and relatively little economic activity. It might conclude that more good would be done in total by allowing the island to drown: the cost of the radical action that would be required to save the island by mitigating climate change globally would be much greater than the benefit of saving the island. This might be the correct conclusion in terms of overall aggregation of costs and benefits. But the island’s inhabitants might have a right not to have their homes and livelihoods destroyed as a result of the GHG emissions of richer nations far away. If that is so, their right may override the conclusions of CBA. It may give those nations who emit GHG a duty to protect the people who suffer from it, or at least to make restitution to them for any harms they suffer.

Even in areas where the methods of economics can be applied in principle, they cannot be accepted without question (Jamieson, 1992; Sagoff, 2008). Particular simplifying assumptions are always required, as shown throughout this chapter. These assumptions are not always accurate or appropriate, and decision‐makers need to keep in mind the resulting limitations of the economic analyses. For example, climate change will shorten many people’s lives. This harm may in principle be included within a CBA, but it remains highly contentious how that should be done. Another problem is that, because economics can provide concrete, quantitative estimates of some but not all values, less quantifiable considerations may receive less attention than they deserve.

This discussion does not adequately capture serious ethical problems with translating all values into monetary units measured by willingness to pay or its surrogates nor that such transformation may greatly distort ethical obligations to do no harm into changes in commodity value.

The extraordinary scope and scale of climate change raises particular difficulties for economic methods (Stern, forthcoming). First, many of the common methods of valuation in economics are best designed for marginal changes, whereas some of the impacts of climate change and efforts at mitigation are not marginal (Howarth and Norgaard, 1992). Second, the very long time scale of climate change makes the discount rate crucial at the same time as it makes it highly controversial (see Section 3.6.2 ). Third, the scope of the problem means it encompasses the world’s extremes of wealth and poverty, so questions of distribution become especially important and especially difficult. Fourth, measuring non‐market values—such as the existence of species, natural environments, or traditional ways of life of local societies—is fraught with difficulty. Fifth, the uncertainty that surrounds climate change is very great. It includes the likelihood of irreversible changes to societies and to nature, and even a small chance of catastrophe. This degree of uncertainty sets special problems for economics. (Nelson, 2013) (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 12-13)

Again this discussion does not adequately describe the ethical problems with economic determinations of all values. In fact it leaves the impression that if non-market values can be discovered the problems of transforming all values to commodity values are adequately dealt with.

Chapter 3, also includes additional statements about the ethical limits of economic reasoning sprinkled throughout the chapter. They include:

1. Most normative analyses of solutions to the climate problem implicitly involve contestable ethical assumptions.(IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg.10)

2. However, the methods of economics are limited in what they can do. They can be based on ethical principles, as Section 3.6 explains. But they cannot take account of every ethical principle. They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not to taking account of justice and rights (with the exception of distributive justice − see below), or other values apart from human wellbeing. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)

And so Chapter 3 of the IPCC report contains a number or clear assertions  about the ethical limitations of economic arguments. However there are important gaps missing from this analysis. Also several sections of Chapter 3 that can be interpreted as claims that policy makers are free to choose economic reasoning as justification for climate policies. That is, some of the text reads as if a policy-maker is free to choose whether to base policy  on economic or ethical and justice considerations, choosing between these two ways of evaluation is simply an option. Some of these provisions follow with responses in italics

Chapter 3 page 6 says:

Many different analytic methods are available for evaluating policies. Methods may be quantitative (for example, cost‐benefit analysis, integrated assessment modeling, and multi‐criteria analysis) or qualitative (for example, sociological and participatory approaches). However, no single best method can provide a comprehensive analysis of policies. A mix of methods is often needed to understand the broad effects, attributes, trade‐offs, and complexities of policy choices; moreover, policies often address multiple objectives  (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Although economic analyses can provide policy-makers with valuable information such as which technologies will achieve ethically determined goals at lowest cost, thereby providing criteria for making remedies cost-effective, there are serious ethical problems with cost-benefit analyses used prescriptively to set emissions reductions targets. Some of these are alluded to in IPCC Chapters 3 and 4, others are not acknowledged. Because of the prevalence of cost-benefit justifications for climate change policies, future IPCC reports could make a contribution by identifying all of the ethical issues raised by cost-benefit analyses.

 Any decision about climate change is likely to promote some values and damage others. These may  be values of very different sorts. In decision making, different values must therefore be put together or balanced against each other. (IPCC, 2014. WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

This provision can be understood as condoning a consequentialist approach to climate policy that fails to acknowledge deontological limits. Since when any nation makes policy on climate change it affects poor people and vulnerable nations around the world, there are serious procedural justice issues which go unacknowledged in this section and,  for the most part, all throughout Chapter 3. Nowhere does the chapter acknowledge that when a climate policy is  under development at the national level,  nations have no right to compare costs to them of implementing policies  with the harms to others that have not consented to the method of valuation being used to determine quantitative value.

Ideally, emissions should be reduced in each place to just the extent that makes the marginal cost of further reductions the same everywhere. One way of achieving this result is to have a carbon price that is uniform across the world; or it might be approximated by a mix of policy instruments (see Section 3.8 ). (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

This statement fails to acknowledge that emissions reductions amounts should be different in different places according to well accepted principles of distributive justice. Although other sections of the chapter acknowledge that responsibility for climate change is a matter of distributive justice, this section and others leave the impression that climate policy can be based upon economic efficiency grounds alone. The way to cure this problem is to continue to reference other sections that recognize ethical limits in setting policy on the basis of efficiency.

(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 6)

Since, for efficiency, mitigation should take place where it is cheapest, emissions of GHG should be reduced in many developing countries, as well as in rich ones. However, it does not follow that mitigation must be paid for by those developing countries; rich countries may pay for mitigation that takes place in poor countries. Financial flows between countries make it possible to separate the question of where mitigation should take place from the question of who should pay for it. Because mitigating climate change demands very large‐scale action, if put in place these transfers might become a significant factor in the international distribution of wealth. Provided appropriate financial transfers are made, the question of where mitigation should take place is largely a matter for the  economic theory of efficiency, tempered by ethical considerations. But the distribution of wealth is amatter of justice among countries, and a major issue in the politics of climate change (Stanton, 2011). It is partly a matter of distributive justice, which economics can take into account, but compensatory justice may also be involved, which is an issue for ethics. (Section 3.3).(IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 26)

There are a host of  potential ethical problems with mitigation taking place in one part of the world to satisfy the ethical obligations of a nation in another part of the world which is emitting above its fair share of safe global emissions that are not mentioned in this article. Included in these problems are:

  • Environmental Sufficiency. There are many technical challenges in assuring that a project in one part of the world that seeks to reduce ghg by an amount that otherwise would be required of a polluter will actually succeed in achieving the reductions particularly when the method of reduction is reliant on biological removal of carbon.
  • Permanence. Many proposed projects for reducing carbon in one part of the world to offset reductions ethically required in another part of the world raise serious questions about whether the carbon reduced by the project will stay out of the atmosphere forever, a requirement that is required to achieve the environmental equivalence to ghg emissions reductions that would be achieved at the source.
  • Leakage. Many proposed projects used to offset emissions reductions of high-emitters raise serious questions about whether carbon reduced by a project at one location will result in actual reductions in emissions because the activity which is the subject of the offset is resumed at another location.
  • Additionality. A project that is proposed in another part of the world to offset emissions reductions of a high-emitting entity may not be environmentally effective if the project would have happened anyway for other reasons.
  • Allowing Delay In Investing In New Technology. The ability to rely on a cheaper emissions reductions project in another part of the world as a substitute of reducing emissions creates an excuse for high-emitting entities to delay investment in technologies that will reduce the pollution load. This may create a practical problem when emissions reductions obligations are tightened in the future. 

Chapter 3 also treats other important ethical issues that arise in climate change policy formation. They include:

3.3 Justice, equity and responsibility,

3.3.1 Causal and moral responsibility

3.3.2 Intergenerational justice and rights of future people

3.3.3 Intergenerational justice: distributive justice

3.3.4 Historical responsibility and distributive justice

3.3.5 Intra‐generational justice: compensatory justice and historical responsibility

3.3.6 Legal concepts of historical responsibility

3.3.7 Geoengineering, ethics, and justice

3.4 Values and wellbeing

3.4.1 Non‐human values

3.4.2 Cultural and social values

3.4.3 Wellbeing

3.4.4 Aggregation of wellbeing

3.4.5 Lifetime wellbeing

3.4.6 Social welfare functions

3.4.7 Valuing population

III. Some Additional Gaps In Chapter 3

Some of the gaps in Chapter 3 on ethical issues raised by climate change policy-making include: (1) ethics of decision-making in the face of scientific uncertainty, (2) whether action or non-action of other nations affects a nation’s responsibility for climate change, (3) how to spend limited funds on climate change adaptation, (4) when politicians may rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science, and (5) who is responsible to for climate refugees and what are their responsibilities.

The last entry in this series will continue the analyses of IPCC  Chapter 3 on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts and Chapter 4 on Sustainability and Equity.


Brown, 2012,  Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change Ethics In Light of a Thirty-Five Year Debate, Routledge-Earthscan, 2012

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


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Reference and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of  Law



Ethical and Justice Issues At the Center of the Warsaw Climate Negotiations-Issue 1, Equity and National GHG Emissions Reductions Commitments in the Short-Term

equity and ambitionThis is the second in a series of papers which will examine the ethical and justice issues that are at the center of the Warsaw climate negotiations, often referred to as the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP-19). The first in the series can be found on This paper looks at the ethical issues entailed by the need for nations to dramatically increase their ghg emissions reductions commitments immediately, that is in the short-term, to levels that equity and justice would require of them.

Each year in international negotiations, pleas of vulnerable developing nations have become louder calling for developed nations to respond to climate change in ways that are consistent with their ethical obligations. For the most part, this had utterly failed to happen. Yet, up until a few years ago, nations could ignore their ethical responsibilities provided they made any commitments at all to reduce their ghg emissions. As a result, nations have failed to adopt climate change policies consistent with their equitable obligations despite the fact that all nations who are parties to the UNFCCC agreed, when they became parties, to reduce their emissions to levels required of them based upon “equity” to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

Although most nations have now made some commitments that have included ghg emissions reductions targets starting in the Copenhagen COP in 2009, almost all nations appear to be basing their national targets not on what equity would require of them but at levels determined by their economic and national interests. In fact, in many cases when governments have been asked why they have not made more ambitious commitments, they have cited national economic justifications or their unwillingness to make more stringent commitments until other nations do so, excuses which are also based upon national interest rather than national global obligations. And so, for the most part, nations have entered the international climate negotiations as if their commitments to an urgently needed climate change global solution can be based on national interest rather than global responsibilities.

However the longer nations have waited to respond adequately to climate change, the more difficult it has becomes to ignore what ethics and justice requires of them because climate science is telling the international community that it must immediately adopt a global approach to climate change which is much more ambitious than current national commitments will provide. And so despite the fact that some vulnerable nations have been screaming for climate justice for at least two decades, in the last few COPs equity and justice has moved to the center of the most contentious issues in dispute. Now there is no escaping the international community from reviewing   national commitments through a justice lens. The smaller the available budget becomes to avoid dangerous climate change, the more obvious the justice issues become.

Nations must both increase emissions reductions commitments immediately to give the world any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change while also agreeing to an international framework on future ghg emissions which will limit global ghg emissions in the medium- and long-term. And so, some aspects of the Warsaw agenda are focused both on increasing ghg emissions commitments in the short-term while at the same time working toward a new climate change treaty which will include a framework for national ghg emissions reductions after 2020. This paper looks at the equitable aspects of the need for more ambition in national ghg emissions commitments in the short-term while the next entry will look at ethics and justice issues entailed by the need for a new climate change treaty that was agreed to in prior COPs and that is scheduled to come into effect in 2020.

An adequate global climate change solution will need to limit total global ghg emissions to levels which will prevent atmospheric concentrations of ghgs from accumulating to dangerous levels and to do this any solution will also need to allocate total global emissions levels among all nations. Therefore each nation must agree to limit is emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions both in the short- and longer-term. There is now no way of escaping this urgent reality.

Up until now, nations could pretend that baby steps toward a global solution were acceptable progress. The urgency of finding a global climate change solution now makes it clear that such pretense is foolish self-deception.

Since the last COP in Qatar last year, there have been two prestigious scientific reports that have made it even more abundantly clear that much greater ambition from nations on their previous ghg emissions reduction commitments based upon equity are urgently needed. In 2013, IPCC in its recent Working Group I Report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change  and UNEP in its just released the Emissions Gap Report are advising the international community that the world is quickly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.

The UNEP report is particularly relevant to the short-term situation given that the international community has agreed to limit future warming to prevent catastrophic warming to  2° C or perhaps 1.5° C if later studies demonstrate that a 1.5° C warming limit is necessary to prevent catastrophic harms.

The UNEP report found that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, ghg emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level that would provide a likely chance of remaining on the least-cost pathway.

To be on track to stay within the 2° C target and head off very dangerous climate change, the report says that emissions should be a maximum of 44 GtCO2e by 2020 to set the stage for further cuts needed keep warming from exceeding the 2° C target.

Since total global ghg emissions in 2010 already stood at 50.1 GtCO2e, and are increasing every year, reaching a 44 GtCO2e target by 2020 is extraordinarily daunting and much greater ambition is needed from the global community than can be seen in existing national ghg emissions reduction commitments.

UNEP pointed out in its report that the 44 GtCO2e target by 2020 is necessary to have any hope of achieving even greater cuts needed after 2020 when total emissions must be limited to sharply declining total emissions limitations. Moreover if the world continues under a business-as-usual scenario, which does not include pledges, 2020 emissions are predicted to reach 59 GtCO2e, which is 1 GtCO2e higher than was estimated in a UNEP report issued in 2012. Without doubt increasing the ambition of national ghg commitments is urgently needed to provide any reasonable hope of limiting warming to non-catastrophic levels.

The September, 2013, IPCC issued a report which contained a budget on total carbon emissions that the world needs to stay within to give a 66% chance of preventing more than the 2° C  warming that attracted world attention despite the fact that it has been widely criticized as being overly optimistic. This budget is an upper limit on total human CO2 equivalent emissions from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the day we stop burning carbon. The IPCC said that for warming to remain below last 2° C warming limit, the total amount of CO2 must be less than 1000 billion tons.

The IPCC report estimated that we’ve already used 531 billion tons of that budget as of 2011 by burning fossil fuels for energy as well as by clearing forests for farming and myriad other uses. That means would mean that there is 469 tons left in the emissions budget. This further means that the budget would be completely used up by current emissions by around 2044, just over 30 years from now.

Yet, the IPCC budget is likely significantly overly optimistic because ghg emissions other than CO2 are being emitted which the IPCC recent budget did not take into account. Factoring in the other ghgs brings the overall cumulative budget down from 1 trillion tons of carbon to 800 billion tons.

With that in mind, the remaining budget is even smaller, leaving just 269 billion tons of carbon left. This figure screams for a radical increase in short-term and long-term ghg emissions national ghg emissions commitments. For this reason, climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice.

The IPCC report also said that a possible release of ghg thawing permafrost and methane hydrates — which are “not accounted for in current models” — would shrink the remaining budget even further.

So why is equity and justice considerations so vital to increasing national ambitions? There are several reasons for this. First some countries much more than others are contributing to global atmospheric ghg concentrations on a per capita and total tons basis. Other countries more than others have contributed much more historically to existing elevated ghg atmospneric concentrations as they pursued higher levels of economic growth. And some countries more than others should be allowed to increase energy use to emerge from grinding poverty especially since they have done almost nothing to cause the existing crisis. And so, climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice and no matter what ethical considerations are taken into account to define an arguably distributively just allocation of ghg emissions targets among nations, many national commitments utterly and obviously flunk any ethical test. Yet the international press is not covering this aspect of this civilization challenging problem.

Ethics and justice demand that high-emitting nations and individuals reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Furthermore, it is already a settled principle in international law that polluters should pay for their pollution, that nations should reduce their emissions to prevent dangerous climate change on the basis of ‘equity,’ not national interest, and that nations should prevent their citizens from doing harm to people outside their national jurisdictional boundaries. These rules collectively mean that nations may not base their climate change national strategies on national interest because they they have duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others that they must take into account when setting national climate change policy. Yet hardly any nations are explaining their national ghg emissions reductions commitments on the basis of how they are congruent with their equitable obligations and the international media for the most part is ignoring this vital part of this civilization challenging drama unfolding in Warsaw.


equity and climate change

In addition, every national ghg emissions target is already implicitly a position on the nation’s appropriate fair share of safe global emissions because it is a global problem about which each nation must do its fair share. Any national ghg emissions reduction target is a statement about the nation’s commitment to solve a global problem which is putting hundreds of millions of existing people at risk and countless members of future generations.

nw book advFurthermore, practically the nations of the world are not likely to increase ghg emissions targets unless those nations who are already exceeding their global fair share agree to reduce their ghg emissions. And so national ghg emissions reductions based on ethics and justice are both required on the basis of morality and are urgently practically needed. The obvious place to look for increases in ambition in national commitments is from nations that are obviously above emissions reduction levels that equity would require of them.

As we shall see in the next paper on a longer-term framework for national emissions, there are several competing ethical frameworks for what constitutes any nations fair share of safe global emissions. However, that does not mean that any position on “equity”  passes minimum ethical scrutiny. And without any doubt, national ghg emissions targets based upon national economic interest alone flunks any ethical analysis because climate change requires nations to take into account how their ghg emissions are gravely harming the hundreds of millions of people around the world who are vulnerable to climate change in setting national climate change policies. That is under any conceivable ethical theory, nations must set ghg targets based upon their duties to not harm others, not self-interest alone. High-emitting nations are therefore obviously failing to set ghg emissions targets based upon their ethical obligations. In fact, as we have seen, nations often have admitted that their targets have been based upon self-interest not global duties.

Slide3For this reason, a key issue on the Warsaw agenda is the ethical dimensions of short-term ghg emissions targets and the need for high-emitting nations in particular to increase their commitments.

However, unfortunately at this moment, it is unlikely that countries will increase their emission reduction proposals in Warsaw. In fact, in some countries recent national policy changes call into question their capability to reach even their inadequate 2020 targets. Along this line, for instance, a recent backwards step of Australia was announced that it intends to abolish its newly established carbon pricing mechanism.

This series will report on what happened in Warsaw on short-term ghg targets and equity at the conclusion of the Warsaw conference


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,

Windener University School of Law

Harrisburg, Pa.

Visting Professor, Nagoya University

Nagoya, Japan

Part-Time Professor

Nanjing University of Science Information and Technology

Nanjing, China

The US Media’s Grave Communication Failure On The Magnitude Of GHG Emissions Reductions Necessary To Prevent Dangerous Climate Change

 I. Introduction

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

This is the second paper that examines in more detail the issues briefly examined in the video. In the last entry we examined the failure of the US media to communicate about the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change. In this post we look at the failure of the US press to communicate about the enormous magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent harsh climate change impacts.

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

  •  The consistent barrier that the United States has been in developing a global solution on climate change for over 20 years.
  •  The fact that climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical problem, an understanding that is of profound significance for climate change policy formation.
  •  The nature of the climate change disinformation campaign in the United States.

II. Communication Failures On The Magnitude Of The GHG Emissions Reductions Necessary To Prevent Dangerous Climate Change

 Most Americans are completely unaware of the magnitude of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change. If US citizens don’t understand the size and scope of the problem, they will almost certainly refuse to support legislation and policies necessary to put the United States on an emissions reduction pathway that represents the US fair share of safe global emissionsBecause, as we discussed in the last entry, the scientific consensus is so strong that the world is headed to harsh and dangerous impacts, the US media’s failure to communicate clearly about the magnitude of the problem facing the world is a serious, grave, and tragic lapse.

No US national climate change strategy makes any sense unless it is understood to implicitly be a position on the US fair share of a global greenhouse gas emissions reductions pathway capable of preventing dangerous climate change. Yet when US federal climate change legislation was under consideration between 2009 and 2010, there was almost no public discussion about whether proposed US climate change legislation would reduce US greenhouse gas emissions to levels that represent the US fair share of safe global emissions.

To understand the urgency for civilization challenging emissions reductions it is necessary to understand: (a) what temperature increases will likely trigger harsh climate change impacts,  (b) what atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will cause specific temperature increases that are of concern, and (c) what quantities of greenhouse gas emissions will exceed atmospheric greenhouse target concentrations. Only then can one understand the amount of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions from business as usual that are necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.

A. Dangerous Temperature Increases

The international community agreed at a meeting of the conference of the parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 that the world must work together to limit warming to an additional 2oC to avoid rapid non-linear impacts from climate change. The 2oC warming limit was agreed to because there is widespread agreement among the vast majority of mainstream scientists that warming of more than 2oC significantly increases the probability of harsh climate impacts.

However, catastrophic harms, at least for some parts of the world, could be triggered by additional warming of less than 2oC because there is uncertainty about how the Earth will respond to different increases in temperatures. (Athanasiou and Bear 2002) The 2oC upper temperature limit is quite controversial scientifically because, as we shall see, some scientists believe that lower amounts of additional warming could set into motion rapid climate changes that could greatly harm people around the world and increases of as little as 1oC will likely greatly harm some people in some regions.

A report, “Assessment of Knowledge on Impacts of Climate Change,” prepared by the Potsdam Institute to examine the meaning of “dangerous” climate change under the UNFCCC supported the 2°C danger limit after a rigorous analysis of climate change impacts at various temperatures concluding:

Above 2°C the risks increase very substantially involving potentially large extinctions or even ecosystem collapses, major increases in hunger and water shortage risks as well as socio-economic damages, particularly in developing countries. (Hare 2003: 89)

Yet, even this report identified very serious global and regional impacts below 2°C. In fact, this report concluded that temperature increases below 1°C threaten highly vulnerable ecosystems and between 1°C and 2 °C increase the risks of damage for all ecosystems and particularly for some regional ecosystems. (Hare 2003: 89)

There is substantial scientific evidence that even a 1.5°C temperature limit would not be sufficient to protect those most vulnerable to climate change. For instance, a recent paper by Jim Hansen and seven other authors concluded that additional warming should be limited to 1°C warming to prevent serious harms. (Hansen et al 2008) To do this, existing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 must not only not be allowed to rise the small amount to 450 ppm CO2 from current levels of 394 ppm CO2 but must be reduced below existing levels to 350 ppm CO2. (Hansen et al. 2008) According to this paper, the world has likely already shot past the level of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations that will lead to dangerous climate change for many. According to Hansen and his collaborators, the world has already used up all of the assimilative capacity of the atmosphere and biosphere that has been available to buffer against dangerous climate change. As a result, this paper asserts that to prevent dangerous climate change the world must not only reduce its emissions but reduce existing greenhouse gas CO2 atmospheric concentrations from the current 394 ppm to 350 ppm CO2 to avoid dangerous climate change.

And so, although the international community agreed in Copenhagen to limit future warming to 2°C, this could prove to be a limit that is too high to protect millions around the world. As one observer recently noted:

We feel compelled to note that even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8 °C of warming so far, calling 2°C a danger limit seems to us pretty cavalier.

(Real Climate 2009)

In thinking about an upper temperature limit, many scientists are concerned with avoiding runaway climate change. That is, they fear that global temperatures will exceed a tipping point that will trigger a release of stored carbon from the biosphere, an event that would cause further rapid climate change. Runaway climate change would mean that governments would lose the ability to control future climate change that they would otherwise have through reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. That is, runaway climate change means that human action would be unable to stop significant temperature increase without massive geo-engineering. (Washington and Cook 2011: 30-31) This is so because, among other things, there are vast amounts of methane stored in permafrost, methane hydrates on the ocean floor, and carbon in the forests that could be released as the world warms. If the world warms too much, increased temperatures could cause huge amounts of carbon to be released that would overwhelm the quantities of carbon being released through fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. This is known to be a possibility, because such releases of stored carbon have happened in Earth’s history and caused rapid non-linear Earth temperature changes.

And so, the magnitude of greenhouse gas reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change is understood to be the reductions from business-as-usual that will allow atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to be stabilized at levels that will limit warming to between 1 to 2°C with prudence calling for a 1°C limit. We now turn to what atmospheric greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations levels are understood to prevent warming above these amounts.

B. Atmospheric Greenhouse Gas Stabilization Goal

The amount of warming that will be experienced from different greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations is usually referred to as the issue of “climate sensitivity.” Climate sensitivity is somewhat uncertain as there are remaining scientific uncertainties about the magnitude of the positive and negative feedbacks in the climate system.

Climate sensitivity is usually defined to mean the amount of warming that the Earth will experience if atmospheric concentrations of COreach 560 ppm of COequivalent, where COequivalent is the metric which translates other greenhouse gases into an equivalent level of CO2 . The IPCC in its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) concluded that climate sensitivity is likely to be in the range 2 to 4.5 °C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5 °C. (IPCC 2007) The IPCC also noted that climate sensitivity values substantially higher than 4.5 °C cannot be excluded. And so the temperature change that the consensus view believes is likely if all of the greenhouse gases rise to 560 ppm carbon equivalent is somewhere between 2 °C and 4.5 °C with even higher temperatures possible. The current concentration of CO2 is 394 ppm. (CO2  Now 2012)

To operationalize an upper temperature limit, the international community must set an atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration stabilization limit. Since there is scientific uncertainty about how much warming will be experienced by different atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration levels, there is significant scientific controversy about what the greenhouse gas atmospheric stabilization target should be to achieve any warming limit.

Making the calculation of emissions reductions needed at any one time is complicated by the fact that how rapidly greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced is a problem that depends upon when global emissions reductions begin. The longer the international community waits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the steeper the necessary emissions reductions pathway becomes. It is relatively easy to calculate the amount of additional tons of emissions that can be allowed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at a certain level such as 450 ppm CO2 but this number will depend upon when emissions reductions begin. At any time it is therefore possible to create a budget that identifies the total tons of emissions that can be allowed before a specific atmosphere concentration is exceeded but the longer the international community waits to begin to reduce emissions, the steeper the reductions must be.

The magnitude of the challenge entailed by the need to set a greenhouse gas atmospheric concentration target becomes evident after looking at the probability of exceeding 2°C if CO2 equivalent targets are set at specific levels such as 450 or 550 ppm. In the following chart the colored lines represent emissions reduction pathways that would stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide equivalents at various levels. The yellow line is a pathway that would stabilize at 550 ppm. The red line is a reduction pathway that could stabilize carbon dioxide equivalent at 450 ppm. The numbers on the boxes on these two lines specify the probability of exceeding 2°C if atmospheric concentration levels are stabilized at these levels.

From this chart we therefore see that if atmospheric carbon dioxide is stabilized at 550 ppm there is between a 75% and 99% chance that the world will experience temperatures in excess of 2°C. Looking at the red line we see that even at a stabilization level of 450 ppm there is between a 45% and 86% chance that the world experience increases in temperature greater than 2°C. Because CO2 levels are already approaching 395 ppm and other greenhouse gases make current carbon dioxide equivalent levels in the vicinity of 430 ppm it becomes evident that the world is running out of time to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in the atmospheric concentrations that would limit warming to 2°C. Because as we have seen it is possible that temperature increases as small as 1°C will create harsh impacts for some people in some parts of the world it becomes apparent that the need to reduce greenhouse gases aggressively, and dramatically, and urgently.

C. Percentage Reductions From Business As Usual Required To Stabilize Atmospheric Concentrations Of Greenhouse Gases

The startling magnitude of the challenge to the world from climate change becomes apparent upon reflection that the world is currently increasing greenhouse gas emissions  during the last decade of an average annual increase of 2.7%. (PBL 2012) Yet to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations at about 450 ppm by 2050, global emissions will have to decline by about 60% from current levels. (Hossol 2011).  Because developing countries need to expand economic activity to escape grinding poverty according to one US White House paper, industrial countries greenhouse gas emissions would have to decline by about 80% by 2050. (Hossol 2011)

Given that greenhouse emissions are increasing year to year and that the entire world will need to reduce emissions by as much as 60% by 2050 to give any hope of remaining below 2°C, the challenge to the world is staggering. One observer sums up the situation as following:

The growth of emissions is making the task ahead more and more difficult. The longer we wait to start shrinking emissions, the faster we’ll have to shrink them to stay under budget. Here’s a visualization of what that means — some sample reduction curves with varying peak years (the four different lines are based on the four main IPCC scenarios):

(citing Anderson, K.  2011)

As you can see, if we delay the global emissions peak until 2025, we pretty much have to drop off a cliff afterwards to avoid 2 degrees C. Short of a meteor strike that shuts down industrial civilization, that’s unlikely.

This, then, is the brutal logic of climate change: With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2°C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever — we will have no chance.

(Roberts 2011)

Although the challenge of achieving sufficient global greenhouse gas emissions to prevent 2°C is extraordinarily daunting, as we have explained above a 2°C warming limit may not prevent catastrophic harm because temperature increases more than 1°C may cause great harm.

International climate negotiations have sought to find a global solution to climate change since they began in 1990 and have struggled since then to reach a global deal among most countries to prevent dangerous climate change. Because global emissions continue to rise rather than decrease after 20 years since climate change negotiations began, the international community has lost several decades in finding a way to prevent dangerous climate change. And so, the human race may be running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change. Yet most Americans are unaware of the seriousness and urgency of the staggering problem we are facing. The US media has utterly failed to sound the alarm about the magnitude of the threat of climate change.


Anderson, Kevin (2011)  Going Beyond Dangerous Climate Change,

 Athanasiou, T. and Bear, P. (2002), Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming, Westminster, MD: Seven Stories Press, Canada.

CO2Now (2012)  Earth’s CO2 Now Home Page (March 2012).

Hansen. J., Sato, M., Kharecha, P., Beerling, Masson-Delmotte, V., Pagani, M., Raymo, M., Royer, D., Zachos, J. (2008)  Where Should Humanity Aim?

Hare, W. (2003)  Assessment Of Knowledge On Impacts Of Climate Change – ‘Contribution To The Specification Of Art’, 2 of the UNFCCC, Berlin: Potsdam Institute for Climate Research,

Hossol, Susan Joy (2011)  Emissions Reductions Needed To Stabilize Climate, Presidential Climate Project,

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2001) this multi-volume work was published as: (i) Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report; (ii) Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis; (iii) Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation & Vulnerability; (iv) Climate Change 2001: Mitigation, Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007) Climate Sensitivity And Feedbacks, in Pachauri, R., and Reisinger, A. (eds) Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, Contribution of Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Available at:

PBL, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (2012) Trends in Global Co2 Emissions, 2012 Report.

Real Climate (2009) Hit the Brakes Hard,

Roberts, David  (2011) The Brutal Logic Of Climate Change,

 Washington, H. and J. Cook (2011) Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand, by Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand, Earthscan, London and Washington


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law