Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Four Tragic Omissions From US Media’s Coverge Of Obama’s Climate Proposals.

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On Monday June 2, the US press began to shine a spotlight on the predictable political warfare breaking out over the Obama administration’s new proposed climate change rules. Yet, there are at least four crucial facts about any US response to climate change that continue to be largely ignored by the US media coverage of this food fight. They include: (1) a 35 year US delay on climate action has made the problem extraordinarily challenging to solve, (2) US greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions are more than any country responsible for rise in atmospheric concentrations to present dangerous levels, (3) US ghg emissions not only threaten the US with climate disruption but endanger many of the poorest people around the world, (4) the Obama administration’s pledge to reduce ghg emissions is far short of the US fair share of safe global emissions.

For over 35 years the US Academy of Sciences has been warning Americans about the threat of climate change. In 1977, Robert M. White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote a report for the US Academy that concluded that CO2 released during the burning of fossil fuel could have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society. By the late 1980s, scientists around the world agreed that action by the world governments was needed to avoid the threat of climate change. In June in 1988, a conference of the world’s governments and scientists proposed that developed nations reduce their emissions by 20% by 2000. The US, virtually standing alone among developed countries, refused to commit to any emissions reductions targets citing scientific uncertainty and cost to the US economy. The 35 year delay in taking significant action has made the task of avoiding dangerous climate change increasingly more challenging. In fact, most climate scientists are alarmed that the world is now running out of time to prevent very dangerous climate change. The 35 year delay has now created a need for extraordinarily steep ghg reductions worldwide. The longer the world waits, the more difficult and costly it will be to avoid dangerous climate change.

nw book advOpponents of US action on climate change loudly now argue that the US should not act until China commits to acts correspondingly siting that China is now the world’s largest emitter of ghg. Yet they conveniently ignore the fact that the United States is a much larger emitter of ghgs than China in per capita and historical emissions. The atmosphere is like a bathtub, it has a limited volume, and because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere it makes little difference where the emissions come from; the bathtub continues to fill. The US more than any other country has been responsible for filling the atmospheric bathtub with ghgs above levels that existed before the beginning of the industrial revolution to current dangerous levels. Given there is limited atmospheric space left before ghg concentrations exceed very dangerous levels, the international community expects the United States to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, it is not asking American to reduce China’s share.

The political fight in the United States often exclusively has focused on climate harms to the United States if it does not take climate action compared to the costs to the US of taking action. Such a framing ignores that it is tens of millions of poor people around the world who will be most harmed by climate change if high-emitting nations fail to reduce their emissions to their fair share 0f safe global emissions. For this reason, climate change raises civilization challenging questions of justice and fairness, a feature of climate change that the US press is largely ignoring while it focuses on harms and benefits to the United States alone. Climate change creates US obligations to poor people and places around the world that are most at risk.

In 2009, President Obama promised the world that the US would strive to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions by 2020. He did this knowing that the United States would need to adopt additional policies to achieve this very modest goal. Because the US Congress has refused to act, the Obama administration proposed the regulation this week that has triggered the political firestorm. Missing from the coverage of the proposed regulations, is that the Obama pledge on ghg emissions reductions falls far short of any reasonable judgment about what the US fair share of safe global emissions is. This is so because to have any reasonable hope of preventing dangerous climate change, the entire world must reduce its emissions by much greater amounts than the US 2009 commitment and the United States is at the high-end of national historical and per capita emissions. To having any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change the US and other high-emitting nations will need to reduce their emissions at much greater rates than the average for the rest of the world. Basic justice requires this.

 

 By: 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

Sunita Narain: Change of climate in the US

14629045_sunita_narain_250_rOb47_16613Editor’s note: The following entry is by a guest blogger Sunita Narain who writes widely on justice issues and for the Business Standard in India. This peace is a reflection on climate change policy in the United States after the recent climate change national assessment of climate change impacts on the United States was issued in May. Although it is before the new Obama administration regulations that were issued this Monday, June 2nd, that proposed to reduc ghg emissions by 30 % below 2005 by 2030 for coal fired power plants. As we will explain in a future entry, the US commitments is still far short of what equity and justice would require of the United States despite reasonable disagreements on which equity framework should be followed by high-emitting nations. We look forward to Ms Narain’s reflections and others on how the most recent proposed US EPA regulations comport with justice  Notice of rule-making was issued on Monday, June 2, 2014, This article formerly was published in the Business Standard. 

 Sunita Narain: Change of climate in the US 

Climate change has a surprising new follower: the president of the United States. The US government has been the biggest hurdle in climate change negotiations. Since discussions began on the issue in the early 1990s, the US has stymied all efforts towards an effective and fair deal. It has blocked action by arguing that countries like China and India must first do more. Worse, successive governments have even denied that the threat from a changing climate is real, let alone urgent. US President Barack Obama, who came to power in his first term with the promise to deal with climate change, was noticeably coy about the issue in recent years.

However, in May this year, the US government released its National Climate Assessment, which puts together carefully peer-reviewed scientific information on the impact of climate change in the US. It makes clear that even the US is not immune to the dangers of climate change. In fact, many trends are visible and the country is already hurting.

It is important to understand what this assessment concludes and why its findings are important for the rest of the world. One, it makes clear that the increase in temperature is now established; the rise in temperature is the highest in the poles, where snow and ice cover has decreased. As the atmosphere warms, it holds more water, which leads to more precipitation. Add to this the fact that the incidence of extreme heat and heavy precipitation is increasing – more heat and more rain. This makes for a deadly combination.

In the US, the incidence of heatwave has increased. In 2011 and 2012, the number of heatwaves was almost triple the long-term average. The assessment also finds that in areas where precipitation has not gone down, droughts occur. The reason is that higher temperatures lead to increased rates of evaporation and loss of soil moisture. In Texas in 2011 and then again in large parts of the Midwest in 2012, prolonged periods of high temperatures led to severe droughts.

In addition, now it does not just rain but pours. The heaviest rainfall events have become more frequent. Moreover, the amount of precipitation on the heavy rainfall days has also increased. Many parts of the country have already seen flooding, and the assessment is that these risks are significant in the future. This is combined with the fact that the intensity, frequency, duration and the number of strongest (category four and five) storms and hurricanes have increased since the 1980s, the period for which high-quality data are available.

epa_logoTherefore, the news is not good for even a rich and temperate country like the US. For a long time, there was an unwritten agreement that climate change would benefit such countries. It was believed that they would become warmer, with the result that crop-growing periods would increase – which, in turn, would benefit their economies. The National Climate Assessment makes it clear that even if specific regions benefit from climate change, this will not be sufficient or durable. The net result will be economic disruption and disaster.

The other welcome change in the report is its clear assertion – something that needed to be stated bluntly to the American people – that climate change is caused by human activity. It cannot be dismissed any more as natural weather variability. Not only has there been an unprecedented build-up in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases resulting from the use of fossil fuels, fingerprinting studies can also attribute observed climate change to particular causes. Even as the stratosphere – the higher atmospheric layer – is cooling, the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere are warming. This is clearly the result of an increase in heat-trapping gases released from fossil fuels that countries burn to drive economic growth.

The message is clear: the time for complacency is over. The gases in the atmosphere have hit dangerous levels, which is hurting the US economy. The effort must include adapting, and building flood- and drought-resistant agriculture and infrastructure. However, this won’t add up to much unless emissions from burning fossil fuels are cut fast and drastically.

This is where the report is the weakest. It says the current US contribution to annual global emissions is 18 per cent, but accepts that the country’s contribution to cumulative emissions is much higher. Importantly, it also accepts that it is this stock of emissions that determines the extent of global climate change. Till now, the US position on historical emissions has been a stumbling block in negotiations.

Thenew book description for website-1_01 question is: what needs to be done? The US still does not have a plan to cut its emissions based on its contribution to the problem. Its stated voluntary target is to reduce emissions by 17 per cent over the 2005 levels. This is too little, too late – in fact, meaningless.

 

For the moment, we should accept that the elephant in the room has been acknowledged. This itself should lead to change.

By;

Sunita Narain

Crimes against Humanity:The Genocidal Campaign of the Climate Change Contrarians

Editor’s Note: The lead author of the following article on the climate contrarians is Dr. Robert Nadeau, Professor Emeritus, George Mason University.  I am a minor contributing author. This article continues a series of 15 previous articles on the “Climate Change Disinformation Campaign”  that can be found under that topic in the Index on this website. 

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 Crimes Against Humanity: The Genocidal Campaign of the Climate Change Contrarians.

When scientists make presentations at meetings or conferences on the existing and projected impacts of climate change, they describe in jargon laden language and in emotionally neutral terms what their research has revealed about these impacts. But during informal conversations over a few beers during the evening or late at night, these scientists no longer feel obliged to divorce their scientific heads from their human hearts. On these occasions, they use colorful and often profane language to express their disdain and contempt for the small number of scientists known as global warming skeptics who are well compensated by conservative think tanks for misinterpreting and abusing scientific knowledge.

The scientists involved in these conversations also vent their anger toward the oil and energy companies that sponsor massive disinformation campaigns on radio and television designed to convince Americans that their security, peace and economic well-being are utterly dependent on the consumption of increasing amounts of “clean and plentiful” fossil fuels. They say unkind things about the mangers of the American news media for running endless stories about the human suffering and financial losses caused by extreme weather events and saying nothing about the fact that climate change is contributing to the frequency and intensity of these events. But if the conversation goes on long enough and the hour is late, one or more of these scientists will say what the others firmly believe but are reluctant to admit—the fate of the Earth is sealed by the ignorance, lack of compassion, and inexhaustible greed of its human inhabitants and life on this planet for our children and grandchildren will be little more than a brutal struggle for survival.

The reasons why these empirically oriented rational thinkers have come to this dire conclusion are abundantly obvious in recent scientific research on the existing and projected impacts of climate change. This research has not only shown that massive reductions in worldwide emissions of greenhouse gases over the next two decades will be required to prevent the most disastrous impacts of climate change. It has also revealed that if we fail, as now seems likely, to accomplish this feat, there is a high probability that life on this planet for our children and grandchildren will be little more than a brutal struggle for survival. (Hansen et al. 2013) But as the scientists involved in the late night conversations know all too well, this research is largely ignored by the mainstream media, rarely discussed by political leaders and economic planners, and conspicuously missing in the rancorous public debate about climate change.

The usual explanation why this insane situation exists, as climate scientist Michael Mann put it in a recent article in the New York Times, is that there is a “violent strain of anti-science” in this country which “infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on television.” (Mann, 2014) What Mann did not say in this article but knows very well is that the primary source of this infection is the well-financed, highly coordinated, and very effective campaign of the climate change contrarians.

The Campaign of the Climate Change Contrarians

This campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists that had been paid by the tobacco industry to challenge the scientific evidence that smoking is harmful to human health were hired by oil and energy companies to challenge the scientific evidence about climate change. (Oreskes and Conway, 2010) The campaign greatly expanded during the 1990s after some increasingly vocal scientists warned that the threats of climate change were menacingly real and government must regulate emissions of greenhouse gases. (Pooley, 2014) The intent of the new coalition of free market think tanks, corporations, right wing conservatives, and billionaires with vested interests in the fossil fuel business was to accomplish one mayor objective. The objective was to convince the American electorate, along with their representatives in government, that there is no scientific basis for believing that climate change is a serious problem caused by human activities.

The phrase that best describes how this case was made on advertisements on radio and television, conservative talk shows, op-eds in major newspapers and magazines, and in the allegedly expert testimony of a small number of “contrarian” scientists is “Big Lie.” The phrase was originally coined by Adolf Hitler in “Mein Kamp” to describe a lie so colossal that is impossible to believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so famously.” George Orwell later appropriated the phrase in Nineteen Eighty Four and redefined it to mean “to tell deliberate lies while believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient.”

Orwell also said that the tellers of Big Lies were capable of holding two contradictory truths in mind and believing in both of them. For example, the climate change contrarians repeatedly and earnestly claimed that they were great lovers of science, had enormous respect for scientists, and were only concerned about the uncertainties and lack of scientific rigor in climate science. And yet they launched a full scale attack on the personal and intellectual integrity of climate scientists, did everything possible to destroy their reputations and end their careers, and completely misrepresented and distorted their scientific research.

For example, the campaign launched a full scale assault on climate scientists associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) at the University of East Anglia in 2009 after their emails were hacked and widely distributed over the internet. Some of the emails in this “private” correspondence contained unkind words about research done by scientists in the employ of the petroleum industry and others contained statements that could be interpreted out of context as suppressing this research. But in the view of the climate change contrarians, these comments constituted sufficient evidence to charge all IPCC scientists with everything from professional misconduct to engaging in a conspiracy to suppress scientific research that was not in accord with their ideological and political agendas.

Also consider what occurred after two climate change contrarians claimed that IPPC scientists made two scientifically inaccurate predictions about the environmental impacts of global warming in their 2007 report. One of these predictions, the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, was made in a 738 page working paper and did not appear in the 2007 report. The other prediction about crop failures in North Africa did appear in the background information section of the 3,000 page report but had no bearing whatsoever on the conclusions drawn. Nevertheless, the lawyers for the prosecution in the campaign of the climate change contrarians accused the IPCC scientists of committing fraud and coined the term “climategate” to refer to an alleged conspiracy to cover up or suppress the truth about climate change.

The ability of the climate change contrarians to hold two contradictory truths in mind and believing in both of them was also apparent in an email written by Republican spin doctor Frank Lutz to the Bush administration in 2002: “The scientific debate is closing against us but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science. Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe the scientific issues are settled, their views will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” (Lutz, 2007)

During the years that followed, the campaign of the climate change contrarians realized this goal by contributing large sums to conservative think tanks and political action groups, funding institutes that produced studies which claimed that there was no scientific consensus about climate change, and lavishly compensating allegedly “independent” scientists who were willing to testify that this claim was valid before Congressional committees. The campaign also used its resources to generate numerous economic analyses which allegedly revealed that any attempts by government to curb emissions of greenhouse gases would have a devastating impact on the American economy. (Broder, 2010)

American Legislative Exchange Council

The unacknowledged legislators of the climate change agenda in the United States are members of an organization known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to the ALEC website, this organization is committed to “Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty” and “works to advance fundamental principles of free-enterprise, limited government and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.” (ALEC, 2014) What the website does not say is that ALEC provides a forum for corporations to collaborate with members of state legislatures to create model bills which the legislators will later introduce and lobby for in their own legislature. The website also fails to mention that the model legislation is almost entirely written by the corporations and introduced by the legislators without any mention of the source.

new book description for website-1_01Also, nothing is said on this website about the fact that ALEC does not disclose its membership, meets in secret, and the general public are not told where the meetings are held and would be forcefully expelled if they tried to attend. It is also worth noting that the allegedly non-partisan members of state legislatures are right wing Republicans and that prominent and powerful right wing Republicans in both houses of Congress regularly attend the meetings of this secret organization. According the New York Times, special interests have “effectively turned ALEC’s lawmaker members into stealth lobbyists, providing them with talking points, signaling how they vote, and collaborating on bills effecting hundreds of issues.” (McIntire, 2012) -And the Guardian described ALEC as “a dating service for Republican legislators and big corporations, bringing them together to frame rightwing agendas in the form of model bills.” (Pilkington, 2013a)

In December of 2013, the membership of ALEC consisted of 1,801 members of state legislatures, more than 85 members of Congress, fourteen sitting or former governors considered alumni, and about 300 representatives of corporations, foundations, and think tanks. (Pinkelton and Goldberg, 2013) About 98% of the funding for ALEC comes from corporations, trade associations, and corporate foundations and the contributions of the corporations alone are estimated to be $6 million a year. Some of this corporate money is used to pay for “scholarships” that help to cover the costs of the family vacations that legislators take to ALEC conventions at posh resorts in August after their legislative sessions end. (PR Watch, 2011)

The state legislators who are members of ALEC introduce about 1000 pieces of model legislation each year and about 200 or more pass into law. One the first measures signed by then Governor of Texas George W. Bush was model legislation from ALEC that granted corporations immunity from prosecution if they told regulators about their violations of environmental law. Other model legislation from ALEC was designed to accomplish the following: obviate the decision by the Supreme Court to allow the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants; grant Congress the authority to block the enforcement of the Clean Air and Water Act; authorize state governments to open up federal lands to oil, gas and coal exploration; eliminate waste reduction and mandatory recycling laws; give legal protections to corporations against the victims of lead poisoning; eliminate federal regulations on coal combustion waste; call on the federal government to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and criminalize environmental activism. (Steinbruner et. al., 2013)

The Koch Brothers

 The poster children of the campaign of the climate change contrarians are 78 years old Charles Koch and his 73 year old brother David Koch. The Koch brothers are American oligarchs who preside over a vast financial empire and know from experience that money is power and can buy elections and set the political agenda at all levels of government. According to Kenneth Vogel, the “billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are among the most dominant forces in American politics, rivaling even the official Republican Party in its ability to shape policy debates and win elections.”(Vogel, 2014)  The brothers managed to accomplish this feat by creating a vast network of politically active non-profits that operate in concert and have a shared ideological agenda. This network is so vast that a detailed diagram of its organization and money flows took up half a page in the print edition of the Washington Post. (Washington Post, 2014) Some of the better known groups in this network are Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action for America, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Club for Growth.

Like most of the other billionaires who support the campaign of the climate change contrarians, the Koch brothers have vested interests in the fossil fuel business. The bothers are 85% owners of a multinational corporation, Koch Industries, whose core business is the refining and distribution of petroleum and the manufacture of chemicals, fiber, minerals, fertilizers, pulp and paper. Koch Industries also owns 2 million acres of land in Alberta, Canada which contains enormous quantities of tar sands oil. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from its source in the Boreal forest in Alberta to the Gulf Coast. If the pipeline is built, the Koch brothers and other billionaires in the fossil fuel business could realize billions of dollars in profits. Not surprisingly, the campaign of the climate change contrarians is doing everything possible to ensure that the pipeline will be approved by the State Department and President Obama.

The message conveyed to the American people in advertisements on radio and television sponsored by this campaign is that tar sands oil is a safe and reliable source of energy and the Keystone XL pipeline will create jobs, promote economic growth, and help to free the United States from dependence on foreign oil. The campaign has also used its considerable resources to dominate and control the public debate about the pipeline and to ensure that virtually nothing is said in this debate about the scientific research on its potential environmental impacts. For example, there has been no mention to my knowledge in the mainstream news media that scientific research has shown that the process of extracting, transporting, refining, and burning of tar sands oil results in significantly higher amounts of greenhouse gas emissions than for conventional oil. (Biello, 2013)  And only a few passing mentions were made in the back pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post of the results of recent scientific studies on the environmental impacts of these emissions.

One of these studies was done by James Hansen, one of the best known and highly respected climate scientists. Hansen and his team calculated how many gigatons (billions of tons) of carbon dioxide is contained in the tar sands oil in the Boreal forest in Alberta. This calculation revealed that the number of gigatons of carbon dioxide contained in tars sands is twice that previously emitted by burning oil during the entire period in which oil has been a source of energy. They then calculated the amount of carbon dioxide that would be in the atmosphere if we fully exploit the tar sands oil and continue to burn the remaining supplies of oil, gas and coal. In this scenario, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be higher than in the Pliocene era more than 3.5 million years ago.  Further increases in average Earth temperature would result in the rapid melting of the ice sheets, a sea level rise of at least 50 feet above current levels, and the extinction of twenty to fifty percent of the species on this planet. To put it bluntly, the price that could be paid for the use of all of these “safe and reliable sources of energy” would be an end to human civilization. As Hansen put it in language anyone can understand, “Game over for the climate.” (Hansen, 2012)

If the pipeline is built, the Koch brothers could potentially realize $100 billion in profits from the tar sands oil contained in the 2 million acres of land owned by Koch Industries in Alberta. The net worth of the brothers is now exceeded only by that of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison and ranks fourth in the world. Add the potential profits from the tar sand oil and the net worth of the Koch brothers would rank first in the world. The question here is why two impossible rich old men would feel compelled to become even richer by dumping enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to create an environmental disaster that would imperil the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The answer, if there is one, is that the Koch brothers, along with virtually all of the other members of their network of politically active groups and shadow government, are true believers in market fundamentalism.

In this quasi-religious belief system, there are two articles of faith that the true believers regard as transcendent and immutable truths. The first is that the dynamics of free market systems can resolve virtually all human problems, including the climate crisis, if they are not interfered with by government. The second is that the growth and expansion of free market systems lifts all boats and serves the greater good and the only legitimate role of government in the management of economic activities is to promote and enable this growth and expansion. This explains why the Koch brothers and the other participants in the campaign of climate change contrarians feel justified in buying elections and creating a shadow government that serves their vested interests and advances their ideological agenda. It also explains why they have no compunctions about subverting and violating the principles of democratic government and telling Big Orwellian Lies about the science of climate change.

There Ought to Be a Law

There are two definitions of crimes against humanity in international law that could apply to the campaign of the climate change contrarians. The first is “grave offences that are part of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population,” and the second is “inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical harm.” (Brown, 2013) -There is no doubt that the Big Lies told by the contrarians about climate science constitute a “widespread and systematic attack against” all of humanity. There is also no doubt that the contrarians were fully aware that they were misleading people in ways that could eventually result in “great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental and physical harm.” It is not possible for a variety of reasons to charge the Koch brothers and the other contrarians in their vast network with crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But we could at least begin to call them by a name that is more appropriate for those who have committed crimes against humanity.

The dictionary definition of a contrarian is a person who takes an opposing view. This implies that a climate change contrarian has a view of climate change that is opposed to and could be as valid as other views. My candidate for a more accurate and appropriate definition of climate change contrarian is as follows: “One who lies about the science of climate change and imperils the human future to protect and enhance his or her financial interests and has no regard for the principles of democracy or the welfare or will of the people of the United States.” But since this definition is too long to routinely use in descriptions of the activities of the contrarians, a better idea might be to add the word genocidal in all future references to their campaign. Hence the new name would be the “genocidal campaign of the climate change contrarians.”

One can hope that the Koch brothers and the members of their vast network will have a crisis of conscience and use their money, power and influence to prevent the ecological disaster they are now in the process of creating. But in the likely event that this does not happen, those of us who care about the human future must be prepared and willing to wage a war aptly described by the American philosopher William James: “What we need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be compatible with their spiritual selves as war proved itself to be incompatible.” (James, 1902)

The soldiers in the volunteer army that wages the moral equivalent of war must not only be prepared and willing to publicly challenge the Big Lies told by the contrarians about climate science and to expose and ridicule the motives of the tellers of these lies. They must also be prepared and willing to fight all the battles required to replace the Koch shadow government with a government that will work tirelessly to prevent an ecological disaster on a scope and scale that is virtually impossible to even imagine. The weapons that will be useful in fighting these battles are protests, rallies, town meetings, boycotts, and political campaigns promoted and organized with videos, documentaries, films and web-based communications networks.

Many people will be understandably reluctant for both personal and professional reasons to respond to this call to arms in a war compatible with their spiritual selves. But what is at stake in this war is not access to scarce national resources, the balance of power between nation-states, or the economic and political hegemony of the United States. It is a human future in which our children and grandchildren can live secure, rich and meaningful lives on a flourishing Earth. This is not merely the work of an age, but a work that could preserve the memory of all ages, and it hard to imagine that anyone could serve a greater good or answer to higher calling.

References:

ALEC Web Site. 2014. http://www.alec.org

David Biello, 2013, How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?” Scientific American, January 23, 2013.

Broder, John, 2010, Climate Change Doubt is Tea Party Article of Faith, New York Times, October 21, 2010.

Brown. D., 2013,  “The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part One: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Crime Against Humanity or A Civil Tort?” Ethicsandclimate.org, http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2013/01/30/the-climate-change-disinformation-campaign-what-kind-of-crime-against-humanity-tort-human-rights-violation-malfeasance-transgression-villainy-or-wrongdoing-is-it-part-one-is-the-disinformation/

Center for Media and Democracy, 2014, ALEC Exposed, http://alecexposed.org/wiki

Hansen, J., Kharecha P., Sato M., Masson-Delmotte V., Ackerman F., et al.,2013, Assessing Dangerous Climate Change: Required Reductions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature,” PLoS One 8(12). Vermeer M., Rahmstorf S. (2009) Global Sea Level Rise Linked to Global Temperature, Proceedings National Academy Sciences USA PubMed NCBI Google Scholar; Grinsted A., Moore J., Jevrejeva S. (2010) Reconstructing Sea Rise from Paleo and Projected Temperature Rise, PubMed/NCBI Google Scholar; Liu J., Song M., Hu Y., Ren X. (2012) Changes in the Strength and Width of the Hadley Circulation, PubMed/NCBI Google Scholar; Parmesan C., Ecological and Evolutionary Response to Recent Climate Change,  Annual Review of Ecology and Evolution of Systems 2006, 37: 637-639; 7: 2287-2312; Marshall J. and Soloman S., editors, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change., Climate Change 2007 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Final Report of Synthesis and Assessment Product,” 4.1, 4.2, 2.3, 1.2. U.S. Climate Change Science Program, avail from: www.usgcrp.gov;Rahmstorf S., Coumou D. (2011) Increase in Extreme Weather Events in a Warming World, Proceedings National Academy Sciences USA PubMed/NCBI Google Scho

Hansen,  J., 2012,  Game Over for the Climate,”New York Times, May 9. 2012.

James, W., 1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (New York: Longmans Green), p. 367.

Lutz, F., 2007,  quoted in http://www.straight.com/article-67107/trust-us-were-the-media

McIntire, Mike, 2012,  Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist, New York Times, April 21, 2012.

Mann, M., 2014, If You See Something, Say Something, New York Times, Jan. 17, 2014.

Oreskes, Naiomi and Conway, Eric , 2010, Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury Press, New York, p. 39.

Pooley, E , 2010.  Climate Wars, True Believers, Power Brokers and the Fight to Save the Earth, Hyperion, New York, p. 39.

Pilkington, Ed, 2013, Obamacare Faces New Threat at State Level from Corporate Interest Group ALEC, Guardian, November 20, 2013.

Pilkington, Ed and Goldberg, 2013, Suzanne. ALEC Facing Funding Crisis from Donor Exodus in Wake of Trayvon Martin Row, Guardian, December 2, 2013

PR Watch, 2011,  A CMD Special Report on ALEC’s Funding and Spending,  http://www.prwatch.org/news/2011/07/10887/cmd-special-report-alec

Steinbruner et. al., 2013,  ALEC and the Environment: ALEC Exposed, http:www.nap.edu.catalog.php?record-id=14882)

Vogel, D.,  2014, Koch World 2014, January 29, 2014, Politico, http://dyn.politico.com.

Washington Post, 2014, An Amazing Map or the Koch Brothers Massive Political Network, January 6, 2014.

By: 

Robert L. Nadeau, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus

George Mason University Widener University School of Law

Fairfax, Virginia 22030

Email: robnadeau@verizon.net

 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Email: dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

Five Common Arguments Against Climate Change Policies That Can Only Be Effectively Responded To On Ethical Grounds

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Ethics and climate has explained in numerous articles on this site why climate change policy raises civilization challenging ethical issues which have practical significance for policy-making. This article identifies five common arguments that are very frequently made in opposition to proposed climate change laws and policies that cannot be adequately responded to without full recognition of serious ethical problems with these arguments. Yet the national debate on climate change and its press coverage in the United States and many other countries continue to ignore serious ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies. The failure to identify the ethical problems with these arguments greatly weakens potential responses to these arguments. These arguments include:

 1. A nation should not adopt climate change policies because these policies will harm the national economy.

This argument is obviously ethically problematic because it fails to consider that high emitting governments and entities have clear ethical obligations to not harm others.  Economic arguments in opposition to climate change policies are almost always arguments about self-interest that ignore strong global obligations. Climate change is a problem that is being caused mostly by high emitting nations and people that are harming and putting at risk poor people and the ecological systems on which they depend around the world. It is clearly ethically unacceptable for those causing the harms to others to only consider the costs to them of reducing the damages they are causing while ignoring their responsibilities to not harm others.

new book description for website-1_01 It is not only high emitting nations and corporations that are ignoring the ethical problems with cost-based arguments against climate change policies. Some environmental NGOs usually fail to spot the ethical problems with arguments made against climate change policies based upon the cost or reducing ghg emissions to the emitters. Again and again proponents of action on climate change have responded to economic arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change by making counter economic arguments such as climate change policies will produce new jobs or reduce adverse economic impacts that will follow from the failure to reduce the threat of climate change.  In responding this way, proponents of climate change policy action are implicitly confirming the ethically dubious notion that public policy must be based upon economic self-interest rather than responsibilities to those who will be most harmed by inaction. There is, of course, nothing wrong with claims that some climate change policies will produce jobs, but such assertions should also say that emissions should be reduced because high-emitters of ghgs have duties and obligations to do so.

 

2. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act to reduce their emissions because this will put the nation that reduces its emissions in a disadvantageous economic position.

Over and over again opponents of climate change policies at the national level have argued that high emitting nations should not act to reduce their ghg emissions until other high emitting nations also act accordingly. In the United States, for instance, it is frequently said that the United States should not reduce its ghg emissions until China does so.  Implicit in this argument  is the notion that governments should only adopt policies which are in their economic interest to do so.  Yet as a matter of ethics, as we have seen, all nations have a strong ethical duty to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and national economic self-interest is not an acceptable justification for failing to reduce national ghg emissions. Nations are required as a matter of ethics to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global  emissions; they are not required to reduce other nations’ share of safe global emissions. And so, nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.

3. Nations need not reduce their ghg emissions as long as other nations are emitting high levels of ghg because it will do no good for one nation to act if other nations do not act.

A common claim similar to argument 2 is the assertion nations need not reduce their ghg emissions until others do so because it will do no good for one nation to reduce its emissions while high-emitting nations continue to emit without reductions. It is not factually true that a nation that is emitting ghgs at levels above its fair share of safe global emissions is not harming others because they are continuing to cause elevated atmospheric concentrations of ghg which will cause some harm to some places and people than would not be experienced if the nation was  emitting ghg at lower levels. And so, since all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, nations have a duty to reduce the harm that they are causing to others even if there is no adequate global response to climate change.

4.  No nation need act to reduce the threat of climate change until all scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts are resolved.

Over and over again opponents of climate change policies have argued that nations need not act to reduce the threat of climate change because there are scientific uncertainties about the magnitude and timing of  human-induced climate change impacts. There are a host of ethical problems with these arguments. First, as we have explained in detail on this website under the category of disinformation campaign in the index, some arguments that claim that that there is significant scientific uncertainty about human impacts on climate have been based upon lies or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science. Second, other scientific uncertainty arguments are premised on cherry picking climate change science, that is focusing on what is unknown about climate change while ignoring numerous conclusions of the scientific community that are not in serious dispute. Third. other claims that there is scientific uncertainty about human induced climate change have not been subjected to peer-review. Fourth some arguments against climate change policies  on the basis of scientific uncertainty often rest on the ethically dubious notion that nothing should be done to reduce a threat that some are imposing on others until all uncertainties are resolved. They make this argument despite the fact that if high emitters of ghg wait until all uncertainties are resolved before reducing their ghg emissions:

  • It will likely be too late to prevent serious harm if the mainstream scientific  view of climate change is later vindicated;
  • It will be much more difficult to prevent catastrophic harm if nations wait, and
  • The argument to wait ignores the fact that those who will be harmed the most have not consented to be put at greater risk by waiting.

For all of these reasons, arguments against taking action to reduce the threat of climate change based upon scientific uncertainty fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

5. Nations need only set ghg emissions reduction targets to levels consistent with their national interest.

Nations continue to set ghg emissions reductions targets at levels based upon their self-interest despite the fact that any national target must be understood to be implicitly a position on two issues that cannot be thought about clearly without considering ethical obligations. That is, every national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on : (a) a safe ghg atmospheric stabilization target; and (b) the nation’s fair share of total global ghg emissions that will achieve safe ghg atmospheric concentrations.

A position on a global ghg atmospheric stabilization target is essentially an ethical question because a global ghg atmospheric concentration goal will determine to what extent the most vulnerable people and the ecological systems on which they depend will be put at risk. And so a position that a nation takes on atmospheric ghg atmospheric targets is necessarily an ethical issue because nations and people have an ethical duty to not harm others and the numerical ghg atmospheric goal will determine how much harm polluting nations will impose on the most vulnerable.

Once a global ghg atmospheric goal is determined, a nation’s ghg emissions reduction target is also necessarily implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of safe global ghg emissions, an issue of distributive justice and ethics at its core.

And so any national ghg emissions target is inherently a position on important ethical and justice issues and thus setting a national emissions reduction target based upon national interest alone fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

Why the US Academy of Science and the Royal Academy’s Easy To Understand Report On Climate Change Science Has Ethical Significance

national academy

 

The National Academy of Sciences and its British counterpart, the Royal Society, have published  Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, a very easy to understand primer on the science of greenhouse-driven global warming. Although there is not a lot new in this report as a matter of science, it makes the strong scientific consensus on human-induced climate change that has existed for some time clearer and more accessible for non-scientists particularly on the major issues that need to be understood by policy-makers and interested citizens.  The report is written in simple language and filled with pictures and graphs which illustrate why almost all mainstream scientists actually engaged in climate change science are virtually certain that human activity is causing very dangerous climate change.

This report is ethically significant because:

a. It is a report of two of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, namely US National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. Because of the prestige of both of the institutions writing this report, those opposing actual climate change have an ethical duty to acknowledge that the scientific basis supporting action on climate change is entitled to respect. They cannot reasonably claim that there is no strong scientific basis for policy action on climate change or even worse that climate change science is a “hoax.”  Which institutions have made claims that humans are engaged in dangerous behavior has ethical significance. If, for instance, someone is told by an expert in toxicology that chemicals he or she is discharging into a water supply will kill people, he or she has more of an ethical duty to stop discharging the chemicals until the issue of toxicology issues are resolved than they would if the claim about poisoning came from a religious leader or a tax accountant. When claims about danger are made by world-class scientific experts, as a matter of ethics, the burden of proof shifts to those potentially harming others to show that their behavior is not dangerous.

Skepticism in climate science should still be encouraged, but skeptics must play by the rules of science including: (a)  subjecting all claims contradicting the mainstream scientific view on climate change to peer-review, (b) subjecting claims that humans are not causing dangerous climate impacts to review by scientific institutions that have sufficient broad interdisciplinary expertise among its members to review such claims against all the contrary evidence from all relevant scientific disciplines, and (c) acknowledging all the contradictory evidence. Given the enormity of harms to citizens around the world and future generations predicted by mainstream scientists, those who seek to undermine proposed climate change policies on scientific certainty grounds should be understood to have the burden of proof to show by high levels of proof that human-induced climate change is not dangerous.

b. The report includes clear explanations of the scientific evidence in regard to specific justifications for not taking action on climate change very frequently made by those who oppose climate change policies. These justifications and responses to them include, for instance:

Justification 1

Scientists don’t know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities?

Report says:

Scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities from an understanding of basic physics, comparing observations with models, and fingerprinting the detailed patterns of climate change caused by different human and natural influences.

Direct measurements of CO₂ in the atmosphere and in air trapped in ice show that atmospheric CO₂ increased by about 40 percent from 1800 to 2012. Measurements of different forms of carbon reveal that this increase is because of human activities.

Justification 2

The recent slowdown of warming means that climate change is no longer happening?

Report says:

No, recent weather is not evidence that warming is not happening. Since the very warm year 1998 that followed the strong 1997-1998 El Niño, the increase in average surface temperature has slowed relative to the previous decade of rapid temperature increases. Despite the slower rate of warming, the 2000s were warmer than the 1990s. A short-term slowdown in the warming of Earth’s surface does not invalidate our understanding of long-term changes in global temperature.

Justification 3

CO₂ is already in the atmosphere naturally, and so human emissions are not significant.

Report says:

Human activities have significantly disturbed the natural carbon cycle by extracting long-buried fossil fuels and burning them for energy, thus releasing CO₂ into the atmosphere.

 Justification 4

Variations in output from the sun have caused the changes in the Earth’s climate in recent decades.

Report says:

The sun provides the primary source of energy driving Earth’s climate system, but its variations have played very little role in the climate-changes observed in recent decades. Direct satellite measurements since the late 1970s show no net increase in the sun’s output while, at the same time, global surface temperatures have increased.

Justification 5

If the world is actually warming, some recent winters and summers would not have been so  cold?

Report says:

Global warming is a long-term trend, but that does not mean that every year will be warmer than the previous one. Day-to-day and year-to-year changes in weather patterns will continue to produce some unusually cold days and nights, and winters and summers, even as the climate warms.

Justification 6

A few degrees of warming is not cause for concern.

Report says:

Even though an increase of a few degrees in global average temperature does not sound like much, global average temperature during the last ice age was only about 4°C to 5°C (7 °F to 9 °F) colder than now. Global warming of just a few degrees will be associated with widespread changes in regional and local temperature and precipitation, as well as with increases in some types of extreme weather events.

These are only a few of the justifications that have been made by those denying responsibility to reduce the threat of climate change that are directly and clearly refuted in the report.

c. The report also has ethical significance because its so clear that policy makers cannot reasonably claim that there is no scientific evidence about the major issues of concern to the climate change scientific community. As we have explained on this website, policy-makers may not, as a matter of ethics, rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change  science once they are informed by respectable scientific organizations that people and organizations  within their jurisdiction are likely harming others around the world. This responsibility to not rely upon their own uninformed opinions increases when there are easy to understand explanations from respected scientific institutions of the scientific basis for concluding that people within their jurisdiction are harming others. The new report from the US Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society is such a clear explanation.  And so government officials have a strong duty to go beyond their 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 the interdisciplinary scientific issues that make up climate change science.

nw book advd.  Because politicians have an affirmative duty to rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm until peer-reviewed science establishes that the mainstream view is erroneous, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand the limitations of any politician’s views that opposes action on climate change on scientific grounds particularly when there are  easy to understand explanations of climate change science such as that in the new US National Academy and Royal Academy report. The new report will enable the press to fulfill its journalistic responsibilities by asking more precise and clearer questions of those who deny the mainstream scientific view.

For these reasons, the new report is ethically significant.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law,

dabrown57@gmail.com

New Study Concludes That Tracking Funding Of The Ethically Abhorrent Climate Disinformation Campaign Is Now Impossible.

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A new peer-reviewed study by Dr. Robert Brulle from Drexel University documents how the funding of the climate change disinformation campaign has shifted in the last few years from corporations and some politically conservative foundations to pass-through 501(c) (3) foundations like Donors Trust and Donors Capital, whose funders cannot be traced.

Ethics and Climate Change has explained in great detail in 13 separate articles available in the Start Here and Index tab on this site under “Disinformation Campaign and Climate Ethics” why the climate change disinformation campaign is ethically abhorrent, and, in fact, is some new kind of crime or assault against humanity, gross human rights violation, or other kind of villainy. This is so, as explained in these articles, because although skepticism in science should be encouraged, the climate change disinformation campaign has engaged in tactics which can’t be understood as responsible skepticism. These tactics have included: (1) lying or reckless disregard for the truth about mainstream climate change science, (2) cherry-picking climate science, (3) making specious claims about “bad” science, (4) focusing on what is unknown while ignoring what is not in dispute about climate change science, (5) using think tanks, front groups, and AstroTurf organizations to hide the real parties in interest, (6) manufacturing bogus science in conferences or publishing  in non peer-reviewed journals, (7) hiring public relations firms to convince citizens that there is no basis for mainstream scientific conclusions about climate change, and (8) cyber-bullying climate scientists and journalists. These tactics are not responsible skepticism but morally abhorrent misinformation.

The new study reviews the sociological literature on the climate change disinformation campaign while examining what is known about funding for this phenomenon.  Major conclusions of the study include:

  • Conservative foundations have bank-rolled denial. The largest and most consistent funders of organizations orchestrating climate change denial are a number of well-known conservative foundations, such as the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation. These foundations promote ultra-free-market ideas in many realms.
  • Koch and ExxonMobil have recently pulled back from publicly visible funding. From 2003 to 2007, the Koch Affiliated Foundations and the ExxonMobil Foundation were heavily involved in funding climate-change denial organizations. But since 2008, they are no longer making publicly traceable contributions.
  • Funding has shifted to pass through untraceable sources. Coinciding with the decline in traceable funding, the amount of funding given to denial organizations by the Donors Trust has risen dramatically. Donors Trust is a donor-directed foundation whose funders cannot be traced. This one foundation now provides about 25% of all traceable foundation funding used by organizations engaged in promoting systematic denial of climate change.
  • Most funding for denial efforts is untraceable. Despite extensive data compilation and analyses, only a fraction of the hundreds of millions in contributions to climate change denying organizations can be specifically accounted for from public records. Approximately 75% of the income of these organizations comes from unidentifiable sources..

The new study also concludes that the climate change disinformation campaign is what is known in the sociological literature as a “counter-movement.” Social movements such as that which has arisen to reduce the threat of climate change are often opposed by a “counter-movement” which seeks to undermine the goals of the social movement. Social movements usually seek to frame public policy issues as matters requiring government action while counter-movements work to frame the issue in the mind of the public to undermine the case for government action. This creates cultural contests over the appropriate frame for the public advocated by social movements and counter-movements.

new book description for website-1_01Counter-movements are “networks of individuals and organizations that share many of the same objects of concern as the social movements that they oppose. They make competing claims on the state on matters of policy and politics and vie for attention from the mass media and the broader public. Counter-movements seek to maintain the currently dominant frame and thus maintain the status quo by opposing, or countering, the efforts of movements seeking change. Significantly, counter-movements typically originate as the social change movement starts to show signs of success in influencing public policy, and threatening established interests.  These counter-movements typically represent economic interests directly challenged by the emergent social movement.”

According to Brulle, the climate change disinformation campaign is a well-funded and organized counter-movement effort to undermine public faith in climate science and block action by the U.S. government to regulate emissions. This counter-movement involves a large number of organizations, including conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, trade associations and conservative foundations, with strong links to sympathetic media outlets and conservative politicians. 

The new study also identifies the level of funding to the major organizations engaged in the climate change disinformation campaign and the amount of funding being provided to these organizations. The study ranks these organizations as follows with funding amounts in millions:

  • American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, $86.7, 16%
  • Heritage Foundation, $76.4, 14%
  • Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, $45.4, 8%
  • Manhattan Institute Policy Research, $33.1, 6%
  • Cato Institute, $30.6, 5%
  • Hudson Institute, $25.5, 5%
  • Altas Economic Research Foundation, $24.5, 4%
  • Americans for Prosperity Foundation, $22.7, 4%
  • John Locke Foundation, $18.0, 3%
  • Heartland Institute, $16.7, 3%
  • Reason Foundation, $15.0, 3%
  • Media Research Center, $14.5, 3%
  • Mercatus Center, $14.3, 3%
  • National Center for Policy Analysis, $13.9, 3%
  • Competitive Enterprise Institute, $12.5, 2%
  • State Policy Network, $12.0, 2%
  • Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, $11.4, 2%
  • Independent Womens Forum, $7.4, 1%
  • Landmark Legal Foundation, $7.0, 1%
  • FreedomWorks Foundation, $5.3, 1%
  • 49 Other Organizations < 1%, $63.7, 11%

The new report also identifies foundation funding source of these organizations and ranks them as follows in millions:

  • Donor Trust/Donors Capital Fund, $78.8, 14%
  • Scaife Affiliated Foundations, $39.6, 7%
  • The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, $29.6, 5%
  • Koch Affiliated Foundations, $26.3, 5%
  • Howard Charitable Foundation, $24.8, 4%
  • John William Pope Foundation, $21.9, 4%
  • Searle Freedom Trust, $21.7, 4%
  • John Templeton Foundation, $20.2, 4%
  • Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking, $13.7, 2%
  • Smith Richarson Foundation, Inc., $13.5, 2%
  • Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, $13.1, 2%
  • The Kovner Foundation, $12.8, 2%
  • Annenberg Foundation, $11.3, 2%
  • Lily Endowment Inc., $10.3, 2%
  • The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, $10.0, 2%
  • ExxonMobil Foundation, $7.2, 1%
  • Brady Education Foundation, $6.8, 1%
  • The Samuel Roberts Foundation, Inc., $6.7, 1%
  • Coors Affiliated Foundations, $6.2, 1%
  • Lakeside Foundation, $5.8, 1%
  • Herrick Foundation, $5.7, 1%
  • 118 Others < 1%, $170.4, 31%

Because much of the funding for the climate change disinformation campaign has shifted to organizations that prevent tracing the actual donors who are  receiving a tax deduction for their contributions, a case can be made that tax payers are paying for the disinformation campaign.  The new funding scheme also prevents citizens from knowing where the funding is coming from, facts which are necessary to understand who the parties in interest are behind the counter-movement. Because the tactics of the disinformation are so ethically reprehensible, the new funding scheme most likely shields large funders from public scrutiny that would reveal ethically abhorrent behavior.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School Of Law

Part-time Professor, Nanjing University School of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing, China

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ethical and Justice Issues At the Center of the Warsaw Climate Change Negotiations-Issue 2, Equity and National GHG Emissions Reductions Commitments in the Medium- to Long-Term

 

climate justice

This is the third paper in a series which is looking at the ethical and justice issues entailed by the Warsaw climate change negotiating agenda. This paper looks at issue two, namely, the ethics and justice issues entailed by the need to find a global solution to climate change that includes national ghg emissions targets after 2020. The last entry looked at ethical issues entailed by the need to increase the ambition of national emissions targets before 2020 when a new climate change treaty that will be negotiated by 2015 comes into effect.

new book description for website-1_01The issues of long-term national commitments to reduce ghg emissions is being negotiated in Warsaw under the Durban Platform. The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) is a subsidiary body of the UNFCCC that was established by a decision of the Durban COP in December 2011. The mandate of the ADP is to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties, which is to be completed no later than 2015 in order for it to be adopted at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) and for it to come into effect and be implemented from 2020. Among many other issues, the new treaty will need to take a position on several issues relating to national ghg emissions obligations after 2020.

The last entry in this series examined some of the most recent scientific evidence that has concluded that the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change. The staggering magnitude of the challenge facing the international community to limit warming to 2 degrees C can be visualized by understanding the following chart that depicts three ghg emissions reductions pathways which would allow the world to stay within a specific remaining budget to achieve a specific atmospheric concentration of ghgs. As we explained in the last entry, the IPCC has in September of this year described a budget that would give the world a 66% confidence of preventing the 2 degree C warming limit which the international community has agreed upon.

Any atmospheric ghg concentration target can only state the warming that will be experienced at the concentration limited by  a probability statement because there is scientific uncertainty about climate sensitivity, a term which is used to describe the warming that will be caused by different concentration of atmospheric ghgs. The level of certainty that we should seek to limit warming to a specific atmospheric concentration is itself an ethical question, not just a scientific question which often goes unexamined by the scientific community when discussing warming limits and emissions budgets to achieve warming limits.

One might ask why the budget prepared by IPCC was not based upon achieving the 2 degree C with much higher levels of certainty, a question which is not discussed in the IPCC report, yet one might speculate that IPCC’s failure to discuss a budget that would assure 100% certainty that the 2 degree C warming limit would not be exceeded was because it would leave no remaining budget for additional ghg emissions. The international community has already emitted so much CO2 that limiting warming to 2 degrees C with very high levels of certainty would mean that future emissions must be negative emissions, that is activities which remove ghg from the atmosphere while immediately ceasing ghg emissions activities.

As we have seen in the last entry, if the IPCC budget would have included all ghgs that have been emitted, it would have concluded that there remains only 269 billion tons of CO2e left to be emitted by the entire global community to stay within an emissions budget that will give a 66% confidence that the 20C warming limit would not be exceeded. Achieving the global reductions entailed by this budget is a civilization challenging problem of the highest magnitude.

The following chart prepared by the Global Commons Institute provides a visualization of the enormity of the challenge entailed by a budget of approximately 242 billion tons. This chart shows 3 different potential missions reductions pathways which will stay within the budget which differ depending upon how fast the needed emissions reductions are begun. The later global emissions peak and begin to be reduced, the steeper the emissions reductions pathways must become. This fact alone leads to the conclusion that any delay in emissions reductions has ethical significance because the steeper emission reductions are needed, the more difficult, if not impossible, it becomes to achieve the needed reductions. For this reasons, those who have been advocating for a delay in implementing a very aggressive ghg emissions policy can be understood to be engaged in ethically troublesome activities because it is alreadly likely to be too late to prevent some very serious consequences from climate change to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Slide22

This chart, being a depiction of total global emissions reductions pathway, does not attempt to display what the emissions reductions pathway in any one nation would be if equity and justice were to be taken seriously by nations. High emitting nations will need even steeper reductions in global missions than those depicted in the above  chart. If there is any hope of achieving the global emotions needed to limit warming to 2°C, as we explained in the last entry in the series, nations will need to limit their emissions based upon equity. Yet, equity-based emissions for high emitting developed countries will lead to an even greater challenge for high emitting nations. The following chart, also prepared by the Global Commons Institute, depicts what the US share of total global missions must be if United States were to agree on a per capita allocation of the remaining global budget to satisfy its clear obligations to take equity into account although this chart would change depending upon when nations would agree on equal per capita shares and when global emissions peaked. Nevertheless it is helpful to demonstrate the enormity of the challenge entailed by the undeniable need to take equity into account by depicting the consequences for one nation as this chart does.

Slide23

This chart uniquely shows why the United States and other high-emitting nations likely do not want to discuss “equity” in the Warsaw climate negotiations. If United States and other high-emitting nations were to take seriously its obligation to reduce its emissions based upon equity or distributive justice, such a decision would create an enormous challenge for them. And so, it would appear that the United States and several other developed countries have entered the Warsaw negotiations as if they can ignore the equity and justice issues while justifying their national ghg reductions commitments ultimately on the basis of national economic interest.

However, emissions reductions commitments based upon national economic interest can not be understood to satisfy any reasonable definition of equity or plausible formula for distributive justice.

Distributive justice does not require that all parties be treated equally. But distributive justice does require that parties who want to be treated differently justify their different treatment on the basis of morally relevant criteria. For instance, according to theories of distributive justice, I cannot justify my desire for more food on the basis that I have blue eyes. The color of my eyes it not a relevant basis for unequal treatment when it comes to food distribution. For the same reason, a justification for national ghg emissions reduction target commitments  based upon national economic interest alone that does not consider global responsibilities does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. It is totally ethically bankrupt.

Many commentators on the “equity” issue arising in international climate negotiations dismiss any plea for “equitable” allocations on the basis that because different people reach different conclusions about what equity requires the search for an equitable global solution to climate change should be abandoned. For instance it has been reported that the United States has resisted discussing equity on the basis that there is no objective way of determining what equity requires.

Yet the fact that different people reach different conclusions about what equity means does not mean that all opinions about what acting equity means or entitled to respect. As we’ve seen, theories of distributive justice require that people want to be treated differently identify morally relevant criteria for being treated differently. As we have seen, the color of my eyes is not a morally relevant criteria were being treated differently. Similarly my race is not a morally relevant justification for giving me the right to vote above others.

The world urgently needs a deeper conversation about equity and justice and national climate change policies.

To move the equity debate along, nations should be required to specify specifically how their emissions reductions commitments deal with both the enormity of the challenge entailed by the global emissions budget identified by the IPCC and how their emissions reductions target specifically can be justified on the basis of equity and justice.

Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity and justice may require of any national ghg emission reduction commitment, there are only a few considerations that are arguably morally relevant to national climate targets. This entry will end with the identification of a few equity frameworks that have received serious attention in the international community. It is important to stress, however, that although there is some legitimate disagreement about which of these formats to follow in international negotiations, almost all national emissions reductions commitments of large emitting countries fail to pass any reasonable ethical scrutiny. In discussing equity and the distributive justice of national commitments, the relevant criteria for being treated differently that have been recognized by serious participants in the debate about equity include: (A) per capita considerations, (B) historical considerations, (C) luxury versus necessity emissions, (D) economic capacity of nations for reductions, (E) levels of economic development, and (E) and combinations of these factors.

The fact that reasonable people may disagree about the importance of each one of these criteria does not mean that anything goes as a matter of ethics and justice. In addition, the positions actually been taken by nations on these issues in the negotiations utterly fail any reasonable ethical scrutiny. For this reason, concerned citizens of the world should focus heavily on the obvious injustice of national positions on these issues rather than worrying about what perfect justice requires.

In addition, in all probability, a global framework for equity would include some forward looking considerations including per capita considerations and backward looking considerations such as historical responsibility from a specific date, modified by certain economic considerations including economic ability to respond rapidly and perhaps differences between necessity emissions and luxury emissions.

We would stress, it is not as necessary to get immediate agreement on the final framework as it is to achieve a wider understanding of the utter failure of national commitments thus far to deal with the equity and justice issues. Along this line each nation should be asked to answer a series of questions about their commitments which include:

A. What specifically is the quantitative relevance of your emission reduction commitment to a global ghg emissions budget to keep warming below the 2°C warming target. In other words how does your emissions reduction commitment in combination with others achieve an acceptable ghg atmospheric concentration that limits warming to 20C.

B. What is the atmospheric ghg concentration level  that your target in combination with others is aiming to achieve?

C. How specifically does your national commitment take into consideration your nation’s undeniable obligation under the UNFCCC to base your national climate change policy on the basis of “equity.” How have you operationalized equity?

D. What part of your target was based upon “equity.”

E. Are you denying that nations have a duty under international law to assure that:

a. the “polluter pays,”

b. that nations have a duty to assure that citizens in their country not harm other people outside their national jurisdiction,

c. nations should have applied the precautionary approach to climate change policy since 1992 when the UNFCCC was adopted?

F. How does your national ghg target commitment respond to these settled principles of international law?

As we have noted, citizes of the world need to increase international understanding of the failure of nations to respond to equity and distributive justice. The following equitable framework formats are among others in serious discussion in international climate negotiations about what “equity” requires. However, as we have argued, it is more important in this moment in history to achieve a higher level of understanding of the utter injustice of national ghg emissions commitments than it is to get agreement on what perfect justice requires. This is particularly because, the international media, for the most part, is utterly failing to cover the obvious ethical unacceptability of most national commitments on climate change.

Contraction and Convergence (C&C) is a proposed global framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. Conceived by the Global Commons Institute [GCI] in the early 1990s, the Contraction and Convergence strategy consists of reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gases to a safe level (contraction), resulting from every country bringing its emissions per capita to a level which is equal for all countries (convergence). It is intended to form the basis of an international agreement which will reduce carbon dioxide emissions to avoid dangerous climate change, carbon dioxide being the gas that is primarily responsible for changes in the greenhouse effect on Earth. C&C does not require immediate per capita emissions per country but allows a later convergence on capita allocations to deal with other equitable considerations.

Greenhouse Development Rights is a framework wherein the burdens for supporting both mitigation and adaptation are shared among countries in proportion to their economic capacity and responsibility. GDRs seeks to transparently calculate national “fair shares” in the costs of an emergency global climate mobilization, in a manner that takes explicit account of the fact that, as things now stand, global political and economic life is divided along both North/South and rich/poor lines.

Equity in the Greenhouse, South-North dialogue is a global “multi-stage approach,” based on principles of: responsibility; capability; mitigation potential; right to development.

Brazilian Historic Responsibility is based primarily on historic responsibility for emissions: developed countries are each allocated emissions cuts based on the total contribution of their historic emissions (going back to 1800s) to the current global temperature increase.

Oxfam has proposed an approach, subsequently supported by various other NGOs, that uses a calculated responsibility and capability index to allocate an overall developed country target of 40%, and allows for a climate finance budget of $150bn to be allocated using the same method. Developing countries individual need for financing is assessed in line with available economic capability, taking into account intra-national inequality, and hence climate finance is provided on a sliding scale (below a minimum ‘available capability threshold’).

The EU has (e.g. EU Commission Proposal of 2009) suggested a method for distributing targets amongst Annex 1 countries that includes starting with an overall target for Annex 1 countries of 30% below 1990 levels by 2020 and allocating this target on the following basis: GDP per capita, addressing the capacity to pay for emission reduction within a country and through the global carbon market [capacity]; GHG per GDP, addressing the opportunities to reduce GHG emissions within one economy [capacity/mitigation potential]; Change of GHG emissions between 1990 and 2005, rewarding early action by developed countries to reduce emissions [reward early action/recognize latent mitigation potential]; Population trends over the period 1990 – 2005, recognizing different population trends between countries and as such different pressures on the projected emission evolution [equal rights to pollute]

There is a need to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change for many reasons including the fact that ethically dubious positions of nations are being hidden in self-interested arguments made in opposition to climate change policies and there is no hope of meeting the 2 degree C  warming target without a serious national response based upon equity.

One need not seek agreement on what ethics requires to get traction on ethical issues because most opposition to action on climate change fails to survive minimum ethical scrutiny. The key is to spot the injustice of positions not on getting agreement on what justice requires.

The longer the world waits to develop a global approach to climate change, the more central the ethics questions become about the most contentious issues in consideration.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,

Widener University School of Law

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

Visting Professor, Nagoya University,

Nagoya, Japan

Part-time Professor

Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology

Nanjing, China

dabrown 57@gmail.com

 

 

A New Web Site Enables Climate Policy Makers To Fulfill Their Ethical Responsibility to Understand The Significance of Policy Choices

aubreyAs we have explained from many angles on this website, climate change is a civilization challenging ethical problem. We have also explained why nations urgently need to immediately respond to their ethical obligations in making national emissions commitments under the UNFCCC.  In addition, ethics requires those engaged in dangerous behavior to understand the effects of their policy choices and respond to their ethical obligations. Yet complex interactions of ghg emissions levels, atmospheric ghg concentrations, the climate system’s response to atmospheric ghg concentrations, and how policy options must consider the magnitude of the global threat as it changes in time make it difficult for policy makers and NGOs to visualize and understand the significance of climate policy choices. And so ethics requires policy makers to understand these complex interactions, yet the sheer complexity of these interactions makes clear understanding of the significance of policy options very challenging.

We have also explained on this website how the debate on climate change in the United States and several other high-emitting nations is largely ignoring national ethical responsibilities. If nations are to take their ethical obligations seriously, they need to understand the extreme urgency of increasing their ghg emissions reduction targets to comply with their ethical obligations. Yet to understand their ethical obligations policy-makers must understand  the significance of policy choices. And so ethics requires climate change policy-makers to understand many complex scientific issues.

Ethics would also hold nations morally responsible for the failure to do this. Delay makes the climate change problem worse. Yet understanding how delay makes achieving the goals of preventing dangerous climate change extraordinarily more challenging also requires some knowledge about how increasing atmospheric concentrations affect global emissions reductions pathways options.   In addition, because each national emission reduction target commitment must be understood as an implicit position of the nation  on safe ghg atmospheric concentration levels, setting national ghg emissions goals must be set with full knowledge of how any national target will affect the global problem.

However, a clear understanding of how national emissions reductions commitments affect global climate change impacts requires an understanding of complex relationships between atmospheric ghg concentrations, likely global temperature changes in response to ghg atmospheric concentrations, rates of ghg emissions reductions over time and all of this requires making assumptions about how much CO2 from emissions will remain in the atmosphere, how sensitive the global climate change is to atmospheric ghg concentrations, and when the international community begins to get on a serious emissions reduction pathway guided by equity considerations. The problem in understanding these variables  is a challenge  that no static graph can capture.

A new website should be of great value to policy-makers to view  and understand the relationship between their national emissions reduction strategies and the global climate change problem, issues that must be considered in setting national ghg targets as a matter of ethics.  This tool is the Carbon Budget Accounting Tool (CBAT) which is available at http://www.gci.org.uk/cbat-domains/Domains.swf

Some features of CBAT are still under development, yet the site is already practically useful to policy-makers.

The CBAT has been developed by the Global Commons Institute founded in the United Kingdom in 1990 by Aubrey Meyer as an organization to find to a fair way to tackle climate change.

ContractionAndConvergence

 

The CBAT tool allows visualization of  any  national response for reducing national ghg emissions commitments based upon the idea of contraction and convergence, one of several equity frameworks under discussion in international climate negotiations,  but is also of value for visualizing the policy significance of other equity frameworks that are under discussion internationally.

CBAT allows those interested in developing a global solution to visualize the otherwise complex interactions of international carbon budgets, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, ghg emissions reductions commitments, the effect of a nation taking its ethical obligations seriously, resulting temperature, ocean acidification, and seal level rise,

The CBAT model should be very useful for all who hope to understand future climate change policy options and the scale of the global challenge facing the world. This writer has been engaged in climate change policy options since the 1992 Earth Summit at which the United Nations Framework Convention was opened for signature and have attended most of the Conference of Parties under the UNFCCC since then. Yet even though I have significant experience and knowledge about future climate change policy challenges, the CBAT model helps me visualize the significance of certain policy options facing the world.

Because ethics requires policy-makers to understand the policy implications of their policies, understanding the complex interactions of the variables displayed on the CBAT is indispensable for national climate change policy-makers as a matter of ethics.

By:

new book description for website-1_01

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University School of Law

Visiting Professor, Nagoya University School of Law

Nagoya Japan

dabrown57@gmail.com

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.

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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.”

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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