"Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign"
by Donald A. Brown, cross-posted from the Penn State Climate Ethics Blog
Over the next few weeks, ClimateEthics will take a deeper look at what has been referred to as the “climate change disinformation campaign” through an ethical lens. Although ClimateEthics has examined these issues briefly before, see: An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?, this is the first in a series of posts that will examine this phenomenon in depth.
Later entries will look in more detail at specific tactics used by this movement. Because skepticism in science should be encouraged rather than vilified, the last entry in this series will make recommendations about norms that should guide responsible skepticism in climate science.
The climate disinformation campaign can be understood as a movement of organizations and individuals that can be counted on to systematically attack mainstream climate change science in ways that radically depart from responsible scientific skepticism. In the next entry we will look more closely at what we mean by a “campaign” or “movement.”
This series is based upon the assumption that skepticism in science is essential to increase understanding of the natural world. Yet, ideologically based disinformation is ethically abhorrent particularly in regard to behaviors about which there is credible scientific support for the conclusion that human activities threaten life and the ecological systems on which life depend. This report focuses on specific tactics that have been deployed in the climate change disinformation campaign. It is not a critique of responsible skepticism. The tactics that will be examined in detail include:
- Lying Or Reckless Disregard For the Truth
- Focusing On Unknowns While Ignoring The Knowns
- Specious Claims Of “Bad” Science
- Creation of Front Groups
- Manufacturing Bogus Climate Science
- Think Tank Campaigns
- Misleading PR Campaigns.
- Creation of Astroturf Groups
- Cyber-bullying Scientists and Journalists
The series will demonstrate that the controversy over climate change science that has unfolded in the last twenty years is a strong example of the urgent need to create new societal norms about how to deal with scientific uncertainty for human problems about which there is a justifiable scientific basis for great concern but uncertainty about the consequences of human actions.
The philosopher Hans Jonas argued that scientific uncertainty about the consequences of technologies that have great potential for good and harm create new, profound ethical challenges for the human race. (Jonas, 1979). This is so because although humans are now capable of engaging in technologically mediated behavior that may create great harm as well as good, traditional ethical reasoning relied upon through the course of recent human civilization is not up to the challenges of dealing with scientific uncertainty that needs to be considered in response to these new technologies. That is, because of the magnitude and power of these technologies that humans can now harness, humans are often unable to predict the extent of the harms that may be created by the use of these powerful new forces because of the complexity of ecological systems and the scope of the kinds of impacts that may be caused by these technologies.
In light of the fact that accurate predictions may not be made about whether great harms will be caused by these new technologies when decisions must be made about them, Jonas claimed that the ethics of dealing with scientific uncertainty may be the most pressing ethical problem facing the human race.
Jonas believed that previous ethical reasoning is challenged when humans are confronted with the potentially harmful consequences of technology but uncertainties about the nature of the harms, uncertainties that could take decades to be resolved if they can be resolved at all. Because of this, Jonas argued that ethics requires that humans must apply a “heuristics of fear” to their deliberations about whether they should deploy new potentially harmful technologies about which there is reasonable scientific basis for concern. That is, decision-makers should assume the harms will occur if there is a scientific basis for concern that significant harms could occur. Jonas claimed that in such situations, precaution is both ethically mandated and may be necessary for human survival. Furthermore, precaution in these situations requires that those who propose dangerous activities assume the burden of proof to show that the activities are safe. This is especially true for human behaviors that could create catastrophic harms. When burdens of proof should shift is a complex ethical question but without doubt an ethical question at its core, not a “value-neutral” scientific matter alone. To determine when burdens should shift, ethics would require that other questions be examined such as who may be harmed, have they consented to be put at risk, what is at stake, will waiting to resolve the uncertainties make the problem much worse, who wants to use uncertainty as an excuse for continuing dangerous behavior, what is the probability that great harms could be triggered by the behavior in question, and other questions.
Climate change is an extraordinary example of the kind of problem that Jonas was worried about. That is so because it is a problem about which there will always be some uncertainty about the precise impacts from human-induced warming, yet these impacts are potentially catastrophic particularly for tens of millions of current people and innumerable members of future generations. Therefore great care must be taken in considering uncertainty about climate change. That is, climate change is a problem about which some facts are uncertain (although as we shall see, there is a strong scientific consensus about many aspects of this problem), yet the stakes are extraordinarily high.
If Jonas is right, great care is called for when considering human responsibilities for climate change particularly in regard to how scientific uncertainty about climate change impacts are considered, discussed, and identified. Jonas foresaw the ethical challenges entailed by decision-making in the face of uncertainty for a problem like climate change but perhaps underestimated how economic interests aligned with the technologies threatening humanity would distort public discussion of the potential harms created by human activities.
This series will both review the climate change disinformation campaign in light of these concerns and make recommendations about what should be expected from scientific skepticism in light of the issues of concern to Jonas. The series will further argue, in light of the tactics of the disinformation campaign, that deeper societal reflection about the norms that should guide public discussions of scientific uncertainty is urgently needed.
II. Climate Science and Uncertainty
Climate change must be understood to be at its core an ethical problem because: (a) it is a problem caused by some people in one part of the world who are threatening people who are often far away in time and space and poor, (b) the harms to these victims are potentially catastrophic, and (c) the victims can’t protect themselves by petitioning their governments. The victims must hope that those causing the problem will see that their ethical duties to those whom they may be harming requires them to lower their greenhouse gas emissions.
Because climate change is an ethical problem, those causing the problem may not use self-interest alone as justification for policy responses; they must fulfill responsibilities, obligations and duties to others. Because climate change is a moral problem, those who are putting others at risk through no fault of their own have a special duty to be precautious about scientific uncertainty. If anything, the need for care in considering harms from powerful technology recognized by Jonas is even more salient in the case of a problem like climate change because it is a problem that is caused by some that are putting others at great risk.that have not consented to be threatened.
This series should not be construed to discourage scientific skepticism. Skepticism is both the oxygen and catalyst of science. Climate science continues to need skeptical approaches to current understandings of how human activities may affect the climate to help scientists understand what we don’t know about human impacts on the climate system.
However, a review of the tactics used by the scientific disinformation campaign will reveal that these tactics can’t be construed as the application of reasonable scientific skepticism, but, as we shall see, often constitute malicious, morally reprehensible disinformation. Yet these tactics provide important lessons about norms that should guide reasonable skepticism.
This series should also not be interpreted to discourage free speech. Some people that have echoed the misinformation on climate science produced by others are simply repeating what others have said. Yet free speech is morally reprehensible if it deceives people about vitally important matters. For instance, it would be morally reprehensible to tell a child laying on a railroad track that no train was coming if the person telling the child did not have strong evidence for the claim that no train was actually coming. For this reason, a case can be made that despite free speech, all public claims about climate change should be made carefully. Although all people are free to state their views on the dangers of climate change, if they are claiming that they are experts to convince a wider public about what climate science entails, they have a special duty to be very careful about their claims.
Now it is undoubtedly true that a few that have argued in support of climate change policies have exaggerated what the consensus science is saying about likely impacts of human activities that release greenhouse gases. A notable example of this was a movie, “The Day After Tomorrow,” that depicted extremely rapid climate change at rates far faster than would be supported any reasonable scientific speculation. Yet, the disinformation campaign discussed in this series is not simply attacking hyperbole on the part of those that support climate change policies, they are attacking the consensus view which has been based, as we shall see, upon peer-reviewed science, not on the worst hyperbole of climate change policy proponents. That is, this series examines the tactics of the disinformation campaign in relation to the view of mainstream science that has largely been established through the process of peer-review. However, we are not claiming that peer-reviewed science is the final word on any scientific issue, only that peer-review is the scientific process that has been established to prevent unsupportable scientific claims. Those who believe that the peer-reviewed literature on any scientific subject is untrustworthy must themselves subject their claims to peer-review particularly in the case of a problem like climate change, a matter about which the stakes are extraordinarily high and great care about uncertainty claims is ethically warranted.
Although one can find hyperbolic claims about climate change from those who support climate change policies, however, the consensus view does assume that human-induced climate change could be very catastrophic for some people and places if not most of the world. This is not hyperbole, it is where the mainstream science points as potential consequences of business-as-usual. Yet, to say that catastrophic consequences are possible is not to claim they are absolutely certain. All reasonable climate scientists will admit that there may be negative feedbacks in the climate system that we don’t understand. Yet the mainstream scientists claim that these negative feedbacks are increasingly unlikely. These worries are not hyperbolic, however, just because they are not proven. In fact, as we shall see, ethics actually requires people to act responsibly once it becomes evident that their actions could cause great harm. As a matter of ethics, responsibility does not start only when it is proven that behavior will cause great harm. For instance, laws of reckless endangerment that have been enacted around the world make dangerous behavior criminal. Defendants in reckless endangerment cases may not defend themselves on the grounds that the prosecution did not prove that their behavior would cause harm, the prosecution need only prove that the behavior could cause serious harm. That is potential harm is relevant to ethical considerations.
To understand the full moral unacceptability of the disinformation campaign, one must know something about the state of climate science. There is a “consensus” view on climate science that has been articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (IPCC, 2010a)
The IPCC was established by World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1988 to assess for governments the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of climate change, an identify its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation. (IPCC, 2010a) IPCC does not do original research but synthesizes and summarizes the extant peer-reviewed climate change science to make recommendations for governments and policy makers. (IPCC, 2010a)
Any government that is a member of the WHO or UNEP may be a member of IPCC. Currently 194 countries are members of the IPCC (IPCC, 2011). The coordinating work of the IPCC is the IPCC general assembly, where every member country has one vote. The IPCCs summary for policy makers requires unanimous agreement. Governments that have often opposed international action on climate change on scientific grounds because of economic concerns including the United States and Saudi Arabia, not to mention China and India who have been afraid that climate change policies could prevent their governments from lifting their poor out of poverty have the same power as governments that have traditionally strongly supported international action on climate change. Governments supporting international action on cliamte change include those in the European Union and many of the small island developing states including the Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Maldives. Given that the IPCC’s reports must be unanimously approved by all member countries, including representatives of countries that have for most of the history of international climate change negotiations opposed establishing international enforceable climate change regimes, one can conclude that there is broad consensus about IPCC’s scientific conclusions among all nations around the world. In light of the consensus process, it is not credible to conclude that IPCC’s conclusions are biased to overstating the risks of climate change. In addition, IPCC ties its conclusions to peer-reviewed evidence in thousands of foot-notes in their reports.
The first IPCC assessment report was published in 1990; the second in 1996; the third in 2001; and the fourth in 2007. Each IPCC report drew conclusions linking human activities to observable warming with increasing levels of certainty. (IPCC, 2010a) The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President of the United States Al Gore.
The Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) was completed in early 2007. Like previous reports, this assessment consisted of four reports, three of them from each of its working groups. Working Group I assesses the physical science basis for climate change. Working Group II examines climate change impacts. Working Group III assesses options for mitigating climate change through limiting greenhouse gas emissions or enhancing activities that remove carbon from the atmosphere. (IPCC, 2010b) In addition to the reports of these three Working Groups, AR4 also included a Synthesis Report. (IPCC, 2010c)
The Working Group I Summary for Policymakers in AR4 concluded that human actions were causing dangerous climate change with higher levels of certainty than in previous reports. Its key conclusions were that:
•Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.
• Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increases in anthropogenic (human) emissions greenhouse gas concentrations.
• Anthropogenic warming and sea level rise will continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations are stabilized, although the likely amount of temperature and sea level rise varies greatly depending on the fossil intensity of human activity during the next century.
• The probability that this is caused by natural climatic processes alone is less than 5%.
• World temperatures could rise by between 1.1 and 6.4 °C (2.0 and 11.5 °F) during the 21st century. As a result:
o Sea levels will probably rise by 18 to 59 cm (7.08 to 23.22 in.) during the 21st century.
o There is a confidence level greater than 90% that there will be more frequent warm spells, heat waves and heavy rainfall.
o There is a confidence level greater than 66% that there will be an increase in droughts, tropical cyclones and extreme high tides.
• Both past and future anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will continue to contribute to warming and sea level rise for more than a millennium.
• Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values over the past 650,000 years.
(IPCC 2007: Summary for Policy Makers)
Throughout this series we will refer to these IPCC conclusions about climate change as the “consensus” view because, as we will see, this view has been supported by almost all scientific organizations with expertise in relevant climate change science issues and most scientists that actually do climate change research.
By the early 1990s, a ”consensus” had developed in the scientific community that warming had occurred and that humans were at least partially responsible. (Edwards 2007:6)
Yet, criticisms of IPCC’s conclusions have been frequently made by skeptical scientists, some of whom are affiliated with conservative think tanks, while others are scientists playing the appropriate role of a scientific skeptic, a role necessary for science to advance, that is producing peer-reviewed scientific papers that challenge conventional scientific wisdom.
Skeptical claims about the consensus view are of many types and range from claims that IPCC is overestimating adverse climate change impacts to assertions that there is no evidence that observed warming is attributable to human actions. Some of the ideological climate change deniers discussed later in this series have argued that the entire body of science supporting the consensus view is a hoax.
Recent reports have concluded that the vast majority of scientists actually doing research in the field support the consensus scientific view. For example, a 2009 study–published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States–polled 1,372 climate researchers and resulted in the following two conclusions.
(i) 97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and
(ii) The relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.
(Anderegga et. al 2010)
Another poll performed in 2009 of 3,146 of known 10,257 Earth scientists concluded that 76 out of 79 climatologists who “listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change” believe that mean global temperatures have risen compared to pre-1800s levels, and 75 out of 77 believe that human activity is a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures. (Doran and Zimmerman, 2009)
In response to arguments from some climate change skeptics, many scientific organizations with expertise relevant to climate change have endorsed the consensus position that “most of the global warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities” including the following:
• American Association for the Advancement of Science
• American Astronomical Society
• American Chemical Society
• American Geophysical Union
• American Institute of Physics
• American Meteorological Society
• American Physical Society
• Australian Coral Reef Society
• Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
• Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO
• British Antarctic Survey
• Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
• Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
• Environmental Protection Agency
• European Federation of Geologists
• European Geosciences Union
• European Physical Society
• Federation of American Scientists
• Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
• Geological Society of America
• Geological Society of Australia
• International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA)
• International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
• National Center for Atmospheric Research
• National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
• Royal Meteorological Society
• Royal Society of the UK
(Skeptical Science, 2010)
The Academies of Science from nineteen different countries all endorse the consensus view. Eleven countries have signed a joint statement endorsing the consensus position.
• Academia Brasiliera de Ciencias (Brazil)
• Royal Society of Canada
• Chinese Academy of Sciences
• Academie des Sciences (France)
• Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)
• Indian National Science Academy
• Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
• Science Council of Japan
• Russian Academy of Sciences
• Royal Society (United Kingdom)
• National Academy of Sciences (USA):
(Skeptical Science, 2010):
From this it can be seen that the consensus view articulated by IPCC is strongly supported by the vast majority of climate change scientists that actually do research on human-induced climate change and organizations comprised of scientists with relevant climate change expertise. For this reason, the IPCC consensus position is entitled to strong respect that, at the very minimum, climate change poses a legitimate significant threat to human well-being and the natural resources on which life depends.
In fact, some critics have contended that the IPCC reports tend to underestimate climate change dangers and risks because the process that leads to the IPCC conclusions give representatives from countries that have consistently opposed the adoption of international climate regimes power to pressure the IPCC scientists to report only the lowest common denominator. (For a discussion of the limits of IPCC, see, Brown, 2008) In fact observations of actual greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations, temperatures, and sea level rise are near or exceeding IPCC worst-case predictions. One recent comparison of greenhouse gas concentrations, temperatures, and sea-level rise observations versus predictions concluded:
Overall, these observational data underscore the concerns about global climate change. Previous projections, as summarized by IPCC, have not exaggerated but may in some respects even have underestimated the climate changes that have been observed. (Rahmstorf et al., 2007)
It is important as a mater of ethics to remember that if the consensus view is wrong, it could be wrong in two directions. That is, not only could IPCC be overstating the magnitude and timing of climate change in the future, they may be understating the harshness of climate change harms..
However, even if one concludes that there is a strong scientific basis for the mainstream scientific conclusion that human-induced climate change is a great threat to people around the world and the ecological systems on which they depend, this does not mean that responsible scientific skepticism may not play an important role in climate change science in the future. Yet, as we shall see, much of the ideological climate disinformation that has been prominent in the climate change debate in the United States and a few other developed countries is sometimes deeply ethically abhorrent.
This consensus is not a consensus on all scientific issues in climate science; it is a consensus about the fact that the planet is warming, that this warming is largely human caused, and that under business-as-usual we are headed to potentially catastrophic impacts for humans and the natural resources on which life depends. Furthermore, these harms are likely to be most harshly experienced by many of the Earth’s poorest people.
Mainstream climate science openly acknowledges uncertainties that could affect the warming response of the global climate system to increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. As Hulme notes:
Some uncertainty originates from incomplete understanding of how the physical climate works-the effect of atmospheric aerosols on clouds, for example, or the role of deep oceans in altering surplus heat exchange. Some of these uncertainties can be reduced over tie, or at least quantified formally. Other sources of uncertainty emerge from the innate unpredictability of large, complex, chaotic systems such as the global atmosphere and oceans. (Holme, 2009 :83)
In fact all uncertainties about the impacts of human activities on the climate system will likely never completely be resolved. This is so because, the climate system is comprised of many interlocking systems including the atmosphere, the oceans, the cryosphere (ice and snow), the land surface (soil and reflecting substances), and the biosphere (ecosystems, agriculture, forests, etc). (Edwards, xv) It is also a chaotic system which means that small changes in inputs can create large system responses as thresholds are exceeded that create non-linear responses. It is very unlikely that humans will ever be able to eliminate all uncertainties that have confounded accurate climate system predictions. Yet the scientific basis for concluding that humans are affecting the climate system in a way that could cause harsh consequences for tens of millions of people is a matter about which a strong scientific consensus has emerged.
The next entry in this series will examine several specific tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign though an ethical lens after discussing the nature of the disinformation movement. The third in the series will examine other tactics of that have been deployed to undermine mainstream science. The last entry will make recommendations for responsible climate science skepticism in light of what was discussed earlier in the series and with full recognition that skepticism should be encouraged provided it plays by the rules of science.
Donald Brown is Associate Professor of Environmental Ethics, Science and Law at Penn State University. This piece was originally published at the Penn State Climate Ethics blog.
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