Assessing Climate Policy Proposals: Ethical Guidelines

[1] Debates about climate policy will be prominent during 2009. Barack Obama addressed the issue during his campaign and has indicated he intends to make it a priority during his first year in office. As a result, leaders in both chambers of the Democrat-controlled Congress have pledged to pass domestic climate policy legislation during 2009. At the same time, members of the international community will continue working on the broad outlines of an international climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it lapses after 2012. These international negotiations are currently set to culminate at a meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark in December 2009.

[2] Recent scientific studies are lending urgency to these climate policy discussions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007. It concluded that the scientific evidence of global warming is “unequivocal” and that it has “very high confidence” that human activities have contributed to this warming since 1750.[1] The Earth’s global-average surface temperature has increased 0.76ºC (1.37ºF) since 1850 and the rate of temperature increase has been accelerating since 1970.[2] The IPCC reports the concentration of the principal greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), has increased from pre-industrial levels of 280 parts per million by volume (ppm) to 379 ppm in 2005. At the end of 2007 atmospheric concentrations of CO2 stood at 382 ppm, and the concentration of all six greenhouse gases stood at 460 ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq).[3] In order to avoid catastrophic ecological change, the IPCC recommends limiting the total increase in global surface temperature from pre-industrial levels to no more than 2°C. In order to hold the temperature increase to this threshold, global greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak before 2015 and fall 85 percent by 2050 to approximately 350 ppm for CO2 and 450 ppm CO2eq for all greenhouse gases.[4]

[3] Research published after the Fourth Assessment Report has raised concerns that the IPCC’s recommended temperature and greenhouse gas concentration thresholds may be too high to forestall dangerous climate change. In 2008, the most famous climate scientist in the United States, James Hansen, made the following recommendation in a co-authored article published in The Open Atmospheric Science Journal:

If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm, but likely less than that.[5]

Across the Atlantic, in England, the former Co-Chair of the IPCC, Sir John Houghton, expressed his concern that “the 2°C target as currently pursued will almost certainly turn out to be inadequate.”[6] Houghton arrived at this conclusion after observing record low summer sea ice volume during 2008 in the Arctic Ocean. Some climate scientists now predict the Arctic Ocean could be completely ice-free by 2015, eighty years ahead of the IPCC’s most recent projections.[7] Other climate scientists warn against extrapolating a few years of data into dire long-term projections because such efforts can neglect the reality of natural variability.[8]

[4] Virtually all climate scientists agree, however, that global warming is real and that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere poses unprecedented challenges from climate change for human communities. A recent study in the United States published by the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes:

Irreversible climate changes due to carbon dioxide emissions have already taken place, and future carbon dioxide emissions would imply further irreversible effects on the planet, with attendant long legacies for choices made by contemporary society.[9]

[5] As noted, these increasingly loud and alarming warnings from scientists are motivating policy makers and people around the world to develop effective climate policies. These policy proposals differ in many ways but in general they all grapple in one way or another with the following questions:

What level of greenhouse gas concentrations would offer the greatest likelihood of avoiding ecological catastrophe, and how rapidly should nations reduce their emissions to achieve such a target?
Who should bear responsibility for reducing emissions in the future, and to what extent does this depend on emissions in the past as well as the capacity to bear the costs associated with reducing emissions in the present?
What are the best means (e.g., cap and trade vs. carbon taxes) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and how can they be employed in the most comprehensive, cost-effective, and just manner?
When does it make more sense to invest resources to mitigate emissions in the present versus investing resources to help communities and nations adapt to climate change in the future?
How can financial and technological resources be transferred to industries and nations that lack the resources to invest in greenhouse gas mitigation and climate change adaptation strategies?
How will greenhouse gas emission reductions be verified within a nation and between nations?
How can climate policies be applied fairly so that they do not hinder economic competitiveness within or between nations?

This list of questions is illustrative, not definitive, but it is not self-evident how any of them should best be answered. In some questions the ethically normative dimensions are articulated, but in others they are implicit. How should Christian communities answer these questions? What ethical resources could Christians utilize to assess competing climate policy proposals? Are there other questions Christians should be asking?

[6] The Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have both developed and utilized an “ethic of ecological justice” to address the nexus of social justice and environmental issues that has arisen over the past three decades.[10] This ethic unites the separate fields of environmental ethics and social ethics into one unified scope of moral concern. Defined succinctly, this ethic of “ecojustice” seeks to preserve the health and integrity of the biosphere while providing for the fulfillment of basic human needs. Four norms rooted in Scripture and Christian theology are central to this ethic: sustainability, sufficiency, participation, and solidarity. These moral norms can be utilized in general ways to conduct an ethical assessment of climate policy proposals.

[7] The eco-justice norm of sustainability expresses a concern for future generations and emphasizes that an adequate and acceptable quality of life for present generations must not jeopardize the prospects for future generations. Sustainability precludes short-sighted emphases on economic growth that fundamentally harm ecological systems and ignore the reality of climate change in the future, but it also excludes any approaches to climate policy that don’t address the suffering of two billion people who are trapped in poverty today. Sustainability emphasizes the importance of healthy, interdependent communities for the welfare of present and future generations.

[8] The eco-justice norm of sufficiency emphasizes that all of creation is entitled to share in the goods of creation. This means, most fundamentally, that all forms of life are entitled to those things that satisfy their basic needs and contribute to their fulfillment. Insofar as the norm of sufficiency repudiates wasteful and harmful consumption and emphasizes fairness it represents one dimension of distributive justice. Many nations in the developing world are implicitly appealing to the norm of sufficiency as they demand the “right to development” and insist they not be required to make the same rate or level of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions as citizens of wealthy, developed nations.

[9] The eco-justice norm of participation stresses that the interests of all forms of life are important and must be heard and respected in decisions that affect their lives. The norm is concerned with empowerment and seeks to remove all obstacles to participation constructed by various social, economic, and political forces and institutions. The norm places an importance on open debate and dialogue and seeks to hear the voices or perspectives of all concerned. Those who champion the norm of participation should be worried about the growing number of lobbyists who are representing special interests with regard to climate policy. Today there are four global warming lobbyists for every member of Congress. According to the Center for Public Integrity, more than 770 companies and organizations spent at least $90 million and hired more than 2,300 representatives to address climate policy in 2008. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity was the largest player, spending $9,945,276, dwarfing the next largest funder, Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., which spent $1,365,000.[11]

[10] The eco-justice norm of solidarity highlights the kinship and interdependence of all forms of life and encourages support and assistance for those who suffer. Underscoring the reciprocal relationship of individual welfare and the common good, solidarity calls the powerful to share the plight of the powerless, the rich to listen to the poor, and for humanity to recognize its fundamental interdependence with the rest of nature. The norm of solidarity supports intra-generational transfers of resources from the rich to the poor so that they can adapt to climate change both now and in the future, but it also calls present generations to make sacrifices for future generations as a matter of inter-generational ethical responsibility.

Guidelines for Ethical Assessment of Climate Policies

[11] These four moral norms sketch the broad outline of an ethic of ecojustice and can be applied generally to debates about climate policy. The following specific guidelines help expand and apply these norms to the temporal, structural, and procedural dimensions of various climate policy proposals.[12]

Temporal Dimensions

Current urgency. Given the fact of global warming and the dire consequences associated with rapid climate change, climate policy proposals should be evaluated on the extent to which they address what Martin Luther King, Jr. termed “the fierce urgency of Now.”[13]
Future adequacy. The proposed level and timetable of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions must be sufficient to avoid catastrophic consequences associated with climate change.
Historical responsibility. A greater share of the burden associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions must fall on those who have been major emitters in the past.
Existing capacity. Those with more financial and technological resources should bear a greater share of the cost associated with reducing emissions than those who have much less.
Political viability. A morally praiseworthy climate proposal must have sufficient political support to make it realistic and viable.

Structural Dimensions

Scientific integrity. Climate policies must be based on the best current science and have the capacity to be revised in light of future scientific findings.
Industrial comprehensiveness. An ethically adequate climate policy should spread greenhouse gas reduction requirements over all sectors of an economy (agriculture, heavy industry, transportation, etc) rather than lay the burden or blame on one or more particular industries.
International integration. Since the planet’s atmosphere does not recognize political boundaries, national climate policies must be consistent with international agreements and be integrated with them.
Resource sharing. Morally praiseworthy climate proposals should contain mechanisms to transfer resources from the rich to the poor so that the poor can bear the cost and acquire the technologies necessary to mitigate emissions in the present and adapt to climate change in the future.
Economic efficiency. Climate policies that achieve the greatest measures of ecological and social well-being at the least economic cost are morally preferred.

Procedural Dimensions

Policy transparency. It is vital that all parties be able to comprehend the impact of a climate policy upon them and to discern how and by whom the policy will be implemented.
Emissions verifiability. With six principal greenhouse gases, and emission sources spread around the world, climate policies must identify ways to verify emission reductions with a high degree of confidence and accuracy.
Political incorruptibility. The auctioning of emission allowances and/or the collection of taxes on greenhouse gas emissions will generate major fiscal obligations that the rich and powerful will seek to avoid, as well as enormous revenue streams that some will try to misappropriate. Climate policies must be designed so that they can not easily be corrupted by the rich and abused by the powerful.
Implementational subsidiarity. While the focus must be on global reductions of greenhouse gases, better climate policies should utilize the principle of subsidiarity to empower those closest to the source of the emissions to decide how best to achieve the reductions.

[12] The length of this article precludes application of these guidelines to specific climate policy proposals. It is clear, however, that Christians will soon have to engage with others in an ethical assessment of both national and international proposals during 2009. This article attempts to equip readers with some tools to participate in that vital ethical reflection.


[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Summary for Policymakers), Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, et. al., eds., (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2007), pp. 3-5. According to the IPCC, “very high confidence” refers to “greater than 90 percent probability.” Accessed online February 9, 2009 at

[2] Ibid., p. 5.

[3] The Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009), p. 23.

[4] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, Lenny Bernstein, Peter Bosch, et. al., eds., (IPCC: Geneva, 2007), p. 66, note 29; p. 67, table 5.1. Accessed online February 9, 2009 at

[5] J. Hansen, Mki. Sato, P. Kharecha, D. Beerling, R. Berner, V. Masson-Delmotte, M. Pagani, M. Raymo, D.L. Royer, J.C. Zachos, Open Atmos. Sci. J. 2, 217-231, doi:10.2174/1874282300802010217 (2008). Accessed online February 11, 2009 at

[6] Sir John Houghton, from the foreword in Climate Safety: In Case of Emergency…, (London: Public Interest Research Centre, 2008). Accessed online February 11, 2009 at

[7] Climate Safety: In Case of Emergency…, p. 2.

[8] David Adams, “‘Apocalyptic climate predictions’ mislead the public, say experts,” in The Guardian, February 11, 2009. Accessed online February 14, 2009 at

[9] Susan Solomon, et. al., “Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, Vol. 106, No. 6, February 10, 2009, p. 1709. Accessed online February 11, 2009 at

[10] The ethic of ecological justice and its related norms was initially developed in the 1970s through discussions in the World Council of Churches about a “just, participatory, and sustainable society.” In the early 1990s the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America further refined the concept of eco-justice and its related norms in official social policy statements. See, The Office of the General Assembly, Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice: A Report Adopted by the 202nd General Assembly (1990), (Louisville, KY: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1990); and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice, (Chicago: Division for Church in Society, 1993). For a fuller description of the biblical and theological foundations for the norms summarized above, see James B. Martin-Schramm and Robert L. Stivers, Christian Environmental Ethics: A Case Method Approach, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2003), pp. 33-46.

[11] Marianne Lavelle, “The Climate Change Lobby Explosion,” February 24, 2009, accessed online March 1, 2009 at the website of The Center for Public Integrity:

[12] Robert Stivers and I offer a different set of guidelines to conduct an ethical assessment of energy options and energy policy proposals in Christian Environmental Ethics: A Case Method Approach, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), pp. 205-206.

[13] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963. Accessed online February 20, 2009 at

Jim Martin-Schramm

Jim Martin-Schramm is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.