Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

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

climate  change moral

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

 

 

Visuallizing Why US National and US State Governments’ GHG Reductions Commitments Are Now Woefully Inadequate in Light Of Recent Science.

Several charts produced by the Global Commons Institute vividly demonstrate the woeful inadequacy of both the US federal government’s and US states’ commitments on climate change in light of the most recent climate change science.

These charts are extremely important because there is virtually no discussion in the US press of the utter and undeniable inadequacy of commitments on climate change made by the US federal and state governments.

These charts help visualize complex information that is not well understood by the vast majority of US citizens, yet these facts  must be understood to comprehend the utter inadequacy of the US federal government and US state governments response to climate change. Thus, these charts help explain both why the US commitment to reduce its ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 as well as targets that have been set by even those US states which have shown some leadership on climate change must now be understood as utterly inadequate in light of the most recent climate change  science.

As we shall see below, in setting a government target for ghg emissions two clusters of issues need to be considered which have largely been ignored when US policy makers have set ghg emissions targets. One is the issue of global carbon budgets for the entire world needed to prevent dangerous climate change. We will call this the carbon budget issue. The second is the unquestionable need of all governments to set a target in light of that government’s fair share of safe global emissions. This is required by distributive justice. We will call this the equity or justice issue. All ghg emissions targets are implicitly a positions on the carbon budget issue and the equity and justice issue, yet policy makers rarely discuss their implicit positions on these issues and the US media is largely not covering the budget and justice issues implicit in any US policy on climate change. Any entities identifying a ghg emissions reduction target must be expected to expressly identify their assumptions about what remaining carbon budget and justice and equity consideration were made in setting the target.

I. The First Chart-US States’ Emissions Reductions Commitments Required to Prevent Dangerous Climate Change and Adjusted  To Take Equity Into Account.

The following chart depicts what US states emissions commitments should be to prevent dangerous climate change in light of the most recent climate change science and the need to take justice into account in setting ghg emissions targets. This chart can be examined in more detail on the Global Commons Institute website at http://www.gci.org.uk/images/Don_Brown_All_State_draft_[complete].pdf Clinking on this URL should access a pdf file that will allow for a closer inspection of this chart which can  be further enhanced by using the zoom function.

US states and federal reductions

What is most notable about this chart is that the US federal government and US state g0vernments will need to reduce their ghg emissions extraordinarily steeply in the next few decades, far beyond what has been committed to.  This chart, in combination with the next chart, helps visualize why the current commitments of even those US states which have demonstrated some considerable leadership on climate change need to be increased to levels that represent the state’s  fair share of safe global emissions.

a. The Carbon Budget Issue

These steep reductions commitments are needed in light of the most recent scientific understanding of the climate problem facing the world. A carbon emissions budget for the entire world is needed to prevent dangerous climate change and was identified by IPCC in 2013. This budget is of profound significance for national and state and regional ghg emissions reductions targets yet it is infrequently being discussed in global media and has virtually been completely ignored by the US media. To give the world an approximately 66% chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees C, the entire global community must work together to keep global ghg emissions from exceeding approximately 250 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. The 250 metric gigatonne budget figure has been widely recognized as a reasonable budget goal by many scientists and organizations including most recently the International Geosphere Biosphere Program. The 250 metric ton number is based upon IPCC’s original budget number after adjusting for carbon equivalence of non-CO2 gases that have already been emitted but were not considered initially by IPCC. The practical meaning of this budget is that when the 250 gigtatons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions have been emitted the entire world’s ghg emissions must be zero to give reasonable hope of limiting warming to the 2 degrees C. Since the world is now emitting carbon dioxide equivalent emissions at approximately 10 metric gigatons per year, the world will run out of emissions under the budget in approximately 25 years at current emissions rates. This is a daunting challenge for the world particularly in light of the fact that global emissions levels continue to increase.

A 2 degree C warming limit was agreed to by almost every nation in the world in international climate change negotiations in 2009 in Copenhagen because it is widely believed by the majority of  mainstream scientists that warming greater 2 degree C will create very harsh climate impacts for the world. In fact many scientists believe that the warming limit should be lower than 2 degree C to prevent dangerous climate change and as a result the international community has also agreed to study whether the warming limit should be lowered to 1.5 degree C. The report on whether a 1.5 degree C  warming limit should be adopted  is to be completed in 2015. In addition, some scientists, including former NASA scientist James Hansen who is now at Columbia University, believe that atmospheric concentrations are already too high and that atmospheric concentrations of ghg should actually be lowered from their current levels of approximately 400 ppm CO2 to 350 ppm CO2 to prevent dangerous climate impacts. If, of course, there is a consensus that the current warming limit should be lower than 2 degrees C, the slopes in the above chart would need to be even steeper.  (For a good introduction to the implications of the 2 degree C warming limit see the short video by International Geosphere Biosphere Programme)

Although there has been some very limited discussion of this in the US press, the staggering global challenge entailed by keeping global emission within a roughly 250  gigaton budget, not to mention a budget premised on 1.5 degrees C,  does not take into account the additional undeniable need of  high-emitting nations, states, and regional governments to take equity and distributive justice into account in setting ghg emissions reduction targets is not being covered in US media hardly at all.

b. The Justice or Equity Issue

Under any reasonable interpretation of what equity and justice requires, high-emitting nations and regions (including the United States federal government and US states) will need to reduce their ghg emissions at significantly greater rates than lower emitting government entities because of: (1) significantly higher per capita emissions in developed nations (2) the dramatically higher historical emissions of most developed countries compared to poorer countries, and (3) the need of poor countries to be able to aspire to economic growth rate that will get them out of grinding poverty. If equity is not taken into account in setting national ghg targets, poor countries will have their much lower per capita emissions levels frozen into place if national governments set targets based upon equal percentage reduction amounts. And so there are at least three very strong reasons why any target of a high emitting nation or state government must take justice into account in setting its emissions reduction target:

(1) Allocating emissions among nations to achieve a global target is inherently a problem of distributive justice. To not take justice into account in quantifying ghg emissions targets guarantees an unjust global response to climate change.

(2) All nations including the United States have already agreed to reduce their emissions based upon “equity,” not national self-interest when they ratified the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change.

(3) To not consider justice when a developed nation sets a ghg reduction target would be extraordinarily and obviously unfair to poor, low emitting nations, many of which are most vulnerable to the harshest climate change impacts and have done little to cause the existing problem.

The numbers in the above chart are based upon an equity framework known as Contraction and Convergence (C&C).  The C&C framework consists of reducing overall emissions of ghg to a safe levels from all nations (contraction) and each nation bringing its emissions eventually to equal per capita levels for all countries (convergence). Although justification of the C&C framework is beyond the scope of this entry, we will argue in a future article that it is the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks receiving international attention and therefore should be adopted by the international community as it can be adjusted to take other distributive justice issues into account not expressly initially considered in the C&C framework such as historical emissions and the need of poor-developing countries to grow economically. Because nations can negotiate the convergence date in the C&C framework, it is also a good tool to negotiate a global solution to climate change. It is therefore the least controversial of all of the equity frameworks under serious consideration by the international community although there are other equity frameworks that have some supporters including the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework (GDR). (We will explain our position on these issues in much more detail in a future entry.)

Yet, for the purposes of showing the utter inadequacy of existing US federal government and US state commitments, the C&C framework is very useful because other equity frameworks which have received some attention and respect in international discussions of what equity requires of nations would require even steeper reductions for the US and US state governments. For instance the GDR framework would require the US to be carbon negative by between 2025 and 2030. The C&C framework is therefore a very non-controversial way of demonstrating the utter inadequacy of developed nations ghg emissions reductions commitments because other equity frameworks would require even greater reductions from developed countries.

The above  chart demonstrates the implications of this recent science for US states as well as the inadequacy of the US federal government commitment in light of a total global budget limitation of approximately 250 gigatons of carbon equivalent emissions.. The steepness of the curves in this chart are driven both by the limitations of the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget and the need to take equity into account. (The Global Commons Institute has  a computer graphic tool on its web site, the Carbon Budget Accounting Tool, that allows those who would like to consider alternatives to the 250 gigaton budget to visualize the effects of other budget numbers on the shape of the ghg  reductions pathways needed, the differences in environmental impacts, and  many other policy considerations.)

Like any attempt to determine what a ghg national target should be, the above  chart makes a few assumptions, including but not limited to, about what equity requires not only of the United States but of individual states, when global emissions will peak, and what the carbon emissions budget should be to avoid dangerous climate change. Although different assumptions would lead to different slopes of the emissions reductions pathways that are needed to remain below the 250 gigaton global carbon limitation, the chart depicts very reasonable assumptions about what needs to be done to stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget while taking equity into account. And so, without doubt the US government and US state’s targets are woefully inadequate. To stay within the 250 gigaton carbon equivalent budget, total US emissions which will be comprised of emissions from all states must achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Even the most aggressive US state targets are woefully short of this goal. In addition most US states have no emissions reduction target at all. The US will need to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and this national requirement will will require US states to work together to achieve carbon neutrality. The US government could achieve the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 by relying on different approaches in different states, yet the individual states must assume they have a duty to limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions and in the absence of a federal plan that would allow them to do otherwise, states must achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the above chart is a good example of what is required of them in total.

 II. The Second Chart-US States Existing Commitments Compared to an 80% Reduction By 2050. 

A few states have set ghg emissions reduction targets of 80 %  by 2050. The next chart shows the quantify of reductions that each state would need to achieve to reach an 80% reduction by 2050 although we have already established above that the most recent science would require each state to achieve carbon neutrality by 2o50.

states 80 percent

This chart can be examined in higher resolution on the Global Commons Institute website at: http://www.gci.org.uk/images/Emissions_Cuts_States_by_State.pdf

What is notable about this chart is that most US states have made no ghg emissions reductions commitments at all, only a few have made a commitment of an 80% reduction by 2050 which is still not stringent enough to meet the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and that some states such as Texas need to achievehuge emissions reductions if the US is going to do its fair share of staying within the 250 metric gigaton carbon equivalent budget.

III. Conclusions

These charts help visualize the enormity of the challenge facing the United States federal government and US state governments in light of the challenge facing the world as understood by the vast majority of mainstream scientists. There has been almost no coverage of this reality in the US media.

As explained above, there are two kinds of issues that need to be understood to comprehend what governments must do when setting ghg emissions targets. The first is the need to set any target in light of a total global ghg emissions limitation or budget entailed by the need to limit ghg emissions to levels that will not cause dangerous climate change. This, as we have seen,  is sometimes referred to as the carbon budget issue. The second is the need of governments to set their emissions target only after considering what distributive justice requires of them. This sometimes referred to as the equity or justice issue.  Any propose ghg emissions target must take positions on

these two clusters of issues in fact they implicitly do this. Yet government rarely explain what assumptions about the carbon budget and equity and justice issues they have made when setting their target.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law

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

dabrown57@gmail.com

Ethical and Justice Issues In Contention At the Warsaw Climate Negotiations-The First In A Series Of Reports.

warsaw

 

Negotiations on the international climate regime have begun in Warsaw at a time when the scientific community, including the IPCC in its recent report on the Physical Basis for Climate Change Science and UNEP in its just released Emissions Gap Report, are advising the international community that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.

The Warsaw agenda includes numerous topics that raise profound ethical and justice issues which not only must be faced to achieve a global climate change solution but which are also increasingly at the center of the most contentious issues in the international climate negotiations. Despite this fact, the international media, at least in most developed countries, is utterly failing to report on the ethical and justice dimensions of issues that are so central to achieving a favorable outcome in Warsaw. The failure of the media to continue to report on these issues almost guarantees that nations will continue to ignore their ethical obligations, a prospect which surely dooms the development of an adequate global climate regime.

This is the first entry in a multi-part series which will first examine the ethical dimensions of major issues under consideration in Warsaw and then, at the conclusion of COP-19, report on what was accomplished in Warsaw on these ethical issues.

Among Warsaw issues examined in this series through an ethical lens will be:

1. The extent to which nations make ghg emissions reductions commitments based upon “equity” rather than national interest alone.

2. The willingness of nations to agree to a new treaty that is to be completed in 2015 and that comes into effect in 2020 that includes a format for emissions reductions that takes equity and justice seriously.

3. The willingness of high-emitting nations to finance adaptation and climate change reduction strategies in vulnerable, developing counties.

4. The willingness of those nations most responsible for human-induced warming to agree to finance the value of losses and damages from climate change that can’t be avoided.

5. The extent to which some nations more than others are barriers to an urgently needed global climate change treaty.

6. The willingness of nations to accept a new climate change treaty that is sufficiently legally binding that it provides adequate sanctions for those who do not comply with their promises.

The next entry in the series will look at the ethical issues entailed by the need for national emissions reductions commitments to be based on “equity” and “justice”.

 

 By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

Visiting Professor, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan

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

dabrown57@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

IPCC’s New Report: Does It Make any Ethical Difference that Confidence Levels About Human Causation Have Increased?

ipcc_altlogo_full_rgb

 

The New York Times reported on August 19 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will soon issue its 5th assessment report that will  state that the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change has increased from a 90% probability in 2007 to a 95% probability in the new report.  This new report, according to the New York Times, will assert that expected warming in this century will lead to wide-spread melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty growing food and massive changes in plant and animal life, probably including a wave of extinctions.  Yet such predictions about climate change’s impacts have been made for well over thirty years.

One might ask whether the change in confidence levels from 90% to 95% makes a difference as a matter of ethics.  We believe it does not because those causing climate change have had clear ethical duties to reduce the threat of climate change once they were put on notice that their actions were likely putting others at great risk. This is information that was widely available three decades ago. Ethical duties to not create harm begin once someone is put on notice that their behavior is likely to cause great harm particularly in regard to actions about which:

  • Waiting to take action will make the problem worse;
  • Delays will make it much harder to prevent catastrophic impacts;
  • Those who are most at risk have not consented to be placed at further risk;
  • The harms from the dangerous behavior are not mere inconveniences but potentially catastrophic destruction of life and ecological system on which life depends;
  •  Much of the science on which the projections of catastrophic harms is based is not controversial and has been well established for many decades;
  •  The vast majority of the scientists that do peer-reviewed science on climate change support the conclusion that humans are likely changing the Earth’s climate in ways that will create great harms for the most vulnerable people on the planet.

new book description for website-1_01Under these circumstances, one does not need complete certainty before ethical obligations to do no harm are triggered. Once someone is put on notice that his or her behavior is greatly dangerous, they have a duty to stop the dangerous behavior. This duty is particularly strong when the harms are potentially great as they are in the case of climate change. This ethical duty to cease dangerous behavior is widely recognized in criminal codes around  the world that make many kinds of dangerous behavior criminal. In the United States, for instance, reckless driving and reckless endangerment are criminal violations. (For more on ethics and uncertainty see, On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.)

Some economists will argue that a change from 90% to 95% confidence levels is ethically relevant when calculating expected utility from climate change policies when cost-benefit analyses of policies are applied to climate change policies. Yet, as we have explained in many articles on this subject, cost-benefit analysis is a deeply ethically problematic policy tool for climate change. Its use seeks to find polices which maximizes utility while ignoring questions of distributive justice, ethical obligations based upon duties to prevent harm, human rights violations, procedural justice considerations that would give victims of harms rights to participate in decisions that impose risks,  and many other ethical issues. (See, Ethical Issues Entailed By Economic Arguments Against Climate Change Policies.)

We do not deny that higher levels of confidence that activities are harming others strengthen the ethical duty to take action, however the duty to reduce ghg emissions has existed since the scientific community has been describing the threats of climate change three decades ago.

Insistence on absolute certainty before governments intervene in markets on climate change has been a tactic of the climate change disinformation campaign on climate change for several decades. As a matter of ethics high-emitting nations and individuals have had clear ethical duties to reduce ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions for over thirty years.

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Professor

Widener University School of Law

Visting Professor, Nagoya University, Nogoya, Japan

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

“What Is Wrong Climate Politics And How to Fix It” A Review of a New Book By Paul Harris

 

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Given the strength of the scientific evidence that the world is rapidly heading to a climate catastrophe, it is vitally important to ask what has gone so terribly wrong with the world’s political response to climate change.  Understanding the cause of the utterly irresponsible and tragic political inaction on climate change provides some hope for changing course.

A a new well-written book by Paul Harris, What is Wrong with Climate Politics and How to Fix It, examines the failure of the global community to reduce the civilization challenging threat of human-induced warming. This book is an excellent, easily understood review of the sorry status of international cooperation to find a global solution to climate change. The book is valuable for its contribution to the growing literature on climate change policy particularly in regard to its clear description of the sorry history of international climate negotiations.

The main thesis of the book is that the  international focus in these negotiations on the obligations of nation states, rather than on individual responsibility, is a major cause of  what has gone wrong.

The book makes a compelling case that the almost exclusive national focus of climate change negotiations is problematic for two reasons.

First, nations have historically always engaged in international problems from the standpoint of national interest rather than global obligations.

Second, from the initiation of the climate negotiations, the international community has assumed that national responsibility will be apportioned largely according to two broad categories, namely developed and developing countries.  This categorization is problematic because this classification into these two categories arguably made some limited sense when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for ratification in 1992, but it doesn’t now given that some of the countries that were initially classified as developing countries, including India and China, are quickly emerging as the among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases (ghg).

In addition, in almost all developing countries there is a growing middle and affluent class of high consumers. If developing nations understand that they have no responsibility to curb high consumption of their affluent citizens in regard to ghg, there is absolutely no hope for reducing global emissions  to levels necessary to prevent catastrophic warming.

In addition, if high emitting consumers in developing nations assume that the duty to reduce ghg emissions is solely a national obligation, not a personal one, they will more likely continue to emit ghgs at high levels without being haunted by ethical or moral failure.

And so, Harris compellingly explains why a reliance on national responsibility alone in the global search for an adequate response to climate change will likely guarantee continuing international failure to reduce the enormous threat of climate change.

The book also reviews in some detail the mostly dysfunctional role that the United States and China have played in international negotiations for over two decades while at the same time describing the centrality of these two countries in maintaining hope for a global climate change solution.

Harris also provides strategies for changing the world’s response to climate change so that citizens around the world understand that they have individual responsibility.

The first recommendation is to expand the use of a “human-rights” approach to policies on climate change. Implicit in this strategy is the idea that if individuals understand that they are responsible for human rights violations, they may take their obligations to reduce their gig emissions more seriously.

There is little doubt that climate change is already preventing many people around the world from enjoying a host of human rights, a phenomenon that is sure to grow in the years ahead.  Furthermore there are several practical reasons why an increased emphasis on human rights has considerable potential utility for improving the international response to  climate change.

One is that a greater understanding of climate change as  a human rights problem should lead to more widespread rejection of many justifications for non-action on climate change. For instance, some of the excuses often used to justify non-action on climate change by nations and others, such as it is not in their economic interest to adopt climate policies, are widely understood to be irrelevant to affecting human rights obligations.

However, although turning up the volume on the human rights significance of climate change is something that should undoutably be encouraged, it is not clear why an increased focus on human rights is likely to achieve a greater acceptance of individual responsibility. In fact, human-rights obligations are currently understood to be the responsibility of nations, not individuals, under existing international law. Thus non-state actors, including businesses,  currently have no or very limited obligations under human rights regimes.

And so, although it is unquestionably true that a greater emphasis on human rights in climate change policy disputes has practical value, it is not clear how this will lead to the shift to a focus on individual responsibility appropriately called for by Harris.

Harris’s second strategy to achieve the needed shift to individual responsibility is a public movement to get individuals to understand that current unsustainable consumption patterns are disastrous.  According to Harris, it is the unquestioned assumed benefits of the economic growth model that dominates the world that is a major cause of  irresponsible consumption generating more and more ghg emissions.

On this issue, Harris is undoubtably correct that an economic growth model that is oblivious to the environmental destruction that it is causing is dominating international relations. What is not clear, however, is why a call for change in the growth model by itself will likely undermine the dominant discourse. A deeper understanding of the sociological forces that enable  the current dominant capitalist development model to dominate international affairs is likely necessary to develop an effective  strategy to dislodge this discourse.

In addition some explanation is necessary for why some developed nations (most of whom are in Northern Europe) have taken climate change more seriously than others if the problem is the international dominance of the economic growth model.

In this regard, Harris’s analysis leaves something of great importance off the table. Harris almost completely ignores the role that economically interested corporations and free-market fundamentalists foundations have had in undermining climate change policies in the United States for over two decades.

As we have written about many times, there has been a huge, well-organized, well-funded climate change disinformation campaign that is largely responsiblse for the failure of the United States to take climate change seriously. See, for instance: The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: What Kind Of Crime Against Humanity, Tort, Human Rights Violation, Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing Is It? Part Two: Is The Disinformation Campaign a Human Rights Violation Or A Special Kind of Malfeasance, Transgression, Villainy, Or Wrongdoing ? and 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?

This campaign, through the use of sophisticated public-relations honed tactics, has successfully prevented political action on climate change in the United States for over two decades. It also has had some effect on the the United Kingdom and Australia but much less so in some  other developed countries.

Therefore, the two strategies recommended by Harris to shift  global understanding about who has duties to reduce ghg toward individual responsibility will likely not be successful without a direct, dramatic, and vigorous confrontation with the climate change disinformation campaign. In fact, as we have argued before in considerable detail, this climate change disinformation campaign should be understood as  some new kind of crime against humanity.

The other failure not discussed by  Harris worthy of considerable attention is the failure of the media in many parts of the world to report on several aspects of climate change that need to be understood to fully understand personal and national responsibility. They include, the nature of the scientific consensus position, the civilization challenge entailed by the quantity of emissions reduction necessary to stabilize ghg in the atmosphere at levels that will avoid dangerous climate change, the fact that one can not think about national or individual responsibility clearly without considering equity and justice  questions, and the utter ethical bankruptcy of the scientific and economic justifications for non-action on climate change that have been the dominant excuses for non-action on climate change for 35 years.  At least in the United States, the media has dramatically failed to help citizens understand these crucial features of climate change.

new book description for website-1_01There is no doubt that Harris’s call for a shift to individual responsibility and away from national obligations alone is worthy of serious and expanded  reflection.  Therefore the book is recommended for anyone engaged seriously in climate change policy issues. However, to think strategically about how to generate a greater awareness of individual ethical responsibility, Harris’s book  should be supplemented by additional strategic considerations.  We have attempted to explain some of these considerations  in the recent book: Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm.  

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law.

Widener University School of Law

 

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

 

aboma under water climate and obama

mcconnell_thumb Joe Manchin

 

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

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

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

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

In response to climate skeptics he said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

earrh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

imhoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By:

Donald  A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Widener University School of Law.

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

Equity Remains At The Center of Bonn Climate Change Talks

 

equity and climate change

 

In a recent article in Ethicsandclimate.org, we explained why there is an urgent need of nations to respond to climate change be reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to levels required of them by “equity” to give the world any hope of  limiting warming to tolerable amounts. On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity

This article was written to explain in simple terms why national responses on the basis of equity are an indispensable ingredient in any global solution to climate change.  This article was also written because the media in the United States and other parts of the world are utterly failing to explain the importance of equity in national responses to climate change. This failure makes it easier for economic interests who perceive that they will be harmed if a nation reduces  its carbon emissions to manipulate the public with such arguments as the United States should not reduce its emissions because China is the largest polluter in the world. Citizens around the world need to understand that all nations have a duty to reduce their emissions to levels required of them by equity regardless of what other nations do to retain any reasonable hope of finding a global solution to climate change.

Since posting this article, nations have met under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bonn in early May, 2013 and in the first two weeks of June. In these meetings, equity continued to be a major focus of concern because of increasing scientific awareness of the urgent need of nations to increase their ambition in their greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reduction commitments to have any hope of preventing dangerous climate change.

Equity was not the only important issue under consideration at the Bonn  new book description for website-1_01meetings. Other significant issues under discussion were loss and damages, REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), market mechanisms under the UNFCCC, NAMAs (nationally appropriate mitigation actions for developing countries), and technology transfer, and completion of the architecture for the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol.

However, perhaps the most important issues in discussion in Bonn were those relating to structuring a new global climate change treaty that the world has agreed to complete by 2015 in Paris under the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform referred to by acronym ADP. These discussions focused on finding agreement on pre-2020 ambition national emissions reductions commitments and a framework for post-2020 agreement, carried out in two different work streams.

Parities working under the ADP are working to get a comprehensive deal by the 2015 deadline. The Bonn meeting marked the beginning of that “road to Paris” where 2015 COP-21 that is expected to finalize a new climate change agreement with legal significance that will come into force in 2020 .

equity and ambitionParties at the May Bonn meeting stressed the need for nations to align their commitments on the basis of  equity as required by the UNFCCC.  During the May Bonn meeting some developing countries argued in behalf of a proposal by Brazil that developed countries must take the lead on emissions reductions that took into account historical responsibility.

Other equitable frameworks were also discussed in May including frameworks known as “contraction and convergence,” “greenhouse development rights,” the “Indian Proposal,” and others.

There was also discussion on a new framework that is based upon the idea that all people everywhere should have the same right to use global atmospheric space.

A number of Parties spoke of the urgent need to close the ambition gap, as well as the quantification of the amount of adaptation that will be required in the light of the current scientific assessment of adaptation needs should current commitments not be met.

At the just concluded Bonn meeting in June, there was very little progress made in getting nations to increase their ambition based upon equity or on agreement about what equity requires. Although the June Bonn meeting saw some modest  progress on a few issues including REDD, little progress was made on the substantive content of future national commitments under the new treaty to be negotiated by 2015.  These issues will be taken up again in Warsaw at the next conference of the parties under the UNFCCC in mid-November.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

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

natural gas

 

Is Natural Gas Electricity Combustion A Solution to

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I. Introduction

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

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

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

(Naturalgas. org, 2013)

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

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

 (Reuters, 2012)

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

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

coalandnaturalgas

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

II. The Controversies

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

A. Unresolved Methane Leakage Rates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three reductions pathways

(Anderson, 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By:

Donald A Brown

Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

On the Extraordinary Urgency of Nations Responding To Climate Change on the Basis of Equity.

400ppm

This  article seeks to explain in understandable terms why nations must not only aggressively respond to climate change but respond at levels required of them by equity if the world is going to have any hope of avoiding dangerous climate change. And so, this article seeks to help citizens around the world understand why their nations must create climate change policies consistent with their equitable obligations and that if their nations fail to respond on the basis of equity, there is vey little hope of an adequate global solution emerging that has any potential of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Once again there has been some renewed interest in responding to climate change this week in response to the announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that carbon dioxide (CO2) atmospheric concentrations have reached 400 ppm (parts per million). This concentration of CO2 is not only higher than experienced in the last 3 million years of Earth’s history  (Kunzig, 2013), it is additional evidence that the world is rapidly running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.  NOAA posted on its website Wednesday night, May 9, that the daily average for CO2 was 400.03 ppm. (Kunzig, 2013)   The last time the concentration of the CO2 reached this mark, horses and camels lived in the high Arctic and seas were at least 30 feet higher. (Kunzig, 2013) This sea level  rise would  inundate major cities around the world and cause harm to hundreds of millions around the world when temperatures finally responded to these elevated greenhouse gas (ghg) atmospheric concentrations.

Although this story made it to the front page of the New York Times, (see Schuetze 2013), the US press continues to fail to educate American citizens fully about the seriousness of the problem that the world is facing particularly in regard to the urgent need of nations to take immediate steps to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global ghg emissions.  Ethicsandclimate.org has previously examined the failure of the US press to communicate to American people the importance of the equity issue in formulating US policy. (See, The US Media’s Grave Failure To Communicate The Significance of Understanding Climate Change as A Civilization Challenging Ethical Issue.Yet, as we will explain, in light of the rapidly decreasing amount of time remaining for the world to prevent dangerous climate change, there is now more than ever a need to increase political support at the national level around the world for the adoption of policies on climate change that reflect each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions.

rich countriesWhen almost all nations around the world agreed to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), they promised  to adopt policies and measures to limit warming based upon “equity” to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. (UNFCCC, Art. 3) Up until very recently it was possible for nations to ignore that they had a responsibility to reduce their ghg emissions to levels based upon “equity.” And so many, if not most, nations have been entering international climate negotiations as if they need only look to their national economic interest to determine what ghg emissions reductions commitments they need to make under the UNFCCC. However, now that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the urgent need of nations to reduce their emissions to levels required of them on the basis of equity and basic fairness is now obvious and undeniable. This was not the case only a few years ago.  For instance, just three years ago it was possible for the United States to ignore what was required of it as a matter of basic fairness because nations were happy when the United States made any commitment to reduce its ghg emissions having refused to do so from the early 1990s through 2010. Any US commitment was viewed as a positive step. And so, when President Obama made a voluntary commitment in 2010 in Copenhagen to reduce US emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, it was widely celebrated throughout the international community even though most observers knew this commitment was far short of what justice required of the United States. Yet just two years later in Qatar, the same US commitment was almost universally condemned on justice grounds. (See: Qatar: Bumping Up Against Climate Change Limitations On Human Activities Makes Ethical and Justice Issues Unavoidable) 

The importance of each government entity’s responsibility to limit their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions has become undeniably obvious to most observers of international climate negotiations now that it has become clear to all that there is precious little time for the global community to avoid dangerous climate change. The central importance of the need to get nations to respond to climate change on the basis of “equity” becomes very obvious once a number of scientific aspects of climate change are fully understood. However, too few people understand these scientific aspects of climate change and the press is failing to educate citizens about these issues.

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To fully understand the importance of national responses on the basis of “equity” it is necessary to understand some features of climate change that make it unlike any other environmental problem facing the world. The atmosphere is like a bathtub, it has limited volume. Nations have been filling up the atmospheric bathtub since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the late 1790s. Because CO2 is long-lived in the atmosphere, the bathtub continues to fill up with CO2 even if rates of CO2 emissions slow down somewhat unless all ghg emissions are reduced to the rate at which the Earth’s natural carbon cycle can remove CO2, an amount which is less than 20% of existing emissions levels. Decreasing ghg emissions does not prevent global atmospheric concentrations from increasing unless they are cut back globally by huge amounts. And so to prevent dangerous climate change nations have to do much more than cut back on the ghg emissions levels that they are entering the atmosphere, they have to cooperate to prevent the level in the bath tub from reaching levels that will cause dangerous climate change. As we shall see, this is a level that the world is fast approaching. Furthermore because CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere it makes no difference where on Earth the ghgs come from, the atmospheric concentrations of ghg continue to rise without regard to location of the source of emissions.

What makes the current climate change threat so ominous is that the levels of CO2 that have been building up for over 200 years are quickly approaching levels that could trigger dangerous climate change as emissions are increasing in many parts of the world.

In our experience, most Americans don’t understand the scale of the climate change facing the world. In Copenhagen in 2010 the international community agreed to set as a goal warming limit of 2°C not withstanding there are some scientific evidence to believe that the warming limit should be lower at 1.5 °C. The 2°C warming limit was chosen because there is strong scientific evidence that warming above 2°C could trigger rapid nonlinear climate change thereby threatening hundreds of millions of people around the world and the ecological systems on which they depend. Even if 2°C warming doesn’t trigger nonlinear warming, this amount of warming will cause great harm around the world to people and places that have done little to cause climate change.

The following graph describes the staggering challenge facing the world if the international community desires to limit warming to 2°C.  The graph depicts three different emissions reductions pathways where the steepness of ghg emissions reductions needed to limit 2°C depend upon when global emissions levels peak, that is in 2015, 2020, or 2025. Despite over twenty years since the international community agreed in 1992 to adopt policies and measures based upon equity to prevent dangerous climate change, global ghg emissions levels continue to rise despite a global economic turn down in 2008. Global CO2 emissions grew 3 percent in 2011 and were estimated to rise 2.6 in 2012. (Morello, 2012).  Since the international community began to negotiate a climate change solution, rather then emissions levels diminishing they have  grown to 58 percent above the 1990 emissions level in 2012 (Morello, 2012). And so, the world is facing the urgent need to reduce ghg emissions at hard to imagine rates as seen in the following graph where the different colored lines on this chart represent different assumptions about climate sensitivity. This graph shows that if the world waits to act together to prevent ghg emissions from rising until 2020 or 2025, the world will need to reduce ghg emissions at staggering reduction levels after the peak years.

three reductions pathways

 

 

 

 

(Anderson, K.. 2012)

On the basis of the magnitude of the ghg emissions reductions challenge facing the world, mainstream scientists around the world are now emphatically trying to get the world’s attention about the urgency of the need to act dramatically to prevent dangerous climate change. Yet there has been little discussion in the media about the importance of equity in national responses to this global emergency coupled with the fact that one needs to understand other aspects of the climate change problem to fully understand the importance of requiring nations to reduce their emissions based upon “equity.”

Once one identifies an atmosphere ghg concentration level that will serve as a goal for preventing dangerous warming it is a relatively straightforward calculation to identify the remaining amounts of ghg emissions that can be emitted worldwide to prevent atmospheric ghg concentrations from exceeding the maximum concentration goal. This calculation is the basis for determining an emissions budget. Because there is some uncertainty about climate sensitivity, that is how much warming the Earth will experience at different atmospheric ghg concentrations, different atmospheric ghg concentration goals create different levels of probability of limiting warming to 2°C.  The following chart identifies the quantity of ghg emissions in gigatons of CO2 equivalent that the world may emit to achieve different levels of probability that the 2° C warming limit will not be exceeded. Therefore we see from this chart that if the entire world is assumed to be allowed to emit no more than 886 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 equivalent, this budgetary limit creates between a 8% and 37%, with a best estimate of 20%, probability that temperatures will exceed the warming limit of  2°C.   At the upper end of this chart, a 1437 Gt CO2 budgetary limit creates a probability of between 29 to 70 probability, with a best estimate of 50%, that the  2°C warming limit will be exceeded.

The chart also shows that if the world emits ghgs at levels projected at 56 Gt per year, then, assuming that the world chooses to live with a budget of 886 Gt CO2 which gives the world an 80% probability that future warming will be limited to 2°C, then after12 years there will be zero emissions left in the budget.  The chart also demonstrates that even if the world chooses to run the risk of accepting a 50% probability that the 2°C warming will be exceeded then world can only emit greenhouse gases at projected levels for 22 years.
budget

As gloomy as this picture in regard to the remaining global ghg emissions budget, we have not yet explained why getting nations to commit to reduce their emissions to levels required of them by equity is so important and indispensable for thinking clearly about how the world must respond to the threat of climate change. And so, now, for the first time, we can explain the importance of “equity” in guiding international responses to climate change.

 

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Returning to the use of a bathtub as a metaphor for the atmosphere, we note that there is already elevated levels of ghg (metaphorically water) in the bathtub that have risen to current levels from over 200 years of human activities. That is CO2 has increased in the atmosphere from 280 ppm to 400 ppm since the beginning of the industrial revolution. If we assume that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 equivalent should be limited to 450 ppm to give the world a 50% chance of keeping warming from exceeding the 2°C warming limit, atmospheric concentrations have increased already by120 ppm from pre-industrial levels and only 50 ppm of atmospheric space are  left to allocate to the entire world.  The 120 ppm increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations that has already been put into the bathtub by human activities has overwhelmingly been caused by activities in some rich, developed countries much more than poor developing countries.  The following chart shows which countries have contributed the most elevated concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.
cummualative over time

(EPA, 2002)

And so some countries more than others have contributed far more than others to elevated ghg concentrations. Given that there’s only 50 ppm of atmospheric space left to allocate (assuming and atmospheric goal of 450ppm giving approximately a 50 % chance of exceeding  the 2°C) and some developing countries desperately need to use the remaining atmospheric space to escape grinding poverty, it is obviously unfair or inequitable to require all countries to reduce emissions by the same amount.

Percapita nationaFurthermore, the above chart demonstrates that some countries including the United States, Canada,  and Australia, for instance, far exceed others in per capita levels of emissions from their citizens compared to other countries such as India.

If it is determined that the entire world must reduce its emissions by 80% below 1990 levels to prevent dangerous climate change, high-emitting nations or governments around the world, including the US, Canada, and Australia, will need to reduce their emissions to even greater levels on the basis of equity and fairness. To require each nation or government to reduce emissions by the same percentage amount would freeze into place unjust emission levels for high-emitting governments and very low emissions rates for poor developing countries.  For this reason, almost all the nations of the world, including the United States in 1992 when it ratified the UNFCCC, agreed that each nation must reduce its emissions on the basis of “equity” to prevent dangerous climate change. (UNFCCC, 1992: Art 3, Para 1) If all nations need only reduce their emissions by equal percentage amounts, then a high-emitting nation like the United States that emits ghg at rate of 17.3 tons per capita would be allowed to emit at a level 10 times more per capita than a country like Vietnam that emits 1.7 tons of ghg per capita. (World Bank, 2012b) As a result, all nations have agreed that national targets must be based upon fairness or equity.

Given that the entire world has only 50 ppm of atmospheric space left to allocate to give the world a reasonable expectation of preventing dangerous climate change, the equitable and fairness dimensions of national ghg emissions reductions commitments become obvious and crucial to increasing the ambition of nations to reduce their ghg emissions. Yet most citizens seem completely unaware of the equity issues entailed by climate change and many high-emitting nations are ignoring their equitable responsibilities.

However, the ability of nations to ignore what equity requires of them will become more and more difficult as the world wakes up to the hard-to-imagine stringent carbon budget that the world must face to avoid catastrophe warming. In addition the longer nations wait to respond to climate change on the basis of equity, the more difficult it will be in the future to do so because the steepness of their emissions reductions pathways needed to comply with what equity requires increases the longer nations wait to respond appropriately.

References:

Anderson, Ken, (2012) , Climate Change Going Beyond Dangerous, Brutal Numbers, Tenous Hope,  http://whatnext.org/resources/Publications/Volume-III/Single-articles/wnv3_andersson_144.pdf

EPA, (2002), CO2 emissions by country (http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/)

Kunzig, Robert, (2013) National Geographic News,  Climate Milestone: CO2 Level Passes 400 ppm,  National Geographic, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/05/130510-earth-co2-milestone-400-ppm/

Morello, (2012), Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning Rise into High-Risk Zone, Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=global-co2-emissions-from

Open Source, (2013) http://ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/what-we-dont-know

 World Bank, (2012), CO2 Emissions (Metric Tons Per Capita), http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change  (UNFCCC), (1992), http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/background/items/1349.php

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence,

Sustainable Development Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail. com