A new report that looks at Pennsylvania examines why US states must reduce their greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Although this report focuses on Pennsylvania, the conclusions in this report could be applied to other US states as well as sub-national and regional governments around the world.
The report concludes that Pennsylvania needs to act to reduce the threat of climate change. The report explains how the latest science on climate change that is being articulated by the most prestigious scientific institutions including the National Academy of Sciences leads to the conclusion that there is an urgent need of governments at all scales to act to reduce the threat of climate change to maintain any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change. The report also explainshow climate change will likely affect Pennsylvania and hundreds of millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world. Given this, the report explains why Pennsylvania needs to also plan to adapt to climate change impacts that are now very likely even if governments respond more aggressively to climate change than they have in the past. The report also compares Pennsylvania’s response to climate change to other US states.
The report calls Pennsylvania to adopt an enforceable greenhouse gas target consistent with Pennsylvania’s fair share of safe global emissions because Pennsylvania ghg emissions are contributing to global emissions and there is an urgent need to dramatically reduce global ghg emissions to prevent dangerous warming. Because ghg emissions from Pennsylvania are contributing both to enormous threats to the world and will likely have adverse impacts on human health and ecological systems in Pennsylvania (a matter discussed below), the state should reduce its emissions to Pennsylvania’s fair share of safe global emissions. Pennsylvania must also act to reduce ghg emissions because Pennsylvania controls human activities that produce ghg emissions that are not regulated at the federal level for such activities as some transportation decisions, regulation of electricity generation, building codes, land use, waste disposal, and some aspects of forest protection.
Although a description of Pennsylvania’s exact fair share of safe global emissions was beyond the scope of this report, nonetheless, the report concluded that a strong case can be made that Pennsylvania should limit its emissions to achieve greater percentage of ghg reductions than required of the entire world to avoid dangerous climate change. This is so because like all US states and most of the developed world nations, ghg emissions levels from Pennsylvania far exceed most of the world in per capita ghg emissions.In other words, if it is determined that the entire world should reduce its emissions by 80 % below 1990 levels to prevent dangerous climate change, high-emitting nations or sub-national governments around the world, including US states, will need to reduce their emissions to even greater levels on the basis of equity and fairness.To require each nation or government to reduce emissions by the same percentage amount would freeze into place unjust emission levels for high-emitting governments.For this reason, almost all the nations of the world, including the United States in 1992 when it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed that each nation must reduce its emissions on the basis of “equity” to prevent dangerous climate change. (UNFCCC, 1992: Art 3, Para 1) If all nations need only reduce their emissions by equal percentage amounts, then a high emitting nation like the United States that emits ghg at rate of 17.3 tons per capita would be allowed to emit at a level 10 times more per capita than a country like Vietnam that emits 1.7 tons of ghg per capita. (World Bank, 2012b) As a result, all nations have agreed that national targets must be based upon fairness or equity although reasonable differences exist about what fairness requires.
An issue brief for New York State recently recognized the need of New York to set ghg emission targets on the basis of equity:
Determining how much individual states or nations should reduce emissions through mid-century requires consideration of allocation equity and reduction effectiveness. The UNFCCC approach to apportioning ghg emission reduction requirements between developed and developing nations considers a broad spectrum of parameters, including population, gross domestic product (GDP), GDP growth, and global emission pathways that lead to climate stabilization.Applying these parameters, the UNFCCC concludes that, to reach the 450 ppm CO2e stabilization target, developed countries need to reduce ghg emissions by 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. (New York State, 2009)
And so like New York, Pennsylvania should recognize that its emissions reduction target must be based upon fairness. However, because reasonable differences exist about what equity requires of nations and states in setting emissions reductions targets, this report makes no specific final recommendations on what an enforceable ghg cap should be except to claim it should be fair.At the very minimum, however, any State cap should be at least as stringent as emissions reductions levels needed by the entire world to provide reasonable confidence that dangerous climate change will be avoided.It should also be based on recognition that fairness likely requires Pennsylvania to be more aggressive in reducing its ghg emissions than most of the rest of the world. As the above quoted New York report recognizes, a state like Pennsylvania might set a target to reduce ghg emissions by 80 to 95 percent from 1990 levels by 2050.
Furthermore, any action plan and interim emissions reductions target should put Pennsylvania on an emissions reductions pathway consistent with the need to limit global emissions to levels that will stabilize atmospheric greenhouse concentrations at levels that provide reasonable confidence of preventing dangerous climate change. This requirement entails the need of any Pennsylvania action plan to consider not only what action steps are necessary to achieve a target at a specific year such as 2020, the target year recognized in an unimplemented 2009 Pennsylvania action plan, but also to consider actions that will put Pennsylvania on a reduction pathway capable of reducing ghg emissions from Pennsylvania necessary to prevent dangerous climate change in the years ahead. More specifically this means that Pennsylvania’s action plan should consider how it will achieve emissions reductions to achieve any long-term goals such the potential goal of reducing ghg emissions by 80 to 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Given all of this the report calls for Pennsylvania to:
Adopt a legally-binding GHG emissions reduction target consistent with Pennsylvania’s fair share of safe global emissions.
Work with the Climate Change Advisory Committeeidentified in the 2008 Pennsylvania Climate Act supplemented by vigorous public participation to identify strategies to reduce Pennsylvania GHG necessary to achieve the legally-binding GHG emissions reduction target
Adopt any laws or regulations necessary to implement the action plan and achieve the target.
Greatly ramp up Pennsylvania’s commitment to non-fossil energy.
Develop and periodically update a climate change adaptation plan.
Encourage, support, and recognize actions and programs to reduce the threat of climate change by Pennsylvania sub-state level governments, businesses, organizations, and educational and religious institutions.
This 11 minute video examines why politicians, unlike many ordinary citizens, may not rely upon their own uninformed opinion on climate change science as a basis for refusing to support climate change policies. The video argues that politicians have responsibilities that ordinary citizens do not have to protect others from harms that their constituents are causing others.
This video follows the last entry on this subject:
The international climate negotiations to take place in Qatar next week will seek to make progress on increasing the ambitiousness of national commitments on greenhouse gas emissions reductions. In Durban last year the international community created the Ad Hoc Working Groups on the Durban Platform (ADP). ADP has been charged with developing a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force, under the Convention applicable to all Parties. The ADP is to complete its work as early as possible but no later than 2015 in order to adopt this protocol, legal instrument, or agreed outcome with legal force at COP-21 so it will come into effect and be implemented from 2020.
One of the goals of the ADP is to obtain increased ambition on national emissions reductions commitments. Greatly increasing the ambition of nations to commit to greenhouse gas reductions is believed to be vital because the scientific community is convinced that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
Significantly increasing national commitments to reduce emissions is widely understood to be urgent because nations have not made commitments to reduce their emissions to levels that will prevent 2°C of additional warming, a temperature limit that has been adopted by all nations under the UNFCCC as the maximum amount of warming that should be tolerated to prevent dangerous climate change. Even though many scientists believe that the warming limit should be 1.5 °C or even 1.0°C to prevent dangerous climate change, the emissions reductions commitments that have been made under the UNFCCC fall far short of achieving the 2°C warming limit. For this reason, parties to the UNFCCC in Durban last year agreed that advanced ambition on greenhouse gas emissions reductions is urgently needed and should be the goal of future international climate change negotiations.
Many observers of the climate change negotiations also believe the nations will not make more ambitious commitments to reduce their domestic greenhouse gas emissions commitments until nations take the requirement under the UNFCCC to reduce their emissions based upon “equity” seriously. This is so because developing countries are not likely to greatly increase their emissions reductions commitments as long as developed countries refuse to base their emissions reductions commitments on what justice requires of them. For this reason there is a growing call for, not only increasing the ambitiousness of emissions reduction commitments, but also for nations to take “equity” seriously.
All nations have agreed under the UNFCCC to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions based upon “equity” although almost all nations have yet to respond to climate change on the basis of “equity. More specifically nations agreed under the UNFCCC that:
”The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.”
(UNFCCC, 1992: Art 3)
II. The Bonn Meeting on “Equity”
Because there is a growing recognition of the need to take “equity” seriously, the UNFCCC Secretariat held a meeting in Bonn in May of this year to encourage nations to exchange views on the meaning of “equity”.
As we shall see very divergent approaches to the meaning of equity were articulated at the Bonn meeting. A full report on the meeting was prepared by the UNFCCC secretariat (UNFCCC 2012). Here is a sampling of some proposed approaches to understanding “equity” made by presenters at the Bonn meeting:
The UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres invited parties to consider three aspects of equity in relation to the global emissions reductions: (1) country circumstances, (2) historical and future contributions to global omissions, and (3) capacity to address climate change.
Bangladesh repeated the claim frequently made by developing nations that developed countries have the primary responsibility to develop a low carbon economy and society.
China explained that the developed countries have “over-occupied” most of the existing atmospheric space through their cumulative emissions, transferring responsibility onto developing countries and creating a new form of inequality.
Singapore stressed the need to define equity in light of different national circumstances such as the fact that Singapore is disadvantaged in terms of the availability of alternative energy sources.
Brazil stressed historical responsibility as an important component in defining equity.
The EU identified the goal of a future regime as enabling all parties to achieve sustainable development, poverty eradication, and climate resilient growth. The EU argued that equity needed to be interpreted in a way that reflects nations’ common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.
The United States argued that equity should not be defined through a formulaic approach. The United States underlined the common understanding that equity is about fairness and a fair distribution of efforts, and that no one can be asked to sacrifice their development. The United States argued that the focus of equity should be on development and opportunities for growth, and not on the division of the carbon space. The United States argued that a qualitative concept, such as equity, should not be forced to fit into one formula.
And so the Bonn meeting made little progress in developing an international agreement on the meaning of “equity.” However, several parties recommended that a decision on this matter should be taken at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar. Other parties recommended that a follow-up workshop under the UNFCCC might be another option to continue the dialogue on this matter.
Ethicsandclimate.org will be reporting on this from Qatar. We will also recommend that specific questions should be asked of nations about their positions on equity and we are organizing a program on this on December 5th in Qatar.
UNFCCC (1992) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/background/items/1349.php
UNFCCC (2012) Report on The Workshop on Equitable Access to Sustainable Development, http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2012/awglca15/eng/inf03r01.pdf
Hurricane Sandy is clearly responsible for a renewed interest in the American press about climate change. For a good sample of how the US media has, at least for the short-term, woken up to climate change see an excellent summary of press coverage of links between Sandy and climate change on the website Residence on Earth at www.anothergreenblogg.wordpress.com,
Will this new interest in human-induced global warming lead to a cure of the grave US media failures to communicate adequately to the American people the urgency and magnitude of the threat to the world entailed by climate change?
Some of the press coverage of climate change after Sandy is likely to improve. For instance, there is some hope after Sandy that the press will no longer ignore the monumental scale of the potential damages to the United States as our planet continues to heat up. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported:
Perhaps the most important message from Sandy is that it underscores the enormous price of underestimating the threat of climate change. Damage increases exponentially even if preparations are only slightly wrong. (Linden 2012)
And so Sandy may convince Americans that the threat of climate change is real and the damages of inaction are immense. However, there is very little evidence in the most recent reporting in the US press on Sandy and climate change that other grave failures of the American media to cover climate change will be remedied. In fact US media reporting on climate change in the last few weeks has focused primarily on whether Sandy demonstrates that the threat of climate change is real. Still missing from mainstream media coverage of climate change are the 5 features on climate change that US citizens must understand to fully comprehend the urgent need of United States government to enact strong policies to reduce US emissions of greenhouse gases. As we have explained in the last six articles on EthicsandClimate.org missing from US media coverage of climate change are:
the nature of the strong scientific consensus on climate change,
a clear understanding of the magnitude and the urgency of total greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic warming,
a recognition a of the practical significance for policy that follows from an understanding that climate change is a civilization challenging ethical issue,
acknowledgments that the United States has been a significant barrier to finding a global solution to climate change for over 2 decades, and
an understanding of the nature of the well-organized, well-financed disinformation campaign that has been operating in the United States for over 20 years and that has been funded largely by fossil fuel interests and free market fundamentalist foundations.
On October 23, 2012, the PBS program Frontline aired a program called Climate of Doubt. available on the PBS website at www.pbs.org/frontline/ This program describes the success of right-wing organizations and some corporations in both undermining the public’s understanding of the mainstream scientific view about human-induced climate change and in preventing legislative action to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. Climate of Doubtexplains that the disinformation campaign has succeeded despite the fact that the vast majority of climate scientists that actually engage in climate change scientific research strongly support the consensus scientific view that humans are causing dangerous warming.
In a very introductory manner, the Frontline program explains how the climate change disinformation campaign has managed to weaken support for doing something about climate change and for this reason the program is a welcome addition to the otherwise largely non-existent US media coverage of who is behind the climate change disinformation campaign.
Although the Frontline program should be welcomed for bringing much needed attention to this tragic manipulation of a democracy, at the same time the program can be criticized for missing important elements of the story necessary to get a full understanding of the outrageousness, if not criminality, of the climate change disinformation campaign.
Missing from the Frontline description of the disinformation campaign are:
(a) A stronger sense of the strength of the consensus view, (every academy of science in the world supports the consensus view, over a hundred scientific organizations whose members have relevant scientific expertise support the consensus view, much of the science that should have been the basis for US action on climate change was settled 150 years ago, and there are clear qualitative differences between peer-reviewed science and the manufactured, non-peer reviewed science usually relied upon by the disinformation campaign),
(b) A sense of the urgency for the need to make greenhouse gas emissions reductions as soon as possible to avoid dangerous climate change.
(c) The civilization challenging magnitude of the reductions that will be necessary to prevent dangerous climate change,
(d) The tactics of the disinformation campaign which cannot be understood as responsible skepticism, such as: (1) making claims that not only have not been peer-reviewed but are at odds with well-settled science, (2) cherry picking the science, (3) treating one study as undermining the entire body of climate science even though the issue in contention is not consequential in regard to the major mainstream scientific conclusions, (4) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists that publish statements that climate change is a significant threat, (5) making completely false claims that are either lies or reckless disregard for the truth such as the claim that the entire scientific basis for action is a hoax when every academy of science supports the consensus view, and (6) the use of front groups and Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interest behind the disinformation campaign, namely fossil fuel companies and free-market fundamentalist foundations.
(d) The fact that high-emitting nations and individuals are putting hundreds of millions of world’s poorest people at risk who have done nothing to cause the problem,
(e) The fact that the United States has been a major barrier to a global solution in climate negotiations for over two decades due to the disinformation campaign,
(f) The fact that even the Obama administration is unwilling to make commitments for emissions reductions consistent with any reasonable interpretation of the US fair share of safe global emissions,
(g) The fact that climate change must be understood as a moral and ethical issue, an understanding that undermines the purely US self-interested economic arguments made by those who oppose action on climate change,
(h) The fact that it already too late to prevent climate-change caused grave suffering for some people in some parts of the world and that the world has lost over twenty years during which action could have been taken to reduce the now enormous threat,
(i) The fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s worst threats have never consented to be put at risk while the United States waits for absolute certainty. and
(j) The fact that each year the United States has waited to take action, the problem has become worse.
In summary, the Frontline program, although a welcome overdue US media analysis of the climate change disinformation campaign, fails to adequately explain why the disinformation campaign should be considered as some new kind of crime against humanity. The Frontline program give far to much attention to some of the climate deniers while failing to communicate adequately the strength of the consensus position.
Given what is at stake from climate change, ethics requires that those who want to discuss the uncertainties of climate change science must proceed with extreme care including limiting their claims to peer-reviewed science and not overstating the significance of individual studies. Skepticism in science is the oxygen of science and therefor is a good thing, but many of the tactics of the disinformation campaign are clearly not responsible skepticism. They are often deeply deceitful, ethically abhorrent disinformation.
Ethicsandclimate.org has looked at the disinformation campaign in considerable more detail than the issues covered in the Frontline program in a four part series:
This is the second video looking at Mitt Romney’s statements on climate change through an ethical lens. In the first video, we examined critically Romney’s justifications for non-action on climate change that there wasn’t sufficient evidence that humans are causing warming and that the United States should not tackle the problem because it was a global problem. See:
Editor’s Note: This entry contains both a video and a the text on which the video was based that examines the views of US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney on climate change though an ethical lens. The text follows the video.
Ethicsandclimate.org has critically examined US President Obama’s approach to climate change on several occasions. See, for instance:
Ethicsandclimate.org now turns to an ethical analysis of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s views on climate change. Although Mitt Romney’s position on climate change appears to have changed over time (at one time supported policies to reduce the threat of climate change), he recently has opposed legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gases citing two reasons. In an October 2011 he asserted in response to a question about his view on climate change that he was opposed to climate change legislation because:
He did not know whether climate change was human caused.
Climate change is a global problem and the US should not spend huge amounts of money on a problem that is global in scope.
In addition, during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention on August 30, 2012, Romney commented on climate change by asserting that President Obama would try to stop raising seas and heal the planet while he would help American families, thus implicitly implying that he would not support climate change legislation while he was President (Lacey, 2012).
II. Ethical Analysis Of Romney’s Opposition To Climate Change Policies
Should Mitt Romney’s opposition to government action on climate change be understood as a profound ethical lapse? The potential ethical significance of an unwillingness to act on climate change is obvious once one understands that:
High emitting nations and individuals are putting tens of millions of the world’s poorest people at risk.
Tens of thousands of deaths and other harms caused by climate change are already attributable to human-induced warming, that is climate change is not just a civilization challenging future problem but the present cause of misery to some humans in some parts of the world.
Even if the international community could stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions at current levels further warming will continue for as much as 100 years because of thermal lags in the climate system.
The mainstream scientific view holds that the world is likely running out of time to prevent rapid, nonlinear, and potentially catastrophic warming.
These facts are held by mainstream scientific view on climate change, a view supported by every academy of sciences in the world that has taken a position including theUnited States Academy of Sciences, 97 to 98% of the scientists that actually do climate science research, and over 100 scientific organizations in the world whose members have relevant expertise.
In light of the above, Mitt Romney’s position on human-induced warming is a stunning moral failure. We now investigate in more detail ethical problems with the specific justifications articulated by Romney so far for his unwillingness to support climate change legislation.
Ethical analysis of opposing greenhouse gas reduction policies on the basis of lack of scientific evidence of human causation.
It is not clear from candidate Romney’s stated position about human causation of observable warming whether he is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation or alternatively that there is significant scientific uncertainty about links between human activities and observed warming.
If Romney is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation of warming this is either a lie or reckless disregard for the truth. That is any claim that there is no evidence that observed warming is caused by human activity is demonstratively false. In fact there are numerous independent and robust lines of evidence that humans are mostly responsible for the undeniable warming the world is experiencing. This evidence includes:
Multiple climate fingerprints of human causation including how the upper atmosphere is warming in comparison to the lower atmosphere, nights are warming faster than days, the upper limit of the troposphere is rising as the world warms, more heat is returning to Earth, less oxygen is being found in atmosphere as CO2 rises, and ocean temperature change patterns can’t be attributed to factors that drive natural climate variability.
Multiple studies (called attribution studies) designed to statistically test the probability that observed warming could be attributed to natural variability.
Measures of isotopes of CO2 that support the conclusion that the CO2 appearing in the atmosphere is from fossil fuels combustion.
Close correlation between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global consumption of fossil fuel and deforestation.
Inability to attribute observed warming to known causes of natural climate variability.
Uncontestable scientific understanding that as greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere the Earth’s climate will warm to some extent.
It is clearly untruthful to claim that there’s no evidence of human causation of observed warming.
Perhaps, Romney is claiming, however, not that there is no evidence of human causation, but rather that there is significant scientific uncertainty about whether warming can be attributed to human activities. Yet the mainstream scientific view on this issue is that it is more than 90% certain that observable warming is primarily caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities including the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation (IPCC, 2007). The mainstream scientific view, as we have seen, is supported by the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world a fact in itself that has moral significance.
Even assuming for the sake of argument that there is more scientific uncertainty about human causation of warming than that recognized by the mainstream scientific view, as we have explained in Ethicsandclimate.org before in numerous articles (See. e.g. Brown, 2008a), using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for non-action on climate change does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny due to certain features of the climate change problem including:
The enormous adverse potential impacts on human health and the environment from human-induced climate change articulated by the consensus view.
The disproportionate climate change impacts on the poorest people of the world.
The real potential for potentially catastrophic climate surprises recognized by the mainstream scientific view.
The fact that much of the science of the climate change problem has never or is not now in dispute, even if one acknowledges some remaining uncertainty about timing or magnitude of climate change impacts.
The fact that climate change damage is probably already being experienced by some people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world in the form of rising seas and increased strength of tropical storms and more frequent and intense droughts and floods.
The strong likelihood that serious and irreversible damage will be experienced before all the uncertainties can be eliminated.
The fact that the longer nations wait to take action, the more difficult it will be to stabilize greenhouse gases at levels which don’t create serious damage.
The fact that those who will be most harmed by climate change have rights to be consulted about decisions that dare made to take no action on climate change on the basis of basis scientific uncertainty.
The fact that the mainstream view holds that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
Given these features of the climate change problem, it is inconceivable that any ethical system would condone an excuse for non-action on climate change based upon scientific uncertainty. This is particularly true because if the consensus view is wrong about the magnitude and timing of climate change it could be wrong in both directions, that is, climate change impacts could be much worse and more rapid than the impacts identified by IPCC and the US Academy of Sciences even if they also could be less harmful in regard to timing and magnitude.
All major ethical systems would strongly condemn behavior that is much less threatening and dangerous than climate change. That is deontological, utilitarian, justice, ecocentric, biocentric, and relationship based ethics would not condone using scientific uncertainty as justification for not reducing high levels of greenhouse gas emissions given what is not in dispute among mainstream climate scientists (See Brown, 2002: 141-148). For this is a problem that if not controlled may cause the death of tens or hundreds of thousands of helpless victims caused by intense storms and heat waves, the death or sickness of millions that may suffer dengue fever or malaria, the destruction of some nations’ ability to grow food or provide drinking water, the devastation of forests and personal property, and the acceleration of elimination of countless species of plants and animals that are already stressed by other human activities. In summary, global warming threatens many of the things that humans hold to be of most value, i.e., life, health, family, the ability to make a living, community, and the natural environment.
The ethical duty to avoid risky behavior is proportional to the magnitude of the potential harm. Because climate change is likely to cause death to many, if not millions of people, through heat stroke, vector borne disease, and flooding, annihilate many island nations by rising seas, cause billions of dollars in property damage in intense storms, and destroy the ability of hundreds of millions to feed themselves in hotter drier climates, the duty to refrain from activities which could cause global warming is extraordinarily strong even in the face of scientific uncertainty about consequences.
Therefore, the nature of the risk from climate change is enormous and using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for doing nothing is ethically intolerable.
In fact that there is wide spread cross-cultural acceptance of the idea that one should not engage in very risky behavior that could cause great harm to things which people attach great value to is a conclusion that is clear from the acceptance of the “precautionary principle” in a growing number of international treaties including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN, 1992, Article 3). Under the precautionary principle agreed in the climate change convention, nations promised not to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking cost-effective action. This is an additional ethical reason why scientific uncertainty cannot now be used by nations as an excuse for refusing to make reductions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, in addition to the strong ethical reasons identified sbove, a nation may not break a promise made to other nations in the UNFCCC to not use scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change.
II. Ethical Duty To Act Does Not Depend On Other Nation’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Commitments
As we have seen, Presidential candidate Romney has also indicated that he would not support US domestic change legislation because it is a global problem and the United States should not spend money on such a global problem. It would appear that Romney is objecting to US expenditures to reduce greenhouse gases as long as other nations are not also committing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions although it is not clear why Romeny would object to US action on climate change on the basis that is a global problem. Implicit in this justification appears to be the unstated assumption that no nation need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global missions until other nations act accordingly. Yet this excuse for non-action on climate change also does not withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.
Because current greenhouse gas levels are already harming people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world according to the consensus climate change scientific view, and even if global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases could be stabilized at current levels, an extraordinarily difficult goal to achieve, climate change-caused harms will grow in the years ahead. For this reason, current levels of total global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced significantly to avoid future harms especially to those who have done little to cause the existing problem.
Yet, not all nations have equal responsibility to reduce greenhouse emissions given differences among nations in current and past emissions levels and steps already taken to reduce national emissions. However, all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions if they are exceeding their fair share (See Brown 2008). Although reasonable people may disagree on what fairness requires because different theories of distributive justice reach different conclusiosn about how to allocate responsibility, no developed nation may reasonablly make the argument that they are justified in not reducing greenhouse gas emissions subatanially because of the cilization challenging magnitude of emissions reductions that are needed to stabilze atmospheric concentrations at safe levels and the hugely disproportionate emissons levels attributable to developed nations.
As a matter of distributive justice, no nation nay deny that it has a duty to keep its national emissions levels below its fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore if a nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions, that nation has an ethical duty to reduce emissions and this duty does not depend upon what other nations are doing.
Although some developing nations can make a presentable argument that they could increase greenhouse gas emissions without exceeding their fair share of global emissions, the developed nations, including the United States cannot make this argument because it is known that existing total global emissions levels need to be significantly reduced and the developed nations are very high emitting nations compared to most nations in the world. For this reason, the United States and other developed nations, along with perhaps a few developing nations, have an immediate duty to begin to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and this obligation is compelled by basic justice, not a need for leadership.
The duty to reduce emissions is not diminished if others who are contributing to the harm fail to cease their harmful behavior. This is so because no nation or person has a right to continue destructive behavior on the basis that others who are causing damage have not ceased their destructive behavior. The only question that needs to be examined to trigger a responsibility to begin to make immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is whether the nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions.
In addition to principles of distributive justice, developed nations have another strong reason why they must reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, they promised to do reduce their emissions based upon “equity” in the Untied Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system. Violating a provision of an international agreement such as the UNFCCC is considered a wrongful act under international law, and is therefore an unethical action for consenting nations (See, e.g., International Law Commission Draft Articles on State Responsibility Art. 2(a) & (b), 2001). Since parties to the UNFCCC also agreed that Annex I countries, that is developed countries, would take the lead in combating climate change and modifying future trends, Annex I countries must undertake policies and measures to limit their emissions regardless of actions taken by non-Annex I country parties. This is now a matter of international law as well as a principle of distributive justice.
For these reasons, high emitting nations in particular have a legal and ethical responsibility to reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. This duty applies regardless of efforts undertaken by other nations.
And so, Republican presidential candidate Romney may not justify a refusal of the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that other nations refuse to do so. All that is being asked of United States is that it limit its greenhouse gas emissions to it’s fair and just share. It is not being asked to solve the problem for the rest of the world.
For these reasons, the United States may not refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emission because not all nations have acted accordingly. Such a conclusion is ethically absurd.
For all these reasons, US presidential candidate Romney’s position on climate change fails to pass minimal ethical scrutiny.
Brown, Donald (2002) American Heat, Ethical Problems with The United States Response to Global Warming, Rowman and Littlefield, Lantham Maryland.
Cook, John (2010) Ten Human Indicators on Climate Change, Skeptical Science, http://www.skepticalscience.com/10-Indicators-of-a-Human-Fingerprint-on-Climate-Change.html
International Law Commission (2001) Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, Supplement No. 10 (A/56/10), chp.IV.E.1, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3ddb8f804.html [accessed 1 September 2012]
This paper examines ethical issues entailed by wind power, a technology that holds great hope for reducing the threat of human-induced warming but like all climate change solutions has several potential adverse environmental impacts. Recently opposition to wind projects has grown in the United States and several other countries as opponents have objected on the basis of potential adverse environmental and social impacts from proposed wind projects.
Wind power is a hopeful solution to the threat of climate change because it consumes neither fuel nor water and emits no greenhouse emissions strictly related to electricity production. Yet wind power can cause some adverse impacts to wildlife including deaths to birds and bats and some potential harms to people living near wind projects through the aesthetic degradation of natural landscapes and noise irritation to nearby residents. Transmission lines built to move wind power from project sites to electrical grids can create adverse land impacts of several different types. However, care in locating wind power projects can minimize or sometimes eliminate these potential adverse environmental and social impacts.
II. Ethical Analysis of Wind Power Project
A. Ethical Issues That Arise Because Wind Power Is a Potential Solution to Climate Change
Because climate change is a civilization challenging threat to human health and ecological systems on which life depends, solutions to climate change including wind power must be evaluated in relation to the problem for which they are a potential solution. Because climate change has existing and growing devastating impacts on current humans, future generations, ecological systems on which life depends, any ethical analysis of solutions to human-induced warming including wind power must take into account the responsibilities of those who are causing or contributing to climate change to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate in great detail the magnitude of potential adverse environmental impacts from wind power. Without doubt, wind projects have been known to kill some birds and bats, interfere with the aesthetic enjoyment of some landscapes, and create some noise problems for people living very close to large wind projects. However, proponents of wind power argue that wind power’s adverse environmental impacts are minor compared to other energy technologies that would constitute alternatives to wind power or that are currently the source of electrical generation. Thus they argue that wind power is very environmentally benign compared to available electricity generating alternatives. In addition they argue that any adverse impacts that could be caused by wind power can be avoided or greatly minimized through thoughtful project siting decisions.
To the extent that wind power projects can be implemented in ways that minimize or avoid adverse impacts to wildlife, aesthetic values, or harmful land uses, wind power projects should be located, designed, and constructed to minimize these adverse impacts. Yet the adverse impacts to wildlife and birds, landscapes, water, human health, and ecological systems are likely to be much greater from human-induced warming than from wind power projects. Wind power projects may kill some birds and bats if unwisely located, but climate change is likely to kill entire species of birds and bats and other wildlife not threatened by wind power. In addition fossil fuel generated energy causes adverse impacts to human health and ecological systems that are not caused by wind power.
Climate change is not only a future catastrophic problem, it is already believed to be killing people around the world in increased vector borne disease, droughts, heat waves, floods, and intense storms. Wind power has not caused these problems at all.
Some regions of the world are already clearly affected by human-induced warming. For instance, according to the IPCC, precipitation that can cause deadly floods is already increasing significantly in eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia, while precipitation is declining in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia and contributing to diminished food supply and freshwater needed for agriculture and drinking (IPCC 2007: 17). Climate change-caused harms that are already being experienced by some people are of many types including, but not limited to, death, disease, ecological harm, floods and droughts, rising seas, more intense storms, and increased heat waves (IPCC 2007). These harms will grow in the years ahead even if it is possible for the international community to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions at current levels. That is, increased warming will continue even if atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are held constant because of thermal lags in the oceans and other delays in the climate system. It is simply too late to prevent additional climate change-caused suffering. To stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at current levels will require huge reductions from current emissions levels. Therefore those who are opposing wind power projects are very likely already contributing to environmental destruction and human suffering around the world. This fact, as a matter of ethics, should disenfranchise those opponents of wind power who object because of potential harms to themselves as long as they are contributing to much worse environmental harms to others from climate change.
All major ethical systems hold that people have obligations not to harm others, regardless of where they are located around the world. That is, utilitarian, rights-based theories, and justice-based ethical theories hold that humans have duties to not harm others regardless of their location (Brown 2012: Chapter 7). Different ethical theories will reach different conclusions about how duties should be allocated among people who are causing great harm to others but almost all ethical theories agree that human beings have duties to not harm others without regard to where in the world they live. Because individuals have duties to not harm others, governments have duties to not harm others outside their jurisdictions because these governments are the locus for creating policies that achieve the duties and responsibilities of their citizens (Brown 2012: Chapter 8). For this reason, both the governments themselves have duties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under their control to their fair share of safe global emissions and individual citizens have duties to do all in their power to assure that their governments reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels required by distributive justice because: (a) governments in a democracy can be understood to be a means of implementing the collective responsibilities of their citizens, and (b) individuals also have responsibilities to not harm others. For this reason, individuals that are emitting greenhouse gases in excess of their fair share of safe global emissions not only have duties to generate their power needs from more climate friendly technologies such as wind power, they have duties to support government policies to reduce the threat of climate change through greater reliance on renewable energy.
It is quite clear that the vast majority of regional and local governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals in developed countries may not reasonably argue that they are not far exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions because of the enormous reductions in current levels of greenhouse gas emissions that will be necessary to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at safe levels.
Climate change will put into jeopardy the very lives, health, and indispensable natural resources upon which lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world depend, while most gravely threatening the poorest people who are also usually the most vulnerable. And so, climate change is a threat to things that are the minimum material conditions for human life and it is interference with the dignity of human life that is usually the predicate for recognizing that human rights have been violated. In fact, climate change is currently threatening the very existence of nations like the Maldives and Kiribati. These facts demonstrate that excess greenhouse gas emissions violate basic human rights, a conclusion that strengthens the obligations of individuals and governments to replace fossil fuel energy with renewable energy. And so wind power projects not only satisfy the ethical obligations of individuals in regard to future energy consumption, they help individuals meet their obligations to reduce the harms that are coming from their existing energy consumption practices.
For these reasons those who object to wind power projects on the basis of some adverse harm to themselves may not object to wind power projects or other comparatively benign renewable energy technologies that could lower their carbon footprint unless they can demonstrate that they are not currently exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions. This is particularly the case when the adverse impacts from wind power on which they base their objection are harms to themselves while they to continue to engage in activities that are generating significant levels of greenhouse gases that are undoubtedly exacerbating great harms to tens of millions of people around the world. For this reason, no person who is responsible for emitting greenhouse gas emissions at levels greater than their fair share of safe global emissions should be able to object to wind farm projects other than to assure that any new wind power project minimizes avoidable adverse impacts.
B. Other Ethical Issues Entailed By Wind Power Projects
So far we have only discussed ethical issues that arise because wind power has the potential of significantly reducing carbon footprints of those who are contributing to human-induced warming. There are other ethical issues that arise when wind power projects that have not been adequately considered in this paper thus far, but, which are beyond the scope of this paper. These ethical issues include:
The need to assure that the process of approving wind power projects with ethical norms designed to prevent corruption and conflicts of interest in the approval process (for a good discussion of these issues see, Sutton 2012)
The need to assure that all potential adverse environmental and social impacts that could be caused by proposed wind power projects are adequately identified (see Sutton 2012)
Ethical issues that arise because of the deceptive practices of some corporations and free-market fundamentalist organizations thathave created front groups and astroturf groups (fake grassroots groups) that disguise the real parties in interest. (Goldenberg 2012) This funded opposition is ethically troublesome because it uses deceptive tactics designed to give the false impression that opposition to wind power projects is a spontaneous “bottom-up” citizen opposition when it has sometimes been funded by those who have economic interests in maintaining or increasing fossil fuel consumption (Goldenberg 2012).
Brown, Donald (2012) Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Ethics, Routledge Earthscan, London, in press
Goldenberg, Susan (2012) Conservative Thinktanks Step Up Attacks Against Obama’s Clean Energy Strategy, The Guardian, http://www. guardian. co. uk/environment/2012/may/08/conservative-thinktanks-obama-energy plans
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007), Summary For Policy Makers, Synthesis Report, Contribution to Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva, Switzerland, Available at: http://www. ipcc.ch/publications and data/ar4/syr/en.contents.html.
Sutton, Victoria (2012), Wind Energy Law and Ethics: A Meeting of Kant, Leopold, and Cultural Relativism, http://www.sjel.org/vol1/wind-energy-law-and-ethics. html
EthicsandClimate.org will be publishing videos that explain basic climate change ethical issues starting with this post.
This first video is about 14 minutes long and introduces basic climate change ethics issues, explains why climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical question, identifies some important practical consequences of framing climate issues as ethical questions, and introduces very briefly a few of the many civilization challenging ethical questions raised by climate change.
Part 2 in this series will introduce specific ethical issues entailed by climate change
Donald A. Brown, Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law