The worst ethical scandal in Congress: Climate change?

Guest blogger Donald A. Brown is Associate Professor for Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law at Penn State University.  This cross-post is from his ClimateEthics blog.

What is the worst ethical scandal in the US Congress? Could it be climate change?

Although the US media has recently paid attention to the comparatively minor ethical stories unfolding in the US House of Representatives, there is not a peep in the US media about a much more momentous unfolding ethical failure in the US Senate. While many press stories have appeared in the past few week about potential ethical problems of Representatives Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters in the House, ethical lapses that harm society because public servants may have abused their power in ways that enrich themselves or their families, the US Senate ethical failure is more ethically reprehensible because it is depriving tens of millions of people around the world of life itself or the natural resources necessary to sustain life. The failure in the US Senate to enact legislation to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions is a moral lapse of epic proportions. Yet it is not discussed this way.

There are several distinct features of climate change that call for its recognition as creating civilization challenging ethical questions.

First, climate change creates ethical 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 and there is a growing scientific consensus that we are running out of time to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The third reason why climate change must be seen as 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.

In 1979 a report issued for the United States Academy of Sciences acknowledged that humans were changing the atmosphere and predicted that if CO2 was allowed to increase to 560 parts per million (ppm), global temperatures would increase approximately 3 0 C. (Charney et al., 1979)

In May of this year, the US Academy of Sciences issued another report that found:

A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems. (US Academy of Sciences, 2010)

And so, after thirty years of first being warned that activities within its boarders may be contributing to huge suffering all around the world, despite frequent additional warnings with higher levels of confidence from many prestigious scientific bodies and organizations since then that have concluded that climate change is a grave threat, ignoring increasing scientific concern that the world is running out of time to prevent even more rapid climate change, the United States Senate refuses to take action to fulfill its ethical duties to others to prevent harm.

Republican Senators who oppose action on climate change in the US Senate do so because such legislation would “create a ‘national energy tax”, warning costs would be passed to consumers in the form of higher electricity bills and fuel costs that would lead manufacturers to take their factories overseas, putting jobs at risk. (Haroon, 2010)

For twenty-five years, many American politicians have opposed climate change legislation on similar grounds that such legislation would harm US economic interests.

Yet, if climate change raises ethical questions, then strong arguments can be made that nations have not only national interests but also duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others. However, ethical arguments that could counter the national-interest based arguments are rarely heard in the climate change debate and are now virtually absent in the U.S. discussion of proposed domestic climate change legislation. We never hear, for instance in the United States that we should enact climate change legislation because our emissions are harming others. This is a catastrophic ethical failure.

This cross-post is from the Penn State climate ethics blog is by Donald A. Brown, Associate Professor for Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law at Penn State University.


Charney Jule et al, 1979, Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment, Report of an Ad-Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, July 23-27, 1979 to the Climate Research Board, National Research Council, Washington, DC: National Academy Press,1979.

Siddique, Haroon, 2010, US Senate Drops Bill To Cap Carbon Emissions. Gaurdian, July 23, 2010.

US Academy of Sciences, 2010. Strong Evidence On Climate Change Underscores Need For Actions To Reduce Emissions And Begin Adapting To Impacts

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29 Responses to The worst ethical scandal in Congress: Climate change?

  1. Prokaryotes says:

    “That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who can do little to reduce its threat.”

    True, but the same people are taken the same road of industrial revolution with fossil energy once they develop. So actually they are not much better.

    “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.”

    The “rich” countries face the same destiny, maybe just a little later.

    “The third reason why climate change must be seen as 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.”

    I would add that the solution to the global climate crisis is a global approach – which makes it not only an ethical problem but a coordination – political problem – which can be tackled with unity (like standards & targets). Isn’t the UN such a governmental body?


    As Burger (2008) points out:- “The Ethics does not end at its apparent peak, identifying perfect happiness with the life devoted to theōria (p.212); instead it goes on to introduce the need for a study of legislation, on the grounds that it is not sufficient only to know about virtue, but one should try to put that knowledge to use.” At the end of the book, according to Burger, the thoughtful reader is led to understand that “the end we are seeking is what we have been doing” while engaging with the Ethics (p.215).

    The aim of political capacity should include the aim of all other pursuits, so that “this end would be the human good (tanthrōpinon agathon)”. He concludes what is now known as Chapter 2 of Book 1 by stating that ethics (“our investigation” or methodos) is “in a certain way political”

    “For though this good is the same for the individual and the state, yet the good of the state seems a grander and more perfect thing both to attain and to secure; and glad as one would be to do this service for a single individual, to do it for a people and for a number of states is nobler and more divine.”

    Here Aristotle describes the relationship between ethics and politics, saying that politics is essentially ethics on a larger scale (cf. Socrates’ suggestion in Plato’s Republic, Book II, that he discuss the justice of the state, rather than of the individual, since the former “is likely to be larger and more easily discernible”).

    Indeed, Aristotle believes that politics should be a noble pursuit to which ethics is an introduction. The last chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics states “Since then our predecessors have left this matter of legislation uninvestigated, it will perhaps be better ourselves to inquire into it, and indeed into the whole question of the management of a state, in order that our philosophy of human life may be completed to the best of our power.”

  2. Raul M says:

    It’s nice to think that a public servants’ financial
    blind trust would be uninfluenced by the politicians vote.
    But financial planners of the coal and oil industries
    would seem to watch and know how their trustees would
    vote. Is the polician the public cheerleader for the
    industries when the industries win legal battels when
    caught doing what is legally and moraly wrong.

  3. Raul M. says:

    of course,
    blind trust administrators could not be blind.
    Only, with the work of administration. there
    might not be a category for moral actions
    that ought to be done as that might interefer
    with the returns competition.
    Sort of how my experience with learning to play
    football years ago lead me to believe that the
    one who said if I couldn’t stand the heat of
    the football helmet in the summer FLA. sun
    then I shouldn’t play, so I didn’t play.
    Then years later learning that it didn’t have to
    be such extreme heat wearing a radiant barrier
    helmet, it would seem that you whoose was grand-
    fathered in, while all the fans paid to see just
    who was toughest and best.
    So do the administrators really know what is best
    or is it a grandfathered in way that we pay to see?

  4. homunq says:

    The practical importance of putting this in ethical terms is to pressure congress. The definitive fight in congress right now is over filibuster reform – with it, we’ll get a bill, and without it, we won’t. So it’s important to use language that emphasizes the moral dimension of the filibuster. Not “Republican Senators who oppose action on climate change in the US Senate do so because…”, but “The Republican minority in the Senate which is blocking action on climate change in the US Senate claims to do so because…”

  5. Raul M. says:

    Then ease up the truth of what we
    need to see, a test of strength and ability,
    moral strength and the ability to control
    oneself for the benefit of oneself and all.

  6. _Flin_ says:

    @prokaryotes: the problem is that every other country tries to do something. The only country doing nothing on a federal level is the one with the highest per capita output of co2 of all industrialized countries.
    How can you call destroying property worth billions and killing thousands, just out of an ideological motivation? Massmurder second degree? Massrobbery? Untargeted and undeclared war? Roulette Terrorism? Or just deadly stupidity?

    NATO should set up a strike force against natural disasters. 15000 soldiers with construction equipment, tents, fresh water and medical supplies in Pakistan would prevent more people from becoming terrorists than ISAF ever will.

  7. Raul M. says:

    It costs 19 billion dollars to do credit card
    when Reagan was thought to be the next Pres.
    they took Pararescue off the rescue helicopters
    more times than not to have 60mm machineguns
    When Bush and co. invaded Iraq there was great
    talk of the overthrow yet little talk of the
    overtaken wealth.
    Even years later the sentiment is that the vast
    oil supplies are somehow magically taken care of.
    Their great ideas may well leave us with the vast
    destruction, yet they think that they will be
    victors with the great wealth.
    Why would they be so benevolent to any who find
    the errors of their ways, and yet, the guilt of their
    actions are so pronounced?

  8. Paulm says:

    Bring on the law!

  9. Michael Tucker says:

    Of course reasonable people KNOW that limiting greenhouse gas emissions is the right thing to do. It is the biggest ethical issue facing mankind but it is not the only ethical issue we have faced. We have managed to ignore poverty, hunger, and disease so it looks like we (the US) will not find it hard to continue to ignore global warming for several years longer.

    Conservatives who say the science is a hoax have no ethical issue to wrestle with. “ethical appeals are necessary to motivate governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.” I wonder how many of the current crop of new conservative, and xenophobic, political candidates will be moved by the fact that a warming planet might harm foreigners? Do any of them care about the environmental damage we do to our own country? I don’t think the ethical argument will work with conservatives but it may move some procrastinating liberals into action.

  10. James Newberry says:

    The US has an immoral economy based on the false concept that mined hydrocarbon (and uranium) materials are “energy.” They are not. They are matter, i.e. material resources, and they are toxic. We have effectively monetized matter as energy, thus drifting toward collapse (fiscally and ecologically) due to governmental economic fraud on a century scale.

    The planet’s response will now be exponential. This year’s impacts are from emissions of decades past, and all trends of global emissions and impacts are accelerating.

    Perhaps we need some new definitions of matter and energy, such as: Oil is not an energy resource.

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    This is very good, but the ethical lapse is centered in legalized bribery of Senators, in the form of “campaign contributions”, post office lobbying jobs, and God knows how much cash.

  12. Peter Mizla says:

    James Newberry

    the US as had an immoral economy for a long time- but the last 30 years are criminal. What amazes me is that so many Americans continue to base their electoral decisions based on race, sexual orientation, Gun rights,abortion & religion-stuck in 1860 or 1950-

    They seem unaware that the stakes for their survival have changed, and are so radically different no. However, sadly they will continue to vote against their best interests till Willie the coyote has jumped off the cliff.

  13. john kearns says:

    How does one distinguish a campaign contribution/bribe from “He’s stupid and he’s crazy, but he’s OUR stupid/crazy, so we bury him in money?” It’s not necessary to bribe a true believer.

  14. Fire Mountain says:

    Thank you, Donald, for stating it as clearly and cogently as you have. It’s exactly what I’ve been feeling. I have been astounded and nauseated by the monumental moral failure of the United States Senate to deal with the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced. The passivity of Obama, his abject failure to really forward the issue so well documented by PBS Newshour the other night, is equally sickening. The cognitive dissonance of all this taking place in the face of the oil spill and the emergence of catastrophic climate change impacts around the world is overwhelming. I have long felt our institutions are corrupt and dysfunctional, but I am blown away by just how visibly corrupt and dysfunctional they have become.

    Now that the politicians have failed, and the chance for any level of climate progress at the federal level hangs on the very thin thread of EPA authority, it is time, I think, for the King-Gandhi route. Time for direct action. Time to shame our elected “leaders,” if they are indeed capable of shame. So far, they have clearly valued their cheesy political careers over the lives of their children and grandchildren. My gut roils and my heart is sick.

  15. Rob C. says:

    The problem is not just the U.S. government’s inaction. The problem is that the most profitable and powerful industries on the planet have an immediate economic interest in preserving the status quo at all costs.

    The interests of the fossil fuel industry and the interests of the rest of humanity have diverged. Amoral capitalist business philosophy and weak-willed politicians are not going to allow action to save our societies or even our species unless public opinion can be galvanized to defeat them.

    IMO this requires fulfilling two strategic goals: first, making the global public aware of the scope and scale of the threat without overwhelming them with hopelessness or making the problem so large that it is too abstract for the “average joe” to grasp. Second is making the global public recognize that ending fossil fuel use and building a renewable energy-driven sustainable society promises to raise global standards of living and improve the quality of life for all.

    I think we can achieve these goals if we focus public outrage on the forces that are preventing action on this threat out of their own immoral greed. Acting against a global threat is larger than most people can grasp and internalize. And while most people “hate corrupt politicians” they like their politician; he/she is always one of the “good ones” in their mind. So I think making this an ethical issue and focusing solely on the politicians would be a tactical mistake. However, focusing on the unethical actions of the oil and coal industries in using money to influence politicians and spread lies has a chance of avoiding partisan politics and making headway.

  16. Prokaryotes says:

    __Flin__, #6 “the problem is that every other country tries to do something.”

    I don’t share this impression. There are just a few countries which take action on climate change seriously. Ofc, everyone is eying the USA – which really would be a game changer.

    F “How can you call destroying property worth billions and killing thousands, just out of an ideological motivation?”

    Well, war is not sustainable and really makes no sense to me why we still fight? In all these arabic nations you need a stable government – which can help fight climate change, ie. installing renewables. Otherwise they will keep burning fossil energy.

    F “NATO should set up a strike force against natural disasters. 15000 soldiers with construction equipment, tents, fresh water and medical supplies ”

    I agree you would need a total new kind of military if you want to adapt and prepare to react to climate change events. Today i read that russia is upgrading military planes to combat the wild fire.

  17. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    The ethics of the issue are almost virgin territory as far as campaigning is concerned – the Reagan/Thatcher era deflection-tactic of promoting the need to appeal to self-interest was so well propagandised and so readily lapped up by the NGO suits of the ’80s.

    Since then that appeal has proved entirely nebulous in effect, as was entirely predictable 30 years ago. Some people just couldn’t get their heads round the simple fact that ‘mining out’ resources – from forest to soil to coastal real estate to carbon sinks, etc – is more profitable in net-present-$-value terms than using only the resources’ annual output and conserving their capital stock.

    Pity about that. Thirty years wasted.

    The moral case for action has become the case against the furtherance of genocide – specifically by disrupting the climate to cause serial droughts that will destroy farm yields, and will do so on a scale to kill unprecedented numbers of millions.

    Surely the US has laws against participating in the preparation of genocide ?

    And where is the outcry from American people of colour in solidarity with the millions in Chad and Niger that face death by famine this year ? Are they so besotted with the focus on their own victimhood that they’re unconcerned with the hell their nation is imposing on others in their name ? Or are they just uninformed and awaiting a spark that would transform the US politics of climate ?

    The moral case for Obama to end his inherited reckless and nationalistic policy of a ‘brinkmanship of inaction’ with China is potentially irresistible. And when he commissions the primary actions of climate education and exposure of the deniers’ corruption, the legislators will have to follow suit, or be voted out.

    Pity that few seem willing even to discuss the extent of the moral case, let alone to wield it effectively in public.

    Kudos to Prof Donald Brown. Unlike Obama, his efforts deserve a nobel peace prize.



  18. Raul M says:

    Many countries have very low per capita
    income as per national geographic study
    and story.
    Many countries invade one with low pci
    saying that country is bad.
    10 years later after the hidden wealth
    of said country is found is said country
    having a higher per capita income or
    just the conquors enjoying.

  19. Gord says:

    Interesting and thought provoking comments above.

    We are at War with CO2 and it is not going well by any measure.

    We can call it, if you like, World War IV.

    As with any war there will be war criminals.

    Because it is a global war encompassing all in the biosphere including all of humanity, these war criminals will truly be guilty of ‘Crimes against Humanity’. Who these criminals are and what they do / will do to be called war criminals is being determined today and in the near future. I have a list of candidates and I’m sure many other people have their lists as well.

  20. Mark Shapiro says:

    Hmmm . . . call it World War CO2?

  21. Raul M says:

    Whatever, once when doing charity work I stopped
    at a vacation home of a US Senator, of course it
    didn’t take long for one of the guests of the dinner
    party to convey the concept that then wasn’t an
    appropriate time.
    Then the police shortly arrived to the charity
    manager and said the charity permit was
    canciled due to a complaint.
    So environmentat awareness canvacing was over
    for the evening.
    Would be better if the addresses of Senators
    were available so that environmental awareness
    supporters would know where NOT to go.
    Also they probably don’t want just anyone
    seeing. And thinking if there is any way to
    afford so much on a Senator’s pay.
    Nah, could’t be an issue.
    Maybe, true blind trust is when the Senator
    actually lives on the Senate salad.

  22. _Flin_ says:

    @Prokaryotes: Well, actually not everyone is doing a lot. Russia doesn’t do a lot. But comparing nominal GDP per capita to CO2 emissions, you can see that all the countries in the top20 of GDP per capita (except for the Gulf States like Arab emirates or Qatar with their blooming deserts) produce significantly less CO2 than the US of A (like Italy or Spain, similar climatic conditions, but every americans emits 2,5 times as much CO2).

  23. _Flin_ says:

    Sorry for double posting, I didn’t want to come of like some preacher. I just wanted to say that the USA have the easiest way to significantly lower CO2 emissions, because currently there is just so much energy being wasted. Never before it was easier for the USA to lead the world in a sustainable way, no violence needed, everyone being happy about it.

    But they just dont.

    For 30 years now.

    15 years ago my landlady said to me: Ahhh, you just wait, as soon as the Americans figure out it is necessary, they will act so swiftly and decisively, you’ll be ashamed. Americans are doers, not talkers. I still somehow believe her, because I know that is true. But really, its time to start.

  24. James Hagar says:

    Isn’t the bottom line the reality that we are being run by and for the major corporations? Our US government (both Bush’s and Obama’s) favors their balance sheets and stock market valuations while disregarding the long term effects of stupid self-interest. After 30 years of Reaganomics, this is clearly a failed policy. We have no strategic industrial policy while the Chinese do.

  25. dbmetzger says:

    Ice Island Breaks Off Greenland Glacier
    Scientists tell a US committee that an ice island four times the size of Manhattan is not evidence of global warming.
    rumor has it he’s a member of the flat earth society.

  26. Roger says:

    We need Obama to show real leadership. Come join our October 10th White House Work Party to encourage Obama to install solar panels. Also, sign our petition asking Obama to Please Educate and Lead on Climate Change:
    It’s time for the US climate movement to focus on the man at the top!

  27. catman306 says:

    Charles Handley at AP is at it again. I’m sure glad. What’s exciting is that this is printed in our local paper in the heart of the South where climate change is considered by many to be an atheist/Communist plot.

  28. Donald Brown says:

    Thanks to Lewis for reminding us of the potential force of ethical arguments about climate change. I believe that the appeal to self-interest alone on climate change, a tactic followed both by the Clinton and Obama administrations for understandable reasons, has been at least partially responsible for the failure of the United States to take climate change seriously. I have written this in some detail at Climate Ethics in and entry entitled “Having We Been Asking the Wrong Questions Scientists.”

    It is, of course, in our enlightened self interest to adopt climate change policies but in an unintuitively obvious way the ethical reasons are much stronger than the self-interested reasons. For instance, once you see the ethical obligations to others you see the duty to think about scientific uncertainty through the lens of the victims. Once you see the ethical issues you see what is wrong with a cost-benefit analysis that only considers US interests alone, an approach that was invoked when the Kyoto Protocol was under discussion in the US. If you dont see climate change as an ethical issue, you dont see what is wrong with the dominant arguments against climate change action. It is my experience that the most vulnerable victims of climate change get the obvious justice significance of climate change and many in these countries are in shock that the US dose not see its obligations to them.

  29. co2hound says:

    One of the underlying premises of the ECO movement is the idea that humanity should align its efforts with Nature so that humanity flourishes along side a robust biosphere. We act in an ethical way when our activities complement Nature. We are ECO Ethical.

    In the ECO Ethical world Natural processes are our friends.

    This was the belief right up until recent times and I’m sure that many people still believe it today.

    But times have changed.

    We are at War. And part of that war is the realization that all Natural processes are NOT our friends … some are trying to exterminate us. This is a huge inversion of the ECO world view (Weltanschauung if you like) and has substantial implications for the future development of ECO Ethics.

    What does it mean to live and be ECO Ethical in a world where some of the world’s Natural processes are the enemy? We always had some touchstone where we could examine our efforts with a view to harmony with Nature. Now with the inversion, we must re-examine our ECO Ethical efforts for their ability to frustrate Natural processes.