Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Sunita Narain: Change of climate in the US

14629045_sunita_narain_250_rOb47_16613Editor’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.

epa_logoTherefore, 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.

Thenew book description for website-1_01 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.

By;

Sunita Narain

Ethical Issues with Relying on Natural Gas as a Solution to Climate Change

natural gas

 

Is Natural Gas Electricity Combustion A Solution to

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I. Introduction

Interest in tackling climate change in the United States has increased somewhat recently in response to global CO2 atmospheric concentrations reaching 400 ppm, although there is almost no hope of new federal legislation soon.  Many claims have been made recently that increased use of natural gas is an important element in any US response to climate change. In this regard, the natural gas industry has made a considerable effort to convince citizens that natural gas from hydraulic fracking is part of the solution to climate change. As an example, the following is from a gas industry website.

Because carbon dioxide makes up such a high proportion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, reducing carbon dioxide emissions can play a pivotal role in combating the greenhouse effect and global warming. The combustion of natural gas emits almost 30 % less carbon dioxide than oil, and just under 45 % less carbon dioxide than coal.

One issue that has arisen with respect to natural gas and the greenhouse effect is the fact that methane, the principle component of natural gas, is itself a potent greenhouse gas. Methane has an ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. According to the Energy Information Administration, although methane emissions account for only 1.1 % of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they account for 8.5 % of the greenhouse gas emissions based on global warming potential. Sources of methane emissions in the U.S. include the waste management and operations industry, the agricultural industry, as well as leaks and emissions from the oil and gas industry itself. A major study performed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Gas Research Institute (GRI), now Gas Technology Institute, in 1997 sought to discover whether the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from increased natural gas use would be offset by a possible increased level of methane emissions. The study concluded that the reduction in emissions from increased natural gas use strongly outweighs the detrimental effects of increased methane emissions.  More recently in 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University released “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas”, a report comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the Marcellus Shale region with emissions from coal used for electricity generation.  The authors found that wells in the Marcellus region emit 20 percent to 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal used to produce electricity.

(Naturalgas. org, 2013)

The interest in natural gas combustion as a potential solution to climate change has been gaining because US ghg emissions have fallen somewhat as natural gas from hydraulic fracturing technologies has been rapidly replacing coal in electricity sector generation.  In this regard, for instance, Reuters recently reported in regard to recent drops in US ghg emissions that:

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy use in the first quarter of this year fell to their lowest level in the U.S. in 20 years, as demand shifted to natural gas-fired generation from coal-fired electricity due to record low gas prices, the energy department said.

 (Reuters, 2012)

The US  natural gas industry has often argued that a switch to natural gas will significantly reduce ghg emissions from the electricity sector because natural gas emits almost 50 % less COper unit of energy produced than  coal combustion.  For this reason, natural gas is often referred to as a “bridge fuel.” (See, e.g, Kirkland)

The following chart shows the amount of pollutants including CO2 from natural  gas, oil, and coal combustion.

coalandnaturalgas

As we can see from this chart, natural gas combustion as a source of electricity generation produces about 70 % of the CO2 as oil and 56 % of the CO2 compared to coal without including methane leakage amounts, a matter discussed below. Yet controversies remain about whether natural gas should be understood as a solution to climate change and if so to what extent. This article first identifies the controversies and then reviews these issues through an ethical lens.

II. The Controversies

Two controversies about the efficacy of switching from coal to natural gas combustion in the production of electricity need to be resolved before conclusions on the beneficial effects of natural gas in reducing ghg emissions can be made. These controversies are: (a) Lingering issues about methane leakage rates, and (b) The inability of current natural gas combustion technology to achieve the magnitude of ghg emissions required to prevent dangerous climate change particularly in the medium- to long-term.

A. Unresolved Methane Leakage Rates

Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent ghg. Natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing is known to leak methane. It is usually assumed that replacing coal with gas would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as long as the leakage of methane into the air from gas production does not exceed 3.6%. (Reuters, 2012)  Yet significant controversies remain about actual methane leakage rates. In this regard recently there has been a flurry of conflicting papers about methane leakage rates from natural gas production. For instance, US EPA concluded that methane leakage was 2.4% of total natural-gas production in 2009. Other recent studies have found leakage rates of 4%  and 9% from hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado and Utah. (Tollefson, 2013)  As a result, no rational climate change action plan or ghg inventory should ignore controversies about methane leakage from hydraulic fracking operations. Until methane leakage rates are scientifically determined, any ghg inventory or projection of future emissions should identify the range of leakage rates that appear in the extant literature.  In addition to leakage rates from natural gas production facilities, methane leakage is also known to occur in natural gas transmission lines as well as from vehicles powered by natural gas and other end uses of natural gas. Therefore, actual methane leakage rates into the atmosphere from natural gas need to be based on the sum of leakage from all of these sources that include production, transmission, and end use.

Because methane leakage rate controversies are not yet resolved, any climate change action plan must be transparent about the limitations of predicting ghg emissions from natural gas consumption and fully identify all uncertainties about leakage rates.

(b) The Need To Move Aggressively To Non-Fossil Renewable Energy Even If Natural Gas Proves to Be A Short-Term Bridge Fuel

To understand why natural gas combustion in the electricity sector is not likely be an adequate solution to climate change in the  long-term, it is necessary to understand the scale of the problem facing the world. The international community agreed in climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in 2009 that the international community should limit warming to 2°C to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact, countries agreed to further assess whether the 2°C warming limit needs to be replaced by a more stringent 1.5°C warming limit to avoid dangerous climate change impacts. This conclusion was confirmed in climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010, in Durban in 2011, and in Doha in 2012. A 2°C warming limit was chosen because there is substantial scientific evidence that warming above 2°C could trigger rapid, non-linear climate change threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends. Even if rapid climate change is not triggered if the 2°C warming is exceeded, this amount of warming will create huge harms to some people and nations around the world. Stabilizing CO2 equivalent concentrations at 450 ppm would only result in a 50% likelihood of limiting global warming to 2°C, and that it would be necessary to achieve stabilisation below 400 ppm to give a relatively high certainty of not exceeding 2°C.  (Report of the Scientific Steering Committee of the International Symposium on the Stabilization of Greenhouse Gases)

Limiting warming to 2°C or less will require reductions in global ghg emissions below current emissions by as much as 80 percent by mid-century for the entire world and as we explained in the a recent article on “equity” at even greater reduction levels for most developed countries. (see On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.) 

And so, the challenge facing the world to limit future warming to tolerable levels is extraordinarily daunting and will likely require a level of global cooperation far beyond any other previous  human problem.

Stabilizing atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change requires immediate action. The entire world will need to peak its ghg emissions as soon as possible followed by emissions reductions at extraordinarily ambitious rates over the next 30 years. The longer it takes for world ghg emissions to peak and the higher ghg emissions levels are when peaking is achieved, the steeper global emissions reductions need to be to prevent dangerous levels of warming. The following chart shows the emissions reduction pathways that are needed in this century to give the world any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C, assuming global emissions continue to rise at current levels during the next few years.

three reductions pathways

(Anderson, 2012)

And so it is clear that the later the peaking of total global emissions, the steeper the reduction pathways that are needed.

Further scientific analysis may reveal that methane leakage rates may be small enough to provide climate change emissions reduction benefits when coal combustion of electricity production is replaced by natural gas combustion. As we have seen this is an ongoing controversy about which further scientific analysis is needed.  Still, as explained below, given the enormity of global reductions of ghg emissions that are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, natural gas is likely only to be a short-term bridge fuel. (IEA, 2012)

This is so because according to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, natural gas can play at best a limited, very temporary role “if climate objectives are to be met.” That is, greater ghg emissions reductions are needed to prevent 2°C warming than those that can be achieved by switching from coal to natural gas combustion. And so most observers argue that the only viable response to the threat of catastrophic climate change is rapid deployment of existing carbon-free technology. (IEA, 2012) Even if natural gas combustion creates a 50 percent less CO2 per unit of energy produced, an amount which is beyond best case on ghg emission reductions,  it will not produce the greater emissions reductions necessary in the next 30 years necessary to give any hope of restricting warming to potentially catastrophic levels.  In short, natural gas combustion cant get us where we need to be just a few decades out. It might help in the short term, but we need massive investment in non-fossil technology as soon as possible.

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

There  are also other significant benefits of moving quickly to non-fossil fuels. For instance, according to IEA report, fuel savings from investment in non-fossil fuel technologies will pay for the investments. (IEA, 2012)  Even if natural gas is a short-term bridge fuel, delay in investing in non-fossil fuel technologies may make it impossible to meet the emissions reductions targets needed to prevent dangerous climate change. For this reason, any climate action strategy must look at emissions reductions pathways beyond 2020 necessary to limit warming to 2oC and consider what amounts of non-fossil energy are needed through 2050. Because huge amounts of non-fossil energy will very likely be required to allow the United States and other developed nations reduce their  carbon foot-print to levels required to meet their fair share of safe global emissions, the more rapid the ramp up of non-fossil energy the easier it will be to reach acceptable ghg emissions levels in the years ahead.

Furthermore, the IEA report makes it clear that abundant cheap natural gas could push renewables out of the market unless there is a price on carbon or aggressive economic support for non-fossil renewable energy.  It is  also possible that cheaper natural gas prices may lead to higher rates of consumption of electricity creating higher CO2 emissions. For this reason, any reliance on natural gas combustion as a method of reducing CO emissions must provide for ramped up commitments to non-fossil fuel sources of energy at levels needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Reliance on natural gas alone will not achieve the 80%-95%  reductions required of developed nations to prevent dangerous climate change.

Barriers to much more aggressive use of non-fossil combustion appear to be a lack of political will coupled and arguments about prohibitively high costs of non-fossil energy. We will now examine these issues through an ethical lens.

III. Ethical Analysis of the Natural Gas and Climate Change Controversies

Natural gas hydraulic fracturing technologies have created issues about social and environmental impacts that are beyond the scope of this article. Here we more narrowly examine ethical questions raised by reliance on natural gas as a solution to climate change.

Depending on how the methane leakage controversy is resolved, switching from coal combustion to natural gas combustion could help lower ghg emissions from the electricity sector in the short term.  Given that the United States has strong ethical responsibilities to rapidly reduce its carbon footprint, a matter examined extensively in Ethicsandclimate.org, one might initially conclude that as a matter of ethics switching to natural gas from coal combustion is ethically justifiable as a short-term strategy. Yet, undeniably replacement of coal combustion with non-fossil energy would create a much greater reduction in the long run in the US carbon footprint than a shift to natural gas from coal combustion would alone.  As we noted above, objections to moving immediately to non-fossil energy are lack of political will and cost arguments. We  now look at these political and cost arguments through an ethical lens.

A. The United States and Other High-Emitting Nations Have A Duty to Reduce Their Carbon Footprint As Rapidly and Dramatically As Reasonably Possible

No reasonable ethical theory could justify current US projected ghg emissions, including projected reductions that are expected to come from increased substitution of coal with natural gas at least in the medium to long term. This is so for many reasons including, first, as we have explained in considerable detail in the recent article on climate change equity, US emissions far exceed global averages in per capita emissions, the US is by far the largest contributor to historical emission which have raised atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from approximately 280 ppm to 400 ppm, and the world is now running out of time to limit warming to non-dangerous levels. Because, as we have demonstrated in the recent article on “equity” and climate change, there are approximately 50 ppm of CO2 equivalent atmospheric space that remain to be allocated among all nations to give the world approximately a 50% chance of avoiding a 2oC warming and developing nations that have done little to elevate atmospheric CO2 to current levels need a significant portion of the remaining atmospheric space , high emitting developed nations need to reduce their emissions as fast as possible to levels that represent their fair share of the remaining acceptable global budget. (See On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.) For this reason, high-emitting nations have strong ethical duties to reduce their ghg emissions as fast as possible to their fair share of safe global emissions.  Without doubt, this means that the United States has an ethical duty to reduce emissions both in the short and long run faster than switching to natural gas combustion from coal sector will allow by itself.

As we have previously explained in EthicsandClimate.org there is now a scientific consensus that developed countries must limit their ghg emissions by as much as 25% to 40 % below 1990 emissions levels by 2020 and between 80% and 95% below1990 levels by 2050 to have any reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous climate change which would require atmospheric ghg concentrations to be stabilized at 450 ppm. (IPCC, 2007: 776)   (Also see, What You Need To Know to Understand the Scale of the Climate Change Problem and The Continuing US Press Failure to Report on the Urgency of this Civilization Challenging Threat) 

The actual amount of emissions reductions that are needed between now and 2020 is somewhat of a moving target depending on the level of uncertainty that society is willing to accept that a dangerous warming limit will be exceeded, the most recent increases in ghg emissions rates, and assumptions about when global ghg emissions peak before beginning rapid reduction rates.

One new study shows that we have to reduce emissions even more than scientists initially thought in order to avoid climate change’s worst impacts. A paper published in Energy Policy on February 20, 2013 by Michel den Elzen and colleagues examines new information on likely future emissions trajectories in developing countries.  (Ezden, 2013) As a result, the report finds that developed countries must reduce their emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2020 if we are to have a medium chance of limiting warming to 2°C, thus preventing some of climate change’s worst impacts.

As we have seen above, to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change the entire world will need to peak its emissions in the next few years followed by emissions reductions at hard to imagine rates over the next 30 years.

As we have also explained in EthicsandClimate. org, US reductions need to be much greater than average reduction levels required of the entire world as a matter of equity because the United States emissions are among the world’s highest in terms of per capita and historical emissions and there is precious little atmospheric space remaining for additional ghg emissions if the world is serious about avoiding dangerous climate change.  (See, What You Need To Know to Understand the Scale of the Climate Change Problem and The Continuing US Press Failure to Report on the Urgency of this Civilization Challenging Threat)

No matter what reasonable assumptions are made about carbon budgets that need to guide the world’s response to avoid dangerous climate change, as a matter of ethics, the US has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions both in the short and long run to levels much greater than switching to natural gas combustion from coal will accomplish by iteslf.

Even if switching to natural gas in the short term reduces the US carbon footprint somewhat, it is still not sufficient by itself to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations without other policy interventions including putting a price on carbon or rapid ramp up of renewable energy. Given that the natural gas is likely to reduce costs of electricity production, there is also some risk that with lower costs demand for electricity will increase which will undermine both incentives for finding increases in efficiency while raising ghg emissions levels. For this reason, the United States needs to create an emissions reduction target consistent with its obligations to the world. (See,  On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.)

Although ethical reflection on benefits of short term switching to natural gas reveals the above ethical questions, long-term reliance on natural gas as a climate change solution raises greater issues of ethical concern. This is so because although switching to natural  gas combustion from coal can reduce temporarily the US carbon footprint when coupled with the right policy measures, there is no hope that natural gas combustion alone can achieve the huge emissions reductions necessary to put the United States on an emissions reduction pathway that matches the US ethical obligations to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States urgently needs to adopt policies that will ramp up its use of non-fossil energy immediately. Investment in natural gas combustion could delay investment in non-fossil energy. Moreover the amount of non-fossil energy needed to put the US on an emissions reduction pathway consistent with its ethical obligations requires the United States to begin immediately as a matter of ethics. The longer the United States waits to move more aggressively to increase the share of non-fossil energy, the more difficult, if not impossible, it will be to meet non-fossil energy needs a few decades from now. And so as a matter of ethics a strong case can be made that the United States needs immediately to adopt policies designed to aggressively increase levels of  non-fossil energy.

And so if political will is a barrier to greater use of non-fossil energy, politicians resisting greater commitment to non-fossil energy are most likely supporting positions that fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

The fact that much greater US commitments to renewable energy are feasible is demonstrated by looking at achievements of other nations.  Germany, for instance, has set a goal of 100% renewable energy in its electricity sector by 2050. (The Gaurdian, 2010) Germany’s Environment Agency’s study found that switching to 100 % green electricity by 2050 would have economic advantages, especially for the vital export-oriented manufacturing industry (The Gaurdian, 2010) It would also create tens of thousands of jobs.

B. Ethical Analysis of Cost Arguments In Opposition to Non-Fossil Electricity Generation

There are many factual issues that could be contested in regard to any argument that switching to a non-fossil  fuel future is cost-prohibitive. As we have seen, for instance, Germany claimd that an aggressive move to a non-fossil future has economic benefits. (For a good discussion of economic arguments for aggressive policies in support of renewable energy see, Germany Energy Transition, Henric Boll, 2012)

Cost arguments made in opposition to aggressive policies in support of a non-fossil future many not only be challenged on a factual basis but also on an ethical basis.  There are several ethical issues raised by such cost arguments that have been extensively looked at in prior articles in EthicsandClimate.org. These ethical issues include

  •  Cost arguments are often deeply ethically problematic because they ignore duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to reduce ghg emissions. That is, cost arguments usually appeal to matters of self-interest and ignore responsibilities to others including the tens of millions of poor people around the world that are already suffering from climate change impacts or who are much more vulnerable to much harsher climate change impacts in the future than the United States is.
  •  Cost arguments are ethically problematic if they fail to examine the costs of non-action and only consider the costs to high emitters of reducing ghg emissions. Given that most economists now believe that costs of non-action far exceed costs of reducing the threat of climate change, costs considerations that only consider costs to polluters are both deeply ethically troublesome and radically incomplete.
  • Costs arguments may not be made against climate change policies if greenhouse gas emissions lead to serious human rights violations of victims who have not consented to be put at risk.
  • Cost arguments often translate all values to economic values measured in markets and thereby transform some things that victims hold have sacred value into commodity value.
  • Cost arguments usually ignore questions of distributive justice while arguing that government policy should be based upon maximizing economic efficiency or utility.  Distributive justice issues that are frequently ignored by the use of cost arguments to oppose climate policy include the fact that costs would be imposed on those who are causing the problem yet the victims of climate change that would benefit from taking action are some of the poorest people around the world that have done little to cause the problem
  • Cost arguments usually ignore issues of procedural justice including the right of victims to consent to being put at risk to climate change impacts.
  • Cost arguments alone usually ignore well settled norms of international law including the “polluter pays” and “no harm” principles that the United States and almost all other nations have agreed to in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In conclusion, we have identified strong ethical arguments that support the need to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion in the United States and other developed countries while implicitly acknowledging that there could be some short-term benefit if coal combustion is replaced by natural gas, a conclusion that only can be reached with better understanding of the methane leakage issues. Yet even if there is some short-term benefit from substituting natural gas for coal combustion, there is no ethical basis for doing this without simultaneously aggressively ramping up non-fossil fuel electricity combustion.  We note that some in the natural gas industry and their political  supporters continue to oppose policies designed to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion at the same time claiming that natural gas is a solution to climate change. Because the failure to ramp up non-fossil fuel combustion Under the circumstances discussed in this article,  such opposition is ethically problematic.

By:

Donald A Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

Why Politicians May Not Ethically Rely on Their Own Uninformed Opinion About Climate Science and 10 Questions That The Press Should Ask Politicians About Climate Science In Light of This Responsibility.

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.

(UNFCCC, Art 3)

 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?

By:

dabrown57@gmail.com

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

 

 

What You Need To Know to Understand the Scale of the Climate Change Problem and The Continuing US Press Failure to Report on the Urgency of this Civilization Challenging Threat

 

Climate Change Is  Real, Yet The US Press Is Not Reporting On The Urgency and Magnitude of the Problem

 

One can tell by how climate change policies are being debated around much of the world that few people, including many very educated people,  understand the scale and urgency of the problem now being articulated by the most prestigious scientific international institutions.  In this writer’s experience this is true not only of average citizens but also of most college students and academics that are not enrolled in climate science courses and by almost all press that periodically reports on this issue.

This entry describes what needs to be understood to evaluate the adequacy of the US response to climate change although the analysis contained here could be applied to almost any nation in the world. This is so because the adequacy of any national response to climate change must now be examined in light of the scale of the problem, yet few people understand the magnitude and urgency of this enormous threat.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and reports that 2012 was the warmest year in US history, climate change has been more visible in the US press recently.  Yet despite this increased attention, for the most part, the urgency and magnitude of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions entailed by the mainstream scientific understanding of this civilization challenging problem is not being covered by the US press.

In fact, some of the recent climate change reporting could be understood as actually misleading US citizens that the United States is making acceptable progress in reducing the threat of climate change. For instance, a Scientific American Report of October 2012 was titled: “U.S. May Come Close to 2020 Greenhouse Gas Emission Target“. This article said that the United States is likely to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 16.3 % from 2005 levels by 2020, falling just shy of the 17 % target pledged by President Obama at the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Other projections of US emissions have found, however, that although the US emissions are dropping compared to 2005, it is not likely that the US will come close to achieving the 17% reduction goal without further legislative action because current reductions will lead a best to a 9% reduction by 2020. (See, for instance, WRI report)

For instance, the following graph from the World Resources Institute includes a projection of future US greenhouse emissions that predict US emissions will flatten out above the 17 % reduction goal by 2020.

(WRI, 2012)

Some media reporting on US emissions reductions leave the false impression that the United States is performing well in meeting its responsibilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because it is possible for the US to come close to meeting a US commitment made in Copenhagen in 2009 to reduce its emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions.  Missing from such reports is an analysis of projected US emissions reductions compared to the magnitude of global greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic warming and the limited amount of time that the international community has to put global emissions on a reduction pathway that has some hope of avoiding rapid non-linear climate change.  That is, to evaluate the US performance in reducing its greenhouse emissions one must compare US emissions both at existing and future commitment levels with what is needed globally to avoid harsh impacts.

The following chart shows the emissions reduction commitments individual nations have made thus far including the United States and what emissions are projected if the United States meets its projected target (there are two numbers shown on this chart for each commitment to take into consideration certain contingencies).

 

(UNEP 2012)

This chart shows that the US commitment is among the lowest emissions reductions from 1990 levels compared to other developed nations.

The following chart compares total emissions from major national emitters  in regard to 1990, 2005, 2010, business as usual,  and projected emissions in 2020 and projected based upon emissions reduction commitments.

Although China will soon be emitting total emissions at levels twice as much as the United States, the following chart demonstrates that the US will still lead even China in per capita emissions.

To make sense of the performance on greenhouse gas emissions of any nation one must understand the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic warming.

The international community has agreed that future warming should be limited to 2 degrees C because greater warming is believed to create a risk of passing tipping points in the climate system that will trigger rapid increased warming with devastating consequences. Given this there is now a strong scientific consensus that the entire global community must limit its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 25% to 40 % below 1990 emissions levels by 2020 to have any reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous climate change and that global emissions are still increasing between 2% and 3% per year, the challenge to the international community in regard to magnitude of emissions reductions needed is staggering. And so any national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must now be evaluated by examining whether the commitment is ambitious enough to prevent dangerous climate change given what is the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions.  A simple comparison of the US commitment with needed global emissions reductions clearly reveals that the US promise is woefully and utterly inadequate.  That is, the US commitment of 17%  below 2005 emissions is only a 4% reduction below 1990 emissions levels making it among the weakest of the developed nations’ promises to reduce emissions and far below of global emissions reductions needed to prevent rapid climate change.

Moreover, to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change the entire world will need to peak its emissions  in the next few years followed by emissions reductions at hard to imagine rates over the next 40 years. The following chart shows the emissions reduction pathways that are needed in this century to give the world any hope of limiting warming to 2 degrees Centigrade. The later the peaking of global total emissions, the steeper the reduction pathways that are needed. (The different colored lines represent different emissions scenarios in the years ahead)

 

(Anderson, K.  2011)

 

And so, the US projected emissions reductions fall far short of the 25 to 40 %  emissions reductions below 1990 levels by 2020 that are likely necessary to put the world on a pathway that gives any hope of limiting warming to the dangerous 2 degree C warming limit that has been agreed to. Furthermore there is some inconclusive evidence that to prevent dangerous climate change the warming limit should be 1.5 degrees C, a matter that will  be investigated under the UNFCCC in the next few years.

If a 1.5 degrees C warming limit should be the goal of the international community rather than 2 degree C, the international community will need to dramatically increase it emissions reductions ambitions to hard to imagine levels.  In fact, all of the commitments made by all nations under the UNFCCC fall far short of the emissions levels necessary to prevent the 2 degree C warming limit . The following chart describes the gap between the emissions reductions commitments that nations have been made under the UNFCCC.

 

According to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Program, to have any chance of limiting warming to 2 degree C total levels in 2020 must be no greater than 44 GtCO2e (with a range of: 41-47 GtCO2e). Afterwards, global emissions must steeply decline (a median of 2.5% per year, with a range of 2.0% to 3.0% per year) to 2050.

Because current global greenhouse gas emissions, based on 2010 data,  are estimated at 50.1 GtCO2e the world is emitting emissions 14% higher than the median estimate (44 GtCO2e) of the emission level in 2020 needed to have any hope of limiting warming to the 2 degree C target and global emissions are currently increasing at 2 to 3% per year, the world is running out time to prevent dangerous climate change.  (UNEP, 2011).

The following chart demonstrates the enormity of the challenge after 2020 to limit warming to 2 or 1.5 degrees Centigrade.

(CAN presentation)

Not only must global greenhouse gas emissions be reduced at difficult to imagine rates to avoid dangerous climate change, the United States must exceed these global reduction rates for two reasons according to any sense of basic fairness. First, US per capita emissions are among the highest in the world as we have seen above.  Second, the United States also exceeds all countries in the world in historical emissions. The following chart shows the proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions being emitted by the United States since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

 

Therefore the US will clearly need to reduce its emissions to even greater levels than those required of the entire world because its per capita emissions are higher than almost all nations and its historical emissions have disproportionally contributed to the elevated atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations already causing some climate change harms. And so, the United States is challenged to make rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions greater than most any other country. This is not only an ethical obligation, it is foundational to any hope of avoiding harsh climate change.

The US media has utterly failed to report on the scale of this challenge. Educators around the world have also largely failed to educate civil society about the urgency of action on climate change. To minimize the threat of climate change, the world needs an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to climate change that is mindful of the scale of the challenge.

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail. com

 

Qatar Climate Change Negotiations: An Open Letter To US President Obama From the World’s Poorest Nations.

I. Introduction

Over the next few weeks EthicsandClimate.org will be focusing on the upcoming Qatar climate negotiations, the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP-18) that will be held from November 26th to December 7th. In future entries, we will discuss in detail COP-18′s progress in achieving a global solution to climate change particularly to see the extent to which this meeting makes progress on the following minimum criteria for any post-Kyoto agreement that ethics requires.  That is, we will examine whether the Qatar proceedings:

  • Obtain commitments on  greenhouse emissions reductions sufficient to assure that the international community is on a greenhouse gas emissions reduction pathway that will prevent dangerous climate change. This is sometimes referred to as the environmental sufficiency criteria.
  •  Begin to base differences among national allocations on the basis of equity and justice. This is sometimes referred to as the equity criteria.
  • Assure that those responsible for climate change provide adequate and predictable adaptation funding to enable developing countries, and in particular the most vulnerable developing countries,  to do what is necessary to avoid climate change damages in cases where it is possible to take action and to prevent damages, or be compensated for climate change damages in cases where it is impossible to take protective action. We refer to this as the just adaptation criteria.

As we have argued in the past on EthicsandClimate, the success of any global approach to climate change depends upon the extent to which those countries with the largest emissions are willing to make  significant commitments particularly in regard to the three criteria identified above although there are many other issues that will arise in the international climate negotiations that Ethicsanclimate.org  will follow. In this regard, the United States in an indispensable element in any satisfactory international climate change regime. For this reason, we begin this analysis of the Qatar COP with the following open letter from some of the world’s poorest countries to US President Obama that was published in the Guardian.

II. Open Letter to US President Obama

Dear President Obama:

As the lead negotiator for the world’s 48 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the United Nations climate change negotiations, I congratulate you on your re-election. I also want to express my admiration for your response to superstorm Sandy: without the preparations that you made, the impacts to those hit by the storm would have been even more devastating. As communities in the north-east work to rebuild and recover, the world has an opportunity to begin a new, reality-based conversation about climate change.

I write with a simple request: as this discussion continues in the world’s most developed countries, remember those who live in its poorest regions. Remember that as a result of climate change, this kind of fatal weather event has become commonplace for us while we lack the infrastructure and resources to adequately protect our citizens.

As researchers at Brown University’s climate and development lab have shown, climate-related disasters such as droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, and hurricanes have caused an estimated 1.3 million deaths since 1980. Two-thirds of these deaths (over 909,000) occurred in the least developed countries. We are only 12% of the world’s population, but we suffer the effects of climate-related disasters more than five times as much as the world as a whole.

Given this reality and your early commitment to leading a science-directed discussion about the changing climate, I was surprised that you only mentioned climate change in your re-election campaign a few times, and not once in your three debates with Mitt Romney. We know that 70% of US citizens now recognise the reality of human-caused climate change. As the world’s largest economy, the US has a unique opportunity and responsibility to take bold action on this issue. Indeed, the wellbeing of the citizens of your nation and mine depends on your ability to lead at this critical juncture. It is time to end the climate silence.

Later this month, representatives of the world’s nations will meet in Doha, Qatar, for the annual negotiations on the UN climate change treaty. When you were first elected president, your words gave us hope that you would become an international leader on climate change. But you have not lived up to this promise. The framework that you put in place sets the planet on course to warm dangerously, and delays action until 2020 – this will be too late. This year’s meeting in Qatar may be our last chance to put forward a new vision and plan to reverse this course. Your legacy, and the future of our children and grandchildren depend on it. We ask you to lead in two ways.

First, join with the European Union, the LDCs and the Alliance of Small Island States in taking on ambitious national commitments to reduce climate pollution. Go beyond the commitments that you made in Copenhagen in 2009. The climate is changing faster than we thought, and we must respond with increased ambition.

Second, provide adequate funding to help the LDCs and other vulnerable nations to adapt to this new climate reality. In 2010, the wealthiest countries directed about $1.5bn to help developing countries adapt to a changing climate. Over the same period, they spent over $400bn subsidising fossil fuel industries. They gave the main contributors to human-caused climate change more than 250 times the support they offered those whom it harms most.

Countries from Gambia and Haiti, to Malawi and Bangladesh need the “predictable and adequate” funding promised in Copenhagen so that they can take simple steps to protect their citizens. This means moving drinking water and irrigation wells away from coasts, where saltwater is intruding into aquifers; it includes developing drought-resistant crops and helping small farmers in fragile, semi-arid regions survive. We have to prepare roads and cities, villages and farms for floods, hurricanes and heat waves. We need to equip people with the weather prediction, early warning systems and emergency response that citizens of the developed countries take for granted.

With 20 years of international climate change negotiations behind us, there is simply no longer time or cause for wealthy countries to continue to stall in taking real action to fulfill the promises they have made. Having the wealthy nations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions steeply is fundamental, but helping the poorest of us cope with its impacts is an immediate necessity.

Mr President, remind the world that the devastation of climate change is shared by all its citizens. Remember that this reality is changeable. Make changing it your legacy.

Pa Ousman Jarju is the chair of the Least Developed Countries group at the UN climate change negotiations.

(Guardian, 2012)

References:

The Guardian, (2012)  An Open Letter to Obama From the World’s Poorest Countries,  http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2012/nov/08/obama-climate-change-poorest-countries

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com.

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

 

 

(CBS News, 2012)

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

The Grave US Media Failure to Report On The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign

I. Introduction

This is the sixth in a series of articles that examines tragic 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/

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

II. The US Media Failure to Educate American Citizens About The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign

For over 30 years, there has been a debate about climate change that most Americans are at least dimly aware of.  In this debate, sometimes those opposed to action on climate change are characterized as climate “skeptics.” Skepticism is the oxygen and catalyst of science and should be encouraged. Yet most Americans are completely unaware that a well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign has been operating for over two decades that has used tactics which cannot be classified as responsible skepticism. In fact, this campaign has been engaged in tactics that are deeply ethically abhorrent. To the extent that the US mainstream press has covered this controversy, it has reported on disputes between mainstream climate scientists and scientific skeptics and in so doing ignoring the ethically abhorrent tactics of the disinformation campaign discussed in this article and at the same time giving opposition to climate change policy legitimacy that the disinformation campaign does not deserve because its tactics cannot be understood as responsible skepticism. Also, as we have described in considerable detail in a prior entry, the mainstream press has utterly failed to cover the strength of the climate change scientific consensus position on climate change.

This disinformation campaign has largely been responsible that the United States failure to enact comprehensive climate change policies. Given the enormity, harshness, and destructiveness of climate change impacts, the duties that high-emitting countries like the United States have to not harm hundreds of millions of people around the world who are vulnerable to climate change, and the fact that the world has now lost several decades in finding a solution to climate change at a time when the world may be running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the failure of the US media to report on the nature of this campaign to the American people is a grave, tragic, and profound failure.

There is a growing peer-reviewed sociological literature on the disinformation campaign which describes this phenomenon as a counter-movement. (See, for example, McCright and Dunlap 2000: 559) A counter-movement is a social movement that has formed in reaction to another movement. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 504.) The climate change disinformation campaign can be understood to be a continuation of the counter-movements that arose among US political conservatives in reaction to the environmental, civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements that arose in the 1960′s in the United States. And so, the climate change disinformation campaign’s methods and processes can be understood to be an extension of strategies that had already been developed among some, although not all, conservatives to counter the environmental movement that had developed in the late 1960s and 1970s around other environmental issues such as air and water pollution, safe disposal of waste and toxic substances, and protection of wetlands and endangered species.

Yet the emergence of global warming as an issue in the 1980s with its potential for large-scale social change needed to ameliorate its threat was seen as more threatening to conservatives in regard to industry, prosperity, life-style, and the entire American-way of life, than were traditional pollution problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 503) In other words, climate change directly threatened the central values of the US conservative movement even more than other environmental problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 505) As a result climate change has become the key environmental focus of the US conservative movement.

In addition there have been some American industries whose welfare depends upon fossil fuel use have also participated in the disinformation campaign by funding this effort. The climate change disinformation movement can be understood to be comprised of many organizations and participants including conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, conservative media, and individuals. This disinformation campaign frequently has used certain tactics to convince people and politicians that the science supporting climate change policies is flawed. The central claims of the climate change disinformation movement have been:

• There is no warming.
• Its not caused by humans.
• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will cause more harm than good.
(McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)

To support these claims, the climate denial machine frequently has made claims that: (a) mainstream climate scientists are corrupt or liars, (b) descriptions of adverse climate change impacts are made by “alarmists,” (c) scientific journals that publish climate related research are biased against skeptics, and (d)  mainstream climate science is “junk” science. The climate change disinformation machine also has made frequent ad hominem attacks on those who produce climate change science and sometimes has cyber-bullied both climate scientists and journalists.  In summary, the climate change disinformation campaign has engaged in these tactics and others identified in this paper that may not be classified as responsible skepticism, yet the US media has covered this campaign as if it was the output of reasonable scientific  skepticism.

The climate change disinformation campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists and organizations that fought government regulation of tobacco began to apply the tactics perfected in their war on the regulation of tobacco to climate change. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215). According to Pooley the disinformation campaign began “spinning around 1988 in response to the increasingly outspoken scientific community…” (Pooley 2010: 39) For almost 25 years this campaign has been waged to undermine support for regulation of greenhouse gases.

To say that the campaign has been “waged” is not to claim that it has been a tightly organized, completely coordinated effort by a few groups or individuals or that all participants have the same motives. In fact different participants may have radically different motives including the fact that some may be sincere, some appear to be motivated by protecting free markets without government intervention, and many appear to believe that no restriction on fossil fuel use can be justified without very high levels of proof of harms. Yet, these different participants, according to Newsweek, since the 1990s for the most part have acted in a well-coordinated campaign among contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry to create a fog of doubt around climate change. (Begley 2007) They have accomplished this through the production of advertisements, op-eds, lobbying, books, media attention, and quotations from skeptical scientists often associated with conservative think tanks. They have argued first that the world is not warming, measurements that indicate otherwise are flawed, any warming is natural, that is not caused by human activities, and if warming does occur it will be miniscule and harmless. (Begley 2007)

Different groups created this counter-movement often acting independently of each other, yet connected through the internet to create a denial machine that has effectively responded to any public pronouncement by scientists or journalists that have asserted that human-induced climate change is a serious problem. (Begley 2007) Conservative activists wrote hundreds of documents (including policy briefs, books, press releases, and op-eds), held numerous policy forums and press conferences, appeared regularly on television and radio programs, and testified at congressional hearings on global warming. (Dunlap and McCright 2008)

As a result of the internet communication between participants in this campaign, charges by one of the participants have been quickly transmitted to others creating an echo chamber of counter-claims made in opposition to the mainstream scientific view of climate change.

The disinformation campaign’s most important participants have been conservative think tanks according to the sociological literature. (Jaques et al 2008) As we shall see, these think tanks developed the ideas, communications and media strategies, literature and press releases that have been widely deployed in rhetorical strategies to defend conservative interests by creating doubt about mainstream climate change scientific claims.

Initially most of the funding for this disinformation campaign came from fossil fuel interests and corporations whose products produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. On October 21, 2010, John Broder of the New York Times reported that:

“the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” (Broder 2010)

According to Broder, the fossil fuel industry has:

“created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.” (Broder 2010)

Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel industry funded many of the initial efforts to prevent adoption of climate change policies. Both individual corporations such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, as well as industry associations such as American Petroleum Institute, Western Fuels Associations, and Edison Electric Institute provided funding for individual contrarian scientists, conservative think tanks active in climate change denial, and a host of front groups that we will discuss below. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:148)

Although the initial funding in the campaign may have come from certain corporations, McCright and Dunlap argue that recently conservative, free-market, and anti-regulatory ideology and organizations have been the main forces fueling the denial machine first and foremost. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)

According to Dunlap and McCright the glue that holds the elements of the climate disinformation campaign together is a shared hatred for government regulation of private industry. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so, a staunch commitment to free markets and a disdain for government regulation are the ideas that most unite the climate denial community. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)

The mainstream conservative movement, embodied in conservative foundations and think tanks, quickly joined forces with the fossil fuel industry (which recognized very early the threat posed by recognition of global warming and the role of carbon emissions) and wider sectors of corporate America to oppose the threat of global warming, not as an ecological problem, but as a problem for unbridled economic growth. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so the disinformation campaign has been a movement that has been waged both by conservative organizations and some corporations.

To use the word “campaign” is not meant to connote an organized conspiracy led by one or a few entities who coordinate all actors, but rather a social movement that creates widespread, predictable, and strong opposition to climate change policy and that consistently uses scientific uncertainty arguments as the basis of its opposition. This movement is a campaign in the sense that it is a systematic response of aggressive actions to defeat proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions even though no one organization is coordinating all other organizations or individuals that participate in responses. And although some of the actors may be sincere, the tactics discussed in this article are, as we shall see, ethically reprehensible.

Those engaged in this disinformation campaign can be distinguished from responsible climate skeptics because the climate change denial campaign is a collective social movement run by professional advocacy working to discredit climate change.” (Hoffman 2011: 5) As such, this movement is not engaged in reasonable scientific skepticism but advocacy that stresses scientific uncertainty. In fact McCright and Dunlap summarize the disinformation machine as having been engaged on misrepresenting, manipulating, and suppressing climate change research results. (McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)

Although almost all of the disinformation campaign led opposition to climate change policies has been on the basis of inadequate scientific grounding for action, scientific arguments are usually coupled with economic arguments such as claims that climate change policies will destroy jobs, hurt specific industries, lower GDP, or are not justified by cost-benefit analysis.
Although these economic arguments often have their own ethical problems, a series on Ethicsandclimate.org has examined in considerable detail the ethical problems with tactics used by the disinformation campaign that rely on scientific uncertainty arguments.

The original organizations that sought to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty have expanded to include ideological think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups (i.e. groups organized by industry that pretend to be a legitimate grassroots organization), and PR firm-led campaigns. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215)
The tactics deployed by this campaign are now all well documented in the books and peer-reviewed sociological literature identified in the Appendix to this article. The tactics used by the climate change disinformation campaign have included the following ethically abhorrent tactics:

  • Lying or reckless disregard for the truth
  • Cherry picking the science
  • Cyber-bullying and ad hominem attacks on scientists and journalists
  • Manufacturing bogus, non-peer-reviewed science in fake conferences and publications
  • The use of ideological think tanks
  • The use of front groups that hide the real parties in interest
  • The use of fake grass-roots organizations known as Astroturf groups
  • Specious claims about “bad science” that are based upon the dubious assumption that no conclusions in science can be made until everything is proven with high levels of certainty.

EthicsandClimate.org has described this in a four part paper series and a three part video series that has demonstrated that these tactics are ethically abhorrent.

The four part written series can be found at:

1. Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Introduction to a Series.

2.Ethical Analysis of the Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Reckless Disregard for the Truth, (2) Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns, (3) Specious Claims of “Bad” Science, and (4) Front Groups.

3.Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Think Tanks, (2) PR Campaigns, (3) Astroturf Groups, and (4) Cyber-Bullying Attacks.

4. Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

 The three part video series can be found at:

Why The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Is So Ethically Abhorrent

The Ethical Abhorrence of The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 2

The Ethical Abhorrence of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 3

Although the mainstream US media has sometimes but infrequently covered the disinformation campaign, missing from their coverage has been:

(a) A stronger sense of the strength of the consensus view on climate change, (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 description of 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.

(c) 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,

(d) 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.

(e) The fact that for each year the United States has waited to take action, the problem has become worse.

Given what is at stake from climate change, the failure of the US media to cover the disinformation campaign is a tragic, profound, and grave error.  The mainstream US media has not only failed to cover this campaign, it has treated it as if it was reasonable scientific skepticism giving it a legitimacy that has increased its influence.

References:

Begley, S. (2007) Global Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine, Newsweek, http://msl1.mit.edu/furdlog/docs/2007-08-13_newsweek_global_warming_denyers.pdf (visited Jan. 13, 2011)

Boycoff, J. and M. Boycoff (2004) Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias
Creating Controversy Where Science Finds Consensus Fair,
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1978

Broder, John, (2010) Climate Change Doubt Is Tea Party Article of Faith, New York Times, October 21, 2009, http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html?sort=newest&offset=2

 

Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2008) A Widening Gap: Republican and Democratic Views on Climate Change. Environment 50 (September/October):26-35.

Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2010) Climate Change Denial: Sources, Actors and Strategies Pp. 240-259 in Constance Lever-Tracy (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society London: Routledge.

Hoffman, Andrew J. (2011) Talking Past Each Other? Cultural Framing of Skeptical and Convinced Logics in the Climate Change Debate, Organization & Environment 24:3-33.

Jacques, Peter, Riley E. Dunlap, and Mark Freeman (2008) The Organization of Denial: Conservative Think Tanks and Environmental Skepticism, Environmental Politics 17:349-385.

McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2000) Challenging Global Warming as a Social Problem: An Analysis of the Conservative Movement’s Counter-Claims, Social Problems 47:499-522.

McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2010) Anti-Reflexivity: The American Conservative Movement’s Success in Undermining Climate Science and Policy, Theory, Culture and Society 26:100-133.

Oreskes, Naiomi and Erik Conway (2010) Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloosmbury Press, New York.

Pooley, E. (2010) Climate Wars, True Believers, Power Broakers and The Fight to Save the Earth, Hyperion, New York

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

The Grave US Media Failure to Communicate About The Consistent Barrier That The United States Has Been To Finding A Global Solution to Climate Change.

I. Introduction

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/

This is the fourth paper that examines in more detail the issues briefly examined in the video. In previous entries we examined the failure of the US media to communicate about: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change, (b) the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change, and (c) the practical significance for policy that follows from understanding climate change as essentially an ethical problem.  In this paper we look at the failure of the US media help educate US citizens about the consistent barrier that the US has been in international climate negotiations that have sought for over twenty years to find a global solution to prevent harsh climate change impacts.

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 hope to 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.

References:

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.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

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

I. Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is climate change fundamentally an ethical problem?

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

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

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

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

If climate change is an ethical problem, then:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

In Praise and Criticism of the PBS Frontline Program, Climate of Doubt

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 Doubt explains 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:

1. Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Introduction to A Series Series.

2.Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Reckless Disregard for the Truth, (2) Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns, (3) Specious Claims of “Bad” Science, and (4) Front Groups.

3.Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Think Tanks, (2) PR Campaigns, (3) Astroturf Groups, and (4) Cyber-Bullying Attacks.

4. Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

Ethicsandclimate has also produced a video on why the climate change disinformation campaign is so ethically abhorrent. See. Why the Climate Change Is So Ethically Abhorrent.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of  Law

dabrown57@gmail.com