Ethical Critique of Climate Change Disinformation

Kevin Cawley note:
We may want to look at this ethical analysis concept more closely. Professor Donald Brown of Penn State University in the USA, spoke at the final 2011 meeting of the Committee on Sustainable Development at the United Nations on December 15, 2011. (There is a link to his blog, Climate Ethics Campaign, in the links section on the right hand column of this page of the website.)

There is a strong indication that many are beginning to see the way forward is not going to be via UN member states because they are acting mostly in their own interests in the short term. The developed nations privatize gains and socialize losses while the poor nations fall back and suffer. The way forward may well depend on the ability of civil society to make the ethical argument that developed nations have ethical duties to the poor in other parts of the planet. Responsibilities, obligations and duties to others must be more clearly a feature of nation states behavior but generally it is faith-based institutions and civil society making these arguments at this time. The media have not been completely persuaded about the urgency of the problem and this reality may in some measure be due to the failure of civil society to make the most compelling argument in part because the disinformation campaign has been more successful in controlling the narrative, especially in the United States.

Support for the ethical critique here can also be found in the writings of Thomas Berry, in particular his analysis of the origin, differentiation and role of Rights. Examples abound but here is a sample where Thomas is speaking about the rights of all beings: “Planet Earth is a single community bound together with interdependent relationships. No living being nourishes itself. Each component of the Earth community is immediately or mediately dependent on every other member of the community for the nourishment and assistance it needs for its own survival.”

An Ethical Analysis of the Climate Change Disinformation Campaign: Is This A New Kind of Assault on Humanity?
By DONALD A BROWN on December 2, 2011 9:47 AM

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, 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. 

Climate Change as Ethical Problem. 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 poor 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.

Because climate changeis 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 has consequences and uncertaity arguments discussed here have led to thirty years of inaction on climate change

Moral Failing of Disinformation Efforts. 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 has responsibilities and lying and misinformation is always morally reprehensible even if the right to free speech is conceded. Free speech must not deceive.

However, 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 but malicious, morally unacceptable disinformation. 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. This consensus is not a consensus on all scientific issues entalied 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.

Academies of Science Concur. Every Academy of Science has issued reports 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.

Investigations of Disinformation Campaign. 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 funding organizations. Much of the funding support for 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 in support of the consensus view, it is a clear lie that the basis for human-induced warming is a hoax and that such claim is preposterous. This is far from reasonable skepticism but a lie. The same could 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 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 would make 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 and that 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, scienitific credentials and who infrequently, if ever, publish in peer-reviewed 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 to critique these fake reports
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 publically claim that human-induced climate change is a significant threat. In this effort, they have sometime 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 sheer intimidation not reasonable skepticism.

None of these tactics constitute reasonable skepticism. In fact, given the potential catastrophic harm from climate change, these tactics constitute some kind of new assault on humanity. In fact, 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.

Skeptics Must Adhere to Rules of Science. A few things we are not saying. We are not against skepticism but skeptics must play by certain rules of science including:

a. Publish results 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.

Deeper Reflection Needed. We are not trying to limit free speech but encourage people to see that lying or misinformation is ethically problematic particularly in cases when deception can lead to immense harm. For all of these reason, we would like to 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?

In conclusion we encourage civil society to turn up the volume on the highly unethical and 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.

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

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