(Carbon) budgeting, and dividing the pie

Don Brown is a Scholar-in-Residence at the Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg, and the 2012 recipient of PA IPL’s Visionary Award.  See his letter to the NY Times (last of 4 letters) or Andrew Revkin’s 2010 interview of him. EPA hearings on the (finally!) proposed Carbon Pollution Standards for Existing Power Plants took place in the last week of July.  Remarks by PA IPL supporters vary enormously, and are worth reading.

165395_10150399711745105_5263302_nThank you for taking comments on the proposed regulations under the Clean Air Act which when adopted will constitute a long overdue first step for the United States in reducing the enormous threat of climate change, This testimony is in strong support of the proposed regulation, yet with strong reservations that the proposed regulations by themselves are woefully inadequate for putting the United States on an emissions reductions path congruent with its ethical and moral obligations to the rest of the world.

There is scattered recognition in the US that climate change is a moral and ethical problem but little attention to the practical implications for policy entailed by the ethical dimensions of climate change. Climate change must be understood to be a civilization-challenging ethical and moral issue because of several unique facts about climate change which require policy makers to see this problem as a moral issue at its core, a conclusion which has profound significance for policy. These facts include that: (1) high-emitting nations and individuals are putting hundreds  of millions of poor people at great risk who have done comparatively little to cause climate change, (2) the harms to these nations and people most at risk are not mere inconveniences but existential threats to people and the ecological systems on which life depends, (3) those most vulnerable to climate change can do little to protect themselves, there only hope is that high-emitting countries and people will see that they have not only economic interests but deep ethical duties to others, (4) the world  is running out of  time to limit warming to 20C, a warming limit that must be respected to prevent catastrophic climate change, and (5) current elevated GHG atmospheric concentrations have been caused much more by some countries than others (the US has by far the highest amount of historical GHG emissions and near the top of per capita emissions)

The controversy unfolding in the US over the proposed EPA regulation is utterly ignoring that the fact that United State has ethical duties to the rest of the world. In fact, even EPA has been justifying the regulation on the basis of benefits to the US alone, an approach which ignores the US ethical obligations to others and invites opposition on the basis of US economic interest alone which ignores US ethical responsibilities.

In addition, the Obama administrations current commitment under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 is far short of the US ethical obligations to the rest of the world.  Any US commitment to reduce GHG emissions is implicitly a position on two issues which are at their core ethical and justice issues.

The first issue is the atmospheric GHG concentration that the US commitment is implicitly seeking to achieve by its GHG reductions. The atmospheric ghg stabilization goal that the US commitment seeks to achieve (which has not been explained by the US in making its commitement) is an ethical and moral issues because the atmospheric concentration level will determine the extent to which the US is willing to harm hundreds of millions of people around the world. Last November the IPCC concluded that there is only 270 gigatonnes of carbon left for the entire world to emit to give the international community 66% c chance of limiting warming to non-catastrophic levels, The Obama administration must set an emissions reduction target that will be no greater than the US fair share of the carbon emissions budget or the 270 gigatonnes or less that is now understood to be a constraint on the world to prevent catastrophic climate change.

This raises the second ethical issue which has profound implications for US climate policy which is what is the US fair share of an acceptable carbon budget.

Given that the US is still the largest GHG emitter in terms of historical emissions which have raised atmospheric concentration from 280  ppm CO2 to above 400ppm CO2 and near the top of nations on a per capita emissions basis, the United States will need to reduce its emissions much, much faster than most of the rest of the world as a matter of basic fairness  Since the new  IPCC  budget means that the entire developed world will need to reduce their  emissions by as much as 40 percent by 2020 to have any hope of limiting warming to non-catastrophic levels, the Obama commitment of 17% below 2020 is woefully inadequate as  a matter of basic justice.

For these reasons, I call the Obama administration to do the following:

  • Finalize the proposed rule while explaining how it is only one step in US climate policies designed to achieve GHG emissions reduction levels required of the US as a matter of global justice.
  • Make a new commitment under the UNFCCC at the meeting called by UN Secretary General in September in New York that represents the US fair share of safe global emissions.
  • Acknowledge that any GHG emissions reduction target is at its core a matter that must satisfy US ethical responsibilities to the rest of the world and therefore US economic cost or US self-interest alone are not sufficient criteria for determining US climate policy. That is, expressly acknowledge that in addition to interests, the US has ethical responsibilities for climate change.
  • Explain to the world when the US makes any new commitment on climate change the ethical basis for its implicit position on the global carbon budget and how it determined the US fair share of the budget.

Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence and Professor, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

The EPA hearings on the (finally) proposed Carbon Pollution Standards for Existing Power Plants took place the last week in July in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Denver.  PA IPL members offered testimony both in Pittsburgh and Washington.  Testimony posted here is shared by permission of the authors.  The remarks vary enormously, and are worth reading.  When you’re inspired, submit a written comment of your own.