by Judith Curry
[P]utting adaptation and mitigation issues into the broader context of competing needs and limited resources raises moral problems that cannot be easily dismissed. – Hillerbrand and Ghil
On a recent thread, someone posted a link to this paper, which immediately caught my eye since co-author Michael Ghil is in IMO one of the most interesting scientists working on climate problems. Rafaella Hillerbrand is a philosopher of science (with two Ph.D.s – philosophy and physics).
Anthropogenic Climate Change: Scientific Uncertainties and Moral Dilemmas
Rafaella Hillerbrand and Michael Ghil
Abstract. This paper considers the role of scientific expertise and moral reasoning in the decision making process involved in climate-change issues. It points to an unresolved moral dilemma that lies at the heart of this decision making, namely how to balance duties towards future generations against duties towards our contemporaries. At present, the prevailing moral and political discourses shy away from addressing this dilemma and evade responsibility by falsely drawing normative conclusions from the predictions of climate models alone.
We argue that such moral dilemmas are best addressed in the framework of Expected Utility Theory. A crucial issue is to adequately incorporate into this framework the uncertainties associated with the predicted consequences of climate change on the well-being of future generations. The uncertainties that need to be considered include those usually associated with climate modeling and prediction, but also moral and general epistemic ones. This paper suggests a way to correctly incorporate all the relevant uncertainties into the decision making process.
Published in Physica D (2008) [link] to complete manuscript
[W]e argue here that there are as yet unresolved ethical questions regarding our obligation to mitigate climate change, questions that precede the practical ones discussed in the current literature and media. If there is a moral obligation to preserve the climate in its present state, where does it stem from? Addressing this question seems inevitable in determining what our moral duties as regards climate may reasonably be.
In determining what it means to act rightly or wrongly, in moral terms, a cost-benefit analysis of one action always has to include an evaluation of alternative actions. Climate change and its mitigation cannot be treated as the only issue at hand: epidemics caused by other factors, industrial and agricultural pollution endangering air and water quality, educational opportunities, poverty, discrimination etc., are matters of legitimate concern as well. Existing cost-benefit analyses, even those few that try to avoid the above-mentioned shortcomings of economic models, fail to put the analysis of climate change into the requisite broader context.
Societies (or other subjects) are able to part only with a certain amount of money or other resources for predominantly altruistic goals, of which the mitigation of major changes in future climate is only one. Investing in the mitigation of climate-change effects means forgoing other investments, e.g. the reduction of world poverty, towards which we have a moral obligation. For example, on the one hand, the Stern report  famously mentions 1% of global gross domestic product (GDP) as the sum needed to avoid major hazards that may arise from climate change. This amounts to an investment of US $ 450 billion per year, if we base the calculation on the current GDP value. On the other hand, current estimates of the money needed to provide 80% of rural populations in Africa with access to water and sanitation by 2015 amounts to only US $ 1.3 billion per annum.
The trade-off between investment into the mitigation of and adaption to climate-change effects and investment in safe water supply in developing countries, for example, is currently not included in the moral or political evaluation of climate change. Political reasoning seems to shy away from the trade-off. The moral discourse contents itself with an ex post justification of established public opinion. As a result, the discussion is cut short and moral obligations are derived already on the level of merely discussing climate-model predictions.
This preempting of the moral debate is not only at variance with sound decision making. Putting the cart before the horse, i.e. presupposing a moral obligation before all the steps of the cost-benefit analysis have been carried out, also seems to adversely affect the science itself. As Pielke notes: “In many instances science, particularly environmental science, has become little more than a mechanics of marketing competing political agendas, and scientists have become leading members of the advertising campaigns”.
Quite often, various moral duties cannot be honored simultaneously; thus there might arise a conflict between preventing future harm from climate change and fulfilling our duties to currently living humans. Philosophers refer to such situations as moral dilemmas. Such dilemmas are not restricted to climate-change issues, but they do become quite critical in this case. Should we invest in educating women in developing countries now or invest in some of the less promising sources of alternative energy? Shall our concerted actions aim at reducing the number of currently ongoing wars or at preventing future flood damages? Such questions are clearly bothersome but still cannot be dismissed easily: has alleviating current suffering priority over mitigating future losses about whose extent legitimate uncertainties might exist?
Excerpts from concluding remarks:
Non-quantified epistemic uncertainties – whether contingent or necessary – hamper the proper communication of the actual degree of reliability of predicting anthropogenic impacts on the climate system. These uncertainties are wedded to specific model outputs, whether climatic or impact models.
A cost-benefit analysis depends sensitively on these uncertainties. This sensitivity implies, first, that performing such an analysis rests on the shoulders of the scientists. Second, it calls for more interdisciplinary work: It is the output of impact models that is needed for cost-benefit analysis; in this output, however, the uncertainties from the predicted concentration of greenhouse gases and from climate models, for instance, are compounded, linearly or nonlinearly.
[T]aking uncertainties seriously implies scrutinizing closely the scientific methodology. Shifting the actual performance of cost-benefit analysis to the sciences just acknowledges that neither political decision making nor moral evaluation are the place for a critical evaluation of scientific methodology. This is the task of the scientific community itself, together with an exterior watchdog consisting of, for example, the sociology and philosophy of science. Although currently this watchdog seems to lag behind the scientific progress, there already exist some interesting accounts on the “science of climate change,” seen from the outside. The practice of welfare-economic analysis, however, is still insufficiently elucidated.
[T]he decision to choose among several ways of reacting to or anticipating climate changes invokes genuine moral values that science can – and indeed should – be neutral about. As it presumes such a value judgement, the oft-used term “catastrophe” has no place within the scientific debate on climate change.
The decision for or against a reduction or mitigation of predicted climate-change impacts is always a decision for or against the promotion of other investments, e.g. in water supply or education for developing countries. In current political decision making, scientific prognoses, however, act as “fig leaves” that hide the actual decision making process and the normative assumptions on which it rests. Scientific, i.e. climatological or economical, prognoses as regards climate change or any other topic, taken on their own, give no sufficient reasons for acting or not acting, this way or the other.
JC comments: When discussing climate change and morality, the arguments that I have seen are typified by Donald Brown and the blog Ethics in Climate Change. Further the IPCC has called in a moral philosopher, John Broome [link]. While I think the ethics/morality issue is an important consideration in deliberating about climate change, I am not a fan of the arguments being made by Brown and Broome. IMO, the arguments of Hillerbrand Ghil provide a much better framework for deliberations on this issue.