Climate ethics and the reckless endangerment of denial

By Bryan Walker 18/01/2012

An interesting-looking series of posts has begun on the climate ethics blog of Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute. The series plans to put the the climate change disinformation campaign under the ethical spotlight. The introductory post written by Associate Professor Donald Brown examines some of the broad issues before planned subsequent posts look at the detailed tactics employed to discredit the science. As I read the first post I was struck by how relevant its argument is across a much wider sector of society than that occupied by the ethically reprehensible disinformation campaign: it challenges the moral lethargy which seems to afflict many of the world’s governments and business communities when it comes to climate change. They may not be part of the organised denial of climate change, but their response as yet hardly reflects the gravity of the issue or faces up honestly to the ethical challenge it presents.  I’ll extract or paraphrase some of Brown’s points which seemed to me to have relevance to our common need to face the moral imperative climate change brings with it.

He refers to the writing of philosopher of Hans Jonas in his 1979 book Imperative of Responsibility, In Search for Ethics In A Technological Age. Jonas argued that scientific uncertainty about the consequences of technologies that have great potential for good and harm create new, profound ethical challenges for the human race.

[He] argued that ethics requires that humans must apply a “heuristics of fear” to their deliberations about whether they should deploy new potentially harmful technologies about which there is reasonable scientific basis for concern. That is, decision-makers should assume the harms will occur if there is a scientific basis for concern that significant harms could occur. Jonas claimed that in such situations, precaution is both ethically mandated and may be necessary for human survival. Furthermore, precaution in these situations requires that those who propose dangerous activities assume the burden of proof to show that the activities are safe. This is especially true for human behaviours that could create catastrophic harms.

Brown sees close parallels with climate change. It is a problem which will always carry some uncertainty about the precise impacts of human-induced warming, yet these impacts are potentially catastrophic for tens of millions of current people and innumerable members of coming generations. Some facts may be uncertain, but the stakes are extraordinarily high. Careful ethical consideration is therefore necessary.

Brown elaborates on behalf of those already affected. Climate change is a problem caused by people in one part of the world who are threatening poor people often far away. The harms the victims suffer are potentially catastrophic. They cannot enlist the aid of their governments who have no jurisdiction over those causing the problem.  They can only hope that those causing the problem will see an ethical duty to the vulnerable to lower their greenhouse gas emissions.

Ethics involves responsibilities, obligations and duties to others; self-interest alone cannot justify policy responses. If our actions are putting others at risk through no fault of their own we have a special duty to be precautious about scientific uncertainty.

Catastrophic is a term which is frequently dismissed as overstatement.  It is not, says Brown.

…the [scientific] consensus view does assume that human-induced climate change could be very catastrophic for some people and places if not most of the world. This is not hyperbole, it is where the mainstream science points as potential consequences of business-as-usual.

The consequences may not be absolutely certain. All reasonable climate scientists will admit that there may be negative feedbacks in the climate system that we don’t understand, though mainstream science sees them as increasingly unlikely. But the lack of certainty doesn’t mean remove the responsibility for ethical response:

…ethics actually requires people to act responsibly once it becomes evident that their actions could cause great harm. As a matter of ethics, responsibility does not start only when it is proven that behaviour will cause great harm. For instance, laws of reckless endangerment that have been enacted around the world make dangerous behaviour criminal. Defendants in reckless endangerment cases may not defend themselves on the grounds that the prosecution did not prove that their behaviour would cause harm, the prosecution need only prove that the behaviour could cause serious harm.

Brown goes on to establish at some length how solid the scientific consensus view on human-caused climate change is. The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represent that consensus and the summary for policy makers requires the unanimous consent of all 194 member countries; it is not credible to conclude that IPCC’s conclusions are biased to overstating the risks of climate change.  He adds a long list of the scientific organizations with expertise relevant to climate change which have endorsed the consensus position, and refers to surveys which show the very high level of climate researchers actively publishing in the field who support the IPCC’s position. All of which means that the IPCC consensus position is entitled to strong respect.

In summary:

This consensus is not a consensus on all scientific issues in climate science; 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.

Brown’s material is not new, but it’s a cogent reminder that declining to grapple seriously with climate change is a massive failure in the ethical behaviour we know to be necessary for civilised human existence. We shield ourselves from the full reality of this failure almost by tacit agreement as we carry on with the business of government and commerce in the familiar ways to which we have been accustomed. But if the science is correct this is simple evasion of moral obligation, and it ought to trouble us deeply. Business as usual takes on the character of reckless endangerment.