Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

A Video: Even Monkeys Would Get Climate Change Justice. Why Don’t Governments and the Press?

Many of the positions taken by some governments and individuals on climate change are so obviously unjust and unfair, that monkeys would get the injustice this video argues. Monkeys are believed to be capable of responding to obvious unfairness as this video demonstrates when one monkey is given a cucumber (which monkeys don’t like that much) and another is give a grape (which some monkeys love). The monkey who gets the cucumber throws it back at the trainer when the monkey sees the other monkey getting a beloved grape.

The more serious point of this video is that those who desire to see that ethics and justice become more influential in climate change policy formation need to help others spot the injustice of actual positions being taken by governments and others on climate change policy issues rather than focus on perfect justice. Many positions of governments on climate change fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny yet ethics and justice issues are largely being ignored in discussions of climate change policies at least in the United States. Although there is a growing literature on the ethical dimensions of climate change, most of this literature is focused on theoretical ethical questions rather than on the injustice of positions actually being taken about climate policies.

A new book, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Change Ethics, explains these matters in more detail and makes recommendations about how to give ethical consideration in climate change policy formation.

The purpose of this video is to encourage the press, NGOs, and concerned citizens around the world to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change. Despite a thirty-five year debate on climate change, for the most part, governments, NGOs, organizations, and individuals are ignoring the ethical dimensions of climate change even though an increased focus on ethics and justice is needed to move the world to a global solution to this immense threat.  The video argues that ethics is the crucial missing element in the climate change debate and if an ethical framing of most climate change policy issues were taken seriously it would transform how the public debate on climate change takes place.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

Qatar: Linking Increasing the Ambitiousness Of National Emissions Reductions Commitments To Equitable Responsibilities

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.

(UNFCCC 2012)

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. 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,

UNFCCC (2012) Report on The Workshop on Equitable Access to Sustainable Development,


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

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

I. Introduction

Over the next few weeks 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  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)


The Guardian, (2012)  An Open Letter to Obama From the World’s Poorest Countries,


Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law