To understand the role that ethics should play in climate change policy, it is helpful to know something of the history of climate negotiations and the role that it has played.

The first and most important global climate change treaty is the Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed in 1992.24 Virtually all nations, including the United States, are signatories. The Framework Convention is, to a great extent, aspirational. It does not impose specific obligations to reduce emissions. It is a framework for future negotiations not an emissions reduction treaty. Nevertheless, as a framework, it establishes a set of principles that have been important in all subsequent negotiations.

The first principle adopted in the Framework Convention is as follows:

The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.25

The developed country parties, listed in Annex I of the Convention and usually called Annex I countries, include Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and most of the countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. China, India, Brazil, South Korea, and other fast growing nations are not developed country parties.

The Framework Convention gives reasons for this approach. It notes that “the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries, that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs.” The Convention also affirmed that “responses to climate change should be coordinated with social and economic development in an integrated manner with a view to avoiding adverse impacts on the latter, taking into full account the legitimate priority needs of developing countries for the achievement of sustained economic growth and the eradication of poverty.” The Framework Convention is rooted in theories of justice. It requires equity. It gives priority to growth in developing countries reflecting notions of distributive justice.26 It anticipates differential obligations on countries based on past behavior reflecting notions of corrective justice. It encompasses the three core theories of justice that I will examine here: equity, distributive justice, and corrective justice.

These theories of justice, particularly as embodied in the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities, were central to subsequent negotiations. The first negotiation following the Framework Convention—the so- called Conference of the Parties—was in Berlin in 1995. It led to an agreement known as the Berlin Mandate. The Berlin Mandate took a strong view of the meaning of the first principle of the Framework Convention and the term “common but differentiated responsibilities.” Under the Berlin Mandate, Annex I countries were to agree to specific reductions in emissions while other countries would have no obligations whatsoever. China, India, Brazil, and similar countries were to be free to increase their emissions without limit. This approach has been called the dichotomous distinction because it draws a sharp line between wealthy countries that have to reduce emissions and developing countries that do not.27

The dichotomous distinction is hard to justify other than on principles of justice or ethics. A treaty focused on finding the most cost-effective way of preventing climate change would not allow emissions to increase in large parts of the world. A treaty focused on the most cost- effective approach to climate change would seek to reduce emissions at the lowest possible cost (or to reduce emissions the most at a given cost). This would mean that if it is easier or less expensive to reduce emissions, or stop their increase, in a poor country, we would do so. A treaty focused on cost-effective solutions to climate change would not decide where to reduce emissions based on the wealth of the polluter or their past behavior. The choices in the Berlin Mandate were instead based on notions of justice. The parties made a conscious choice to sacrifice pure climate change goals for goals based on distributive justice, corrective justice, and equity.

The dichotomous distinction was formally adopted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Under the Kyoto Protocol and subsequent related accords, Annex I countries (relabeled as Annex B under the Protocol but with minor exceptions the same list of countries) agreed to specific obligations to reduce emissions and to timetables for meeting the obligations. Non-Annex I countries were free to continue to increase emissions without restriction. The Kyoto Protocol was, and remains as I write, the only treaty in which nations agreed to binding obligations to reduce emissions.28 Like the Berlin Mandate, it is hard to understand the Kyoto Protocol without principles of justice. It does not seek to reduce emissions in the most cost-effective way. Instead, it chooses where to reduce emissions based on principles of justice.

The United States Senate responded by passing a resolution unconditionally rejecting this approach. In what was known as the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, the Senate stated:

It is the sense of the Senate that the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol to, or other agreement ... which would mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the Annex I Parties, unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period.29

The resolution listed a number of reasons for this view. A central one is concern about the interests of the United States, expressed as follows:

[T]he Senate strongly believes that the proposals under negotiation, because of the disparity of treatment between Annex I Parties and Developing Countries and the level of required emission reductions, could result in serious harm to the United States economy, including significant job loss, trade disadvantages, increased energy and consumer costs, or any combination thereof.

The Byrd-Hagel Resolution passed by a vote of 95-0. Every member of the Senate who voted that day, regardless of their commitment to the environment, their green credentials, or their party, voted for the resolution. The Clinton Administration did not bother to submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification. It had no chance of being ratified.

One reading of the Byrd-Hagel resolution and the US failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol is that the United States failed to act ethically. The United States was too concerned with its own self-interest. The call for more ethical action on climate change could then be seen as a call for the United States to live up to its ethical obligations. Perhaps the Byrd- Hagel resolution is evidence that we need more ethics, not less.

Additional urging of ethics, however, will not work to get the United States to ratify a treaty that looks anything like the Kyoto Protocol. The United States will not agree to a treaty that imposes obligations to reduce emissions on the United States but not on China, India, and other fast-growing developing nations. A treaty of this sort, without more, is not in the interests of the United States.30 Moreover, a treaty of this sort is not sufficient to stop climate change, so it fails to fulfill its basic purpose. And, as I will argue in chapter 7, it is not required by principles of justice, which means that the United States need not agree to such a treaty based on ethical concerns. The Berlin Mandate and the Kyoto Protocol are prime examples of the failure of applying ethics to climate change.

Notwithstanding the refusal of the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the Protocol did eventually receive enough support to go into effect. Its primary effect has been in the European Union, which has enacted policies to reduce emissions. These policies have met with some success. EU emissions by some measures are down modestly since the Protocol took effect, and the European Union is clearly the world’s leader in climate change policy.

The initial period for the Kyoto Protocol expired in 2012, but as part of the Framework Convention negotiations in 2011 in Durban, South Africa, signatories agreed to a second five-year commitment period. While the Kyoto Protocol was extended in Durban, the negotiations there also represented a dramatic break with the dichotomous distinction approach of the Kyoto Protocol.

By the time of the Durban negotiations in 2011, it was relatively clear to most that the Kyoto approach had failed. There was no chance that the United States would agree to it. Canada had ratified the treaty but eventually dropped out when it became clear that it would not meet its targets and would be subject to penalties if it stayed in. Japan, New Zealand, and Russia did not agree to take on additional commitments in the second phase of the treaty. Australia seems to flip positions with every change in government.

More centrally, the world had changed dramatically since 1992 when the common but differentiated responsibilities approach was formulated and since 1995 when it was interpreted as establishing a dichotomous distinction. China went from a modest emitter to the world’s dominant emitter. Countries such as India have grown rapidly and their emissions correspondingly increased. By 2010, nonAnnex I countries accounted for 62% of global emissions and were growing quickly. An approach that did not address these emissions, an approach that allowed them to increase without restrictions, held no hope of stabilizing the carbon dioxide concentrations. Moreover, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere were by 2010 much higher than in 1992, leaving less room for emissions increases by anyone before concentrations reached the level at which they would cause serious harms.

The negotiators in Durban, therefore, took a different approach. They agreed that future climate treaties should require the highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties.”31 If a future agreement follows the Durban approach, there will no longer be a sharp distinction between developed and developing countries. While countries may be allowed to take different paths to emissions reductions, no country with more than modest emissions will be exempt from reduction obligations.

As I write, there is a serious question whether nations will follow the Durban approach or fall back on the approach of the Berlin Mandate. Negotiators from developing countries have argued for a return strong differentiation between developed and developing nations. Some have suggested that they would reject any treaty that differs from the Berlin Mandate’s interpretation of common but differentiated responsibilities. The United States says it that will not agree to any approach that does not restrict emissions from China and similar developing countries. And even if the United States agreed to such a treaty, if developing countries continue to increase emissions, we will not be able to stabilize the atmosphere. One hopes that this is all just posturing to gain advantage in negotiations and that the nations of the world will agree to do what is in their self-interest, to wisely manage the limited resource.

I close this chapter with some basic data on emissions, data which is central to applying theories of justice to climate change. To get a sense of how the world now compares to the world of the Framework Convention and the Berlin Mandate, we can compare emissions in 1992 to those of today. In 1992, global emissions including land use change were about 33 billion tons of CO2 or equivalents (such as emissions of methane or nitrous oxide). In 2010, emissions were 45 billion tons. Most of this growth has come from fast developing countries like China (whose emissions have almost tripled) and India (whose emissions have doubled). Table 5.1 shows the top 15 emitters ranked in order of their 2010 emissions.

Where are we headed if we do not adopt policies to control emissions? Prediction is hard, especially when it is about the future. Nevertheless, in the absence of policies designed to reduce emissions, almost all of the emissions increases over the next twenty-five years are expected to come from developing countries. Emissions from developed countries are expected to be flat or to decline modestly.

With this background, we are ready to turn to climate policy and where (morally corrupt?) self-interest leads us.





Percent increase

Cumulative 1990-2010








United States






European Union (28)












Russian Federation
















































South Korea












United Kingdom





Rest of the World





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