Steve Gardner

Ethics and Global Climate Change

(originally Ethics, 2004, updated 2009)



2.      Greenhouse effect

         a.      Gasses (GHG) allow short-wave incoming solar radiation in but reflect some of earth’s outgoing long-wave radiation back to surface

                   i.       Band of gases only a few miles wide

         b.      Like glass in greenhouse, a blanketing effect

         c.      Humans increasing concentration of GHG via industrialization

         d.      Expect an overall warming effect

         e.      How does increase in low frequency radiation play out in overall climate system?

3.      Global warming

         a.      Effects of GHG increase are of concern, and increase in temperature is one of them

                   i.       But gradual warming at global level could cause and coexist with dramatic cooling in some regions

         b.      Temperature is not the core problem or most important impact of CC

                   i.        Warmer world might be a better world.....

         c.      Core problem is unprecedented rapidity of the changing climate

                   i.       Warmer world might be better, but not one brought on so quickly that species can’t adapt.

         d.      Temperatures might go down due to increase GHG but this still serious problem

                   i.       So rapid that harm species

                   ii.      Cause of cooling might be shutdown of THC (thermohaline circulation) which supports Gulf Stream going to Northern Europe

4.      Climate change

         a.      **Interference in climate system is crucial issue, not what the specific effects of that interference might turn out to be

         b.      Fundamental problem: Now possible for humans to alter underlying dynamics of planet’s climate and therefore the basic life-support system for all life on planet(human and nonhuman)

         c.      Skeptics: Earth been much warmer in past

         d.      Reply:

                   i.       Humans not around during those times

                   ii.      Climate been extremely stable during rise of civilization

                   iii.     We have never experienced a climate change as swift or as large as one projected



6.      Should listen to scientists

         a.      “Almost no one would deny that in principle our actions and policies should be informed by our best scientific judgments, and it is hard to deny that our best scientific judgments about climate change are expressed in the IPCC reports.” (Dale Jamieson)

7.      IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

         a.      Established in 1988 by World Meteorological Association and U.N. Env Program

         b.      Submitted 4 reports, fairly consistent, with increasing levels of confidence

         c.      IPCC main conclusions endorsed by all major scientific bodies (E.g., National Academy of Science)

8.      IPCC findings

         a.      Global average temp increased .6C 20th century

         b.      Increase in temp in 20th century largest of any century in last 1000 years

         c.      Snow cover/ice extent decreased

         d.      Global average sea level risen

         e.      Ocean heat content increased

         f.       Increases in amount of precipitation some places

         g.      Increased heavy precipitation events

         h.      Humans increased GHG 31% since 1750

         i.       Present CO2 levels not exceeded during last 420,000 years

         j.       Current rate of increase is unprecedented during past 20,000 years

         k.      Main source of CO2 is burning of fossil fuels (75%) and deforestation (removing carbon sinks)

         l.       Very likely (90% confidence) that most of warming due to increase GHG

         m.     Not observed (2001)

                   i.       Increase on tropical storm intensity/frequency

                   ii.      Frequency of tornadoes, thunder, hail

                   iii.     Change in extent of Antarctic sea ice

         n.      Predictions

                   i.       CO2 rise from 280 ppm (pre-industrial levels) to 540-970 ppm by 2100

                   ii.      Surface temp increase 1.4C to 5.8C (w/o precedent in 10,000 years)

         o.      To stabilize CO2 at (1) 450, (2) 650 or (3) 1000 ppm require human emissions of CO2 to drop below 1990 within (1) few decades, (2) a century, or (3) 2 centuries and continue to decrease thereafter

                   i.       CO2 today 392ppm (Summer, 2011)

9.      Catastrophic possibilities/ threshold effects

         a.      Collapse of West Antarctic Ice Sheet raise sea level 4-6 meters

         b.      Shut down of ocean conveyor: Deep circulation that drives world ocean currents and distributes huge amounts of heat around planet and plays fundamental role in earth’s climate and water distribution

                   i.       12,700 years ago conveyor slowed and saw drop of temp in North Atlantic 5C in 10 years

                   ii.      Would be rich countries, not poor who are most affected by this!

                   iii.     Winters twice as cold as the worse winters on record in eastern U.S. in past century and last 100 years



11.    Better to think about this as risk than uncertainty

         a.      Uncertainty suggest we don’t know and cannot reliably estimate probabilities of climate change

         b.      But we have considerable information here

12.    Doing nothing is not appropriate response to uncertainty/risk

         a.      We have lots of information, not totally ignorant

         b.      Do nothing may make sense only if we have as much reason to believe climate change will be good as bad

13.    Temperature record alone does not show that increase in temperatures last century due to humans, as temperatures have fluctuated naturally over long term

         a.      But have other evidence

                   i.       All agree

                            (1)    GHG increase raises global temperatures (assuming other things equal)

                            (2)    Humans significantly increased GHG

                            (3)    Enhanced greenhouse effect to be expected

14.    Scientific dispute (such as is) concerns complexity of climate system and whether there are mechanisms that would moderate effect of more GHG or exacerbate them

         a.      Positive feedbacks (make CC worse): water vapor increase (it’s a GHG) and ice melting (less reflexivity)

         b.      Negative feedbacks (makes CC less bad): More clouds (reflect solar radiation?)

15.    Scientific uncertainty not a reason to fail to act

         a.      Gardner: no more reason to assume will be saved by unexpectedly large negative feedbacks than that warming will be much worse than we expect due to unexpectedly large positive feedbacks.

16.    Conceivable (but not likely) CC problem will turn out to be not real, also possible that it may be much worse than anyone anticipated

17.    The no regrets idea: We have reasons to do the things that will help mitigate CC for reasons other that CC–so even if CC is not real and we act to prevent it we will have “no regrets”

         a.      E.g., Switch to green energy (less polluting in other ways)

         b.      E.g., re-establish train system in U.S.


18.    Adaptation versus mitigation

19.    Difference adaptation/mitigation (prevention/abatement)

         a.      Given back-loaded CC we will need to adapt at least to some extent no matter what

20.    Reason for mitigation:

         a.      If we let CC do its thing and then simply try to adapt we would have to adapt to sudden, unpredictable large scale impacts descending at random on particular individuals and communities and industries

         b.      If we mitigate, our costs are gradual and predicable and can be phased in to make them easier

         c.      Much mitigation, e.g., via energy efficiency, is economically beneficial in the short run (e.g., better gas mileage in cars)

                   i.       No regrets



22.    Skeptics argue yes CC is real, but costs of prevention (mitigation) are much greater than costs of adaptation, so we should accept CC and try to live with it

         a.      Money spent on prevention better spent on helping world’s poor

23.    Reply:

         a.      Costs of mitigation are manageable (2% of world production, doubling of per capita income moves from 2060 to 2062)

24.    Cost-benefit analyses discounts the future and that is morally problematic (e.g., huge costs born by people in 80 years are not worth mitigating today even with small sums)

         a.      See example fn 48 about Denmark’s real estate valued at $6 today in discounted future costs

25.    Cost-benefit analysis ignores costs to nonhumans and noneconomic costs to humans (like aesthetic costs)



27.    Climate policy is not mainly an economic problem or a scientific one, but one of values

         a.      How we ought to live

         b.      What kind of societies we want

         c.      How we should relate to nature, other forms of life, and future generations

         d.      For example: It is morally wrong to subject future generations to the risk of severe harm


28.    Precautionary principle (=PP): “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically”

         a.      Possible outcomes of CC are severe (collapse of West Antarctic Ice Sheet or shutdown of Thermohaline circulation–ocean conveyor) and costs to stabilizing emissions (2% world production) are manageable

         b.      PP gives us a reason to act on climate change

         c.      PP is controversial


29.    Whose responsibility is it to act on CC?

         a.      How to allocate the costs and benefits of greenhouse gas emissions and abatement (mitigation) and the costs of adaptation

         b.      Two dimensions

                   i.       Responsibility for past emissions

                   ii.      How to allocate future emissions




         a.      Bush: U.S. should not carry burden for cleaning up world’s air. China and India were exempted from the climate treaty. Need to be more even handed.

         b.      Shue: Justice does not permit that poor nations be told to sell their blankets (compromise their development strategies) in order that the rich nations keep their jewelry (continue their unsustainable lifestyles)


32.    Philosophical writers agree (according to Gardner):

         a.      Developed countries should take the lead role in bearing costs of CC; while less developed countries be allowed to increase emissions for the foreseeable future


33.    Two basic facts suggesting extreme injustice

         a.      Developed (rich) countries responsible for a very large percentage of historical emissions (and received benefits from those emissions), while costs likely to be imposed by those emissions expected to be disproportionately borne by poorer developing countries


34.    Two backward looking approaches to the problem

         a.      Both suggesting that developed countries have serious obligations

35.    One--Polluter Pays: Historical principles require that one clean up one’s own mess

         a.      Industrialized counties should bear the costs imposed by their own past emissions

36.    Two–Atmosphere a common resource: What is a just way to allocate the scare common resource of the earth’s capacity to absorb CO?

         a.      Developed countries have largely exhausted this capacity in process of industrializing and so have denied other countries opportunity to use their share

                   i.       U.S. 30%; developed countries 86%

         b.      Justice requires developed countries compensate less developed for this overuse


37.    Ignore backward looking considerations?

         a.      Until recently (1990?) developed countries were ignorant of effects of their emissions on climate

                   i.       Replies

                            (1)    We’ve known for 20 years

                            (2)    But even if you are ignorant and you unknowingly harm someone (or take more than your fair share of a resource) you owe compensation

         b.      Too impractical to use these backward looking reasons?


38.    Gardner thinks the developed countries have a special burden for dealing with climate change

         a.      In part because of their past emissions




40.    One: Equal Per Capita Entitlements

         a.      Determine an acceptable level of future GHG emissions and divide it equally among world’s population

                   i.       China and India, and most LDCs accept this

                   ii.      Based on idea atmosphere is a global commons belonging to all

         b.      Would have radical re-distributive effects

                   i.       U.S. now 5 metric tons per person

                   ii.      Japan, Australia, and Western Europe 1.6 to 4.2

                   iii.     India .29, China .76

         c.      An “even handed approach” would allow India and China to increase emissions and U.S. should take massive cut


         d.      Problems;

                   i.       Might encourage population growth to receive more emissions

                            (1)    Reply: Index (fix) population to a certain time

                                      (a)     1990, first IPCC report

                                      (b)    2050, to avoid punishing countries with younger populations

                   ii.      Ignores difference luxury emissions and subsistence missions


41.    Two: Rights to Subsistence Emissions

         a.      People have inalienable right to minimum emissions necessary for survival or minimal quality of life

         b.      Have this right even if they harm the future with this emission

                   i.       It’s like self-defense

         c.      Entitlements to emit may not be equal and could vary over time

                   i.       Benefits from GHG emissions depend on technology available and on available alternatives

                   ii.      Both vary by region and will evolve

                   iii.     E.g., colder climates need more energy than warmer climates

         d.      Cautions

                   i.       Depends on how societies define what is subsistence or indispensable emissions

                            (1)    1st Bush, 1990: “the American way of life is not up for negotiation”

                            (2)    Folks might claim that almost any emission is essential to their way of life.

                   ii.      But what is “necessary” depends very much on deep moral questions about how we ought to live


42.    Three: Priority to Least Well-Off

         a.      Depart from per capita emissions so that the emissions might maximally benefit the least well off

                   i.       E.g., rich countries carry cost of CC and offer poor countries economic assistance

         b.      Lomborg’s 2001 proposal: Better (cheaper and more effective at alleviating suffering) to spend $ today helping world’s poor than fight CC in future (and help their richer descendants)

                   i.       Reply: But one can do both and even less likely rich countries will help poor now than fight climate change


43.    Four: Fair Chore Division

         a.      Equalize marginal cost of those aiming to prevent CC

                   i.       Everyone should suffer equal amount of pain in addressing climate change

         b.      For example (Traxler’s version)

                   i.       Rich should give up all their luxury emissions before anyone else need consider giving up subsistence or near subsistence emissions

                            (1)    If done by countries this ignores there are rich people in poor countries and poor people in rich countries



44.    Gardner’s overall assessment of the moral arguments

         a.      Rich should bear the brunt and perhaps even entirety of the costs




46.    Rio Earth Summit of 1992, Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC)

         a.      “Stabilization of GHG at level to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”

         b.      Endorsed principle “of common but differential responsibilities”

                   i.       Richer nations take the lead in cutting emissions

                   ii.      Less developed countries (LDC) would pursue own development and take significant action only in future

         c.      Ratified by all major players, including U.S.


         d.      Many rich countries (U.S., Euro Union, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Norway) announced they would voluntarily stabilize their emissions at 1990 levels by 2000


47.    Became clear that voluntary measure ineffective

48.    Most who made declarations did nothing meaningful to try to live up to them and emissions continued to rise w/o constraint

         a.      U.S. posted 12% increase for that decade

         b.      Europe succeeded but only because of recessions in Germany and UK

49.    Kyoto protocol in Japan in 1997 set binding constraints

         a.      Required rich countries to reduce emission by 5% below 1990 levels by 2008-2012

         b.      Compromises

                   i.       Countries could count forests as sinks

                   ii.      Could meet goals by buying unused capacities from other countries

50.    Bush administration withdrew U.S. support from Kyoto in 2001, and that looked like it would kill Kyoto

51.    But further meetings in 2001 in Bonn and Marrakesh got a full agreement of details of Kyoto (Russia and Japan got lower targets)

52.    Kyoto became international law 2005

         a.      Europe, Japan, Canada, and Russia ratified (Russia ratified in order to join World Trade Organization)


53.    Gardner’s criticism of Kyoto

         a.      One: Agreement was so watered down that full compliance would still lead to 9% increase above 2000 levels by treaty signers

                   i.       Due to recession, this was likely to be business as usual emissions

                   ii.      Add increase in GHG by lesser developed countries of 114% by 2012

54.    Benefits of Kyoto

         a.      Not much benefit for atmosphere but useful as

                   i.       Symbolically showing an agreement is possible

                   ii.      Showing world can act on important env issue w/o U.S.

                   iii.     First step: There will be further talks and deeper cuts and developing countries will be included

55.    Another criticism: Kyoto has no effective compliance mechanism

         a.      It has punishments (harder targets later, inability to trade emissions)

         b.      But these can’t be enforced

         c.      Countries are free to leave the treaty after one year

         d.      Punishments don’t apply if a country fails to ratify an amendment necessary to punish it


56.    Kyoto is flawed in background assumptions

         a.      One: Addresses only cost of preventing future CC and only minimally and indirectly addresses costs of coping with CC to which we are already committed

         b.      Two: Enforcement mechanisms outside CC issue are not used (such as trade sanctions); this is probably disastrous


57.    Why Kyoto such a failure?

         a.      Political role of energy interests, confusion about scientific uncertainties and economic costs, inadequacies of international system

         b.      Unethical behavior of U.S.

                   i.       4% of world population, produces 25% of GHG

                   ii.      U.S. molded agreement to its will, kept objecting as countries tried to strengthen it, then abandoning it rejecting things on which it had previously agreed

                   iii.     Singer: Moral case for economic sanctions against U.S. (And other countries who have refused to act on CC) is stronger than it was for apartheid South Africa, as there the government was only hurting its own citizens and U.S. harms citizens of other countries.

         c.      Intergenerational aspect of CC problem

                            (1)    As opposed to intra-generational issues

                   ii.      Benefits of energy use come today

                   iii.     Costs are put onto future people

                   iv.     So perceived self-interest to not do anything

                   v.      Each generation is in same situation

                   vi.     Tragic dimension

Study Questions Gardner, Ethics and Global Climate Change

1.         Why does Gardner think “climate change” is a better way to describe this env problem than is “global warming”? What does he think the core problem is? Temperature increase?

2.         What are the IPCC reports and why does it make sense to base climate change (=CC) policy on the IPCC reports?

3.         What is an example of one possible “catastrophic” effects of CC?

4.         What is the “no regrets” argument for policies to mitigate CC?

5.         Explain the difference between adaptation and mitigation in response to CC. What are some reasons to mitigate?

6.         Explain the moral objection to discounting the future involved in cost benefit analyses

7.         Explain the precautionary principle and apply it to CC.

8.         What is the consensus view of philosophers writing on the CC problem about who should bear the costs of CC?

9.         What are the two basic facts suggesting extreme injustice concerning CC?

10.       Describe the two backward looking approaches to who should respond to CC and evaluate them from your own perspective. How are these approaches different?

11.       Is ignorance of effects of burning fossil fuels a good response to these backward looking arguments?

12.       Explain the proposal suggesting allocating emissions on an equal per capita basis. Would this change the current emission levels of countries? How might this effect population growth?

13.       Is there a moral difference between “luxury emissions” and “subsistence emissions” and how does this affect the proposal for equal per capita emissions?

14.       Explain the pros and cons of the proposal for a right to subsistence emissions.

15.       Explain the pros and cons of the proposal to allocate emissions so it benefits the least well off.

16.       Explain the pros and cons of the proposal for a “fair chore division” where the marginal cost to prevent CC is equal for all participating.

17.       Briefly describe Gardner’s assessment of how the world has responded to threat of CC.