Editor’s note: The following entry is by a guest blogger Sunita Narain who writes widely on justice issues and for the Business Standard in India. This peace is a reflection on climate change policy in the United States after the recent climate change national assessment of climate change impacts on the United States was issued in May. Although it is before the new Obama administration regulations that were issued this Monday, June 2nd, that proposed to reduc ghg emissions by 30 % below 2005 by 2030 for coal fired power plants. As we will explain in a future entry, the US commitments is still far short of what equity and justice would require of the United States despite reasonable disagreements on which equity framework should be followed by high-emitting nations. We look forward to Ms Narain’s reflections and others on how the most recent proposed US EPA regulations comport with justice Notice of rule-making was issued on Monday, June 2, 2014, This article formerly was published in the Business Standard.
Sunita Narain: Change of climate in the US
Climate change has a surprising new follower: the president of the United States. The US government has been the biggest hurdle in climate change negotiations. Since discussions began on the issue in the early 1990s, the US has stymied all efforts towards an effective and fair deal. It has blocked action by arguing that countries like China and India must first do more. Worse, successive governments have even denied that the threat from a changing climate is real, let alone urgent. US President Barack Obama, who came to power in his first term with the promise to deal with climate change, was noticeably coy about the issue in recent years.
However, in May this year, the US government released its National Climate Assessment, which puts together carefully peer-reviewed scientific information on the impact of climate change in the US. It makes clear that even the US is not immune to the dangers of climate change. In fact, many trends are visible and the country is already hurting.
It is important to understand what this assessment concludes and why its findings are important for the rest of the world. One, it makes clear that the increase in temperature is now established; the rise in temperature is the highest in the poles, where snow and ice cover has decreased. As the atmosphere warms, it holds more water, which leads to more precipitation. Add to this the fact that the incidence of extreme heat and heavy precipitation is increasing – more heat and more rain. This makes for a deadly combination.
In the US, the incidence of heatwave has increased. In 2011 and 2012, the number of heatwaves was almost triple the long-term average. The assessment also finds that in areas where precipitation has not gone down, droughts occur. The reason is that higher temperatures lead to increased rates of evaporation and loss of soil moisture. In Texas in 2011 and then again in large parts of the Midwest in 2012, prolonged periods of high temperatures led to severe droughts.
In addition, now it does not just rain but pours. The heaviest rainfall events have become more frequent. Moreover, the amount of precipitation on the heavy rainfall days has also increased. Many parts of the country have already seen flooding, and the assessment is that these risks are significant in the future. This is combined with the fact that the intensity, frequency, duration and the number of strongest (category four and five) storms and hurricanes have increased since the 1980s, the period for which high-quality data are available.
Therefore, the news is not good for even a rich and temperate country like the US. For a long time, there was an unwritten agreement that climate change would benefit such countries. It was believed that they would become warmer, with the result that crop-growing periods would increase – which, in turn, would benefit their economies. The National Climate Assessment makes it clear that even if specific regions benefit from climate change, this will not be sufficient or durable. The net result will be economic disruption and disaster.
The other welcome change in the report is its clear assertion – something that needed to be stated bluntly to the American people – that climate change is caused by human activity. It cannot be dismissed any more as natural weather variability. Not only has there been an unprecedented build-up in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases resulting from the use of fossil fuels, fingerprinting studies can also attribute observed climate change to particular causes. Even as the stratosphere – the higher atmospheric layer – is cooling, the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere are warming. This is clearly the result of an increase in heat-trapping gases released from fossil fuels that countries burn to drive economic growth.
The message is clear: the time for complacency is over. The gases in the atmosphere have hit dangerous levels, which is hurting the US economy. The effort must include adapting, and building flood- and drought-resistant agriculture and infrastructure. However, this won’t add up to much unless emissions from burning fossil fuels are cut fast and drastically.
This is where the report is the weakest. It says the current US contribution to annual global emissions is 18 per cent, but accepts that the country’s contribution to cumulative emissions is much higher. Importantly, it also accepts that it is this stock of emissions that determines the extent of global climate change. Till now, the US position on historical emissions has been a stumbling block in negotiations.
The question is: what needs to be done? The US still does not have a plan to cut its emissions based on its contribution to the problem. Its stated voluntary target is to reduce emissions by 17 per cent over the 2005 levels. This is too little, too late – in fact, meaningless.
For the moment, we should accept that the elephant in the room has been acknowledged. This itself should lead to change.
On June 25th, President Obama gave a major speech on climate change in which he announced what his administration would do to reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions in the United States. Although the US Congress has continued to fail to act on climate change since climate negotiations began in 1990, President Obama identified administrative actions that he would take that did not depend upon US congressional action. As we shall see, the speech was significant for some of the ethical issues touched upon in the speech.
As expected some US politicians vigorously attacked the speech on the basis that the announced actions would destroy jobs and the US coal industry. We now look at this speech, the political response to it, and the US media reaction through an ethical lens.
In light of the US’s strong moral duty to take action to reduce the threat of climate change that has been virtually ignored by most previous US leaders. many parts of this important speech are worthy of praise.
President Obama promised to use this authority under the federal Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gases from electric power plants. He also dismissed climate change skeptics as Flat Earthers and urged US citizens at all levels to take steps to reduce climate change causing emissions and push back against those who would work to undermine US policy to reduce the threat of climate change. He further announced plans to double wind and solar power while increasing the use of renewable energy in federal facilities to 20 % in 7 years. He also identified a number of policy responses to reduce energy demand with the goal of significantly reducing the waste of energy.
In response to climate skeptics he said:
So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They’ve acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.
He also acknowledged some US responsibility to help developing nations transition to clean energy and announced a number of policy initiatives in support of this goal.
In regard to the the ethical responsibility of the United States to reduce the threat of climate change, President Obama said:
[A]s the world’s largest economy and second-largest carbon emitter, as a country with unsurpassed ability to drive innovation and scientific breakthroughs, as the country that people around the world continue to look to in times of crisis, we’ve got a vital role to play. We can’t stand on the sidelines. We’ve got a unique responsibility.
This statement is very significant for its ethical implications. In fact, this is the strongest statement of any US President in regard to acknowledging that US policy on climate change can not solely be based upon US interests alone. That is, it is notable for its recognition of US responsibility to act on climate change. Thus, in addition to US interests in climate change policies, President Obama acknowledged that the United States has obligations, responsibilities, and duties to act. This fact has profound significance for US climate change policy. It means, that the US must consider its obligations to others not to harm them through our ghg emissions. Yet, as we have seen over and over again, US climate change policies are usually debated in the United States as if only US interests count.
This speech also acknowledged that it is probably too late to avoid the need of nations to adapt to climate change’s adverse impacts.This is so because even if aggressive action it taken on climate change around the world, some adverse climate change impacts are inevitable. Notable in this regard was the speech’s acknowledgement that:
We’re going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition — not just here in the United States but around the world.
And so, President Obama seems thus to acknowledge US obligations to help developing nations to adapt to climate change.
Another part of the speech with ethical significance is remarks about a new climate change treaty that was agreed to in Durban, South Africa that is to be completed in 2015 and come into effect in 2020. In this regard, President Obama said:
Two years ago, we decided to forge a new agreement beyond 2020 that would apply to all countries, not just developed countries. What we need is an agreement that’s ambitious — because that’s what the scale of the challenge demands. We need an inclusive agreement -– because every country has to play its part. And we need an agreement that’s flexible — because different nations have different needs.
This statement is of considerable ethical significance because it acknowledges that different nations have different responsibilities and needs in regard to climate change policies. This idea was agreed to by the United States but has largely been ignored. In ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 under then president George H. W. Bush, the United States promised to reduce its ghg emissions based upon “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities” to prevent dangerous climate change. This idea, which entails looking at the US response to climate change through the lens of distributive justice, has been almost completely ignored by the US Congress and former US presidents. It is also an idea that entails that the United States must reduce its emissions more aggressively than developing nations that have done significantly less to cause increasing atmospheric ghg concentrations.
This statement also implicitly acknowledges that all nations. including the United States, have an ethical duty to increase the ambitiousness of its ghg emissions reductions commitments in climate negotiations that are under discussion until 2015.
President Obama also acknowledged our ethical responsibility to future generations to reduce the threat of climate change when he said:
Our founders believed that those of us in positions of power are elected not just to serve as custodians of the present, but as caretakers of the future. And they charged us to make decisions with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of our own political careers. That’s what the American people expect. That’s what they deserve.
And so as a matter of ethics, President Obama acknowledged that the US has a special responsibility to act on climate change in response to our ethical obligations, not our national interests alone , in proportion to our responsibility as a matter of distributive justice and our obligations to future generations while at the same time assisting vulnerable developing nations to adapt to the inevitable adverse climate impacts that now can not be avoided.
President Obama also ended his speech with a call to recognize the sacred importance of protecting Earth by recalling the astonishment of the astronauts when they saw the Earth from outer space as they came around the moon for the first time.
For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.
“It makes you realize,” that astronaut said all those years ago, “just what you have back there on Earth.” And that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface, containing everything we hold dear — the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity — that’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, I’m absolutely sure we’ll succeed.
And so as, a matter of ethics, Obama’s speech was laudable and historically significant in many respects. That is not to say, however, that the Obama speech cannot be criticized for some omissions in regard to the US’s ethical obligations for climate change. These omissions included: (a) the lack of recognition that dependence on natural gas as a bridge fuel for reducing the US carbon footprint raises several ethical questions, a matter reviewed here in detail, (b) acknowledgment of the US special responsibility for climate change for its unwillingness to take action on climate change for over 20 years since it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, see, The World Waits In Vain For US Ethical Climate Change Leadership As the World Warms, and, (c) failing to communicate the extreme urgency of quickly and significantly reducing ghg emissions in the next few years to give the world any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, see, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity. In this regard, Obama’s speech utterly failed to acknowledge the magnitude of the ghg emissions reductions that are ethically required of the United States in the next decade.
And so, all in all, the Obama speech can be praised for its express recognition of many of the ethical ethical obligations entailed by climate change despite some quibbles about a few ethical issues not covered well.
As was expected, the political opposition in the US to the speech was rapid and intense. For instance Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that Obama’s plan on climate change was was a “war on coal” and on jobs.
Senator Joe Manchin, D-WV, went further saying that the Obama climate plan was not just a “war on jobs” and a “war on West Virginia,” but also, a “war on America.”
Senator James Inhofe, R-Ok, who has consistently claimed that the mainstream scientific view on climate is a “hoax,” said the Obama plan will cost the US economy $400 billion a year while ranting about other aspects of the Obama climate plan.
The most frequent justifications for the strong opposition to the Obama climate plan have been the claimed severe economic harms to the US economy, lack of scientific certainty on adverse climate impacts, and the inability of the United States acting alone to prevent climate change.
As we have explained in considerable detail before, these excuses utterly fail to withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.
Economic harm arguments made in opposition to Obama’s climate plan, for instance, even if true, both fail to recognize the ethical obligations that the United States has to not harm others through our ghg emissions and to acknowledge the costs of not acting. US climate policy cannot be based upon US interests alone. The United States has obligations to others. In addition, economic arguments for not acting on climate change ignore obligations that nations have if they are creating human rights violations and duties entailed by distributive justice. These are only a few of the ethical problems with economic arguments made in opposition to US climate change policies. For a detailed ethical analyses of economic arguments made in opposition to US climate change policies, see Ethicsandclimate.orgindex under Economics and Climate Ethics.
Scientific certainty arguments made in opposition to climate change fail as a matter of ethics for a host of reasons including the fact that almost all of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world and the vast majority of scientists that do peer-reviewed science support the consensus view that has concluded that climate change is a growing civilization challenging threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends around the world, uncertainty in these situations raises ethical questions about burdens and quantity of proof, those most vulnerable to climate change have not consented to be put at risk from climate change, and the longer the world waits to reduce the threat of climate change the worse the problem becomes. For detailed ethical analysis of scientific uncertainty arguments made in opposition to climate change, see Ethicsandclimate.org index under Scientific Uncertainty and Climate Ethics.
And so, the arguments made in opposition to the Obama speech fail to withstand ethical scrutiny.
The US media response to the Obama speech and the political response thereto has once again completely ignored the ethical problems with the strong political opposition to the speech. As we have noted over and over again in regard to the US media coverage of the US response to climate change, the US press is utterly failing to cover ethical issues entailed by opposition to climate change policies in the United States. This is particularly true of economic and scientific uncertainty arguments made in opposition to proposed US climate change policies. Nor is the US press covering ethical issues entailed by the urgency and magnitude of the need to reduce ghg emissions given that the world is likely running out of time to prevent warming of 2 degrees C, a warming amount which is widely believed could create rapid, non-linear climate change. For a discussion of this issue, see: On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To What Equity Requires of Them In Their Responses to Climate Change.
One might ask why the US media is failing to cover the obvious ethical questions raised by climate change issues given that the ethical issues have profound consequences for climate change policy and climate change raises obvious civilization challenging ethical issues. We might ask why the US press is failing to cover the ethical and justice issues entailed by climate change given that vulnerable countries around the world have been screaming for developed nations including the United States to respond in accordance with their ethical obligations. Is the US press so connected to the economic interests of the United States, that it is blind to the US ethical obligations for climate change? If the US press has not been corrupted by the economic interests of the United States, the only plausible explanation for the US media’s failure to cover the ethical issues raised by climate change is that the reporter’s covering climate change don’t understand the civilization challenging ethical issues raised by climate change. If this is the explanation, there is a huge practical need to demand that the US press turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.
This 11 minute video examines why politicians, unlike many ordinary citizens, may not rely upon their own uninformed opinion on climate change science as a basis for refusing to support climate change policies. The video argues that politicians have responsibilities that ordinary citizens do not have to protect others from harms that their constituents are causing others.
This video follows the last entry on this subject:
Marco Rubio, a US Senator from Florida, recently said that he was not sure the climate change was human caused. This is one of the reasons why he’s unwilling to support US government action to reduce the threat of climate change. Many other US politicians have also recently said they will not support legislation to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions because they are not convinced that climate change happening or is human-caused. In fact, 7 out of 8 Republican candidates for the US presidency proclaimed they didn’t believe that climate change was a problem. (Skeptical Science) When these politicians are asked about the basis for their positions on climate change, they almost always respond by saying such things as they “have heard that there is a disagreement among scientists” or similar responses that strongly suggest they have informed an opinion on climate change science without any understanding of the depth of the scientific evidence on which the scientific consensus view 0f climate change has been based. For instance, US politicians frequently assert that it is an open question whether humans are causing the undeniable warming that the Earth is experiencing, thus exposing ignorance of dozens of lines of independent robust evidence of human causation including attribution studies, finger print analyses, strong evidence that correlates fossil fuel use to rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and other physical and chemical evidence.
Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials who have the power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not as a matter of ethics justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions on climate science. This is so because government officials, unlike ordinary citizens, have the power to prevent or minimize great harms to millions of people around the world that mainstream scientists have concluded that their constituents or governments that they represent are causing or contributing to. That is, a government officials have more responsibility than the average citizen to understand the state of climate change science because the government official can uniquely prevent harm that their constituents or governments are causing. And so, when government officials with the power to enact climate change policies are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may not appeal to their uninformed opinion on climate science as justification for not taking action.
The government official is like the railroad official who has been told by employees who are in a position to know the location of the company’s trains that there is a runaway train hurtling toward a bus full of children that is stuck on the track, when the official has the ability to divert the train onto a track on which no humans will be harmed.
In the case of climate change, government officials should know that 97 of every 100 scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science research and in the United States by the most prestigious scientific organizations including the US National Academy of Sciences that greenhouse gases coming from his constituents threaten catastrophic harm not only to his constituents but to millions of people around the world, most of whom have done little to cause climate change.
In the case of climate change, the US politician not only has the power, working with colleagues, to prevent great harm caused by his or her constituents, he or she has the responsibility to prevent his or her constituents from harming others outside United States. This responsibility was expressly agreed to by the United States when it ratified the United Nations Convention on Climate Change which contains the following acknowledgment of the US governments responsibility to prevent harm to those outside the United States in the convention’s Preamble:
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.(UNFCCC Preamble)
In the case of climate change, the people that will be harmed (those in our metaphorical bus) are not only the constituents of the politician but hundreds of millions of people around the world that have done little or nothing to cause climate change.
The vast majority of climate scientists and over 100 scientific organizations whose members have climate science expertise have concluded that humans are causing climate change and human-induced climate change creates catastrophic threats for the human race and particularly for hundreds of millions of poor people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Although there are some differences among some mainstream scientists about some of the details of the consensus view, an open letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s which was endorsed by 18 of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the United States summed up the nature of the scientific consensus as follows:
As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer- reviewed science. (AAAS 2009)
Though scientific consensus must always be open to responsible skepticism given: (a) the strength of the consensus on this topic, (b) the enormity of the harms predicted by the consensus view, (c) an approximately 30 year delay in taking action that has transpired since a serious climate change debate began in the United States in the early 1980s, (d) a delay that has made the problem worse while making it more difficult to achieve ghg emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change because of the steepness of reductions now needed, no politician can ethically justify his or her refusal to support action on climate change based upon a personal opinion that is not supported by strong scientific evidence that has been reviewed by scientific organizations with a wide breadth of interdisciplinary scientific expertise. Because any further delay will make the climate change threat worse, US politicians have a duty to support policies that will reduce the threat of climate unless they can produce strong scientific evidence that has been fully vetted by respectable scientific institutions that climate change is not the threat entailed by the scientific consensus view.
In this situation the government official has a strong duty to go beyond his or her own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions that have the breadth of expertise to consider one study in the context of thousands of other studies in climate change science. And so, government officials may not justify their refusal to act simply on the basis of their personal opinion.
Because politicians have an affirmative duty to initially rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand any politician’s views that oppose action on climate change policies on scientific grounds. The US press has almost always failed to probe the justifications of those opposing action on climate change on scientific grounds. For this reason, journalists should ask politicians that claim there is not sufficient scientific support for government action climate change the following questions:
1. What specific scientific references and sources do you rely upon to conclude that there is a reasonable scientific dispute about whether human actions are causing dangerous climate change?
2. Are you aware that the United States Academy of Sciences and almost all respected scientific organizations whose membership includes scientists with expertise relevant to climate change science support the scientific consensus view that holds has that the planet is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual?
3. On what basis do you disregard the conclusions that humans are causing dangerous climate change held by the United States Academy of Sciences, over a hundred scientific organizations whose membership includes experts with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, and 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?
4. When you claim that the United States need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven that human-induced climate change will not create adverse impacts on human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?
5. When you claim that the United States should not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken will very likely make it too late to prevent dangerous human-induced climate change harms according to the consensus view?
6. Do you deny that those who argue that they should be allowed to continue to emit greenhouse gases at levels that may be dangerous should assume the burden of proof that their actions are safe given the strength of the consensus view on climate change science?
7. Do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in a decision about whether to act to reduce the threat of climate change in the face of scientific uncertainty?
8. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the Untied States in 1992 agreed to the following under Article 3, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?
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.
9. If you claim that the climate change impacts predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have not reached a level of scientific certainty that warrants action, do you agree that climate change impacts predicted by IPCC could be wrong in both directions, potentially leading to even harsher adverse impacts than those predicted?
10. Given that for over 20 years since international climate change negotiations began, the United States has refused to commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions based upon the justification that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms the health and ecological systems on which life depends of others, should the United States be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?
This is the fifth in a series of articles that examines grave communications failures of the US media about climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. EthicsandClimate.org has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change that can be found at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/
The last paper in the series will examine the failure of the US media to help Americans understand the well-organized, well-financed climate change disinformation campaign.
II. The World Waits In Vain For US Leadership On Climate Change.
Most Americans are completely unaware that the United States has consistently been a barrier to achieving a global solution to climate change despite the fact that the United States is an indispensable party to a global climate change solution. To understand the importance of the US solving the global climate change problem, one must keep in mind that: (a) the United States is by far the largest historical emitter of global greenhouse gases that have caused the existing problem, (b) the United States is near the top of national greenhouse gas emitters on a per capita basis, (c) the United States is second only to China in total tons of greenhouse gases emitted, and (d) the United States has the worst record among developed countries in making commitments to a global climate change solution.
Although the United States is an indispensable participant in solving climate change because of the size of the US contribution to the global problem, the United States has a dismal record in over twenty years of international efforts to achieve a global solution to this civilization-challenging global problem. In American Heat, Ethical Problems With the United States Response To Global Warming, (Brown, 2002) this writer documented in detail the negative role in achieving a global approach to climate change that the United States played in the first decade of climate change negotiations from the late 1980s through the year 2000. Among other things during the negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) between 1990 and 1992, the United States, virtually standing alone, successfully prevented the UNFCCC from including enforceable national emissions reductions targets for developed nations.
In a book to be published this month, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Ethics, this writer documents in detail the failure of the United States to be a leader since the conclusions of the UNFCCC negotiations in 1992, (Brown 2012).
Among other things, since the UNFCCC negotiations:
The United States has been the only developed country in the world to fail to ratify to the Kyoto Protocol and thereby commit itself to a binding interim emissions reduction target.
George W. Bush announced that the United States was not only unwilling to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it was withdrawing the United States from the Kyoto Treaty all together
When President Obama was elected, there was wide-spread hope the United States would change course on climate change. Yet, the United States under President Obama has approached climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, Cancun in 2010, and South Africa making only a voluntary commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions levels by 2020 thereby making the US promise: (a) the weakest of all of the developed country commitments, and (b) far short of what is required of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.
Although there is evidence that President Obama hopeto make the United States, for the first time, a responsible participant in an adequate global approach to climate change, since the Republicans took over the US House of Representatives in November of 2010, the United States hast been unable to make meaningful national commitments on climate change and will not likely to be able to do so until well into 2013 at the very earliest.
There is no evidence that the United States is willing to make commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to levels consistent with what the world needs to do to prevent dangerous climate change, a matter discussed in the second paper in this series.
Although there are several countries that have frequently failed to respond to what justice would require of them to reduce the threat of climate change, the United States, more than any other country, has consistently failed to respond to its ethical duties to reduce its emissions to the its fair share of safe global emissions during the over two decades that the world has been seeking a global agreement on how to respond to climate change.
Because the United States is such a vital player in any global solution to climate change, the United States response to its obligations to reduce the global threat of climate change has been an immense impediment to an urgently needed global climate change solution. And so the world continues to wait for ethical leadership from the United States on climate change as significant damages are becoming more visible around the world. As the world is running out of time to prevent significant climate change, the United States continues to ignore its global obligations. Yet coverage of climate change debates in the US media rarely mention the negative role the United States has been playing in developing a global solution.
The world awaits US leadership on climate change at a time when human-induced climate change harms are becoming more obvious. Yet there is little evidence that US citizens understand their obligations to poor people around the world for climate change damages and the United States has been significantly responsible for delays in reaching a global solution to climate change. This is both a tragic failure of domestic leadership and a failure of the US press to help educate Americans about the negative role the US has played in finding a global solution to climate change.
Brown, D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems With the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman and Littlefield.
Brown, D. (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm,Climate Change Ethics, Routledge/Earthscan
On October 23, 2012, the PBS program Frontline aired a program called Climate of Doubt. available on the PBS website at www.pbs.org/frontline/ This program describes the success of right-wing organizations and some corporations in both undermining the public’s understanding of the mainstream scientific view about human-induced climate change and in preventing legislative action to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. Climate of Doubtexplains that the disinformation campaign has succeeded despite the fact that the vast majority of climate scientists that actually engage in climate change scientific research strongly support the consensus scientific view that humans are causing dangerous warming.
In a very introductory manner, the Frontline program explains how the climate change disinformation campaign has managed to weaken support for doing something about climate change and for this reason the program is a welcome addition to the otherwise largely non-existent US media coverage of who is behind the climate change disinformation campaign.
Although the Frontline program should be welcomed for bringing much needed attention to this tragic manipulation of a democracy, at the same time the program can be criticized for missing important elements of the story necessary to get a full understanding of the outrageousness, if not criminality, of the climate change disinformation campaign.
Missing from the Frontline description of the disinformation campaign are:
(a) A stronger sense of the strength of the consensus view, (every academy of science in the world supports the consensus view, over a hundred scientific organizations whose members have relevant scientific expertise support the consensus view, much of the science that should have been the basis for US action on climate change was settled 150 years ago, and there are clear qualitative differences between peer-reviewed science and the manufactured, non-peer reviewed science usually relied upon by the disinformation campaign),
(b) A sense of the urgency for the need to make greenhouse gas emissions reductions as soon as possible to avoid dangerous climate change.
(c) The civilization challenging magnitude of the reductions that will be necessary to prevent dangerous climate change,
(d) The tactics of the disinformation campaign which cannot be understood as responsible skepticism, such as: (1) making claims that not only have not been peer-reviewed but are at odds with well-settled science, (2) cherry picking the science, (3) treating one study as undermining the entire body of climate science even though the issue in contention is not consequential in regard to the major mainstream scientific conclusions, (4) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists that publish statements that climate change is a significant threat, (5) making completely false claims that are either lies or reckless disregard for the truth such as the claim that the entire scientific basis for action is a hoax when every academy of science supports the consensus view, and (6) the use of front groups and Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interest behind the disinformation campaign, namely fossil fuel companies and free-market fundamentalist foundations.
(d) The fact that high-emitting nations and individuals are putting hundreds of millions of world’s poorest people at risk who have done nothing to cause the problem,
(e) The fact that the United States has been a major barrier to a global solution in climate negotiations for over two decades due to the disinformation campaign,
(f) The fact that even the Obama administration is unwilling to make commitments for emissions reductions consistent with any reasonable interpretation of the US fair share of safe global emissions,
(g) The fact that climate change must be understood as a moral and ethical issue, an understanding that undermines the purely US self-interested economic arguments made by those who oppose action on climate change,
(h) The fact that it already too late to prevent climate-change caused grave suffering for some people in some parts of the world and that the world has lost over twenty years during which action could have been taken to reduce the now enormous threat,
(i) The fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s worst threats have never consented to be put at risk while the United States waits for absolute certainty. and
(j) The fact that each year the United States has waited to take action, the problem has become worse.
In summary, the Frontline program, although a welcome overdue US media analysis of the climate change disinformation campaign, fails to adequately explain why the disinformation campaign should be considered as some new kind of crime against humanity. The Frontline program give far to much attention to some of the climate deniers while failing to communicate adequately the strength of the consensus position.
Given what is at stake from climate change, ethics requires that those who want to discuss the uncertainties of climate change science must proceed with extreme care including limiting their claims to peer-reviewed science and not overstating the significance of individual studies. Skepticism in science is the oxygen of science and therefor is a good thing, but many of the tactics of the disinformation campaign are clearly not responsible skepticism. They are often deeply deceitful, ethically abhorrent disinformation.
Ethicsandclimate.org has looked at the disinformation campaign in considerable more detail than the issues covered in the Frontline program in a four part series:
The following video explains how US law on climate change must be upgraded to be consistent with a body of international law on climate change that has developed over the past 20 years as well as ethical obligations the United States has under law and ethical theory.
Debate about climate change policy in the United States has almost always assumed that US policy-makers can look to US economic interests alone in establishing US climate change policies. This video explains why US domestic law on climate change must be consistent with existing provisions of international law and US ethical obligations,
The site will soon post a written summary of the material in this video,
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.
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:
He did not know whether climate change was human caused.
Climate change is a global problem and the US should not spend huge amounts of money on a problem that is global in scope.
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.
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:
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.
For all these reasons, US presidential candidate Romney’s position on climate change fails to pass minimal ethical scrutiny.
Brown, Donald (2002) American Heat, Ethical Problems with The United States Response to Global Warming, Rowman and Littlefield, Lantham Maryland.
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]
This is the third in a three part video series that looks at the ethical obnoxiousness of the climate change disinformation campaign. All three of these are available on http://ethicsandclimate.org. The first in the series introduced the concept of the disinformation campaign that has been described in a rich sociological literature while explaining why this movement has been so ethically abhorrent. The second entry looked at some of the specific tactics of this campaign while distinguishing this phenomenon from responsible skepticism. This entry continues the examination of specific tactics and concludes with lessons learned about this disinformation campaign.
To view the other two videos in this series see the two proceeding entries on this website.
A much more detailed four part written analysis of the disinformation campaign is available on this website under the category of “climate disinformation.”
This is the second in a three part video series on why the climate change disinformation campaign is so utterly ethically offensive. The fist video in this series looked at the how the campaign was responsible for allowing greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations to rise from 320 ppm when warnings of the harsh impacts of climate change were articulated in the scientific community in the 1960s to 395 ppm now. This series distinguishes between scientific skepticism which is good and should be encouraged from the tactics of the disinformation campaign which are shown to be ethically odious.
This second video in the series looks at several of the tactics of the disinformation campaign in more depth and contrasts them with responsible skepticism.
A third video in the series will be posted soon that continues the examination of disinformation campaign tactics and then examines these tactics through an ethical lens. A detailed four part written series on the disinformation campaign can be found on EthicsandClimate.org under the category “climate disinformation.”
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law