by Judith Curry
Every aspect of climate change is shaped by ethical dispute: from scientific practice to lobbying and activism and eventually, at national and international levels, the setting and implementation of climate policy. – Peter Lee
I’ve been collecting material addressing the ethical dilemmas that climate scientists face. Previous essays that I’ve written on this topic can be found under the ethics tag. I was motivated to start working on a post entitled Professional Ethics for Climate Scientists upon seeing that Michael Mann has an invited presentation at AGU this week: Professional Ethics for Climate Scientists. We have had some fun with this one on twitter, but there are some very serious concerns that I have on this topic.
Peter Lee on Ethics and Climate Change Policy
While preparing that post, a remarkable essay came to my attention by Dr Peter Lee, entitled Ethics and Climate Change Policy published by the GWPF. From the biosketch blurb:
Dr Peter Lee is a principal lecturer in ethics and political theory at the University of Portsmouth. He specialises in the politics and ethics of war and military intervention, the ethics of remotely piloted aircraft (drone) operations, and the politics and ethics of identity. He is the author of TruthWars: The Politics of Climate Change, Military Intervention and Financial Crisis.
This essay provides a very good overview of the messy connections between ethics, knowledge and politics in the climate change debate. The whole essay is well worth reading. Below are some excerpts (JC bold) that address topics that I’ve been writing about:
Every aspect of climate change is shaped by ethical dispute: from scientific practice to lobbying and activism and eventually, at national and international levels, the setting and implementation of climate policy. The protagonists at every stage will claim that theirs is the ethical, or more ethical, position, and for a number of reasons. Some will claim to base their arguments and actions on superior values – secular or religious – than their opponents; others will claim that their motives are somehow purer, better informed and more altruistic than their selfish adversaries. Others will concern themselves with altering a predicted or imagined future without fully understanding the implications of their actions in the present or the interim.
The two approaches that will be used in making ethical assessments in the sections to follow attach different levels of importance to the ‘ends’ or outcomes that are being pursued – say, saving the world from climate-induced disaster – and the ‘means’ adopted by scientists, activists, vested interests and politicians in the process.
Steve Schneider’s double ethical bind
Equally indisputable is the gradual merging of climate science with political concern. By 1989 the distinction between the objective pursuit of scientific knowledge about global warming and the politics of science-based climate activism had broken down to the extent that Professor Stephen Schneider, an early lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), could write on the double ethical bind [link].
Schneider’s words have since been fought over, selectively redacted and sometimes misrepresented by climate change advocates and opponents alike– alarmists and sceptics, in their extreme forms. For the latter, the claim that climate scientists ‘have to offer up scary scenarios [and] make simplified, dramatic statements,’ is taken to be an admission of fraud. On some level it may well be, but it is also a statement of great candour that gets to the heart of the relationship between climate science, ethics and climate policy.
In ethical terms, the two most significant phrases set out by Schneider are these: ‘As scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method’, and, ‘we’d like to see the world a better place’. There is a danger, however, for those whose priority is achieving what they see as the ‘correct’ political as opposed to scientific ends (based on personal values, interests and motivations); established scientific processes, codes and balanced considerations can be marginalised or ignored, eventually leading to the ends being used to justify questionable means.
Consequently, Schneider’s description of climate scientists being in a ‘double ethical bind’ is inaccurate. Climate scientists face an ethical choice: do they conform to established ethical standards of scientific practice or do they sacrifice those standards in favour of actions and statements that will be more likely to shape public opinion and climate policy in their preferred direction? For scientists there is no such thing as a balance between ‘being effective and being honest’; once scientific honesty is violated it damages trust to the extent that it can undermine any good intentions and negate anticipated effectiveness in the long run. It is theoretically possible to be both, but not in Schneider’s terms. Omitting the ‘doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts’ is not a morally neutral act; it is a subtle deception that calls scientific practice into disrepute. If such actions took place in any other field, for example pharmaceutical research and the testing of new medicines, the scientists would not only be branded unethical but would most likely be stripped of their positions by an oil or tobacco company and went on to ‘prove’ that their products were harmless would be ridiculed and ignored. However, Schneider’s words in 1989 have served as an invitation to climate scientists to dilute or violate the ethics of scientific practice while – and this is important to grasp – viewing their actions as ethical because of a desire to make the world a better place. The irony here is that some climate scientists may be undermining their own arguments by adopting such an approach.
For policymakers these details matter, for they need to know if they are acting on the best of scientific knowledge, acquired through the application of the most rigorous of scientific practices and observation of scientific ethics, or whether well-intentioned scientist-activists are shaping climate policy on the basis of less-than-transparent scientific practices – and I refer here to even minor oversights or the exclusion of seemingly trivial caveats that may take on great importance in an unpredicted future – and unstated personal and political aims. Unfortunately for everyone concerned with climate change, regardless of individual views about the degree to which it is prompted by human conduct or a result of natural variation, it only takes a small number of high profile errors or examples of malpractice to undermine everyone’s trust: a crucial point when billions, perhaps trillions, of pounds and dollars could be spent erroneously.
JC comment: There are some important and insightful points here, that cut to the heart of the issue surrounding the ‘double ethical bind’ better than anything else I’ve seen (see my 2011 essay Steven Schneider and the ‘double ethical bind’ of climate change communication.)
In my Uncertainty Monster paper, I made scientific and pragmatic arguments for understanding, assessing and reasoning about uncertainty in climate science. Lee makes a moral argument: Omitting the ‘doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts’ is not a morally neutral act; it is a subtle deception that calls scientific practice into disrepute.
In parallel with this philosophical shift emerged the increasingly influential concept of ‘consensus’ in climate science, which in turn was, and is, a powerful weapon when it comes to shaping climate policy. However, it is difficult to imagine a concept that is less suited to describing scientific processes and output than consensus. The most obvious problems with consensus concern who it is that is agreeing and how that agreement is reached, with each aspect bringing its own ethical challenges.
A tension exists at the heart of climate policy ethics: does climate consensus emerge purely from the application of science, traditionally understood, which then shapes policy, or does political and ideological agreement about what climate policy should be encourage scientists to depart from the strict methods that maintains the integrity of science? This ideological aspect of Climate Change was largely overlooked when the Climategate emails were leaked and critics poured over the texts looking for evidence of scientific fraud. Such critics looked in vain for a ‘smoking gun’ that proved global-scale cheating. It was not in the measuring, calculating and experimenting that the moral codes of science were violated, it was in the politicising of scientific actions, as historical scientific disinterestedness was sacrificed in what was intended by some, perhaps many, climate scientists as the pursuit of a noble, ethical cause.
JC comment: This is an insightful and unique (as far as I can tell) perspective on the significance of Climategate
The science – the temperature reconstruction – supports Mann’s cause, opening him and other like-minded scientists to the charge that the cause also shapes their science. This interpretation of Mann’s climate activism is reinforced in his published writings where he states: ‘Scientific truth alone is not enough to carry the day in the court of public opinion. The effectiveness of one’s messaging and the resources available to support and amplify it play a far greater, perhaps even dominant role’. In ethical terms we see another example of a climate scientist who holds a strong ethical commitment to the policy dimension of climate change and its associated end of shaping public opinion and behaviour, appearing to prioritise the pursuit of those ends above the narrower moral codes of scientific discovery.
JC comment: This is a very clear statement about the problems with advocacy by climate scientists – for previous posts on this topic at Climate Etc. see [link]
That is why the scientific consensus on climate change and the way it is reached and sustained has such crucial ethical implications for climate policymaking. It is not just scientific measurements, calculations, projections and so on that inform policymakers. The additional layers of often unacknowledged personal values, ideologies and collective aims are now part of the claimed scientific consensus too and these factors make it difficult to have robust but respectful disagreements: to question the science is to question the values of the scientists behind it; to question related ideological aspects of climate science held by scientists is deemed as questioning the science. What is not clear is how individuals or groups within the consensus can question or challenge the consensus in keeping with time-honoured scientific practice. If such challenges cannot be made and sustained without the abuse and coercion faced by Lennart Bengtsson, for example, then what is taking place is a political rather than a scientific process.
If climate consensus can only be achieved through negotiation, compromise and acceptance of the lowest scientific denominator, promoted through a further layer of simplification and explicit appeal to emotion over reason, it is difficult to avoid the charge of propagating disinformation, even when done with the best of intentions. Not only is the established moral code of normal science violated by overlooking scientific disinterestedness, but the promotion of that consensus depends on techniques of ‘selling’ rather than persuading.
JC comment: Consensus has also been a major topic of the posts at Climate Etc. [link]. In my paper No Consensus on Consensus, I discussed the problems associated with a manufactured consensus. Lee goes several steps further, with a charge of propagating disinformation. Particularly when embellished with the 97% nonsense, the negotiated consensus is certainly misleading. But ‘disinformation’? This statement motivated me to revisit my previous post on Misinformation, Disinformation and Conflicts. Hmmm . . .
Ethics and uncertainty
So how are ethical decisions to be made in the face of repeated claims to scientific and political consensus, unknown unknowns within that claimed consensus, known unknowns (the ifs, buts, doubts and caveats) that are minimized by the consensus for presentational purposes, and also many known knowns that are either model-based (caveats apply) or suffused with subjective ideological, social, political or other environmental interests? There is not the space here to fully explore the idea, but suggest that there needs to be some link maintained between ethics, truth and politics, or ethics, knowledge and politics.
JC comment: Again, I have approached this issue from a more pragmatic perspective, under the rubric of decision making under deep uncertainty. Lee breaks new ground (as far as I know, anyways) regarding the ethics of decision making under deep uncertainty, with some profound conclusions regarding mitigation versus adaptation:
However, I would suggest that the strongest, most practical ethical approach is that which balances the pursuit of ‘good’ or idealistic goals with appropriate conduct along the way, namely a commitment to truth and knowledge, and openness about the extent of our knowledge.
Put more crudely, setting mitigation policy goals that cannot and will not be met, either because they are aiming beyond the scope of the knowable and do-able or because national political interests make them unrealistic and unattainable, is itself in practice less ethical than setting goals that are lower, but more readily achievable. I assume here that the greater the speculation and uncertainties involved, the weaker the ethical claim. Conversely, as the certainty increases, the stronger the ethical claim. If it is not apparent already, I am suggesting that a commitment to mitigation policies has a reduced ethical claim because of the unknowns and unknowables involved, whether those unknowns concern the future of the environment or the future of the poorest citizens on Earth. An ethical commitment to adaptation is at least rooted in actual events as they occur. To be clear, this is a commitment to actively preparing to respond to major climate-related events as they occur: developing technologies and skills as well as setting monies aside in dedicated funds, both nationally and globally. Governments and individuals have always done this through, for example, contingency funds.
I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about this essay. I haven’t previously encountered Peter Lee’s writings; I’ve googled him and it seems that climate change is a new topic for his writings. Lee is a very welcome voice to the complex debate on climate change ethics. I don’t agree with everything in his essay, but I found his overall perspective to be very fresh and I found some of his statements to be remarkably insightful.
In any event, it was a very timely antidote to Michael Mann’s AGU presentation. I will be writing more on this topic; I look forward to reading your comments on this.