Disinformation, Social Stability and Moral Outrage

Preface. ClimateEthics has recently completed a detailed four part series on the ethical dimensions of climate change disinformation campaign in which we distinguish between responsible skepticism and the ethically abhorrent tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign. See the last entry: Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

The following entry by guest blogger, Dr. Kenneth Shockley, Associate Professor, University of Buffalo, makes a strong case that the nature of the harm caused by the disinformation campaign calls for collective moral outrage.

Disinformation, Social Stability and Moral Outrage

Those who deny the reality, importance, or magnitude of climate change warrant our collective outrage. Whether by action or inaction, their denial blinds us to the risks, vulnerabilities, and threats to our well-being posed by climate change. Insofar as claims of ignorance are becoming increasingly implausible, those who support or propagate the disinformation campaign about climate change are guilty of more than deception. They are guilty of exacerbating risks to our collective well-being and of undermining society.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the current misinformation campaign waged against climate science. I will, therefore, take it on assumption for our purposes here that both (1) there is overwhelming evidence that climate change is taking place and (2) there is a concerted effort, through activity or negligence, to convince the public that there is no need for action. I take (2) to constitute the essence of what I will call the disinformation campaign about climate change. I take (1) to provide the focus of such a campaign, a campaign focused on convincing any and all that the science of climate change is not worth taking seriously or that the consequences of climate change are too uncertain to justify action.

What I am interested in is the nature of the harm associated with the disinformation campaign. The disinformation campaign is more than a coordinated effort at misrepresenting the science, it is a violation of body politic. Our collective well-being is being undermined, and this should provoke moral outrage, both domestically in the US and UK where it seems to have its home, and internationally where some of its more egregious and immediate consequences are felt. Just as the sense of moral outrage is the proper result to violations of one’s individual person, we owe collective moral outrage to violations of our collective body politic. The harm associated with the disinformation campaign goes beyond a simple matter of dishonesty (which it is). Insofar as the disinformation campaign blocks efforts to address climate change that campaign is complicit in increasing the risk of being subject to the more calamitous consequences of a changing climate.

The recent IPCC SREX report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters To Advance Climate Adaptation, (IPCC, 2012), paints a vivid picture of the risks and vulnerabilities presented by climate change, both now, and in the future. Similar warnings have been expressed in the United States National Academy of Science’s recent report America’s Climate Choices (US Academy, 2011) and in a wide range of other sources. What should we say about those who in the face of overwhelming evidence that we are at risk of significant harms encourage us not to act in the face of those risks? What would we say of those who convince us that an impending flood is not real, and hamper our efforts to prepare for, or minimize the effects of that flood?

This question should frame the way we think about the current effort to deny the clear and overwhelming scientific consensus that we are facing a changing climate, with the risks and concerns noted by those best able to assess them. After all, these vulnerabilities pose a risk to our well-being; they have great moral significance.
In blocking efforts to address, respond to or adapt to climate change, the disinformation campaign exacerbates our vulnerabilities to a changing climate; given the scale and magnitude of the problems we face, exacerbating vulnerabilities to climate change puts social stability at risk. This risk constitutes a threat to our well-being, and the well-being of our children; to increase this risk is to incur blame.

As the actions of the disinformation campaign put society at risk, those in support of this campaign, knowingly or out of culpable ignorance, similarly deserve our ire. Efforts to ignore this risk should provoke our individual and collective moral outrage. Political officials who endorse, accept, or adopt this campaign and its goals are in violation of the public trust; such officials are acting contrary to the public good with which they are entrusted. Those who illicitly attempt to influence the political process by means of this campaign of misrepresentation are complicit in this violation.

By misrepresenting the science of climate change, the disinformation campaign is complicit in putting social stability at risk, with the attendant moral consequences; they are complicit in increasing the probability and extent of widespread human misery. Those who are engaged in this campaign are guilty of violating the sacred trust of their office, guilty of culpable ignorance (for surely we trust those who make political decisions to use the resources of their office to find the best available data for that decision; simply failing to recognize the nature of the science is culpable when the well-being of the society they represent is at stake), or corruption (for passing off as public reason, reasons based self-serving motivations that run contrary to the long term well-being of our society is surely an inappropriate influence on the body politic, a corrupting influence of the most vile sort). Violation of public trust, culpable ignorance, or simple corruption. I see no other options. The point now is to move forward.

We must bring to light the corrupting influences. We must compel the media to make clear that there is only as much debate about the science behind climate change as there is debate about the science behind the existence of the dinosaurs (for while in both cases we may doubt the details, there is little doubt about the overall picture). We must compel our political agents to make clear, in the starkest moral terms, why they are making, or failing to make, the decisions they make. This should motivate a movement at least as ferocious as the Occupy Wallstreet movement. The Occupy Wallstreet movement was focused on the very real and morally potent concern that our economy is shifting us toward a society not in line with the basic moral principles on which our nation was founded and on which our hopes and expectations are based. To some extent that economy is reversible. The concern that motivates moral outrage at inaction and obstruction regarding climate change should be focused on the very conditions that make possible a stable society for us, and for our children. Our influence on these background conditions is not so reversible, at least on time scales that matter to our children. For the sake of our children, and for the sake of our own moral decency, this disinformation campaign should inspire moral outrage.


IPCC, 2012, Special Report on managing Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Mitigation, available at ; http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/images/uploads/SREX-SPM_FINAL.pdf/

US Academy of Science, 2011, America’s Climate Choices, National Academies Press, http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12781.

Kenneth Shockley, Ph.D.
Associate Professor,
111 Park Hall
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260

14 thoughts on “Disinformation, Social Stability and Moral Outrage

  1. I appreciate the ferocity but this still seems too timid. If the perils of denialism should lead to moral outrage at this juncture, at what point exactly should our ire turn into action, and what should that action be?
    I also feel, I’m sorry to say, that this statement is overly optimistic:
    “To some extent that economy is reversible.”
    The global economy, let alone the debt-shackled US economy, is not reversible, if only because the corporatocracy will never willingly abdicate one shred of the power it has snatched, not without wars and the rise of blatant – as opposed to stealthy, consumerist – fascism.
    More fundamentally, the economic disaster cannot improve because it is based not merely on the greed of the few, but upon far more basic, intractable and insolvable limitations to the exponential growth that has characterized the past 150 years or so. Although we could, theoretically, mitigate the effects temporarily, together these contraints amount to one colossal, converging catastrophe, particularly considering that any one of which in isolation would be enough to, sooner or later, end industrial civilization.
    Off the top of my head, the list, in addition to climate change (floods and droughts and violent weather and seasonal disruption), would include (not necessarily in this order of importance):
    ocean acidification
    crop failures, famine
    peak oil
    peak other resources – rare minerals, fertilizers and so forth
    fresh water shortages
    sea level rise
    methane release
    habitat destruction
    loss of whatever shreds of the social safety net
    closing of hospitals, jails and schools
    riots based on class and youth and racial and religion
    loss of biodiversity (species extermination)…
    and pollution. Especially pollution.
    Even though you’d think it would be a teeny bit more obvious than the collapse of the food chain which is plainly happening in the ocean, even more people are oblivious to the equally rapid collapse of terrestrial life forms. Trees and shrubs are dying all over the earth after exposure to decades of inexorably increasing levels of constant, background tropospheric ozone – and with them of course goes every bird, insect and mammal that depends upon them for shelter, fruits, nuts, or leaves. Ultimately, that includes us.
    Though I can easily count the number of people who understand we face an existential threat from invisible but toxic gases if we don’t stop burning fuel, I don’t worry about it – extinction is going to end this argument.
    If anyone wants further information, corroboration, links to scientific research, or some sympathy, please visit http://www.deadtrees-dyingforests.com/

  2. Thanks so much for this analysis and call to action.
    Deliberately deceptive climate change deniers seem to regard the public as fish in the sea – something to be distracted and herded into nets and harvested. We reject their pathetic and unethical technique of tricking young children and gullible adults into continuing dangerous behavior.
    We might evaluate this better by deploying a simple thought exercise: Think about the role the Heartland Institute might fill if it was operating within the Pentagon. The answer is that delivering harmfully deceptive information to our own troops (our own species) would never be tolerated. Such trickery would be more like treason. The same would apply if the Heartland Institute had responsibilities to serve the public like any government agency – working with EPA, Interior, or DOE. Such ideologically tainted mis-information would not be tolerated for a second. It is hard to see a civil role that they could fulfill.
    We agree that such high-risk, corrupting goals are unacceptable. The indictment is plain. Our reaction should be to call them out, identify misbehavior, demand that media organizations stop showing them respect, tell their advertisers how we feel, and finally demand that all levels of government accept science, reject this duplicity, and move toward adaptation and mitigation.
    Thanks so much for this. As you say, we do this because it is morally decent and the right thing to do for our children.

  3. We agree that thinking deeply about how to characterize the enormous harm that disinformation could cause should be encouraged. In the four part series that preceded this entry we tried to distinguish responsible skepticism from the morally abhorrent tactics of the disinformation campaign. In the past we have asked whether the disinformation campaign is some new kind of crime against humanity. We hope to take up this topic againsoon

  4. The paucity of moral outrage terrifies me. During the ’60s and ’70s there were marches, concerts, folksingers, John and Yoko, Guthrie, Baez, Seeger, the Pentagon Papers. . . . Where are the masses as the world rushes toward the coming together of disastrous and irreversible changes in our planetary systems?
    The well oiled disinformation machine has somehow occluded the vision of those who usually step forward and lead the way, undoing outrageous policies and shattering the juggernauts driving our wars and nstitutionalized human rights violations.
    Thank you, Professor Kenneth Shockley, for writing this powerful piece, and congratulations to the Rock Ethics heroes, especially Professor Donald A Brown, that keep up the drumbeat. Oh, that we as a species could learn to follow the invisible lines that could lead us along a clear path to sanity just as Nature’s invisible lines lead the whales and butterflies through their inscrutable migrations to where conditions assure the continuance of the life forms that are so much more sensitive than we are. We must take courage and speak out. We must create the new background culture that can quickly reach a critical mass and swell the ranks of those committed to change. It is no longer time for passive patience. It is time for action!

  5. True science repects skepticism, religion hates and wants to punish skepticism. Without skepticism to weed out the bad and even dishonest science, progress in science would be painfully slow and easily sidetracked.
    Who is the real denier? Scientists who challenge what they believe is bad science or scientists who ignore real world evidence that invalidates their theory of global warming?
    (1) CO2 levels reached 470 ppm in 1943 which is 80 ppm higher than today. Obtained by the classical chemical method of analysis which by the 20th century had been developed enough to have an error margin of 1%. This higher level was mostly the result of World War II and its record breaking emissions. But the warming of 1915 to 1940 had plateaued which would then lead to the cooling of 1950 to 1975. In this case, rising levels of CO2 did not produce warming. Some propagandists claim that 450 ppm is the tipping point, but the world didn’t tip back in 1943. Note: in the last 5 years of use (ending 1961), the classical method agreed with the modern spectoscopy method within 5 ppm.
    (2) Did you ever wonder where the extra CO2 came from when Gore shows that CO2 plot correlating with temperatures over the last 650,000 years. How many of you warmist ever heard of the scientist Henry who studied the solubility of gases in water a little more than 200 years ago. The results of his studies are still known as Henry’s Law today. In the case of CO2: the colder the water is, the more CO2 it can hold. Thus, the main source of the CO2, before emissions is the warming seas. Did you ever think that maybe ocean temperature drives CO2 levels, not the reverse? If CO drove temperature to any degree, the rate of warming should increase substantially. Although the margin of error are substantial, we do not see a measurable increase in rate which suggest that our climate is far less sensitive to CO2 levels than the IPCC claims.
    (3) The doubling of CO2 concentration should be 1 degree which on the whole is a good thing for living things; cold kills. The dangerous warming proposed by the IPCC relies on the unproven claim that this warming will trigger a warming – water vapor loop which is essentially a thermal runaway. What they are claiming is that the climate system is inherently unstable. How has Earth’s climate survived this long, if it were so susceptible to weak temperature forcing. Note: over the last 650,000 years, our climate has shifte 6 times from an ice age to a interglacial period (Gore’s slide). In each shift: temperature shifted 10 to 12 degrees centigrade; 7 to 8 degrees occurring in a quarter of a century; and reached temperature 3 to 5 degress higher than today; no thermal runaway. Most natural system, have factors that dampens their response to change, not amplifies as the IPCC wishes to portray our climate.
    (4) The IPCC no longer relies on empirical observation, but rather unproven models that were constructed to fit their preordained theory. A conceptual model is mere speculation until validated against Nature. All IPCC models have failed to take data from 30 years ago; plug this data into their models and gotten today’s climate. Why should we accept that today’s data when plugged into these same models will predict the climate for 50 years into the future; untestable and occording to Popper, the father of the “scientific method”, unscientific?
    Climate science is in its infancy with much of the physic poorly understood or unknown. Furthermore, current computers are totally inadequate for calculating an answer from a unified climate theory. Thus, our grossly incomplete physics must be grossly simplified to get any answer. How do you simplify unknown physics. What passes for IPCC models are a collection of unproven assumptions (guesses) tuned (fudged) by poorly known parameters Parameters are used when the science is poorly understood or to complex for today’s computers. It is a truism for coupled non-linear chaotic systems (IPCC definition of climate found in their 2001 report) that to omit even one component is to subtract from the realism of the model. Here, we know far less about climate than what remains unknown. Under these conditions, averaging will not elimate error but rather provide an average error of unknown dimension.
    So stop with false statement that claims that the science of our climate is well known. All we know is bits and pieces of a extremely comlex system and this only includes the components. We have not even begun to understand the possibly 1,000, impossibly complex feedbacks involved. Until we understand the natural system, it is impossible to know how much CO2 will perturb the system.
    As for the precautionary principle: it is the means for an ideological group to skip the science. If you can dream (unproven model) up a danger, can we just skip the proof and mandate a remedy for a possibly non-existent threat. The only problem is that the remedy is quite often far more dangerous than speculated danger. Should the US commit economic suicide because of a highly unproven science. Is the real goal is to destroy capitalism? Why have the warmists refused to publicly debate the skeptics, but rather resort to pseudo-scientific scares and smearing prominent scientists.

  6. The entire series distinguished between responsible skepticism which is the oxygen of science and the tactics of the disinformation campaign which were expressly identified and which are ethically troublesome.

  7. Your post is a simple compendium of the same old nonsense that article refers to.
    Point 1. This is nonsense. WWII did increase CO2 levels but this anomalous spike was accompanied by a dramatic increase in sulphate aerosols that caused the cooling over the next few decades.Anyway, denialists generally try to claim that temperature trends don’t prove anything by looking at short term fluctuations. There is absolutely nothing in any honest examination of long term temperature trends that supports your point.
    Point 2. Wrong. You spend a lot of time making no sense at all, then conclude that the oceans are a net source of CO2. The oceans are , at least for now, a net absorber of CO2. The source of the increase in atmospheric CO2 is easy to pinpoint. Its not the oceans.
    Point 3. The idea that a doubling of CO2 produces a warming of 1 degree is just wrong. Its based on the Earth being an ideal blackbody, which it isn’t. A careful calculation ,taking into account fast feedbacks,yields Change in temp=5.38*ln[CO2(new)/CO2(orig)]. Work it out for CO2(new)=2CO2(orig).
    Point 4. This is simply to absurd to bother with
    You guys need new material. Every one of these claims has been tried again and again. They are still false.
    Your belief that actual scientists won’t debate denialists is comical. I’ve sat through several. But to claim that climate scientists smear denialists is the most hypocritical bit of bullshit I have ever heard. Incidently, there are denialists, and there are skeptical scientists. Here is a quote from Roger Pielke Sr. the most skeptical scientist around and the go to guy for the denialist crowd for the last twenty years
    “The emission of CO2 into the atmosphere, and its continued accumulation in the atmosphere is changing the climate. We do not need to agree on the magnitude of its global average radiative forcing to see a need to limit this accumulation. The biogeochemical effect of added CO2 by itself is a concern as we do not know its consequences. At the very least, ecosystem function will change resulting in biodiversity changes as different species react differently to higher CO2. The prudent path, therefore, is to limit how much we change our atmosphere.”

  8. If you really want to decrease the amount of CO2 then generate power from CLEAN, ZERO CO2, Nuclear Power. There are numerous studies showing that from the ground to the electric meter, that Nuclear Power generates less CO2 than WIND or SOLAR.
    If AGW is real then why are we wasting time on half measures and not using CLEAN, ZERO CO2, Nuclear Power? Would you throw a bottle of alcohol on a fire (it is only half as flammable as gas.) What is slowing down the generation of CO2 going to do (by using GAS) if, as the Left-Wing-Nut CAGW group claim that we actually need negative CO2 production to prevent CAGW? Somebody is full of cow fertilizer.
    How are you going to charge up that Chevy Volt (Nissan Leaf) at work? Do they have a windmill there? A solar Panel? You, and most others that have one, will be charging it at night, at home, form a GAS powered turbine (since they are shutting down all of the coal plants), which generates as much CO2 as a 40MPG Honda Civic gasoline powered car to charge your battery. Only if it is charged by a CLEAN, ZERO CO2, Nuclear Power generator, will it reduce CO2.
    Use Your Brain! if CLEAN, ZERO CO2, Nuclear Power is not the answer, then it is a SCAM.
    Oh, you are afraid of Nuclear power – well, more people were killed just last year by DIRTY Natural Gas (or Wind turbines for that matter) than during the entire history of commercial nuclear power in the USA. You can even throw in all of those “alleged” to have died due to TMI. Look it up, you claim to be educated! How many endangered species have CLEAN Nuclear Power plants killed? How many have Wind turbines killed?

  9. Bravo to Dr. Shockley for this post, and to Don for running it. Super!
    That said, I am disappointed (as we all probably are) with the relative lack of energy and verve with which the philosophical community has “engaged” with the climate change problem. Where are all of the world’s philosophers, moral philosophers, and ethicists? With the exception of a very small number, they seem silent; or, at least, they seem to have accepted being screened out, and not covered, in the media. By now, we should be shouting from the rooftops, not taking ‘no’ for an answer.
    And, of course, it is deeply disturbing that even the President who said he “gets it”, and who gained many of our votes on the basis of that promise, has dropped the ball and now (if you follow his recent actions and statements) shows hardly any sign that he “gets it”. Yet the environmental community seems hamstrung, split, at odds with itself, over what to do about that. Many seem to think that there is no choice but to support Pres. Obama without critiquing him too much: After all, “what if the other folks win?” But this is ultimately a deeply self-defeating attitude and tactic UNLESS Pres. Obama can be prompted, QUICK, to start dealing with the problem — and there has been no sign of that, and the community shies away from even trying very hard. I think that the President himself is behaving unethically in light of the problem, the stakes involved, his duties to society, and his promises while campaigning last time. I’d love to see an honest, comprehensive, and critical ethical assessment of what the President has done, has not done, is saying, and is not saying. He is, in many ways, enabling the problems discussed in the present post. He’s not combating them.
    Any thoughts?

  10. It is interesting to see this blog on ‘climate ethics’, full of moral outrage about ‘ethically abhorrent practises’, with no mention at all of the dishonesty of Peter Gleick, chair of the AGU Task Force on Scientific Ethics until last week.

  11. On Peter Gleick. I think his actions were utterly defensible. While violating the ethical norm of honesty he showed a much greater violation of honesty. Gleick’s deception unmasked not only deliberate deception but also the operation of social machinery to propagate further deception through the school system, a conduit of cultural values. The Heartland Institute wanted to use the secondary institution of schooling to propagate the view of a wing of polluting primary institutions in American and global arena, namely fossil fuel interest. The scale of dishonesty is incomparable and, as this post has pointed out, its effects have been quite different.
    Justice Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The Heartland Institute did everything it could to shield itself and its machinations from the sun. Now that there is some, they’ve resorted to absconding with the truth, distancing themselves from their documents (unsuccessfully), and trying to move the goalposts to evade moral culpability. This goes to show this post’s relevance even more. Even when clearly indicted, they can’t do what our mothers, our teachers, our religious texts, and healthy relationships teach us to to: admit we did wrong and resolve to do better. Instead, they try to make this into an issue of Peter Gleick’s moral bankruptcy.
    When Dr. King wrote “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he pushed hard against the egregious cultural disease of racism and legalized racism. He wrote, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” There is no way, given the gravity of the climate situation that we can think of the Heartland Institute’s policies as just. They degrade human personality and ecological integrity. If you accept morality as God-given then climate denialism on this scale is in some sense blasphemous because it degrades the whole of creation except for the wealthiest, those who worship Mammon. If you don’t accept morality as God-given, then climate change is an affront to our rights. It is also a way to undermine democracy.
    A democracy needs good information so that we can make good collective decisions. The great American philosopher John Dewey said, “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experiences.” If we are to live together in associated living then our communication about our experiences needs to be clear, warranted, and just. We can’t deceive ourselves or others. We have to have good reasons to believe what we believe. And whatever we do about it must be equitable and fair. Denying climate change to school children and through the media undermines all of that.
    So Gleick, read this way, is holy, has defended the rights of himself and others, and has fought for democracy by making something transparent. As a person of conscience, he has taken direct action we might even term civil disobedience. He used his skills to disrupt injustice and violations of the social contract so that a great wrong – massive deception – could be corrected. I think these kinds of actions are necessary. Not only do we have to carry on the kind of service Don and Shockley have taken, but there needs to be systematic disruption of all of these tactics. Gleick is a start. But when legislators speak and there are cameras around, people need to get in the way so the media carries that message. I think people like Bill McKibben, Josh Fox, and Naomi Klein are taking this further with the Occupy meets the No Tar Sands movement. In Pennsylvania, this is happening around fighting shale gas drilling and its rippling health, land, water, air, and climate effects. The reasons for the responses have to be clearly articulated as they are here, and then executed by people of conscience to stop the real criminals who say they act on our behalf.

  12. Moral outrage? That is rich, when GW believers continue their normal American life styles of heating their homes, using electricity, driving cars, having kids, pets, etc. And then preach to others to use less carbon. I guess believers are exempt because they are the elite, getting the good word out to the ignorant masses. No wonder no one takes the believers seriously when they do not practice what they preach.

  13. We believe that individual responsibility for climate change is also ethically compelled once someone is on notice about how harmful greenhouse gases could be and have written about this before on climateethics and will do so again. What this responsibility is quantitatively is a complex matter that requires further elaboration.

  14. The issue of climate has become a huge issue in today’s world and this in turn has become a resolution for most of us to stop out mother nature to stop from disintegrating further. This is a serious issue and needs to be addressed more often as we have to stop it from becoming more and more fragile.

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