Why Politicians May Not Rely On Their Own Uninformed Opinion On Climate Change Science

By Donald A. Brown via Ethics and Climate

Marco Rubio, a U.S. Senator from Florida, recently said that he was not sure that climate change is human caused. This is one of the reasons he’s unwilling to support U.S. government action to reduce the threat of climate change. Many other U.S. politicians have also recently said they will not support legislation to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions because they’re not convinced that climate change is happening or is human-caused. In fact, 7 out of 8 Republican candidates for the US presidency proclaimed they didn’t believe that climate change was a problem.

When these politicians are asked about the basis for their positions on climate change, they almost always respond by saying such things as they “have heard that there is a disagreement among scientists,” or similar responses that strongly suggest they have formed an opinion on climate change science without any understanding of the depth of the scientific evidence on which the scientific consensus view of climate change has been based. For instance, U.S. politicians frequently assert that it’s an open question whether humans are causing the undeniable warming that the Earth is experiencing — thus exposing their ignorance of dozens of lines of independent and robust evidence of human causation, including attribution studies, finger print analyses, strong evidence that correlates fossil fuel use to rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and other physical and chemical evidence.


Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials — who have the power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world — may not, as a matter of ethics, justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions on climate science. This is so because government officials, unlike ordinary citizens, have the power to prevent or minimize great harms to millions of people around the world, that mainstream scientists have concluded that their constituents or governments that they represent are causing or contributing to. That is, government officials have more responsibility than the average citizen to understand the state of climate change science because government officials can uniquely prevent harm that their constituents or governments are causing.

And so, when government officials with the power to enact climate change policies are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may not appeal to their uninformed opinion on climate science as justification for not taking action.

The government official is like the railroad official who’s been told by employees in a position to know the location of the company’s trains that there is a runaway train hurtling toward a bus full of children that’s stuck on the track, when the official has the ability to divert the train onto a track on which no humans will be harmed.

In the case of climate change, government officials should know that 97 of every 100 scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science research in the United States — by the most prestigious scientific organizations including the US National Academy of Sciences — have concluded that greenhouse gases coming from their constituents threaten catastrophic harm. Not only to their constituents, but to millions of people around the world, most of whom have done little to cause climate change.

In the case of climate change, the U.S. politician not only has the power, working with colleagues, to prevent great harm caused by his or her constituents, he or she has the responsibility to prevent his or her constituents from harming others outside United States. This responsibility was expressly agreed to by the United States when it ratified the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, which contains the following acknowledgment of the U.S. government’s responsibility to prevent harm to those outside the United States in the convention’s Preamble:

Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

In the case of climate change, the people that will be harmed (those in our metaphorical bus) are not only the constituents of the politician but hundreds of millions of people around the world that have done little or nothing to cause climate change.

The vast majority of climate scientists, and over 100 scientific organizations whose members have climate science expertise, have concluded that humans are causing climate change, and that human-induced climate change creates catastrophic threats for the human race and particularly for hundreds of millions of poor people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Although there are some differences among some mainstream scientists about some of the details of the consensus view, an open letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s, which was endorsed by 18 of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the United States, summed up the nature of the scientific consensus as follows:

As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer- reviewed science.

Though scientific consensus must always be open to responsible skepticism, given: (a) the strength of the consensus on this topic, (b) the enormity of the harms predicted by the consensus view, (c) an approximately 30 year delay in taking action that has transpired since a serious climate change debate began in the United States in the early 1980s, and (d) a delay that’s made the problem worse while making it more difficult to achieve the GHG emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change because of the steepness of reductions now needed, no politician can ethically justify his or her refusal to support action on climate change based upon a personal opinion that is not supported by strong scientific evidence, reviewed by scientific organizations with a wide breadth of interdisciplinary scientific expertise. Because any further delay will make the climate change threat worse, U.S. politicians have a duty to support policies that will reduce the threat of climate unless they can produce strong scientific evidence that has been fully vetted by respectable scientific institutions that climate change is not the threat entailed by the scientific consensus view.

In this situation, the government official has a strong duty to go beyond his or her own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions with the breadth of expertise to consider one study in the context of thousands of other studies in climate change science. And so, government officials may not justify their refusal to act simply on the basis of their personal opinion.

Because politicians have an affirmative duty to initially rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand any politician’s views that oppose action on climate change policies on scientific grounds. The U.S. press has almost always failed to probe the justifications of those opposing action on climate change on scientific grounds. For this reason, journalists should ask politicians that claim there is not sufficient scientific support for government action on climate change the following questions:

  1. What specific scientific references and sources do you rely upon to conclude there’s a reasonable scientific dispute about whether human actions are causing dangerous climate change?
  2. Are you aware that the United States Academy of Sciences — and almost all respected scientific organizations whose membership includes scientists with expertise relevant to climate change science — support the scientific consensus view that holds that the planet is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual?
  3. On what basis do you disregard the conclusions that humans are causing dangerous climate change, which is held by the United States Academy of Sciences, over a hundred scientific organizations whose membership includes experts with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, and 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?
  4. When you claim that the United States need 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 human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends? And if so what is that proof?
  5. When you claim 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 on climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved, given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken will very likely make it too late to prevent dangerous human-induced climate change harms according to the consensus view?
  6. 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, given the strength of the consensus view on climate change science?
  7. 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?
  8. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, the United States agreed to the following under Article 3:

    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.

    Do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?

  9. If you claim that 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, potentially leading to even harsher adverse impacts than those predicted?
  10. Given that in the 20 years since international climate change negotiations began, 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 the health and ecological systems on which the lives of others depend, should the United States be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?

— Donald A. Brown is a Scholar In Residence at the Widener University School of Law.

30 Responses to Why Politicians May Not Rely On Their Own Uninformed Opinion On Climate Change Science

  1. SecularAnimist says:

    This is entirely beside the point.

    Marc Rubio and the other denier politicians are not relying on “their own uninformed opinions”.

    They are relying on the Koch Brothers’ money.

    And they will “believe” whatever the Koch Brothers tell them to “believe”, and they will say and do whatever the Koch Brothers tell them to say and do.

    Talking to people who make a living by taking bribes about their “duty” is ridiculous.

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I wish that somebody could get this excellent article to recalcitrant politicians everywhere so that they may confront their responsibilities directly. Some of ours need it just as much as some of yours, ME

  3. M Tucker says:

    You know that these politicians simply want to dodge the question. They want to delay any government action for as long as possible. Look at the list of experts that the Republican controlled House has allowed to appear at their rigged hearings. They will bring in the deniers, the delayers, and the crazy conspiracy advocates, not the actual experts who are doing climate related research. The science will not convince them. Droughts, wildfires, heat waves, unprecedented precipitation events, and hurricanes will not convince them. They want to keep the discussion out of the media and out of their town hall meetings. They want to prevent the science from being taught in middle and high schools.

    The questions should be sent to all news organizations and presented to the reporters who cover politics but don’t expect the politicians to change their science dodging ways.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Republican politicians are not interested in the truth about climate science. That is the real scandal.

  5. Jay Alt says:

    An excellent analysis of the ethical responsibility of our politicians.
    I anticipate seeing these points spread in conversation and print- readers, go for it…

    A related point.
    In May, 1992 the U.S. Senate unanimously ratified the UN FCCC treaty which was then signed by GHW Bush.

    The treaty name is the Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is Not the Framework Convention on Global Warming. The same thing holds for the IPCC.

    So when a “do-nothing” claims the phrase CC is a re-marketing of ‘the brand’ Global Warming, point out it’s always been Climate Change and they weren’t paying proper attention. (so what else is new?)

  6. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    Now if there was a way to bring them up on charges for their denial as people of trust, and a public trial was held that would even get the MSM to pay attention (HA HA), it would at least get headlines that use the words Global Warming and Climate Change near the front page.

  7. That is correct, Mike. On the other hand, many Democratic Politicians are interested in climate change as a political issue to gain advantage over Republicans. Take, for instance, our Governor Brown. He talks about climate change and then pushes for opening Monterey County Shales for fracking to get oil that is like pure bitumen.

    My question… which is really better.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well, Mike, it may, indeed, be a scandal, but it is also something much, much worse. After all, as we know, as the science says, as irrefutably as science can say, this is no bland dispute over the age of the Earth, or which were Noah’s favourite dinosaurs? This is a question of the deaths of billions, and, as far as I understand the law, murder is only slightly mitigated if it is caused through reckless indifference to the safety of others. And Clinton executed a man with an imbecile’s IQ, while Governor of Freedonia or wherever, so the denialati cannot even use that defence. Outrage, atrocity, abomination all recommend themselves as additional epithets. Some day,some way, these creatures must, and will, face justice.

  9. Money doesn’t explain why deniers would persist in actions that will severely damage their own children. Denial goes much deeper. It’s related to a religious belief in their own God-bestowed goodness and rightness. Their god would not let such a thing happen, and anyone who says otherwise is going against God. It’s hermetic and circular.

    That’s the mentality we have to get around.

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I’m sure that god, the omnipotent, omniscient one that we should all kow tow to, is part of it for some, but I think it goes much deeper. Yes, it’s not ultimately about $ because that is just a symptom of getting up the rat race and exercising the current measure of power and status. I am wildly simplifying here but it is the top down hierarchical principle in action at every level. As we have organized everything according to this principle so we have accorded ourselves status above the Earth. Rather than respecting her laws and cooperating with them, we have ripped her off. And when we see the consequences, some confidently assume that we can devise a range of technofixes. They are the elite, they have made it to the top – you think they are going to back down now? Others expect their ‘leaders’ to fix it. They are both expressions of endemic inequality and competition. It is a mentality but it is a consequence of something that we do know how to fix. The tragedy for me is that it appears that we no longer have the time to fix it, ME

  11. MarkfromLexington says:

    If you look at the preponderance of peer reviewed papers – the evidence for climate change is even stronger. Only 0.2% of peer reviewed papers reject the notion that greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming or climate change.

    There isn’t a politician in the world who would support a wait and see attitude if 99.8% of all reports from aviation scientists concluded that a Boeing aircraft or our air traffic control system was endangering the lives of those flying.

  12. Brooks Bridges says:

    Could any of this be used to start impeachment proceedings against one Congressman?

    The idea that they are totally failing in their duty? You just need one.

    Or any thing else that would require a Congressman to directly respond to the questions above under oath?

    I have no idea where to start but it’s time to get Congress people to state their BS under oath. Is their NO way?

  13. Raul M. says:

    Thanks Merrelyn, grace under pressure is a sign of reason. Yet evolution of reason directs toward sustainable methods of self first so that others may learn of better ways and then others may adopt better ways as well. Don’t know of a better way to progress yet. Bye

  14. John McCormick says:

    Secular, it is simple as that.

    The kroches put money in Rubio’s bank account and a computer chip in his brain. They own him as long as he doesn’t mess with the message.

  15. Wes says:

    Personally I think that’s a great idea! Pick one guy and impeach him for acting in his constituent’s worst interests for campaign money in spite of all the science showing he is wrong. Great publicity if nothing else. Of course, I am not a lawyer.

  16. Superman1 says:

    Absolute nonsense. The politicians have two sponsors/audiences: their campaign donors, and the electorate. The big campaign donors, who exert the most influence, include many organizations who are profiting from continued extravagant use of fossil fuels, and they are happy with the status quo. The electorate are addicted to a high energy intensity lifestyle enabled by the unlimited availability of ‘cheap’ fossil fuels, and they are satisfied with the status quo. There is little incentive for politicians to move forward opposing fossil fuel use, given the satisfaction of their sponsors with the status quo.

  17. Superman1 says:

    “The tragedy for me is that it appears that we no longer have the time to fix it”

    Merrelyn, Whenever I have made essentially this statement, you (and the Amen Corner) have accused me of pessimism, negativism, and defeatism. Now, you make it. Have I made a convert to reality out of you?

  18. SecularAnimist says:

    ME wrote: “I wish that somebody could get this excellent article to recalcitrant politicians everywhere so that they may confront their responsibilities directly.”

    Yes, this excellent article and a few million dollars in campaign contributions should do it.

    Frankly, what’s needed is for the wind and solar industries to get rich enough, fast enough, that they can start offering the politicians bigger bribes than the fossil fuel corporations are paying. Then you’ll see action.

  19. Robert Green says:

    Brook, We have a great place to start going after politicians that have lost their ethical way. Look at the change we are causing here in the deep South

  20. Donald Brown says:

    Many of the readers missed the point of this article, namely that politicians have an ethical duty to base their opinions on the best science and this fact should be understood as a potential strategy to improve public discourse about climate change, a fact that the press is missing.
    Don Brown,

  21. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Raul, care for, and cooperation with, others is as important as caring for self. Putting self first is a symptom of the hierarchical principle. It has proven regressive and not sustainable, not evolutionary and is one of the main reasons for the mess we are in, ME

  22. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Sorry Super, you misunderstand me. No conversion. I am writing about the time required to change the design principle which underlies our societies. But while the climate chaos will prevent the completion of that project, that doesn’t stop me working towards it anymore than knowledge of how bad it’s going to be stops me trying to get action on CC itself, ME

  23. Brian R Smith says:

    Thank you Donald Brown. You make a clear ethical case that lawmakers have the obligation to rely on the preponderance climate science evidence as the basis for policy, and that journalists have the professional obligation to hold them, aggressively, to the principle. Your set of questions is useful to me and hopefully to journalists – especially in home state districts in the run-up to 2014, where constituents are in the room.

    The nut of the problem for journalists is the same for climate hawks in Congress, the President, borderline conservatives, liberal mainstream media, policy advocates, scientists and the climate movement in general: establishing overwhelming public confidence in the science in the face of the toxic, escalating success of the denial industry to confuse with misinformation and outright lies. While it would help if more journalists turn activist, they can do little to solve the problem of science clarity on their own. Deniers & delayers care nothing for being called out on their positions, one on one, as long as they can rely on the public to remain confused on the science and unconvinced about what their grandchildren are in for.
    The credibility of climate science and the authority of climate scientists over the drivel of big energy stooges is NOT settled, preventing progress. Until it is, “debate” will hinder and arguing will fail. Establishing authority is key and should trump all other efforts until it’s done.
    A unified front, a major alliance of advocates is getting closer to reality. The first of MANY objectives should be to bring climate scientists directly to the public as part of a relentless, nationwide independent media campaign. Whether a new parent organization is needed for this, better heads than mine would know. But it would be foolish and dangerous to rely either on Obama or on the sum of separate campaigns to get this done.

  24. Raul M. says:

    I would rather my mother had embraced sustainable energy production well before her death of old age, but it was not to be.
    It’s a sad but true paradox? Anyway, even though she missed out on the great fun of new ways to make electricity, there is hope that those to follow her may see more clearly. And besides having solar electricty just because I want some is completely justifiable in our modern society. As my shrink says sometimes it is just easier to walk away from someone who won’t behave respectfully.

    Meanwhile to be on topic with the article, isn’t it cause for baker act when someone is a danger to oneself and others.

  25. Raul M. says:

    Thank you Mr. Brown and Please know that your post is well received. Sorry to have digressed in my earlier comment.

    Please be encouraged to say more about the value of the leading position to the others in society.

  26. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I’m sorry Raul but I don’t understand your last sentence. Can you rephrase? ME

  27. Raul M. says:

    My guess is that the baker Act is often used when someone isn’t particularly against the law but still acts so to endanger his/herself and or others.
    Is it that the statesmen are known to only act in the best interests of their own constituency? But some are known to act illegally. That the statesman will act to the best interests of society may be a false pride of the electorate.

  28. I think this is a very clever text aiming to confront anybody alluded with himself. It has strong appeal and is appalling. It forces bona fide people to ask themselves about their own nature, and no doubt among the smarter ones some will cross the line. So we hope, if they read it. Congratulations for the work.

    It isn’t a matter of ideology, it’s a matter of money.

  29. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thanks Raul, I had not heard of the Baker Act but in general I would think it is time to use anything you have at hand to bring your politicians to order, ME

  30. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thanks Raul, I had not heard of the Baker Act but in general I would think it is time to use anything you have at hand to bring your politicians to order, ME