The National Academy of Sciences and its British counterpart, the Royal Society, have published Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, a very easy to understand primer on greenhouse-driven global warming that is a useful update on past reports from both organizations. Although there is not a lot new in this report as a matter of science, it makes the strong scientific consensus on human-induced climate change that has existed for some time clearer and more accessible on the major issues that need to be understood by policy-makers and interested citizens. The report is written in simple language and filled with pictures and graphs that illustrate why almost all mainstream scientists actually engaged in climate change science are virtually certain that human activity is causing very dangerous climate change.
This report is ethically significant because:
a. It is a report of two of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, namely US National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. Because of the prestige of both of the institutions writing this report, those opposing actual climate change have an ethical duty to acknowledge that the scientific basis supporting action on climate change is entitled to respect. They cannot reasonably claim that there is no strong scientific basis for policy action on climate change or even worse that climate change science is a “hoax.” Which institutions have made claims that humans are engaged in dangerous behavior has ethical significance. If, for instance, someone is told by an expert in toxicology that chemicals he or she is discharging into a water supply will kill people, he or she has more of an ethical duty to stop discharging the chemicals until the issue of toxicology issues are resolved than they would if the claim about poisoning came from a religious leader or a tax accountant. When claims about danger are made by world-class scientific experts, as a matter of ethics, the burden of proof shifts to those potentially harming others to show that their behavior is not dangerous.
Skepticism in climate science should be encouraged, but skeptics must play by the rules of science including: (a) subjecting all claims contradicting the mainstream scientific view on climate change to peer-review, (b) subjecting claims that humans are not causing dangerous climate impacts to review by scientific institutions that have sufficient broad interdisciplinary expertise among its members to review such claims against all the contrary evidence from all relevant scientific disciplines, and (c) acknowledging all the contradictory evidence.
b. The report includes clear explanations of the scientific evidence in regard to specific justifications for not taking action on climate change very frequently made by those who oppose climate change policies. These justifications and responses to them include, for instance:
Scientists don’t know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities?
Scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities from an understanding of basic physics, comparing observations with models, and fingerprinting the detailed patterns of climate change caused by different human and natural influences.
Direct measurements of CO₂ in the atmosphere and in air trapped in ice show that atmospheric CO₂ increased by about 40 percent from 1800 to 2012. Measurements of different forms of carbon reveal that this increase is because of human activities.
The recent slowdown of warming means that climate change is no longer happening?
No, recent weather is not evidence that warming is not happening. Since the very warm year 1998 that followed the strong 1997-1998 El Niño, the increase in average surface temperature has slowed relative to the previous decade of rapid temperature increases. Despite the slower rate of warming, the 2000s were warmer than the 1990s. A short-term slowdown in the warming of Earth’s surface does not invalidate our understanding of long-term changes in global temperature.
CO₂ is already in the atmosphere naturally, and so human emissions are not significant.
Human activities have significantly disturbed the natural carbon cycle by extracting long-buried fossil fuels and burning them for energy, thus releasing CO₂ into the atmosphere.
Variations in output from the sun have caused the changes in the Earth’s climate in recent decades.
The sun provides the primary source of energy driving Earth’s climate system, but its variations have played very little role in the climate-changes observed in recent decades. Direct satellite measurements since the late 1970s show no net increase in the sun’s output while, at the same time, global surface temperatures have increased.
If the world is actually warming, some recent winters and summers would not have been so cold?
Global warming is a long-term trend, but that does not mean that every year will be warmer than the previous one. Day-to-day and year-to-year changes in weather patterns will continue to produce some unusually cold days and nights, and winters and summers, even as the climate warms.
A few degrees of warming is not cause for concern.
Even though an increase of a few degrees in global average temperature does not sound like much, global average temperature during the last ice age was only about 4°C to 5°C (7 °F to 9 °F) colder than now. Global warming of just a few degrees will be associated with widespread changes in regional and local temperature and precipitation, as well as with increases in some types of extreme weather events.
These are only a few of the justifications that have been made by those denying responsibility to reduce the threat of climate change that are directly and clearly refuted in the report.
c. The report also has ethical significance because its so clear that policy makers cannot reasonably claim that there is no scientific evidence about the major issues of concern to the climate change scientific community. As we have explained on this website, policy-makers may not, as a matter of ethics, rely on their own uninformed opinion about climate change science once they are informed by respectable scientific organizations that people and organizations within their jurisdiction are likely harming others around the world. This responsibility to not rely upon their own uninformed opinions increases when there are easy to understand explanations from respected scientific institutions of the scientific basis for concluding that people within their jurisdiction are harming others. The new report from the US Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society is such a clear explanation. And so government officials have a strong duty to go beyond their own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions that have the breadth of expertise to consider the interdisciplinary scientific issues that make up climate change science.
d. Because politicians have an affirmative duty to rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm until peer-reviewed science establishes that the mainstream view is erroneous, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand the limitations of any politician’s views that opposes action on climate change on scientific grounds particularly when there are easy to understand explanations of climate change science such as that in the new US National Academy and Royal Academy report. The new report will enable the press to fulfill its journalistic responsibilities by asking more precise and clearer questions of those who deny the mainstream scientific view.
For these reasons, the new report is ethically significant.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor
Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law,
Marco Rubio, a US Senator from Florida, recently said that he was not sure the climate change was human caused. This is one of the reasons why he’s unwilling to support US government action to reduce the threat of climate change. Many other US politicians have also recently said they will not support legislation to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions because they are not convinced that climate change happening or is human-caused. In fact, 7 out of 8 Republican candidates for the US presidency proclaimed they didn’t believe that climate change was a problem. (Skeptical Science) When these politicians are asked about the basis for their positions on climate change, they almost always respond by saying such things as they “have heard that there is a disagreement among scientists” or similar responses that strongly suggest they have informed an opinion on climate change science without any understanding of the depth of the scientific evidence on which the scientific consensus view 0f climate change has been based. For instance, US politicians frequently assert that it is an open question whether humans are causing the undeniable warming that the Earth is experiencing, thus exposing ignorance of dozens of lines of independent robust evidence of human causation including attribution studies, finger print analyses, strong evidence that correlates fossil fuel use to rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and other physical and chemical evidence.
Although ordinary individuals may have no duty to go beyond their own personal opinion about the science of climate change, government officials who have the power to enact policies that could present catastrophic harm to millions of people around the world may not as a matter of ethics justify their refusal to support policies to reduce the threat of climate change on the basis of their uninformed opinions on climate science. This is so because government officials, unlike ordinary citizens, have the power to prevent or minimize great harms to millions of people around the world that mainstream scientists have concluded that their constituents or governments that they represent are causing or contributing to. That is, a government officials have more responsibility than the average citizen to understand the state of climate change science because the government official can uniquely prevent harm that their constituents or governments are causing. And so, when government officials with the power to enact climate change policies are on notice that respectable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that their constituents or governments are likely causing great harm, they may not appeal to their uninformed opinion on climate science as justification for not taking action.
The government official is like the railroad official who has been told by employees who are in a position to know the location of the company’s trains that there is a runaway train hurtling toward a bus full of children that is stuck on the track, when the official has the ability to divert the train onto a track on which no humans will be harmed.
In the case of climate change, government officials should know that 97 of every 100 scientists that actually do peer-reviewed climate science research and in the United States by the most prestigious scientific organizations including the US National Academy of Sciences that greenhouse gases coming from his constituents threaten catastrophic harm not only to his constituents but to millions of people around the world, most of whom have done little to cause climate change.
In the case of climate change, the US politician not only has the power, working with colleagues, to prevent great harm caused by his or her constituents, he or she has the responsibility to prevent his or her constituents from harming others outside United States. This responsibility was expressly agreed to by the United States when it ratified the United Nations Convention on Climate Change which contains the following acknowledgment of the US governments responsibility to prevent harm to those outside the United States in the convention’s Preamble:
Recalling also that States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.(UNFCCC Preamble)
In the case of climate change, the people that will be harmed (those in our metaphorical bus) are not only the constituents of the politician but hundreds of millions of people around the world that have done little or nothing to cause climate change.
The vast majority of climate scientists and over 100 scientific organizations whose members have climate science expertise have concluded that humans are causing climate change and human-induced climate change creates catastrophic threats for the human race and particularly for hundreds of millions of poor people around the world who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Although there are some differences among some mainstream scientists about some of the details of the consensus view, an open letter from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s which was endorsed by 18 of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the United States summed up the nature of the scientific consensus as follows:
As you consider climate change legislation, we, as leaders of scientific organizations, write to state the consensus scientific view. Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer- reviewed science. (AAAS 2009)
Though scientific consensus must always be open to responsible skepticism given: (a) the strength of the consensus on this topic, (b) the enormity of the harms predicted by the consensus view, (c) an approximately 30 year delay in taking action that has transpired since a serious climate change debate began in the United States in the early 1980s, (d) a delay that has made the problem worse while making it more difficult to achieve ghg emissions reductions necessary to prevent dangerous climate change because of the steepness of reductions now needed, no politician can ethically justify his or her refusal to support action on climate change based upon a personal opinion that is not supported by strong scientific evidence that has been reviewed by scientific organizations with a wide breadth of interdisciplinary scientific expertise. Because any further delay will make the climate change threat worse, US politicians have a duty to support policies that will reduce the threat of climate unless they can produce strong scientific evidence that has been fully vetted by respectable scientific institutions that climate change is not the threat entailed by the scientific consensus view.
In this situation the government official has a strong duty to go beyond his or her own uninformed opinion about whether humans are causing dangerous climate change. They must justify their refusal to act on strong, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that is accepted by mainstream scientific institutions that have the breadth of expertise to consider one study in the context of thousands of other studies in climate change science. And so, government officials may not justify their refusal to act simply on the basis of their personal opinion.
Because politicians have an affirmative duty to initially rely upon mainstream scientific views in regard to human activities that could cause great harm, the press has a journalistic duty to help citizens understand any politician’s views that oppose action on climate change policies on scientific grounds. The US press has almost always failed to probe the justifications of those opposing action on climate change on scientific grounds. For this reason, journalists should ask politicians that claim there is not sufficient scientific support for government action climate change the following questions:
1. What specific scientific references and sources do you rely upon to conclude that there is a reasonable scientific dispute about whether human actions are causing dangerous climate change?
2. Are you aware that the United States Academy of Sciences and almost all respected scientific organizations whose membership includes scientists with expertise relevant to climate change science support the scientific consensus view that holds has that the planet is warming, that the warming is mostly human caused, and that harsh impacts from warming are very likely under business-as-usual?
3. On what basis do you disregard the conclusions that humans are causing dangerous climate change held by the United States Academy of Sciences, over a hundred scientific organizations whose membership includes experts with expertise relevant to the science of climate change, and 97 percent of scientists who actually do peer-reviewed research on climate change?
4. When you claim that the United States need not adopt climate change policies because adverse climate change impacts have not yet been proven, are you claiming that climate change skeptics have proven that human-induced climate change will not create adverse impacts on human health and the ecological systems of others on which their life often depends and if so what is that proof?
5. When you claim that the United States should not adopt climate change policies because there is scientific uncertainty about adverse climate change impacts, are you arguing that no action of climate change should be taken until all scientific uncertainties are resolved given that waiting to resolve all scientific uncertainties before action is taken will very likely make it too late to prevent dangerous human-induced climate change harms according to the consensus view?
6. Do you deny that those who argue that they should be allowed to continue to emit greenhouse gases at levels that may be dangerous should assume the burden of proof that their actions are safe given the strength of the consensus view on climate change science?
7. Do you deny that those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest potential impacts have a right to participate in a decision about whether to act to reduce the threat of climate change in the face of scientific uncertainty?
8. Given that in ratifying the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) the Untied States in 1992 agreed to the following under Article 3, do you believe the United States is now free to ignore this promise by refusing to take action on climate change on the basis of scientific uncertainty?
The Parties should take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures, taking into account that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost.
9. If you claim that the climate change impacts predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have not reached a level of scientific certainty that warrants action, do you agree that climate change impacts predicted by IPCC could be wrong in both directions, potentially leading to even harsher adverse impacts than those predicted?
10. Given that for over 20 years since international climate change negotiations began, the United States has refused to commit to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions based upon the justification that there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action, if it turns out that human-induced climate change actually greatly harms the health and ecological systems on which life depends of others, should the United States be responsible for the harms that could have been avoided if preventative action had been taken earlier?
The US media has utterly failed to communicate to the American people about five essential aspects of climate change that they need to understand to know why climate change is a civilization challenging problem that requires dramatic, aggressive, and urgent policy action to avoid harsh impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world. EthicsandClimate.org has recently developed a video on these failures entitled: Five Grave Communication Failures of US Media On Climate Change
We now provide a more detailed written description of these failures in this and subsequent posts. In this post we look at the first of these communications failures, namely the failure to communicate to US citizens the strength and nature of the current scientific consensus position on climate change.
Subsequent posts will examine the following additional communication failures of the US media:
The magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions reductions that are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.
The consistent barrier that the United States has been in finding a global solution on climate change for over 20 years.
The fact that climate change must be understood as a civilization challenging ethical problem, an understanding that is of profound significance for climate change policy formation.
The nature of the climate change disinformation campaign in the United States.
II. The Strength And Nature Of The Current Scientific Consensus Position On Climate Change.
Most US citizens are aware that there has been an ongoing debate about the science of climate change, yet most American are completely unaware of the strength of the “consensus” position on climate change.
The consensus position is understood to be that which has been articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was established by the 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, and to identify its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. (IPCC, 2010) The 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) The consensus position is not the consensus on all scientific issues entailed by climate change. Yet, the consensus position has the following elements:
The planet is warming
The observable warming is very likely mostly caused by human activities
Under business as unusual human-induced warming will likely range from 2 to 5 degrees C (although it could be greater). This warming will harm some people more than others from rising seas, increased droughts and floods, increased storms, increased vector-borne disease, deaths from heat waves, reducing food productivity, and diminished availability to water.
To stabilize GHG in the atmosphere will require huge reductions from business as usual.
There are several strong reasons why the “consensus” view is entitled to respect including the following:
One, 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 the 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)
Two, 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)
Three, the Academies of Science from nineteen different countries all endorse the consensus view. Eleven countries have signed a joint statement endorsing the consensus position. They are: • 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):
Among the academies of sciences around the world that have issued reports supporting the consensus view is the United States Academy of Sciences that has issued four reports.
From this it can be seen that the consensus view articulated by the IPCC is strongly supported by: (1) the vast majority of climate change scientists that actually do research on human-induced climate change (2) the most prestigious scientific organizations comprised of scientists with relevant climate change expertise, and (3) academies of sciences around the world, the very institutions that have been created to advise governments on complex scientific issues. 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 the 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 the 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.
And so, the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world support the consensus view on climate change. Yet. the United States media has almost always failed to communicate this fact when discussing controversies about climate change science. Although the US media has from time to time acknowledged that most climate scientists support the consensus view, they have almost always failed to describe strength of the consensus view that becomes apparent when one understands the magnitude of support for the consensus view by the most prestigious scientific organizations end researchers described above.
Given the enormity and harshness of impacts to hundreds of millions of people around the world from climate change coupled with the fact that United States has a special responsibility for the civilization challenging problem because of the comparatively large levels of the emissions coming from America, the failure of the US media to describe strength the scientific consensus on change is a grave and tragic error.
Agrarwala, Shardul and Stiener Anderson, 1999, Indispensability and Indefensibility?: The United States In Climate Treaty Negotiations. ” 2w Governance 5, December 1999).
Brown, Donald, 2008, Ethical Issues Raised by the Work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Report On The Bali Workshop (COP-13). Climate Ethics. http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2008/02/report-on-the-workshop-at-the-13th-conference-of-the-parties-of-the-united-nations-framework-convention-on-climate-change.html
Doran, Peter T.; Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, 2009. Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, EOS 90 (3): 22-23
Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), 2010a, History, http://www.ipcc.ch/organization/organization_history.htm
Rahmstorf, 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)
Editor’s Note: This entry contains both a video and a the text on which the video was based that examines the views of US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney on climate change though an ethical lens. The text follows the video.
Ethicsandclimate.org has critically examined US President Obama’s approach to climate change on several occasions. See, for instance:
Ethicsandclimate.org now turns to an ethical analysis of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s views on climate change. Although Mitt Romney’s position on climate change appears to have changed over time (at one time supported policies to reduce the threat of climate change), he recently has opposed legislation designed to reduce greenhouse gases citing two reasons. In an October 2011 he asserted in response to a question about his view on climate change that he was opposed to climate change legislation because:
He did not know whether climate change was human caused.
Climate change is a global problem and the US should not spend huge amounts of money on a problem that is global in scope.
In addition, during his acceptance speech at the Republican convention on August 30, 2012, Romney commented on climate change by asserting that President Obama would try to stop raising seas and heal the planet while he would help American families, thus implicitly implying that he would not support climate change legislation while he was President (Lacey, 2012).
II. Ethical Analysis Of Romney’s Opposition To Climate Change Policies
Should Mitt Romney’s opposition to government action on climate change be understood as a profound ethical lapse? The potential ethical significance of an unwillingness to act on climate change is obvious once one understands that:
High emitting nations and individuals are putting tens of millions of the world’s poorest people at risk.
Tens of thousands of deaths and other harms caused by climate change are already attributable to human-induced warming, that is climate change is not just a civilization challenging future problem but the present cause of misery to some humans in some parts of the world.
Even if the international community could stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions at current levels further warming will continue for as much as 100 years because of thermal lags in the climate system.
The mainstream scientific view holds that the world is likely running out of time to prevent rapid, nonlinear, and potentially catastrophic warming.
These facts are held by mainstream scientific view on climate change, a view supported by every academy of sciences in the world that has taken a position including theUnited States Academy of Sciences, 97 to 98% of the scientists that actually do climate science research, and over 100 scientific organizations in the world whose members have relevant expertise.
In light of the above, Mitt Romney’s position on human-induced warming is a stunning moral failure. We now investigate in more detail ethical problems with the specific justifications articulated by Romney so far for his unwillingness to support climate change legislation.
Ethical analysis of opposing greenhouse gas reduction policies on the basis of lack of scientific evidence of human causation.
It is not clear from candidate Romney’s stated position about human causation of observable warming whether he is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation or alternatively that there is significant scientific uncertainty about links between human activities and observed warming.
If Romney is claiming that there is no evidence of human causation of warming this is either a lie or reckless disregard for the truth. That is any claim that there is no evidence that observed warming is caused by human activity is demonstratively false. In fact there are numerous independent and robust lines of evidence that humans are mostly responsible for the undeniable warming the world is experiencing. This evidence includes:
Multiple climate fingerprints of human causation including how the upper atmosphere is warming in comparison to the lower atmosphere, nights are warming faster than days, the upper limit of the troposphere is rising as the world warms, more heat is returning to Earth, less oxygen is being found in atmosphere as CO2 rises, and ocean temperature change patterns can’t be attributed to factors that drive natural climate variability.
Multiple studies (called attribution studies) designed to statistically test the probability that observed warming could be attributed to natural variability.
Measures of isotopes of CO2 that support the conclusion that the CO2 appearing in the atmosphere is from fossil fuels combustion.
Close correlation between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global consumption of fossil fuel and deforestation.
Inability to attribute observed warming to known causes of natural climate variability.
Uncontestable scientific understanding that as greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere the Earth’s climate will warm to some extent.
It is clearly untruthful to claim that there’s no evidence of human causation of observed warming.
Perhaps, Romney is claiming, however, not that there is no evidence of human causation, but rather that there is significant scientific uncertainty about whether warming can be attributed to human activities. Yet the mainstream scientific view on this issue is that it is more than 90% certain that observable warming is primarily caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities including the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation (IPCC, 2007). The mainstream scientific view, as we have seen, is supported by the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world a fact in itself that has moral significance.
Even assuming for the sake of argument that there is more scientific uncertainty about human causation of warming than that recognized by the mainstream scientific view, as we have explained in Ethicsandclimate.org before in numerous articles (See. e.g. Brown, 2008a), using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for non-action on climate change does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny due to certain features of the climate change problem including:
The enormous adverse potential impacts on human health and the environment from human-induced climate change articulated by the consensus view.
The disproportionate climate change impacts on the poorest people of the world.
The real potential for potentially catastrophic climate surprises recognized by the mainstream scientific view.
The fact that much of the science of the climate change problem has never or is not now in dispute, even if one acknowledges some remaining uncertainty about timing or magnitude of climate change impacts.
The fact that climate change damage is probably already being experienced by some people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world in the form of rising seas and increased strength of tropical storms and more frequent and intense droughts and floods.
The strong likelihood that serious and irreversible damage will be experienced before all the uncertainties can be eliminated.
The fact that the longer nations wait to take action, the more difficult it will be to stabilize greenhouse gases at levels which don’t create serious damage.
The fact that those who will be most harmed by climate change have rights to be consulted about decisions that dare made to take no action on climate change on the basis of basis scientific uncertainty.
The fact that the mainstream view holds that the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change.
Given these features of the climate change problem, it is inconceivable that any ethical system would condone an excuse for non-action on climate change based upon scientific uncertainty. This is particularly true because if the consensus view is wrong about the magnitude and timing of climate change it could be wrong in both directions, that is, climate change impacts could be much worse and more rapid than the impacts identified by IPCC and the US Academy of Sciences even if they also could be less harmful in regard to timing and magnitude.
All major ethical systems would strongly condemn behavior that is much less threatening and dangerous than climate change. That is deontological, utilitarian, justice, ecocentric, biocentric, and relationship based ethics would not condone using scientific uncertainty as justification for not reducing high levels of greenhouse gas emissions given what is not in dispute among mainstream climate scientists (See Brown, 2002: 141-148). For this is a problem that if not controlled may cause the death of tens or hundreds of thousands of helpless victims caused by intense storms and heat waves, the death or sickness of millions that may suffer dengue fever or malaria, the destruction of some nations’ ability to grow food or provide drinking water, the devastation of forests and personal property, and the acceleration of elimination of countless species of plants and animals that are already stressed by other human activities. In summary, global warming threatens many of the things that humans hold to be of most value, i.e., life, health, family, the ability to make a living, community, and the natural environment.
The ethical duty to avoid risky behavior is proportional to the magnitude of the potential harm. Because climate change is likely to cause death to many, if not millions of people, through heat stroke, vector borne disease, and flooding, annihilate many island nations by rising seas, cause billions of dollars in property damage in intense storms, and destroy the ability of hundreds of millions to feed themselves in hotter drier climates, the duty to refrain from activities which could cause global warming is extraordinarily strong even in the face of scientific uncertainty about consequences.
Therefore, the nature of the risk from climate change is enormous and using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for doing nothing is ethically intolerable.
In fact that there is wide spread cross-cultural acceptance of the idea that one should not engage in very risky behavior that could cause great harm to things which people attach great value to is a conclusion that is clear from the acceptance of the “precautionary principle” in a growing number of international treaties including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN, 1992, Article 3). Under the precautionary principle agreed in the climate change convention, nations promised not to use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking cost-effective action. This is an additional ethical reason why scientific uncertainty cannot now be used by nations as an excuse for refusing to make reductions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, in addition to the strong ethical reasons identified sbove, a nation may not break a promise made to other nations in the UNFCCC to not use scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change.
II. Ethical Duty To Act Does Not Depend On Other Nation’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Commitments
As we have seen, Presidential candidate Romney has also indicated that he would not support US domestic change legislation because it is a global problem and the United States should not spend money on such a global problem. It would appear that Romney is objecting to US expenditures to reduce greenhouse gases as long as other nations are not also committing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions although it is not clear why Romeny would object to US action on climate change on the basis that is a global problem. Implicit in this justification appears to be the unstated assumption that no nation need to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global missions until other nations act accordingly. Yet this excuse for non-action on climate change also does not withstand minimum ethical scrutiny.
Because current greenhouse gas levels are already harming people, plants, animals, and ecosystems around the world according to the consensus climate change scientific view, and even if global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases could be stabilized at current levels, an extraordinarily difficult goal to achieve, climate change-caused harms will grow in the years ahead. For this reason, current levels of total global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced significantly to avoid future harms especially to those who have done little to cause the existing problem.
Yet, not all nations have equal responsibility to reduce greenhouse emissions given differences among nations in current and past emissions levels and steps already taken to reduce national emissions. However, all nations have an ethical duty to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions if they are exceeding their fair share (See Brown 2008). Although reasonable people may disagree on what fairness requires because different theories of distributive justice reach different conclusiosn about how to allocate responsibility, no developed nation may reasonablly make the argument that they are justified in not reducing greenhouse gas emissions subatanially because of the cilization challenging magnitude of emissions reductions that are needed to stabilze atmospheric concentrations at safe levels and the hugely disproportionate emissons levels attributable to developed nations.
As a matter of distributive justice, no nation nay deny that it has a duty to keep its national emissions levels below its fair share of safe global emissions. Therefore if a nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions, that nation has an ethical duty to reduce emissions and this duty does not depend upon what other nations are doing.
Although some developing nations can make a presentable argument that they could increase greenhouse gas emissions without exceeding their fair share of global emissions, the developed nations, including the United States cannot make this argument because it is known that existing total global emissions levels need to be significantly reduced and the developed nations are very high emitting nations compared to most nations in the world. For this reason, the United States and other developed nations, along with perhaps a few developing nations, have an immediate duty to begin to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions and this obligation is compelled by basic justice, not a need for leadership.
The duty to reduce emissions is not diminished if others who are contributing to the harm fail to cease their harmful behavior. This is so because no nation or person has a right to continue destructive behavior on the basis that others who are causing damage have not ceased their destructive behavior. The only question that needs to be examined to trigger a responsibility to begin to make immediate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is whether the nation is exceeding its fair share of safe global emissions.
In addition to principles of distributive justice, developed nations have another strong reason why they must reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, they promised to do reduce their emissions based upon “equity” in the Untied Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system. Violating a provision of an international agreement such as the UNFCCC is considered a wrongful act under international law, and is therefore an unethical action for consenting nations (See, e.g., International Law Commission Draft Articles on State Responsibility Art. 2(a) & (b), 2001). Since parties to the UNFCCC also agreed that Annex I countries, that is developed countries, would take the lead in combating climate change and modifying future trends, Annex I countries must undertake policies and measures to limit their emissions regardless of actions taken by non-Annex I country parties. This is now a matter of international law as well as a principle of distributive justice.
For these reasons, high emitting nations in particular have a legal and ethical responsibility to reduce emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. This duty applies regardless of efforts undertaken by other nations.
And so, Republican presidential candidate Romney may not justify a refusal of the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions on the basis that other nations refuse to do so. All that is being asked of United States is that it limit its greenhouse gas emissions to it’s fair and just share. It is not being asked to solve the problem for the rest of the world.
For these reasons, the United States may not refuse to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emission because not all nations have acted accordingly. Such a conclusion is ethically absurd.
For all these reasons, US presidential candidate Romney’s position on climate change fails to pass minimal ethical scrutiny.
Brown, Donald (2002) American Heat, Ethical Problems with The United States Response to Global Warming, Rowman and Littlefield, Lantham Maryland.
Cook, John (2010) Ten Human Indicators on Climate Change, Skeptical Science, http://www.skepticalscience.com/10-Indicators-of-a-Human-Fingerprint-on-Climate-Change.html
International Law Commission (2001) Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, Supplement No. 10 (A/56/10), chp.IV.E.1, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3ddb8f804.html [accessed 1 September 2012]
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.
Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) (2012) Member Code of Ethics, http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/
Public Relations Society of America (PRSA advisory) (2012) Professional Advisory-07, Engaging in Deceptive Tactics While Representing Front Groups. http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/ProfessionalStandardsAdvisories/PSA-07.pdf
Think Progress (2012) Coal Industry Pays Fake Activists $50 To Wear Pro-Coal Shirts At Public Hearing, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/05/25/490340/coal-astroturfing-epa-hearing/
Wald, M. (2012) With Natural Gas Plentiful and Cheap, Carbon Capture Projects Stumble, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/19/business/energy-environment/low-natural-gas-prices-threaten-carbon-capture-projects.html
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.
I Introduction: The following is an ethical and moral critique of the climate change disinformation campaign made at an event at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa on November 29th 2011. In addition to Donald A. Brown, editor of this blog, a number of philosophers, scientists, and lawyers who work on the ethical dimensions of climate change participated in this event. They included Stephen Gardiner from the University of Washington, Jon Rosales from St. Lawrence University, Katherine Kintzell from the Center for Humans and Nature and the IUCN Environmental Law Commission Ethics Working Group, Kenneth Shockley from the University of Buffalo, and Marilyn Averill from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
An Ethical Critique of Climate Disinformation Campaign
Climate change must be understood at its core as an ethical problem because; (a) it is a problem caused by some people in one part of the world that are hurting and threatening people who are often far away and poor, (b) the harms to these victims are potentially catastrophic, and (c) the victims can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments- they must hope that those causing the problem will see that their ethical duties to the victims requires them to drastically lower their greenhouse gas emissions. That is the victims best hope is high-emitters of greenhouse gases will respond to climate change as justice requires of them.
Because climate change is an ethical problem, those causing the problem may not use self-interest alone as justification for policy responses, they must respond in light of their responsibilities, obligations, and duties to others. This is also true about how we respond to scientific uncertainties about climate change. We must be very careful about making claims about uncertainty because overstatements of uncertainty may lead to harsh consequences. That is to not act in the face of uncertainty about dangerous activities has consequences, particularly when waiting makes the threat worse and harder to remedy. Unfortunately the uncertainty arguments discussed here have led to almost thirty years of inaction on climate change.
We are here today to encourage greater reflection on the moral travesty of the climate change disinformation campaign. We will argue that this campaign is some kind of new assault on humanity.
Let me stress we are not attacking scientific skepticism. Skepticism is the oxygen of science. Climate science continues to need skeptical approaches to current understandings of how human activities may affect the climate to help scientists understand what we don’t know about human impacts on the climate system.
We are also not denying that individuals have unalienable rights to free speech. Yet free speech about something that is dangerous entails responsibilities and lying and misinformation is always morally reprehensible even if the right to free speech is fully conceded. Free speech must not deceive. We are not denying that individuals have a right to express their opinions on climate change; we are however claiming that the tactics discussed in what follows are ethically unacceptable.
I will in a minute review the tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign. We think you will agree that these are not acceptable ways of acting skeptically or responsibly but often malicious, morally unacceptable disinformation tactics that are deeply irresponsible.
To understand the full moral depravity of the climate change disinformation campaign, one must know something about the state of climate science. There is a “consensus” view on climate science that has been articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC. This consensus is not a consensus on all scientific issues entailed by climate change; it is a consensus about the fact that the planet is warming, that this warming is largely human caused, and that under business-as-usual we are headed to potentially catastrophic impacts for humans and the natural resources on which life depends. Furthermore, these harms are likely to be most harshly experienced by many of the Earth’s poorest people.These poor people have not consented to be put further at risk while uncertainties are resolved and many nations most vulnerable to climate change have been pleading with those causing climate action to take action for well over twenty-five years.
Every Academy of Science in the world has issued a report or statement supporting the consensus view including four reports by the US Academy of Science. Well over 100 scientific organizations with expertise in climate science have also issued reports or statements in support of the consensus view. At least 97 % of all scientists that actually do research in climate science support the consensus view according to two recent surveys in respectable scientific journals.
There are six recent books that have investigated the disinformation campaign on climate change science. (See references below) What follows is an ethical analysis of the disinformation campaign based upon the findings in these books.
The disinformation campaign began in the 1980s when some of the same scientists and organizations that fought government regulation of tobacco began to apply the tactics honed in their war on the regulation of tobacco to climate change. For almost 25 years this campaign has been waged to undermine public support for regulation of greenhouse gases.
The organizations trying to undermine public support on climate policies by exaggerating scientific uncertainty have expanded over the last few decades to include think tanks, front groups, AstroTurf groups (that is groups pretending to be bottom-up citizen responses), PR firm led campaigns financed by fossil fuel interests and free-market fundamentalists philanthropic funded organizations. Much of the funding support for all of these efforts has come from some fossil fuel interests.
The tactics deployed by this campaign are now all well documented including in the six books mentioned above. These tactics have included:
A. Lying. Some of the claims made by some of those engaged in the disinformation campaign have been outright lies about such things as the claim that the entire scientific basis for human-induced climate change is a hoax or that there is no evidence of human causation of climate change. Given that every Academy of Science in the world has issued reports or position statements in support of the consensus view, it is clearly not true that the scientific basis for human-induced warming is a hoax: in fact such a claim is preposterous. Such a claim is far from reasonable skepticism, in fact a lie. The same can be said of the claim that there is no evidence of human causation. There are many independent lines of evidence that humans are changing the planet including multiple finger-print and attribution studies, strong correlations between fossil fuel use and increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, carbon isotopic evidence that carbon dioxide elevations are from fossil sources, and model predictions that best fit actual observed greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations that support the conclusion that human activities are the source of elevated atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gase. It is clearly a lie to assert there is no evidence of human causation of observable warming.
B. Focusing On An Unknown While Ignoring the Known.
Frequently those engaged in the disinformation campaign stress what is unknown about climate change science while ignoring the huge amount of well-settled climate change science that supports the consensus view. This tactic is often referred to as cherry-picking the evidence.
C. Specious Claims Of Bad Science. Those engaged in the disinformation campaign often characterize matters that are not fully proven as “bad science” even in cases where there is strong evidence for conclusions that are based upon “the balance of the evidence. ” Because climate change science will never be able to fully prove all future climate change impacts, insisting on absolute proof creates a burden of proof that can’t be met. This is not reasonable skepticism but an ideological assumption that makes necessary protective action impossible.
D. Creation of Front Groups. Those opposed to action on climate change have often created front groups that hide the real parties in interest. These front groups sometimes have held fake conferences attended by scientists that never or infrequently publish in peer-reviewed journals. These friont groups then publish the results of these conferences and send them to the media as if they were entitled to the same respect as peer-reviewed science. This is a species of “manufacturing” science, a tactic that fails to abide by the scientific norm that scientific conclusions be published in peer-reviewed journals whose mission is to review scientific claims for accuracy and completeness.
E. Creation of Misleading Lists of Climate Skeptics .
Organizations engaged in the climate change disinformation campaign have created lists of climate skeptics that are highly misleading because they often are comprised mostly of people who have questionable, at best, scientific credentials and who infrequently, if ever, publish in peer-reviewed climate change scientific journals.
F. Think Tank Campaigns.. Fossil fuel interests and right-wing, anti-regulatory philanthropic organizations have funded think tanks that have held forums or published non-peer reviewed reports on climate change science or economics. These reports are then widely circulated to the press and legislators as if they were entitled to the same respect as peer-reviewed research. Neither the press nor the legilators usually have the credentials or skills to critique these dubious reports. The reports are difficult to unpack because they are technical requiring technical expertise to evaluate. Such evaluation is the very mission of peer-review journals.
G. Public Relations Led Campaigns to Convince the Public That There is No Scientific Basis for Climate Science. Fossil fuel related interests have sometime hired public relations firms to create a campaign to convince citizens that climate change science is deeply unsettled and therefor any action taken is a waste of money.
H. Astroturf Groups.. Organizations engaged in the disinformation campaign have created astroturf groups designed to give the impression that there is wide-spread, bottom-up opposition to climate change policies that disguise that the funding and organization of these efforts actually come from organizations engaged in the disinformation campaign.
I. Cyber-Bullying Scientists and Journalists. Organizations engaged in the climate change campaign have encouraged the cyber-bullying of climate change scientists or journalists that publicly claim that human-induced climate change is a significant threat. In this effort, they have sometimes posted the picture and email on climate denial websites of scientists and journalists who are viewed to be supportive of action on climate change and encouraged followers to send nasty, threatening emails to the target journalists and scientists. This is shear intimidation, not reasonable skepticism.
None of these tactics constitute reasonable skepticism or even reasonable use of free speech. In fact, given the potential catastrophic harm from climate change, these tactics constitute some kind of new assault on humanity. In addition, these tactics are likely to have been the cause for failure of the United States and several other large emitting countries to enact strong greenhouse gas emissions reductions policies for over twenty years since international climate negotiations began.
A few things we are not saying. We are not against skepticism in but skeptics must play by certain rules of science. That is skeptics should:
a Publish conclusions in peer-reviewed literature.
b. Stop claiming that anything that is not fully proven is bad science.
c Not lie about or overstate their scientific conclusions.
d. Not cherry-pick scientific evidence by focusing on what is not known while ignoring what is known.
e. Not repeat scientific arguments that have been fully refuted.
f. Publicly condemn cyber-bullying of journalists and scientists.
We are not trying to limit free speech but encourage people to see that lying or misinformation is deeply ethically problematic particularly in cases when deception can lead to immense harm.
For all of these reason, we here encourage civil society and the press to engage in deeper reflection on a few of these matters including:
A. How do we classify this troublesome behavior: although its is obviously unethical, is it also criminal or civilly actionable?
B. What does reasonable skepticism look-like?
C. Although not everyone who expresses an opinion on climate science is ethically blameworthy, how should we morally classify those who fund disinformation about climate change?
In conclusion we encourage civil society to turn up the volume on the often highly unethical and sometimes deeply malicious tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign. We believe we need a new word for morally irresponsible behavior that attempts to undermine through disinformation political action needed in response to very threatening human activities.
If the consensus view of climate science is right, it is already too late to prevent some human-caused harms in the form of droughts, floods, vector borne disease, loss of water supply, intense storm damage, heat wave related deaths, and rising sea levels. When the climate change disinformation campaign got started over twenty-five years ago, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations were much lower, The world has lost over two decades in the fight to reduce the threat of climate change. We must insist on the highest standards for climate skepticism and strongly condemn malicious disinformation.
By: Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law,
Penn State University
The Inquisition of Climate Science by James Lawrence Powell, Columbia University Press, 2011.
Global Warming and Political Intimidation, How Politicians Cracked Down On Scientists as the Earth Heated Up, Raymond Bradley, University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.
Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury Press, 2010.
Climate Cover Up, The Crusade To Deny Global Warming, James Hoggan, Greystone Books, 2009.
Climate War, True Believers, Power Brokers and The Fight to Save the Earth, Eric Pooley, Hyperion, 2010,
Climate Change Denial, Heads in the Sand, Hayden Washington and John Cook, Earthscan, 2011.
ClimateEthics seeks to work out the ethical implications of mainstream scientific views about climate change. As we have said many times-if we get the science and economics wrong we may get the ethics wrong.
We do, however, believe that the mainstream scientific views as articulated by such prestigious scientific organizations as the United States Academy of Sciences are entitled to respect until peer-reviewed science changes the consensus view. Skepticism in science is not bad but skeptics should play by the rules of science including publishing their claims in peer-reviewed literature when they are engaged in what this article identifies as the “research role” of science. However, as we shall see, there is another role of science about which the rules and norms shift as a matter of ethics.
Just this May the United States Academy of Sciences concluded once again that humans are causing climate change and this will lead to harsh impacts for the human race and ecological systems unless steps are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As we shall see, getting the science right before discussing its ethical implications of science follows from an identification of which of two legitimate roles science is playing in any debate.
II The Two Science Roles
When making claims about what science knows, strict and careful scientific and peer-reviewed scientific procedures should be followed. Science usually assumes that in basic research, scientists should be silent until statistically significant correlations have been demonstrated between hypothetical cause and effect or other compelling reasons for proof claims have been demonstrated. (Different scientific disciplines have actually different expectations about proof claims, what ethicists call “epistemic norms”) When science is playing its centrally important role in research for the truth about causation, strict and rigorous procedures are called for and no scientist should make claims when acting in this role that have not been demonstrated.
In basic research about climate change, nothing less should be expected. We will call this the “research role” of science.
However, there is a second role for science that requires different procedures. We expect science to not only prove and explain causation but to warn people of risks before proof is in— particularly if the risks are significant and we cant wait until proof is demonstrated before the harm occurs.
Science often discovers sound scientifically based reasons for great concern but for practical and theoretical reasons can’t reach ideal levels of proof before the harm occurs. Because of this scientists are sometimes expected by the law or social norms to warn people of potential harms. For instance, sometimes scientists are expected to make reports report based upon the “balance of the evidence” or regulatory agencies are expected by law to take preventative action as long as the scientific reasons for taking preventative action are not “arbitrary and capricious.”
In examining human-environment interactions as well as human health-environment questions, scientists often uncover scientifically sound reasons for significant concern but for practical or theoretical reasons can not prove cause and effect. When engaged in such matters, I will call this the “public policy” role of science.
There are many uses of science in its “public policy” role about which there appears to be wide spread social agreement that it would be imprudent or otherwise unethical to wait until all the proof is in before taking appropriate action. This is so if: (a) waiting guarantees that the harm will occur if the risk turns out to be real, (b) the potential harms are grave to some people or ecological systems, and (c) those being put at risk have not consented to be put at risk.
The law is full of concrete examples of shifting levels of proof and burdens of proof depending upon what kind of risks are at stake and who is at risk from potentially risky behavior. In fact, most civilizations make dangerous behavior criminal. Tort laws makes people follow standards of great care to avoid harm to others once they are on notice that what they are doing is dangerous. In fact, if the harm occurs once someone is engaged in dangerous behavior, the law presumes the person causing the harm acted negligently. In such cases, defendants can’t defend themselves by claiming there was no proof that what they were doing would cause harm, they must be careful if great harm is possible even if unproven under civil law.
The duty to be careful to not harm others even in cases where the proof of harm is uncertain is widely accepted around the world in such international law principles as the “No harm Principle.” Under the No Harm Principle, nations are expected to prevent potential harm to other nations once they have reason to believe that activities in their countries are putting others at risk, they may not wait until absolute proof has been established to cease dangerous behavior.
US law has different rules for levels of proof and burden of proof depending on what is at stake. Criminal law requires the prosecutor to prove a defendant is guilty “beyond reasonable doubt”, civil law usually only requires proof by a “balance of the evidence”: Most cultures would require very high levels of proof to prove somethings is safe if a scientist is engaged in very dangerous behavior such as creating a black hole that could suck in the entire universe. In other words, norms of research science are not always applicable to public policy disputes. Sometimes public policy requires more proof and sometimes far less proof than required in scientific research depending upon what is at stake, who is at risk, and whether the uncertainties can be resolved before putting others at risk.
Before claiming that something is a risk, however, scientists should also have to follow certain rules or norms as a matter of ethics. These include they should be very, very clear that they have not proven cause and effect, they should acknowledge all uncertainties, and they should subject their reasoning to public scrutiny and reasonable debate. Care when making a claim about unproven risks in public policy disputes is also ethically essential.
III The Two Roles and Climate Change and Ethics.
When it comes to climate change and other complex problems humans are facing, confusion between these two different roles of science is rampant and is at the heart of the opposition between opposing camps. The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, for instance, has sometimes made conclusions based upon the “balance of the evidence” The ideological climate skeptics, (to be distinguished from reasonable skepticism) often publicizes what is not known about these issues and ignores what is known and at the same time has accused those who have identified plausible but unproven risks as doing “bad science.” This is happening over and over again. On the other hand, environmental activists sometimes act as if their claims are made on the basis the norms of research science when at best they have only satisfied the norms of science engaged in its public policy role.
To resolve this confusion certain things are needed. They include:
(a) greater clarity about the role science is playing in any given debate,
(b) acknowledgement that there is an important “public policy” role for science that is different from its role in basic research, and in such cases high levels of proof are not always required by ethical considerations.
(c) a willingness to engage in public dialogue about the basis for any identified but unproven risks.
In a recent post on Tornadoes and Climate Change, ClimateEthics explained the main reasons why we may not claim that intensity and frequency of tornadoes will increase in warming world. They are (1) the trend data inconclusiveness, (2) there are scientific grounds for eventual reduction of shear winds in a warming world, and (3) possible eventual temperature difference decreases in a warming world. Because tornado propagation is sensitive to sheer wind and differences between warm and cold air masses meeting, tornado intensity and frequency may not increase in a warming world.
Yet, we explained there is also reasonable basis for concern that a warming world may at least temporarily increase tornado damage including the fact that oceans are now warmer, and regional ocean circulation cycles such as La Nina/El Nino patterns in the Pacific which affect upper atmospheric conditions appear to becoming more chaotic under the influence of climate change. And so there is a reason to believe, for instance, that instead of having a La Nina event in the Pacific once every six or seven years followed by an El Nino, the Pacific ocean will cycle between these extremes at faster rates in a warming world. More frequent La Ninas may make tornado propagation in the central US more frequent if not more destructive.
We also know that in a warming world we have more water vapor in the atmosphere and some regional water bodies including the Gulf Of Mexico are warmer now then in recent times most likely under the influences of climate change.
Yet. we stressed that if we talk about these risks of climate change influencing tornado propagation, all uncertainties should be fully and honestly acknowledged and the honest absence of proof claims must be clear.
Whether these are legitimate concerns can’t be decided simply on the basis of science in its research role but must be delegated to science in its public policy role. In such a role, the debate should be about given what we know about a warming world are these reasonable risks. In such cases, reasonableness cant be decided under the rule of research science unless someone is claiming that the scientific proof is in. These disputes must instead be settled on the basis of whether there is a reasonable basis for concern not withstanding lack of final proof. If there is, ethics would say we must identify these risks, not simply ignore ignore them, although care is needed in how these matters are discussed.
ClimateEthics believes that the climate change debate would be greatly improved if civil society would acknowledge these different legitimate roles for science.
Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University.
I. Identifying Links Between Climate Change and Tornadoes?
The outbreak of recent killer weather events including US tornadoes hitting Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama has everyone asking whether there is a link between tornadoes and human-induced climate change. In this writer’s experience when US TV or radio weathermen are asked about the cause of recent strong tornadoes, they most always ignore climate change as a potential cause and point to a cyclical ocean circulation event known as La Niña as the cause of recent tornadoes if they comment on causation at all.
Rarely is human-induced climate change mentioned as a cause or contributing factor in the recent outbreak of sever tornadoes although questions about causation are becoming more frequent on TV and newspapers in this writer’s experience.
This post argues that ethics requires acknowledging the links between tornadoes and climate change despite scientific uncertainties about increased frequency and intensity of tornadoes in a warming world. However, because there are also scientific reasons to doubt that tornado propagation and intensity will increase in a warming world, as we shall see, care is necessary about how we should discuss these risks.
As we shall see there are certain aspects of atmospheric conditions necessary to produce violent tornadoes that climate change is enhancing while there are other atmospheric conditions necessary to form tornadoes about which scientists are uncertain exactly how a warming world will affect them. To figure out whether climate change will cause more intense and frequent tornadoes requires asking lots of smaller questions about the atmospheric conditions necessary to produce tornadoes and to determine how climate change will affect each of these various atmospheric conditions that combine to propagate tornadoes.
Before discussing tornadoes, it is important to note that it is scientifically uncontroversial to conclude that climate change is causing more violent weather particularly in the form of: (a) more damaging thunder storms, (b) the kind of devastating flooding we have seen this year in Australia, Pakistan, Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, along the Mississippi and the Tennessee valleys, and (c) more severe droughts such as those experienced this year in China, Brazil, and Texas. Similarly more intense hurricanes have been linked to climate change although it is still uncertain whether global warming will increase hurricane frequency. (Emanuel, 2005)
Most climate scientists agree that future weather will be characterized by far more chaotic weather causing greater damage to human life, health and ecological systems and so tornadoes are not the only intense weather events that could be enhanced by climate change and that will likely cause increased damage and suffering. .
It also can be said that in one way climate change is already changing all global weather including tornadoes. This is so because climate change has already caused changes to the global climate system such as raising ocean temperatures and increasing the amount of water in the atmosphere. Increased ocean temperatures and the water content of air have an effect on the amount and timing of precipitation that is being experienced in any one location. And so a strong claim can be made that climate change is now at least partially responsible for all global weather although the part played by climate change could be small for any individual climate event relative to other causes such as normal ocean circulation patterns. Yet, no tornado or hurricane experienced recently would likely be the same without some contribution from climate change. That is no tornado would appear at the same place, the same time, with the same wind speed without changes to the climate system that have been caused by human impacts on climate And so every tornado is very likely affected somewhat by climate change. That is although strong tornadoes have occurred before recent human-induced climate change, no recent tornado is likely to have happened in the same way at the same place in the absence of global warming.
This is not to say, however, that the intensity and frequency of tornadoes will surely increase in the years ahead.. Yet, although it is not clear that climate change will be responsible for more tornado caused damages, other kinds of storm damages are virtually certain to increase.
This post, however, looks at links between tornado intensity and frequency and climate change and what ethics requires when discussing these links. That is, this post does not examine other links between climate change and damaging weather.