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…


  1. “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”

    I think you are referring to the Coase theorem here, not Adam Smith (of the invisible hand). Coase argued that one could solve the “tragedy of the commons” for certain cases by assigning property rights. His insight was that (absent other economic complications) there was an certain level of emissions allowed that maximized overall welfare, that the emissions leading to this maximization of welfare would be reached if property rights were assigned, and that the same emissions level would result whether the pollution emitter or the breather of the air owned the rights to the air.

    eg, if the polluter owns the right to emit, the pollutee can pay him to reduce his emissions. Or, if the pollutee has the right to clean air, the polluter can buy the right to emit off of him.

    Now, of course, there are plenty of “complications” that make this more difficult: first, is that the person/corporation who gets the property rights obviously makes out like a bandit. Some environmentalists argue that the only thing that makes sense is to have “clean air” be the base case, and give the rights to the people (eg, Polluter Pays Principle). Second, is that this only works perfectly in cases with transparent information and a level bargaining field. That is rarely true: the polluter almost always has an advantage here, because the pollution is often diffuse and therefore the people have to figure out collective bargaining. That’s kind of why we have government regulate pollution rather than just doing it the market way. There are probably other market imperfections which make the Coase Theorem not actually workable in practice, but it is really kind of interesting on a theoretical level. And not that this is _not_ trickle-down economics, which was really an invention of the Chicago School of Economics in the late 1970s that was popularized in the Reagan era (cf “voodoo economics”).

    Cap-and-trade is kind of a approximate way to do this property right assignation, as are pollution taxes or fees.


  2. Great post. I went through a similar epiphany while reading Hulme’s “Why We Disagree About Climate Change.” I don’t remember if you’ve read it or not, but if you haven’t I strongly recommend it: he follows a very similar argument.

  3. Great post. I am interested in the distinction between [1] different values that honestly lead to different courses of action [2] some values actually steering people toward falsehoods.

    Did Hulme proceed along these lines? I read an interview with Hulme where he indulged a naive definition of “uncertainty” that would have been a gift to denialists to endorse.

    It is fine to draw a fine distinction between science, morality, and policy, but how strange that those who claim to care not a whit for fairness squeal like pigs when their unfairness is made plain. Values are not just to hold, they have the power leave us painfully aware of a deficiency in moral character and painfully afraid of judgement. For example, the Civil Rights Movement shamed people into equitable behavior that it had no power to persuade.

  4. I do not think climate change THE problem, but a subset of THE problem.

    I agree with Andrew Revkin in 2008 who said:

    Climate change is not the story of our time. Climate change is a subset of the story of our time, which is that we are coming of age on a finite planet and only just now recognizing that it is finite.

  5. Perhaps you should give at least a few libertarians credit for taking a reasonable stance on climate change. This blog article from Tokyo Tom makes some sane arguments and points to a number of libertarian writers who have made constructive proposals on climate policy.It’s worth noting also that the only carbon tax in North America was introduced by the BC Liberals, which, by Canadian standards at least, is right-of-centre politically and pro-business.

    I certainly agree with your main point, that it is much easier to accept the science when it appears to be congruent with your value system. In this regard, it may be useful for people with egalitarian values (I consider myself one) to think back to the days when there was a big controversy about genetic influences on intelligence. Certain commentators on the extreme right would take these studies to mean that we should therefore give up trying to educate blacks, rather than redoubling education efforts to reduce inequality. This infuriated many of us who considered ourselves to be progressive and some among us decided to deny the science and discredit, even censor, the scientists. Certainly, when I was a student, scientists like Hans Eysenck and Arthur Jensen were widely regarded as evil. (I should add that I’m raising this as an example only, I don’t have an informed opinion and no axe to grind on the nature/nurture debate.) My only point is that it was as foolish then for progressives to imply that the integrity of their value system depended in any way on the outcome of scientific research as it is today for libertarians to think that their values might be threatened by meteorological observations.

  6. Hulme has his article “Reducing the future to climate: a story of climate determinism and reductionism” (manuscript for a journal of history of science “Orisis”) liked from the entry dated 11 Jan. 2011 at his web site .

    He is not skeptic about climate change, but he seems skeptic about currently prevalent notion of policy-making with respect to climate change, and I tend to agree with him.

    He says that climate is not the determining factor, but just an enabling factor [this is my expression, not his] of the human society. But the currently dominant approach in IPCC and popular discourse is like climate determinism, more aptly “climate reductionism”.

    I am afraid his words meaning that social factor is important in future of society is likely to be abused by cornucopians. The fact that we seem to have infinite possibility does not mean that we are omnipotent. Environment, including climate, poses boundaries which we cannot exceed.

    We cannot make precise prediction of the future of the system involving human society, anyway. Should improvements of prediction primary focus of national and international scientific enterprise? I think, rather, that we should focus on how various natural and social factors make unbreakable boundaries to possible future paths of human history.

  7. Good post. On the political compass I land at the bottom center with a slight leaning to the left. I’ve become less and less of a fan of egalitarianism as I’ve grown older and have moved a little as a result.

    There is a distinction we make that you might not see yet. I’ll offer it up anyway. When I look at climate change projections I see an economic projection coupled to a science statement. If the economies of the world grow at certain paces, we generate energy using particular technologies, and innovate our way to newer sources and methods, we can make statements about the outputs of those economic activities and then apply science to figure out the environmental impacts. The science is sound, but I’m generally suspicious of the economics.

    As a classical liberal (some call us libertarians now) my value system is tilted strongly against having government solve our problems for us unless it is really obvious we must have them do it. In those cases, though, I would still advocate a minimal approach where government alters the market rules to produce the needed response. It is far too easy for authority to infringe on our liberty, so the rules must be non-arbitrary and predictable. I can’t support a solution that undermines liberty because I feel I have a moral obligation to preserve it for the next generation.

    I’m convinced by the science, but not by the economics. Humans innovate when properly motivated. As bad as it sounds, they are going to be properly motivated in the coming years. If we can alter the market rules to avoid some of the suffering I’m for it up until liberty is infringed.

  8. Read Hulme and also Giddens.

  9. @Jorge, Nick, Kooiti: Hulme has been in my bag for a few days, since JP pointed it out when I talked with him about some related ideas last week. I’ll read it next. Garvey’s book is fascinating, though, so I have to finish that first.
    As for Giddens, do you mean the sociologist, Anthony Giddens? I’ve read some of his stuff on hermeneutics and structuration. Have I missed something?

    @everyone else – great discussion, thanks!

  10. Yes, that Giddens. “The Politics of Climate Change”, 2009.

  11. That reminds me. Michael Tobis has been expanding on this idea that climate change is one element of the bigger problem that we’re surpassing limits to growth on many fronts. His latest post is a nice summary:

  12. Hmm… strikes me as a bunch of nonsense. We’ve been on a growth path for 100,000 generations and surpassed our limits numerous times. Unlike other species, we don’t always turn surpluses into babies in the next generation, but into more surpluses gained through the knowledge we acquire from specialization. We are pretty good at it too. Why should I believe we will fail with this generation? On what moral grounds can I support a shift away from the winning strategy?

    Lester Brown’s back of the envelope projection proves the point.
    …but what would happen if consumption per person in China were to catch up to that of the UNited States? If we assume that China’s economy slows from the 10 per cent annual growth of recent years to 8 per cent, then in 2030 CHina’s 1.46 billion people will need twice as much paper as is produced worldwide today. There go the world’s forests.

    [Ahem] Obviously we won’t do that. The price of paper would rocket upward if we tried. People will innovate and find some other, cheaper way to do without paper. That’s what we do. That’s why there are almost 7 billion of us today.

  13. @Alfred: The general point is sound – any system that experiences exponential growth, while consuming finite resources, must eventually stop growing. The systems dynamics folks demonstrated that there are two thing that happen – either the growth rate stops long before the limit is reached, in which case it then tends to approach the limit asymptotically, or the growth doesn’t slow in time, and you get overshoot and collapse. In the past we’ve avoided the overshoot by inventing a different approach in enough time before we get to the limit. The challenge now seems to be we’re approaching a whole bunch of planet-scale limits all at once (climate, peak oil, agricultural capacity, loss of nitrogen, loss of ecosystems, …) and we’re not showing any signs of slowing down as we approach them. Furthermore, in the past we’ve always had cheap sources of energy to power us through the technological revolution (e.g. the green revolution in agriculture was bought through the switch to highly energy-intense farming practice). This time round, it looks like energy is one of the limits, and we might not have an alternative in place in time to avoid the crash.

  14. Relying on price signals to avoid an overshoot and collapse doesn’t always work. Consider, for instance, Easter Island. How much did the last tree cost?

  15. FWIW, I agree with Alfred in the following sense: history shows that people en masse are pretty good at innovating their way out of crises, and that nations can direct and drive programs of rapid change, development, and innovation, especially to address existential threats, once those threats become urgent and undeniable.
    In this century, environmental factors are going to present existential threats to people and to nations. History suggests that some people and nations will respond successfully to those threats (for instance, by very rapidly developing zero-carbon technologies, and then becoming immensely wealthy by selling them to everyone else). History is silent on whether this will happen in time to avoid overshoot and collapse, given the possibility of many simultaneous existential threats.

  16. Overshoot may indeed happen. That’s precisely why I care about this stuff as it gives all of us the same moral grounding for our actions.

    We don’t always avoid it when you look at small groups, but have managed to do it on the macro-scale since the beginning. That doesn’t make it a sure bet this time because the impacts are now so large there is no way to hedge our bets. That has me worried and paying attention. However, we have also brought online the most powerful communication/innovation tool we have ever had at a time when the world’s population is approaching 7 billion. If we are to find a new approach to avoid running off this cliff, I think we may actually have exactly what we need to do it. I sure hope we do anyway.

    Anyway… I think it is worth separating the folks who deny the science (stupid viewpoint I think) from the skeptics who suspect the economic projections may be wrong enough to matter. You can’t predict the impact of anthropogenic contributions if you can’t properly predict the economic activities of humans. In the short range, I’d bet the projections are pretty good. Over a couple of decades or more, though, innovation drives what the advanced economies of the world do.

    For example, if the US eeks out a 2% GDP growth during the year, there is a good chance it wasn’t because we did more of the same. More often than not now, we are squeezing out our growth by doing things different. Most innovation is tiny and goes largely unnoticed, but it adds up and might not grow the carbon footprint we have in proportion to our GDP. I remember days when coffee shop drink cups all had different sized lids and now most places don’t do it that way. How well has that kind of change been projected and does it matter for our energy consumption? Who models this stuff and do they get it right?

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