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: