This is the fourth and last entry in a series that has examined the climate change disinformation campaign as an ethical matter. The purpose of this series has been to distinguish between responsible scientific skepticism, an approach to climate change science that should be encouraged, and the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign, strategies deployed to undermine mainstream climate change science that are often deeply ethically offensive.
(1) Why ethics requires great care when considering, discussing, and debating uncertainties about climate change causes and impacts.
(2) The consensus position on climate change science and why it is entitled to respect despite some scientific uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of climate change.
(3) The need to acknowledge the important role of skepticism in science even if one is deeply critical of the tactics of the disinformation campaign.
The second and third entries explained what is meant by the climate change disinformation campaign and then examined in separate sections tactics used by this campaign including: making statements with a reckless disregard for the truth, foregrounding uncertainties while ignoring what is well-settled, specious claims of “bad” science, the use of front groups, public relations campaigns, the funding and use of think tanks, PR firms and strategies, Astroturf groups, and finally the deeply, ethically obnoxious practice of cyber-bullying.
The first entry of this series acknowledged that not all who have made skeptical claims about the mainstream scientific view are guilty of the tactics discussed in this series. Many who describe themselves as climate change skeptics simply articulate what they believe. Given this, it is not the intent of this series to discourage responsible free speech or reasonable skeptical inquiry. In fact, as we have said many times, responsible skepticism about the mainstream scientific view of human-induced climate change should be encouraged rather than vilified. The tactics of the disinformation campaign, however, may not be classified as responsible skepticism. They are methods of deceiving in order to protect economic interests or radical free-market ideology. Skepticism is a valued approach in science to find the truth whatever it may be.
The lessons learned from the climate change disinformation campaign discussed in this series point to the need to establish new societal norms that encourage responsible skepticism but protect society from disinformation disguised as skepticism. For reasons discussed in this series, all the tactics deployed by the climate change disinformation machine are ethically offensive, although some are more odious than others.
In this entry, first we examine who may be blameworthy for the use of the tactics discussed in this series, and then we identify norms needed to prevent irresponsible skepticism.
II. Assigning Moral Blame.
One might ask whether anyone engaging in the tactics discussed in this series is ethically blameworthy. Some skeptics, for instance, who engage in the ethically dubious practice discussed in the second entry of this series of stressing unknowns while ignoring the large body of well-settled science are simply expressing their opinions or their interpretations of what they know about the science. If people have a right to free speech, it follows that people should be able to express their views on climate science freely even if their views are based upon incomplete knowledge of the peer-reviewed science on which the consensus view has been based. Very frequently ClimateEthics encounters skeptics who appear to be sincerely stating their views about whether humans are responsible for climate change, but who at the same time display great ignorance about important elements of climate science on which the consensus view is based, such as the fingerprint and attribution studies that are strong evidence of human causation.
Also, sometimes, climate change policy advocates make assertions about likely impacts of climate change that display ignorance of climate science, such as the claim that everything is settled in climate science, a conclusion that is inconsistent with the fact that there are some scientific climate issues about which uncertainty is acknowledged by mainstream climate scientists. These issues include, for instance, how clouds will be formed in a warming world and whether hurricanes will increase both in intensity and frequency.
The structure of future cloud formation is one of the unknowns that has led to uncertainty about climate sensitivity and an example of issues that are not yet fully settled.
In cases where individuals make claims that are inconsistent with well-settled science, can it be said that individuals are acting unethically? To this question we would argue that for people who are simply stating their individual views and are willing to revise their opinions in light of previously unconsidered evidence there is no ethical problem in expressing an opinion about the risks from human-induced climate change provided they are willing to have their views tested in the crucible of peer-review.
Debates about climate change very frequently take place among people on both sides of the argument who are obviously ignorant of a great deal of the vast peer-reviewed literature on which the consensus view is based. In fact, the scientific literature relevant to climate change is so voluminous and multi-disciplinary that very few people are knowledgeable about that the breadth, scope, and extent of the climate science literature on which the consensus view is based. Nor do most people have the intellectual skills to form an educated opinion about this vast literature.
When it comes to specific issues like the reliability of the climate models on which projections of future climate are made, only a handful of people around the world understand the assumptions and limitations of the models. In addition few people have been trained to evaluate the reliability of the models, and for these reasons almost everyone engaging in public discussions of climate change science are taking positions based at least in part on faith.
In addition, the climate change consensus position is based upon a synthesis of evidence from physics, chemistry, ecology, biology, meteorology, geology, mathematical modeling, botany, geology, oceanography, paleoclimatology, geophysics, geochemistry, hydrology, and carbon cycle sciences. For this reason, even the best of our climate scientists often must rely on the expert opinions of others scientists who have the intellectual skills to evaluate evidence from their disciplines. And so, final conclusions about the state of climate science must rely upon a collaborative effort among scientists from different disciplines and involves some amount of faith in the veracity of some elements of climate science.
This extraordinary complexity, however, does not mean that people who have some basic understanding of science may not engage in critical thinking about climate science claims if they are willing to: (a) be guided by a critical thinking process that is evidence-based, (b) adjust their opinions on the basis of new relevant evidence, and (c) make no final claims about their skeptical views until the views have been tested by peer-review. For this reason, those who choose to express opinions about climate change should agree to be guided by an open, transparent, and evidence-based process that they will rely upon to formulate conclusions about the threat of human-induced climate change.
This requirement of being responsive to evidence is applicable to any public policy question that needs to be formed in light of scientific understanding of harms that might be created by human actions. Yet, because predicting how the climate might respond to increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases is so scientifically complex, rests on synthesizing evidence from so many scientific disciplines, and is about a problem that could create extraordinarily harsh impacts on human health and well-being worldwide, climate change is a problem that particularly requires that those who choose to express opinions on the magnitude of the threat caused by it base their opinions on evidence that has been subjected to rigorous and careful scientific scrutiny. For this reason, skeptical claims about mainstream climate science should be expressed with great care and acknowledged as provisional until they have been subjected to peer-review.
Because peer-review is the process in science designed to check scientific claims for errors, peer-review of scientific claims about climate change is a minimum expectation that should be met before scientific claims about climate change impacts are relied upon for expressing the truth about climate change threats. As we shall see, peer-reviewed evidence is only a minimum requirement for scientific conclusions because peer-review is not a perfect process for avoiding all scientific errors and some peer-reviewed scientific conclusions must be reconsidered in the face of new evidence and the large body of human-induced climate change evidence. And so, final conclusions about the nature of climate change caused harms should be reviewed by experts from all the disciplines relevant to drawing conclusions about the nature of dangerous climate change.
For these reasons, although there are no initial ethical problems with people expressing their opinions about the extent to which human activities are affecting the environment, individuals must be willing to modify their opinions if there is an evidentiary basis for so doing, subject any claims to peer-review, and abide by other norms for responsible skepticism discussed in this entry. This fact makes several of the tactics discussed in this paper deeply, ethically problematic if they are engaged in without the willingness to revise the claims in response to contradictory evidence including the tactic of stressing unknowns and ignoring what is known about connections between human behavior and climate change, manufacturing bogus scientific claims that have not been subjected to peer-review while claiming that the opinions are entitled to scientific respect, and making claims in reckless disregard for the truth. Corporations are particularly ethically blameworthy if they finance people or organizations who deploy these tactics without any recognition of the need to abide by the norms of reasonable scientific skepticism because their motivation is to undermine mainstream science to protect economic interests.
A few of the tactics discussed in this series are always ethically troublesome including: creating front groups, PR campaigns, and Astroturf groups whose very creation was motivated to fool people about who the real parties in interest are behind the claims, and cyber-bullying. Corporations who fund these ethically troubling tactics are particularly ethically loathsome because they are using their economic power to deceive the public or intimidate mainstream scientists or journalists in the pursuit of economic self-interest.
And so, not all people who publicly make erroneous skeptical claims about human-induced warming are ethically blameworthy, but some are. In addition, some of the tactics used by the climate change disinformation campaign are always ethically troublesome and those who engage in these tactics are ethically blameworthy.
As we have said throughout this series, responsible climate skepticism should be encouraged not vilified. However, lessons learned from a review of the climate change disinformation campaign lead to norms that should guide responsible climate skepticism. A discussion of these norms follows.
This is the third post in a series that examines the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign through an ethical lens. As we have seen, the purpose of this series is to distinguish between reasonable scientific skepticism, an approach to climate change science that should be encouraged, and the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign, strategies deployed to undermine mainstream climate change science that are often ethically offensive.
This series is not a criticism of skeptical approaches to mainstream climate change science provided skeptics comply with the rules of science including publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals, don’t make claims unsupported by the relevant scientific evidence, and don’t participate in the tactics discussed in this series.
(1) Examined what is meant by the climate change “disinformation campaign” and how it has operated.
(2) Conducted ethical analyses of the following climate disinformation tactics:
a. Reckless disregard for the truth.
b. Focusing on unknowns and ignoring knowns.
c. Specious claims of “bad” science.
d. Front Groups.
This entry examines the following additional tactics:
a. Think Tanks
b. PR campaigns.
c. Astroturf groups.
d. Cyber bullying attacks.
II. Conservative Think Tanks.
As we saw in the last post, conservative counter-movements evolved as a reaction to the social movements in the 1960s and 1970s on the environment, civil rights, human rights, and woman’s rights when conservative philanthropists began to fund, typically through their family foundations, the establishment of conservative think tanks to wage a war of ideas against the progressive gains made by the social movement. (Dunlap and McCright. 2011:149)
Conservative think tanks are non-profit, public policy research and advocacy organizations that promote conservative ideals such as “free enterprise,” “private property rights,” “limited government,” and “national defense.” (Jacques et al., 2008: 355).
It was the conservative think tanks, the key organizational component of the conservative movement that launched a full-scale counter-movement in response to the perceived success of the environmental movement and its supporters. (Jacques et al., 2008: 352) Some conservative think tanks aggressively mobilized between 1990 and 1997 to challenge the legitimacy of global warming science. (McCright and Dunlap, 2003: 349) While many fossil fuel and energy related corporations including ExxonMobil joined conservative foundations in funding the conservative think tanks, the major financers of the right-wing think tanks recently have been conservative foundations, some controlled by people such as Richard Mellon Schaife and David Charles Koch, as well as other conservative philanthropic foundations. (Dunlap and McCright. 2011:149) Both the conservative philanthropic foundations and the corporations funding these think tanks sought to protect unregulated free markets and therefore had a strong interest in undermining scientific claims that support the need of governments to regulate the private sector in regard to greenhouse gas emissions.
Some of the most engaged think tanks working to foreground scientific uncertainty about climate change have included:
• National Center for Policy Analysis
• Heartland Institute
• National Center for Public Policy Research
• Competitive Enterprise Institute
• Marshall Institute
• Cato Institute
• Centers for a Sound Economy Foundation
• American Enterprise Institute
• Reason Public Policy Institute
• Foundation for Research On Economics and the Environment
• Pacific Research Institute
• Claremont Institute
(McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 508)
As we shall see, the tactics of some of these think tanks have often been ethically problematic. Some of these think tanks have often:
(a) sought to emphasize the unknowns about how human actions may affect the climate system while ignoring what is known,
(b) repeated untruthful claims about climate change science,
(c) manufactured bogus scientific claims by such strategies as organizing dubious scientific conferences and paying for scientists to produce criticisms of mainstream climate change science, and
(d) widely published scientific climate change claims that have not been subjected to peer-review.
Those conservative think tanks that deploy these tactics both to protect the interests of their corporate funders and advance the ideological positions of their conservative philanthropic supporters. And so, these think tanks are not serious scientific organizations that consistently promote an unbiased scientific search for the truth, a goal of responsible scientific skepticism, but advocacy organizations engaged in advancing the agendas of their financial backers.
According to McCright and Dunlap some conservative think tanks frequently have:
• Obfuscated the results of scientific research by:selectively promoting publications of contrarian scientists with positions at odds with the scientific consensus;
• Funded contrarian scientists to produce reports that are often not peer-reviewed.
• Misrepresented the results of scientific research by spinning the results or committing errors of omission.
• Manipulated the results of scientific research by editing government agency reports prior to publication.
• Suppressed (by stalling or canceling) scientific reports from government agencies
• Attacked individual scientists who work at public and private universities to discredit their work.
• Worked to silence, censor, or otherwise target individual scientists who work at government agencies by influencing what they can say and to whom they can say it to.
• Enabled politicians to hold seemingly open-ended investigatory hearings where results were pre-determined.
• Exploited the mass-media’s “balancing norm” to promote fringe scientists’ views to near parity with mainstream scientific consensus.
(McCright and Dunlap, 2010; 508)
Some of the specific think tank tactics have also included the following:
• Emphasizing unknowns
As we have seen in the last post, a major tactic of the disinformation campaign has been for participants to publicize a few issues in climate change science about which there is some scientific uncertainty while ignoring the huge number of well-settled climate change facts that are not in serious scientific contention. To foreground scientific uncertainty in the public’s understanding of the state of climate change science, a major tool employed by the conservative think tanks has been the production of an unremitting flow of printed material ranging from books and editorials designed for public consumption to policy briefs aimed at policy-makers and journalists, combined with frequent appearances by spokespersons on TV and radio. (Jacques et al., 2008: 355).
In these publications, the science these think tanks use is not always bogus. As George Monbiot writing for the Guardian notes:
On the whole, they use selection, not invention. They will find one contradictory study – such as the discovery of tropospheric cooling….They will continue to do so long after it has been disproved by further work. So, for example, John Christy, the author of the troposphere paper, admitted in August 2005 that his figures were incorrect, yet his initial findings are still being circulated and championed by many of these groups, as a quick internet search will show you. (Monboit, 2006)
Out of 141 books published between 1972 to 2005 that promoted environmental skepticism, 130 had affiliations with conservative think tanks. (Jacques et al., 2008: 360). The number of books connected to think tanks have continued to increase over the last four decades not only in the United States but also in Europe, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. (Jacques et al., 2008: 361)
To support the claim that the consensus view on climate change is weak, conservative think tanks routinely rely upon contrarian publications that stress scientific uncertainty about climate change while ignoring the scientific evidence that supports the conclusion that humans are affecting the climate system. (McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 111). As we have seen in the last post, stressing what is not known while ignoring elements of climate science that is not in contention is misleading and therefore ethically troublesome.
There are many facts about climate change science that are not in contention. These include:
• The undisputed fact that if greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations increase in the atmosphere there will be increased absorption and re-radiation of heat energy or what is usually referred to as climate “forcing.”
• The initial forcing of each greenhouse gas is known precisely even though there is uncertainty about final global warming at equilibrium or “climate sensitivity.”
• Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing in the atmosphere in direct proportion to human use of fossil fuel and activities that release greenhouse gases.
• The planet is roughly warming as expected as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases increase.
• The CO 2 in the atmosphere is largely coming from fossil sources. There are several robust lines of evidence to support this including carbon isotope evidence.
• Although the models to predict future warming will always contain uncertainties that will limit the ability to predict impacts precisely, they have roughly accurately been predicting observed warming.
• There are numerous attribution and fingerprint studies that point to human causes for warming.
Now these uncontested facts do not absolutely prove that future warming described by the IPCC will happen as predicted, nevertheless these uncontested matters clearly are support for the conclusion that human-induced climate change is a significant threat. Thus, to claim there is no evidence that humans are threatening the climate is a falsehood.
The materials produced by the conservative think tanks often rely upon a handful of cherry-picked studies by contrarian scientist that ignore the evidence on which the scientific consensus position is based. (McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 112) Such tactics are not consistent with reasonable skepticism but constitute deceptive misinformation.
This is the second entry in a series looking at the climate change disinformation campaign through an ethical lens. The first entry explained:
(1) Why ethics requires great care when considering, discussing, and debating uncertainties about climate change impacts.
(2) Why climate change must be understood as an ethical problem, a fact that additionally requires that scientific uncertainties about climate change be approached in a precautionary manner by those who wish to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for putting others at risk.
(3) The consensus position on climate change science and why it is entitled to respect despite some scientific uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of climate change impacts and,.
(4) The need to acknowledge the important role of skepticism in science even if one is deeply critical of the tactics of the disinformation campaign.
As we stated in the first entry, climate skepticism should be encouraged rather than vilified provided that skeptics play by the rules of science including publishing in the peer-reviewed literature, not making claims unsupported by scientific evidence, and not engaging in tactics discussed in this series.
This entry first explains what is meant by the climate change disinformation campaign and then examines a number of specific tactics deployed by this phenomenon. These tactics are:
• Reckless Disregard For The Truth
• Focusing on Unknowns While Ignoring Knowns.
• Specious Claims Of “Bad” Science
• Creation of “Front Groups”
The third entry in this series will examine these additional tactics:
• Manufacturing Bogus Science
• Think Tank Campaigns
• Misleading PR Campaigns
• Creation of Astroturf Groups
• Cyber-bullying Of Scientists and Journalists
The fourth and last entry in this series will make recommendations on ethical norms that should guide skeptics engaged in climate change research in light of what has been learned from the disinformation campaign discussed in this series.
There are thirty recent books and peer-reviewed journal articles that have investigated the climate change disinformation campaign that are listed in the Appendix to this entry. What follows is an ethical analysis of the disinformation campaign tactics based upon the findings of these books and articles. The main conclusion of this series is that the tactics of the disinformation campaign are ethically abhorrent despite potential contributions to understanding climate change that could be made by responsible scientific skepticism. II. What Is The Disinformation Campaign.
The sociological literature of the disinformation campaign describes this phenomenon as a counter-movement. (See, for example, McCright and Dunlap, 2000: 559) A counter-movement is a social movement that has formed in reaction to another movement. (McCright and Dunlap, 2000: 504.) The climate change disinformation campaign can be understood to be a continuation of the counter-movements that arose among US political conservatives in reaction to the environmental, civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements that arose in the 1960’s in the United States. And so, the climate change disinformation campaign’s methods and processes can be understood to be an extension of strategies that had already been developed among some, although not all, conservatives to counter the environmental movement that had developed in the late 1960s and 1970s around other environmental issues such as air and water pollution, safe disposal of waste and toxic substances, and protection of wetlands and endangered species.
Yet the emergence of global warming as an issue in the 1980s with its potential for large-scale social change needed to ameliorate its threat was seen as more threatening to conservatives in regard to industry, prosperity, life-style, and the entire American-way of life, than were traditional pollution problems. (McCright and Dunlap, 2000: 503) In other words, climate change directly threatened the central values of the US conservative movement even more than other environmental problems. (McCright and Dunlap, 2000: 505) As a result climate change has become the key environmental focus of the US conservative movement. In subsequent years the disinformation campaign would be taken up in other countries including the United Kingdom and Australia.
The climate change disinformation movement can be understood to be comprised of many organizations and participants including conservative think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups, conservative media, and individuals. This disinformation campaign, as we shall see, frequently uses the tactics discussed in this series to convince people and politicians that the science supporting climate change policies is flawed. The central claims of the climate change disinformation movement have been:
• There is no warming.
• Its not caused by humans.
• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will cause more harm than good.
(McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 111)
To support these basic counter-claims, as we shall see, the climate denial machine frequently has made claims that mainstream climate scientists are corrupt or liars, descriptions of adverse climate change impacts are made by “alarmists,” scientific journals that publish climate related research are biased against skeptics, and mainstream climate science is “junk” science. As we shall also see, the climate change disinformation machine also has made frequent ad hominem attacks on those who produce climate change science and sometimes has cyber-bullied both climate scientists and journalists.
The climate change disinformation campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists and organizations that fought government regulation of tobacco began to apply the tactics perfected in their war on the regulation of tobacco to climate change. (Oreskes and Conway, 2010:169-215). According to Pooley the disinformation campaign began “spinning around 1988 in response to the increasingly outspoken scientific community…” (Pooley, 2010: 39) For almost 25 years this campaign has been waged to undermine support for regulation of greenhouse gases.
To say that the campaign has been “waged” is not to claim that it has been a tightly organized, completely coordinated effort by a few groups or individuals or that all participants have the same motives. In fact different participants may have radically different motives including the fact that some may be sincere, some appear to be motivated by protecting free markets without government intervention, and many appear to believe that no restriction on fossil fuel use can be justified without very high levels of proof of harms. Yet, these different participants, according to Newsweek, since the 1990s for the most part have acted in a well-coordinated campaign among contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry to create a fog of doubt around climate change. (Begley, 2007) They have accomplished this through the production of advertisements, op-eds, lobbying, books, media attention, and quotations from skeptical scientists often associated with conservative think tanks. They have argued first that the world is not warming, measurements that indicate otherwise are flawed, any warming is natural, that is not caused by human activities, and if warming does occur it will be miniscule and harmless. (Begley, 2007)
Different groups created this counter-movement often acting independently of each other, yet connected through the internet to create a denial machine that has effectively responded to any public pronouncement by scientists or journalists that have asserted that human-induced climate change is a serious problem. (Begley, 2007) Conservative activists wrote hundreds of documents (including policy briefs, books, press releases, and op-eds), held numerous policy forums and press conferences, appeared regularly on television and radio programs, and testified at congressional hearings on global warming. (Dunlap and McCright, 2008)
As a result of the internet communication between participants in this campaign, charges by one of the participants have been quickly transmitted to others creating an echo chamber of counter-claims made in opposition to the mainstream scientific view of climate change. This echo-chamber effect has been visualized in the following diagram produced by Dunlap and McCright, 2010.
The disinformation campaign’s most important participants have been conservative think tanks according to the sociological literature. (Jaques et al, 2008) As we shall see, these think tanks developed the ideas, communications and media strategies, literature and press releases that have been widely deployed in rhetorical strategies to defend conservative interests by creating doubt about mainstream climate change scientific claims.
Initially most of the funding for this disinformation campaign came from fossil fuel interests and corporations whose products produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. On October 21, 2010, John Broder of the New York Times reported that
“the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” (Broder, 2010)
According to Broder, the fossil fuel industry has:
“created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.” (Broder, 2010)
Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel industry funded many of the initial efforts to prevent adoption of climate change policies. Both individual corporations such as ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal, as well as industry associations such as American Petroleum Institute, Western Fuels Associations, and Edison Electric Institute provided funding for individual contrarian scientists, conservative think tanks active in climate change denial, and a host of front groups that we will discuss below. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:148)
Although the initial funding in the campaign may have come from certain corporations. McCright and Dunlap argue that recently conservative, free-market, and anti-regulatory ideology and organizations have been the main forces fueling the denial machine first and foremost. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144)
According to Dunlap and McCright the glue that holds the elements of the climate disinformation campaign together is a shared hatred for government regulation of private industry. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144) And so, a staunch commitment to free markets and a disdain for government regulation are the ideas that most unite the climate denial community. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144)
The mainstream conservative movement, embodied in conservative foundations and think tanks, quickly joined forces with the fossil fuel industry (which recognized very early the threat posed by recognition of global warming and the role of carbon emissions) and wider sectors of corporate America to oppose the threat of global warming not as an ecological problem but as a problem for unbridled economic growth. (Dunlap and McCright, 2011:144) And so the disinformation campaign has been a movement that has been waged both by conservative organizations and some corporations.
To use the word “campaign” is not meant to connote an organized conspiracy led by one or a few entities who coordinate all actors, but rather a social movement that creates widespread, predictable, and strong opposition to climate change policy and that consistently uses scientific uncertainty arguments as the basis of its opposition. This movement is a campaign in the sense that it is a systematic response of aggressive actions to defeat proposals to limit greenhouse gas emissions even though no one organization is coordinating all other organizations or individuals that participate in responses. And although some of the actors may be sincere, the tactics discussed in this article are, as we shall see, ethically reprehensible.
Those engaged in this disinformation campaign can be distinguished from responsible climate skeptics because the climate change denial campaign is a collective social movement run by professional advocacy working to discredit climate change” (Hoffman, 2011: 5) As such, this movement is not engaged in reasonable scientific skepticism but advocacy that stresses scientific uncertainty. In fact McCright and Dunlap summarize the disinformation machine as having been engaged on misrepresenting, manipulating, and suppressing climate change research results. (McCright and Dunlap, 2010: 111)
Although almost all of the disinformation campaign led opposition to climate change policies has been on the basis of inadequate scientific grounding for action, scientific arguments are usually coupled with economic arguments such as claims that climate change policies will destroy jobs, hurt specific industries, lower GDP, or are not justified by cost-benefit analysis.
Although these economic arguments often have their own ethical problems, this series examines the ethical problems with tactics used by the disinformation campaign that rely on scientific uncertainty arguments. We have examined ethical problems with economic arguments against climate change in other ClimateEthics entries in considerable detail. (See, for example, Ethical Issues Entailed By Economic Arguments Against Climate Change Policies,
The original organizations that sought to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty have expanded to include ideological think tanks, front groups, Astroturf groups (i.e., groups organized by industry that pretend to be a legitimate grassroots organization), and PR firm led campaigns. (Oreskes and Conway, 2010:169-215).
The tactics deployed by this campaign are now all well documented in the books and peer-reviewed sociological literature identified in the Appendix to this article.
Over the next few weeks, ClimateEthics will take a deeper look at what has been referred to as the “climate change disinformation campaign” through an ethical lens
This series is based upon the assumption that skepticism in science is essential to increase understanding of the natural world. Yet, ideologically based disinformation is often ethically abhorrent particularly in regard to behaviors about which there is credible scientific support for the conclusion that these activities threaten life and the ecological systems on which life depend. This report focuses on specific tactics that have been deployed in the climate change disinformation campaign. It is not a critique of responsible skepticism.
The climate disinformation campaign can be understood as a movement of organizations and individuals that can be counted on to systematically attack mainstream climate change science in ways that radically depart from responsible scientific skepticism. In the next entry in this series we will look more closely at what we mean by a “campaign” or “movement.”
Later entries in this series will look in more detail at specific tactics used by the disinformation movement. Because skepticism in science should be encouraged rather than vilified, the last entry in this series will make recommendations about norms that should guide responsible skepticism in climate science.
The tactics that will be examined in this series include:
• Lying Or Reckless Disregard For the Truth
• Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring The Knowns.
• Specious Claims Of “Bad” Science
• Creation of Front Groups
• Manufacturing Bogus Climate Science
• Think Tank Campaigns
• Misleading PR Campaigns.
• Creation of Astroturf Groups
• Cyber-bullying Scientists and Journalists
The series will demonstrate that the controversy over climate change science that has unfolded in the last twenty years is a strong example of the urgent need to create new societal norms about how to deal with scientific uncertainty for human problems about which there is a justifiable scientific basis for great concern about potential impacts but uncertainty about the magnitude and timing of these impacts.
The philosopher Hans Jonas argued that scientific uncertainty about the consequences of technologies that have great potential for good and harm create new, profound ethical challenges for the human race. (Jonas, 1979). This is so because although humans are now capable of engaging in technologically mediated behavior that may create great harm as well as good, traditional ethical reasoning relied upon through the course of recent civilization is not up to the challenges of dealing with scientific uncertainties about impacts of these new technologies. Because of the magnitude and power of new technologies, the complexity of ecological systems affected by these technologies, and the scope of the kinds of impacts that may be caused by these technologies, humans are faced with new challenge to ethical reasoning.
In light of the fact that accurate predictions may not be made about whether great harms will be caused by these new technologies, Jonas claimed that the ethics of dealing with scientific uncertainty may be the most pressing ethical problem facing the human race.
Because there is a lot at stake from the new technologies, but uncertainties about the nature of the harms that could take decades to be resolved if they can be resolved at all, ethical reasoning is deeply challenged. Because of this, Jonas argued that ethics requires that humans must apply a “heuristics of fear” to their deliberations about whether they should deploy new potentially harmful technologies about which there is reasonable scientific basis for concern. That is, decision-makers should assume the harms will occur if there is a scientific basis for concern that significant harms could occur. Jonas claimed that in such situations, precaution is both ethically mandated and may be necessary for human survival. Furthermore, precaution in these situations requires that those who propose dangerous activities assume the burden of proof to show that the activities are safe. This is especially true for human behaviors that could create catastrophic harms.
When burdens of proof should shift is a complex ethical question but without doubt an ethical question at its core, not a “value-neutral” scientific matter alone. To determine when burdens should shift, ethics would require that other questions be examined such as who may be harmed, have they consented to be put at risk, what is at stake, will waiting to resolve the uncertainties make the problem much worse, who wants to use uncertainty as an excuse for continuing dangerous behavior, what is the probability that great harms could be triggered by the behavior in question, and other questions.
Climate change is an extraordinary example of the kind of problem that Jonas was worried about. That is so because it is a problem about which there will always be some uncertainty about the precise impacts from human-induced warming, yet these impacts are potentially catastrophic particularly for tens of millions of current people and innumerable members of future generations. Therefore great care must be taken in considering uncertainty about climate change. That is, climate change is a problem about which some facts are uncertain (although as we shall see, there is a strong scientific consensus about many aspects of this problem), yet the stakes are extraordinarily high. Therefore, ethics requires enormous care in discussing and considering uncertainties in these situations.
If Jonas is right, great care is called for in regard to how scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts is considered, discussed, and identified. Jonas foresaw the ethical challenges entailed by decision-making in the face of uncertainty for a problem like climate change but perhaps underestimated how economic interests aligned with the technologies threatening humanity would distort public discussion of the potential harms created by human activities.
This series will both review the climate change disinformation campaign in light of these concerns and make recommendations about what should be expected from scientific skepticism in light of the issues of concern to Jonas. The series will further argue, in light of the tactics of the disinformation campaign, that deeper societal reflection about the norms that should guide public discussions of scientific uncertainty is urgently needed.
II. Climate Science and Uncertainty
Climate change must be understood to be at its core an ethical problem because : (a) it is a problem caused by some people in one part of the world who are threatening poor people who are often far away in time and space, (b) the harms to these victims are potentially catastrophic, and (c) the victims can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments who have no jurisdiction over those causing the problem. The victims must hope that those causing the problem will see that their ethical duties to the vulnerable require them to lower their greenhouse gas emissions.
Because climate change is an ethical problem, those causing the problem may not use self-interest alone as justification for policy responses; they must fulfill responsibilities, obligations and duties to others. Because climate change is a moral problem, those who are putting others at risk through no fault of their own have a special duty to be precautious about scientific uncertainty. If anything, the need for care in considering harms from powerful technology recognized by Jonas is even more salient in the case of a problem like climate change because it is a problem that is caused by some that are putting others at great risk.that have not consented to be threatened.
This series should not be construed to discourage scientific skepticism. Skepticism is both the oxygen and catalyst of science. Climate science continues to need skeptical approaches to current understandings of how human activities may affect the climate to help scientists understand what we don’t know about human impacts on the climate system.
However, a review of the tactics used by the scientific disinformation campaign will reveal that these tactics can’t be construed as the application of reasonable scientific skepticism, but, as we shall see, often constitute malicious, morally reprehensible disinformation. Yet these tactics provide important lessons about norms that should guide reasonable skepticism.
This series should also not be interpreted to discourage free speech. Some people that have echoed the misinformation on climate science produced by others are simply repeating what others have said. Yet free speech is morally reprehensible if it deceives people about vitally important matters. For instance, it would be morally reprehensible to tell a child laying on a railroad track that no train was coming if the person telling the child did not have strong evidence for the claim that no train was actually coming. For this reason, a case can be made that despite free speech, all public claims about climate change should be made carefully. Although all people are free to state their views on the dangers of climate change, if they are claiming that they are experts to convince a wider public about what climate science entails, they have a special duty to be very careful about their claims.
Now it is undoubtedly true that a few that have argued in support of climate change policies have exaggerated what the consensus science is saying about likely impacts of human activities that release greenhouse gases. A notable example of this was a movie, “The Day After Tomorrow,” that depicted extremely rapid climate change at rates far faster than would be supported any reasonable scientific speculation. Yet, the disinformation campaign discussed in this series is not simply attacking hyperbole on the part of those that support climate change policies, it is attacking the consensus view that has been based, as we shall see, upon peer-reviewed science, not on the hyperbole of climate change policy proponents. That is, this series examines the tactics of the disinformation campaign in relation to the conclusions of mainstream science that has largely been established through the process of peer-review. However, we are not claiming that peer-reviewed science is the final word on any scientific issue, only that peer-review is the scientific process that has been established to prevent unsupportable scientific claims. Those who believe that the peer-reviewed literature on any scientific subject is untrustworthy. must themselves subject their claims to peer-review particularly in the case of a problem like climate change, a matter about which the stakes are extraordinarily high and great care about uncertainty claims is ethically warranted.
We note that peer review of the consensus view has found a few problems with the IPCC statements about climate change impacts and is likely to do so in the future. Yet these problems have been few in number and to be expected in any report as voluminous as the IPCC reports. Nor have these mistakes affected the conclusions reached by IPCC in any major way.
Although one can find hyperbolic claims about climate change from those who support climate change policies, however, the consensus view does assume that human-induced climate change could be very catastrophic for some people and places if not most of the world. This is not hyperbole, it is where the mainstream science points as potential consequences of business-as-usual. Yet, to say that catastrophic consequences are possible is not to claim they are absolutely certain. All reasonable climate scientists will admit that there may be negative feedbacks in the climate system that we don’t understand. Yet the mainstream scientists claim that these negative feedbacks are increasingly unlikely. These worries about potential catastrophic impacts are not hyperbolic, however, just because they are not proven. In fact, as we shall see, ethics actually requires people to act responsibly once it becomes evident that their actions could cause great harm. As a matter of ethics, responsibility does not start only when it is proven that behavior will cause great harm. For instance, laws of reckless endangerment that have been enacted around the world make dangerous behavior criminal. Defendants in reckless endangerment cases may not defend themselves on the grounds that the prosecution did not prove that their behavior would cause harm, the prosecution need only prove that the behavior could cause serious harm. That is potential harm is relevant to ethical considerations.
To understand the full moral unacceptability of the disinformation campaign, one must know something about the state of climate science. There is a “consensus” view on climate science that has been articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (IPCC, 2010a)
The IPCC was established by World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1988 to assess for governments the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of climate change, an identify its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. (IPCC, 2010a) IPCC does not do original research but synthesizes and summarizes the extant peer-reviewed climate change science to make recommendations for governments and policy makers. (IPCC, 2010a)
Any government that is a member of the WHO or UNEP may be a member of IPCC. Currently 194 countries are members of the IPCC (IPCC, 2011). The coordinating work of the IPCC is the IPCC general assembly, where every member country has one vote. The IPCCs summary for policy makers requires unanimous agreement. Governments that have often opposed international action on climate change on scientific grounds because of economic concerns including the United States and Saudi Arabia, not to mention China and India who have been afraid that climate change policies could prevent their governments from lifting their poor out of poverty have the same power as governments that have traditionally strongly supported international action on climate change. Governments supporting international action on cliamte change include those in the European Union and many of the small island developing states including the Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Maldives. Given that the IPCC’s reports must be unanimously approved by all member countries, including representatives of countries that have for most of the history of international climate change negotiations opposed establishing international enforceable climate change regimes, one can conclude that there is broad consensus about IPCC’s scientific conclusions among all nations around the world. In light of the consensus process, it is not credible to conclude that IPCC’s conclusions are biased to overstating the risks of climate change. In addition, IPCC ties its conclusions to peer-reviewed evidence in thousands of foot-notes in their reports.
The first IPCC 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 certainty. (IPCC, 2010a) The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President of the United States Al Gore.
The Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) was completed in early 2007. Like previous reports, this assessment consisted of four reports, three of them from each of its working groups. Working Group I assesses the physical science basis for climate change. Working Group II examines climate change impacts. Working Group III assesses options for mitigating climate change through limiting greenhouse gas emissions or enhancing activities that remove carbon from the atmosphere. (IPCC, 2010b) In addition to the reports of these three Working Groups, AR4 also included a Synthesis Report. (IPCC, 2010c)
The Working Group I Summary for Policymakers in AR4 concluded that human actions were causing dangerous climate change with higher levels of certainty than in previous reports. Its key conclusions were 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 increases in anthropogenic (human) emissions greenhouse gas concentrations.
• Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise will continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations are 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. As a result:
o Sea levels will probably rise by 18 to 59 cm (7.08 to 23.22 in.) during the 21st century.
o There is a confidence level greater than 90% that there will be more frequent warm spells, heat waves and heavy rainfall.
o There is a confidence level greater than 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: Summary for Policy Makers)
Throughout this series we will refer to these IPCC conclusions about climate change as the “consensus” view because, as we will see, this view has been supported by almost all scientific organizations with expertise in relevant climate change science issues and most scientists that actually do climate change research.
By the early 1990s, a ”consensus” had developed in the scientific community that warming had occurred and that humans were at least partially responsible. (Edwards 2007:6)
Yet, criticisms of IPCC’s conclusions have been frequently made by skeptical scientists, some of whom are affiliated with conservative think tanks, while others are scientists playing the appropriate role of a scientific skeptic, a role necessary for science to advance, that is producing peer-reviewed scientific papers that challenge conventional scientific wisdom.
Skeptical claims about the consensus view 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. Some of the ideological climate change deniers discussed later in this series have argued that the entire body of science supporting the consensus view is a hoax.
Recent reports have concluded that the vast majority of scientists actually doing research in the field support the consensus 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 of 3,146 of known 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)
In response to arguments from some climate change skeptics, many scientific organizations with expertise relevant to climate change have endorsed the consensus position that “most of the global warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities” including the following:
• 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)
The Academies of Science from nineteen different countries all endorse the consensus view. Eleven countries have signed a joint statement endorsing the consensus position.
• 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):
From this it can be seen that the consensus view articulated by IPCC is strongly supported by the vast majority of climate change scientists that actually do research on human-induced climate change and organizations comprised of scientists with relevant climate change expertise. For this reason, the IPCC consensus position is entitled to strong respect that, at the very minimum, climate change poses a legitimate significant threat to human well-being and the natural resources on which life depends.
In fact, some critics have contended that the IPCC reports tend to underestimate climate change dangers and risks because the process that leads to the IPCC conclusions give representatives from countries that have consistently opposed the adoption of international climate regimes power to pressure the IPCC scientists to report only the lowest common denominator. (For a discussion of the limits of IPCC, see, Brown, 2008) In fact observations of actual greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations, temperatures, and sea level rise are near or exceeding IPCC worst-case predictions. One recent comparison of greenhouse gas concentrations, temperatures, and sea-level rise observations versus predictions concluded:
Overall, these observational data underscore the concerns about global climate change. Previous projections, as summarized by IPCC, have not exaggerated but may in some respects even have underestimated the climate changes that have been observed.
(Rahmstorf et al., 2007)
It is important as a mater of ethics to remember that if the consensus view is wrong, it could be wrong in two directions. That is, not only could IPCC be overstating the magnitude and timing of climate change in the future, they may be understating the harshness of climate change harms..
However, even if one concludes that there is a strong scientific basis for the mainstream scientific conclusion that human-induced climate change is a great threat to people around the world and the ecological systems on which they depend, this does not mean that responsible scientific skepticism may not play an important role in climate change science in the future. Yet, as we shall see, much of the ideological climate disinformation that has been prominent in the climate change debate in the United States and a few other developed countries is sometimes deeply ethically abhorrent.
This consensus is not a consensus on all scientific issues in climate science; it is a consensus about the fact that the planet is warming, that this warming is largely human caused, and that under business-as-usual we are headed to potentially catastrophic impacts for humans and the natural resources on which life depends.
Furthermore, these harms are likely to be most harshly experienced by many of the Earth’s poorest people.
Mainstream climate science openly acknowledges uncertainties that could affect the warming response of the global climate system to increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. As Hulme notes:
Some uncertainty originates from incomplete understanding of how the physical climate works-the effect of atmospheric aerosols on clouds, for example, or the role of deep oceans in altering surplus heat exchange. Some of these uncertainties can be reduced over tie, or at least quantified formally. Other sources of uncertainty emerge from the innate unpredictability of large, complex, chaotic systems such as the global atmosphere and oceans. (Holme, 2009 :83)
In fact all uncertainties about the impacts of human activities on the climate system will likely never completely be resolved. This is so because, the climate system is comprised of many interlocking systems including the atmosphere, the oceans, the cryosphere (ice and snow), the land surface (soil and reflecting substances), and the biosphere (ecosystems, agriculture, forests, etc). (Edwards, xv) It is also a chaotic system which means that small changes in inputs can create large system responses as thresholds are exceeded that create non-linear responses. It is very unlikely that humans will ever be able to eliminate all uncertainties that have confounded accurate climate system predictions. Yet the scientific basis for concluding that humans are affecting the climate system in a way that could cause harsh consequences for tens of millions of people is a matter about which a strong scientific consensus has emerged.
The next entry in this series will examine several specific tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign though an ethical lens after discussing the nature of the disinformation movement. The third in the series will examine other tactics of that have been deployed to undermine mainstream science. The last entry will make recommendations for responsible climate science skepticism in light of what was discussed earlier in the series and with full recognition that skepticism should be encouraged provided it plays by the rules of science. By:
Donald A. Brown
Environmental Ethics, Science and Law
Penn State University
Agrarwala, Shardul and Stiener Anderson, 1999, Indispensability and Indefensibility?:The United States In Climate Treaty Negotiations. ” 2w Governance 5, December 1999).
Doran, Peter T.; Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, 2009. Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, EOS 90 (3): 22-23
Edwards, Paul, 2006, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and The Politics of Global Warming, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), 2010c,
Jonas. H. 1979, Imperative of Responsibility, In Search for Ethics In A Technological Age, University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Rahmstorfl Stepen, Anny Cazenave, John A. Church, James E. Hansen,Ralph F. Keeling, David E. Parker, Richard C. J. Somervilles, 2007, Recent Climate Observations Compared to Projections, Science, Vol 316 , May 2007
Skeptical Science, 2010, What the Science Says: shttp://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-intermediate.htm (retrieved, Jan 3, 2011)
I Introduction: The following is an ethical and moral critique of the climate change disinformation campaign made at an event at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa on November 29th 2011. In addition to Donald A. Brown, editor of this blog, a number of philosophers, scientists, and lawyers who work on the ethical dimensions of climate change participated in this event. They included Stephen Gardiner from the University of Washington, Jon Rosales from St. Lawrence University, Katherine Kintzell from the Center for Humans and Nature and the IUCN Environmental Law Commission Ethics Working Group, Kenneth Shockley from the University of Buffalo, and Marilyn Averill from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
An Ethical Critique of Climate Disinformation Campaign
Climate change must be understood at its core as an ethical problem because; (a) it is a problem caused by some people in one part of the world that are hurting and threatening people who are often far away and poor, (b) the harms to these victims are potentially catastrophic, and (c) the victims can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments- they must hope that those causing the problem will see that their ethical duties to the victims requires them to drastically lower their greenhouse gas emissions. That is the victims best hope is high-emitters of greenhouse gases will respond to climate change as justice requires of them.
Because climate change is an ethical problem, those causing the problem may not use self-interest alone as justification for policy responses, they must respond in light of their responsibilities, obligations, and duties to others. This is also true about how we respond to scientific uncertainties about climate change. We must be very careful about making claims about uncertainty because overstatements of uncertainty may lead to harsh consequences. That is to not act in the face of uncertainty about dangerous activities has consequences, particularly when waiting makes the threat worse and harder to remedy. Unfortunately the uncertainty arguments discussed here have led to almost thirty years of inaction on climate change.
We are here today to encourage greater reflection on the moral travesty of the climate change disinformation campaign. We will argue that this campaign is some kind of new assault on humanity.
Let me stress we are not attacking scientific skepticism. Skepticism is the oxygen of science. Climate science continues to need skeptical approaches to current understandings of how human activities may affect the climate to help scientists understand what we don’t know about human impacts on the climate system.
We are also not denying that individuals have unalienable rights to free speech. Yet free speech about something that is dangerous entails responsibilities and lying and misinformation is always morally reprehensible even if the right to free speech is fully conceded. Free speech must not deceive. We are not denying that individuals have a right to express their opinions on climate change; we are however claiming that the tactics discussed in what follows are ethically unacceptable.
I will in a minute review the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign. We think you will agree that these are not acceptable ways of acting skeptically or responsibly but often malicious, morally unacceptable disinformation tactics that are deeply irresponsible.
To understand the full moral depravity of the climate change disinformation campaign, one must know something about the state of climate science. There is a “consensus” view on climate science that has been articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC. This consensus is not a consensus on all scientific issues entailed by climate change; it is a consensus about the fact that the planet is warming, that this warming is largely human caused, and that under business-as-usual we are headed to potentially catastrophic impacts for humans and the natural resources on which life depends. Furthermore, these harms are likely to be most harshly experienced by many of the Earth’s poorest people.These poor people have not consented to be put further at risk while uncertainties are resolved and many nations most vulnerable to climate change have been pleading with those causing climate action to take action for well over twenty-five years.
Every Academy of Science in the world has issued a report or statement supporting the consensus view including four reports by the US Academy of Science. Well over 100 scientific organizations with expertise in climate science have also issued reports or statements in support of the consensus view. At least 97 % of all scientists that actually do research in climate science support the consensus view according to two recent surveys in respectable scientific journals.
There are six recent books that have investigated the disinformation campaign on climate change science. (See references below) What follows is an ethical analysis of the disinformation campaign based upon the findings in these books.
The disinformation campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists and organizations that fought government regulation of tobacco began to apply the tactics honed in their war on the regulation of tobacco to climate change. For almost 25 years this campaign has been waged to undermine public support for regulation of greenhouse gases.
The organizations trying to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty have expanded over the last few decades to include think tanks, front groups, AstroTurf groups (that is groups pretending to be bottom-up citizen responses), PR firm led campaigns financed by fossil fuel interests and free-market fundamentalists philanthropic funded organizations. Much of the funding support for all of these efforts has come from some fossil fuel interests.
The tactics deployed by this campaign are now all well documented including in the six books mentioned above. These tactics have included:
A. Lying. Some of the claims made by some of those engaged in the disinformation campaign have been outright lies about such things as the claim that the entire scientific basis for human-induced climate change is a hoax or that there is no evidence of human causation of climate change. Given that every Academy of Science in the world has issued reports or position statements in support of the consensus view, it is clearly not true that the scientific basis for human-induced warming is a hoax: in fact such a claim is preposterous. Such a claim is far from reasonable skepticism, in fact a lie. The same can be said of the claim that there is no evidence of human causation. There are many independent lines of evidence that humans are changing the planet including multiple finger-print and attribution studies, strong correlations between fossil fuel use and increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, carbon isotopic evidence that carbon dioxide elevations are from fossil sources, and model predictions that best fit actual observed greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations that support the conclusion that human activities are the source of elevated atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gase. It is clearly a lie to assert there is no evidence of human causation of observable warming.
B. Focusing On An Unknown While Ignoring the Known.
Frequently those engaged in the disinformation campaign stress what is unknown about climate change science while ignoring the huge amount of well-settled climate change science that supports the consensus view. This tactic is often referred to as cherry-picking the evidence.
C. Specious Claims Of Bad Science. Those engaged in the disinformation campaign often characterize matters that are not fully proven as “bad science” even in cases where there is strong evidence for conclusions that are based upon “the balance of the evidence. ” Because climate change science will never be able to fully prove all future climate change impacts, insisting on absolute proof creates a burden of proof that can’t be met. This is not reasonable skepticism but an ideological assumption that makes necessary protective action impossible.
D. Creation of Front Groups. Those opposed to action on climate change have often created front groups that hide the real parties in interest. These front groups sometimes have held fake conferences attended by scientists that never or infrequently publish in peer-reviewed journals. These friont groups then publish the results of these conferences and send them to the media as if they were entitled to the same respect as peer-reviewed science. This is a species of “manufacturing” science, a tactic that fails to abide by the scientific norm that scientific conclusions be published in peer-reviewed journals whose mission is to review scientific claims for accuracy and completeness.
E. Creation of Misleading Lists of Climate Skeptics .
Organizations engaged in the climate change disinformation campaign have created lists of climate skeptics that are highly misleading because they often are comprised mostly of people who have questionable, at best, scientific credentials and who infrequently, if ever, publish in peer-reviewed climate change scientific journals.
F. Think Tank Campaigns.. Fossil fuel interests and right-wing, anti-regulatory philanthropic organizations have funded think tanks that have held forums or published non-peer reviewed reports on climate change science or economics. These reports are then widely circulated to the press and legislators as if they were entitled to the same respect as peer-reviewed research. Neither the press nor the legilators usually have the credentials or skills to critique these dubious reports. The reports are difficult to unpack because they are technical requiring technical expertise to evaluate. Such evaluation is the very mission of peer-review journals.
G. Public Relations Led Campaigns to Convince the Public That There is No Scientific Basis for Climate Science. Fossil fuel related interests have sometime hired public relations firms to create a campaign to convince citizens that climate change science is deeply unsettled and therefor any action taken is a waste of money.
H. Astroturf Groups.. Organizations engaged in the disinformation campaign have created astroturf groups designed to give the impression that there is wide-spread, bottom-up opposition to climate change policies that disguise that the funding and organization of these efforts actually come from organizations engaged in the disinformation campaign.
I. Cyber-Bullying Scientists and Journalists. Organizations engaged in the climate change campaign have encouraged the cyber-bullying of climate change scientists or journalists that publicly claim that human-induced climate change is a significant threat. In this effort, they have sometimes posted the picture and email on climate denial websites of scientists and journalists who are viewed to be supportive of action on climate change and encouraged followers to send nasty, threatening emails to the target journalists and scientists. This is shear intimidation, not reasonable skepticism.
None of these tactics constitute reasonable skepticism or even reasonable use of free speech. In fact, given the potential catastrophic harm from climate change, these tactics constitute some kind of new assault on humanity. In addition, these tactics are likely to have been the cause for failure of the United States and several other large emitting countries to enact strong greenhouse gas emissions reductions policies for over twenty years since international climate negotiations began.
A few things we are not saying. We are not against skepticism in but skeptics must play by certain rules of science. That is skeptics should:
a Publish conclusions in peer-reviewed literature.
b. Stop claiming that anything that is not fully proven is bad science.
c Not lie about or overstate their scientific conclusions.
d. Not cherry-pick scientific evidence by focusing on what is not known while ignoring what is known.
e. Not repeat scientific arguments that have been fully refuted.
f. Publicly condemn cyber-bullying of journalists and scientists.
We are not trying to limit free speech but encourage people to see that lying or misinformation is deeply ethically problematic particularly in cases when deception can lead to immense harm.
For all of these reason, we here encourage civil society and the press to engage in deeper reflection on a few of these matters including:
A. How do we classify this troublesome behavior: although its is obviously unethical, is it also criminal or civilly actionable?
B. What does reasonable skepticism look-like?
C. Although not everyone who expresses an opinion on climate science is ethically blameworthy, how should we morally classify those who fund disinformation about climate change?
In conclusion we encourage civil society to turn up the volume on the often highly unethical and sometimes deeply malicious tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign. We believe we need a new word for morally irresponsible behavior that attempts to undermine through disinformation political action needed in response to very threatening human activities.
If the consensus view of climate science is right, it is already too late to prevent some human-caused harms in the form of droughts, floods, vector borne disease, loss of water supply, intense storm damage, heat wave related deaths, and rising sea levels. When the climate change disinformation campaign got started over twenty-five years ago, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations were much lower, The world has lost over two decades in the fight to reduce the threat of climate change. We must insist on the highest standards for climate skepticism and strongly condemn malicious disinformation.
By: Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law,
Penn State University
The Inquisition of Climate Science by James Lawrence Powell, Columbia University Press, 2011.
Global Warming and Political Intimidation, How Politicians Cracked Down On Scientists as the Earth Heated Up, Raymond Bradley, University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.
Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury Press, 2010.
Climate Cover Up, The Crusade To Deny Global Warming, James Hoggan, Greystone Books, 2009.
Climate War, True Believers, Power Brokers and The Fight to Save the Earth, Eric Pooley, Hyperion, 2010,
Climate Change Denial, Heads in the Sand, Hayden Washington and John Cook, Earthscan, 2011.
If climate change is understood as essentially an ethical problem, several practical consequences for policy formation follow. Yet it would appear there is widespread failure of those engaged in climate change policy controversies to understand the enormous practical significance for policy formation of the acknowledgement that climate change is a moral issue.
Given the growing urgency of the need to rapidly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and the hard-to-imagine magnitude of global emissions reductions needed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations at reasonably safe levels, the failure of many engaged in climate change controversies to see the practical significance of understanding climate change as an ethical problem must be seen as a huge human tragedy.
The evidence for this widespread failure to understand the practical significance of seeing climate change as a moral issue includes the almost universal failure of the press or advocates of climate change policies to ask those governments, businesses, organizations, or individuals who oppose national climate change policies on the grounds of national economic cost alone whether they deny that in addition to national economic interest nations must comply with their obligations, duties, and responsibilities to prevent harm to millions of poor, vulnerable people around the world. In the United States and other high-emitting nations there is hardly a peep or a whisper about the practical consequences of seeing climate change as a world-challenging ethical problem.
Without doubt, there are several reasons why climate change must be understood essentially as a civilization challenging ethical problem. Many have asserted that climate change is an ethical problem, but few appear to understand what practical difference it makes if climate change is seen as an ethical problem.
Why is climate change fundamentally an ethical problem?
First, climate change creates duties, responsibilities, and obligations because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries or rich people in developed and developing countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people around the world. That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who have done little to cause the immense threat to them. .
Second, climate-change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world if not the entire world. Climate change harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat, and intense storms, damages to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. In fact, climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are potentially catastrophic. Yet there is growing evidence that greenhouse gas levels and resulting warming may be approaching thresholds that could lead to losing control over rising emissions.
Third, climate change must be understood to be an ethical problem because of its global scope. If other problems are created at the local, regional or national scale, citizens can petition their governments to protect them from serious harms. But at the global level, no government exists whose jurisdiction matches the scale of the problem. And so, although national, regional and local governments have the ability and responsibility to protect citizens within their boarders, they have no responsibility to foreigners in the absence of international law. For this reason, ethical appeals are necessary to motivate governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.
Although many have acknowledged that climate change must be understood as an ethical problem, the practical significance for policy formation that follows from this recognition appears to be widely not understood. The following are ten practical consequences, among many others, for policy formation that flow from the acknowledgement that climate change is an ethical problem.
Although there are some climate change ethical issues about which reasonable ethical principles would reach different conclusions about what ethics requires, the following are conclusions about which there is a strong overlapping consensus among ethical theories. The ethical basis for these claims have been more rigorously worked out in prior articles and are not repeated here to reduce complexity.
II. Ten Practical Consequences of Acknowledgement Climate Change Is An Ethical Problem.
If climate change is an ethical problem, then:
1. Nations or sub-national governments may not look to their domestic economic interests alone to justify their response to climate change because they must also comply with their duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others to prevent climate-change caused harms.
2. All nations, sub-national governments, businesses, organizations, and individual must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. Although different theories of distributive justice would reach different conclusions about what “fairness” requires quantitatively, most of the positions taken by opponents of climate change policies fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny given the huge differences in emissions levels between high and low emitting nations and the enormity of global emissions reductions needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. Any test of “fairness” must look to principles of distributive or retributive justice and must be supported by moral reasoning.
3. No nation may refuse to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that some other nations are not reducing their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. All nations must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions without regard to what other nations do.
4. No national policy on climate change is ethically acceptable unless it, in combination with fair levels of greenhouse gas emissions from other countries, leads to stabilizing greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations at levels that prevent harm to those around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change. This is so because any national position on climate change is implicitly a position on adequate global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration stabilization level and all nations have a duty to prevent atmospheric greenhouse concentrations from exceeding levels that are harmful to others.
5. Because it has been scientifically well established that there is a great risk of catastrophic harm from human-induced change (even though it is acknowledged that there are remaining uncertainties about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts), no high-emitting nation, sub-national government, organization, business, or individual of greenhouse gases may use some remaining scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts as an excuse for not reducing its emissions to its fair share of safe global greenhouse gas emission on the basis of scientific uncertainty. The duty to prevent great harm to others begins once a person is on notice that they are potentially causing great harm, not when the harm is absolutely proven.
6. Those nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses, and individuals that are emitting greenhouse gases above their fair share of safe global emissions have obligations, duties, and responsibilities for the costs of adaptation or damages to those who are harmed are will be harmed by climate change.
7. Given the magnitude of potential harms from climate change, those who make skeptical arguments against the mainstream scientific view on climate change have a duty to submit skeptical arguments to peer-review, acknowledge what is not in dispute about climate change science and not only focus on what is unknown, refrain from making specious claims about mainstream science of climate change such as the entire scientific basis for climate change has been completely debunked, and assume the burden of proof to show that emissions of greenhouse gases are benign.
8. Those nations or entities that have historically far exceeded their fair of safe global emissions have some responsibility for their historic emissions. Although the date at which responsibility for historic emissions is triggered is a matter about which different ethical theories may disagree, at the very latest nations have responsibility for their historical emissions on the date that they were on notice that excess greenhouse gas emissions were dangerous for others, not on the date that danger was proven.
9. In determining what is any nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, the nation must either assume that all humans have an equal right to use the atmosphere as a sink for greenhouse gases, or identify another allocation formula based upon morally relevant criteria. All nations have an ethical duty to explain why any deviation from per capita greenhouse gas emissions is ethically justified.
10. Some economic tools frequently used to evaluate public policy on climate change such as cost-benefit analysis that don’t acknowledge responsibility for allocating the burdens for reducing the threat of climate change on the basis of distributive justice are ethically problematic.
Donald A. Brown,
Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University
Ethicsandsclimate.org, among other common focuses of its writings, has been to help citzens, governments, scinientists, and economists undersand the ethical issues that arise in climate policy formation including the arguments most frequently made by opponents of proposed climate policies. Over the years, we have discovered the failure to spot the ethical issues that arise in climate policy formation controversies continues to be very serious practical problem preventing democracy work for the common good because opponents of climate policy continue to make economic and scientific uncertainty arguments about which the international community has often agreed on ethical rules that undermine these arguments but which proponents of action are usually unaware who are engaged in intense advocacy which I believe I should honor them for. . Two of these issue we have written about frequently is the importance of spotting the ethical problems with the scientific uncertainty and excessive cost claims made to prevent government regulation of ghg emissions. We encourage and honor the continued work of participants in climate policy controversies while lamenting their frequent failure to help the international community understand that the international community has already agreed on legal and ethical principles that undermine the arguments made by opponents of climate policy. Further more, even on some ethical issues raised by positions on climate policies there is disagreement on what ethics requires, there is often agreement among ethicists that some positions taken on these issues. flunk ethicl scutiny.This phenomenon is described as it is not necessary to agree on what perfect justice requires to get agreement on the injustice of some positions
We do, however, believe that the mainstream scientific views as articulated by such prestigious scientific organizations as the United States Academy of Sciences are entitled to respect until peer-reviewed science changes the consensus view. Skepticism in science is not bad but skeptics should play by the rules of science including publishing their claims in peer-reviewed literature when they are engaged in what this article identifies as the “research role” of science where the goal of the research role is to establish credible claims on how the world works. However, as we shall see, there is another role of science that as a matter of ethics change about rules and norms about making
In 1997, while serving as the Program Manager for United Nations Organizations for US EPA’ s Office of International Activities, I was asked by a representative of the US State Department to cochair for the US the negotiation of a document which included a claim that humans were the cause of warming already being experienced under consideration at the a meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development In May 2011, the iStates Academy of Sciences concluded once again that humans are causing climate change and this will lead to harsh impacts for the human race and ecological systems unless steps are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As we shall see, getting the science right before discussing its ethical implications of science follows from an identification of which of two legitimate roles science is playing in any debate.
II The Two Science Roles
When making claims about what science knows, strict and careful scientific and peer-reviewed scientific procedures should be followed. rThus sciencintif usually assumes that in basic research, scientists should be silent until statistically significant correlations have been demonstrated between hypothetical cause and effect or other compelling reasons for proof claims have been demonstrated. (Different scientific disciplines have actually different expectations about proof claims, what ethicists call “epistemic norms”) When science is playing its centrally important role in research for the truth about causation, strict and rigorous procedures are called for and no scientist should make claims when acting in this role that have not been demonstrated.
In basic research about climate change, nothing less should be expected. We will call this the “research role” of science.
However, there is a second role for science that requires different procedures. We expect science to not only prove and explain causation but to warn people of risks before proof is in— particularly if the risks are significant and we cant wait until proof is demonstrated before the harm occurs.
Science often discovers sound scientifically based reasons for great concern but for practical and theoretical reasons can’t reach ideal levels of proof before the harm occurs. Because of this scientists are sometimes expected by the law or social norms to warn people of potential harms. For instance, sometimes scientists are expected to make reports based upon the “balance of the evidence” or regulatory agencies are expected by law to take preventative action as long as the scientific reasons for taking preventative action are not “arbitrary and capricious.”
In examining human-environment interactions as well as human health-environment questions, scientists often uncover scientifically sound reasons for significant concern but for practical or theoretical reasons can not prove cause and effect. When engaged in such matters, I will call this the “public policy” role of science.
There are many uses of science in its “public policy” role about which there appears to be wide spread social agreement that it would be imprudent or otherwise unethical to wait until all the proof is in before taking appropriate action. This is so if: (a) waiting guarantees that the harm will occur if the risk turns out to be real, (b) the potential harms are grave to some people or ecological systems, and (c) those being put at risk have not consented to be put at risk.
The law is full of concrete examples of shifting levels of proof and burdens of proof depending upon what kind of risks are at stake and who is at risk from potentially risky behavior. In fact, most civilizations make dangerous behavior criminal. Tort laws makes people follow standards of great care to avoid harm to others once they are on notice that what they are doing is dangerous. In fact, if the harm occurs once someone is engaged in dangerous behavior, the law presumes the person causing the harm acted negligently. In such cases, defendants can’t defend themselves by claiming there was no proof that what they were doing would cause harm, they must be careful if great harm is possible even if unproven under civil law.
The duty to be careful to not harm others even in cases where the proof of harm is uncertain is widely accepted around the world in such international law principles as the “No harm Principle.” Under the No Harm Principle, nations are expected to prevent potential harm to other nations once they have reason to believe that activities in their countries are putting others at risk, they may not wait until absolute proof has been established to cease dangerous behavior.
US law has different rules for levels of proof and burden of proof depending on what is at stake. Criminal law requires the prosecutor to prove a defendant is guilty “beyond reasonable doubt”, civil law usually only requires proof by a “balance of the evidence”: Most cultures would require very high levels of proof to prove somethings is safe if a scientist is engaged in very dangerous behavior such as creating a black hole that could suck in the entire universe. In other words, norms of research science are not always applicable to public policy disputes. Sometimes public policy requires more proof and sometimes far less proof than required in scientific research depending upon what is at stake, who is at risk, and whether the uncertainties can be resolved before putting others at risk.
Before claiming that something is a risk, however, scientists should also have to follow certain rules or norms as a matter of ethics. These include they should be very, very clear that they have not proven cause and effect, they should acknowledge all uncertainties, and they should subject their reasoning to public scrutiny and reasonable debate. Care when making a claim about unproven risks in public policy disputes is also ethically essential.
III The Two Roles and Climate Change and Ethics.
When it comes to climate change and other complex problems humans are facing, confusion between these two different roles of science is rampant and is at the heart of the opposition between opposing camps. The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, for instance, has sometimes made conclusions based upon the “balance of the evidence” The ideological climate skeptics, (to be distinguished from reasonable skepticism) often publicizes what is not known about these issues and ignores what is known and at the same time has accused those who have identified plausible but unproven risks as doing “bad science.” This is happening over and over again. On the other hand, environmental activists sometimes act as if their claims are made on the basis the norms of research science when at best they have only satisfied the norms of science engaged in its public policy role.
To resolve this confusion certain things are needed. They include:
(a) greater clarity about the role science is playing in any given debate,
(b) acknowledgement that there is an important “public policy” role for science that is different from its role in basic research, and in such cases high levels of proof are not always required by ethical considerations.
(c) a willingness to engage in public dialogue about the basis for any identified but unproven risks.
In a recent post on Tornadoes and Climate Change, ClimateEthics explained the main reasons why we may not claim that intensity and frequency of tornadoes will increase in warming world. They are (1) the trend data inconclusiveness, (2) there are scientific grounds for eventual reduction of shear winds in a warming world, and (3) possible eventual temperature difference decreases in a warming world. Because tornado propagation is sensitive to sheer wind and differences between warm and cold air masses meeting, tornado intensity and frequency may not increase in a warming world.
Yet, we explained there is also reasonable basis for concern that a warming world may at least temporarily increase tornado damage including the fact that oceans are now warmer, and regional ocean circulation cycles such as La Nina/El Nino patterns in the Pacific which affect upper atmospheric conditions appear to becoming more chaotic under the influence of climate change. And so there is a reason to believe, for instance, that instead of having a La Nina event in the Pacific once every six or seven years followed by an El Nino, the Pacific ocean will cycle between these extremes at faster rates in a warming world. More frequent La Ninas may make tornado propagation in the central US more frequent if not more destructive.
We also know that in a warming world we have more water vapor in the atmosphere and some regional water bodies including the Gulf Of Mexico are warmer now then in recent times most likely under the influences of climate change.
Yet. we stressed that if we talk about these risks of climate change influencing tornado propagation, all uncertainties should be fully and honestly acknowledged and the honest absence of proof claims must be clear.
Whether these are legitimate concerns can’t be decided simply on the basis of science in its research role but must be delegated to science in its public policy role. In such a role, the debate should be about given what we know about a warming world are these reasonable risks. In such cases, reasonableness cant be decided under the rule of research science unless someone is claiming that the scientific proof is in. These disputes must instead be settled on the basis of whether there is a reasonable basis for concern not withstanding lack of final proof. If there is, ethics would say we must identify these risks, not simply ignore ignore them, although care is needed in how these matters are discussed.
ClimateEthics believes that the climate change debate would be greatly improved if civil society would acknowledge these different legitimate roles for science.
Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University.
I. Identifying Links Between Climate Change and Tornadoes?
The outbreak of recent killer weather events including US tornadoes hitting Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama has everyone asking whether there is a link between tornadoes and human-induced climate change. In this writer’s experience when US TV or radio weathermen are asked about the cause of recent strong tornadoes, they most always ignore climate change as a potential cause and point to a cyclical ocean circulation event known as La Niña as the cause of recent tornadoes if they comment on causation at all.
Rarely is human-induced climate change mentioned as a cause or contributing factor in the recent outbreak of sever tornadoes although questions about causation are becoming more frequent on TV and newspapers in this writer’s experience.
This post argues that ethics requires acknowledging the links between tornadoes and climate change despite scientific uncertainties about increased frequency and intensity of tornadoes in a warming world. However, because there are also scientific reasons to doubt that tornado propagation and intensity will increase in a warming world, as we shall see, care is necessary about how we should discuss these risks.
As we shall see there are certain aspects of atmospheric conditions necessary to produce violent tornadoes that climate change is enhancing while there are other atmospheric conditions necessary to form tornadoes about which scientists are uncertain exactly how a warming world will affect them. To figure out whether climate change will cause more intense and frequent tornadoes requires asking lots of smaller questions about the atmospheric conditions necessary to produce tornadoes and to determine how climate change will affect each of these various atmospheric conditions that combine to propagate tornadoes.
Before discussing tornadoes, it is important to note that it is scientifically uncontroversial to conclude that climate change is causing more violent weather particularly in the form of: (a) more damaging thunder storms, (b) the kind of devastating flooding we have seen this year in Australia, Pakistan, Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, along the Mississippi and the Tennessee valleys, and (c) more severe droughts such as those experienced this year in China, Brazil, and Texas. Similarly more intense hurricanes have been linked to climate change although it is still uncertain whether global warming will increase hurricane frequency. (Emanuel, 2005)
Most climate scientists agree that future weather will be characterized by far more chaotic weather causing greater damage to human life, health and ecological systems and so tornadoes are not the only intense weather events that could be enhanced by climate change and that will likely cause increased damage and suffering. .
It also can be said that in one way climate change is already changing all global weather including tornadoes. This is so because climate change has already caused changes to the global climate system such as raising ocean temperatures and increasing the amount of water in the atmosphere. Increased ocean temperatures and the water content of air have an effect on the amount and timing of precipitation that is being experienced in any one location. And so a strong claim can be made that climate change is now at least partially responsible for all global weather although the part played by climate change could be small for any individual climate event relative to other causes such as normal ocean circulation patterns. Yet, no tornado or hurricane experienced recently would likely be the same without some contribution from climate change. That is no tornado would appear at the same place, the same time, with the same wind speed without changes to the climate system that have been caused by human impacts on climate And so every tornado is very likely affected somewhat by climate change. That is although strong tornadoes have occurred before recent human-induced climate change, no recent tornado is likely to have happened in the same way at the same place in the absence of global warming.
This is not to say, however, that the intensity and frequency of tornadoes will surely increase in the years ahead.. Yet, although it is not clear that climate change will be responsible for more tornado caused damages, other kinds of storm damages are virtually certain to increase.
This post, however, looks at links between tornado intensity and frequency and climate change and what ethics requires when discussing these links. That is, this post does not examine other links between climate change and damaging weather.
I. The US Academy of Sciences Thirty-Year Record in Warning the US About the Risk Of Climate Change.
Earlier this month, the United States Academy of Science issued its most recent report on the science of climate change that once again concluded that human-induced climate change was a very serious threat to humans and ecological systems around the world. This Report was entitled “America’s Climate Choices 2011″ (US Academy, 2011) Among other conclusions, this report found:
Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems. Emissions continue to increase, which will result in further change and greater risks. In the judgment of this report’s authoring committee, the environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks posed by climate change indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare for adapting to its impacts. ” (US Academy, 2011)
This is not the first US Academy of Sciences report on climate change. In fact the US Academy gas been warning Americans about climate change since international interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions grew dramatically in the late 1970’s as computer modelers began to use new computing tools to construct climate models that were capable of predicting temperature changes caused by human-induced climate change. In 1977, Robert M. White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote a report for the National Research Council a branch of the National Academy of Sciences that concluded that CO2 released during the burning of fossil fuel could have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society. (White, 1978)
A report prepared by the Carter administration a few years later in 1981 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 the pre-industrial levels of CO2 would be 3 degrees C, very close to the amount that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would predict almost 30 years later.” (Charney et al., 1979)
For over thirty-five years, the US Academy of Sciences has warned the US about the enormous threats of climate change with each successive report making stronger claims that human caused climate change is a serious threat to civilization. If the United States can be accused of failing to live up to its ethical responsibilities to the rest of the world on climate change, one cannot blame the US Academy of Sciences for failing to ring alarm bells. US citizens cannot claim that their most prestigious scientific institutions have failed to take a position on the seriousness of climate change.
ClimateEthics has previously explained that that the failure of the United States to respond to climate change can be attributed in largest part to a well-financed, well-organized climate change disinformation campaign. See, for example,A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?:The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Disinformation Campaign On Climate Change. (Brown, 2010a) ClimateEthics has also repeatedly argued that the failure of the United States to respond to its ethical duties for climate change may also be attributed to the almost complete failure in the United States of the media and even climate change policy advocates to acknowledge that climate change raises not only national interests but also duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others. See, for example, Are Ethical Arguments for Climate Change Action Weaker Than Self-Interest Based Arguments? Why Taking Ethical Arguments Off the Table Is Like A Soccer Team Unilaterally Taking The Goalie Out of the Net.(Brown, 2010b)
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.