One thought I heard repeated several times at the AGU meeting last month (e.g. see Michael Oppenheimer’s talk) is that the scientific evidence on climate change isn’t enough on its own to justify action – we also have to also identify the values that we care about. Even though this has always been clear in the IPCC’s mandate (e.g. see P2 of the TAR Synthesis Report), many people ignore this point, arguing that the scientific evidence on its own compels us to take swift and drastic action to mitigate climate change (and indeed, I’ve made exactly this argument in the past). And some people argue that the science isn’t strong enough (yet), or isn’t certain enough, or even that the science is wrong, and that therefore that the action we should take is to carry on as we have been doing, and worry later (if ever) about impacts on the climate.
The missing piece in such arguments is a clarification of the value judgments we’re making in calling for different types of action. Different value systems lead people to react differently when hearing about the scientific evidence for climate change.
I’ve always considered myself to be an environmentalism. As a student, I was active in campaigning for recycling programs and alternative energy back in the 1980’s. I’ve been a member of the Green Party on and off for most of my adult life. I can’t claim to have been as active since I got married, got a job, had kids, and so on. But I’ve always supported environmentalist groups as an armchair activist. Strangely, somehow or other, I remained largely ignorant about climate change until much more recently. Back in the 1980’s, we were motivated by concerns about pollution, air quality, damage to ecosystems, resource mismanagement, etc. And while the key scientific ideas of climate change date back well over a century, widespread concern about it didn’t really get going until around 1990. This was the year the IPCC produced its first assessment report, and it led, two years later, to the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Somehow, though, despite my environmental leanings, I missed all this at the time. There were other pressing matters, including many local environmental problems, and of course a life to live and a career in computer science research that was beckoning.
But when I first realised the seriousness of climate change, in the mid-2000s, I was easily persuaded that this was a serious environmental problem, and that drastic action was needed to reduce emissions. As I read up more and more of the science, and as I talked to more and more climate scientists, it became obvious to me that climate change wasn’t just another problem that needed solving – it was THE problem. The one that will dominate this century, and define our generation. The scale and urgency of the problem was so clear to me, that it was unthinkable for anyone to argue otherwise.
What I hadn’t noticed was how strongly my pre-existing values prepared the way for this line of reasoning. And not just my environmentalist leanings, but my entire value system. For example, I’m also somewhat of an egalitarian, certainly left-leaning in conventional political terms, and rather libertarian when it comes to the personal and social spheres. To pin it down even more, I’m right down in the left hand corner on the political compass, beyond even Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.
For an egalitarian, it’s quite obvious that it is not right for we in the rich countries of the world to build our economic prosperity by plundering the natural resources of the world, and dumping our pollution on the rest of the world. Equally obviously, it’s wrong to leave the world in a seriously damaged state for future generations. Climate science shows that future generations will most likely have to deal with increased drought, serious shortages of food and water, sea level rise, ocean acidification, etc. But it is our values (of fairness, responsibility, justice, etc) that tell us this is wrong, and that we should take action to prevent it. The stronger we adhere to some of these values, the more adamant we will be that drastic action is needed.
Now consider someone who doesn’t hold with egalitarianism. Someone who believes an unequal distribution of wealth is not only right, but perhaps even that it’s in the best interests of everyone. For example, Adam Smith argued that allowing some people to take what were once shared natural resources (land, mineral rights, etc) and call them personal property actually benefits everyone in the long run. The argument is that some people are able to exploit such resources in a way that leads to a general improvement in the quality of life for everyone. Of course, the people doing the exploiting might get seriously rich. But this is okay (according to this line of reasoning) because the benefits trickle down, so that even the average person gets to live in better housing, have better food, and so on. If you follow this reasoning, then inequality is not only justified, but it’s actually morally right, because avoiding such inequalities will also deny many people access to economic development.
With these values, one could argue that curbing greenhouse gas emissions is wrong. Even though climate change will have serious consequences for people in many regions of the earth, that could be okay, if some people can still get rich by continuing to burn fossil fuels, and then use that wealth to alleviate the suffering for more people, and perhaps to invent better and better technology to cure climate change (rather than prevent it). This is of course, the core of Lomborg’s argument.
And of course, for many libertarians, any intervention by governments (or worse, international agencies) must be resisted. So the idea of governments regulating the use of fossil fuels is itself wrong. This then might lead to the conclusion that whatever ought to be done about greenhouse gases, it must not be via governmental control. Unfortunately, it also often leads to some serious backwards reasoning – if the answer to climate change is more governmental regulation, then the science itself must be wrong. Or if not wrong, then perhaps just not strong enough. Strong libertarians might demand no governmental regulation of greenhouse gases ever. More moderate libertarians might just demand higher and higher standards of evidence from the science before they are convinced. Either way, they do not agree that the science gives us a compelling reason to act now.
The more alarming projections of climate change, along the business-as-usual path, lead to a world that can only sustain a small fraction of the current human population. Billions of people will die. But no matter how certain the science is on this point, it still requires a value judgment (e.g on the value of human lives), to say that the world (and the developed countries in particular) need to drastically change course to avoid this.
So people with different value systems can listen to the same scientific evidence, and draw dramatically different conclusions about what should be done about it. Some of these value systems will even cause a bias towards ignoring or disbelieving the scientific evidence. All of which puts the question of what to do about climate change out of the hands of science, and squarely into the hands of the political process, where (at least in the ideal case) actions are chosen based on shared values.
Unfortunately, the science now indicates that the scale of the impacts of climate change are likely to be so high that none of our old value systems can be trusted to guide us:
- Environmentalism might suggest principles such as “the polluter pays”, and that vital ecosystems must be protected. But we are all polluters, and so were our parents, and their parents before them. Climate change implicates everyone across all regions of the world, and across history for at least the last century. Figuring out who is responsible, who should fix the problem, is way beyond normal environmental reasoning. And the damage to all ecosystems will be so significant, that the idea of protecting some of them is futile.
- Traditional ideas about wealth creation in modern economics also break down, because they are based primarily on the assumption of access to unlimited energy. The capitalist philosophy that everyone will benefit in the long run from economic development is no longer sound, as the misery and suffering caused by climate change will be so widespread and so serious that it will soon vastly outweigh all of the benefits of our wealth. When the the entire world’s food production system falters, and whole societies collapse, no amount of wealth will protect people.
So while our actions on climate change must certainly be driven by an understanding of our common values, it’s also the case that we will need new value systems to understand decisions we now face, as individuals and as societies. The worrying part is that for many people, their existing value systems work to prevent them acknowledging the scale of the problem in the first place.
I’m currently reading James Garvey’s book “The Ethics of Climate Change“. He tackles this failure of existing value systems, and proposes a new ethical framework for motivating the choices we have to make about climate change. It’s fascinating stuff, and I’ll write more about it when I’m further into the book…