On The Moral Imperatives Of Speaking Publicly About the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change-And How It Must Be Done.

I. Introduction

One of the great privileges of writing ClimateEthics is that it exposes the writer to the good, bad, and ugly of climate change arguments being made around the world. Actually quite frequently we receive thoughtful comments that force us to go a little deeper and in some cases correct mistakes or correct reasonable misinterpretations. Often we get inspiring comments.

One such example of this was a comment received on another website, Climate Progress, to an article of ours that they had cross-posted from Jeff Huggens. See, http://climateprogress.org/2010/08/17/are-ethical-arguments-for-climate-action-weaker-than-self-interest-based-arguments/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+climateprogress%2FlCrX+%28Climate+Progress%29

Mr Huggens said in part:

MANY MORE PEOPLE should be speaking out about these arguments. If only a dozen ethicists, moral philosophers, and others are conveying the strong argument in clear ethical/moral terms, the lack of others speaking out defeats the entire enterprise. People (the public, the media, and so forth) naturally wonder, if only 1 percent of all ethicists, spiritual leaders, moral philosophers, other philosophers, “wise women and men”, and so forth are speaking out in ethical/moral terms, then those ethical/moral arguments must truly be “not all that important”, or “highly controversial and not broadly accepted”, or “only held by theoretical folks”, or whatever. So, the efforts of the one percent or two percent of folks who DO speak out in those terms are somewhat nullified, in reality, if more and more people in the fields that are supposed to have views on such matters do not also join in to form a larger chorus of voices. In this sense, and for this reason, choosing to be silent, or indifferent, or “too busy” to take a stand on this IS making a choice — that is, one of indifference.

We believe that those who understand the ethical dimensions of climate change have a duty to speak up strongly because with knowledge comes responsibility.

II. How this Must Be Done

Now, one important reservation needs to be made, however, at this point. We believe that identifying the ethical issues entailed by climate change arguments will lead to three possibilities and all need to acknowledge this:

One, on some issues there will be an overlapping consensus among diverse ethical theories about what should be done. For example, no nation or individual may deny, given what is now indisputable about the threat of climate change even if some uncertainties about actual impacts are acknowledged, that they have immediate obligations to others to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. We believe all ethical systems and views require this. Yet nations are frequently acting as if only their national self-interest counts. And fewer individuals have recognized their duties on this. (A matter that we expect to write a lot about in the near future.) Particularly in regard to the assertion that nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses and individuals have duties and responsibilities to others we need people of conscience to speak out.

When it comes, however, to what is “fair” there is a reasonable debate on what justice requires. And so once one focuses on “fairness,” there may be a conflict, as there sometimes is among ethical theories, on what “fairness” requires. This is the second possibility, namely that there is a conflict about what perfect justice requires. Yet even in these cases there are practical reasons why we should encourage people to frame these disputes as ethical issues, particularly in light of the fact that they are often argued in the “value-neutral” languages of science and economics which usually hide the ethical issues. Encouragement of ethical debate has value even when we are not sure what ethics requires. Here all parties should be asked to share their ethical reasoning. That is they must subject their ethical claims to scrutiny.

The third possibility is actually, however, the most important type of issues about which we need public engagement. That is even in cases where it is difficult to determine what perfect justice requires, there are proposals and positions on these issues that all known justice and ethical positions would condemn as being deeply ethically problematic. On these issues we may not know what justice requires but we can spot injustice. There are numerous examples of this and for this reason the world particularly needs people to be engaged in these issues. For example, when determining what level of atmospheric concentrations should be viewed as “safe,” given uncertainty about how much warming will be caused by different levels of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (an issue known in the scientific literature as “climate sensitivity”), different ethical theories might lead to different conclusions about what level is safe. For instance, if we ask must all organizations and individuals have a footprint tantamount to net carbon zero, different ethical and justice assumptions would lead to different conclusions. Yet, despite the fact that is difficult to say what justice requires precisely of a nation’s emissions levels, almost all current positions by governments on this issue can be strongly condemned on ethical grounds despite difficulty in determining what justice requires of them. That is, we know for sure that all developed countries are far above their fair share of safe global emissions and that as a matter of ethics that huge emissions reductions are required of them. Therefore, we can say without fear of contradiction because of the magnitude of the emissions reductions required by everyone and the disproportionally large emissions by some countries and individuals, that certain emissions levels are unjust even though we may disagree about what levels would be ethically acceptable.

Again we can easily spot injustice even when we may disagree on what justice requires. Here, we believe, is the source of a major failing among academics working on these issues. They are trained to talk to each other about what justice requires, not engage in the practical work of spotting injustice. Academics also do their best work (work that is still important) in journals which take years from conception to publication, a process which makes there work usually irrelevant given the speed of the public debate about these issues.

In making this argument, and acknowledging the potential disagreement among ethical theories, we can encourage political solutions that compromise among positions that have a valid claim to justice while hopefully removing from considerations positions that are unjust. This is an extraordinarily important role for ethics in the international climate change debate.

And so those engaged in turning up the volume on the ethical dimensions of climate change we believe should:

• Spot the often hidden ethical and moral issues entailed by the climate change debate.

• Strongly urge the world to these issues as moral issues entailing not only matters of self-interest but entailing duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others.

• Where there is a possible cross-culture condemnation for positions taken of these issues, state them even in cases where it is difficult to determine what perfect justice requires. However, on some issues all should admit that there may be reasonable differences about what perfect justice requires.

• Help others see the ethical issues and ask politicians and the press, in particular, acknowledge the ethical dimensions of climate change.

• Ask politicians and the press to raise the ethical dimensions of climate change by stating explicitly that these are ethical questions and by asking certain questions of those who oppose climate change policies. (See previous article on Climate Ethics: Twenty Ethical Questions that the US Press Should Ask: Policies. http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2010/02/twenty-ethical-questions-that-the-us-press-should-ask-opponents-of-climate-change-policies.html

• When making ethical claims be willing to share ethical reasoning and encourage a public debate about this reasoning. This is particularly important because a few, although not all, ethical issues raised by climate change are ethically thorny.

III. The Ugly of the Climate Change Debate: The Disinformation Campaign

In thinking about how we must raise ethical issues some reflection on some very bad behavior in this regard must be discussed.
We have frequently told our readers that ClimateEthics does not have the expertise to synthesize the peer-reviewed science; that our function is to work out the ethical implications of the consensus science while commenting on aspects of the science that are clearly ethical questions including such matters as the need to consider in the face of uncertainty who should have the burden of proof and what quantify of proof should satisfy the burden of proof. These are fundamentally ethical questions, not “value-neutral” scientific questions. And so the application of science to public policy raises ethical questions, many of which are missed in the public debate about the science. Yet ClimateEthics is not qualified to comment on the meritoriousness of the peer reviewed science. That is what the National Academy of Science, NASA, and other National Academy of Sciences do. ClimateEthics must understand what they are saying, because what we understand about the scientific facts and associated uncertainties is context for our ethical examination.

In taking about what ethics requires when speaking out about climate change, however, we must speak up about the dangerous, irresponsible, and hugely harmful way in which disinformation about climate change science is being disseminated around the world. (In fact words fail us about how to articulate the immensity of the irresponsibility of what we see going on in this regard; we would call it a gross crime against humanity but realize that many of the people actually doing this believe what they are saying because they have been told it by others. We plan to write a future post about how to classify this. We invite others to help us with the appropriate metaphors for this. In some ways criminal is not strong enough, and in other ways it is inappropriate .)

All parties have a duty to: (a) defer at least initially to the peer reviewed science, (b) not make claims that are inconsistent with what has been clearly refuted, and, (c) particularly not assert that conclusions about human-induced warming have been refuted or debunked when: (1) every Academy of Science in the World, (2) the vast majority of climate scientists actually doing climate change science (above 97% according to two recent papers), and, (3) almost all of the scientific organizations in the world that have relevant expertise have supported the consensus view which has three parts:

(1) The world is warming

(2) It very likely human caused and in fact there are multiple lines of robust evidence pointing to human causation

(3) Under business- as- usual great and perhaps unimaginable harms could happen (notice we did not claim we know they will happen)

Now despite this, there are those making claims that the science of climate change is a complete hoax and trying to convince others of this. They swat down the amazing, unprecedented and respected amount of expertise that has weighed in on this by claiming they the scientists that have taken this position in support of the consensus view are corrupt and, most troubling of all, they frequently viciously attack scientists, ethicists, media personnel, politicians, and public citizens with ad hominem and other insulting assaults, often with no substantive arguments. It would appear that this is nothing more than an intimidation strategy, clearly it is not a plea for reasoned discourse.

We at ClimateEthics are not opposed to skepticism in science, for as we said many times, skepticism is necessary for science to advance. Yet skeptics have an ethical obligation to play by the rules of science, that is, subject their claims to peer review before stating publicly that climate change science is a hoax or has been refuted.This ethical duty is particularly strong when there is a lot at stake as there is in the case of climate change. To not act in the face of huge dangers has potentially catastrophic consequences. To encourage others not to act in the face of clear threats and in so doing to mislead them about the state of the science is beyond any possible justification given that the mainstream view clearly concludes that the danger is so monumental. We have seen, time and time again claims made that the science has been refuted by people that display great ignorance about the numerous fingerprinting studies and attribution studies that are a central part of the scientific literature pointing to human causation.

Furthermore because scientific conclusions about the science are drawn from so many different disciplines and no scientist is an expert in all of these disciplines, citizens must rely upon expert conclusions by respected institutions that have the breadth of expertise to synthesize and make recommendations on the science. This is crucial because although one skeptical or non-skeptical claim may withstand peer-review scrutiny, it may not be sufficient to ground general conclusions about whether climate change science is a hoax or not because there are robust lines of other evidence that are the basis of the consensus view that must be considered before making general claims about human-causation. Whether, we like it or not, we must all look to synthesizing institutions for their review of the body of peer-reviewed science unless we think we have mastered every nuance of the climate change science. We suspect that there is no human on earth that can qualify. That is what the United States National Academies of Science has done at lest three times, including most recently in May of this year.

And so skeptics as well as proponents must play by the rules of science before making claims that will confuse those who we must rely on for decisions on action. This is a moral imperative. There is too much at stake not to do otherwise. This is true of both proponents and opponents of climate change policies. Those who have grounds for challenging the science must subject their claims to peer-review and the synthetic conclusions of bodies with the scope and depth of expertise necessary to make these judgments and they must do this before making broad conclusions about the significance of their claims for public policy. Therefore, nuances about what is said publicly about individual studies have moral significance. It is perfectly OK to say that a particular research result is or is not in support of the consensus view, however, no claim should be made that any individual study debunks broad claims about climate science until that individual report can be peer-reviewed in the context of the depth of evidence that is available.

This is not to say, as a matter of ethics, that we must know for sure what will happen before we have strong ethical duties to act. Decision-making in the face of uncertainty raises ethical questions particularly in cases where waiting could make the problem worse, the victims who will be harmed by waiting have not consented to being placed in further danger, the longer we wait to act the more costly and difficult it will be to prevent great harm to others, no nation by itself can act on behalf of humanity in regard to uncertainty once there is a respectable scientific basis that business-as-usual is dangerous, and most nations and international law make dangerous behavior either criminal or otherwise unacceptable.

Words fail us about how to characterize the magnitude of the harm that is being done in the name of ideology. It is too absurd on its face to think that any reasonable observer can seriously conclude that climate change science is a hoax or that the consensus view that humans are causing climate change has been debunked.  In fact we are looking for the right metaphors to simply describe the sheer harmfulness of what has been happening. We would appreciate ideas on this issue. Only poets can approach this task until we come up with the right metaphor.


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


13 thoughts on “On The Moral Imperatives Of Speaking Publicly About the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change-And How It Must Be Done.

  1. Don:
    Glad to see another very fine post by you. I would, however, submit that not only is there a duty to “speak publicly about the ethics of climate change,” but also a duty to act. Action can consist of taking significant measures to reduce one’s own carbon footprint, or to join with others in various types of campaigns designed to increase public awareness and/or to exert political pressure on our legislators to take significant action to address climate change.
    As you know, based on current science my worry is that given the US Congressional resolve to take no significant action on climate change, I am convinced that whatever those who have been doing to address climate change for the past 30 years or so cannot afford simply doing more of the same. Neither appeals to best available science have worked nor have appeals to ethical duties and responsibilities.
    So, I remain convinced that more discussion needs to focus on whether recourse to non-violent civil disobedience (NVCD) should take place. Whether, in fact, NVCD would help is not yet known. (I am not a student of NVCD and have not practiced it.). But in my view more discussion is warranted. As you know, I have posted my views at: https://blogs.psu.edu/mt4/mt-search.cgi?search=lemons+non+violent+civil+disobedience&IncludeBlogs=21284&limit=20
    John Lemons


  2. To John Lemons:
    Of course, there is a need to act. I agree completely. I also agree with your scientific assumptions in your comment. No disagreement what so ever. Thanks
    Donald A. Brown, Associate Professor.


  3. Thank you! I have been saying the same thing, less eloquently.
    After reading Eric Pooley’s The Climate War, I have become convinced that inaction is complicity with a campaign of denial and delay that I cannot characterize as anything but cynical evil. I previously tried to believe that those in denial are only practicing willful, yet somehow enlightened, self-interested utilitarian ethics and that somehow educating them would bring change. No longer.
    If scientists like James Hansen and other activists including Michael Brune, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network; and Ken Hechler, a 94-year-old former congressman, are willing to be arrested practicing non-violent civil disobedience, then I can, I must, take some stronger action. I must continue taking action, I can no longer sit dazed by my imperfect knowledge, by baffled by debates over details, or frustrated by media blockades.
    Clearly, it is unethical to not speak up. See the attached URL for more information about me.
    My closing question is, how can we take effective action?


  4. Dear Donald and others:
    Donald, thanks for your great post and for noting my comment at ClimateProgress.
    I agree with your posts there and here. Your comments in the present piece are very helpful.
    I also think that Dr. Lemons raises an excellent point, worth a great deal of attention.
    I have a thought — an idea — that relates well to your recent posts, to things I’m considering here, to what I see happening, to some of the other leading climate organizations, and to the situation in California. When time allows, I’ll try to write it up (briefly) and send it to you. I live in Northern California, in the southern part of the Bay Area, in Los Gatos, which isn’t far from Stanford and a bit more than an hour from Berkeley. I wonder, do you ever get out here?
    As you know, California is one focal point for climate efforts presently, and even after the upcoming election it will still be so, given the (presumably) high degree of environmental consciousness out here, among many people, if it’s still alive, we’ll see.
    In any case, I’ll try to send some brief thoughts over the next week or so.
    Be Well, and thanks again for the great posts.
    Jeff Huggins


  5. Yes, we agree. In addition to Eric Polley’s book, there are two others worthy of consideration that describe a well organized disinformation campaign about the science of climate change. These include Merchants of Doubt and by Oreskes and Conway and Climate-Cover Up by Hoggan. This disinformation campaign has been funded by, in part,some fossil fuel interests and others.
    Now we are not saying that all who have expressed skepticism about the science of climate change are part of this campaign, but it would appear from the comments that ClimateEthics gets, many people are being influenced by arguments that have had their opportunity to convince other scientists in peer-review and have failed to do so. The fact that there are people out there using bogus claims is quite troubling because it would appear an ideologically driven interest group have managed to convince people that the conclusions of the US Academy of Sciences and other prestigious scientific organizations are fraudulent. Given what is at stake, there are 4.6 million people in Pakistan homeless from the floods alone, this misinformation campaign is malevolent.


  6. The worst impact of climate change is the acceleration in extinction that it is projected to unleash. As John Lemons wrote in his blog piece, Jim Hansen testified that one single coal-fired power plant in England could be responsible for the extinction of 400 species during the course of its operation.
    However, Prof. Edward O. Wilson of Harvard has estimated that 27,000 species are going extinct each year at present. Further, he projects that the rate of extinction will increase by a factor of 10 every 20 years, assuming present trends continue. Since there are an estimated 20 million species on the planet, the time to act to halt the extinction crisis is long past.
    The major reason for the current rate of extinction is not climate change, but our diet. Just recently, the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna refused to ban the harvesting of the Tuna despite the fact that 95% of its population has already been consumed over the past 60 years. The ICCAT was renamed by a wag as the International Convention to Consume All the Tuna, and it is quickly devolving to be just that. In India, the major reason for the habitat loss that is squeezing out the Bengal Tiger is livestock production for the dairy consumption of the newly affluent. As deforestation occurs to accommodate the dietary habits of the affluent, carbon is released into the atmosphere worsening climate change. Even as we protect land in the USA under the Endangered Species Act, we outsource the necessary deforestation to the Amazon as we refuse to step down in the food chain for our consumption. It is well known that American consumption has not decreased of late as the average American has literally ballooned to epic proportions.
    The Convention on Biological Diversity estimated that if everyone on the planet ate a Western diet, we would need 4-7 planets to feed humanity. This is an immediate ethical issue, closely related to the climate crisis, and which requires a radical rethinking of the culinary cultures of humanity.
    Acting on this issue is simple:
    1. on a personal level, please go vegan. If everyone on the planet goes vegan today, ocean life will recover to sequester carbon, and nearly 1/3rd of the land area can be returned back to earth to regenerate forests and sequester carbon as well.
    2. on a local level, please persuade the cafeterias at your university to only serve vegan meals.
    Actions speak louder than words. Thank you for your consideration.


  7. Yes, we agree completely that extinction of species raises huge civilization challenging ethical questions and many of the causes are not climate change.
    Back in the late 1990s I was asked to assess the emerging global environmental problems and write about them when I was Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US EPA Office of International Environmental Policy. I thought at that time, and continue to do so, although this is only my opinion, that even on the issue of loss of biodiversity climate change would eventually become even a bigger threat to the loss of biodiversity than any other man-made causes although this is a hypothesis worth testing.
    One link between the two, really worth exploring, is how consumption from rich countries contribute to the environmental harms experienced in other countries. In the case of climate change there appears to be little understanding of how one’s carbon foot print might be calculated differently if the emissions of imported products were counted. If anyone knows of advanced work on this, we at ClimateEthics would like to know about it.


  8. “The thinking man must oppose all cruel customs no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded by a halo. When we have a choice, we must avoid bringing torment and injury into the life of another, even the lowliest creature; to do so is to renounce our humanity and shoulder a guilt which nothing justifies.” -Albert Schweitzer.
    Though climate change could likely become a greater threat to biodiversity than our dietary habits, E. O. Wilson stated that “if we save the living environment, the biodiversity we have today, then we will also automatically save the physical environment. If we only save the physical environment, we will ultimately lose both.” This was reported on the Dot Earth blog in the NY Times as “Wilson’s Law” http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/11/wilsons-law-and-carlins-rant/ . Changing our diet and consumption patterns is a much more personal, yet potentially mass cultural act that can upend the debate on limits on greenhouse gas emissions, while addressing climate change at its core.
    With respect to your question, please take a look at Steven Pacala’s work on assigning emissions responsibilities to consumers, for example, at http://www.iiasa.ac.at/Admin/PUB/podcast/16pacala.html .


  9. As someone who has spoken very publicly on this issue (with you on the air Don and worked in PERC etc.) I am really pleased to read this post and want to add a couple of things:
    1. I think that the personal conversion that Sailesh Rao speaks of must be followed to, if not vegan, vegetarianism with pretty strict avoidance of CAFO-raised milk, cheese, and eggs. That personal commitment though needs to become a community value where we can make it one. I agree with Derrick Jensen that we oversell personal conversion and must turn it to the capsizing of industrial forces that drive ecocide and climate change. This leads to…
    2. We need to stop complying as we do. As one writer above says, we need to resist. Civilly. I actually just read something in a paper that at some point, regarding the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania, people should actually use their 2nd amendment rights and fight. Now I don’t think I’m there, but we are overly compliant. We are institutionalized to comply with institutions and their values and that comes, in large part, from schools and media. This goes to…
    4. Popular media should be barraged constantly with these ethical arguments and those arguments should be turned toward transformative practices regarding climate change (at both the communal and personal level) and that disrupt and dismantle the industrialized system. Concomitantly, teachers in schools…no the entire community of school, should go toward constructing a sustainable human world. This means retooling both media and school away from the current goals of both which are the extension and promotion of the globalized growth economy.
    I come back very often to Paul Ehrlich’s equation, I=PAT (Impact=Population x Affluence x Technology). The majority of institutions today want to increase both affluence and technology while pretending to control or not caring to control population. It is too late to say that we are not driven by a desire to increase our impact in and with the industrial world.
    This is wrong. Mitigating, mediating, reducing, and reversing it may be incredibly difficult. But it has to happen. Otherwise, the thoughts and concerns in this and all of the climate ethics posts are tissues on fire.


  10. I looked up this old post, when somebody reminded me of your excellent last paragraph.
    Regarding metaphors, I thought you might appreciate knowing about a new website — http://www.ClimateBites.org — whose main function is to collect, and make available, all the best climate metaphors, soundbites and quotes we can find.
    I would be very interested to see what metaphors you came up with, to convey the moral issue.
    One of my favorites is from E.O. Wilson (“Burning art to cook dinner…”) and a poem (“My grandchildren won’t let me sleep…”) which you’ll find here, with others
    http://www.climatebites.org/climate-metaphors-and-soundbites/the-consequences-are-bad/risk-a-probability .
    We’ll add your last paragraph to the quote collection, as well. It’s already gone viral, to some extent.


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