The most crucial missing element in U.S. media coverage of climate change: The ethical duty to reduce GHG emissions

Okay, maybe the most crucial missing element in US media coverage of climate change is an actual understanding of the dire nature of the issue or maybe the still unjustifiable “balance” whereby the other “side” is treated as serious sources, rather than as long-wrong disinformers or maybe how they are blowing the economics issue (see Must-read (again) study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics “” “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress” and countless examples here).  Still, Donald A. Brown, Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law at Penn State University has a case to make — and his excellent blog ClimateEthics (a Time magazine Top 15 pick) is the source of this guest post.

I. Introduction: Scottish Versus The US Climate Change Debate
In March, the U.S. State Department asked me to speak to the Scottish Parliament about climate-change policies as they were debating a new climate-change law.

Before I spoke, a Scottish Parliamentarian made an argument that I have never heard any US politician make. The topic of this speech is also curiously largely absent in US media climate change coverage.  The Parliamentarian argued that Scotland should adopt this tough new legislation even though it might be expensive because the Scotts had an obligation to the rest of the world to do so. In other words, those countries most responsible for causing climate change have ethical duties to reduce their emissions even if it costs are significant.  That is, high-emitting developed countries like the United States must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as a matter of justice.

In late June, Scotland passed the landmark climate change law that was being debated during my March visit, a law that requires a 42% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, rising to 80% by 2050. (BBC, 2009) On the day the law passed, Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney told the Parliamentarians that passing the world-leading legislation was justified because the climate change affects all the people on of our planet and the Scots had a duty to make the commitments in the law. (TWFY 2009)

The US Congress is striving to pass legislation that would for the first time create binding greenhouse gas emissions reductions 12 years after most of the rest of the developed world bound themselves to reduce emissions in the Kyoto Protocol. Yet, there is not the faintest murmur in the US climate-change debate or in the media’s coverage of the unfolding US legislative fight about duties and responsibilities that the United States has to the rest of the world to reduce the threat of climate change. This is so even though the legislation that has passed the House would require 17% reductions by 2020, a commitment that is only 40% of the Scottish requirement.

It can be seen that the Scottish commitment is even more ambitious compared to the US proposed legislation given that Scotland has already reduced its climate change causing emissions by 16% compared to 1990 levels while the US performance amounts to a 17% increase in emissions during the same period. (Devine and Bristow, 2009)(USEPA, 2009).  If you measure GHG emissions on a per capita basis, the Scots’ emissions are already only about a half of the US emissions. (10.69 tons CO2e per capita for Scotland, 19. 78 tons CO2e per capita for the US) (FOES 2009, UCS 2009)  For these reasons, the 42% Scottish reduction target by 2020 compared to the US House’s proposed legislation of 17% reduction by 2020 must be seen as a huge commitment motivated by Scotland’s acknowledged duty to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions.

The climate change debate in the US shows no sign of acknowledging that US climate change policy should be guided by duties to the rest of the world. On August 8th, the New York Times reported that climate change legislation in the United States Senate was being opposed by 10 moderate democrats because it threatens to add to the cost of goods like steel, cement, paper and aluminum.  (Broder 2009)

With the exception of waning arguments against climate-change law on scientific grounds, opposition to climate-change policies in the United States is almost always based on claims that climate-change programs are not in the  national, state or local economic interest.

For instance, U.S. Congressmen Tim Holden, D-Pa. (17th district), recently explained his opposition to federal cap-and-trade legislation because it would increase transportation, energy and business costs while reducing manufacturing jobs. Again and again, politicians opposing climate-change policies justify their position by pointing to some increased costs to their constituents. (Holden 2009)

II. Why Climate Change Must Be Seen As An Ethical Issue

Yet, climate change is a problem that clearly creates civilization challenging ethical issues.  This is so because several distinct features of climate change call for its recognition as creating ethical responsibilities that limit a nation’s ability to look at narrow economic self interest alone when developing responsive policies.

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, for instance, directly threatens human life and health and resources to sustain life, as well as species of plants and animals and ecosystems around the world.

Climate change harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat, and intense storms and damage to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, social disputes caused by diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. Climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are catastrophic.

In fact, there is growing evidence that climate change is already causing great harm to many outside the United States while threatening hundreds of millions of others in the years ahead. For instance, a recent report by the Global Humanitarian Forum  found that human-induced climate change is already responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and is now affecting 300 million people around the world. (Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009) This report also projects that increasingly severe heat waves, floods, storms and forest fires will be responsible for as many as 500,000 deaths a year by 2030.

The third reason why climate change is a moral 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 get governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.

Despite the fact that climate change creates obligations, the U.S. continues to debate this issue as if the only legitimate consideration is how our economy might be affected.

The US press almost never challenges those who oppose climate change on the basis that policies will increase cost. This is curious because the debate at the international level has created a consensus among all countries that those developed countries most responsible for climate change should take the first steps to reduce its enormous threats. In fact the senior George Bush administration in 1992 agreed that the rich developed countries including the United States should take the lead in combating climate change when it negotiated and finally ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (UNFCCC Art. 3, 1992)

In the United States, however, even those supporting climate-change policies often follow the same implicit reasoning on cost by responding that climate-change policies will create jobs. Although this may be true, depending upon the actual policies implemented, this limited focus on job creation undermines the need to help Americans see their ethical duties while giving unspoken support for the notion that the reasonableness of climate change policies turns on whether they will create jobs.

Because the  majority of climate scientists believe the world is running out of time to prevent very dangerous climate change, a case can be made that there is a urgent need to turn up the volume about American duties to others to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

Economists can help us figure out how to meet our obligations at lowest cost, yet increased cost alone is not a sufficient excuse for failing to meet our responsibilities.

Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law,
The Pennsylvania State University

AEA Energy & Environment, (AEA), 2009, Greenhouse Gas, Inventories for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland:  1990 – 2005, Friends of the Earth Scotland, Facts and Figures,

BBC, 2009, Landmark legislation to help Scotland tackle the threat of climate change has been passed unanimously by MSPs, .

Broder, John,  2009, Senators Issue Warning on Climate Bill, New York Times,

Devine, Jim, MP and, Bristow Muldoon MSP, (Devine and Bristow), 2009, Livingston Constituency, How Scotland really compares with Ireland, Norway and Finland _04.cfm%20with%20Ireland%20Norway.pdf

Friends of the Earth Scotland (FOES), 2009, Facts and Figures,

Global Humanitarian Forum, 2009, Human Impact of Climate Change.

Holden, Tim, 2009, Letter to Constituent.

They Work For (TWFY), 2009, Scottish Parliament debates, 24 June 2009,

Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), 2009, Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions

US Environmental Protection Agency, (USEPA), 2009,  Inventory Of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions And Sinks:1990 – 2007.

United Nations, (UN), 2009, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate,

24 Responses to The most crucial missing element in U.S. media coverage of climate change: The ethical duty to reduce GHG emissions

  1. SecularAnimist says:

    There is a reason why this is not part of the US discourse on taking action to prevent or mitigate catastrophic anthropogenic global warmin.

    A key doctrine of the cult of American Exceptionalism is that the USA has no ethical or moral obligations to anyone else, ever, for any reason.

    We are America. The rest of the world has moral obligations to us, simply because we are America, the Greatest Nation In The History Of The World. (The world’s moral obligation to the USA consists principally of giving US corporations free access to their natural resources and cheap labor.)

    The USA no more has “moral obligations” to the rest of the world than Rome had “moral obligations” to the European barbarians.

    I mean, come on — to this day the USA has not renounced first strike use of nuclear weapons. Barack Obama, like every US president since Truman, is prepared to push a button and incinerate half the world. “Moral obligations”? Give me a break.

  2. Sasparilla says:

    This is a great article and totally right on. Even if this angle is ignored by the cult of American Exceptionalism, it needs to be said.

  3. Ken Johnson says:

    Donald Brown’s concluding statement (“Economists can help us figure out how to meet our obligations at lowest cost …”) raises an important issue relating to the ethical dimensions of economics and regulatory environmental policy. For example, the U.S. acid rain program effectively imposed a cap of about 20,000 acid-rain-related deaths per year, and the mortality cap was achieved at about one-third of the anticipated compliance cost. Should the regulatory system have favored cost reductions over further emission reductions when thousands of additional lives could have been prolonged without exceeding the original cost expectations? Is the policy objective of “environmental certainty” morally correct when the price for such certainty is acceptance of environmental goals that are weak, inadequate, and emaciated by political compromise?

  4. Tim R. says:

    Could we all include in these discussions our moral obligations to the one quarter or more of all species of all types on the whole planet that we have been co-evolving with for 6 billion years that are likely to go extinct from climate change. They don’t just die, they go extinct forever.

  5. paulm says:

    The American Constitutions needs to evolve to recognize the fact that there is an obligation and necessity to meet this element in a mature and progressive society.

    Amendments 1.1 ….

  6. Greg Robie says:

    Given the science, the Scottish commitment is not exceptional but simply what is required of the developed world. The ignored requirements the science makes of US is why ACES is such bad “pragmatism.” That said, and as was discussed here at CP on June 26 in response to the June 25th blog entry on Scotland, it looks to me like there is a loophole and offsets are possible in Scottish legislation, see page 12 lines 9 & 10.

  7. US broadcast, print media or any advertiser-supported media venture is beholden to cheap carbon fuel – if only because carbon fuel underlies so much of our economy. None will urge people to consume less carbon fuel.

    For any media outlet to urge a reduction in GHGs would be the same as urging revenue reduction. It is just not gonna happen.

  8. Off topic:

    but see here:

    and read: “Escalation in material and labour costs, changes in component design and the tsunami of December 2004 pushed up costs from Rs.3,500 crore to Rs.5,000 crore, according to Nuclear Power Corp chairman S.K. Jain…”


  9. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    It is a rare pleasure to see this focus on the ethical duty to prevent catastrophic climate destabilization being written by so eminent an author.

    Yet to break out of the glass cage – where the arguments can be rehearsed but none get heard – there is plainly a need to go further.

    The description of hundreds of thousands of deaths per year from climate impacts has been available to the media for some years (to no visible effect) and is itself an artefact of some self-censorship by its researchers –
    Specifically, at the launch of IPCC-AR4, it was declared that some African nations will lose 50% of their former food production by 2020 – while, by contrast, it took only 10 to 15% cuts by weather impcts to cause the great famines in European history – Plainly, with that scale of intensifying crop failure now in view, we are becoming committed to the death by famine of at least tens of millions of people.

    The proper charge for failing to prevent this outcome is that of genocide. The sheer scale of the losses means that no other term is apposite.

    The use of the term genocide, shocking as it may be to describe current US policy of a token 4% GHG cut off 1990 level by 2020, is now a necessity as a means to shock US society into awareness of what is being done in its name.

    As ever, it is never too late to try –



  10. Greg Robie says:

    Richard Pauli,

    The point you make concerning profitability is astute. A key systemic dynamic that needs to change to make the “impossible” possible relative to the influence profitability has on the media, is stripping corporations of their free speech protection. This is one of the four Constitutional crises I advocate needs to be addressed for the economy to be greened in a scientifically meaningful way. Corporations are not legal persons as per the intent of the Framers. The 1886 decision affording them protection under the 14th Amendment was as corrupting of this society as was that Court.

  11. Bob Wright says:

    The Scots would also be fulfilling their duty to plan for a future without cheap North Sea oil. Production peaked in ’98. Win win.

  12. jcwinnie says:

    Ethics & Government? Uh-oh, Joseph has been out in the sun too long without a sun hat.

  13. Jeff Huggins says:

    The Ethics of Poisoning Your Neighbors

    Imagine that your family household has ten members, living together, and that you grow your food in a garden. Then, as if you don’t have enough to think about already, you discover that some poisonous and life-altering substance is leaking from your neighbor’s yard into yours.

    You bring this to your neighbor’s attention. As it turns out, he has been performing some industrial activity in his yard that generates the substance, and he has been allowing the substance to leak into your yard. Although his actions and his apparent awareness of them cause you concern, you decide to bring the problem to his attention with neighborly kindness and civility, and you politely and reasonably ask him to please stop.

    But, alas, he doesn’t. Instead, he insists on continuing. So every day, more and more of the poisonous life-altering substance leaks from his yard into yours.

    Being a conscientious and reflective person, you ask yourself, “What does it matter?” Well, as it turns out, the impact of the substance on the members of your family depends somewhat on who is exposed to it, and how much, and it also depends to some degree on time. In the case of your household of ten members, the local scientists and doctors say that the substance will most likely kill two of you, greatly alter the conditions of life of four others, moderately alter life for three others, and not alter life for one of you (the lucky one), except for the fact that that person’s life will of course change fairly substantially because of the struggles and unfortunate fates of the other nine, some of whom won’t go quietly. And, the scientists also tell you that the unfortunate substance will make life more difficult for future generations in your household. Indeed, the leaky substance may make it impossible for future generations to continue living in your household at all.

    (And by the way, it will also mess with your pets.)

    So you ask your neighbor, once again, to please stop generating the substance and leaking it into your yard. He still refuses. Stubborn guy, that neighbor of yours!

    Now, most people will likely see the ethical problem presented in this situation. If you were a member of that household, with ten people, you would almost certainly see it quite easily. You wouldn’t see it as a matter of “mere theory”. You may not even know or care much about the fancy words “ethics” and “morality”. Your complaints to your neighbor would be warranted. You wouldn’t be wise to talk yourself into a state of acceptant, fatalistic passivity. Indeed, if you didn’t complain to your neighbor and work energetically to remedy the problem, you would be letting the other nine members of your own household down, not just yourself! Think about it.

    So far, so simple. And in some very real ways, to some very substantial degree, the parallel (to the global warming and CO2 situation) holds.

    But what if?

    What if the members of your own household are also doing something in your own yard that creates the poisonous and life-altering substance and leaks some of that back into your neighbor’s yard? In other words, you and your neighbor are BOTH generating the substance and leaking it into the other’s yard. That might at least seem “fair”, right?

    But, that sort of “fairness” is a mutually destructive sort of fairness. So, there are still three questions, at least: Is the situation really “fair”? Is it really “fair” to everyone, including other neighbors, each member of each household, and future generations? AND, on top of all that, what does a genuine and whole understanding of morality (ethics) say about mutually destructive fairness? In other words, is morality only about “fairness”, or does morality have some more foundational function, some broader scope, some “reason for being”, that encompasses considerations of fairness AND MUCH MORE?

    Is mutually destructive fairness (e.g., “Hey gang, let’s all commit suicide together, but let’s be fair about it!”) just as moral/ethical as mutually healthy and sustainable fairness?

    Later, I’ll offer another comment to give my view on that. (I’ll try to keep it reasonably brief.)

    Thanks for your consideration, and Be Well,


    (PS: Remember Woodstock!)

  14. paulm says:

    greg, hear hear.

    ….A key systemic dynamic that needs to change to make the “impossible” possible relative to the influence profitability has on the media, is stripping corporations of their free speech protection.

  15. Donald Brown says:

    I have been op the front lines of the climate change debate in the over 20 years including working at the United Nations for the Clinton Administration. I am stunned by how vulnerable nations like Bangladesh or the Small Island Developing States get the obvious ethical and justice issues entailed by climate change but yet in the US press there is virtually no mention, no murmur, no faint sound about the ethical dimensions of climate change. The US has used three excuses for refusing to reduce its GHG emissions for over 20 years, in fact since the beginning of climate negotiations that started in 1987, that is 22 years. The excuses are scientific uncertainty, cost to the US alone, and the US should not have to do anything unless other nations reduce their emissions. These same arguments are again being raised in opposition to pending federal legislation in 2009. All these excuses are deeply ethically problematic for reasons set out in the White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change which can be found at,
    Although framing some questions as ethical questions does not lead to a consensus, in some cases there is an overlapping consensus among ethical theories. Given that we believe almost all ethical theories would condemn these three excuses, it is astonishing, given the potential seriousness of climate change, that commentators and the press have not turned up the volume on the ethical dimensions of US positions on climate change. In addition, climate change raises not just one civilization challenging ethical issue, it raises many unprecedented ethical issues. These issues include: (1) What is each nations position on the GHG atmospheric stabilization question, no national strategy makes sense unless it is implicitly a position on this issue, (2) What does fairness require of national allocations needed to assure that atmospheric GHG concentrations goals are not exceeded, (3) Who should pay for damages or adaptation needs, (4) Can nations wait to reduce their emissions until other nations act, (5) Can nations wait to reduce their emissions because new less costly technologies may be invented, (6) When can cost be justification for non-action, (7) When can scientific uncertainty be used for justification for non-action, and (8) Ethical issues raised by climate change solutions including but not limited to biofuels, geologic carbon sequestration, nuclear power, geoenginnering etc. follows these and unfolding issues and invites people to reflect on their ethical dimensions. For these and other reasons we need to turn up the volume on the ethical dimension of climate change.

  16. Jeff Huggins says:

    Climate Change, Ethics, Media, the Philosophical Community, and etc.

    First I should say to Donald (#15): excellent comment.

    Then to add a few thoughts and observations . . .

    First, The New York Times is not covering the ethical/moral dimensions of the matter responsibly. Online (e.g., on Dot Earth), the ethical/moral dimension is explored every once in awhile, to no clear end or actionable outcome. But, the paper itself barely peeps about the ethical/moral dimensions, except of course on the part of a few of its most conscientious and aware columnists.

    The paper itself is also morally/ethically compromised, and it seems to refuse to pull itself out of that compromise. For example, if you compare the ExxonMobil advertorials, carried in the Times, and the misleading confusion they often bring about, with the Times’ willingness or unwillingness to cover those same topics in a straightforward, accurate, and responsible fashion (as evidenced by the paper in the last year), you see a problem as clear and large as the side of a big barn. So, as is often the case, for example, in order to actually achieve (or even remotely approach) genuine ethical behavior on this, a media entity (such as The Times) should not only cover the ethical aspects of the climate change problem in total, but should also live up to ethical standards itself, especially in a situation with such huge stakes.

    And there seems to be another problem, in my experience: It doesn’t seem to me that the community of philosophers, moral philosophers, and ethicists is doing nearly enough on this issue, given the stakes involved. Of course, some number (it seems a small one) of moral philosophers and ethicists are speaking out and, in some cases, acting heroically. But, that number is far too small, as far as I can tell. For now anyhow, I’ll leave it at that.

    Or, ideally, if you (Donald) wouldn’t mind, could you please offer your own thoughts on the level of activity you see in the communities of moral philosophers and ethicists, RELATIVE TO the level of activity that the situation warrants and calls for?

    Is the problem that moral philosophers (and ethicists) are appropriately and vocally active, and insistent, and persistent, but that the media refuse to cover them, OR is the problem that the moral philosophers and ethicists are (on balance) far too silent on the matter or too shy in their efforts, OR is the problem due to BOTH of these things?

    My impression is that the answer is BOTH, and both are huge problems. But, I’m open to another view and to correction.

    Be Well,


  17. paulm says:

    Oh, Oh. This is not good. The end is nigh…

    Pine Island glacier may disappear within 100 years
    14 August 2009

    One of Antarctica’s greatest glaciers is thinning so quickly it could disappear within 100 years. This is 500 years sooner than previously estimated and jeopardises a volume of ice that could raise global sea levels by around 25cm.

  18. Ken Johnson says:

    Re #15 — Some of the questions about fairness and responsibility seem like two men in a boat who are arguing about whose turn it is to row, while their boat is drifting ever closer to a waterfall precipice. Clearly, they should both row to the best of their abilities. They should not set predetermined “targets” or “caps” on how hard or how fast they are going to row.

  19. Jeff Huggins says:

    Ants, Cooperation, On-Going Survival, and The Commons: A Follow-up To My Comment 13

    As promised, here are a few thoughts as follow-up to my Comment 13. (Anyone interested should probably read that comment before trying to make sense of the tidbits in this one.)

    Have you ever watched ants closely? If so, you’ll know that, in a number of very important ways, they “cooperate”. They are social organisms, biologically and behaviorally speaking.

    But, they don’t cooperate “for the sake of the concepts of ‘cooperation’ or ‘fairness’ themselves”. They don’t cooperate to please or satisfy some ethereal concept of cooperation. Instead, they have their cooperative faculties, tendencies and ways because those faculties, tendencies, and ways have made (and do make) a substantial contribution to the continuation of the ant life-stream (to pick a phrase) from one generation to the next generation. A biologist would say that these things contribute to ant “fitness”. Having them is more effective than not having them.

    Referring back to my Comment 13, it’s important (very important) to understand that morality/ethics is about much more than fairness. Fairness is a key element, a key dynamic, in the matter, of course. But, we (humans) don’t have the concept of ‘fairness’, or faculties that allow us to understand fairness and to be fair, for the sake of a concept or word. Fairness, as part of our broader collection of social-moral faculties and dynamics, has a “reason for being”, i.e., an effective foundational function.

    Consider: The following two things are dramatically different: Poisoning each other in “fair” ways; and achieving healthy sustainability together in fair ways. Although (some might argue) these two things are both “fair”, they are nevertheless very different in terms of outcome. In one case, the eventual outcome is fully contradictory to the very “point” of, i.e., to the foundational function of, morality itself. It is “anti-morality” (to put it one way), i.e., immoral. In the other case, the eventual outcome is consistent with morality, i.e., it is moral.

    A classic book about cooperation is Robert Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation” (1984). Although more up-to-date papers and books have been written about the matter, Axelrod’s classic provides the basis and is a great way for interested parties to understand that there is a “point” to such things as cooperation and fairness, and that we don’t have those abilities for the sake of the concepts themselves.

    On another note, I’d just like to remind people of the vital importance of “the commons” (as if I need to remind people here of that importance, rather than people elsewhere!). Yet, for the sake of completeness, I’ll mention it: The atmosphere is a commons, of course. The climate is a commons.

    Poisoning a commons—altering it in a way that will have substantial harmful and destabilizing consequences—is contradictory to morality. It is unethical. This is true even if we all do it to each other in a way that some might consider “fair”: “You are messing up the commons, but so am I, so we’ll just agree to keep doing it together, come what may.”

    Not only is doing so unfair, because (as has been pointed out by others) some people will actually suffer more of the harm than others, and some people contribute to the problem more than others, and some people want to address the problem, while others resist. But also—and very importantly—the net effect of the whole thing runs contradictory to the effective foundational function of morality in the first place.

    If time allows, I’ll make one more comment (later) to summarize, and then I’d like to offer some resources (on the web) for interested parties to consider.

    Unfortunately, as Bertrand Russell once said, “Some people would rather die than think; and many do.”

    Be Well,


  20. Mike#22 says:

    “Yet, there is not the faintest murmur in the US climate-change debate or in the media’s coverage of the unfolding US legislative fight about duties and responsibilities that the United States has to the rest of the world to reduce the threat of climate change”

    Yet, some US statesmen are trying to start that debate.

    Obama at G8 conference last month: “In the past, the United States has sometimes fallen short of meeting our responsibilities,” regarding climate change, Obama told the leaders of 16 other leading economies, but added, “those days are over.”

    Kerry at the National Press Club last month: “Only this time, it’s not just our geopolitics that are changing—but the earth itself. Global climate change poses a real and present danger of environmental destruction and human dislocation on a scale we’ve never seen.” and “But China and America—the world’s largest emitter today and history’s largest cumulative emitter—have a special responsibility. 192 nations will gather this December in Copenhagen to hammer out a new global climate treaty. Two will set the tone and define what is possible. The crucial question is: can America and China forge a partnership capable of acting boldly enough to prevent a climate catastrophe? Science tells us, the answer had better be yes.”

    Gore, just about everywhere. Clintons, Waxman, Markey, many more including the Republicans who voted for W-M. A long list of books.

    Professor Brown’s point stands however. The level of debate and discussion we have today is insignifigant compared to where it should be based on the ethical enormity of this crisis. His crystal clear deliniation of the ethics of our current situation are very welcome.

  21. Donald Brown says:

    To those who pointed out that moral philosophers are not doing enough on this issue, I would say in response,yes, absolutely right. It is not only true of climate change, it is true of almost all environmental issues. Although almost every college and university has at least one person teaching environmental ethics, yet the course work in the vast majority of the cases is focused on what are called “metaehtical” questions, such as whether environmental policies should be based upon anthropocentric or biocentric ethical systems, while ignoring in any detail the actual civilization challenging issues entailed by actual environmental controversies such as climate change. This is a huge problem because many actual controversies don’t turn on these metaethical distinctions, they turn on such questions as what to do about scientific uncertainty, who should have the burden of proof, what is wrong with cost arguments in this case. This is beginning to change and there are now a small handful of philosophers working on “applied” problems, but not nearly enough. Moreover, the academic journals in the field are much, much, much to abstract and almost always fail to engage in actual problems, and almost never do so in a timely manner. This is one of the reasons why is trying to fill the void in climate change

  22. Jeff Huggins says:

    Dear Dr. (Donald) Brown, Comment 21

    Thanks very much for your response and observations.

    I’ve been thinking about this matter, a bit, and see similarities across disciplines and professions when it comes to things like this.

    For example, given your observations, and mine, about the need for moral philosophers, ethicists, and so forth to engage these sorts of issues (e.g., climate change) more directly and (I would say) persistently and visibly, one could ask: “Why don’t more philosophers/ethicists remind and prompt each other more to do so?” For example, they could send messages (to encourage and prompt members of the profession) on PHILOS-L and PHILOSOP and so forth.

    Yet, as with other professions, there seems to be an inbuilt human dynamic to question just about everything EXCEPT practices in one’s own profession. One gets the impression (I’ve tried it several times) that it is frowned upon to critique one’s own profession or encourage it to greater levels of activity and responsibility.

    So, just as we seem to have media that don’t like to critique advertisers, and government organizations that like to be their own ethical policemen (although they let a lot pass, to mutual advantage), and The American Bar Association doing a not-very-good job of watching over the behaviors of its own members, and on and on and on, we also seem to have a community of moral philosophers and ethicists who aren’t (on average) engaging these key issues (e.g., global warming) enough AND who often don’t want to say a “peep” (especially not in public) to each other to encourage and call for each other to get much more involved.

    At a “systemic” level (not consciously among individuals), there seems to be a sort of mutual resignation to a state of relative passivity.

    This is, of course, “human”, and it is common to many professions. YET, in the present case, we are talking about huge issues with huge moral implications. And, we are talking about the profession that SHOULD be willing to do what SHOULD be done. Indeed, we are talking about the experts of “ought”. So, unlike the case with other professions, moral philosophers and ethicists should be willing (I would argue) to pick up themselves by the bootstraps, and to help pick each other up by the bootstraps, to get much more engaged on these pivotal issues (global warming, health care). Even if doing so is uncomfortable. Morality is often not about doing solely what’s easy, of course.

    Although the largest stakes (by far) have to do with the problems themselves (global warming, etc.), there is also the matter of the credibility of the professions involved. Will the media cover global warming responsibly? Their credibility will depend on it. Will politicians come through? Their credibility will depend on it. Will the public hear loudly, clearly, and wisely from the moral philosophy community and from ethicists, regarding global warming? The credibility of those communities will depend, in no small part, on the answer to that question.

    I am hopeful that more people will get more involved. But, I’m not sure about the best way to help encourage that?

    Thanks again for your response.

    Be Well,

    Jeff Huggins

  23. raleigh Latham says:

    Another reason to call, or email every senator and tell them to support the Clean Energy and Security Act.
    Our voices must be heard, our future is at stake.

  24. Jeff Huggins says:

    Some Materials on Morality and The Relationship Between Morality and Sustainability

    As mentioned in earlier comments, here are some materials that relate to morality itself (or call it ethics if you like) and to central relationships between morality and sustainability. They can be found, with many others, on my website, www DOT ObligationsOfReason DOT com .

    If you are interested, just go to the site and click on “ADDITIONAL MATERIAL” on the navigation bar on the home page. That will take you to the “Additional Material From The Author” page of the site. On that page, you’ll see links to all materials, including the five mentioned here:

    The Morality of Sustainability: A DIY Exploration

    To Scientifically Informed Philosophers and Philosophically Minded Scientists

    “The Bridge: A-QED”

    On Morality: Key Considerations and a Bridge

    Illustrative Quotes

    If you find those helpful, please check out the others as well.

    Be Well,

    Jeff Huggins