I have no trace of a doubt that sustainability issues are ethical issues. Talking about ethical issues without mention of evil is a bit like playing hockey without looking at the puck. If we believe ourselves to be discussing an ethical issue, we have no choice but to point to the behaviors we count as unethical, and why.
It is very interesting to see how my discussions of the topic so far have been misinterpreted. It’s partly my fault, though. In my musings so far, I have conflated two very important and distinct but related issues.
The first is the presence of evil in the climate debate. That is the topic of this essay.
The second is the distinction between the nature of evil in science vs its nature in politics. I will return to this question later.
Let me be clear. As the movie title (incorrectly I think) claims about President-elect Gore, it is possible to be “not evil, just wrong” about issues of substance. I believe most of the people who are participating in the attacks on climate science are doing so more or less in good faith, having been led down a path of bizarrely twisted interpretations of who we climate scientists are, what we do, and how we got to where we are. The question is who has been doing the leading.
The confusion about climate science pretty much requires a complete ignorance of the tradition of Jule Charney, (in which tradition Lindzen is adept, alone among the naysayers to my knowledge) and the profound and elegant depth of its achievements. People to whom the Charney tradition is invisible perceive a vastly less sophisticated science than actually exists. It’s odd; you’d think the visible improvement in weather forecasting would carry some weight, but apparently there are plenty of talking head meteorologists like John Coleman to deflect that one. (Is John Coleman evil? My God, doesn’t “pompous old fool” exist in people’s vocabularies anymore?)
The Charney tradition (along with the related Stommel tradition in oceanography) is the intellectual core of climatology, but it’s pretty much invisible to the outside world. It just doesn’t reduce to a nutshell easily. (And at least when I learned the stuff, the pedagogy was lousy to make matters even worse.) So it’s easy for people to have essentially no idea that a real and rich science exists. They will put climatology on a par with, say, ecosystem dynamics or economics in “maturity”.
By this I don’t mean (Lou G take note) that no smart people do ecosystem dynamics or economics, but only that universally agreed organizing principles have not emerged in these fields. Climatology (or planetary physics, which might be a better name) is more closely on a par with astrophysics or physiology, where much remains to be determined and surprises may yet lurk but most of the underlying principles are known with considerable sophistication and coherence. People don’t know this, so they underestimate us.
But this underestimation is not enough to account for society’s present dysfunction on this matter. The underestimation of the sophistication of planetary physics does not suffice to argue for “no need to control CO2 emissions”.
Consider what the evidence actually shows based on simple physics that predates Charney and Stommel. As is well-known, that evidence (based in radiative transfer and broadly confirmed in plaeoclimate observations) shows that greenhouse gases play a significant role in the energy flows through the system, so that once human perturbations on CO2 concentrations become comparable to and ultimately exceed natural CO2 concentrations, the balance would necessarily change. We also know from geological evidence that very large shifts in climate are possible in consequence of relatively small forcings. Consequently, large CO2 increases are risky. The less we stipulate that we know about the system, the less we can constrain those risks. The plausible worst case (say the 5% credibility scenario) gets more expensive the less we know. Thus the less we know, the more vigorously we ought to refrain from emissions.
Now, we also know that an enormous amount of wealth changes hands in the energy sector, which dominates the more economically active societies. Consequently, any change in the production of energy will put a huge amount of wealth at risk. So less scrupulous elements in that community will certainly be motivated to skew the conversation away from what is indicated EITHER by high confidence in planetary science or low confidence in it. Neither high confidence nor low confidence argues for business as usual. The only rational way to argue for business as usual is to argue for bias; that the science is not only inadequate but that its best estimate of the sensitivity is with great confidence far too severe.
Given the evidence that was already understood fifty years ago when planetary science was in its infancy, the only way to argue for no controls on global greenhouse gas emissions, is to claim BOTH incompetence and severe bias on the part of the science. Therefore, with such vast resources at stake, the claims of incompetence and bias were inevitable, right or wrong.
The inevitability of such claims thus arises from the social context only. It was inevitable that the people trying to investigate and/or explain the problem would be accused of dishonesty. Such accusations abound, of course. What was not inevitable was that these accusations would succeed as well as they have, though. Their success is a matter for deep concern.
This does not mean that most people who believe the accusations are unethical. Most are not. But these accusations come from somewhere. (Others have been investigating where. I’m not fond of that game, myself.) It’s plain that the general confusion which surrounds any complex issue has been channeled and organized into something systematic, dangerous, and hostile to reason. It’s plain that this is the result of active agency by some people with something to lose. This active agency to promote confusion and hostility is plainly unethical.
Even if the sensitivity really is zero for some magical reason that has escaped us (of course, I don’t recommend betting the farm on that) we are in trouble as a consequence of the success of this program of misdirection and fearmongering. The techniques being used to undermine the communication channels between legitimate science and competent governance will be with us forever. We will forever be challenged by the malicious techniques that have been developed in this trumped-up debate. We had better develop an immune system to this sort of bullshit. If we don’t, sooner or later some sort of spectacular disaster will result.
Update: Here is a recent example. Explain to me how neither climate science nor its critics of this sort are evil. Somebody is doing something very wrong here. The world needs to figure out who that is.
For a taste of the second point, brazenly lifted from Andrew Sullivan today, here’s George Washington on the distinction between Manichean and Augustinean worldviews:
“Much indeed to be regretted, party disputes are now carried to such a length, and truth is so enveloped in mist and false representation, that it is extremely difficult to know through what channel to seek it. This difficulty to one, who is of no party, and whose sole wish is to pursue with undeviating steps a path which would lead this country to respectability, wealth, and happiness, is exceedingly to be lamented. But such, for wise purposes, it is presumed, is the turbulence of human passions in party disputes, when victory more than truth is the palm contended for”
– George Washington, in a letter to Timothy Pickering, July 27, 1795.
Image of Cthulhu via Wikipedia (cc share-alike 3.0)
Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and Rembrandt Peale is in the public domain.