Ethics and Climate

Donald Brown

Ethics and Climate - Donald Brown

Do US GHG Emissions Commitments Pass Ethical Scrutiny?

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A. The US GHG Emissions  Reduction Targets

Although the Obama administration has over the last year or two taken significant steps to reduce US greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions that have been widely welcomed by many nations, do the current US ghg reduction targets represent the US fair share of safe global emissions?  This post examines the question of whether the current US commitments to reduce US ghg emissions are adequate as a matter of justice and ethics.

On November 11, 2014, the Obama Administration announced a new US commitment on reducing its ghg emissions in a deal with China. (US White House, 2014) The United States pledged to cut its emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 while retaining a prior pledge to reduce US ghg emissions by 80% below 2005 by 2050.

All nations have agreed to negotiate a new climate agreement with binding force at the twenty first Conference of the Parties (COP21) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in December 2015. To prepare for the Paris negotiations, countries have agreed to publicly outline what post-2020 climate actions they intend to take, known as their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The INDCs will largely determine whether the world is on a path to avoid catastrophic climate change by avoiding additional warming of no more than  2°C.

On March 31, 2015, the United States submitted its INDC to the Secretariat of  the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which reiterated the ghg emissions reduction targets announced in November. (US, 2015)

The US March announcement on its reduction targets for 2025 was met with mostly, but not uniformly, positive responses from nations around the world because the new commitments were a significant increase over the US commitment made in 2009 to reduce US ghg emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions levels by 2020. The new US commitments were also welcomed because the United States has a record that spans several decades of being a major obstacle to achieving an adequate global solution to climate change. (For a discussion of the role that the United States has played in international climate negotiations, see Brown, 2002 and Brown, 2012) The Obama administration ghg reduction targets were seen by many as a constructive change in the US role in international efforts to find a global solution to climate change.

new book description for website-1_01Although there has been a positive response to the Obama commitments to reduce US ghg emissions, there is also great international concern that national INDCs, including the US commitments, are not nearly ambitious enough to prevent dangerous climate change. In fact there is a strong consensus among nations that unless nations reduce their ghg emissions to levels that represent each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, there is little hope of preventing catastrophic warming.

The United States along with almost every country in the world agreed when it ratified the UNFCCC to adopt policies to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system on the basis of “equity” and “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Thus the United States has agreed that it should reduce its  ghg emissions to levels required of it on the basis of equity and justice.

In addition there are several features of climate change that scream for attention to understand it and respond to it as an ethical and moral problem. These features include: (a) it is a problem caused by some nations and people emitting high-levels of ghgs in one part of the world who are harming or threatening tens of millions of living people and countless numbers of future generations throughout the world who include some of the world’s poorest people and who have done little to cause the problem, (b) the harms to many of the world’s most vulnerable victims of climate change are potentially catastrophic, (c) many people most at risk from climate change often can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments; their best hope is that those causing the problem will see that justice requires them to greatly lower their ghg emissions, and, (d) to protect the world’s most vulnerable people, nations must act quickly to limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions.

A major significance for policy of understanding climate change as a moral and justice issue, is that nations may not look at economic self-interest alone in formulating policies, they must consider their ethical and moral obligations to those who are most vulnerable to climate change.

For these reasons, it is important to review the US ghg emissions reduction commitments through the lens of justice and equity.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) “equity” under the UNFCCC covers both distributive justice issues and procedural justice. (IPCC, 2015, chap 4, 4.2.2)

The rules under which nations are making commitments in their INDCs before the Paris COP under the UNFCCC do not include a definition of or benchmark for determining what “equity’ requires of nations.  Yet nations are encouraged to explain how they took environmental ambition and fairness into account in establishing their INDC. More specificly at UNFCC COP-20 in Lima, nations agreed to explain in its INDC:

“how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2. (UNFCCC, 2014, emphasis added)”

Although reasonable disagreements exist about what equity and justice requires of nations in setting their INDCs as demonstrated by numerous proposed equity frameworks discussed by the recent IPCC chapter in the 5th Assessment Report on equity (IPCC, 2014, chapter 4), the national commitments that are based upon national economic interests alone clearly fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. This is so because as IPCC said recently “reasonable interpretations of equity are limited to only a few plausible kinds of considerations namely responsibility, equality, capacity, and rights of developing countries to develop.” (IPCC, 2014, chapter 4. 48-52) If there is any doubt that economic self-interest is not compatible with the idea of “equity” it also is an unacceptable basis for establishing national climate change policies because economic self-interest is also inconsistent with well established international legal principles including:

  • the “polluter pays” principle of the Rio Declaration (UN, 1992: Principle 16),
  • the “no harm” principle recognized in the UNFCCC (UNFCCC, 1992: Preamble)
  • what is required of nations who fail to fulfill and protect human rights of citizens (For discussion of the implications for policy of a human rights approach to climate change policy see, Brown and Brown, 2014).

And so although it may not be possible to say precisely what equity requires of nations in advance, strong arguments can be made that some national commitments fail to satisfy reasonable interpretations of what equity requires. Or saying this another way, although policy makers may disagree on what perfect justice requires, they may all strongly agree that certain positions  are  unjust.

In the absence of a court adjudicating what equity requires of nations in setting their national climate change commitments, a possibility but far from a guarantee under existing international and national law (for an explanation of some of the litigation issues, Buiti,2011), the best hope for encouraging nations to improve the ambition of their national emissions reductions commitments on the basis of equity and justice is the creation of a mechanism under the UNFCCC that requires nations to explain their how they quantitatively took equity into account in establishing their INDCs and why their INDC is consistent with the nation’s ethical obligations to people who are most vulnerable to climate change and the above principles of international law.

B. The US Justification for Its GHG Emissions Reduction Targets.

Although the United States asserted without explanation when it submitted its INDCs to the the UNFCCC Secretariat that the US commitments were” fair and ambitious,” (US, 2015), the United States has also acknowledged the commitment was based upon what is achievable under existing US law rather than what may be required of the United States by ethics, justice, and basic fairness.

The US justification for its new 2025 commitment is as follows:

The target is grounded in intensive analysis of cost-effective carbon pollution reductions achievable under existing law and will keep the United States on the right trajectory to achieve deep economy-wide reductions on the order of 80 % by 2050. (US White House, 2014)

According the US White House, the 80% reduction commitment by 2050 is based upon a commitment made by the United States to the G8. (Light, 2014)
The US has not asserted that the 26% to 28 % reduction below 2005 emissions reduction commitment by 2025 or 80% reduction below 2005 emissions by 2050 aspiration represents the US fair share of safe global emissions.

In regard to the 80% reduction commitment by 205o, the United States has asserted that this number was taken from the 2009 G8 Declaration on Climate Change which stated that:

We recognize the broad scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C. Because this global challenge can only be met by a global response, we reiterate our willingness to share with all countries the goal of achieving at least a 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050, recognizing that this implies that global emissions need to peak as soon as possible and decline thereafter. As part of this, we also support a goal of developed countries reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in aggregate by 80% or more by 2050 compared to 1990 or more recent years. (G8, 2009)

The Obama administration has thus explicitly acknowledged that the current 2025 commitment is based upon what is currently achievable under existing law rather than on what ethics and justice would require of the United States while the commitment to reduce ghg emissions by 80% by 2050 is based on a promise made to the G8 in 2009 which did not expressly consider the implications of a carbon budget described by IPCC in 2013. (see below)

C. Why the US Commitments Are Inadequate

Although it is speculation, it would appear that the reference by the United States to an 80% reduction commitment by 2050 originally made to the G8 was influenced by a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007, p776) which concluded that developed nations needed to reduce ghg emissions by 25% to 40% below 1990 emissions levels by 2020 and 80% to 95% by 2050 for the world to have any reasonable chance of limiting warming to 2°C. If this is the case, the US government has not explained why the US believes it need only achieve the lower end of the 80% to 95% reduction goal for 2050 emissions for developed nations identified by the IPCC in 2007 nor why the current reduction commitment of 26% to 28% below 2005 emissions by 2025 is justified given the much higher 25% to 40% reduction targets by 2020  were recommended by the IPCC in 2007 for developed nations.

It would also appear when determining any of its ghg commitments that the United States has not considered the most recent carbon budget identified by the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report. (IPCC, 2013, p27). A carbon budget is a limit of total ghg emissions for the entire world that must constrain total global emissions to have any reasonable hope of limiting warming to 2°C or any other temperature limit. The IPCC budget defines a limit of future carbon emissions of approximately 270 gigatonnes carbon (GtC) to have a 66% chance of limiting the warming to 2°C. (Pidcock, 2013). The 2°C warming limit has been agreed to by the international community including the United States as necessary to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change. The US has agreed several times, including in the G8 agreement above, on the need for it to adopt policies that will, working with others, prevent warming from exceeding the 2°C warming limit.

Because any US ghg target is implicitly a position on the US fair share of safe global emissions, any US emissions reduction target may only be justified as a matter of ethics and justice by explaining why the US commitment is a fair share of an acceptable global carbon emissions budget. Yet, the Obama administration has made no attempt to explain or justify why its emissions reduction goals are just and equitable in reference to a global carbon budget or a warming limit. As we have seen, the United States has asserted that its INDC is ambitious and fair but has given no explanation of how the United States justified this conclusion.

If the total carbon budget to give the world a 66% chance of keeping warming below 2°C is 270 gigatons carbon (GtC), then because the US population is 5 % of world population, a case can be made that the United States carbon budget must be below 13.5 GtC even before this number is adjusted on the grounds of fairness or equity that takes into account the US’s world leading share of historical emissions. Because  the US is currently emitting 1.44.GtC per year, the US will have zero emissions to allocate to itself in 9.4 years at current emissions rates.

In any event the US INDC, as well as all INDCs, should be expressed as a total number of carbon tons rather than as a percent reduction by a specific year given that a carbon budget requires nations to fairly allocate the remaining carbon budget necessary to limit warming to 2°C.  Because keeping global emissions within a global carbon budget requires all nations to live within their allocated budget for the entire period, the US commitment should identify the total number of tons as a percentage of the global carbon budget it is allocating to itself.  This is so because identifying a percentage reduction by a date in the future would not prevent a nation from far exceeding its budget allocation before the target date even if the percent reduction committed to is achieved by the target date.   For this reason, nations should express their INDCs for emissions reductions in tons rather than in percent reductions by a specific date.

During a speech at Georgetown University in June 2013, President Obama did acknowledge in very general terms that the United States has responsibility for climate change when he 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. (Obama, 2014)

Although President Obama thus acknowledged US responsibility to the world to take effective action on climate change, the US has not explained how this responsibility is linked quantitatively to any US ghg reduction commitment.

There are several reasons for concluding that the US INDC fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.

First, as one observer noted about the fairness of the US-China agreement:

“ [U]nder such an agreement the United States would come down “marginally” from its current 18 tonnes per capita and China would increase from its current seven-eight tonnes. Both the polluters would converge at 12-14 tonnes a person a year. This is when the planet can effectively absorb and naturally cleanse emissions not more than two tonnes a person a year.” (Narain, 2014)

Second, the US has admitted that its commitment on its 2025 emissions reductions of 26% to 28% is simply based on what is achievable under existing law not what is required of the US as a matter of justice.

Third  the debate about climate change in the United States for over 35 years reveals that opposition to stronger policies to reduce US ghg emissions has successfully blocked stronger US policies by making two kinds of arguments.

The first  argument has been that there is insufficient scientific certainty about human causation of harmful climate change to warrant climate policies given the likely costs of climate change policies to certain sectors of the US economy.

The second argument which has blocked stronger US climate change policy for the last few decades is based on claims that proposed climate law and policies would impose unacceptable costs on the US economy. The cost arguments have taken several forms. (Brown, 2012b, p57) These arguments have included that proposed  policies would destroy jobs, reduce US GDP, damage specific industries such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or simply that proposed climate policies and legislation are unaffordable. (Brown, 2012b, p57).

It is therefore clear that the actual basis for current US positions on climate change have not been identified by the the Obama administration, which likely is doing as much as it can under existing law. Rather the actual basis for current US climate policies includes arguments which  have successfully prevented the US Congress from passing  more ambitious US climate change policies. Therefore in the US,  to determine the actual reasons for domestic action on climate change it is not sufficient to examine the claims of the administrative branch of government alone, one must examine the arguments made by opponents of climate change that have successfully blocked stronger climate change action by the government. And so, one cannot escape the conclusion that the basis for the US commitments on climate change include alleged unacceptable costs of more aggressive climate change policies to the US  economy, matters of economic self-interest rather than global responsibility.

Although both the scientific uncertainty and cost arguments made in opposition to US climate law and policies can be shown to be ethically problematic because they ignore US ethical obligations to others (see Brown, 2012b, pp57–137), these arguments neither have been examined in the US press nor identified by the US government. With very few exceptions, the US press has utterly failed to cover climate change as an ethical and moral issue while focusing on the scientific and economic arguments against taking action that have been made by opponents of US climate change policies for almost 30 years. (Brown, 2009 ; Brown, 2012a) By focusing on the cost issues to the US economy, the US press has reinforced the ethically problematic notion that cost to the US economy alone is an acceptable justification for inaction on climate change.

The US debate on climate change has ignored the fact that when the United States ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 it agreed that nations:

“[H]ave, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law… the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” (UNFCCC, 1992, Preamble)

As explained above, the United States government has not explained how the US ghg emissions reduction commitments took into consideration justice and equity issues in establishing US emissions reduction targets. Although the Obama administration is likely doing as much as it can under existing law, it would have to admit that its current commitments do not represent the US fair share of safe global emissions.

Reasonable arguments can be made about which of the equity frameworks that have attracted international attention and respect should be applied to any nation’s INDC.  An examination of the arguments for and against specific equity frameworks that have received international attention and respect is beyond the scope of this article.  (For a discussion of the merits of various equity frameworks see, Brown, 2014)  However, it is not necessary to agree on an equity framework to conclude that some national commitments fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny. As we noted above it is not necessary to know what perfect justice requires to spot injustice. The US current ghg emissions reductions commitments clearly fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny for reasons stated here and summarized below. The United States had an opportunity to explain its justification for why its INDC was fair and sufficiently ambitious when it submitted its INDC. In fact the decision at COP 2o in Lima in December of 2014 encouraged the United States and all countries to explain why its INDC was fair and sufficiently ambitious to prevent dangerous climate change. The United States chose not to do this.

D. Summary 

In summary, a strong case can be made that the US emissions reduction commitment for 2025 of 26% to 28% clearly fails to pass minimum ethical scrutiny when one considers: (a) the 2007 IPCC report on which the US likely relied upon to establish a 80% reduction target by 2050 also called for 25% to 40% reduction by developed countries by 2020, and (b) although reasonable people may disagree with  what “equity” means under the UNFCCC, the US commitments can’t be reconciled with any reasonable interpretation of what “equity” requires, (c) the United States has expressly acknowledged that its commitments are based upon what can be achieved under existing US law not on what is required of it as a mater of justice, (d) it is clear that more ambitious US commitments have been blocked by arguments that alleged unacceptable costs to the US economy,  arguments which have ignored US responsibilities to those most vulnerable to climate change, and (e) it is virtually certain that the US commitments can not be construed to be a fair allocation of the remaining carbon budget that is available for the entire world to limit warming to 2°C.

References

Brown, B. and Brown, D. (2015) Commonly Unrecognized Benefits of a Human Rights Approach to Climate Change, in L.Westra, C. Gray, and V. Karageorgou (eds.) Ecological Systems Integrity: Governance, Law, and Human Rights, Earthscan Routledge, in press.

Brown, D. (2009) ‘The most crucial missing element in U.S. media coverage of climate change: The ethical duty to reduce GHG emissions’, ThinkProgress, 14 August 2009, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2009/08/14/204506/media-climate-ethics-reduce-ghg-emissions/, accessed 22 July 2014.

Brown, D. (2012a) ‘The US media’s grave failure to communicate the significance of understanding climate change as a civilization challenging ethical issue’, ethicsandclimate.org, http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/31/the-us-medias-grave-failure-to-communicate-the-significance-of-understanding-climate-change-as-a-civilization-challenging-ethical-issue/, accessed 22 July 2014

Brown, D. (2012b) ‘Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change Ethics in Light of a Thirty-Five Year Debate’, Routledge-Earthscan, New York.

Brown, D. (2014) 10 Reasons Why “Contraction and Convergence” Is Still The Most Preferable Equity Framework for Allocating National GHG Targets . http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/?s=contraction+and+convergence#sthash.9C4qxVSx.dpuf

Buiti, C. (2011) The tortuous road to liability: A critical survey of climate change litigation in Europe and America, Sustainable Development Law and Policy, Vol 11, Issue II, Retrieved from http;//digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1467

G8 (2009) Responsible Leadership for  a Sustainable Future,  http://www.g8italia2009.it/static/G8_Allegato/G8_Declaration_08_07_09_final,0.pdf

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), (2013) Working Group I, The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers, http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf, accessed 22 July 2014

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007a), “Summary for Policymakers,” in Bert Metz et al., eds, Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007b) (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 23. Available
online at http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg3/ar4-wg3-spm.pdf.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2014) Working Group III, Mitigation of climate change, social and economic dimensions, Retrieved from http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

Light, A. (2014) Communication with Donald A. Brown in response to question about the justification for US position.

Narain, S. (2014) The bad China-US climate deal, Business Standard, http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/sunita-narain-the-bad-china-us-climate-deal-11411230

Obama, B. (2014) ‘Remarks by the President on Climate Change’, Georgetown University, White House Press Office, 25 June, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/25/remarks-president-climate-change, accessed 22 July 2014.

Pidcock, R. (2013) ‘Carbon briefing: Making sense of the IPCC’s new carbon budget,  http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2013/10/carbon-briefing-making-sense-of-the-ipcc’s-new-carbon-budget/

United Nations (UN), (1992) The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development’, UN Document A/CONF.151/26.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (1992) 1771 UNTS 107; S. Treaty Doc No. 102-38; U.N. Doc. A/AC.237/18 (Part II)/Add.1; 31 ILM 849

UNFCCC (2014b) Lima Call for Climate Action, http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/lima_dec_2014/application/pdf/auv_cop20_lima_call_for_climate_action.pdf

US White House, (2014), FACT SHEET: U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and Clean Energy Cooperation, http://wGww.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/11/fact-sheet-us-china-joint-anG Resources Institute (WRI) (2014) ‘Cumulative Emissions’, Chapter 6 in Navigating the Numbers: Greenhouse Gas Data and International Climate Policy, date undetermined, http://pdf.wri.org/navigating_numbers_chapter6.pdf, accessed 22 July 2014

United States, 2015, US Cover Note on its INDC, http://www4.unfccc.int/submissions/INDC/Submission%20Pages/submissions.aspx

Questions That Should Be Asked Of Politicians And Others Who Oppose National Action On Climate Change On The Basis Of Scientific Uncertainty Or Unacceptable Cost To The Economy Given That Climate Change Is A Profound Global Justice And Ethical Problem

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Climate change must be understood and responded to as a profound problem of global justice and ethics. This is so because: (a) it is a problem mostly caused by some nations and people emitting high-levels of greenhouse gases (ghg) in one part of the world who are harming or threatening tens of millions of living people and countless numbers of future generations throughout the world who include some of the world’s poorest people who have done little to cause the problem, (b) the harms to many of the world’s most vulnerable victims of climate change are potentially catastrophic, (c) many people most at risk from climate change often can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments; their best hope is that those causing the problem will see that justice requires them to greatly lower their ghg emissions, (d) to protect the world’s most vulnerable people nations must limit their ghg emissions to levels that constitute their fair share of safe global emissions, and, (e) climate change is preventing some people from enjoying the most basic human rights including rights to life and security among others. Because climate change is a profound problem of justice those causing the problem may not use self-interest alone as justification for their policy responses to human-induced warming, they must respond in ways consistent with their responsibilities and duties to others. In light of this the following questions should be asked of those who oppose national action on climate change on the basis of excessive costs to the national economy or scientific uncertainty.

Questions that should be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of cost to the national economy:

1. When you claim that a government emitting high levels of ghgs need not reduce its ghg emissions because the costs to it of so doing are too high, do you deny that high-emitting governments not only have economic interests in climate change policies but also duties and obligations to tens of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest impacts?

2. If you argue that high costs to a nation of reducing its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global ghg emissions justify non-action, how have you considered the increased harms and risks to poor vulnerable people and nations that will continue to grow as atmospheric ghg concentrations continue to rise? In other words how have you considered the harms to others that will be caused by government inaction on climate change?

3. If the justification for a nation to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions is that costs to it are too high, yet inaction causes loss of life and great harm to people outside the nation’s borders, is the use of a cost justification by a nation for non-action morally supportable?

4. Do you agree that those nations and people around the world who will most be harmed by climate change have a right to participate in a decision by a nation that chooses to not adopt climate change policies because costs to it are deemed unacceptable?

5. Do you agree that nations that emit ghgs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting countries and individuals that have done little to cause climate change?

6. If you disagree that all nations have a duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to cost to it, do you also deny the applicability of the well-established international legal norm that almost all nations have agreed to in 1992 in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development called the “polluter pays” principle which holds that polluters should pay for consequences of their pollution?

7. Do you agree that nations that have very high per capita and historical ghg emissions compared to other nations and so have contributed more than other nations to the rise of atmospheric concentrations of ghgs to dangerous levels have a greater duty to reduce their ghg emissions than nations that have done comparatively little to create the current threat of human-induced warming?

8. If you argue that the United States should not adopt climate change policies on the basis that economic competitors such as China have not adopted climate change policies, are you claiming that no nation has a duty to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until all other nations reduce their ghg emissions accordingly?

9. In arguing that the United States or other high-emitting nations need not reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions based on cost, how have you considered, if at all, that all nations have agreed in international climate negotiations to take steps to limit warming to 2 degree C because warming greater than this amount will not only create harsh impacts for tens of millions of people but runs the risk of creating rapid non-linear warming that will outstrip the ability of people and nations to adapt?

Questions that should be asked of those opposing national action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty:

1. When you argue that a nation emitting high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts, are you arguing that a nation need not take action on climate change until scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken may very likely make it too late to prevent catastrophic climate change harms to millions of people around the world?

2. Do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in a decision about whether to wait to act to reduce the threat of climate change to them because of scientific uncertainty?

3. Given that mainstream climate change scientific view holds that the Earth could experience rapid non-linear climate change impacts which outstrip the ability of some people and nations to adapt, should this fact affect whether nations which emit high levels of ghgs should be able to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for non-action on climate change?

4. What specific scientific references and sources do you rely upon to conclude that there is a reasonable scientific dispute about whether human actions are causing observable climate change and are you aware of the multiple “fingerprint” studies and “attribution” studies that very strongly point to human causation?

(Fingerprint studies draw conclusions about human causation that can be deduced from: (a) how the Earth warms in the upper and lower atmosphere, (b) warming in the oceans,(c) night-time vs day-time temperature increases,(d) energy escaping from the upper atmosphere versus energy trapped, (e) isotopes of CO2 in the atmosphere and coral that distinguish fossil CO2 from non-fossil CO2, (f) the height of the boundary between the lower and upper atmosphere, and (g) atmospheric oxygen levels decrease as CO2 levels increase. “Attribution” studies test whether the energy differences from those natural forces which have changed the Earth’s climate in the past such as changing radiation from the sun are capable of explaining observed temperature change.)

5. On what specific basis do you disregard the mainstream scientific view that holds that the Earth is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual, conclusions supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,  the United States Academy of Sciences and over a hundred of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world whose membership includes scientists with expertise relevant to the science of climate change including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the American Institute of Physics, the American Meteorological Society, the Royal Meteorological Society, and the Royal Society of the UK and according to the American Academy of Sciences 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?

6. When you claim that a nation such as the United States which emits high levels of ghgs need not adopt climate change policies because adverse human-induced climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven that human-induced climate change will not create harsh adverse impacts to the human health and the ecological systems of others on which their lives often depend and if so what is that proof?

7. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the United States and almost every country in the world in 1992 agreed under Article 3 of that treaty to not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for postponing climate change policies, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?
(Article 3 states:)

The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost

8. If a nation emitting high levels of ghgs refuses to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms the health and ecological systems on which life depends for tens of millions of others, should that nation be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Widener University School Of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 By: 

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

IPCC, Ethics, and Climate Change: Will IPCC’s Latest Report Transform How National Climate Change Policies Are Justified?

IPCC on certainty of human causations images

 

I. Introduction

The international press has widely reported recently on some of the most dire conclusions of the 5th Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These warnings have included that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and that rapid and unprecedented cooperation among countries is urgently needed to avoid climate catastrophe. Yet, there has been little media coverage of an enormously important topic that is sprinkled throughout the recent Working Group III report as well as being the major focus of two new chapters largely dedicated to the topic. This is the issue of the extent to which national responses to climate change must be consistent with obligations entailed by ethics and justice rather than economic rationality and self-interest alone; matters which have profound practical significance for the acceptability of national climate change policies.

Given that most nations have been setting national ghg reduction targets on the basis of national economic interest rather than global ethical obligations, if the new IPCC chapters, one on ethics and a second one on equity in the IPCC Working Group III  report, are taken seriously by governments, this could transform national responses to climate change. These chapters should also be of value to civil society in criticizing inadequate national ghg emissions reductions commitments.

This is the first in a multi-part series that will examine the ethical and justice issues embedded in and raised by the recent IPCC reports.

Although this series will conclude that the recent IPCC AR 5 Working Group III report is laudable for more clearly identifying ethical issues with the ways governments, some international organizations, and NGOs  have often discussed, debated, and made recommendations on climate change policies, the series will also make some criticisms of how IPCC has articulated the significance of the ethical, justice, and equity issues entailed by climate change.

As we have explained frequently in EthicsandClimate.org, climate change is a problem that has unique features that demand that it be understood essentially and fundamentally as a civilization challenging moral problem. These features include the fact that human-induced warming is a problem that: (1) is being caused mostly by high-emitting nations, peoples, and entities that are putting low emitting nations and peoples at greatest risk who are often among the world’s poorest nations and people and who have done little to cause the problem, (2) the harms to those most vulnerable to climate change are not mere inconveniences but are often existential threats to life and the ecological systems on which life depends, and (3) those most vulnerable to climate changes’ harshest impacts can often do little to protect themselves from climate change’s harshest impacts. In fact, the victims’  best hope is that high-emitting nations and peoples will see that they have duties and responsibilities to climate change’s victims to greatly reduce their ghg emissions.

We have also frequently explained why an understanding of the moral and ethical dimensions of climate change has extraordinarily important practical significance for climate change policy formation particularly in regard to: (1) setting national ghg emissions reduction targets, (2) taking a position on adequate greenhouse gas (ghg) atmospheric concentrations, (3) determining who should be responsible for paying the costs of necessary adaptation and compensating those who suffer climate change damages, and, (4) deciding who should participate in decisions on proposed climate change policies that must be made in the face of some uncertainty about climate change impacts.

II. IPCC and Ethics, Justice, and Equity

In its first four assessments in 1990, 1995, 2001, and 2007, IPCC  relied almost exclusively on economic analysis of policy alternatives, rather than ethics and justice, in its guidance to policy-makers on how to develop climate law and policy.  In fact, in this regard, the AR 5 in the new chapter on the Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts, IPCC admits expressly that in prior IPCC Reports “ethics has received less attention than economics, although aspects of both are covered in AR2. (IPCC, AR5, Working Group III, Chapter 3, pg. 10)  Yet the treatment of ethics in IPCC Working Group III in AR2, is hardly a serious consideration of the implications of ethical and justice principles that should guide climate change policy because the vast majority of text in this report is focused on traditional economic analysis which assumes that climate policy should maximize efficiency rather than assign responsibility for reducing the threat of climate change, allocate emissions reductions among nations, determine who should pay for needed adaptation or compensate victims for  climate damages on the basis of ethical principles. In fact, the AR2 report includes many statements that would lead policy-makers to conclude that it is perfectly permissible to determine the amount of ghg emissions reductions any nation should be required to achieve solely on economic considerations. For instance, AR 2 says expressly that: “there is no inherent conflict between economics and most conceptions of equity.” (IPCC, 1995,  AR2, Working Goup III, pg. 87) Moreover. any fair reading of prior IPCC reports would conclude that policymakers were encouraged by IPCC to base policy on economic considerations such as those determined in cost-benefit analyses.

In light of this, the tendencies of national governments to adopt climate change policies on the basis of economic considerations that frequently ignore ethical obligations to those most vulnerable to climate change impacts is not surprising.  In fact, a strong case can be made that the IPCC in its first four assessment reports failed to adequately identify ethics and justice principles that should guide the formation of national climate change policy.

In this respect, AR5 contains some important breaks from the past. For instance, the new chapter on Social, Economic, and Ethical Concepts says:

  • How should the burden of mitigating climate change should be divided among countries? It raises difficult questions of fairness, and rights, all of which are in the sphere of ethics. (IPCC, 2014.WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
  • Indeed, ethical judgements of value underlie almost every decision that is connected with climate change, including decisions by public, and private organizations, governments, and groupings of governments.  (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
  • If justice requires that a person should not be treated in a particular way–uprooted by her home by climate change, for example –than the person has a right not to be treated that way. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 11)
  • The methods of economics are limited in what they can do. …They are suited to measuring and aggregating the wellbeing of humans, but not in taking account of justice and rights. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 24)
  • What ethical considerations can economics and justice can economics cover satisfactorily? Since the methods of economics are concerned with value, they do not take account of justice and rights in general. (IPCC, 2014.AR5, WG III, Ch. 3, pg. 25)
  • Economics is not well suited to taking into account many other aspects of justice, including compensatory justice. (IPCC,2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 3,pg. 24)

In addition, the Working Group III AR5 report also has a new chapter on Sustainable Development and Equity which also contains a number  of conclusions that have important ethical and justice implications. They include:

  • Conventional climate policy analysis that is based too narrowly on traditional utilitarian or cost-benefit frameworks will neglect critical equity issues. These oversights include human rights implications and moral imperatives; the distribution of costs and benefits of a given set of policies, and the further distributional inequities that arise when the poor have limited scope to influence policies. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 8)
  • Given the disparities evident in consumption patterns, the distributional implications of climate response strategies are critically important. (IPCC, 2014, AR5,WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 9)
  • [I]t is morally proper to allocate burdens associated with our common global climate challenge according to ethical principles. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 16)
  • Equitable burden sharing will be necessary if the climate change challenge is effectively met. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 16)
  • [T]he eventual effectiveness of a collective action regime may hinge on equitable burden sharing, the absence of actors who are powerful enough to coercively impose their preferred burden sharing arrangements, the inapplicability of standard utilitarian methods of calculating costs and benefits, and the fact that regime effectiveness depends on long-term commitments of members to implement its terms. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 17)
  • There is a basic set of shared ethical principles and precedents that apply to the climate problem…[and] such principles… can put bounds on the plausible interpretation of equity in the burden sharing context…[and] are important in establishing what may be reasonably required of different actors.  (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 48)
  • Common sense ethics (and legal practice) hold persons responsible for harms or risks they knowingly impose or could have reasonably foreseen, and in certain cases, regardless of whether they could have been foreseen.  (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 49)
  • [T]here is now a consensus that methods of cost-benefit analysis that simply add up monetary-equivalent gains and issues are consistent and applicable only under very specific assumptions…which are empirically dubious and ethically controversial. (IPCC, 2014, AR5, WG III, Ch. 4, pg. 54)

And so the new AR5 IPCC Working Group III report by including statements which conclude that self-interested economic justifications for national climate change policies are ethically problematic is both a profound shift from prior IPCC guidance on how nations should set climate change policies and could form the basis for strong criticisms of national ghg emissions reductions commitments.

In addition to the above provisions, the IPCC AR5 Working Group III report examines throughout the report many other climate change policy issues that raise important ethical questions. Sometimes the IPCC treatment of the ethical dimensions of these issues is acceptable and other times inadequate.

These other issues include: (a) an acceptable basis for burden sharing by nations to limit warming to tolerable levels, (b) temperature levels that could trigger abrupt climate change, (c) the unique vulnerability to climate change impacts of many of the world’s poorest people, (e) whether national ghg emissions reductions targets should be set on the basis of ghg emissions released within a national territory or on the basis of products consumed in that nation which have embedded ghgs created by their manufacture in other places, (f) the fact that extraordinary degrees of irreversible damage and harm from climate change are now distinct possibilities, (g) various frameworks for equitable burden sharing, (h) gross disparities in per capita emissions around the world, (i) whether national ghg emissions targets should be legally binding, (j) various issues entailed by a growing number of climate refugees, (k) fairness issues by nations that seek to create boarder adjustments or monetary penalties on nations that have no comparable emissions reductions targets, (l) funding for adaptation and damages in poor vulnerable nations, (m) the role of trading flexibility mechanisms in an international climate regime, (n) the remaining global ghg emissions  budget that all nations must live within to prevent dangerous climate change, and (o) the human rights implications of national climate policies.

We will explain in future entries in this series that how IPCC has handled the ethical issues entailed by these issues has sometimes been unacceptable or incomplete despite being improvements from prior IPCC reports.

nw book advOne common problem with IPCC’s treatment of the ethical dimensions of climate change policy making is that the text often leaves the impression that while policymakers should consider ethical questions in developing climate change policies they are free to ignore what ethics requires of nations. Particularly in some places, the text does not adequately communicate that were strong ethical duties for nations to not greatly harm others or the ecological systems on which life depends exist, they are not free to follow national economic self-interest in setting climate change policies. The text often reads as if ethics is an optional consideration along with economic self-interest when formulating climate policy.  We will examine this problem in more detail in future entries on this subject on this site.

References:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 1995, AR2, Working Group III, Economic and Social Dimensions of Climate Change, https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_and_data_reports.shtml#1

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2014, Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

Contributing Author, IPCC, Working Group III, Chapter 4

dabrown57@gmail.com

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

national academy

 

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

This report is ethically significant because:

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

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

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

Justification 1

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

Report says:

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

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

Justification 2

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

Report says:

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

Justification 3

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

Report says:

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

 Justification 4

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

Report says:

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

Justification 5

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

Report says:

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

Justification 6

A few degrees of warming is not cause for concern.

Report says:

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

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

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

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

For these reasons, the new report is ethically significant.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence and Professor

Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law,

dabrown57@gmail.com

US Media Finally Acknowledges That Ethics and Justice Issues Are At the Center of Contention in Climate Change Negotiations, Yet Has Not Caught On to the Significance of This for US Policy.

 

climate justicenow

During the climate negotiations in Warsaw that concluded late Saturday, some of the most prominent US media institutions  finally acknowledged that ethics and justice issues were at the very center of the most contentious issues in dispute.

For instance, the New York Times ran a story on November 16 entitled: Growing Clamor About Inequities of Climate Crisis. This article expressly acknowledged that growing demands about ethics and justice have become an emotionally charged flash point at the Warsaw climate negotiations

The Washington Post reported that: Hundreds of activists march for climate on sidelines of UN talks in Warsaw and in this story there was acknowledgment that the ethics and justice issues were the central focus of unresolved issues on national ghg emissions reduction commitments and funding needed funding for poor, vulnerable nations for adaptation and climate change caused losses and damages.

Bloomsberg News also ran a story entitled:  U.S., EU, Reject Brazilian Call for Climate Equity Metric. This story described great disagreements among nations on how to allocate national emissions targets on the basis of equity.

This recent recognition of the importance of ethics and justice issues in international climate change negotiations marks a possible sea change in on how the US press has thus far covered international climate change issues. Yet it is too early to predict such a transformation will actually take place and reason to believe that the US media still does not understand the practical importance for US climate policy that an ethical focus on climate change entails. In fact there is no evidence that the US press understands the policy significance for the US if climate change is understood as a civilization challenging global distributive justice problem.

As we have frequently reported in EthicandClimate.org  over the last several years, (See articles on the website on the US media in the Index), the US media has been utterly ignoring the climate change justice issues that increasingly have become the most contentious issues in dispute in the international search for a global solution to climate change.

movbilization for clima justice

Although there has been a US press presence at international climate negotiations since they began over 20 years, the US media reports on the climate negotiations has usually focused on the failures and small success of previous negotiations. Also, sometimes the US press also has reported on specific disagreements among nations on contentious issues in negotiations. And so, the US media has covered climate negotiations like they would a baseball game, that is they usually focus on the score, who batted in the runs, and who prevented runs from scoring.

In the meantime, during the debates about US domestic policy on climate change that have been taking place for almost thirty years, the US media has reported on climate issues almost exclusively by focusing on issues of scientific certainty about climate change impacts and economic cost to the US economy.  This phenomenon is partly attributable to the fact that economic interests opposed to US climate change policies have skillfully and successfully framed the US climate change debate as a matter about which there is insufficient scientific evidence or too much adverse impact on the US economy to warrant action. And so, although climate change is a civilization challenging problem of distributive justice, the US media has largely ignored the justice issues particularly in regard to their significance for US policy. For  instance, if the the US not only has economic interests in the climate change policies in political debate but also obligations and duties to poor vulnerable nations to not cause them great harm from US ghg emissions, the United States may not justify failure to act to reduce its ghg emissions on the basis of economic cost to the US.

Yet now that the scientific community is telling the world that is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change and that there is a very small amount of ghg emissions that can be admitted by the entire world if the international community seeks to have any reasonable hope of avoiding dangerous climate change, the ethics and justice issues are becoming undeniable and it is almost possible to ignore that the ethics and justice issues are at the very center of international disputes about how to structure a global climate solution. And so, cries about the justice issues will mostly likely continue to become louder in the future. This is so because if the entire global community must limit total global ghg emissions to a specific number of tons of ghgs and this number requires radical ghg emissions reductions from the entire global community, the obvious question becomes what is any nation’s fair share of allowable emissions.  And so, issues of climate justice may no longer be ignored, in fact, the longer the world waits to arrive at a global solution to climate change the more important and visible the ethics and justice issues will become. For this reason, it will become more and more difficult for the US press to ignore the practical significance of ethics and justice questions.

new book description for website-1_01At the center of the Warsaw negotiations was not only the question of what was each countries fair share of safe total allowable greenhouse gas submissions, but also what does justice require of high-emitting  countries to both pay for the costs of climate adaptation and compensation for damages for poor vulnerable countries that have done very little to cause climate change.

And so this new interest in ethics and justice about climate issues could become a growing media focus. However, this recent new interest of the US media is not evidence that the US press has begun to pay attention to the implications of these issues for US climate change policy. In fact, there is no evidence that the US media has figured out how the ethics and justice issues will need to radically transform how domestic climate change policy is debated in the United States. We will know that the US media this is seriously paying attention to the ethical dimensions of climate change if it examines the following questions when it covers US climate change policy debates.

1. What is the ethical justification for any proposed US greenhouse gas reduction target in light of the fact the US has duty to reduce its emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions. In setting a ghg emissions reduction target, what ethical obligations to nations and people outside the US has it taken into account.

2. If the United States is a very large emitter of gigs compared to most other nations in terms of historical and per capita emissions, why doesn’t the United States have an ethical duty to fund reasonable climate change adaptation measures in and losses and damages of poor developing countries that have done little or nothing to cause human-induced warming.

3. If a US politician argues in opposition to proposed US climate policies on the basis of cost to the US economy, why doesn’t that politician acknowledge that in addition to US economic economic interests, that the United States has duties to people around the world and future generations to reduce ghg US emissions.

4. If United States actually has ethical duties for the rest of the world to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, why is there no national policy encouraging everyone in the United States including individuals and corporations to reduce unnecessary ghg emissions.

5. On what basis may the United States argue that it need not reduce US ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global missions because China or some other developing country has not yet adopted strong climate change policies, given that any US ghg emissions in excess of the US fair share of safe total omissions is harming hundreds of thousands of people around the world and the ecological systems on which life depends.

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence and Professor,

Widener University School of Law

Harrisburg, Pa.

Visiting Professor,  Nagoya University School of Law

Nagoya, Japen

Part-time Professor,  Nanjing University of Information 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

 

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

 

9922_whats_wrong_with_climate_politics_paul_g_harris

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

 

The Grave US Media Failure to Report On The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign

I. Introduction

This is the sixth in a series of articles that examines tragic communications failures of the US media about climate change. In this series we examine how the American media has utterly failed to communicate to US citizens about five essential aspects of climate change that need to be understood to know why climate change is a civilization-challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world.  EthicsandClimate.org has developed a video that summarizes these failures: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media on Climate Change that can be found at: http://blogs.law.widener.edu/climate/2012/10/15/five-grave-communications-failures-of-the-us-media-on-climate-change/

This is the fifth paper that examines in more detail the issues briefly examined in the video. In previous entries we examined the failure of the US media to communicate about: (a) the nature of the strong scientific consensus about human-induced climate change, (b) the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change,(c) the practical significance for policy that follows from understanding climate change as essentially an ethical problem, and (e) the consistent barrier that the United States has been to finding a global solution to climate change in international climate negotiations.  In this paper we look at the failure of the US media to help educate US citizens about the well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign.

II. The US Media Failure to Educate American Citizens About The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign

For over 30 years, there has been a debate about climate change that most Americans are at least dimly aware of.  In this debate, sometimes those opposed to action on climate change are characterized as climate “skeptics.” Skepticism is the oxygen and catalyst of science and should be encouraged. Yet most Americans are completely unaware that a well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign has been operating for over two decades that has used tactics which cannot be classified as responsible skepticism. In fact, this campaign has been engaged in tactics that are deeply ethically abhorrent. To the extent that the US mainstream press has covered this controversy, it has reported on disputes between mainstream climate scientists and scientific skeptics and in so doing ignoring the ethically abhorrent tactics of the disinformation campaign discussed in this article and at the same time giving opposition to climate change policy legitimacy that the disinformation campaign does not deserve because its tactics cannot be understood as responsible skepticism. Also, as we have described in considerable detail in a prior entry, the mainstream press has utterly failed to cover the strength of the climate change scientific consensus position on climate change.

This disinformation campaign has largely been responsible that the United States failure to enact comprehensive climate change policies. Given the enormity, harshness, and destructiveness of climate change impacts, the duties that high-emitting countries like the United States have to not harm hundreds of millions of people around the world who are vulnerable to climate change, and the fact that the world has now lost several decades in finding a solution to climate change at a time when the world may be running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change, the failure of the US media to report on the nature of this campaign to the American people is a grave, tragic, and profound failure.

There is a growing peer-reviewed sociological literature on the disinformation campaign which describes this phenomenon as a counter-movement. (See, for example, McCright and Dunlap 2000: 559) A counter-movement is a social movement that has formed in reaction to another movement. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 504.) The climate change disinformation campaign can be understood to be a continuation of the counter-movements that arose among US political conservatives in reaction to the environmental, civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements that arose in the 1960′s in the United States. And so, the climate change disinformation campaign’s methods and processes can be understood to be an extension of strategies that had already been developed among some, although not all, conservatives to counter the environmental movement that had developed in the late 1960s and 1970s around other environmental issues such as air and water pollution, safe disposal of waste and toxic substances, and protection of wetlands and endangered species.

Yet the emergence of global warming as an issue in the 1980s with its potential for large-scale social change needed to ameliorate its threat was seen as more threatening to conservatives in regard to industry, prosperity, life-style, and the entire American-way of life, than were traditional pollution problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 503) In other words, climate change directly threatened the central values of the US conservative movement even more than other environmental problems. (McCright and Dunlap 2000: 505) As a result climate change has become the key environmental focus of the US conservative movement.

In addition there have been some American industries whose welfare depends upon fossil fuel use have also participated in the disinformation campaign by funding this effort. The climate change disinformation movement can be understood to be comprised of many organizations and participants including conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, conservative media, and individuals. This disinformation campaign frequently has used certain tactics to convince people and politicians that the science supporting climate change policies is flawed. The central claims of the climate change disinformation movement have been:

• There is no warming.
• Its not caused by humans.
• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will cause more harm than good.
(McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)

To support these claims, the climate denial machine frequently has made claims that: (a) mainstream climate scientists are corrupt or liars, (b) descriptions of adverse climate change impacts are made by “alarmists,” (c) scientific journals that publish climate related research are biased against skeptics, and (d)  mainstream climate science is “junk” science. The climate change disinformation machine also has made frequent ad hominem attacks on those who produce climate change science and sometimes has cyber-bullied both climate scientists and journalists.  In summary, the climate change disinformation campaign has engaged in these tactics and others identified in this paper that may not be classified as responsible skepticism, yet the US media has covered this campaign as if it was the output of reasonable scientific  skepticism.

The climate change disinformation campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists and organizations that fought government regulation of tobacco began to apply the tactics perfected in their war on the regulation of tobacco to climate change. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215). According to Pooley the disinformation campaign began “spinning around 1988 in response to the increasingly outspoken scientific community…” (Pooley 2010: 39) For almost 25 years this campaign has been waged to undermine support for regulation of greenhouse gases.

To say that the campaign has been “waged” is not to claim that it has been a tightly organized, completely coordinated effort by a few groups or individuals or that all participants have the same motives. In fact different participants may have radically different motives including the fact that some may be sincere, some appear to be motivated by protecting free markets without government intervention, and many appear to believe that no restriction on fossil fuel use can be justified without very high levels of proof of harms. Yet, these different participants, according to Newsweek, since the 1990s for the most part have acted in a well-coordinated campaign among contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry to create a fog of doubt around climate change. (Begley 2007) They have accomplished this through the production of advertisements, op-eds, lobbying, books, media attention, and quotations from skeptical scientists often associated with conservative think tanks. They have argued first that the world is not warming, measurements that indicate otherwise are flawed, any warming is natural, that is not caused by human activities, and if warming does occur it will be miniscule and harmless. (Begley 2007)

Different groups created this counter-movement often acting independently of each other, yet connected through the internet to create a denial machine that has effectively responded to any public pronouncement by scientists or journalists that have asserted that human-induced climate change is a serious problem. (Begley 2007) Conservative activists wrote hundreds of documents (including policy briefs, books, press releases, and op-eds), held numerous policy forums and press conferences, appeared regularly on television and radio programs, and testified at congressional hearings on global warming. (Dunlap and McCright 2008)

As a result of the internet communication between participants in this campaign, charges by one of the participants have been quickly transmitted to others creating an echo chamber of counter-claims made in opposition to the mainstream scientific view of climate change.

The disinformation campaign’s most important participants have been conservative think tanks according to the sociological literature. (Jaques et al 2008) As we shall see, these think tanks developed the ideas, communications and media strategies, literature and press releases that have been widely deployed in rhetorical strategies to defend conservative interests by creating doubt about mainstream climate change scientific claims.

Initially most of the funding for this disinformation campaign came from fossil fuel interests and corporations whose products produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. On October 21, 2010, John Broder of the New York Times reported that:

“the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” (Broder 2010)

According to Broder, the fossil fuel industry has:

“created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.” (Broder 2010)

Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel industry funded many of the initial efforts to prevent adoption of climate change policies. Both individual corporations such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, as well as industry associations such as American Petroleum Institute, Western Fuels Associations, and Edison Electric Institute provided funding for individual contrarian scientists, conservative think tanks active in climate change denial, and a host of front groups that we will discuss below. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:148)

Although the initial funding in the campaign may have come from certain corporations, McCright and Dunlap argue that recently conservative, free-market, and anti-regulatory ideology and organizations have been the main forces fueling the denial machine first and foremost. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)

According to Dunlap and McCright the glue that holds the elements of the climate disinformation campaign together is a shared hatred for government regulation of private industry. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so, a staunch commitment to free markets and a disdain for government regulation are the ideas that most unite the climate denial community. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144)

The mainstream conservative movement, embodied in conservative foundations and think tanks, quickly joined forces with the fossil fuel industry (which recognized very early the threat posed by recognition of global warming and the role of carbon emissions) and wider sectors of corporate America to oppose the threat of global warming, not as an ecological problem, but as a problem for unbridled economic growth. (Dunlap and McCright 2011:144) And so the disinformation campaign has been a movement that has been waged both by conservative organizations and some corporations.

To use the word “campaign” is not meant to connote an organized conspiracy led by one or a few entities who coordinate all actors, but rather a social movement that creates widespread, predictable, and strong opposition to climate change policy and that consistently uses scientific uncertainty arguments as the basis of its opposition. This movement is a campaign in the sense that it is a systematic response of aggressive actions to defeat proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions even though no one organization is coordinating all other organizations or individuals that participate in responses. And although some of the actors may be sincere, the tactics discussed in this article are, as we shall see, ethically reprehensible.

Those engaged in this disinformation campaign can be distinguished from responsible climate skeptics because the climate change denial campaign is a collective social movement run by professional advocacy working to discredit climate change.” (Hoffman 2011: 5) As such, this movement is not engaged in reasonable scientific skepticism but advocacy that stresses scientific uncertainty. In fact McCright and Dunlap summarize the disinformation machine as having been engaged on misrepresenting, manipulating, and suppressing climate change research results. (McCright and Dunlap 2010: 111)

Although almost all of the disinformation campaign led opposition to climate change policies has been on the basis of inadequate scientific grounding for action, scientific arguments are usually coupled with economic arguments such as claims that climate change policies will destroy jobs, hurt specific industries, lower GDP, or are not justified by cost-benefit analysis.
Although these economic arguments often have their own ethical problems, a series on Ethicsandclimate.org has examined in considerable detail the ethical problems with tactics used by the disinformation campaign that rely on scientific uncertainty arguments.

The original organizations that sought to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty have expanded to include ideological think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups (i.e. groups organized by industry that pretend to be a legitimate grassroots organization), and PR firm-led campaigns. (Oreskes and Conway 2010:169-215)
The tactics deployed by this campaign are now all well documented in the books and peer-reviewed sociological literature identified in the Appendix to this article. The tactics used by the climate change disinformation campaign have included the following ethically abhorrent tactics:

  • Lying or reckless disregard for the truth
  • Cherry picking the science
  • Cyber-bullying and ad hominem attacks on scientists and journalists
  • Manufacturing bogus, non-peer-reviewed science in fake conferences and publications
  • The use of ideological think tanks
  • The use of front groups that hide the real parties in interest
  • The use of fake grass-roots organizations known as Astroturf groups
  • Specious claims about “bad science” that are based upon the dubious assumption that no conclusions in science can be made until everything is proven with high levels of certainty.

EthicsandClimate.org has described this in a four part paper series and a three part video series that has demonstrated that these tactics are ethically abhorrent.

The four part written series can be found at:

1. Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Introduction to a Series.

2.Ethical Analysis of the Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Reckless Disregard for the Truth, (2) Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns, (3) Specious Claims of “Bad” Science, and (4) Front Groups.

3.Ethical Analysis of Disinformation Campaign’s Tactics: (1) Think Tanks, (2) PR Campaigns, (3) Astroturf Groups, and (4) Cyber-Bullying Attacks.

4. Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

 The three part video series can be found at:

Why The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign Is So Ethically Abhorrent

The Ethical Abhorrence of The Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 2

The Ethical Abhorrence of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign, Part 3

Although the mainstream US media has sometimes but infrequently covered the disinformation campaign, missing from their coverage has been:

(a) A stronger sense of the strength of the consensus view on climate change, (every academy of science in the world supports the consensus view, over a hundred scientific organizations whose members have relevant scientific expertise support the consensus view, much of the science that should have been the basis for US action on climate change was settled 150 years ago, and there are clear qualitative differences between peer-reviewed science and the manufactured, non-peer reviewed science usually relied upon by the disinformation campaign),

(b)  A description of the tactics of the disinformation campaign which cannot be understood as responsible skepticism, such as: (1)  making claims that not only have not been peer-reviewed but are at odds with well-settled science, (2) cherry picking the science, (3) treating one study as undermining the entire body of climate science even though the issue in contention is not consequential in regard to the major mainstream scientific conclusions, (4) cyber-bullying scientists and journalists that publish statements that climate change is a significant threat, (5) making completely false claims that are either lies or reckless disregard for the truth such as the claim that the entire scientific basis for action is a hoax when every academy of science supports the consensus view, and (6) the use of front groups and Astroturf groups that hide the real parties in interest behind the disinformation campaign, namely fossil fuel companies and free-market fundamentalist foundations.

(c) The fact that it already too late to prevent climate-change caused grave suffering for some people in some parts of the world and that the world has lost over twenty years during which action could have been taken to reduce the now enormous threat,

(d) The fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change’s worst threats have never consented to be put at risk while the United States waits for absolute certainty.

(e) The fact that for each year the United States has waited to take action, the problem has become worse.

Given what is at stake from climate change, the failure of the US media to cover the disinformation campaign is a tragic, profound, and grave error.  The mainstream US media has not only failed to cover this campaign, it has treated it as if it was reasonable scientific skepticism giving it a legitimacy that has increased its influence.

References:

Begley, S. (2007) Global Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine, Newsweek, http://msl1.mit.edu/furdlog/docs/2007-08-13_newsweek_global_warming_denyers.pdf (visited Jan. 13, 2011)

Boycoff, J. and M. Boycoff (2004) Journalistic Balance as Global Warming Bias
Creating Controversy Where Science Finds Consensus Fair,
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1978

Broder, John, (2010) Climate Change Doubt Is Tea Party Article of Faith, New York Times, October 21, 2009, http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html?sort=newest&offset=2

 

Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2008) A Widening Gap: Republican and Democratic Views on Climate Change. Environment 50 (September/October):26-35.

Dunlap, Riley E. and Aaron M. McCright (2010) Climate Change Denial: Sources, Actors and Strategies Pp. 240-259 in Constance Lever-Tracy (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society London: Routledge.

Hoffman, Andrew J. (2011) Talking Past Each Other? Cultural Framing of Skeptical and Convinced Logics in the Climate Change Debate, Organization & Environment 24:3-33.

Jacques, Peter, Riley E. Dunlap, and Mark Freeman (2008) The Organization of Denial: Conservative Think Tanks and Environmental Skepticism, Environmental Politics 17:349-385.

McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2000) Challenging Global Warming as a Social Problem: An Analysis of the Conservative Movement’s Counter-Claims, Social Problems 47:499-522.

McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap (2010) Anti-Reflexivity: The American Conservative Movement’s Success in Undermining Climate Science and Policy, Theory, Culture and Society 26:100-133.

Oreskes, Naiomi and Erik Conway (2010) Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloosmbury Press, New York.

Pooley, E. (2010) Climate Wars, True Believers, Power Broakers and The Fight to Save the Earth, Hyperion, New York

 

By:

Donald A. Brown

Scholar In Residence

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University School of Law

dabrown57@gmail.com