Have We Been Asking the Wrong Questions About Climate Change Science? Why Strong Climate Change Ethical Duties Exist Before Scientific Uncertainties are Resolved.

I. Introduction.

Are we asking climate change science some of the wrong questions? If what we do about the threat of climate change is an ethical issue, how does this affect how we talk about: (a) climate change science, (b) climate change “alarmists,”(d) the appropriate role of climate change skeptics, (e) what we mean when we make claims that climate change science is “settled”, (d) what should nations, sub-national governments. organizations, and individuals do to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in light of what science is saying about climate change impacts?

Despite the fact, as we shall see, many assertions about likely climate change impacts are based upon some unassailable scientific facts that have been known for well over thirty years and other claims about climate change impacts are based upon scientific evidence that is now entailed to high levels of scientific respect, a strong argument can be made that many proponents of climate change policies have been asking the wrong questions of climate change science, namely what do we know about climate change impacts. In this post we will examine: (a) whether we have we been mislead by some to ask what do we know for sure about climate change impacts rather than what are the scientifically plausible harms that could happen if we wait until remaining scientific uncertainties are resolved, and (b) because of these potential harms do ghg emitters have duties to climate change victims to take action even if we concede scientific uncertainty about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts?
This post obviously agrees with those who call for continuing support for science that minimizes remaining scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts, yet questions an underlying assumption of many in the thirty year climate change debate that we must look to science to tell us when we should act to reduce the threat of climate change. In other words, the argument we make here that what we should do in the face of uncertainty is an ethical issue not a “value-neutral’ scientific matter, it is not a claim that we need less climate change science for we always need to know as a matter of ethics as much as we can about the consequences of our actions and some uncertainties remain particularly about the potential for rapid non-linear climate surprises that are very possible. In fact in his new book, James Hansen admits that there may be both positive and negative feedbacks in the climate system that we have yet to discover. (Hansen 2010: 44) However, we claim it is deeply ethically problematic to assume that we need to know more before acting in response to strong duties to others to prevent harm to them unless the victims of climate change consent to being harmed or put at risk.

This post will argue that climate change ethicists must pay attention to what climate change science is saying to get the ethics right, but scientists should also answer questions that ethicists would ask of science (which are different than the questions scientists ask themselves when pursuing knowledge alone). Finally we argue that high emitters have strong duties to take action to reduce the threat of climate change before all scientific uncertainties are resolved. Now although most people would agree with what we have said so far, we will argue that all of this has consequences for what climate scientists talk about, what we should expect of climate skeptics, and how we justify domestic climate change policy. Because the United States for many years, and many powerful actors in the current climate change debate in the United States and several other countries consistently take the position we need more science before committing to strong domestic action, the issues discussed here go to the heart of the public debate about climate change.

As we shall see, those opposing climate change policies have managed to make scientific uncertainty the major focus of climate change policy debates, a focus that is often irrelevant to ethical duties to act once science generates a respectable description of likely impacts that follow from non-action in cases where waiting may make it impossible to avoid the consequences. In other words, ethical conclusions about climate change must pay attention to what science is saying about likely climate change impacts, but duties to act do not depend upon scientific conclusions that have reached high levels of certainty.

ClimateEthics has frequently examined ethical questions that arise because policy-makers must make decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of climate change impacts. See, for example, The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty,

This post argues that for over thirty years the public climate change debate has focused on the wrong scientific questions compared to those that ethics would ask of climate science. Since the mid-1960s opponents of climate change policies have demanded to know from science what are the known climate change impacts; yet ethics would ask: (a) What are the scientifically plausible climate change harms?, (b) Could these harms happen if we wait until all uncertainties are resolved and the consensus view turns out to be correct?, (c) Are the harms potentially catastrophic for some, and (d) Have the potential victims of climate change consented to be put at risk while uncertainties are resolved?

This post argues that what we should do about climate change is not a scientific-technical question but is essentially an ethical question and the failure to frame it as such has been responsible, at least in part, for a thirty-year delay in taking action.

This post argues the misplaced focus on the scientifically known, rather than scientifically plausible climate change impacts and subsequent ethical implications that come from scientific notice that humans are doing something dangerous, is partly responsible for over thirty years of delay in adopting climate change policies.

As we shall see, it has usually (although not always) been arguments of some economically interested parties that have been most responsible for this misplaced focus on what is known rather than what is plausible or dangerous. Yet, we will argue, it is also the failure of some climate change policy proponents to stress ethical duties to take action in the face of some remaining uncertainties about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts that is also partly responsible for this thirty-year delay.

Unfortunately this delay has now resulted in atmospheric concentrations of ghgs being allowed to rise to levels that make it increasingly difficult to stabilize atmospheric ghg concentrations at levels that will avoid great harm to millions of the poorest, most-vulnerable people around the world. Furthermore the longer we wait to take action, the increasingly unlikely that it will be that the world will be able to reduce actions to protect the most vulnerable from climate change. In fact, according to a growing consensus view, we are already close to being able to prevent ghg atmospheric concentrations from reaching dangerous levels.

Although, as we shall see, much of the climate change science has never been in question and there is a strong scientific consensus view that is worthy of respect that predicts potentially catastrophic impacts from ghg releases at business-as-usual levels, given that there has been some uncertainty about the magnitude and timing of climate change impacts, proponents of climate change policies have sometimes implicitly bought into the assumptions of climate change policy opponents by how the climate policy proponents responded to uncertainty charges. That is they by responding to climate skeptical arguments with scientifically certain counter-arguments has been sometimes practically unhelpful while ignoring ethical arguments about the duty to act in the face of uncertainty in cases when delay in action can create harsh consequences for hundreds of millions of current and future generations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts.This is so because truthfully scientists should admit that there has been some uncertainty not about whether human activities are creating a huge threat to human health, animals, and ecosystems around the world, this is a settled matter, but what quantitatively is the magnitude of climate change impacts. Yet not knowing precisely what harms will be caused by dangerous behavior is not an ethically acceptable defense to non-action to reduce the threat of a great harm to others. This is particularly true because although the IPCC predictions of what climate change impacts are likely to happen is truly catastrophic for some, there is actually reasonable scientific concern that climate change temperatures and impacts could be outside the upper bounds of IPCC temperature and impact predictions in this century.

The mainstream climate change scientific response to the skeptics has often to claim that the science is settled. There are without doubt, important elements if the scientific basis for human causation that are not only settled but have been settled for a long time. Included in this long list of scientific issues is that the warming we are seeing is highly unlikely to be the result of natural variability. There are numerous attribution and fingerprinting studies that make natural variability a very unlikely cause of the undeniable warming trends the Earth is experiencing.. In fact there is growing evidence that the IPCC upper bound projections of inputs are not “worse case”. . In fact ClimateEthics has criticized IPCC as a matter of ethics for frequently cutting of the tales of climate sensitivity distribution predictions from their often quoted predictions. See, for example, Ethical Issues Raised by the Work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Report On The Bali Workshop (COP-13)

In fact, proponents of climate change policies have let opponents confuse knowledge and prudence claims that at the same time Ignore obligation and duties to others. That is most of the proponents of climate change policies have implicitly argued that because of what science can tell you about climate change impacts and given that the harms from these impacts may be so devastating, it is prudent to your interests to act. A prudence argument is still an argument about self interest. But since many rich people that are high-emitters can protect themselves from the kind of impacts that are being predicted for them, an argument that implicitly encourages people to act in their self interest ( another words an argument from prudence) is much weaker than an argument that that one must act because of duties to others –that is it is others interests that must be considered as a matter of duty, responsibility and obligation.

Those who oppose proposed policies to reduce the threat of climate change often base their opposition on scientific uncertainty or claims that there is no scientific basis for concluding that human activities are causing dangerous climate change. These arguments range from assertions that what is usually called the “mainstream” scientific climate change view is a complete hoax to the milder assertions that the harsh climate change impacts on human health and the environment predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other climate change researchers are unproven. Those opposing ghg reduction policies on scientific grounds have included some honest skeptics and disingenuous ideological purveyors of misinformation. Yet, we will argue, given what we have known for sure about climate change, even the arguments of well intentioned skeptics, not to mention the scandalous misinformation of the skeptical ideological purveyors, are not ethically supportable justifications for non-action on climate change.

In international negotiations, it has often been those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts such as the small island states or countries like Bangladesh that have insisted on action as a matter of justice despite some remaining uncertainty while a few large emitting countries including the United States and Australia who have resisted making commitments on scientific uncertainty grounds. As a matter of justice, no high-emitting country can use scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change as long as delay could harm the most vulnerable and there is a credible threshold scientific basis that continuation of certain behaviors is dangerous. Yet, the obvious justice issues entailed by waiting for uncertainties to be resolved before taking action which is then too late to prevent harm have been largely absent in the US debate about climate change. The small island developing states and Bangladesh get it, but Americans, for the most part, have not acknowledged that justice requires action in the face of uncertainty at least in the visible public debate about climate change. Surprisingly, there is no hint of the ethical obligations to act in the face of uncertainty in the US media coverage of the climate change debate.

No US politician, known to ClimateEthics, has made the argument we must act to protect others even if there is remaining scientific uncertainty about timing and magnitude of impacts.
As we shall see, this science-based opposition to climate change policies has a successful thirty-year history in the United States and other parts of the world. This post argues the failure to make the ethical arguments for action on climate change in the face of uncertainty takes off the table the strongest arguments for why climate change action is required as a matter of fulfilling responsibilities to others.

II. The Thirty-Five Year Focus on the Known Rather Than The Plausible or Likely.

From the begging of international concern about climate change in the early 1960s, much of the physical basis for worrying about climate change was never in doubt despite relentless claims by some during this period that concern about human-induced climate change was not scientifically sound. For most of the last thirty-five years, we have known without doubt such things as:

• The basic physics of the natural ghg effect including the initial forcing (a factor which changes the Earth’s energy balance) of each greenhouse gas in watts per square meter, therefore what warming would be expected in the absence of positive and negative climate feedbacks,

• How much ghgs are being liberated by fossil fuel combustion and some land use changes around the world such as deforestation,

• The global warming potential of different ghgs

• That the level of ghg in the atmosphere is increasing in proportion to fossil fuel use,

• The amount of infrared radiation being trapped and re-radiated at any time by increasing levels of atmospheric ghgs,

• The temperatures of the upper and lower atmosphere,

• Changes in global temperatures,

• Change in ice cover and glacier extent,

• Changes in the amount of intense storms,

• Amount of water vapor in the atmosphere,

• A great amount about the causes of natural climate variability including several variable features of Earth-Sun relationships, tectonic changes in the Earth’s surface, and ocean-climate interactions .

The world began to wake up to the potential problem of climate change in the 1960s after CO2 measurements around the world demonstrated regular increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations that were rising in direct proportion to world fossil fuel consumption. The threat of climate change was recognized by US politicians as early as President Lyndon Johnson who in February, 1965 said in a Special Message to Congress that:

This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. (Johnson 1965)

Given what was indisputable about the basic physics of how increasing ghgs in the absorb infrared radiation by the middle 1960s coupled with new knowledge that atmospheric concentrations of ghg were accumulating in the atmosphere in direct proportion to human activities, a strong ethical argument can be made that by then there was sufficient scientific knowledge to create an ethical duty to take steps to prevent dangerous climate change.

International interest in climate change grew dramatically in the late 1970’s as computer modelers began to use new more powerful computing tools to construct better climate models that were more capable of predicting temperature changes caused by human activities. These models initially were simple and grew in sophistication for four decades.

In 1977, Robert M. White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote a report for the National Research Council that concluded that CO2 released during the burning of fossil fuel can have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society. (White 1978) Surely by 1980, the world was on notice that human-induced climate change was something to be concerned about.

A report prepared by the Carter administration declared that “[t]he responsibility of the carbon-dioxide problem is ours-we should accept it and act in a way that recognizes our role as trustees for future generations.” (Charney et al. 1979) This report also estimated that the amount of warming that would be experienced from a doubling of preindustrialized levels of CO2 would be 3 degrees C, very close to the amount that IPCC would predict 27 years later based upon significantly improved climate models.(Charney et al. 1979)

After this US Academy of Science issued its 1979 report on the threat of human-induced climate change, opposition to US climate change policies grew, often supported by fossil fuel interests in the United States. It has been well documented that some fossil fuel interests financially supported efforts to undermine the scientific basis for making climate change emissions reduction commitments.(Brown 2002: Chapter 2) Two recent books document how scientists who had initially worked for the tobacco industry to discredit the science that linked smoking to cancer began working with public relations firms hired by industry groups to also discredit the science that concluded that human actions were altering the climate (See Orkeskes and Conway 2010; and Hogan 2010). For thirty years, a huge disinformation campaign about climate change was waged by organizations funded by fossil fuel interests.

Of course, some scientists were skeptical of the mainstream scientific view, at least initially, for valid scientific reasons and therefore there is a need to distinguish between reasonable and irresponsible climate skepticism. Yet some of the skeptical claims being made in the the thirty year public debate from 1980 to 2010 about climate change policies, was based upon misleading disinformation about the science. (For a good discussion of the disinformation campaign, see Oreskes and Conway, 2010 and Hoggan, 2010) This disinformation has most likely successfully confused the public about the valid underlying basis for scientific concern about climate change.

Skepticism is necessary for science to advance, yet skeptics must play by the rules of science that include not making claims that have been refuted by the scientific evidence, following evidence to support new claims, and subjecting skeptical claims to the rigors of peer-reviewed science.

In the 1980s science supporting that human-induced climate change was a serious risk grew as the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( NOAA) and others developed even more sophisticated computer models of the climate system that predicted emissions of greenhouse gases would lead to dangerous warming.

Partly in response to the opposition to climate change policies based upon the scientific uncertainty of the timing and magnitude of climate change impacts, the Intergovernmental Program on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the World Meteorology Organization WMO and the United Nations Environment Program in 1988 to assess for governments the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. (IPCCa 2010) IPCC was created in response to postilions of the United States and others in international negotiations that there was too much scientific uncertainty about climate change for nations to commit to enforceable emissions reductions targets.

By the time, IPCC was up and running the world had lost over a decade in limiting atmospheric ghg concentrations.In fact, twenty-five years had passed since President Johnson had acknowledged the problem

When in the late 1980s some European nations pressed for nations to agree to emissions reduction target commitments in an international treaty, the opponents of climate change action were successful in getting the US to oppose emissions reduction targets on the basis of scientific uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of climate change impacts.(Brown 2002: Chapter 2) That more research was necessary was the US position. In fact, this became the US climate change position the late 1980s until the United Nations Framework Convention was finally on climate change was negotiated in 1992, a treaty without binding emissions reduction targets largely because of the opposition of the United States. (Brown, 2002: Chapter 2) For most of the over twenty year history of international climate change negotiations, the United States has refused to make commitments to binding ghg emissions targets on ground of scientific uncertainty and unacceptable cost to the United States. (Brown, 2002: Chapter 2)

By the time the time the Unite Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC ) was signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 without binding emissions reductions targets, the world had lost 13 years since Americans were first warned by the US Academy of Sciences. (Now the world has lost over 30 years) According the the US position, more research was necessary, because climate change science could not tell us for sure what actual impacts would be experienced if business-as-usual emissions levels continued and commitments could lead to wasteful spending for the United States if climate change did not turn out to be as bad as some predicted..(Variations of this debate were going on during this time in other countries also including Australia and Canada.)

During this time, rarely, if ever were arguments made in the U.S. public debate that high emitting countries such as the United States had ethical duties to reduce ghg emissions even in the face of some uncertainty because the United States was putting others at grave risk by delaying action on climate change and the most vulnerable victims of climate change had not consented to being put at risk. Rarely if ever did any US politician or press account of the US position acknowledge that the United States may not be able to rely on self interest alone in setting domestic climate change policies as high-emitting nations such as the United States have duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others that should be considered in domestic policy formation. Because we must consider the interests of others, we have a duty to act to prevent hash impacts to others if waiting may make the harm inevitable.

In fact, for the thirty years during which the climate change debate has been waging in the United States, the ethical dimensions of US climate change policies has been virtually absent in the public debate. Even recently, as loud arguments have been frequently heard in Washington about pending climate change legislation, there has been neither been a whimper nor a peep heard about US duties, obligations, and responsibilities either from politicians or the press, and for that matter many of the environmental proponents of policies. The proponents of climate change policies have made prudential arguments about self-interest while being silent on duties to others to act.

The first IPCC climate change assessment report was published in 1990; the second in 1996; the third in 2001; and the fourth in 2007. Each IPCC report drew conclusions linking human activities to observable warming with increasing levels of scientific certainty. (IPCCa 2010) Each time the IPCC reported with increasing confidence that climate change was a significant threat to human health, welfare, and the environment, opponents of climate change policies stressed remaining uncertainties about climate change impacts and implicitly argued if climate change impacts turned out to be not as harsh as those being predicted by IPCC, money spent on reducing climate change would be wasted. These arguments were rarely countered by arguments that high emitting nations had duties to reduce emissions while uncertainties were resolved because each day of delay in reducing emissions could make the problem more damaging to the vulnerable around the world and the ecological systems on which they depend. These arguments rarely mentioned the fact that if climate change impacts approached worse case in this Century, it was virtually impossible to quantify the value of the worst case, For instance, some climate models predict as much as 6 degree C warming by the end of this century and as one economists honestly admits the impacts of 6 degree C warming is “located in the terra incognita of what any honest modeler would have to admit is a planet Earth reconfigured as science fiction. ” (Weitzman, 2007:716)

In 1997, the international community negotiated the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement in which every developed country except the United States eventually committed to be bound by emissions reduction targets The United States under the George Bush II administration refused not only to ratify the Kyoto Protocol but withdrew it from consideration for future ratification, largely on scientific grounds. Once again there was no highly visible public argument about the ethical duties of the United States to others to reduce ghg emissions.
The Fourth IPCC Assessment Report (AR4) was completed in early 2007. Like previous assessment reports, this assessment consisted of four reports, three of them from each of its working groups. Working Group I deals with the Physical Science Basis for Climate Change; Working Group II assesses Climate Change Impacts; and Working Group III assesses options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing activities that remove them from the atmosphere. (IPCC b 2010) In addition to the reports of the Working Groups, AR4 also contained a Synthesis Report. (IPCCc 2010)
The Working Group I Summary for Policymakers (SPM) drew conclusions that human actions were causing dangerous climate change with higher levels of certainty than in previous reports. Its key conclusions included that:

• Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.

• Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas concentrations.

• Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilized, although the likely amount of temperature and sea level rise varies greatly depending on the fossil intensity of human activity during the next century.

• The probability that this is caused by natural climatic processes alone is less than 5%.

• World temperatures could rise by between 1.1 and 6.4 °C (2.0 and 11.5 °F) during the 21st century (table 3) and that:

o Sea levels will probably rise by 18 to 59 cm (7.08 to 23.22 in.)
o There is a confidence level >90% that there will be more frequent warm spells, heat waves and heavy rainfall.
o There is a confidence level >66% that there will be an increase in droughts, tropical cyclones and extreme high tides.

• Both past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium.

• Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values over the past 650,000 years
(IPCC 2007)

By the time IPCC issued its 2007 assessment, the world had lost at least 28 years since the first US Academy of Sciences report warning the world of climate change impacts and almost 35 years since President Johnson first acknowledged that humans were changing the atmospheric concentration of ghg.. During this time, arguments about all of this consisted almost exclusively of claims and counter-claims about the certainty of the mainstream climate change science and costs and benefits to the United States alone of proposed climate change policies. Neither the proponents of climate change policies, the US press, of politicians ever seriously examined the duties and responsibilities the United States may have had to the potential victims of climate change. Proponents of climate change action simply stressed that the mainstream view was sound, not that even if there were remaining uncertainties those acting dangerously to others had duties to change their behavior.

As we shall see, the vast majority of climate scientists and scientific organizations agree with the consensus position articulated by IPCC. Yet, criticisms of IPCC’s conclusions have frequently made by skeptical scientists many of whom are associated with conservative think tanks. These criticisms are of many types and range from claims that IPCC is overestimating adverse climate change impacts to assertions that there is no evidence that observed warming is attributable to human actions. Responses to these arguments from the mainstream scientific view are widely available. (See, for example, RealClimate.org and Skeptical Climate.org for detailed responses to the skeptics’ views.)

Recent reports have concluded that the vast majority of scientists actually doing research in the field support the consents scientific view. For example, a 2009 study–published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States–polled 1,372 climate researchers and resulted in the following two conclusions.

(i) 97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and

(ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.
(Anderegga et. al 2010)

Another poll performed in 2009 from 3,146 of the 10,257 Earth scientists concluded that 76 out of 79 climatologists who “listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change” believe that mean global temperatures have risen compared to pre-1800s levels, and 75 out of 77 believe that human activity is a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures. (Doran and Zimmerman 2009)

Yet, commentators to this blog and climate change skeptics in other fora frequently deny that that nations, sub-national governments, organizations have ethical duties, responsibilities, and obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and base their arguments on scientific grounds.

For instance, one commentator to a recent Climate Change post asserted that since ClimateEthics got the science wrong and since ClimateEthics has admitted that if it gets the science wrong, we may get the ethics wrong, our ethical conclusions are wrong. This post now examines what is meant by our claim “if we get the science wrong, we may get the ethics wrong.”

As we shall see, our acknowledgement that, “If we get the science wrong, we may get the ethics wrong” is not in any way agreement that we have to know with relatively high levels of scientific certainty what specific climate change harms will be caused by human activities before we can draw strong conclusions about duties and obligations of emitters. As we shall see, this statement is simply a recognition of several links between climate change science and ethics and failure to understand the scientific and economic controversies about climate change can lead to getting the ethics wrong.

III. Links between Science and Ethics

As we have asserted in previous posts, a strong ethical argument can be made that high-emitting countries and individuals have a strong duty to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions once threshold scientific knowledge establishes that the failure to take action can increase the harm. Not only is it not necessary to have absolute proof about climate change impacts from human activities before duties arise, asking what science tells us to do about climate change and only considering proven scientific facts in so doing is a wrong question as an ethical matter.

This confusion is at the core of why policy makers, the press, and environmental groups may have been tricked into asking the wrong question for over 30 years about science and climate change. This is so because decision-making in the face of uncertainty raises profound ethical questions not only “value-neutral” scientific questions. Ethics would make us responsible for our behavior once we are on notice that there is a sufficient threshold of scientific evidence for concluding that what we are doing is dangerous and that our behavior is putting others at risk. That is ethics would have us ask not only what do we know about climate change impacts, but what impacts are possible. Yet, frequently when climate change impacts at the upper end of predicted scientific ranges are quoted they are categorized as “alarmist” even though these possible impacts are relevant as an ethical question once it is established that they are plausible scientifically.

Notice, we are not saying at ClimateEthics we know precisely what will happen if humans continue to emit ghg at business-as-usual levels. We are simply claiming, given what is not in dispute about climate change and other things that science can point to as being likely or very likely, strong ethical arguments can be made that the burden of proof is on those who want to continue current behavior to show it is not dangerous.

In fact, a strong claim can be made that 30 years ago.enough was known about potential consequences of continued release of ghg that duties to reduce emissions followed. This is so, as we have seen, because there is no reasonable basis for denying that human actions that release ghg are dangerous and such conclusion should have put the burden of proof on those who desire to continue dangerous behavior to show that ghg releases are benign.

The reasons why we have long ago passed a level of threshold knowledge about climate change that ethically should shit the burden of proof to skeptics are voluminous (too voluminous to be fully covered in this blog) They include, in addition to those undisputed facts mentioned above :

1. We have known for 150 years if we add ghg to the atmosphere that there would initially be some positive forcing (that is change in the Earth’s energy budget that would initially increase warming) even if we admit that we don’t fully understand feedbacks quantitatively.

2. We have known since the late 1950s that ghg are increasing in the atmosphere in direct proportion to increases in human use of fossil fuel, known land use changes, and several other human activities.

3.If ghg increase due to human action, basic physics says that higher concentrations of atmospheric ghgs will cause some initial warming with high levels of confidence about what that initial forcing is. Yet because we need to understand feedbacks in the climate system before we can actually predict temperature changes at equilibrium there has been and remains some uncertainty about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts. Nevertheless, there has never been any uncertainty that if you add known amounts of ghg to the atmosphere, these gases will initially trap and re-radiate heat in a precise amount. The basic physics of this simply has never been in question in the 20th let alone the 21rst Century.

4. Every scientific attempt to define what is likely climate sensitivity since the 1960s has been in the 1.5 and 5 degree C range with upper tails sometimes reaching 9 degrees C . (Climate sensitivity is the warming that the Earth will experience at equilibrium from doubling ghg in the atmosphere to 560 ppm CO2 from pre-industrial concentrations of 280 ppm CO2) The US Academy of Science estimated in 1979 that climate sensitivity was 3 degree C. (Notice we are not saying the Academy of Science proved what climate sensitivity is but claim this estimate was relevant to whether duties existed to reduce dangerous behavior..)

5. Particularly worthy of attention are attribution studies including many different types of fingerprinting studies– all giving strong support for human attribution of climate change. The fingerprinting on the differences between the temperatures of upper and lower atmosphere, measurements of increasing absorption of and re-radiation of heat with a corresponding decline in heat leaving the atmosphere, the increase in heating in the night time compared to daytime, how oceans heat, etc. are very strong evidence of human causation. This evidence is particularly strong and led the IPCC in 1996 to conclude, the scientific community could discern the human influence on the climate system despite natural variability.

6. Most recent studies of climate change scientists that actually published research in the field conclude that above 95% agree that humans are causing climate change.

7. Most of the CO2 we find in the atmosphere we know comes from old fossil carbon not new carbon that would be driven by natural force by measured carbon isotopes.

8. Almost every major scientific organization with expertise over climate science has issued statements in support of the IPCC consensus view. These now include:
• American Association for the Advancement of Science
• American Astronomical Society
• American Chemical Society
• American Geophysical Union
• American Institute of Physics
• American Meteorological Society
• American Physical Society
• Australian Coral Reef Society
• Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
• Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO
• British Antarctic Survey
• Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
• Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
• Environmental Protection Agency
• European Federation of Geologists
• European Geosciences Union
• European Physical Society
• Federation of American Scientists
• Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
• Geological Society of America
• Geological Society of Australia
• International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA)
• International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
• National Center for Atmospheric Research
• National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
• Royal Meteorological Society
• Royal Society of the UK
(Skeptical Science 2010)
9. Also every Academy of Science in the world that has taken a position on climate change (19), has supported the consensus view. 11 countries Academe of Sciences have signed a joint statement endorsing the consensus position. They are:
• Academia Brasiliera de Ciencias (Brazil)
• Royal Society of Canada
• Chinese Academy of Sciences
• Academie des Sciences (France)
• Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)
• Indian National Science Academy
• Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
• Science Council of Japan
• Russian Academy of Sciences
• Royal Society (United Kingdom)
• National Academy of Sciences (USA):
(Skeptical Science, 2010):
10. A letter from 18 scientific organizations to the US Congress says:

Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. (Letter to US Congress, 2009)

(See Skeptical Science, 2010, for links to all of the above.)

11. Although some skeptics, playing the role that good skeptics should play have occasionally initially raised issues worthy of consideration, they have not proven in peer-reviewed literature that the consensus view is false. In fact, most of the issues initially pushed by the skeptics including such things as the claim that the upper atmospheres is warming, the sun is the cause of the problem, etc, have not withstood any serious scientific scrutiny.

12. Even though one should be suspicious of climate models because there are likely to be thresholds in the climate system that are not fully understood that could result in rapid non-linear climate response, all models indicate warming and some have been successful in making natural forcing, predicted future forcing, and observations align. (This does not prove the models are correct but simply gives reasons why they are entitled to respect) In fact the models that best predict actual observations are those that quantitatively put the natural forcings that we are aware of into the models. Again this does not prove the models should not be questioned, it simply demonstrates that their results are entitled to be respected as part of the evidence of human causation of climate change.

13. What we know about natural forcing leads us to conclude that we should be cooling the Earth now, not heating. Yet the evidence contradicts this.

14. Although there is some possibility that we will yet discover unknown negative feedbacks in the climate system, there is at least equal, if not greatly more respectable reasons to be worried about unknown positive feedbacks that will lead to rapid, non-linear climate change outside the IPCCs quoted climate sensitivity scale.
These are simply 14 reasons (among many others) for concluding that human-induced climate change is dangerous and that large emitters are putting others at risk from their behavior.

Without doubt, there is a clear scientific consensus that humans are changing the climate and threatening great harm to some of the poorest people around the world. But even if one assumes, for the sake of argument, that there is more scientific uncertainty about human causation of climate change impacts than recognized in the above statements of scientists around the world, there is a strong ethical duty to avoid the huge potential harm entailed by human-induced warming. In other words, ethics would not allow non-action on climate change simply because the potential harms have not been proven.

After reaching some level of scientific consensus that serious harms are possible, ethics would shift the burden of proof to those who want to continue risky behavior. This fact about climate change has been lost in the U.S. climate change debate (and in other parts of the world) The U.S. climate change debates have sometimes unfolded as if absence of proof equals absence of obligation. This position sometimes has been fortified by arguments that imposing the costs entailed by needed reductions of climate change emissions are great compared to dubious benefits from actions to reduce these impacts. (We will not examine here many specious ethical elements in this position but have done so many times on ClimateEthics) Yet this argument also ignores duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others that must ethically be considered in making cost arguments in support of non-action (See Ethical Issues in the Use of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Climate Change Programs)

The ethical duty to avoid risky behavior is proportional to the magnitude of the potential harm. Because climate change is likely to cause death to many, if not tens of millions of people, through heat stroke, vector borne disease, and flooding, annihilate many island nations by rising seas, cause billions of dollars in property damage in intense storms, and destroy the ability of hundreds of millions to feed themselves in hotter drier climates, the duty to refrain from activities which could cause global warming is extraordinarily strong even in the face of uncertainty about consequences.

The duty to be careful and take preventative action is particularly strong in cases where:

{a) if you wait to act until all uncertainties are resolved, it may be too late,

(b) the burdens of waiting until the uncertainty is resolved are most harshly felt by potential victims,

(c) the victims have not consented to be put at risk, and

(d) the longer one waits the more dangerous the problem becomes.

(e) there is strong evidence that worse-case could be truly catastrophic for large parts of the planet.

All of these are particularly true of human-induced climate change
Thus, there is simply no way of talking about climate change science and associated uncertainties without seeing these matters as raising profound ethical questions. Once you do, given what is not in question about human-induced climate change and the enormity of the potential harms, skeptics should have been seen with the burden of proof to show that climate change is not dangerous: a burden not only not met, but to our knowledge not even claimed.
Yet we do not want to shut down reasonable skeptical arguments about climate change impacts as skepticism is necessary for science to advance. Yet skeptics should be expected to play by the rules of science: that is they should publish skeptical science in peer-reviewed journals. Many skeptical claims that have been made over the last 30 years are not only without being subject to the rigor that would be experienced in peer-reviewed journals, they are made about issues where the science has been mostly resolved.

In fact, climate science skeptics should be guided by a new set of norms that on the one hand do not discourage reasonable scientific skepticism but on the other hand condemn claims:

1. about which there now, no longer is any reasonable scientific basis for,

2. that over assert the meaning of conclusions that could be drawn from skeptical evidence such as:(a) this evidence completely refutes the IPCC conclusions when at best it only raises issues about one piece of evidence in a long chain of scientific arguments that point to human causation.

3. that assert that mainstream climate change is a hoax.

4. that are used by others with financial interests in preventing action on climate change which are now known to be false yet have not been acknowledged as such.

5. that don’t take care in distinguishing between scientific arguments that raise important but relatively minor problems with the consensus view from claims that allegedly disprove the consensus view.

All commentators on the science of climate change need to distinguish between responsible skepticism and ideologically driven disinformation skepticism particularly in light of the fact that that it has now been documented that there is a huge disinformation campaign largely funded by some (although not all) fossil fuel interests. (See Oreskes and Conway 2010)

IV. Conclusion: Accommodating Skepticism and Climate Change Science

The above discussion demonstrates that there is an strong need for ethicists to pay attention to the science and how the science is being communicated. This in no way, however, should be interpreted as an admission that unless the science is sound, no ethical conclusions can be made about the science. In fact, as we hopefully have demonstrated, decision-making in the face of uncertainty raises profound ethical questions that science cant answer including when uncertain science creates duties to act before all uncertainties are resolved.

ClimateEthics assumes that it is still possible that we may discover currently unknown negative feedbacks in the climate system that lead to less warming than that which is predicted even though we believe the mainstream scientific view persuasively makes this unlikely.(Notice, we did not say proves it) Even more probable, however, is the possibility that the IPCC is underestimating harsh impacts that the world will experience. In fact, recent observations demonstrate that actual temperatures, sea level rise, and ghg atmospheric concentrations are at, above, or close to IPCC’s worst case analysis. In fact, on balance, we believe that IPCC is likely to be seen in history as a conservative institution (although this is a claim that needs a much longer exploration in future ClimateEthics’ posts)
Given the complexity of the climate system, there is simply no known way to predict with high levels of confidence whether the Earth will experience abrupt future climate shifts and given that we know that rapid, non-linear climate change has happened frequently in Earth’s history, it is simply irresponsible behavior to ignore the fact that human-induced climate change is a very dangerous development and a problem which creates strong ethical duties for high-emitting nations, sub-national governments, businesses, and individuals to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.

When we say that if we get the science wrong, we may get the ethics wrong, it is an acknowledgement that science is the realm of inquiry that establishes the factual context for examining our ethical duties. Therefore, good climate change ethics is a deeply interdisciplinary endeavor. Yet, this statement does not lead to the conclusion that only scientifically proven facts can be considered to create ethical duties. To not act in the face of uncertainty about dangerous behavior may have profound consequences-a truth which creates duties to take preventative action.

It is simply ethically irresponsibile to claim that once there is reason to believe that behavior is dangerous to others, one may continue that behavior until proof that it will cause harm has been established. Most cultures including the legal culture in the United States makes very dangerous behavior unlawful and even sometimes criminal. A driver speeding on road frequently crossed by school children can not defend himself by simply arguing that the police did not prove that he was actually going to injure a child. This strong duty to refrain from dangerous behavior is widely accepted around the world.
Ethicist must pay attention to the science of climate change, but ultimately what one must do in the face of uncertainty about dangerous behavior is an ethical, not a scientific matter. Scientists must pay attention to ethics not only because of the need to be clear about what kind of claims they are making but also when they allude to the policy significance of their scientific endeavors. Scientists, in fact, should be empowered to identify high consequence impacts, even if they are not proven, and not be accused of “alarmism” The charge of “alarmism” should be understood to only be appropriate when there is no scientific basis for claims of impacts. Yet scientists should also be asked to distinguish between different degrees of possibility about impacts. (Notice we did not say “probability” because probability statements sometimes require a level of knowledge that practically cant be obtained).

Skepticism in science is necessary to allow science to advance. For this reason, mainstream scientific scientists of course need to listen to and consider the evidence based arguments of all scientists including responsible climate change skeptics.. Yet scientific arguments that simply point to unresolved uncertainties about climate change impacts will not overturn ethical duties to cease dangerous behavior unless these arguments convincingly make claims that adverse harms from climate change will not happen. What to do in the face of uncertainty, is an ethical not a scientific matter. The failure to recognize this may have been responsible, at least in part, for the tragic 30 year delay in taking climate change seriously.


Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University,


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3 thoughts on “Have We Been Asking the Wrong Questions About Climate Change Science? Why Strong Climate Change Ethical Duties Exist Before Scientific Uncertainties are Resolved.

  1. I have been reading your blog with some interest. As a retired scientist who worked for a number of years for ExxonMobil I am aware that just disclosing that background immediately makes any comments I make discounted. You have been asserting that ethics as defined by you trump values on scientific clarity and “certainty”. I assume that you believe this only specifically about “climate science” and woul not say this about medical science. I would like to see us use the same scientific standards and ethical standards for Climate related research as we do in the medical field, and in other fields of science as well. I find your lack of concern about science ethics troublesome. In my research, and I have published nearly 100 peer reviewed scientific papers we appear to have lived within science standards that appear to be neglected by climate advocates in NAS, APS, ACS and so on. When I see reviews of ClimateGate related emails by those organizations, as well as the “investigation” by your own institution Penn State I wonder where ethics has gone. Ditto for the investigations of CRU in the UK. Prof Feynman must be turning in his grave. I am sure that human contributions impact Climate, but my reading of the science is that they bdon’t

  2. The commentator, we think, misunderstands our position about climate change science. We strongly support asking scientists to continually improve climate change science based upon high scientific standards, but we must also ask scientists whether humans are engaging in activities that put others at deep risk, whether the harms we are worried about could happen before all uncertainties are resolved, and whether waiting long periods of times while the uncertainties are resolved will make the problem much worse. Ethics would also ask us if we have consulted with those who will be harmed by our behavior if the threat turns out to be real and we have waited long periods of time to resolve the uncertainties. These are questions that ethics would ask of scientists. Ultimately what one does about a very risky behavior is an ethical question not a scientific question although science is relevant to the ethical question. We need the best science we can get, but we also need to think about responsibilities of problems about which one cannot resolve the uncertainties before the harms are experienced. The law in most cultures is quite clear about these issues. Risky and dangerous behavior is often criminal once there is threshold information that what one is doing is dangerous. A person speeding through a school zone who is given a ticket for reckless driving cant defend himself with the argument that the police didn’t prove that his driving would harm a child. The question that ethics would ask, is harm possible?? Ethics makes us responsible for behavior that could cause harm. The stronger the science is that harm could be caused, the stronger the duty. Which raises questions about when the world was put on notice that climate change is dangerous. The US Academy of Sciences said such in 1979 and many times since then including this spring. Every academy of science in the world as well as every major scientific organization with expertise over the subject matter has said they agree that the planet is warming, it is a least partially human caused, and large harms will likely happen under business as usual. These include prestigious institutions such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, etc, etc. The scientific institution set up by governments to give advice on this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has synthesized the peer-review literature about every five years since 1992 and said that human induced climate change is a huge threat with increasing levels of scientific certainty.

  3. Hasty action has already done much more harm to people & environment than anthropogenic greenhouse gases by any chance.
    It is enough to mention the biofuel craziness, which drove food prices up, starving millions to death while destroying extensive rain forest ecosystems by replacing them with industrial scale oil palm plantations.
    If we are at ethics, killing people by the millions now for the sake of some precarious future good is generally considered an evil deed.

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