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.

Both Democratic and 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.


Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor
Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
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. http://www.atmos.ucla.edu/~brianpm/download/charney_report.pdf

Siddique, Haroon, 2010, US Senate Drops Bill To Cap Carbon Emissions. Gaurdian, July 23, 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jul/23/us-senate-climate-change-bill

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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50 Responses to The Worst Ethical Scandal In the US Congress: Climate Change?

  1. To the Mike replied to comment from Gary | August 16, 2010 10:27 PM

    It really helps when you use your full name, since there are apparently two Mikes in this thread commenting, I think? Confusing though.

    An acquaintance of mine, that happens to have been the director of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, did a quantitative analysis of the Cap & Trade proposals for COP15. The result was at atmospheric concentration of 700ppm CO2 by 2100. To put it as delicately as possible, that is generally a place we don’t want to go.

    We are already experiencing serious issues at 389ppm CO2 (think Pakistan & Russia). Security estimates indicate:


    we will have countries failing most likely before we get to 450ppm, and serious global food issues. I did a lot of hard looking at Cap & Trade and am strongly opposed to it for cause.

    I have also examined as many alternate proposals as I find that looked reasonable. Fee & Dividend, from a scientific point of view (translated means from a resource and monetary economy point of view) is the wisest course I have seen. I am open to a better proposal, but have not found one.

    I have already addressed many economic arguments that were received from Europe and America through friends of mine deeply involved in conservative economic perspective. You can take a look at the responses here:


    I’d really like to know if you have any meaningful issues with the policy and why? I’m a conservative and a pragmatist. I have looked at this very carefully. If I have missed something important, I would like to know.

    PS Stewart Weart and I worked together on a one minute video of Climate Science history to give a quick view of the development of the science. You can view it on the OSS site


    or YouTube

    • DONALD A BROWN says:

      We agree with Mr. Riesman’s comment, which we understand to suggest that basic prudence would require action even if there is some uncertainty.

      We would also supplement this concern with the observation that the IPCC results and the conclusions about the risks reached by the United States Academy of Sciences could turn out to be wrong. There is the possibility, although it is viewed to be very low,in probability that there is an unkown negative feedback in the system that would lead to less warming than the IPCC lower bounds. In his recent book, James Hansen himself says this. But there is also possibility that appears to be more likely that the warming will be outside the upper bounds identified by IPCC. The historical record is full of rapid non-linear changes before the last 10,000 years. And so if you want to place the bet on the basis of uncertainty, you must admit the uncertainty goes both ways. Given it is the poorest people in the world that have the most to loose, acting in response to uncertainty is not only a scientific question but a moral issue that raises the questions of who should have the burden of proof and what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof.

      And so, we agree that basic prudence if not moral obligation requires action unless those who we put most at risk agree to be put at risk.

  2. Adam R. says:

    The democracy of ideas fills every modern technical debate with a great deal of ignorant noise, as we see in the comments. On every side, science is afflicted by those who don’t have the knowledge or training to understand the subject, yet are undeterred from attacking the professionals who do.

    Evolutionary biology, immunology, etc. are all beset by faux skeptics like Gary Williams. What is the point of entertaining their hackneyed arguments here? Why attempt to reason with them? Will they learn anything? Will their minds be changed? Of course not; research in fact indicates the opposite. I urge ClimateEthics to use its powers of moderation to attenuate the noise and let the grownups converse in relative peace.

  3. Many people are driven by one or both of the Big Two: Money or Fame

    Some here have suggested that grant funding is driving an agenda. I prove otherwise at the two links below which show that scientists cannot get rich from public money:

    Taking the Money for Grant(ed) – Part I

    Taking the Money for Grant(ed) – Part II

    Did Galielo, Einstein, and Darwin get famous for agreeing with the consensus? Of course not. There is far more incentive for a scientist to prove AGW is not driving climate and yet there have been no conclusive papers that falsify AGW. Either these scientists do not wish to become famous or just maybe AGW is real. Common sense should reveal the obvious correct choice.

    Donald, I suggest directing your commenters to Skeptic Arguments and What the Science Says when they raise issues that have been long debunked. You will save much time.

    Scott A. Mandia, Professor of Physical Sciences
    Selden, NY
    Global Warming: Man or Myth?
    My Global Warming Blog
    Twitter: AGW_Prof
    “Global Warming Fact of the Day” Facebook Group

  4. L. Lindbergh says:

    Just like there are ‘spambots’ filling up comments at other blogs, there seem to be ‘sceptic-bots’ active on this blog… Except instead of offering ‘Vi&gr*’ they spout the same old nonsense that has been disproven so many times before… see http://www.realclimate.org/

    • DONALD A BROWN says:

      Yes, ClimateEthics has been receiving many comments that have no substance, but simply are comprised of ad hominem o otherwise insulting attacks or scientific claims that demonstrate no knowledge of the vast scientific literature.

      For instance, a recent comment said that the scientific basis for attribution of human causation of climate change was all based upon models, thus displaying amazing ignorance of the fact that much of the fingerprinting and attribution conclusions have nothing to do with models but consist of such things as direct temperature measurements of upper and lower atmosphere, measurements of incoming and outgoing radiation levels from the Earth, direct measureable knowledge of sun cycle energy differences between night and day temperatures, measurement of how the oceans are warming, measurement of carbon isotopes, etc, etc, thus proving that people are making claims that must be understood to be dangerously misleading. ClimateEthics is not a place to fight on the science, that is the function of peer-reviewed literature and organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences that have the depth and breadth of expertise to make judgments on the science.

      Those people who are making baseless claims are causing great damage and ClimateEthics will not simply pass on these claims, it would be irresponsible for us to do so. ClimateEthics also gets comments that sometimes strongly disagree with our conclusions and these will be posted as they have in the past , but only if there are no ad hominem or insulting accusations that are clearly not an invitation to reasoned discussion and as long as they do not contain scientific claims that are so at odds with what is not in dispute that they demonstrate irresponsibility.

  5. Justa Joe says:

    “Second You ask for citations and yet offer no proof whatsoever about the list you provided. In what peer reviewed journal were were all of these things debunked?” – Mr. Reisman

    I only asked for one citation ragarding the loss of permafrost because I’ve only ever heard speculation regarding potential loss of permafrost. There’s a lot of speculation in the CAGW game.

    Nextly somehow you have no problem with Dr. Brown’s original listing of items without citations that purport to prove the existense of CAGW, but you insist that I provide citations. As Dr. Brown has already pointed out this isn’t really the forum to hash out scientific disputes, and you no doubt can see that Dr. Brown’s list is quite long. If you pick a couple of items I will provide a link to the scientific counter argument against that claim.

    As far as posting my given name. I don’t see the necessity in doing so at this time. I’m not in the global warming racket, and I’m not seeking personal funding from the tax payers using AGW as the vehicle.

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