New York Times Krugman Claims That US Congressional Hearings Are A Moral Failure: The US Congress and The Ethics of Willful Ignorance.

I. Introduction

In an April 4, 2011 New York Times op-ed entitled “The Truth, Still Inconvenient,” Paul Krugman charged that Republican led climate change hearings that had just concluded were a deep moral failure. (Krugman, 2011) Krugman described the GOP US House of Representatives hearings at which of five invited witnesses on climate change, one was a lawyer, another an economist, and a third a professor of marketing—witnesses without any expertise in climate change science. One of the witnesses that was actually a scientist was expected to support the skeptical position but surprised everyone by supporting the mainstream scientific view on the amount of warming that the world has already experienced. Yet he was immediately attacked by climate skeptics.

The point of the Krugman article is that it is obvious from the witnesses who were asked to testify that the GOP led hearings were never meant to be a serious attempt to understand climate change science. In this regard, Krugman says:

But it’s worth stepping back for a moment and thinking not just about the science here, but about the morality.
For years now, large numbers of prominent scientists have been warning, with increasing urgency, that if we continue with business as usual, the results will be very bad, perhaps catastrophic. They could be wrong. But if you’re going to assert that they are in fact wrong, you have a moral responsibility to approach the topic with high seriousness and an open mind. After all, if the scientists are right, you’ll be doing a great deal of damage.

But what we had, instead of high seriousness, was a farce: a supposedly crucial hearing stacked with people who had no business being there and instant ostracism for a climate skeptic who was actually willing to change his mind in the face of evidence. As I said, no surprise: as Upton Sinclair pointed out long ago, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

But it’s terrifying to realize that this kind of cynical careerism — for that’s what it is — has probably ensured that we won’t do anything about climate change until catastrophe is already upon us.
So on second thought, I was wrong when I said that the joke was on the G.O.P.; actually, the joke is on the human race.  (Krugman 20110)

This post examines Krugman’s moral claims about the hearings.

II. Ethics and The US Congressional Hearings.

The central ethical problem with the US Congressional climate change hearings on climate change is entailed by the universally recognized duty of people and nations to prevent avoidable harm to others. As we have seen in ClimateEthics, all major ethical theories recognize duties, obligations, and responsibilities of people to prevent serious harm to all people without regard to where they live around the world. See, Ethical Problems With Cost Arguments Against Climate Change Policies: The Failure To Recognize Duties To Non-citizens.

Also, as ClimateEthics has previously explained, this duty to prevent harm is triggered once anyone is on notice that harms to others could be created by their actions particularly when those harms could be grave. A corollary of this responsibility is that once someone is put on notice that their behavior could be creating great harm one can know cannot avoid the duty to prevent harm to others by ignoring evidence that their behavior is causing harm. The behavior of the US Congress in the recent climate change hearings is deeply ethically problematic because there was no serious attempt to understand the potential harms the United States was causing others through US emissions of greenhouse gases. In fact, the witnesses that were selected by Congress could not be seriously understood as a sincere effort to determine the nature of the threat entailed by climate change. One must assume the Congressional hearings were designed to avoid what credible scientists or credible scientific institutions such as the US Academy of Sciences know about climate change.
This kind of behavior is often referred to in ethics as “willful ignorance.” In the 13th Century, Thomas Aquinas explained why “willful ignorance” is ethically problematic.

It is clear that not every kind of ignorance is the cause of a sin, but that alone which removes the knowledge which would prevent the sinful act. …This may happen on the part of the ignorance itself, because, to wit, this ignorance is voluntary, either directly, as when a man wishes of set purpose to be ignorant of certain things that he may sin the more freely; or indirectly, as when a man, through stress of work or other occupations, neglects to acquire the knowledge which would restrain him from sin. For such like negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is *bound and able to know.” (Aquinas, 1225)

Without doubt, gathering information for the purpose of ignoring obligations that would flow from the relevant evidence is deeply ethically troublesome. Because the impacts of climate change are so potentially devastatingly catastrophic to millions of poor people around the world, willful ignorance of climate change causation must be understood to be deeply ethically reprehensible. This is particularly true because, as ClimateEthics has on numerous times before explained, the duty to act on climate change is triggered long before all scientific uncertainties are resolved. . See for instance: Have We Been Asking the Wrong Questions About Climate Change Science? Why Strong Climate Change Ethical Duties Exist Before Scientific Uncertainties are Resolved. Also see: Twenty Ethical Questions that the US Press Should Ask Opponents of Climate Change Policies., and the Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty,

From the standpoint of ethics, those who engage in risky behavior are not exonerated because they did not know that their behavior would actually cause damage. Under law that implements this ethical norm, for instance, to be convicted of reckless driving or reckless endangerment, a prosecutor simply has to prove that the defendant acted in a way that he or she should have known to be risky. Many types of risky behavior are criminal because societies believe dangerous behavior is irresponsible and should not be condoned. As a matter of ethics, a relevant question in the face of scientific uncertainty about harmful consequences of human behavior is whether there is a reasonable basis for concluding that serious harm to others could result from the behavior. Yet, as we have seen, in the case of climate change, humans have understood the potential threat from climate change for over one hundred years and the scientific support for this concern has been building with increasing speed over the last thirty years. In fact, for more than 20 years, the IPCC, a scientific body created with the strong support of governments around the world to advise them about the conclusions of peer review climate change science, has been telling the world that the great harm from climate change is not only possible but likely with increasing levels of confidence. Moreover, since the late 1970s, the United States Academy of Sciences has been advising the US government that human induced climate change is a serious threat to human health and life and the natural systems on which life depends.

By the end of the 1980s there was widespread understanding among climate change scientists around the world that there was a great threat posed by rising concentrations of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases event though there were considerable uncertainties about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts.

The climate science that has been accumulating in the last 20 years has been increasing the confidence about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts according to IPCC as wells as reasons for concluding that recent warming is largely human caused not withstanding considerable natural variability in the climate system. The United States Congress has clearly been on notice for several decades that climate change is a significant threat.

III. Conclusion

Thus far we have seen that it’s ethically unacceptable to willfully avoid evidence that would establish potential harm to others and that this duty stems from the clear ethical responsibility recognized by almost all ethical theories to prevent serious harm to others. We have also seen that even in the face of uncertainty about the harm, ethics requires action. Given what is at stake with climate change, the conduct of the recent US hearings on climate change is deeply ethically bankrupt.

Krugman’s condemnation of the recently concluded US Congressional hearings on climate change is strongly supported by almost all ethical theories. Given what is at stake in climate change, U.S. Congress has a strong duty to examine the science of climate change carefully using the most reliable scientific analyses and expertise. The United States created the United Academy of Sciences for the express goal of giving scientific advice to government.
In a report in May 2010, the US Academy concluded that:

A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change
is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant
risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.(US Academy, 2010)

Given that the National Academy of Sciences was created for the express purpose of giving advice to the government about scientific issues and that Congress is now expressly ignoring the advice of the very institution created to summarize significant complex scientific issues, the recent hearings of Congress are even more ethically troubling then the moral failure in conducting the hearings.

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

Aquinas, Thomas, 1265-1273, Summa, I-II, q. 76, a. 1, a. 3, Whether ignorance can be the cause of sin?

Krugman, Paul, 2011, The Truth, Still Inconvenient, New York Times, April 4, O Columnist.

US Academy of Sciences, 2010, Advancing the Science of Climate Change,