This is the second in a three part video series on why the climate change disinformation campaign is so utterly ethically offensive. The fist video in this series looked at the how the campaign was responsible for allowing greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations to rise from 320 ppm when warnings of the harsh impacts of climate change were articulated in the scientific community in the 1960s to 395 ppm now. This series distinguishes between scientific skepticism which is good and should be encouraged from the tactics of the disinformation campaign which are shown to be ethically odious.
This second video in the series looks at several of the tactics of the disinformation campaign in more depth and contrasts them with responsible skepticism.
A third video in the series will be posted soon that continues the examination of disinformation campaign tactics and then examines these tactics through an ethical lens. A detailed four part written series on the disinformation campaign can be found on EthicsandClimate.org under the category “climate disinformation.”
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
This video explains why the climate change disinformation campaign is so utterly ethically abhorrent. It briefly identifies the morally indefensible tactics used by a campaign designed to undermine mainstream climate science in ways that utterly fail to acheive minimum norms of responsible scientific skepticism while at the same time greatly endangering many of the world’s poorest people The video distinguishes responsible skepticism, something that should be encouraged, from morally abhorrent disinformation.
This 14 minute video is only an introduction to many ethical issues raised by the disinformation campaign. Those interested in a more in depth analysis of the disinformation campaign should consult the four part series on the ethics of the disinformation campaign the last in the series can be found at
Why is it practically important to identify the ethical questions that need to be faced in making climate change policy? A new video, 14 minutes long, is the second in a two part introduction on the basics of climate change ethics that answers this question. Part two identifies a number of specific civilization challenging ethical issues, looks at these issues briefly, and makes the case for the urgent practical need to turn up the volume on the ethical dimensions of these issues. Part one in this series explained why climate change must be understood essentially as an ethical problem and why this understanding has profound practical consequences foe policy. Par one is found on this web site and is 11 minutes long. This second part takes up the issues introduced in part one in the context of several specific climate change ethical issues.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
For over a decade the coal industry has funded campaigns designed to convince Americans that coal can be burned without adverse environmental impacts. These campaigns raise troubling ethical issues. In fact, as we shall see, these campaigns have often been misleading and deceptive in several different ways.
This deception is classic propaganda because propaganda presents facts selectively to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information presented. Although many entities on both sides of an issue who are trying to persuade the general public to think a certain way will frequently resort to the use of propaganda, as we shall see, deceptive propaganda is particularly morally odious when it engages in lying or lying by omission. A lie by omission occurs when an important fact is left out in order to foster a misconception. The clean coal propaganda has frequently engaged in propaganda that must be understood as lying by omission, if not outright lying. It is also lying by omission about something which is potentially very harmful, making the lies even more morally abhorrent
Given that academies of science around the world have concluded that climate change is a huge threat to millions of people around the world, that coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels currently used for electricity generation in regard to climate change, that there are no commercial scale coal-fired power plants in the United States now nor likely to be in wide-spread commercial operation for decades capable of actually removing heat trapping gases, a fact not revealed in TV commercials funded by the clean coal campaign, this campaign which implies that coal is “clean” is deeply misleading about likely harmful and dangerous human activities. In other words, this is deception with huge potential adverse consequences.for life on earth and ecological systems on which life depends.
Some TV commercials funded through clean coal campaigns visually or verbally reference clean coal without acknowledgment that coal combustion could be considered clean only if new unproven technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal combustion are widely deployed. Other commercials contain often vague references to clean coal technologies that could in theory reduce greenhouse gas emissions if commercial scale of these technologies is determined through future research to be environmentally benign and economically feasible. None of these commercials, however, reveal that there are serious open questions about whether geologic carbon sequestration or other unproven greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies for use with coal combustion will be proven to be environmentally acceptable and economically viable at commercial scale. The New York Times reported this month that there is new evidence that carbon capture and storage, the technology most frequently considered to be the best hope for reducing greenhouse gases from coal combustion, may not be economically viable because of cheaper and abundant amounts of natural gas. (Wald, 2012)
Claiming that coal is clean because it could be clean if a new technically unproven and economically dubious technology might be adopted is like someone claiming that belladonna is not poisonous because there is a new unproven safe pill under development that sometime in the future might be economically affordable and that may be taken with belladonna to neutralize belladonna’s toxic effects.
Who has been behind this campaign? According to Source Watch, these campaigns were initially created by the Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED) in 2000. CEED also created Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign aimed at emphasizing the importance and downplaying the environmental impacts of coal-fired power production. CEED was founded by Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Southern Company, and DTE Energy (Source Watch, 2012a). ABEC’s members also have included mining companies, electric utilities, and railroad companies. The CEED was merged with Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC) to form a new coal industry front group, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, on April 17, 2008 (Source Watch, 2012a).
In addition to funding misleading TV commercials, on May 25 Think Progress reported that the coal industry has also recently funded AstroTurf efforts, that is fake grass roots campaigns, to give the false impression at public hearings that ordinary citizens oppose proposed EPA regulations that would regulate CO2 from coal-fired power plants. (ThinkProgress, 2012). According to ThinkProgress:
“Apparently unable to find real activists, the coal industry paid AstroTurfers $50 to wear pro-coal t-shirts at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing focused on the agency’s first-ever carbon standards for new power plants.”
The creation of AstroTurf groups around carbon energy issues has been a known tactic of the climate change disinformation campaign that began in the 1990s and a tactic which is itself ethically problematic because an AstroTurf group’s very purpose is to hide from the general public the real parties in interest.
The practice of using AstroTurf groups is expressly prohibited by the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA, 2012) This code requires that PR professionals expressly identify real sponsors of PR activities (PRSA, 2012). Because front groups and AstroTurf organizations usually are designed to hide the real parties in interest, an ethics advisory of the Public Relations Society on these practices proclaims that it is unethical for PR professionals to represent front groups and/or other deceptive or misleading descriptions of goals, tactics, sponsors, or participants. (PRSA advisory, 2012) This advisory specifically includes AstroTurf groups as an unethical front group activity covered by the ethics advisory. (PRSA advisory, 2012)
Defenders of the clean coal campaign will sometimes argue that the clean coal campaign is simply an exercise of the coal industry’s right to free speech. Although free speech is to be strongly protected, speech which tells untruths about very harmful behavior is morally odious. This is the moral basis for the understanding that people are not free to yell fire in a crowded theater. In fact, the clean coal campaign is more like someone in a theater shouting that there is no fire who has no factual basis for claiming that no fire exists when smoke first appears in the theater.
And so, the clean coal campaigns cannot be understood as a responsible exercise of free speech but as deeply deceptive disinformation. It is deceptive for two reasons as we have seen.
First, the implied claim that coal combustion is environmentally clean is not true. It is also not true that new technologies capable of sequestering CO2 from coal fired power plants will likely be in widespread operation in the near future according to a recent article in the New York Times that explained that coal combustion that relies upon carbon sequestration may not be economically viable given competition from other fuel sources and additional costs of geologic carbon sequestration (Wald, 2012) .
Second, the failure to disclose who the real parties in interest are behind front groups, AstroTurf campaigns, and those who show up at public events claiming that coal is clean are tactics meant to deceive.
Given what is at stake with climate change, these are deceptions about potentially very, very harmful human activities.
There would be no problem with coal industry calls for public support for research that could make coal combustion environmentally acceptable, yet even such campaigns should reveal that there are open questions about whether these technologies if developed can economically compete with other fuel options.
From the standpoint of climate change, new technologies that would allow coal combustion without greenhouse gas emissions would be an important positive step to achieve urgently needed greenhouse gas emissions reductions. However, as we have seen, there are very open questions about whether these technologies will be technically and economically feasible at commercial scale. There are no doubt places in the world that geologic carbon sequestration that traps heat-trapping gases will work, yet there are serious questions about whether these technologies are technically feasible in many places of the world that do not have the right geology needed to seal in the CO2 and prevent if from escaping into the atmosphere nor the large spaces needed to bury the huge volumes of CO2 that are created in coal combustion. However, probably a bigger barrier to widespread deployment of this technology is whether these technologies can be deployed at acceptable cost.
Is higher education failing to adequately educate citizens about a movement referred to in the sociological literature as the “climate change disinformation campaign?” An event at Penn State University will examine this topic on April 30th.
A well-educated citizen should know how science works including the indispensable role of skepticism in moving science forward. Yet throughout human history, ideologically motivated movements have made claims inconsistent with well-established scientific conclusions. These, for instance, have included claims that the Earth is the center of the universe, the holocaust did not happen, and evolution can’t explain life on Earth. Particularly when these ideologically motivated but demonstratively false claims encourage citizens to behave in ways that are harmful to others, a strong argument can be made that higher education has a strong duty to educate their students and civil society about problems with these claims.
A growing substantial sociological peer-reviewed literature has arisen that describes an ideological movement usually referred to as the “climate change disinformation campaign.” ClimateEthics has recently completed a four part series that summarizes this literature, explains what is meant by the term “disinformation campaign,” describes the tactics of this campaign, subjects these tactics to ethical analyses, distinguishes these tactics from responsible skepticism, and makes recommendations about scientific norms that should be followed in light of the fact that skepticism in science should be encouraged while disinformation should be condemned. (See the last entry in this series, Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign )
On April 30th at 7 pm in room 101 Thomas Building at Penn State’s University Park, a panel will examine the climate change denial machine while calling for greater involvement by higher education in educating citizens about these matters. Presenters will include Dr. (Juris) Donald Brown from Science, Technology, and Society and Program Manager for United Nations Organizations at the United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of International Environmental Policy, Peter Buckland, A.B.D. in Educational Theory and Policy, Dr. Janet Swim from Psychology and chair of the 2009 American Psychological Associations task force on the psychology of climate change, Dr. Rick Shuhmann of Mechanical Engineering and the Engineering Leadership program, and Dr. Michael Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center and author of the recent book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.
Sponsors of this event include Penn State’s Center for Sustainability, The Rock Ethics Institute At Penn State University, The Penn State Program on Science, Technology, and Society, Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Elk County C.A.R.E.S., Juniata Valley Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Pennsylvanians for Clean Air and Water, PennEnvironment, Sierra Club Pennsylvania, Sierra Club Moshannon, Sustainability Now Radio,Voices of Central Pennsylvania, The Interfaith Coalition on the Environment, and the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium.
The following entry by guest blogger, Dr. Kenneth Shockley, Associate Professor, University of Buffalo, makes a strong case that the nature of the harm caused by the disinformation campaign calls for collective moral outrage.
Disinformation, Social Stability and Moral Outrage
Those who deny the reality, importance, or magnitude of climate change warrant our collective outrage. Whether by action or inaction, their denial blinds us to the risks, vulnerabilities, and threats to our well-being posed by climate change. Insofar as claims of ignorance are becoming increasingly implausible, those who support or propagate the disinformation campaign about climate change are guilty of more than deception. They are guilty of exacerbating risks to our collective well-being and of undermining society.
Readers of this blog will be familiar with the current misinformation campaign waged against climate science. I will, therefore, take it on assumption for our purposes here that both (1) there is overwhelming evidence that climate change is taking place and (2) there is a concerted effort, through activity or negligence, to convince the public that there is no need for action. I take (2) to constitute the essence of what I will call the disinformation campaign about climate change. I take (1) to provide the focus of such a campaign, a campaign focused on convincing any and all that the science of climate change is not worth taking seriously or that the consequences of climate change are too uncertain to justify action.
What I am interested in is the nature of the harm associated with the disinformation campaign. The disinformation campaign is more than a coordinated effort at misrepresenting the science, it is a violation of body politic. Our collective well-being is being undermined, and this should provoke moral outrage, both domestically in the US and UK where it seems to have its home, and internationally where some of its more egregious and immediate consequences are felt. Just as the sense of moral outrage is the proper result to violations of one’s individual person, we owe collective moral outrage to violations of our collective body politic. The harm associated with the disinformation campaign goes beyond a simple matter of dishonesty (which it is). Insofar as the disinformation campaign blocks efforts to address climate change that campaign is complicit in increasing the risk of being subject to the more calamitous consequences of a changing climate.
The recent IPCC SREX report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters To Advance Climate Adaptation, (IPCC, 2012), paints a vivid picture of the risks and vulnerabilities presented by climate change, both now, and in the future. Similar warnings have been expressed in the United States National Academy of Science’s recent report America’s Climate Choices (US Academy, 2011) and in a wide range of other sources. What should we say about those who in the face of overwhelming evidence that we are at risk of significant harms encourage us not to act in the face of those risks? What would we say of those who convince us that an impending flood is not real, and hamper our efforts to prepare for, or minimize the effects of that flood?
This question should frame the way we think about the current effort to deny the clear and overwhelming scientific consensus that we are facing a changing climate, with the risks and concerns noted by those best able to assess them. After all, these vulnerabilities pose a risk to our well-being; they have great moral significance.
In blocking efforts to address, respond to or adapt to climate change, the disinformation campaign exacerbates our vulnerabilities to a changing climate; given the scale and magnitude of the problems we face, exacerbating vulnerabilities to climate change puts social stability at risk. This risk constitutes a threat to our well-being, and the well-being of our children; to increase this risk is to incur blame.
As the actions of the disinformation campaign put society at risk, those in support of this campaign, knowingly or out of culpable ignorance, similarly deserve our ire. Efforts to ignore this risk should provoke our individual and collective moral outrage. Political officials who endorse, accept, or adopt this campaign and its goals are in violation of the public trust; such officials are acting contrary to the public good with which they are entrusted. Those who illicitly attempt to influence the political process by means of this campaign of misrepresentation are complicit in this violation.
By misrepresenting the science of climate change, the disinformation campaign is complicit in putting social stability at risk, with the attendant moral consequences; they are complicit in increasing the probability and extent of widespread human misery. Those who are engaged in this campaign are guilty of violating the sacred trust of their office, guilty of culpable ignorance (for surely we trust those who make political decisions to use the resources of their office to find the best available data for that decision; simply failing to recognize the nature of the science is culpable when the well-being of the society they represent is at stake), or corruption (for passing off as public reason, reasons based self-serving motivations that run contrary to the long term well-being of our society is surely an inappropriate influence on the body politic, a corrupting influence of the most vile sort). Violation of public trust, culpable ignorance, or simple corruption. I see no other options. The point now is to move forward.
We must bring to light the corrupting influences. We must compel the media to make clear that there is only as much debate about the science behind climate change as there is debate about the science behind the existence of the dinosaurs (for while in both cases we may doubt the details, there is little doubt about the overall picture). We must compel our political agents to make clear, in the starkest moral terms, why they are making, or failing to make, the decisions they make. This should motivate a movement at least as ferocious as the Occupy Wallstreet movement. The Occupy Wallstreet movement was focused on the very real and morally potent concern that our economy is shifting us toward a society not in line with the basic moral principles on which our nation was founded and on which our hopes and expectations are based. To some extent that economy is reversible. The concern that motivates moral outrage at inaction and obstruction regarding climate change should be focused on the very conditions that make possible a stable society for us, and for our children. Our influence on these background conditions is not so reversible, at least on time scales that matter to our children. For the sake of our children, and for the sake of our own moral decency, this disinformation campaign should inspire moral outrage.
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)