By Donald A. Brown
This post identifies 20 questions that the press has failed to ask opponents of proposed U.S. climate change policies and that should be asked if climate change raises civilization-challenging ethical issues.
To understand why these questions should be asked, it is first necessary to review the kinds of arguments that have usually been made in opposition to U.S. climate change policies, programs and legislation and why these arguments fail to deal with the profound ethical questions raised by the threat of human-induced climate change.
Since international climate change negotiations began in 1990, the United States has yet to adopt meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reduction legislation. For almost 20 years, arguments against U.S. climate change legislation or U.S. participation in a global solution to climate change have been made that have almost always been of two types:
By far the most frequent arguments made in opposition to climate change policies are economic predictions of various kinds, such as claims that proposed climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage U.S. businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, or increase the cost of fuel. A variation of this argument is that the United States should not adopt policies on climate change until other nations such as China take steps to reduce their emissions because if the United States acts and other nations don’t reciprocate this will harm the U.S. economy.
The second most frequent type of arguments made by opponents of climate change policies are assertions that governments should not take action on climate change because adverse impacts have not been sufficiently scientifically proven. These arguments range from assertions that what is usually called the “mainstream” scientific climate change view is a complete hoax to the milder assertions that the harsh climate change impacts on human health and the environment predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other climate change researchers are unproven.
Both the economic and scientific arguments against climate change policies implicitly argue that climate change policies should be opposed because they are not in the U.S. national interest.
The responses of advocates of U.S. climate change policies to these arguments are almost always to take issue with the economic and scientific conclusions of these arguments by making counter economic and scientific claims. For instance, in response to economic arguments opposing climate change legislation, proponents of climate change action usually argue that climate change policies will create jobs or are necessary to develop new energy technologies that are vital to the health of the U.S. economy in the future. In responses to the lack of scientific proof arguments, climate change advocates usually stress the harsh environmental impacts to people and ecosystems that climate change will cause if action is not taken or argue that climate change science is settled. In other words, advocates of climate change action respond to claims of opponents to climate change programs by denying the claims of the opponents.
By simply opposing the claims of the opponents of climate change, the advocates of climate change policies are implicitly agreeing with the assumptions of the opponents of climate change action that greenhouse reduction policies should not be adopted if they are not in national self-interest.
Yet, climate change is a problem that clearly creates civilization challenging ethical issues. By ethics is meant the domain of inquiry that examines claims that given certain facts, actions are right or wrong, obligatory or non-obligatory, or when responsibilities attach to human activities.
If nations or individuals have ethical obligations, they are likely to have duties, responsibilities, and obligations that require them to go beyond consideration of self-interest alone in making decisions. And so, if climate change raises ethical considerations, governments may not base policy decisions on self-interest alone.
Given this, one might ask what aspects of climate change raise ethical questions. In fact there are several distinct features of climate change that call for its recognition as creating civilization-challenging ethical questions.
First, climate change creates duties because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people in developing countries. That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who can do little to reduce its threat.
Second, climate change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world. Climate change harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat and intense storms, damages to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. In fact, climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are potentially catastrophic.
The third reason climate change is an ethical problem stems from its global scope. At the local, regional or national scale, citizens can petition their governments to protect them from serious harms. But at the global level, no government exists whose jurisdiction matches the scale of climate change. And so, although national, regional and local governments have the ability and responsibility to protect citizens within their boarders, they have no responsibility to foreigners in the absence of international law.
For this reason, ethical appeals are necessary to motivate governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.
And so if climate change raises civilization challenging ethical questions which imply duties, responsibilities, and obligations what questions should the press ask opponents of climate change policies when they make economic and scientific arguments against climate change policies?
Ethical Questions That Should Be Asked
Given that climate change must be understood to raise ethical questions, the press should ask opponents of climate change policies the following questions:
1. You argue that climate change policies should not be adopted because there will be adverse economic impacts on US jobs or the economy. Given that greenhouse gas emissions from the United States are threatening others outside the United States, do you deny that the United States has duties, responsibilities and obligations to others to stop emissions potentially harmful to others?
2. Do you deny that the United States has duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to limit US greenhouse gas emissions to the U.S.’s fair share of safe global emissions?
3. If you agree that the United States has duties, responsibilities and obligations to others to limit its greenhouse gas emissions, why should the acceptability of U.S. climate change policy turn on whether climate change policies will create adverse economic impacts to the United States alone?
4. 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 greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until all other nations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions accordingly?
5. 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 reduction policies, do you agree that economic competitors such has China have no duty to reduce their emissions until the United States does so?
6. Do you deny that those nations who are mostly responsible for global climate change emissions have stronger duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions than those nations that are emitting greenhouse gases at much lower levels?
7. Do you agree that no national strategy on climate change makes sense unless it is seen to be implicitly a position on what atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases should be acceptable given that some poorer nations are more vulnerable to climate change than others and nations must work together to assure that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases don’t rise to levels that are very dangerous to the most vulnerable?
8. What is the U.S.’s fair share of safe global greenhouse gas emissions and on what principles of equity do you rely on for determining the U.S.’s fair share?
9. Should those nations who have refused to commit to reduce climate change emissions on the basis of cost to them, be liable to others for the harms caused by the delay if very harsh climate change impacts are eventually experienced by others?
10. When you argue that the United States should not adopt climate change policies because adverse 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 adverse impacts on the human health, resource base, and ecological systems of others and if so what is that proof ?
11. When you argue that the United States should not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken may make it too late to prevent human-induced climate change harms?
12. Do you deny that those who argue that they should be allowed to continue to emit greenhouse gases at levels that may be dangerous should assume the burden of proof that their actions are safe?
13. 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 act to reduce the threat of climate change in the face of scientific uncertainty?
14. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, the United States agreed to the following under Article 3, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?
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.
15. If you argue that if the climate change impacts predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have not reached a level of scientific certainty that warrants action, do you agree that climate change impacts predicted by IPCC could be wrong in both directions leading to even harsher adverse impacts than those predicted?
16. If you acknowledge that human-induced climate change impacts could be harsher than those predicted by IPCC, do you deny that this possibility has ethical significance including the creation of duties for high emitters to cease dangerous emissions levels.
17. Given that it has been almost two decades that the United States has refused to commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions based upon the justification that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms others human health and the environment should the United States be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been take earlier?
18. Because climate change is a global problem, does any one nation have the right by itself to refuse to reduce the climate change threat based upon scientific uncertainty without giving those most vulnerable to climate change impacts the right to consent to be put at risk ?
19. Because the longer the developed countries including the United States wait to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions on the basis of scientific uncertainty, the steeper the cuts will be needed to avoid dangerous climate change if the mainstream climate change science view proves to be correct, should the United States be expected to agree that it will be financially responsible for unavoidable climate change damages created by the delay if predicted climate change impacts are experienced?
20. Because one of the possibilities recognized by the mainstream climate change science is that the Earth could experience rapid non-linear climate change impacts which outstrip the ability of some and nations to adapt, should this fact effect considerations about who should have the burden of proof of determining whether climate change is safe or dangerous?
(Reprinted with permission from the author. Originally published at ClimateEthics.org)
Donald A. Brown is an associate professor of environmental ethics, science and law at Penn State University.