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Climatologists and moral choices

Yesterday's posts seemed to generate quite a lot of heat, with several commenters reading rather more into them than they should. The object was not to blame climatologists for the actions that their climate models are used to justify, but to ask them what they thought about those actions. I had hoped that we might get some condemnation of the attempts to prevent Africans getting access to fossil fuels, but there was nothing along these lines.

As an aside, I should point out that it is my understanding that these attempts span more than just coal - it's the whole range of fossil fuels that politicians are now seeking to sideline, as this paper makes clear.

...under US Senate Bill S.329 (2013) the Overseas Private Investment Corporation – a federal agency responsible for backstopping U.S. companies which invest in developing countries – is essentially prohibited from investing in energy projects that involve fossil fuels...

Nevertheless, the question of whether climatologists should carry any blame for the use to which their climate models are put is an interesting one. Echoing commenters on the original thread, I certainly think we should not blame Sabatier when one of their carving knives is used to kill someone. A climate model is a virtual world. It is therefore entirely amoral. How could one possibly attach any blame to someone for the mere fact of having written some computer code (campaigns against computer games manufacturers notwithstanding)?

I think that climate models should be mere academic playthings, a guise in which they are entirely harmless. Moreover, there may even be a degree of cross-party agreement here: just a few days ago, Richard Betts commented that

...models are useful for understanding the climate system but cannot predict the future of climate, as it's just too complicated.

I certainly agree with the statement as written, although I think we disagree on the implications. I would argue that it implies that we should discount any virtual future coming out of the climate models very heavily, or even entirely. Richard, however, disagrees:

...for me, the very fact that we can't predict the results of our influence on climate is a reason for concern not comfort. I don't see convincing reasons to trust projections of small amounts of future warming any more than those of large warming - current understanding doesn't allow us to rule out either of these possibilities.

(Exactly how to respond to this concern is of course a further issue. Recognising that there is a risk does not mean that steps to reduce the risk are themselves easy or risk-free.)

In other words, Richard thinks we should not be discounting the climate predictions very much or even at all. He is there with the low-discount approach advocated by Lord Stern and others. One's choice of discount rate is a personal preference and a reflection of moral values, worldview and other things, so Richard and Lord Stern are entitled to make this choice. Many others - environmentalists and climatologists alike - make the same choice. They call for mitigation of climate change, repeatedly so, and they condemn those, like me, who dissent.

We need to examine carefully what is implied by calling for action. When presented with a problem like climate change we can do something or do nothing. As Lomborg repeatedly notes, if you do an old fashioned cost-benefit analysis and you discount the future in traditional fashion, it turns out that there are umpteen other humanitarian crises that should be addressed before the climate. For Lomborg, the answer is "do nothing" (or "do nearly nothing" - perhaps just some technological research).

But if your moral/ethical compass directs you to discount the future not at all then climate change in the distant future becomes the most pressing issue bar none. You should be mitigating climate change in any way you can; money should be diverted from helping people alive today to helping people yet to be born. You should be raising energy prices for everyone and you should be keeping fossil fuels out of the hands of poor people in the developing world. These things are unpleasant but are simply the road of least harm. It is not an immoral choice, although it is certainly different to the moral choice I would make.

So my message to climatologists is this. If you are quietly working away at your climate models and publishing your papers then no blame can attach to you. But if you are calling for mitigation of climate change and demanding that politicians leap into action, you have made your moral/ethical choices. You have assessed the alternatives; you have chosen your discount rate and it is a low one. And as I have just pointed out this necessarily means accepting more harm now in order to avoid harm in the future.

So when those present-day harms are pointed out to you, you must accept that they are the consequences of the choices you made.

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Reader Comments (213)

I see little difference between Bishop Hill's framing of the situation and that of climate change activists and scientists telling us there will be doom in store for future generations. Whether it is 'death trains' carrying coal or stories of present and future climate change related deaths and refugees.

Bishop Hill's question lifts a veil on how casually pessimistic about the future climate science tends to be.

Bishop Hill wrote:

So my message to climatologists is this. If you are quietly working away at your climate models and publishing your papers then no blame can attach to you.

I don't think that is enough these days given how intermingled the science and the policies have become. It seems to me that climate scientists tend to conclude that more climate science is needed. Those scientists ought to be speaking out when their inconclusive papers are used to shore up definitive policy decisions or media reports. It does happen now and then but not often enough for my liking.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterGareth


The effects of the policy on Africans could be deliberate or it could be an unintended consequence. Some environmentalists see humans as a plague upon the planet, and have said so, so I can see where MCourtney is coming from. However, there was nothing in my question that implied that I thought that any climatologists think this way.

I have written at some length here about how the decisions that have been are not immoral, if one accepts that the future should not be discounted. Do you accept low discounting? If so, what offence can you take? - the actions taken have been entirely moral within your chosen discounting scheme. If you do not accept low discounting, then like me you will surely abhor the policy.

I know, I know, you are offended.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:08 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

ATTP, have you been as vociferous condeming warmists who've not only accused sceptics of diabolical crimes but called for us to be ill treated and/or killed?

M Courtney, I disagree. Warmists and other environmentalists are hurt because they think they're the good guys. When they talk about population reduction there's no route from thought to success. They don't fill in the messy details of how population is going to fall. Apparently that's someone else's responsibility. Literally. So if population doesn't fall it's the fault of the policy makers. If the means of population reduction are unpleasant then that's also the fault of the people in charge. They do not allow that there might not be a nice solution, where nobody suffers.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

The problem is that people are so insulated in comfy teaching or administrative jobs or working for NGOs that they never come into contact with constraints and tradeoffs. They live in a conceptual world where all that is necessary to solve a problem is to "dialogue" and "raise awareness" (on homelessness, racism, sexism, peace). They never take a concrete action and stick around to see how well it works or what the side effects are. In this world, raising gas prices and closing all coal plants is merely a concept. They don't even bother imagining what happens to a taxi driver when gas is $10/gal (US) or think about the US policy to not support fossil fuel plants in Africa. These are compartmented away and they simply deny them.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterCraig Loehle

M Courtney, I think most green supporters don't really want lots of poor people in the third world to die, as such. They just want the problem to 'go away' without having to actually think too hard about the consequences of the policies they espouse.

Humans have a certain mental capacity for this. A bit like a dog-walker "exercising" their animal in a public park after a meal, there is often a tendency to look the other way while the event is happening. That's before they were required to pick it up in a plastic bag.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:23 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Kim, you must not conflate climate science with fairy stories. Climate of Gavin is concerned that one good blow, could destroy all the strawmen, and the three little piggies' silver filled trough. Then where would Goldilocks go to scrounge porridge (at precisely the correct temperature) and a bed for the night?

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

More discussion would be nice to flesh out the gathering understanding, but I gotta write this down before the insight fades.

I've long considered the consensus alarm about catastrophe to be an Extraordinary Popular Delusion and Madness of the Crowd, and a 'precious conceit of a Western elite'. Though 'precious' and 'conceit' are used in a somewhat archaic manner, and are little understood, the phrase is hard to abandon thanks to the demands of beauty and the beasts.

These precious Westerners, possibly from conscious and unconscious guilt, have perverted a marvelously development of human society(warming, greening and otherwise improving society in a manifest and manifold manner), and taken it to be a bad, and something about which to feel guilt, admit blame and responsibility, and offer cure and payments in penitence.

The third world, represented most powerfully by the BRICs, recognizes this Western delusion, and though paying lip service to it, is happy to take reparations and to continue apace with its own development. They seem somehow to understand that the warming and greening accomplished by man is a good in itself and nothing to be ashamed of. Improved society of humanity is frosting on the cake, laid thickly.

There you have it, kim's latest baedecker to Peas, Paris and the Whirled.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:25 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

I'll add - they don't even have a clear picture of which populations will decline. They're the sort of liberal people who would be horrified if we suggested it was the developing world that needed curbs and they would also strongly favour minority immigration to wealthy countries, despite the attendant CO2 increase to their lifestyle. I think they just want people to try for a Darwin Award or just to politely fade away.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2


However, there was nothing in my question that implied that I thought that any climatologists think this way.

Yes, I know there was nothing in the question that explicitly implied it but that you can say this

I can see where MCourtney is coming from.

means that people don't trust that it is an honest question and that what MCourtney said isn't implied. This is not complicated. For goodness sake, can you not at least acknowledge the issue? If you run a site where you condone statements like that made by MCourtney noone is going to regard your question as not loaded. You may not mean it to be loaded, but how you want people to interpret it is irrelevant. They will interpret it based on how you behave and what you condone.

I know, I know, you are offended.

I'm not really. I'm trying to understand how someone who claims to have some knowledge of this complex issue cannot see this very basic point. I'm trying to understand how someone who complains about labelling and the state of the debate won't acknowledge the role that they play and how what they say can influence the likelihood of sensible dialogue. What I'm concluding is that none of what you say is sincere and that this is all some kind of elaborate game in which you play the victim when it suits you and victimise others when that suits you. That you can do it so blatantly is what amazes me most. The only reason you continue to get away with it is that almost everyone else who holds the view that I do can't be bothered to state it publicly. Partly because it's really not worth it and partly because you and your defenders then whine about tone if they do. It's very clever and very effective. As for honest and decent; I'll leave that for you to determine as an exercise.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:31 PM | Unregistered Commenter...and Then There's Physics

Ken, one of the ironies of the use of the term 'denier' and its association with the Holocaust, is that it is most often used by those who are denying their own complicity in an implied holocaust.

There is that loaded enough for you? Don't point either of those questions at yourself unless the safety is on.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:43 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

You would leave the least among us the most vulnerable to natural disasters, while depriving them of the ability to protect themselves from natural disasters by the phony rationale of denying them fossil fuels because of an imagined and unproven connection of said fossil fuels with natural disasters.

There's heapin' helpin's of hypocrisy here, growing insidiously into mountains of evil.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:51 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

ATTP, Do you not remember 10:10? Your side thought simulating blowing up kids was an ok way to get your point across. What could we possibly say that could compare?

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Ken Rice I'm trying to understand...

Given that you have stated on many occasions here, and on recent threads on the same topic that there is nothing to understand, that you already understand, or that the problem is that others don't understand you, and that discussion here is futile, the idea that you are trying to understand seems a little hard to believe.

Moreover, it seems that in your quest for 'understanding', you are rather more keen on making statements than interrogating an issue.

In other words, it seems that your understanding is a little bit 'loaded'.

You say that the question AM asks is offensive. And then you say you're not offended, you're just trying to understand.

You should make your mind up.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

In the post mortems that followed Climategate, Climate Science agreed to a consensus, that they had a communication problem, not a science problem. They were 50% right, and very pleased as a result.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

Ken Rice - all some kind of elaborate game in which you play the victim

Projection. Hypocrisy. Vacillation. All in one.

I propose we play ATTP Bingo.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

ATTP, as you're a scientist, why not try a little experiment: let a number of your students read the Bishop's statement (without pre-loading their judgement by explaining what 'you' think of it) and then ask them what they make of it.

I suspect this experiment may not be performed as it may not give an unacceptable answer. Worse still, it may actually get them thinking about the subject and reason for themselves the real-world 'issues' it raises... as the old saying goes, 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'.

Apr 17, 2015 at 3:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterDave Salt


"oil is a natural product the Earth generates constantly"

Gosh - does that make it a renewable..?

Apr 17, 2015 at 4:04 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

I think we can conclude that Ken is unable to respond to any of my points.

Apr 17, 2015 at 4:21 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

The developing countries are already drawing their conclusions and turning towards China for securing access to energy and development:

Apr 17, 2015 at 4:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterPethefin

Since the AGW-faithful might find it unthinkable to go visit WUWT for information, referenced in my previous post, here's a link to the original NYT article:

Apr 17, 2015 at 4:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterPethefin

jamesp does that make oil renewable?

No, it makes oil reliable.

"Renewable" as in power supplies, does not exist. It is a Green myth. A term designed to deceive.

If there is a wind powered wind mill factory, or a solar-powered solar panel factory, it is a closely guarded secret, much like all of the other great success stories of climate science.

But nobody is allowed to think this

Apr 17, 2015 at 4:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

[Sorry, you're done]

Apr 17, 2015 at 4:53 PM | Unregistered Commenter...and Then There's Physics

We are accused of lack of commitment and vision.
Apr 17, 2015 at 2:16 PM | Ashby Lynch

I think I've discovered what a 'visionary' is in the greenie world: someone who talks out of the wrong orifice to people who understand even less than they do.

Apr 17, 2015 at 5:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterAllan M

Climate science remains in Denial, about whipping up hatred against the harmless CO2 molecule, and all who defend it.

Climate science Denies any responsibility for any of the consequences of their hatred, and blames everybody, but themselves. Repeatedly.

Meanwhile as pethefin notes, China is starting to lend money to projects deemed unworthy by US controlled institutions, and this does not bode well for the UN controlled institutions.

The humble CO2 molecule proves its power on the planet after all.

Apr 17, 2015 at 5:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

Put bluntly, climatologists created fear and alarm using the output of flawed models that had not been validated and which have long since proved to be of zero predictive value.

The normal scientific approach was trashed along the way. The warming was not unprecedented, the hot spot does not exist, they do not understand and did not consider the huge drivers of our climate, eg AMO, PDO. They have no explanation for the pause. Their models did not foresee that either.

They are still guilty of not clarifying to policy makers that they greatly exaggerated the problem. If they think otherwise, then let them explain why, with good, convincing evidence.

Apr 17, 2015 at 5:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

Schrodinger's Cat, do you think it is time that climate science denied the Hockey Stick, and blamed sceptics for imagining it in the first place?

Apr 17, 2015 at 6:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

"Anyway, that's enough from me."

Hopes were raised, then dashed again.

Apr 17, 2015 at 6:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterDaveS

[Sorry, you're done]

He said so many times "he is done" (after he said "think harder") that I am happy you helped him being done.

Apr 17, 2015 at 6:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterWijnand

Golf Charlie - Climatologists could have allowed good scientific debate from the beginning but they suppressed it. They used pal review and intimidation to shut down dissent. This is well documented in the ClimateGate emails.They or their supporters are still hounding critics out of their jobs. This is not the scientific way, it is mafia style thuggery. They condone it by not speaking out against it..

I recognise that they are some decent, honest climatologists who cannot afford to speak out for fear of losing their jobs but that does not alter the fact that as a scientific discipline, there is something deeply rotten at its very core.

That is why I think that BH will never get the response that he is seeking.

Apr 17, 2015 at 6:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

Only a small number of scientists are responsible for this. The real culprits are 'journalists' - BBC and Guardian.

I am now a Guardian denier. If anyone says 'aren't you a Guardian reader ?' I will reply. Not me, I've only ever read the Beano and Viz, occasionally the Bunty and Smash Hits.

Apr 17, 2015 at 6:47 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

The question, “Should developing countries use fossil fuels?” is a very important one, not least for the developing countries. At this point in time, I think that they should.

However, there is a much larger question. Let me set the scene.

The warmist position, massively over-simplified, is that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and as long as it (and water vapour) increases in our atmosphere, the earth will warm. There may be delays, pauses and downturns but the direction of travel is clear.

The sceptical position is slightly more complex. Warming is also caused by natural events such as ocean cycles, perhaps solar influences and therefore the warming attributed to CO2 is exaggerated. Furthermore, water vapour feedback may be negative, not positive with cloud cover providing a thermostat.

These are not meant to be absolute definitions but just give a flavour of the scientific differences. As a scientist, I consider these sorts of differences to be quite reasonable and I profoundly regret the unnecessary level of polarisation that we have today.

The polarisation, to be blunt, is “Use legislation to reduce CO2 emissions or the planet will suffer catastrophic warming.” The opposing view is that warming will be in the range negligible – beneficial - adaptable without the need for panic.

The current status in the non-debate is that the establishment has been sold the warmist view and increasingly CO2 and fossil fuels are being banished. In the developing world, this means that they will never experience the benefits of electricity.

In the developed world, this will mean that they will soon experience the reality of the developing world. In the rush to renewables, the politicians, warmists and Greens have ignored the fact that you simply cannot run a grid on them. It is not going to happen, we will have huge problems.

Unfortunately, apart from nuclear and hydro there not much else. My point is that the developed world is heading towards the same situation as the developing world.

The question, “Can we use fossil fuels?” will be as relevant in Europe and in America as in Africa. This will focus attention on the debate outlined above, the warmist position and the sceptical position. Which position is right?

By this time, the political compass will have switched direction. What politician is prepared to contemplate a developed country with intermittent power?

The practical politician, if there is such a thing, will favour the sceptical approach. If we have a hiatus or even cooling at that time, there will be no obstacle, except the wailing of the Greens.

My advice is that the climatology community should consider having a constructive debate with the sceptics to see if they can arrive at something better than polarisation. But then, that is what we should have seen since the very start. I shall not hold my breath.

Apr 17, 2015 at 7:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

esmiff, grauniad-but what about all the comedy pages headed 'Environment' 'Science' 'Economics' 'Finance' 'Business' etc. They are also good for lighting fires, if you can ever stop laughing

Apr 17, 2015 at 7:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie


I am afraid that hoping for constructive debate with warmists is akin to having suggested that Hitler sit down and discuss peace with the allies to end WW2 before it got going. People have agendas and only the advancement of those agendas will satisfy them.

Apr 17, 2015 at 7:50 PM | Registered CommenterDung

Golf Charlie; "They are also good for lighting fires"

You could be onto something there - how about recycling the discarded copies of the grauniad along with all the paper-based green bullsh** into pellets that could be shipped to the third world and used as an alternative to fossil fuels or dung? In fact, why not do this before they are even distributed, thus cutting out the middleman.

Apr 17, 2015 at 8:00 PM | Registered CommenterSalopian

Dung, I do apologise if my references to dung fire caused you any offence.

Apr 17, 2015 at 8:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

Salopian, the merits of your suggestion fail on one simple fact.

The Grauniads continued existence is due to the generous Trust Fund set up many years ago. There must be some clause preventing the Trustees simply winding up the Grauniad and the Trust fund and sharing out the spoils, so instead, the Trustees have enabled themselves to extract as much money per year as possible, which they call a salary, safe in the knowledge, that they can print any old garbage, in perpetuity.

Obviously this only works by exercising sound business expertise in choosing people worthy enough, to justify a life long income, for doing not a lot, especially when it comes to asking difficult questions.

Apr 17, 2015 at 8:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

This is ATTP's latest tweet:

@davidappell @theresphysics @BjornLomborg Might be a good idea to actually read the article & then to try to understand what they say

It's like a twitter/blog bot: keep saying the same thing over and over, "...might be a good idea to actually read x and then x ..."

Apr 17, 2015 at 8:17 PM | Registered Commentershub

To paraphrase Upton Sinclair -

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary and his whole belief system depends on his not understanding it.”

Apr 17, 2015 at 8:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterChuckles


Godwin's Law Klaxon !!

Incidentally, TheBigYinJames is completely right about you and your discussion thread.

Apr 17, 2015 at 8:37 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Betts

@ Shrodingers cat

If the west does not help the third world then someone else will. So even if the warmists are right in all their theories and assumptions about the climate, from a geo-political point of view, their policy is mad.

if we are right, their policy is mad
if they are right, their policy is mad
if neither is right, their policy is mad

hell in a handcart

Apr 17, 2015 at 8:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterEternalOptimist

Shub, history repeats itself, and the same people don't learn.

Do you ever get deja vu?

Apr 17, 2015 at 8:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

Nothing warmists/lefties say makes sense unless you account for the inclusion in their narrative of an entity imbued with godlike magical powers: the government.

Tradeoffs apply to mere mortals, not the omnipotent and morally infallible State.

Compared to the divine power of the State, making energy more expensive for Africans without increasing fuel poverty is a mere parlour trick. Whether to have the cake of a prosperous Africa or eat it in the name of a moralistic energy policy is not a choice that has ever to be made. And everybody knows that Satan capitalism causes fuel poverty anyway.

And if Africans ever did manage to lift themselves out of poverty via capitalism that would be yet another embarrassing humiliation for the Guardianistas. Better to nip it in the bud and let them starve.

Apr 17, 2015 at 10:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterJake Haye

I think part of the problem today can be attributed to the Bish's wording of the thread title.

"Climatologists and moral choices"

Climate Science does not include the word "moral" in their computer modelled dictionary.

Obviously none of this would have happened if he had read and understood the title.

Apr 17, 2015 at 10:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

... long on petulance but short on detailed argument.

And Then There's Petulance?

Sorry, couldn't resist.

Apr 17, 2015 at 10:38 PM | Unregistered Commentergraphicconception

Just posted this on an older thread but it sort of fits better here - - a bit dark if you're feeling sensitive.....but is the ultimate moral question for those who worry about the climate.

Apr 17, 2015 at 10:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterMichael Spurrier

Read the thread, and could not help noticing it reflects all that is both ' right' and 'wrong' in this great politicized debate. The 'green' consequences to underdeveloped regions is causing consternation amongst greens. Am sure China and India''s reactions prior to COP21 ate notmhelping their cognitive dissonve. Plainly a treffer argument, so strawmen and diversions pop up endlessly. Somebody else brings in thoroughly discredited abiotic oil theory. (abiotic methane exists, the question is whether there are meaningful accumulations that can be tapped.) And so forth.

Shows the best comms policy is to keep things simple (african energy), rebut short and sharp the ridiculous (abiotic oil), and never feed troll diversions.

Apr 17, 2015 at 10:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterRud Istvan

I beg the Bishop's ardon, but could he have overlooked the manifesto-writing classes self interest?

Any physiologist can confirm that physiocrats, like the rest of us, respond to rising temperatures by losing about one IQ point per degree over 70 F.

Apr 17, 2015 at 10:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

Hi Rud,
Too bad the abiotic oil theory is discredited thouroughly. Would have been nice. Could you please post a link to the discrediting article? Very interested, thanks in advance!

Apr 17, 2015 at 11:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterWijnand

Thouroughly should be thoroughly.

Apr 17, 2015 at 11:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterWijnand

Russell I don't know why you are begging the Bishop's 'ardon, but it must have been very hot in those physics labs.

Apr 17, 2015 at 11:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

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