This is the third in a three part video series that looks at the ethical obnoxiousness of the climate change disinformation campaign. All three of these are available on http://ethicsandclimate.org. The first in the series introduced the concept of the disinformation campaign that has been described in a rich sociological literature while explaining why this movement has been so ethically abhorrent. The second entry looked at some of the specific tactics of this campaign while distinguishing this phenomenon from responsible skepticism. This entry continues the examination of specific tactics and concludes with lessons learned about this disinformation campaign.
To view the other two videos in this series see the two proceeding entries on this website.
A much more detailed four part written analysis of the disinformation campaign is available on this website under the category of “climate disinformation.”
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 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.
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: What Is Missing In Reporting About The Durban Outcome?
It has now been two weeks since negotiations at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were completed in the early morning of Sunday, December 11, 2011 in Durban, South Africa. We will claim that there is something missing from the reporting of what happened in Durban that is crucial if one aspires to think critically about the Durban outcomes. That is, reporting on Durban has for the most part missed the biggest story, namely that most nations continue to act as if they have no obligations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emission, that the positions they have been taking on most major climate issues fail any reasonable minimum ethical test, that an acknowledgement that nations not only have interests but duties and responsibilities continues to be the key missing element in the negotiations, and that some nations in particular have lamentably not only failed to lead on climate change but are continuing to take positions that not only fail to satisfy their immediate international duties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions but also encourage irresponsible behavior of other nations.
Among these nations are the United States, Canada, Russia, and Japan and several developing countries. As we shall see, these countries, among others, have continued to negotiate as if: (a) they only need to commit to reduce their greenhouse gas emission if other nations commit to do so, in other words that their national interests limit their international obligations, (b) any emissions reductions commitments can be determined and calculated without regard to what is each nation’s fair share of safe global emissions, (c) large emitting nations have no duty to compensate people or nations that are vulnerable to climate change for climate change damages or reasonable adaptation responses, and (d) they often justify their own failure to actually reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions on the inability to of the international community to reach an adequate solution under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. We are not saying that these countries were exclusively the blame for disappointing Durban outcomes, there is plenty of blame to go around. Yet, some countries have distinguished themselves by their positions that are obviously based upon national economic interest rather than a fulfillment of global responsibilities.
Although the leadership in the United States and other nations that are failing to make commitments congruent with their ethical obligations will no doubt claim that their position in the international climate negotiations is limited by what is politically feasible in their countries, the world needs national leaders who are prepared to urge their nations to make commitments congruent with their ethical obligations, not on national self-interest alone. (For an example of national leadership that fulfilled this requirement, see, Brown, 2009)
As has been the case for recent COPs, commentators about achievements at COP-17 are split on whether these negotiations accomplished some important positive steps toward an eventual meaningful global solution to climate change or whether Durban must be understood as another tragic international failure to come up with an adequate solution to the immense threat of human-induced warming. (For a good articulation of these two views, see: Light, 2011 and Hertsgaard, 2011)
As we shall see this difference of opinion about how to characterize Durban outcomes is ultimately a disagreement about whether each COP outcome should be judged on the basis of what is politically feasible at that moment in history in which the COP takes place or whether what is politically feasible at any moment in history should itself be critically reflected on. If one judges Durban outcomes on the basis of what was deemed politically feasible coming into Durban, one can reasonably draw positive conclusions about Durban outcomes. But if one reviews Durban outcomes from the standpoint of what nations should agree to in light of their ethical and moral responsibilities, Durban is another tragic missed opportunity.
ClimateEthics has frequently explained that the key missing element in international climate negotiations as well as in the development of domestic climate change policies for most nations has been acknowledgement that nations not only have economic interests that can be affected by climate change policies but also have duties, responsibilities, and obligations to protect people around the world and the natural resources on which life depends. (See for example, Brown, 2010a) This is so because climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical and moral problem and the failure to acknowledge and act on this has been responsible for an inadequate global response to climate change’s immense threat during the twenty years of international negotiations that have sought to reach agreement on a global solution. That is the major problem with international climate negotiations is that most nations are approaching the negotiations has if their economic interests trump their global responsibilities.
If climate change is an ethical problem, then practical consequences for national positions on climate change follow. (See, Brown, 2011 for a discussion of specific practical consequences that follow from recognition that climate change is an ethical problem) These consequences include that nations should commit to do what their ethical responsibilities, obligations, and duties requires of them without regard to whether all other nations are agreeing to do so.
This post examines concretely what happened in the recently concluded Durban climate change negotiations with the goal of explicating why the lack of acceptance of duties and responsibilities, that is lack of acceptance that climate change is an ethical problem, continues to be the major barrier to achieving an adequate global approach to reduce the threat of climate change. Unless, the international community can convince or cajole nations to make commitments consistent with their ethical obligations, then international climate negotiations are likely to continue to be plagued by the failure to tackle the most difficult climate change issues.
A group of representatives from conservative and liberal business, financial, youth, labor, racial justice, civil rights, faith, and conservation organizations from across the nation have written a statement about the moral obligations of the United States to reduce the threat of climate change and are now looking for signatures in support of the statement.
The statement has been prepared in recognition of the fact that our nation has a moral obligation to address climate change in light of the fact that: (1) Climate change is a real, dangerous, and rapidly worsening problem with deep moral implications; (2) Yet U.S. has done little to reduce its contribution to the crises.
The statement asserts that the US has a duty to to prevent unjustifiable suffering and death among current and future generations in the U.S. and abroad. Furthermore, this obligation requires that the US acts significantly and rapidly to reduce our carbon pollution.
The “Statement of Our Nation’s Moral Obligation to Address Climate Change” seeks to definitively make those points to elected officials, business, community, and civic leaders, and the public nationwide.
The committee is now looking for signatures.
STATEMENT OF OUR NATION’S MORAL OBLIGATION
TO ADDRESS CLIMATE CHANGE
We, the undersigned current and former elected officials and representatives from the business, labor, youth, national security, financial, conservation, racial justice, civil rights, and faith communities of the United States, recognize that climate change is a real, dangerous, and rapidly worsening problem with deep moral implications.
Although reducing carbon pollution will have costs, it will also produce incalculable benefits. Our response must therefore be driven not solely by near-term economic or national self-interest. We must also acknowledge and act on our long-standing moral obligation to protect current and future generations from suffering and death, to honor principles of justice and equity, and to protect the great Earth systems on which the well-being of all life, including ours, depends.
We call on every citizen to act on these moral principles without delay. Individually, and collectively as a nation, we must rapidly reduce carbon pollution by significant levels, prepare for the consequences of an already warming planet, and insist on public policies that support these goals and create a just transition to a low-carbon economy. The risks of inaction are exceedingly high. The benefits of acting on these moral principles are even greater.
The Moral Obligation to Prevent Suffering and Protect Human Life
The most fundamental of our guiding moral principles is that it is wrong to unjustifiably cause human suffering or death. Climate change-related impacts are already harming and killing people here and abroad. Unless carbon pollution is rapidly reduced, the resulting natural disasters, floods, diseases, illnesses, water and food shortages, and environmental degradation, along with associated rising violence and social breakdown, will injure or kill millions more every year.
Climate change-induced suffering from food shortages and the dramatic spread of disease and illness will be especially significant. Millions of people worldwide will be affected. Suffering will also result from the job losses and disruptions to families and communities caused by the billions of dollars in direct and indirect annual costs of climate impacts, as well as from the escalating market volatility, supply chain disruptions, and other impacts businesses will experience.
Over the past century, the U.S. has been the world’s largest overall contributor to climate change, generating about 30 percent of the total energy-related CO2 emissions that are destabilizing the climate.
Today, we continue to produce far more emissions on an annual basis than any other nation except China. Even if the costs are high, we must avert one of the worst violation of human rights the world has ever seen by acknowledging our contribution to the climate crisis and significantly reducing our emissions.
Business dislocations and job losses are also likely as we reduce our carbon pollution. These impacts must not be unduly borne by any group. A ‘just transition’ is necessary that spreads the costs as well as the investments in solutions and the benefits of new approaches equitably, provides for workers and communities that are adversely affected by climate protection policies, assists whole industries to make the necessary shifts, and ensures that all Americans have a democratic voice in how those decisions are made.
The Moral Responsibility to Honor Principles of Justice and Equity
Those who suffer the most from climate change are not the same people who now benefit greatly from the overuse of fossil fuels and other natural resources. As a matter of justice and equity, we have a moral obligation to reduce our carbon pollution in order to prevent suffering and death among people who have contributed little to climate change but who are, at least initially, most impacted: those living in the Arctic; people in less developed, hotter regions of the world; low-income and working-class communities, communities of color, women as well as children in the U.S.; and future generations everywhere.
In addition, even as we reduce our emissions we must do our part to ensure that vulnerable populations and nations have the financial and technological capacity to prepare for and adapt to the consequences of a warming planet and grow clean energy economies.
The Moral Obligation to Honor and Protect the Processes that Make Life Possible
Because we have a moral obligation to protect human life and prevent suffering and injustice, and because Earth’s gifts have intrinsic value, we have a responsibility to protect the ecosystems and organisms that provide the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, the materials we use to sustain life and prosperity, and the natural beauty that lifts our spirits.
Whether we believe that the Earth and its great abundance is a product of natural processes or, as millions of people nationwide believe, that the Earth is the gift of the Creator, or both, our obligations are fundamentally the same–we must be good stewards of what we have inherited. Humanity is not in command of creation, but merely part of it. To disrupt the climate that is the cornerstone of all life on Earth and to squander the extraordinary abundance of life, richness, and beauty of the planet is morally wrong.
We Already Have the Know-How and Tools
The people of our great nation have the spirit, knowledge, and tools required to reduce climate change. The greatest obstacle is lack of human will. History is watching us. Our legacy will be determined by what we do now and in the next few years.
We call on everyone in the U.S. to act on their moral principles now by rapidly and significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in their homes, places of work and government.
We call on every citizen to actively prepare for the consequences of climate change.
Moreover, we urge every citizen to insist that their government adopt policies to foster emission reductions and prepare for climate change, and to provide sufficient resources to build the capacity of the most impacted people worldwide to do the same.
This is not just about avoiding harm. Acting on our moral principles will foster the growth of a sustainable economy that creates millions of good jobs in clean energy fields, supports healthy families, and builds vibrant communities. That, itself, makes this imperative.
The need for action is urgent, the possibilities enormous. Please join us in heeding this call.
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.