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

Donald A. Brown

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.

This piece originally appeared in

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