Global climate change is the gravest danger currently facing the world today. In order to fully grasp this colossal issue and make progress towards a solution it is essential to understand exactly what the climate change problem is and where it originates. Once this foundational understanding has been established many different potential solutions can be explored and considered in order to allow the human community to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis.
I. What is the climate change problem?
Despite slight variations that can occur from year to year the major trends of numerous different indicators show that the earth is significantly warming over time. Not only have 15 of the 16 hottest years on record occurred since 2000, the amount of sea ice, snow cover and permafrost has been observed to be in a rapid decline. Furthermore, there are overwhelming lines of evidence that show humans are the primary drivers of global climate change. Once of the most powerful pieces of this evidence ties into the greenhouse gas effect. The greenhouse effect refers to when energy from the sun is reflected off of earth but instead of returning to space is trapped in the lower atmosphere by gases such as carbon dioxide or methane. Through the burning of fossil fuels humans produce over 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Not only can scientists measure that specific type of carbon increasing in the atmosphere is carbon-12 which comes from fossil fuels, they have found that the spike in the presence of this carbon-12 began around the start of the industrial revolution. Satellites have also measured less heat escaping into space and more heat returning to the lower atmosphere at the same wavelengths that carbon dioxide acts on energy. In correlation with increased fossil fuel burning, oxygen levels are falling as oxygen is pulled out of the atmosphere to create carbon dioxide. Additional patterns consistent with greenhouse warming are also being observed including a rising troposphere, a cooling in the stratosphere and nights warming faster than days. Based on evidence from these indicators the scientific consensus is that global warming is human-induced.
Since the 19th century carbon dioxide has increased from 200ppm to 480ppm and the global temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius. Due to thermal inertia and the long lifespan of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there is likely to be an unstoppable additional 0.6 degrees Celsius of warming coming down the pipeline. Some effects of this warming that have been experienced include: melting of mountain glaciers, ice sheets and ice in the Arctic, more destructive storms, increased areas affected by drought, more wildfires and lastly smaller crop yields. In addition, we are currently committed to a four-foot rise in sea level due to the nearly unstoppable melting of the West Atlantic ice sheets.
On our current emissions pathway, we are predicted to reach a warming of 2 degrees Celsius by 2030. At this temperature, there would be a massive loss of permafrost. When permafrost melts it releases the highly potent greenhouse gas, methane. This amplifying feedback caused by the melting of permafrost could add another 4 degrees Celsius of warming.
At this amount of warming a widespread irreversible drought would cause dustbowl conditions for regions like southwest America, southern Europe, western Australia and all of Africa. We would also see the extinction of most of the worlds coral reefs due to ocean acidification and coral bleaching. This would be detrimental to the ocean food web and humans due to the significant amount of food and diversity coral reefs produce. By 2050 the world is projected to reach a warming of 3 degrees Celsius. At this level water availability will become scarce due to the melting of glaciers and mountain snow packs. Because 70% of the worlds freshwater supply goes into agriculture, lack of water will create a food scarcity problem. Corn and soy yields are predicted to drop by 30-46% by 2050. There is also an increased threat of destructive wildfires occurring at 3 degrees Celsius warming. The IPCC predicts that by 2050 California could lose 50-75% of its forests while the Amazon rainforest could be completely committed to destruction due to drought driven fires. Renowned scientists James Hansen states that if we reach 3 degrees Celsius warming the entirety of the world’s ice will likely be gone, this could lead to a 75 meter rise in sea level – which obviously causes a plethora of problems along the coastlines of the world. In 2070, we are predicted to experience 4 degrees Celsius of warming. At this level, there would be a massive extinction of roughly 40-70% of species around the globe. These predictions are tentative at best and are probably underestimations of the problem due to the fact they do not take into account possible amplifying feedbacks.
In order to hold the temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius the Bows-Anderson emissions pathways requires that developed countries stop carbon dioxide emissions immediately and decrease their emissions by 11% yearly. This pathway would also allow developing countries to peak their emissions in 2020 and then decrease by 6% per year. James Hansen also proposes an emissions plan that could possibly reduce the warming to 1 degree Celsius. Hansen’s plan included massive reforestation and an exponential decrease of 3.5% of emissions per year.
II. What is the origin of the climate change problem or climate crisis?
Scientists have known about anthropogenic climate change for over 100 years, beginning in the late 1800’s when Arrhenius released calculations of predicted warming due to human emissions of carbon dioxide. However it was not until the mid 1970’s, marked by Wallace Broecker’s publication of his paper, “Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” that scientists began to make quantitative predictions about climate change. In 1979 the first Global climate change conference was called in Geneva Switzerland, where scientists came to a consensus that fossil fuel burning was the cause of the warming. In the 1980’s scientific concern about the dangers of climate change increased. At a global climate conference held at Austria in 1985 and the Toronto conference in 1988 scientists agreed that global cooperation and reduction of carbon dioxide production was needed immediately to stop the progression of climate change. Also in 1988, scientist James Hansen made a plead to Congress in which he stated he was “ninety-nine percent confident” that global warming was caused by human actions. By 1990 the IPCC published their first Scientific Assessment of Climate Change, unanimously agreeing that global warming was real and caused by humans.
Since the 1970’s to the present there has been a significant gap between what scientists are reporting regarding climate change in relation to what the general populous believes and understands about the issue. This gap can be largely attributed to media coverage. When looking at the media, the economic norm that journalists are constrained in order to make a profit must be considered. Companies that burn fossil fuels and readily contribute to the climate problem tend to be very wealthy possibly placing economic pressure on media corporations. There are also four journalistic norms to also be considered: objectivity, fairness, accuracy and balance. The strive for balance, especially on complex poorly understood scientific subjects can actually lead to grave inaccuracy. During the 1980’s media coverage accurately mirrored what scientists were saying on the climate change issue, however in the early 1990 media overall shifted to a ‘balanced’ approach of the issue. Taking a balanced approach on the issue caused a lot of distortion because it equated the over 97% scientific consensus that climate change is real with the less than 1% side that argues it is not. The information presented as the “objecting side” often comes directly from phony studies published by conservative think tanks that are sponsored and run by big oil corporation who profit from climate change inducing activities.
Throughout the 35 year climate change debate the United States has largely refused to take action. At the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change the United States agreed to the nonbinding conditions that they would: make progress towards moving greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to prevent harmful changes in the climate and that developed nations should take the lead on these changes. Following the convention however no action was taken by the United States based on the grounds that the scientific uncertainty of the issue was too high, the costs of taking action greatly outweighed the economic benefits and that action should not be taken until other countries (especially China) also took action. All of these justifications the United States provided for not taking action are highly unethical.
Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is a technique that allows people to see if the benefits will outweigh the cost of implementation. This is unethical when applied to the problem of climate change because the greatest harms tend to fall on those who do no benefit at all, while those who benefit tend to see less harms. Brown states that, “the United States has a strong ethical responsibility to prevent harm to others who neither consented to the harm nor benefited from US activities that cause harm.” In other words CBAs may seem to show that the cost of stopping climate change outweighs the benefits, but this is because the effect of these actions on people outside of the United States and in future generations has not been calculated. This is a violation of human rights because it violates procedural justice, which states that those affected should be informed and give consent and it also violated distributive justice which states the benefits and harms of a policy should be distributed equally among all people.
The United States has been responsible for over 26% of total carbon dioxide emissions, while China has been responsible for only 10.7%. Waiting until China among other nations to take action is highly unethical because the United States is the largest driver of climate change and therefore the most responsible.
The arguments that there is too much scientific uncertainty to act on the issue of climate change is also highly unethical. There is abundant proof and scientific consensus that climate change is real and if action is not taken soon the effects will be irreversible. Furthermore the effects of climate change have already been experienced, especially by poorer countries. The scientific uncertainty argument is extremely flimsy and serves only to justify unethical behavior and denial.
The main premises of Donald Brown’s book is that ethical arguments are an essential and a currently lacking part of the climate change debate. However ethical arguments alone are not enough to cause the massive reforms necessary – active involvement of the public is also an essential key. A large part of this problem is that many people live in ignorance or outright denial of the truths around them. Nina Eliasoph found that people go out of their ways to avoid big political issues because these issues generate feelings of helplessness. Furthermore people avoid talking about major issues in large public groups because they participate in a “culture of political avoidance”, wherein they would rather avoid disagreements or upsetting those around them. Instead they tend to focus on smaller issues that are closer to home and can be tackled through simple actions. K.M Norgaard talks about the tendency for people to live a “double life” when it comes to climate change issues. People may know about the immense dangers of climate change but live their daily lives as though they are unaware. This occurs because people want to follow the social norms and avoid the difficult feelings of fear and guilt.
III. What are possible solutions that that will allow the human community to avoid the worst effects of climate change?
Despite all of this there are many possible solutions that can help humans avoid the worst effects of climate change and ultimately provide hope for a better future. We currently have the technology necessary to halt the climate change crisis – it just simply needs to be implemented. The amount of wind and solar energy combined is over 50 times the amount needed to power the earth. The business’ already harnessing this clean power are seeing substantial economic growth and gains. One possible policy solution that would encourage the use of renewable energy is a fee and dividend approach that places a 10 dollar per ton tax on carbon that would increase by 10 dollars each year. With this approach if 100% of the revenue from this tax went back to the public it is projected that they would use that money to invest in alternate sources of power like solar panels. This would eventually drive the price of solar and wind energy down and make it more attractive and accessible to all people. Not only would it make renewable energy more affordable this approach is also predicted to generate over 2 million new jobs and boost US employment rates.
In regard to social solutions for the issue of climate change a more accurately informed public is necessary. Renowned journalists, McChesney and Nichols argue that government intervention is needed to save suffering journalism and the media from corporate control. They state that “journalism is a public good, that it has broad social benefits far beyond that between buyer and seller’ and that quality press should be readily available to all people regardless of income. The plan of action suggested in McChesney’s article to save journalism is for the United States government to pour approximately 20 billion dollars a year into journalism in order to keep the press afloat, along with tax and credit policies to convert the current media into self-standing institutions. He believes this will allow the press to provide higher quality reporting and essentially create a better informed public.
Donald Brown argues that it is essential to bring ethics into the debate on climate change. These arguments are important because the rich are primarily putting the poor at risk by inducing climate change. This includes determining a country’s share of responsibility for the problem based on the effects of their actions on other nations around the world and the necessity to take immediate action as effects of global warming are already being felt across the globe.
Pope Francis released his papal encyclical, Laudato Si in 2015. The Laudato Si talks about the climate change crisis in regard to the social teachings of the Catholic Church. The main theme of catholic social teaching, dignity of the human person, goes beyond what Donald Brown called for in his book, Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm. Dignity of the human person calls for us to view each person with respect and dignity because they are made in the image of God. Because of this it is essential that every action is considered in how it will affect those around us. This connects to climate change in the issue of how our actions affect our common home of the planet. Climate change often has a greater effect on the poor and a lesser effect on the wealthy who drive global warming inducing conditions. Pope Francis states that the cry of the earth is also the cry of the poor. Because of the catholic social teaching, option for the poor and vulnerable we are charged with caring for the earth and even more so the poor. According to the Catholic church we do not have true ownership of anything, the earth, animals and plants all ultimately belong to God the Creator. Because of this we have an obligation to share the benefits we reap off of the land with all people, especially the poor. Integral ecology refers to the fact that every aspect on earth is closely connected and our actions affect many things beyond ourselves. If every single one of the over 70 million Catholics around the world followed this social teaching there would be substantial positive change in the climate change issue.
K.M Norgaard says that in order to remedy the feelings of helplessness that causes people to not take action it is essential to build on small successes, and create a sense of belonging in a community that is motivated to change the problem. Eliasoph talks about how it is necessary that people move away from small scale political action and become more comfortable with talking and engaging in larger issues. Roger Gottlieb claims that letting go of denial and despair to be present in the truth is a liberating and joyful experience. Facing the issue of climate change head-on and getting engaged in working towards a solution is the best way to live ones’ life.
This shift in the social outlook regarding climate change is more possible than we think. According to a poll run by Jon Krosnick 75% of the general American public believes that climate change is actually occurring. Nonviolent struggle has been extremely effective in causing change during the salt struggles in India and in Apartheid South Africa. The foundation for nonviolent struggle is based on the principle that power comes directly from the people. Without obedience from the masses a leader cannot effectively rule. The goal of an effective nonviolent struggle is to take over as many ‘slices’ of the publics’ loyalty and align them to the cause. The key is to pressure as many pillars of support such as education and organized religion to support the cause and eventually the leaders will be forced to cave into your demands in order to remain in power. These tactics could be very effective if applied to the climate change problem. The key moving forward to generate change is to raise public awareness, build on small successes and engage in different type of civil disobedience.
Overall it is essential to understand what climate change is, its origins and what can be done to allow humans to avoid the worst of the subsequent consequences. It is an extremely serious problem that requires immediate action.
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