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« The Left does abhorrence - Josh 321 | Main | BBC joins Guardian divestment campaign »
Friday
Apr172015

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)

Brendon H

The conversation started with the Bishops question and your hesitance to state your position due to peer pressure. You have successfully added to the conversation as you have become bolder and overcome your inhibitions with us. We are not ogres and generally play nice with those who want to play nice, :-)

Apr 21, 2015 at 6:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterLord Beaverbrook

Note to Lord Beaverbrook: he has not actually answered the question, yet.

Brendan: you seem to misunderstand. Should you come on this site and offer valid arguments, with sound appliance of science, people would engage in discussion with you. Who knows – you might even get others to re-evaluate their position. But no, you come here, make strange aspersions without a drop of evidence to back you up, effectively hijacking the thread as people try to get you to answer a question, and quite a simple question at that. To rephrase it: do you think it wrong to deny poor people access to cheap electricity because generation of said electricity might – just might – have some, as yet unproven, effect upon global climate, thereby consigning those people to producing their own energy by methods proven to be detrimental to their health?

The fact that you have steadfastly refuse to answer a question that requires a simple yes or no answer hints that you are engaged in trolling. I would recommend that others do what I will now do, and ignore your comments until you do answer that very, very simple question.

Apr 21, 2015 at 10:12 AM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

Brendan...

"These are standard accusations that you see across the internet, including on this blog ... I take a similarly sceptical attitude to your broad-brush claims about the anti-humanism, intellectual dishonesty, cynicism and moral cowardice of your enemies... I take the same attitude to anybody – including environmentalists – who paint their foes in such Manichean terms.."

Ah, but the point was...

----
But in order to say something about the organisations and individuals making use of this figure, I had to take issue with the figure itself. I wrote dozens of articles about poverty and climate, and how preoccupation with climate causes poverty to become misconceived as a natural process, how the putative consequences of climate change were in fact lower-order consequences of poverty, and that intervening to protect people from climate change would yield much less benefit than good, old fashioned unsustainable development.

Environmentalists ignored it.
----

You make an easily rebutted and cheap point. And you do little to elevate my estimation of environmentalists.

Apr 21, 2015 at 10:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

RR,

Question

To rephrase it: do you think it wrong to deny poor people access to cheap electricity because generation of said electricity might – just might – have some, as yet unproven, effect upon global climate, thereby consigning those people to producing their own energy by methods proven to be detrimental to their health?

Answer

I have no blanket opposition to the use of fossil fuels by the third world, and nor do I have any fixed beliefs about energy development in the third world.

You may want a yes no answer but as with most politically minded replies this is sufficient to indicate that Brendan thinks that the third world is ok to use fossil fuels to improve their lives. The point of the post being that those who espouse the total banning of fossil fuel use would be hard put to answer the question without deep thought of the outcome of said ban affecting the impoverished in the world.

Those who side step or refuse to answer the question because of the imagined implications of their reply still have to think about the question which stands them before their own conscience. When it boils down to it whatever anyone else thinks, you are the only judge of your own words and actions that really counts.

If you are willing to allow people to die on a massive scale to satisfy your perceived guilt of over indulgence then so be it, sleeping at night is optional!

Apr 21, 2015 at 11:49 AM | Registered CommenterLord Beaverbrook

LB: so, I was wrong. Who would have thought it, eh?

You are right; it is not necessarily the answer that is important it is that the question is put such that the readers might reach their own conclusions about themselves based upon the answer that they might want to give, compared with the answer that they feel they ought to give.

This is where I differ from the enviro-mentalists: I do not wish any hindrance upon those in a worse situation to myself who wish to improve on their personal situations by application of the most effective, both in terms of output and costs, means that is available. Apart from helping establish the infrastructure (or repairing and building upon that already in place), the best means to offer assistance is NOT by aid, but by trade. To use a very, very crude analogy: you cannot help a man to fish by constantly giving him fish, you can only do it by teaching him how to fish, then leaving him to fish.

Apr 21, 2015 at 4:12 PM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

RR

:-)

Apr 21, 2015 at 8:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterLord Beaverbrook

Lord Beaverbrook: ‘The conversation started with the Bishops question and your hesitance to state your position due to peer pressure.’

Well, a couple of provisos. My comments were directed at the form of the question rather than the content per se. And since, unlike you, I am not a peer, peer pressure played no part in my comments.

Apart from that, your claims are spot on.

Apr 22, 2015 at 1:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrendan H

Ben Pile: Environmentalists ignored it…You make an easily rebutted and cheap point. And you do little to elevate my estimation of environmentalists.’

The fact that people ignored your comments says nothing about their ethics. And you are assuming too much in the way you categorise me.

This is not to denigrate your work in this area.

Apr 22, 2015 at 1:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrendan H

Brendan - The fact that people ignored your comments says nothing about their ethics.

Of course it does! It says something about their 'ethics' that pertain when challenged, when presented by an alternative account of the world, when faced with the consequences of those 'ethical' principles, and it says something about the 'ethics' of making instrumental use of other people's suffering.

I had written a review of one academic philosopher's book on the 'ethics of climate change' and bumped into the author at a bookshop where Nigel Lawson was giving a Q&A on his book. I introduced myself, as the author of the criticism he had found objectionable, but he walked off, saying that he doesn't talk about science. Nor ethics, it seems. (My review is here. The reply and counter-reply is discussed here.)

The ethics of refusing to talk about ethics, or hiding that discussion behind putative fact(oid)s, ultimately defeats ethics as a branch of knowledge. In this sense, environmentalists have 'ethics' in the same way that ISIS or the Taliban have 'ethics'. That is to say they have principles, values, and so on, which are religiously observed (notwithstanding the number of celebrity environmentalists and their private jets) -- or rather enforced -- but are not negotiable. Thus, this form of ethics isn't about establishing the rights and wrongs of principles which guide action, but is dogma. To question these ethics is itself to seem to be 'unethical'. Hence the response to questioning environmental ethics is to immediately have one's own moral character questioned. The abstract discussion about the merits and demerits of moral principles is abandoned, and becomes personal.

It typically goes like this...

Environmentalist: "150,000 people die every year from climate change. Urgent action is required".

Interlocutor: "But the risk factor from climate change is several orders of magnitude lower than first-order consequences of poverty, surely if we wish to extend help to poorer people, there are better ways of helping."

Environmentalist: "Which Big Oil company is paying you to have these opinions and share them on the internet?"

If the environmentalist's 'ethics' were really concerned with helping people -- never mind establishing the best ethics to guide that help -- he would be open to the suggestion that there might be better ways of delivering that help. To resist debate by ignoring it, preferring to talk about critic's ethical shortcomings reflects hostility to ethics full stop. So you'll understand, I hope, that my view that environmentalists are at best promiscuous with their 'ethics' and the material facts of their moral arguments is not unfounded.

Environmentalists are resistant to criticism in the public sphere. Witness another example today, John Gummer's intervention after Bjorn Lomborg's appointment by the Australian government. (Discussed on this blog, here). Lomborg is notable for his lukewarmism, which as I've describe above, suggests there are many and better ways to intervene to mitigate the effects of climate change than simple mitigation by policy. Gummer imagines this to be an attack on 'science', though Lomborg's argument doesn't contradict anything the IPCC have stated. He doesn't want to debate Lomborg, he just wants to make statements about him, and counsels that academic institutions should have nothing to do with him.

This promiscuity with 'science' and 'ethics', then, and this resistance to debate, needs explanation. It is an epiphenomenon, visible on internet discussions, in philosophy departments, and in senior government and its quangos. You object to what appear to you as 'sweeping statements', and claim that what I observe is just my experience. But we can see the same tendency everywhere we find green policy being advanced.

I will apologise if you don't like being put into the category of 'environmentalist'. I have only your words to work from, and they look very green.

Apr 22, 2015 at 11:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

Ben Pile: ‘Of course it does! It says something about their ‘ethics’ that pertain when challenged, when presented by an alternative account of the world, when faced with the consequences of those ‘ethical’ principles, and it says something about the ‘ethics’ of making instrumental use of other people's suffering.’

My comment about people ignoring you was a general one. While there is a right to speech, there is no right to expect a response to your speech, or that your speech will have an effect.

I can’t make any judgement about the particular cases you mention, since I don’t know enough about the circumstances. Therefore, I must treat your judgements arising from the claimed poor treatment meted out to yourself and other sceptics as opinion at this stage.

I will certainly read your links. But I reiterate that merely offering a contrary viewpoint does not compel a right to be heard. (Yes, I am sure you are convinced that your views are founded on solid evidence and sound ethics, but to use that argument as a basis for a hearing is to beg the question.)

Apr 23, 2015 at 9:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrendan H

It is the green tendency to continue as though the argument hadn't been anticipated.

Brendan. "My comment about people ignoring you was a general one. While there is a right to speech, there is no right to expect a response to your speech, or that your speech will have an effect."

Me: " You object to what appear to you as 'sweeping statements', and claim that what I observe is just my experience. But we can see the same tendency everywhere we find green policy being advanced."

Broadly speaking, there is never any response of substance or consequence to any criticism of environmentalism. This is not merely my experience; we can see it everywhere. Green reaction to criticism takes nearly the same form in every case -- your own comments here included. And from this we can establish that an ethic applies.

Andrew's post today bears this point out. Lies are a way of life for the environmentalist, he points out. It is not that criticism of environmentalism gets no response. It is that criticism of environmentalism is replied to in particular ways. In this case, the lie that any criticism of environmentalism is denial of science.

This green intransigence is institutionalised. From the cross-party consensus on climate downwards, the 'ethic' at work is to avoid debates of consequence.

But you're more worried about turning a short sequence of words in a short post on a climate sceptic blog. You're more concerned with exposing what this means.

Another characteristic of environmentalists I have observed is that they have no sense of proportion.
.

Apr 23, 2015 at 10:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

Ben, it is a hollowed out ethic, and ultimately self-destructive. I'd pity them, but admire the ability to channel so much hatred without it being immediately corrosive. Tough beings, these.
=================

Apr 23, 2015 at 11:09 AM | Unregistered Commenterkim

Kim, I agree. I meant it when I compared environmentalists to Isis/Taliban. These greens 'ethics' are nihilistic.

There's a twitter witch hunt out for a shock journalist who referred to a class of people as 'cockroaches'. But when greens call all of humanity as a 'plague', 'cancer' or 'virus', and calls for an end to democratic governance, they get a standing ovation.

Apr 23, 2015 at 11:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

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