Climatologists and moral choices
Apr 17, 2015
Bishop Hill in Climate: WG3, Ethics

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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