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 .