Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Degrees of Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe

Editors Note: The following entry has been written by guest bloger, Michael Hoexter. This entry was first published on the Web Site New Economic Perspectives on February 27, 2014. We republish this article with permission of the author because it contains a number of excellent points about the ethical dimensions of climate change particularly in regard to who should be understood to be responsible for the failure of the United States to take adequate action on climate change. This analysis concludes that different parties should be differentially responsible for inaction on climate change. In addition, the article makes several compelling arguments for the urgent practical need to understand climate change as an ethical and moral problem. The article also explains why government action on climate change is indispensable to an adequate climate change solution, that is, why market solutions such as cap and trade or even carbon taxes will not alone create an adequate US response to climate change.  

ethics-nuclear

Degrees of Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe

The climate crisis is an event with such profound personal and broadly social moral implications that many shy away from discussing the crisis itself let alone its ethical aspects. Via our society’s use of fossil fuels we are, if our combustion of these fuels remains unchecked and in addition we further destroy the carbon fixing capacity of natural systems, destroying almost all wealth, the likelihood of their being future civilizations, and even the possibility for existence for future generations. To continue ignoring climate change and effective climate action is definitely an après moi le deluge stance, an expression of callousness and self-absorption unsupportable by moral justification. Morality and ethics is here not an exotic preoccupation of a select group but a basic reality-check: does what we are doing make sense and promote the general ends to which these activities are devoted? How do we assess our own agency and role and those of others, in events that are occurring around us and will with very high likelihood exacerbate in the future?

In addition to the lulling effects of the organized climate denial industry as well as propaganda for fossil fuels broadcast in all media channels, one of the difficulties facing climate change activism is that, taking effective, durable action is not primarily an individual phenomenon but a massive group enterprise, ideally with full participation and leadership by governments. It is difficult for people to understand how a sense of personal ethical obligation, which people may or may not feel, can translate into effective action, given the uncertainties and variability of the participation of others and of the varying, non-existent, or contrary commitments of social institutions to the necessary changes in our energy system. With some justification, people on the ground believe they are, in their isolation, too small and insignificant to remake the energy basis of society and the economy.

Also, because the way to effective climate action is not clearly in mind, people who do not feel themselves to be in positions of power or influence might resent people pointing out, as I am doing now, their role, moral or otherwise, regarding climate change. We are living in an age where people feel that ethical appeals, more generally, are felt to be a hindrance to living one’s life unencumbered by obligations to others, that ethics competes with and impedes the light sense of freedom that is one of the sought-after states of mind in our time. Often this sense of freedom is defined by many throughout the developed and developing world as a choice of a variety of consumer goods for immediate or near-term consumption. The attachment to near-term pleasures can even turn into a form of climate nihilism, a philosophical rejection of ethics in favor of sensuous pleasure über alles. Nihilism’s formal severance from ethical considerations in turn leads ultimately to an acceptance or enactments of varying degrees of psychopathy/sociopathy and eventually to the collapse of civilization.

new book description for website-1_01As of late, the North American climate action movement and outspoken climate scientists such as Michael Mann have focused on counteracting the massive propaganda and obfuscation campaign that has delayed climate action. Fingers have been pointed at the fossil fuel industries and their role in creating clouds of doubt and confusion around the findings of climate science, while continuing to profit from climate change denial and or fossil fuel addiction. The climate movement is pointing out that unconventional fossil fuel extraction techniques (fracking, tar sands excavation, deep-water drilling, mountaintop removal coal mining) are leaving or will leave toxic wastes and scars on the landscape as the fossil fuel industry gouges and lacerates the earth in search of combustible fossil resources. The freight rail network in North America is being turned into a conduit for crude oil from the landlocked Canadian tar-sands and the Bakken Shale, as construction timelines and permitting decisions are awaited for new pipelines. It appears that conventional oil has reached its peak and is, as well, controlled by sovereign oil companies not the oil majors.

Local groups and national environmental organizations are attempting to combat fracking operations, pipeline build-out and crude-by-rail programs either by reference to their local damages and risks, or too little, in my opinion, via reference to the impact of these activities on global warming. I am active in groups that are focused on halting the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industries including the Keystone XL pipeline and yet the climate movement is still figuring out how a focus on local damages and pollution translate to action on the global long-term issue. The phrase “leave it in the ground” has started to gain currency, though it appears not have yet become the central demand of any national campaign. Recently, activists in our area have created the slogan “NIMBY => NOPE” (“’Not in My Back Yard’ to ‘Not on Planet Earth’”).

While some of the defenders of the fossil fuel industries deny climate change, there are others like President Obama and those who support his energy policy, who simultaneously admit that climate change is a problem and continue encouraging the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and therefore its ongoing use. The MSNBC commentator Ed Schultz, known as a progressive, has voiced support for the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline as does his frequent guest, the supposed progressive and would-be challenger to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for President in 2016, former Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana. Schultz, to his credit, has been devoting considerable time on his air to the issue of the pipeline, and may be reconsidering his stance. As another MSNBC commentator, Chris Hayes, points out, the stance of Obama and others, that they are against global warming but for the building of new pipelines, are the protestations of fossil fuel addicts, who haven’t yet confronted their addiction.

And it is and will be very difficult for us, particularly here in North America, to confront our fossil fuel addiction as well as lessen our impact on the climate more generally, individually and also as a society as a whole. We are, all of us, in various positions along a continuum of lesser to greater individual or family climate virtue, whether by intention, by pre-existing preference, or by level of means, though in the developed societies, we are as individuals and families bunched towards the less virtuous end of the spectrum in terms of the stability of the climate. However, as many people know, individual and familial efforts even if all of us were paragons of climate virtue within our various means, do not add up to the systemic changes required to cut emissions on a grand scale across the economy. The vision of climate action as simply the accumulation of individual and familial choices overlooks the importance of public goods like infrastructure and the design and locations of cities and towns, which can only be changed by government action or other coordinated collective means. This fact alone reveals that market-based instruments (either cap and trade or carbon taxes) are more likely auxiliary policies rather than the central policy structure to transform our societies. Carbon pricing instruments, at least in the form of a gradually escalating carbon price, are “nudges” when we are needing in many areas a reversal of direction and a major concerted push, or time will have run out on our best intentions.

Chicken and Egg: Demand- vs. Supply-Focused Campaigns

Among those who have taken some interest in addressing climate change, there have over the last decade or so been discussions about whether a focus on curtailing the activities of the fossil fuel industries or a focus on reducing demand for fossil fuels is the right single or leading method to move society into a transition away from fossil energy. Economics is divided on the subject of what is the primary cause of business activity in general, though strangely in the area of curtailing fossil fuel use, almost everybody is a “Keynesian” in the sense of theorizing a demand-led business cycle. Keynes is the most influential economist who challenged the old dogma of Say’s Law that states that supply creates its own demand; i.e. “build it and they will come”. With, in theory, supply no longer controlling the business cycle, Keynes advocated stimulation of demand via government spending and/or tax cuts as a cure for economic depressions caused by what turned out to be a collapse in demand.

With fossil fuels, a large majority of economists that contemplate climate action advocate a price on carbon, either a tax or a permit to emit, which would reduce demand for the fuels without restricting supply. By contrast, this is the reverse of the current right-leaning consensus among policymakers regarding what to do about unemployment, which prescribe, almost exclusively, supply-side solutions. The unemployed or youth are said to lack the proper skills, so the focus is on skills training and educational reform would supposedly create jobs. Meanwhile few economists are advocating curtailing the activities of the fossil fuel industry or rationing fuel, both supply-side measures, to meet the challenge of global warming. This could be seen as a tribute to the relative political power of the fossil fuel industries and high-consumers of fossil energy (large corporations and the affluent) versus the power of the unemployed and youth; the former are treated, if at all, with gentle “nudges” while the latter are viewed as “clay to be molded” by elites.

Demand and supply-side interventions have different ethical implications, with ethics being the social discourse about how we manage our own agency or agencies (our “doing”) in the light of what is best or better for us or for a greater community or some combination thereof. Policy focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels starts from the premise that we are not able by internalizing legal-ethical mandates/strictures, foresight, and rational planning to change our behavior. Only after incurring a succession of monetary losses or anticipated losses from the “sin” tax or increased price do “appetites” for fossil fuel use diminish: consumers, as they have limited monetary resources, figure out for themselves the trade-off in monetary terms of one set of appetites for another and start choosing the higher benefit-to-cost satisfactions. The process of choosing between those appetites, or the restriction of the satisfaction of other appetites because of a lack of funds, leads eventually, in some, to a waning of interest in the targeted product or service. A supply-side restriction, such as rationing or cutting off certain types of fossil fuel supply (reducing overall supply), assumes that people are able to rein in their appetites via either their own internalized moral compass, or they accept the legitimacy of the external moral instance of government or the community to regulate their usage of, in this case, fossil fuels

The divide between supply- and demand-side policies is a byproduct of mainstream economic assumptions and academic disputes that some heterodox economists criticize, yet have not yet presented an alternative causal model of business and sectoral development. Presented in current contretemps between self-identified Keynesians and anti-Keynesians as an “either/or”, a longer view look at economic history suggests that the causal role of supply and demand are historical and sectoral snapshots of the complex unfolding of the actual economy. Due to the rapidity of energy transition required for human civilization to survive as well as the need for a change in energy systems, a combination of supply- and demand-side measures are required, together applied with as much force and speed as possible and effective. Supply-side restrictions of fossil fuels, for instance, would create a feedback loop where a restriction of supply will for instance act as a virtual “carbon tax” as oil companies charge more for their scarcer product. This should be seen as intentional rather than accidental, if one is advocating that both supply and demand be simultaneously curtailed. At the same time, government needs to supply or help design and subsidize the building of many of the connective pieces of a zero-carbon infrastructure. A new source or switch of suppliers is not well theorized by the supply-demand framework.

Even the institution and maintenance of an effective demand-side policy, advertised as the more moderate and “reasonable” solution, would in reality require a high degree of ethical commitment by the polity to effective climate action, more than the neoclassical economic fantasy of what constitutes the human being could accommodate. A behavior-changing carbon price (a tax or fee) of perhaps $150-200 per metric tonne CO2-equivalent emissions (with or without a refundable tax credit, sometimes called a dividend to blunt its regressivity) would require sacrifice differentially among economic sectors and groups, as well the need to change comfortable habits and ways of life. Such sacrifice would need to be openly acknowledged beforehand, requiring people, as citizens beyond their roles as consumers, to develop an ethical commitment to the large-scale task of preventing climate catastrophe.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe

 A political campaign on climate that focuses its anger and claims of responsibility only on the role of the fossil fuel industries and their political surrogates is naïve: their power is sustained by the number of paying customers available for their products, as well as their accumulated wealth from a 225-year history of fueling industrial growth via fossil energy. On the other hand, campaigns that focus only on demand-side policy, on the population’s demand for cheap, polluting fuel, tend to overlook the effects of the massive political-economic disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industries and their political surrogates on laming climate action once human-caused climate change was recognized internationally as a problem around 25 years ago. The assumption of demand-side policy is that our “appetite” for the products and services that fossil fuels enable is the driving force and therefore a wide-swath of the developed world is culpable for climate catastrophe.

Holding ordinary consumers in the developed world responsible on an individual basis for the continued dominance of fossil fuels either implicitly or explicitly is unfair and unrealistic. Some combination of an appeal to the moral sense of each individual as well as an appeal to macroethical justice for those who have delayed climate action and profit from climate inaction is required for climate action to be both heart-felt by many and also politically and economically astute.

Furthermore, there is a third category of people who have neither made executive decisions nor consumption/purchasing decisions that have had significant climate impacts. Some of these people live in poverty in the developing world or are too young now to have made significant decisions about how to live their lives yet. These people will pay the price of the decisions of others yet are or will become responsible for protecting the climate from further negative change and devastation of a conducive life-world for them and humanity more generally. Their responsibilities then start now or lie in the future.

I am proposing then that we subdivide responsibility into three categories or levels with regard to climate change, though this type of subdivision may be applicable with other large scale societal institutions and events. In delaying action on climate, some people have had a much greater role than others in prolonging our addiction to fossil fuels. As a parallel example, many legal jurisdictions, for instance, assign a higher culpability to drug pushers/dealers than to drug addicts, though unfortunately the latter group is in the United States subject to excessive legal penalties for non-violent drug offenses. The dealer/user distinction found in many legal codes should be carried over to the politics and ethics of global warming.

Around global warming then, at the current juncture in history, we can say that there are those who have primary moral responsibility for causing climate catastrophe, a much larger group of those who have secondary ethical responsibility for climate catastrophe, and a still larger group who are bystanders in terms of causality of global warming to date but will need to assume some responsibility in solving the climate crisis. The growth of a political movement will be in part by determined by how these relative responsibilities as we will see below will be addressed by climate politics and climate policies.

Historical Responsibility and Present-Day Responsibility

 With large-scale complex systems such as energy infrastructure, an industrial economy, or an entire civilization, it is fair to distinguish between historical responsibility and ethical responsibility. The socially-constructed complex systems we live in are the product of generations of decisions and actions by our ancestors as well as those now living, some of whom may be retired from positions of power and authority. There are those who set up and reinforced the fossil-fuel-dependent industrial base of our civilization who were and are responsible but cannot be said, because of their lack of awareness of global warming and the continued dominance of fossil energy up to the present to be ethically responsible for global warming. John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Franklin Roosevelt, Robert Moses, Dwight D. Eisenhower and many others made crucial decisions in the design of American civilization. The American model of development remains one of the primary models for many developed and developing industrial cultures from early 20th Century onward that, of course, require a large supply of fossil energy with current infrastructure. These historical figures and others hold historical responsibility but they cannot be held ethically responsible for global warming as they were not made aware of the consequences of their actions at the time. We then can only discuss the ethical responsibilities for global warming of those in the current generation because a crucial piece of that ethical responsibility is having been made aware, in this case, by the geosciences and in particular climate science, of the consequences of maintaining the status quo in these complex large-scale systems.

Global warming emerged as a very strong hypothesis in the then-obscure scientific discipline of climate science in the 1980’s with mounting empirical data supporting the human role in increases in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide. The climate science community alerted policymakers to the danger in the late 1980’s with among other events, James Hansen’s dramatic testimony to Congress during the heatwave of 1988. From these interactions and subsequent meetings between policymakers, there eventually emerged in 1997 the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change with the Kyoto Protocol and its emissions-trading (cap and trade) instrument selected as the general policy tool to reduce emissions worldwide. Emissions trading is an implementation of the economic idea of carbon pricing, the idea that an escalating carbon price will shape economic behavior to emit less greenhouse gases, while supposedly being able to meet an overall “cap” in quantity of emissions, set by policymakers. While the Kyoto Protocol had already been set into place as the primary solution to climate change, the historian of science Stuart Weart marks the point at the year 2001 where climate scientists had actually reached a consensus that human activity was warming the planet via GHG emissions and land-use changes, the former largely from fossil fuel use.

Having been alerted of an impending catastrophe in 2001, perhaps in terms that were soft pedaled at the time and filtered through the politics of national governments, it can be said in theory that all adults in the world were at that point informed enough to know that they had an ethical responsibility as citizens and consumers to address climate change. Even if the emissions trading instrument chosen by the UN was and is opaque and faulty, as it turned out to be, theoretically it was then and is now incumbent upon people as citizens to correct or amend climate policy.

However, in reality, a number of trends and events have intervened that make it unreasonable to have conferred responsibility upon all adults in 2001 when the climate science consensus was formed. Unfortunately, it has required a real degradation in the climate and a series of failures of the cap and trade instrument before it is reasonable to assume that ethical responsibility has been fully transferred, in varying degrees, to all adults in the world. In the intervening time between 2001 and today, the international and various national policy communities, outside of a few nations like the US and China, were claiming that it was on the road to “solving” the climate issue with emissions trading. I have devoted a good portion of my writing over the past decade to showing how insufficient and ineffective emission trading is and also a diversion from leaders’ and citizens’ primary ethical duties to act on climate change. It may be that the transmission of ethical responsibility is not yet complete until it is made abundantly clear that:

  1.  It is incumbent on everyone to act in some way to save the climate.
  2. Existing solutions and actions are insufficient to address climate.
  3. There must be a search for new solutions on political and economic levels to climate.
  4. These new solutions must be implemented until such time as we see radical reductions in the emissions of warming gases.

This document is part of this transmission of responsibilities.

The climate change denial industry acts as an effort to delay the realization and transmission of ethical obligations as well as deflect accusations of immoral behavior or deficient character on those who continue to drive us toward climate catastrophe. By attacking the level of certainty that people may hold with regard to either the existence of or human causation of global warming, climate change denial has attractions for those outside the inner circle of beneficiaries from the fossil fuel industry who do not want to reckon with either changes in their own lifestyle or with the increased role of government required by effective climate action. Climate denial functions to blunt either the pangs of internal conscience or to deflect accusations of climate destruction or sluggish inaction.

As hinted at above, ethical responsibility with regard to taking action on climate is not discharged simply by committing to a putative or first-offered greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan, but effectively seeing through the execution of that plan. If the plan first selected is ineffective or not sufficient effective, either via prima facie analysis based on its highly likely outcomes or by empirical results, then continued subscription to the initial reduction plan becomes itself as unethical as inaction. One’s ethical responsibilities in this case are discharged by effective actions, not by expressions of good intention or commitments to climate virtue in the future.

Primary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe

As discussed above, responsibilities and therefore accusations of culpability with regard to the impending climate catastrophe should not be equally distributed. Responsibilities are differentially distributed in society already by the different levels of power that people exert in relationship, largely, to their roles in the social institutions relevant to a given phenomenon. A fire chief is more responsible for extinguishing fires throughout a town than a baker or for that matter a trainee in the fire department. Now, 13 years after 2001 and 22 years after the 1992 Rio Summit that initiated international action on global warming, we can determine with a high degree of certainty that some people bear primary responsibility for at least the last decade if not the longer 22 year delay in substantive climate action. To bear primary responsibility means to have been exposed to the overwhelming scientific data and analysis on anthropogenic global warming and willfully and misleadingly denied or acted in ignorance of that consensus. Additionally primary responsibility for climate catastrophe falls on those who bear substantial responsibility by dint of economic positioning, scientific obfuscation, political patronage, political influence or political position as to the direction of our political-economic system, where that system effects our society’s energy and land use and therefore climate impacts.

The following categories of people then bear primary responsibility for the impending climate catastrophe, if they do not soon change their course by attempting to radically change the course of the institutions they are involved in (which is not always possible), agitate in the public sphere for immediate and thoroughgoing climate action and/or to publicly leave those institutions, transferring a substantial portion of their financial gains to investments in or contributions to effective climate action. Though they are primarily responsible for the continuance and acceleration of global warming, those primarily responsible for the disaster should not expect to be responsible for the solutions, though they should at least get out of the way of those solutions, for their sake, the sake of their children, and for the sake of humanity more generally. Some individuals will fit more than one category of the following:

 1) “Denier-Leaders” – Political leaders that over the past 13 years to the present have promoted denial or unscientific doubt of anthropogenic global warming and its highly likely negative effects or have promoted, voted for, passed into law or administered local, regional or national government’s transport, land use and energy policy as if there were no ongoing catastrophic, human-caused global warming trend. Much of the current U.S. Republican Party leadership and Congressional delegation as well as the leadership of other right-wing parties in a number of countries including Canada and Australia are thus primarily responsible for the continuation of our global warming trend. These politicians can be viewed as spokespeople for the fossil fuel industries of their countries. The slightly more respectable “doubter” position has similar effects to “denial” in sensitive positions where the critically important instrument of government is either put to work to change the energy system or in the case of denier-leaders, used to reinforce the fossil energy status quo.

 2) “Lip-Service Leaders”- Political leaders on the local, regional, national or UN levels that acknowledge human-caused global warming exists and is a problem but either a) support the expansion plans of the fossil fuel industries as they veer into “extreme” extraction techniques, b) support “fig-leaf” or ineffective climate policies such as most existing emissions trading schemes, c) continue to subscribe to the fiction that natural gas is a “bridge” fuel to a greener future or d) some combination a) , b) and c). Many of the center and left-leaning political party leaders and political representatives in the US and around the world fit into this category. Barack Obama is a leading example of category “d)”. Likewise the leadership of fossil fuel exporting nations such as Russia that acknowledge climate change but are sluggish to implement effective policies are similarly primarily responsible for global warming. The weakness of the policy proposals and leadership on climate of this group is a reflection of compromises that these groups make with climate deniers, with the power of the fossil fuel lobbies, and with the dominance over the past 30 years of neoliberal theories of government’s fallibility and the market’s infallibility. However their stance and the policy infrastructure they have erected are, in many ways, a dangerous diversion of attention from designing and implementing more effective and timely climate action that involves both direct investment by government as well as regulation of markets via rule-making and tax policy/direct carbon pricing. Both “Lip-Service Leaders” and “Denier Leaders” are avoiding the difficult though necessary confrontation with both the fossil fuel industries and with their own political constituencies. These leaders have turned away from the task of preparing their constituents to wean themselves off or pay more for fossil-dependent conveniences available in developed nations. Additionally these leaders have avoided providing their constituents with the public funding and programmatic guidance to enable them to devote themselves to remaking the energy and transportation basis of our societies for their and for future generations’ benefit.

 3) “Climate Destruction Sponsors” – There are some extremely wealthy people, most of which have or have had substantial investments in fossil fuel extraction and sales who have funded climate science denial efforts by institutions such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute as a means of delaying action on climate change. These are the funders of the odd collection of scientists that Naomi Oreskes has termed “the Merchants of Doubt”. The Koch Brothers and the corporate leadership of Exxon/Mobil are the most famous of these funders, who also have almost their entire business empires devoted to fossil fuels. There are also a large tranches of funding that are donated as “dark money” via Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund directed in the direction of delay of climate action. These sponsors (who may also be profiteers from delay of effective climate action) cloak their activities in the rhetoric of “freedom” or the fictions of free market economics, distracting themselves from the physical consequences of our emissions trajectory as well as distracting others from their often substantial financial interests in climate destruction.

 4) “Climate Destruction Profiteers” – There is substantial overlap between the “sponsors” group and those who profit from the destruction of the climate but what I am calling the “sponsors” have shrouded themselves in the ideological mantle of the dominant neoliberal political philosophy that idealizes markets. The Koch Brothers are of course also profiteers on the destruction of the climate as are major stockholders and share owners of large and medium-size fossil fuel companies. There are others, high level employees and strategists of major oil companies, who are driving the business of fossil fuel extraction and can no longer take the defense that they were just following orders. The same goes for passive fossil fuel investors, who have become the target of the “Go Fossil Free” fossil fuel divestment campaign. At some point, at lower level employees or small service businesses within the oil, gas and coal industries, the argument can be made that the existential needs of their families keep them in the business, rather than the accumulation of profits. At these lower levels of the organization or market segment, it can be no longer said that they bear primary responsibility for climate catastrophe and their work or business would simply be replaced if they withdrew bids for business, if they quit, or would be fired if they sought to change the terms of their work.

 5) “Media Deniers/Equivocators” – Newspapers, magazines, television, and Internet journalism play key roles in telling people what they should think about and how they should think about it. While there are obvious prominent owners of right-leaning media, like Rupert Murdoch of Fox News and News Corporation who are climate change deniers or “doubters”, the media in general in the United States and other key countries has suppressed or downplayed the story of global warming, delegating it to obscure web-only blogs or leaving it out entirely of their offerings. Instead of a steady drumbeat of stories reminding people of the present danger, media outlets have tended to reflect the “comfort zone” of a political spectrum where one side is devoted to half-measures and lip service while the other is militantly against the idea of human-caused global warming because it contradicts their political-economic ideology. Many media outlets for too long have seen their work as trying to “split the difference” between two opposed sides on a number of issues, including global warming, rather than investigate the terrifying facts, report those facts as well as who is representing those facts more truthfully. In the United States, a critical role has been played by among others by environmental reporter Andrew Revkin, who at a critical point turned over his blog at the New York Times to largely serve as a forum for doubt and contrarianism about basic climate science. It cannot be underestimated how much the doubt sowed by supposed environmental journalists has distracted readers from the critical questions of how to deal with impending climate catastrophe.

 6) “Characterological Contrarians/Merchants of Doubt” – The fodder for much media coverage of climate change has been supplied by the self-styled courageous “skeptics” that claim to challenge the climate science consensus that human activity is driving global warming on supposedly scientific grounds. Using scant data and ignoring most findings that suggest warming, these “merchants of doubt” have attempted to suggest that political motivations and/or sloppy science has led to the what would amount to a massive “conspiracy” of climate scientists to assert that humans are causing global warming. While in science, true skepticism is welcome, the climate “skeptics” play primarily to a political and media audience and some have received funding from the “Climate Destruction Sponsors”. While some deniers may be driven by a psychological compulsion towards contrarianism, this also leads to the “reward” for some of enjoying a great deal of attention as well as some financial support. Whether paid or simply driven to contradict for psychological reasons, this group has with the aid of the media and their sponsors, helped humanity continue on its destructive path vis-à-vis the climate, providing reassurance to the ill-informed and to those with more malevolent or destructive intentions.

 7) “Fossil-Dependent Electric Utility Executives & Large Shareholders” – One of the prime consumers of coal and natural gas is the electricity generation industry, which consumes almost all of the coal produced in the world, and a high percentage of the natural gas. While many electric utilities have built their capital intensive infrastructure around the availability of fossil energy to drive their generators, utilities have had the choice to lead the transition to a zero net emissions energy system via the use of renewable and nuclear energy to generate electricity. Electric utilities have for the most part only under the duress of regulators moved towards renewable energy and energy efficiency. Some have made gestures towards acknowledging that we live in a carbon-constrained world, only to continue on with the fossil fueled status quo. New nuclear generation has not been an option in many areas, as there have been prohibitive technical, environmental and political challenges associated with building and operating new nuclear plants. Many utilities continue to undermine the spread of renewable energy, in part because it has meant a loosening of their monopoly on electricity generation. Unfortunately this has also meant with few exceptions that they remain prime supporters of the coal and natural gas industries.

 8) “Propagandists of Neoliberalism/Neoliberal Government, Corporate and Financial Elites” – The discovery of global warming and attempts at concerted climate action have occurred within the neoliberal era, (1978 to the present). Neoliberalism is a political-economic philosophy derived from neoclassical economic dogmas and “Austrian” political philosophy that persistently holds up the idealized construct of “free markets” as infallible (and supposedly real or about-to-be-realized) and government as the nexus of fallibility in society. Neoliberalism’s over-praising of markets has supported an idealization of an increasingly deregulated private financial sector among political elites who came to believe that finance should lead the economy and was a magical fountain of wealth. Subsequently, economies in the last 30 years have become financialized, de-industrialized at the geographic metropolitan “center” where political and economic power is concentrated, highly economically unequally, and burdened down with mountains of private (corporate, financial and household) debt. Neoliberalism is the overarching current political-economic philosophy of elites, and some of these elites may believe that global warming is a problem (some are “Lip-service Leaders” or the corporate equivalent) but their neoliberal philosophy makes actual effective government action on climate to seem “beyond the pale” to them. Beyond these elites steeped in neoliberal dogma, the economists and pundits that continue to reinforce and reproduce the dogma of neoliberalism are equally responsible for removing the most important tool in the fight against climate catastrophe from the table, i.e. government committed to the public good. The following are the real effects of neoliberal governance and corporate policy that lead its propagandists and practitioners to be primarily responsible for climate catastrophe:

 In the first 20 years of carbon policy, as noted above, policymakers’ almost exclusive focus on “market-based” policy rather than the combined political-economy as a whole including direct public investment and utilizing the policy space available to monetarily sovereign government in the area of fiscal policy more generally.

In turn, the choice of a market regulation that relies on a financialized concept (emissions trading) rather than a binding tax obligation. Emissions trading systems have been intentionally riddled with loopholes to enable companies to postpone cutting emissions as well as mute the carbon price signal that would favor the lower-emitting products or services on the market.

The politically- or philosophically-motivated devaluation of the reputation of government by neoliberal academics, business leaders and government officials has made much more difficult the effective deployment of government to address climate change. Governments not markets, particularly monetarily sovereign national governments, are the central institution to transform the energy and systems and social practices that require fossil fuel inputs.

The ballooning of private debt in step with worldwide ballooning of real estate/asset bubbles is a product of a financialized political economy that has shunned public provision of financial assets via government spending in favor of debt issuance by banks. Mounting private debt claims a portion of nominal economic growth for debt service and therefore increased emissions that contributes only to the welfare of the credit issuers, mostly large financial institutions or speculative traders and not to overall social welfare or, on average, net incomes of the borrowers.

 9) “Austerity-Mongers” – A subset of neoliberals and the latest iteration of the neoliberal philosophy after the 2007-2008 financial crisis are the advocates of fiscal austerity, which is a hyperaggressive campaign of sabotaging government functions from within by arbitrary restriction of government spending, leading to the giveaway of public functions and assets to supposedly more efficient “market” actors, i.e. private corporations. The pretext for this fire-sale of the public sector is the intellectual and/or politically-motivated confusion in mainstream economics of financially-constrained local, regional, and Euro-Zone nations that do not control their currencies and the governments of countries like the US, Great Britain, Japan and many others that issue their own currencies. Austerity-mongers claim that all public entities are “running out of money” for social programs and public spending projects, when the latter can at will create more currency units to pay for necessary projects. Austerity advocates are knowingly or unknowingly the useful idiots of the bloated financial sector, as artificially limiting government expenditure and giveaways to public assets, makes more room for and dependence upon private debt issuance. While some austerity mongers, like David Cameron in Britain, claim to care about global warming and may believe that the fictional shortage of government money he promotes is a stand-in for the real shortage of atmospheric assets of the earth, the overall effect of austerity is to, as with neoliberalism more generally, to undermine the critically important instrument of government at exactly the time when it is needed most. One leader of the U.S. austerity drive, Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson, seems to have no position on climate change but nevertheless continues on his quest to hand financial dominion over the economy to Wall Street and scuttle the power of government to mobilize real assets by public spending for public purposes. The timing of this drive for power by the private financial sector, cloaked in the rhetoric of fiscal prudence, could not come at a more inopportune time for the collective good of the current and future generations.

 10) “Leaders of Large Organizations without a Low-/Zero-Carbon Strategy” – Besides electric utilities, much fossil energy or electricity generated by combusting fossil fuels is consumed by large corporations, non-profit organizations, and departments/ministries of various governments throughout the world. These large organizations are some of the major customers for oil companies, gas and electric utilities, sustaining demand for fossil energy. While a high-enough carbon tax/fee would provide a financial incentive for organizations to transition off carbon-based energy, it makes sense for many to anticipate this move by starting an energy transition before it is a requirement. Those organizations that move sooner will have greater advantages and also contribute less to emissions overall. For some sectors this is much more difficult than others and therefore the obligation is greater for leaders of organizations in sectors where technological or organizational process choices already exist.

Secondary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe

Those primarily responsible for accelerating and exacerbating the degradation of the climate do not generally make decisions in isolation about energy policy or the course of our society but as part of larger social systems in which there are many participants, workers, co-beneficiaries and counter-parties. The use of fossil fuels has made the physical lives of many in these countries much easier, as human labor is either aided or replaced by mechanical work fueled largely by fossil fuels. While these fuels may have brought into the production process primarily to increase profits for the owners of a business, the mechanical work of machines has had secondary benefits for workers especially with the advent of consumer durables and Fordism, the ability of those in the lower middle and working classes to afford major energy using devices like automobiles.

The powers and convenience conferred on poor, working-class, and middle-class individuals by participation in a majority fossil fueled energy system are great in comparison to the existence of those in “Dickensian” early industrial society and in comparison to those in underdeveloped societies currently. Much of the relative physical ease of those in developed nations would be much sought-after by those who must do hard physical labor to enjoy just a basic and uncertain subsistence in those underdeveloped societies. Most residents of the wealthier OECD countries (Western Europe, North America, Australia, Japan) and many of the wealthier residents of the less wealthy OECD (Eastern Europe, Mexico) and developing countries have secondary responsibility for impending climate catastrophe.

It is patronizing and fatalistic to assume that people in positions of relative but not absolute powerlessness, who nevertheless benefit from a high carbon-emitting society, are entirely bereft of the ability to chose and therefore of power. With that power comes moral responsibility, especially as their/our activities and choices lead to durable “memorials in the sky” in the form of carbon emissions.

So while there are those with primary responsibility for the ongoing climate catastrophe, who have had a central decision-making role, there are largely passive beneficiaries who can additionally be used as ideological cover by those with primary responsibility. The benefits that the services that this broader swath of the population enjoys from our energy- and carbon-intensive society can be put forward as a quasi-sacred duty, by those who defend the energy status quo. And many who enjoy these conveniences agree that these are indeed valuable goods or services offered by our energy-intensive society.

However, that these enjoyments are leading to a negation of all of our work and our desires to build a future for our family and loved ones should give us all pause. The question for each remains: “Which is more valuable: our current satisfactions or the satisfactions of many future generations?” It is this, what I am calling “secondary”, moral responsibility that can be the basis of action as citizens and consumers start upon the road of transforming societies and economies. Without recognizing this secondary moral responsibility, a movement for climate action will be inconsequential and unserious.

Prospectively, the movement for climate solutions draws from those who are secondarily responsible for climate change as political activists and leaders. This process involves recognizing one’s own agency and choices, an ethical process, and fomenting a broader discussion and subsequent actions that remedy to some degree the damages done to the viability of the earth for human life and civilization.

Tertiary Responsibility for Climate Catastrophe

 Furthermore, there are many people in the world, mostly the billions of poor in the developing and underdeveloped world, who may wish to enjoy the ease and benefits of a supplementary-energy powered society but have not yet enjoyed them. Or they may be satisfied with some version of their own current lifestyle with or without the addition of some of the conveniences offered by supplementary-energy powered technology. While they have had very little of the benefits of fossil fuel use, there are still matters of choice and moral agency which are entirely their prerogative, as the climate catastrophe sweeps the globe.

Those with tertiary moral responsibility, who aspire to a better life, have a choice to pursue a more or less carbon-intensive lifestyle and development path, even as they are by international agreements entitled to pollute more than those who pollute less. Secondly, as the effects of climate change mount, it is incumbent on them, as it is every individual, to help protect their families and their nation more generally from the effects of climate chaos. They could become powerful political agents and world political leaders, which is a process that involves moral choices, in favor of climate solutions that makes the earth more habitable for all.

Degrees of Responsibility Counteracts Psychological “Splitting”

While the notion of degrees of responsibility may seem obvious, this is a departure from the assumption of a “perpetrator-victim” or “transgressor-transgressed” model for relationships assumed by many who discuss the relative blame or varying moral rights with regard to underdevelopment and climate change. In politics and in other stress-ridden domains of life, there are tendencies for people to engage in milder and more severe forms of the psychological defense mechanism called “splitting”. In “splitting”, a defense that emerges in early childhood, children imagine that some people or things are “all-good” and some are “all-bad”. They are “split” because the child cannot see “shades of grey” in goodness and badness. Many of the fairy-tales of childhood are built around children’s attachment to “all-good” and fear of “all-bad” characters.

There are contexts in adult life where splitting is a cultural norm though one could argue it also has deleterious effects. The adversarial process in legal proceedings as well as political conflicts between parties are two of the main cultural institutions where a polarization of good and bad is encouraged in peacetime and in wartime or international conflicts, there is often a tacit acceptance of jingoism in public discourse. In many parts of popular culture particular in action and suspense movies, television and games, the polarization of good and bad becomes the prelude to various forms of combat and dehumanization of antagonists.

Splitting is particularly unrealistic in dealing with the differential responsibilities for climate catastrophe. The entire developed world is implicated by its dependence upon fossil fuels to function yet some have over the past few decades struggled valiantly to change this while others have fought to keep the status quo. Some who have fought for what they thought were climate solutions, have in my opinion and given the trajectory of emissions, been fighting for ineffective instruments and with the wrong allies (the finance sector). Even if we have been fighting for the most effective and appropriate tools to reduce emissions, we are still to some degree morally responsible for the impending climate catastrophe. On the other side, those who are primarily responsible are not necessarily “all-bad” but they still are primarily responsible for causing grievous harm to the climate that has been favorable to human growth and civilization.

Meeting the Evolutionary Challenge of the Anthropocene

 Already a different animal than co-evolved species, humanity has initiated as a byproduct of its activity over the last several decades, if not before, a new geological era that scientists are calling the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene means that what marks this era in terms of geologic phenomena are the traces of human activity on the biosphere, the atmosphere, and even the geosphere, of which the mining and burning of fossil fuels is one of the most powerful agents. But human-caused climate change is only the most critical of a number of ways in which humanity is putting its imprint on the planet, having effects that are largely unintended by people with feedbacks that are out of the immediate control of humanity.

This places humanity in an unprecedented situation as a species. While many different animal and plant species can be said to shape their various ecosystems by activity “pre-programmed” by their genomes, no single species until human beings has had its own future within its voluntary control via the outsized impacts it has had through its tool creation and use and through the ability to coordinate social activity, think alone and deliberate together via the use of language. Humanity is both endangering its own future and has the potential to secure, within the limits of untoward events occurring in the universe or an upsurge in violent geological activity, its own future.

In order to meet the evolutionary challenge of an environment that no longer will accept the byproducts of human activity without destroying our future, we will have to care enough about ourselves and future generations to institute new systems and sets of rules that coordinate nationally and internationally our use of the environment, starting with the concentration of warming gases in the atmosphere. A recognition of our agency (our “ability to do”) and our ethical choices in the immediate past, now and in the future, is an important starting place for this evolutionary journey.

By:

Michael Hoexter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By:

Donald A. Brown

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

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

An Ethical Analysis of Obama’s Climate Speech, the Adverse Political Reaction to It, and the Media Response.

 

aboma under water climate and obama

mcconnell_thumb Joe Manchin

 

On June 25th, President Obama gave a major speech on climate change in which he announced what his administration would do to reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions in the United States. Although the US Congress has continued to fail to act on climate change since climate negotiations began in 1990, President Obama identified administrative actions that he would take that did not depend upon US congressional action. As we shall see, the speech was significant for some of the ethical issues touched upon in the speech.

As expected some US politicians vigorously attacked the speech on the basis that the announced actions would destroy jobs and the US coal industry. We now look at this speech, the political response to it, and the US media reaction through an ethical lens.

In light of the US’s strong moral duty to take action to reduce the threat of climate change that has been virtually ignored by most previous US leaders. many parts of this important speech are worthy of praise.

President Obama promised to use this authority under the federal Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gases from electric power plants. He also dismissed climate change skeptics as Flat Earthers and urged US citizens at all levels to take steps to reduce climate change causing emissions and push back against those who would work to undermine US policy to reduce the threat of climate change. He further announced  plans to double wind and solar power while increasing the use of renewable energy in federal facilities to 20 % in 7 years.  He also identified a number of policy responses to reduce energy demand with the goal of significantly reducing the waste of energy.

In response to climate skeptics he said:

So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They’ve acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.

He also acknowledged some US responsibility to help developing nations transition to clean energy and announced a number of policy initiatives in support of this goal.

In regard to the the ethical responsibility of the United States to reduce the threat of climate change, President Obama said:

[A]s the world’s largest economy and second-largest carbon emitter, as a country with unsurpassed ability to drive innovation and scientific breakthroughs, as the country that people around the world continue to look to in times of crisis, we’ve got a vital role to play. We can’t stand on the sidelines. We’ve got a unique responsibility.

This statement is very significant for its ethical implications.  In fact, this is the strongest statement of any US President in regard to acknowledging that US policy on climate change can not solely be based upon US interests alone. That is, it is notable for its recognition of US responsibility to act on climate change. Thus, in addition to US interests in climate change policies, President Obama acknowledged that the United States has obligations, responsibilities, and duties to act. This fact has profound significance for US climate change policy.  It means, that the US must consider its obligations to others not to harm them through our ghg emissions. Yet, as we have seen over and over again, US climate change policies are usually debated in the United States as if only US interests count.

This speech also acknowledged that it is probably too late to avoid the need of nations to adapt to climate change’s adverse impacts.This is so because even if aggressive action it taken on climate change around the world, some adverse climate change impacts are inevitable. Notable in this regard was the speech’s acknowledgement that:

We’re going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition — not just here in the United States but around the world.

And so, President Obama seems thus to acknowledge US obligations to help developing nations to adapt to climate change.

Another part of the speech with ethical significance is remarks about a new climate change treaty that was agreed to in Durban, South Africa that is to be completed in 2015 and come into effect in 2020. In this regard, President Obama said:

Two years ago, we decided to forge a new agreement beyond 2020 that would apply to all countries, not just developed countries. What we need is an agreement that’s ambitious — because that’s what the scale of the challenge demands. We need an inclusive agreement -– because every country has to play its part. And we need an agreement that’s flexible — because different nations have different needs.

This statement is of considerable ethical significance because it acknowledges that different nations have different responsibilities and needs in regard to climate change policies. This idea was agreed to by the United States but has largely been ignored. In ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 under then president George H. W. Bush, the United States promised to reduce its ghg emissions based upon “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities” to prevent dangerous climate change. This  idea, which entails looking at the US response to climate change through the lens of distributive justice, has been almost completely ignored by the US Congress and former US presidents. It is also an idea that entails that the United States must reduce its emissions more aggressively than developing nations that have done significantly less to cause increasing atmospheric ghg concentrations.

This statement also implicitly acknowledges that all nations. including the United States, have an ethical duty to increase the ambitiousness of its ghg emissions reductions commitments in climate negotiations that are under discussion until 2015.

President Obama also acknowledged our ethical responsibility to future generations to reduce the threat of climate change when he said:

Our founders believed that those of us in positions of power are elected not just to serve as custodians of the present, but as caretakers of the future.  And they charged us to make decisions with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of our own political careers. That’s what the American people expect. That’s what they deserve.

And so as a matter of ethics, President Obama acknowledged that the US has a special responsibility to act on climate change in response to our ethical obligations, not our national interests alone , in proportion to our responsibility as a matter of distributive  justice and our obligations to future generations  while at the same time assisting vulnerable developing nations to adapt to the inevitable adverse climate impacts that now can not be avoided.

earrh

President Obama also ended his speech with a call to recognize the sacred importance of protecting Earth by recalling the astonishment of the astronauts when they saw the Earth from outer space as they came around the moon for the first time.

For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.

“It makes you realize,” that astronaut said all those years ago, “just what you have back there on Earth.” And that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface, containing everything we hold dear — the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity — that’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, I’m absolutely sure we’ll succeed.

 And so as, a matter of ethics, Obama’s speech was laudable and historically significant in many respects. That is not to say, however, that the Obama speech cannot be criticized for some omissions in regard to the US’s ethical obligations for climate change. These omissions included: (a)  the lack of recognition that dependence on natural gas as a bridge fuel for reducing the US carbon footprint raises several ethical questions, a matter reviewed here in detail, (b) acknowledgment of the US special responsibility for climate change for its unwillingness to take action on climate change for over 20 years since it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, see, The World Waits In Vain For US Ethical Climate Change Leadership As the World Warms, and, (c) failing to communicate the extreme urgency of quickly and significantly reducing ghg emissions in the next few years to give the world any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, see, On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.  In this regard, Obama’s speech utterly failed to acknowledge the magnitude of the ghg emissions reductions that are  ethically required of the United States in the next decade.

And so, all in all, the Obama speech can be praised for its express recognition of many of the ethical ethical obligations entailed by climate change despite some quibbles about a few ethical issues not covered well.

As was expected, the political opposition in the US to the speech was rapid and intense. For instance Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that Obama’s plan on climate change was was a “war on coal” and on jobs.

Senator Joe Manchin, D-WV, went further saying that the Obama climate plan was not just a “war on jobs” and a “war on West Virginia,” but also, a “war on America.”

imhoff

Senator James Inhofe, R-Ok, who has consistently claimed that the  mainstream scientific view on climate is a “hoax,” said the Obama plan will cost the US economy $400 billion a year while ranting about other aspects of the Obama climate plan.

The most frequent justifications for the strong opposition to the Obama climate plan have been the claimed severe economic harms to the US economy, lack of scientific certainty on adverse climate impacts, and the inability of the United States acting alone to prevent climate change.

As we have explained in considerable detail before, these excuses utterly fail to withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.

Economic harm arguments made in opposition to Obama’s climate plan, for instance, even if true, both fail to recognize the ethical obligations that the United States has to not harm others through our ghg emissions and to acknowledge the costs of not acting. US climate policy cannot be based upon US interests alone. The United States has obligations to others. In addition, economic arguments for not acting on climate change ignore obligations that nations have if they are creating human rights violations and duties entailed  by distributive justice. These are only a few of the ethical problems with economic arguments made in opposition to US climate change policies.  For a detailed ethical analyses of economic arguments made  in opposition to US climate change policies, see Ethicsandclimate.org index under Economics and Climate Ethics. 

Scientific certainty arguments made in opposition to climate change fail as a matter of ethics for a  host of reasons including the fact that almost all of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world and the vast majority of scientists that do peer-reviewed science support the consensus view that has concluded that climate change is  a growing civilization challenging threat to people and ecological systems on which life depends around the world, uncertainty in these situations raises ethical questions about burdens and quantity of proof, those most vulnerable to climate change have not consented to be put at risk from climate change, and the longer the world waits to reduce the threat of  climate change the worse the  problem becomes. For detailed ethical analysis of scientific uncertainty arguments made in opposition to climate change, see Ethicsandclimate.org index under Scientific Uncertainty and Climate Ethics.

Arguments in opposition to action on climate change based upon the claim that the  United States  acting alone will not significantly reduce the threat of climate change fails any ethical test because all nations  have a duty to act to reduce their emissions to their fair share without regard to what other nations do. For detailed ethical analysis of this issue, see, Ethical Issues Raised By US Blue Dog Democratic Senators’ Opposition to Climate Legislation – When May a Nation Make Domestic GHG Reduction Commitments Contingent on Other Nations’ Actions

And so, the arguments made in opposition to the Obama speech fail to withstand  ethical scrutiny.

The US media response to the Obama speech and the political response thereto has once again completely ignored the ethical problems with the strong political opposition to the speech. As we have noted over and over again in regard to the US media coverage of the US response to climate change, the US press is utterly failing to cover ethical issues entailed by opposition to climate change policies in the United States. This is particularly true of economic and scientific uncertainty arguments made in opposition to proposed US climate change policies. Nor is the US press covering ethical issues entailed by the urgency and  magnitude of the need to reduce ghg emissions  given that the world is likely  running out of time to prevent warming of 2 degrees C, a warming amount which is widely believed could create rapid, non-linear climate change. For a discussion of this issue, see: On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To What Equity Requires of Them In Their Responses to Climate Change.

One might ask why the US media is failing to cover the obvious ethical questions raised by climate change issues given that the ethical issues have profound consequences for climate change policy and climate change raises obvious civilization challenging ethical issues. We  might ask why the US press is failing to cover the ethical and justice issues entailed by climate change given that vulnerable countries around the world have been screaming for developed nations including the United States to respond in accordance with their ethical obligations. Is the US  press so connected to the economic interests of the United States, that it is blind to the US ethical obligations for climate change? If the US press has not been corrupted by the economic interests of the United States, the only plausible explanation for the US media’s failure to cover the  ethical issues raised by climate change is that the reporter’s covering climate  change don’t understand the civilization challenging ethical issues raised by climate change. If this is the explanation, there is a huge practical need to demand that the US press turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change.

By:

Donald  A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Widener University School of Law.

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

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

 

 

A video: Why Politicians May Not Rely On Their Own Uninformed Opinion On Climate Change Science.

http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/files/2013/02/Slide4.jpgThis 11 minute video examines why politicians, unlike many ordinary citizens,  may not rely upon their own uninformed opinion on climate change science as a basis for refusing to support climate change policies. The video argues that politicians have responsibilities that ordinary citizens do not have to protect others from harms that their constituents are causing others.

 

This video follows the last entry on this subject:

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.

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

 

 

A short video : Can The United States Justify Its Unwillingness to Reduce Its GHG Emissions on the Basis of US Economic Interest Alone?

Some US politicians claim that the US need not reduce its GHG emissions because it is not in the US economic interest to do so. This short vide explains why the US has ethical duties to the rest of the world to reduce US ghg emissions, not only economic interests.

By:

Donald A Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part Two: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Human Rights Violation Or A Special Kind of Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing ?

This is the second in a series looking at how to classify the climate change disinformation campaign given that it is some new kind of assault on humanity,  yet not easily classifiable into existing categories of behaviors that cause great harm.  Part One of this series identified four prior articles and three videos that Ethicsandclimate.org has previously produced on this subject as well as looking at whether this effort to undermine the mainstream scientific view about climate change can be classified as a crime against humanity or a tort under common law.  These previous articles distinguished the tactics of the disinformation campaign from responsible skepticism and the acceptable exercise of free speech after explaining what is meant by the “climate change disinformation campaign” and how it operated.

I. Is The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign A Human Rights Violation?

A. Introduction

A very strong case can be made that human-induced climate change triggers human rights violations because of the destructive nature of climate change damages. If human rights are to be understood to be recognition of those norms that are necessary to protect human dignity, inadequate climate change policies must be understood to trigger human rights violations because climate change will not only make human dignity impossible for millions of people around the world, including countless members of future generations but also directly threaten life itself and resources necessary to sustain life. And so, as we shall see,  climate change causing activities create human rights violations because of the enormity of harm to life, health, food, property, and inviolability of the right of all people to enjoy the places where they live.

Yet finding legal remedies under human rights legal theories for the the destructive role that the disinformation campaign has played in preventing or delaying solutions to climate change will require finding at a minimum: (a) a specific human right under and an existing human rights regime that has been violated by climate change, (b)  a human rights regime that has the jurisdiction and legal authority  to grant the requested remedy in the specific human rights controversy before it, (c)  a legal theory supporting the claim that non-state actors, not just governments, responsible for the violations of human rights have duties to prevent human rights, and (d) a legal justification to link the duties of non-state actors to prevent human rights violations to the activities of the disinformation campaign.

B. Which human rights are violated by climate change and do human rights fora have the authority to adjudicate claims based upon the tactics of the disinformation campaign? 

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is usually viewed to be the foundational document in modern international human rights law. (UN, 1948). The UDHR is a non-binding ‘soft-law’ agreement among nations that over time has been complemented by a series of legally binding international treaties while retaining its status as customary international law. Because it is customary international law it could be relevant to damage claims made in civil litigation requesting damages in cases before international courts such as the International Court of Justice.

The two most important global human rights treaties in addition to the UDHR often stated to be the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change:

 (a) Life, liberty, and security of person. (Article 1)

(b) Right to an effective remedy by national tribunals for violations of fundamental or constitutionals rights. (Article 8)

(c) Full equality to a fair public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of a person’s rights and obligations. (Article 10)

(d) Freedom from arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home or correspondence. (Article 12)

(e) Freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of property. (Article 17)

(f) Right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family, including food,  clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (Article 25)

(g) Rights to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms can be fully recognized. (Article 28) (UN1948)

 The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections relevant to climate change protections:

 (a) The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent. (Article 11)

(b) The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:

a. To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;

b. Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.

(c) The right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health… The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for:… (c) prevention, treatment  and control of epidemic, endemic, and occupational and other diseases. (Article 12)

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) identifies the following as entitled to rights protections that are relevant to climate change protections:

(a) Inherent Right to Life. This right shall be protected by law. (Article 5)

(b) Right to be protected from arbitrary and unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home…. (Article 15)

A strong case can be made that climate change prevents people all around the world from enjoying the above rights.

These three documents i.e. the UDHR, the ICESCR, and the ICCPR are often considered to be the foundational documents that comprise an international bill of rights. Yet not all nations have adopted all three documents. Although the UDHR has been accepted by most nations of the world, the ICPCR and ICCPR have been less widely so.  In fact the ICESCR has not been ratified by the United States and therefore may be inapplicable to climate change caused human rights violations in the United States. To date, these two treaties have been ratified by about 75 percent of the world’s countries.  The UDHR is a “soft-law” document which has normative,  but not legal force in the international system. The ICESCR and ICCCPR  were the first of many treaties that have been enacted to give the protections identified in the UDHR the force of law.

A country ratifying a UN human rights treaty agrees to respect and implement within domestic law the rights the treaty covers. It also agrees to accept and respond to international scrutiny and criticism of its compliance. It does not necessarily agree to make the human rights norm directly enforceable in domestic courts. That usually requires implementing legislation.

Treaty enforcement is accomplished within the UN often with the creation of a body to monitor states’ performance, and to which member states are required to submit periodic reports on compliance.   For instance, the ICCPR is implemented through the Human Rights Committee (HRC) which was created to promote compliance with its provisions. The HRC frequently expresses its views as to whether a particular practice is a human rights violation, but it is not authorized to issue legally binding decisions.   Other treaties and bodies exist within the UN system with varying enforcement and implementation powers and duties to implement human rights goals.  For the most part, these enforcement powers are weak and  improvements in human rights violations are best achieved through holding offending nations to the court of international opinion rather than law.

In addition, several regional human rights regimes have been enacted that promote human rights in particular parts of the world. These regions include Europe, the Americas, and Africa which have their own declarations and conventions for enforcement of human rights on a regional basis.

Thus far no one has successfully brought a human rights claim for climate change caused damages although the Inuit Peoples filed such a claim in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Before a successful human rights claim can be brought in an existing legal forum in regard to climate change, several potential legal hurdles need to be overcome that have little to do with whether a nation or an individual  has committed a human rights violation. These hurdles include jurisdictional, issues, questions of proof, and authority of the relevant forum.  For this reason, the failure to successfully bring legally recognized human rights claims may have little to do with whether the offending behavior has created a violation of the protected right but more with the limitation of the existing legal regime. And so, the failure to bring a successful action against the climate change disinformation campaign in an existing human rights forum does not mean the disinformation campaign is not responsible for human rights violations.

Examining climate change through a human rights lens has the benefit of providing potential access to legal fora that have been created to adjudicate aspects of human rights violations. Given that there are no obvious legal fora to bring civil actions against those who have participated in the climate change disinformation campaign, pursuing remedies for human rights violations caused by climate change has the advantage of being able to file legal claims in existing judicial fora.

Potential fora include, at the global level, the Human Rights Committee established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights established by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Regional tribunals include the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, claims could potentially be pursued in national courts–for example, in the United States under the Alien Tort Statute.

Yet each of these fora have different jurisdictional limits on bringing legal actions on human rights basis. In this regard, a case brought on behalf of the Inuit Peoples in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sought to find that the United States was responsible for international human rights violations is illustrative of potential road blocks to bringing successful cases for human rights violations in existing legal rights fora.

The petition detailed the effects of rising Arctic temperatures on the ability of the Inuit to enjoy a wide variety of human rights, including the rights to life (melting ice and permafrost make travel more dangerous), property (as permafrost melts, houses collapse and residents are forced to leave their traditional homes) and health (nutrition worsens as the animals on which the Inuit depend for  sustenance decline in number). The petition connected the rising temperatures to increasing levels of greenhouse gases, and in particular, to the failure by the United States to take effective steps to reduce its emissions.

In November 2006, the Commission informed the petitioners
that it had determined that “it will not be possible to process your
petition at present.” The IACHR did not explain its reasoning, stating only that “the information provided does not enable us to determine whether the alleged facts would tend to characterize a violation of [protected human] rights.” The Commission did hold a hearing on the connection between climate change and human rights in March 2007, but it has taken no further action.

It would appear that IACHR did not believe it had the legal authority to order the specific relief requested by the petitioners, namely to issue an order to the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And so the IACHR did not decide the case on the merits of the underlying claim that the United States had contributed to human rights violations of the Inuit people, it appeared to decline to act on the basis of legal issues about its own authority.

(B) Do the duties to prevent human rights violations bind  non-state actors including corporations?

It is not clear as of yet the extent to which human rights regimes create duties for individuals and corporations, that is non-state actors. Bodansky summarizes the current state of this legal question.

[A] crucial question is whether the duties to respect, protect and fulfill apply to private actors as well as states. International criminal law demonstrates that international law can in some case impose duties directly on individuals, and some have proposed that corporations have duties to respect human rights. So, at least in theory, human rights law could impose a duty on private actors to respect human rights by limiting their emissions of greenhouse gases. But generally, human rights law – like international environmental law – imposes duties on states rather than on corporations. If this is true of climate change,then human rights law limits the activities of non-state actors only to the extent that states have a duty to protect against climate change by regulating private activities.

And so, it is not clear whether the corporations that have participated in the disinformation campaign can be sued in the various human rights tribunals, yet nations may have a duty to regulate emissions from those corporations participating in the climate change disinformation campaign under human rights theories.

(C) Are  the participants in the disinformation campaign liable for contributing to human rights violations? 

A final issue that needs to be overcome to successfully bring a legal action against the participants in the disinformation campaign for violating civil rights of people around the world is identifying a legal basis for concluding that the disinformation campaign unlawfully caused the violation of civil rights. Because most of the participants in the disinformation campaign are corporations that are also emitters of greenhouse gases, these corporations like all greenhouse gas emitters arguably have duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to levels that in combination with other emitters do not deprive people around the world from enjoying legally protected rights. Yet it is not clear, that the tactics of the disinformation campaign alone make the participants in the disinformation campaign responsible for human rights violations by themselves.

However, most governments make it a crime for individuals to conspire to deprive people of their human rights. For instance, under US law it is a crime for persons to conspire to deprive another of the  rights of an individual that has been secured by the individual through the United States Constitution or through any other laws of the United States. Although this specific law has not been tested in regard to climate change, it is generally viewed to be a breach of civil and sometimes criminal law to conspire to deprive people of their rights. As we saw in Part One of this series, the Plaintiffs in the case of Kivalina versus ExxonMobil et al asserted that the fossil fuel companies that have been part of the disinformation campaign conspired to harm the residents of Kavalina. And so there may be sufficient facts about the disinformation campaign that could form the basis of a claim that if proven could be the basis for finding responsibility for individuals participating in the climate change disinformation campaign yet only an actual case will test this possibility.

(D) Conclusions in regard to classifying the disinformation campaign as a violation of human rights.

There is little question that the more than 20 year delay in taking action on climate change in the United States for which the disinformation campaign is at least partially responsible for has prevented people around the world from enjoying a host of human rights that are now recognized in a variety of human rights regimes around the world. Yet, as was the case in categorizing the disinformation as a crime against humanity or a common law tort, there may be no existing legal remedy under existing human rights law that can be deployed to deal with the harms created by those  participating in the disinformation campaign. And so once again, there may be serious deprivations of human rights caused by the disinformation campaign without legal remedies. Only time will tell whether those who have been harmed by climate change will be able to successfully bring a legal action against those engaged in the disinformation campaign for damages.

II. What Kind of Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing is The Behavior of the Disinformation Campaign?

We have seen thus far from the previous analysis in this two part series that there may be no legal remedy under existing law relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights law for the harms caused by the climate change disinformation campaign. Yet the harms attributable to the disinformation campaign are so potentially catastrophic to hundreds of millions of people around the world that laws relating to crimes against humanity, civil tort, and human rights should be amended to provide legal sanctions under these legal theories for at least for the more egregious tactics that have sometimes been deployed by some participants in this campaign.

Yet there is no doubt that some of the tactics deployed by the disinformation campaign, to be distinguished from responsible skepticism that should be encouraged, constitute some kind of malfeasance, transgression, villainy, or wrongdoing. To understand the full moral abhorrence of the disinformation campaign, a complete description of the tactics employed by the disinformation campaign is necessary and how the moral abhorrence of these tactics can be distinguished from the reasonable exercise of free speech, the right of individuals to express opinions, and the benefits to society from skeptical inquiry.  Ethicsandclimate.org reviewed these issues in four articles and three videos. These prior articles explained what is meant by the disinformation campaign, distinguished the tactics of the campaign from responsible scientific skepticism which should be encouraged, and described how the disinformation campaign was funded and organized.

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.

We particularly recommend the first video for an overview of why the disinformation campaign is so morally abhorrent. Here it is:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPdMFYMJ8dc

 

This video explains how destructive the disinformation campaign has been in preventing or delaying government action to reduce the threat of climate change.

In summary, at least some of the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign are some new kind of assault on humanity which could be dealt with under expanded legal theories about crimes against humanity, civil tort, or human rights.

The philosopher Hans Jonas argued that the potential of new technologies to create great good and great harm creates the need to establish new social norms about how to deal with scientific uncertainty. Following Jonas’ logic, the enormity of potential harms from a problem like climate change creates the need to establish new norms about the need to be extraordinarily careful about claims that there is no danger threatened by certain human activities.  We have examined in the last of the four articles above, what these new norms might look like given the need to encourage responsible skepticism yet assure that assertions that there is no danger are made responsibly. Because the climate change disinformation campaign deployed tactics that were designed to undermine the scientific basis that supported taking policy action to reduce the threat of climate change and in so doing used tactics that are ethically abhorrent, the climate change disinformation campaign should be used to develop new legal and moral norms about the need to be responsible when discussing very dangerous human activities. Just as it would be morally abhorrent for someone to tell a girl who is lying on a railroad track that she can continue to lie there because no train is coming when that person did not have reliable knowledge that no train was coming while having an economic interest in the girl staying on the track,  so it is deeply ethically troublesome for those engaged in the disinformation campaign to tell the US people that there is no evidence that fossil fuels are causing climate change without subjecting their claims to the rigor of peer-review.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

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.