Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Is climate disinformation immoral?

A few weeks ago there was a short op-ed that appeared in The Guardian by the environmental ethicist Donald Brown.

In it, he argues that the decades old disinformation campaigns waged against climate science by corporations that have much to lose are irresponsible, immoral and perhaps even criminal.

His argument is based on two notions that are difficult to deny and are well documented. The first is that fossil fuel industries have spent extraordinary amounts of money since the 1980's with the sole goal of raising doubts about the veracity of scientific claims about global warming and undermining any national or international policies that would infringe upon their interests. The second is that there is a broad scientific consensus that indicates that these doubts are not based in reality. Some 98% of those scientists actively publishing on climate-related topics are not only convinced that global warming is real but that it is being fueled by anthropogenic sources.

Undoubtedly, Brown is correct in his assertion that the uncertainty that does exist in climate science is both a scientific and ethical issue. It is scientific in the sense that the goal of science is, in part, to eliminate or reduce this uncertainty as much as possible so as to provide more precise and accurate forecasts of the likelihood of future events.

Statistical uncertainty in the realm of science can also be used to look for patterns that exist or emerge at different scales of the investigation. What this all means is that uncertainty is not an unusual outlier in the specific case of climate science but rather part of the ground rules of conducting any scientific enterprise. Science does not come with guarantees.

Uncertainty in climate forecasts is an ethical issue in the sense that there are moral implications involved in knowing what we do about the ways in which the world is functioning. People will get sick. People will die. Certain groups are more vulnerable than others. Is this right? Can we sit by and accept this situation knowing that there is something to be done about it?

This is an extension of the same dilemma we all feel when presented with "scenes of a disaster". Non-profits and charitable organizations know this phenomenon well and often try and play on our morality to aid in their cause. Bludgeoning that harp seal is wrong we think, so we donate to Greenpeace as a means of acting and alleviating our own guilt for not being able to stop it. Watching a humanitarian disaster unfolding after a major earthquake we feel the moral tug to do something about it, to help. These are ethical dilemmas created by our own interpretation of morality.

While I have no doubt that there are significant moral issues arising from changes in climatic conditions, I am not sure of Brown's suggestion that the corporate disinformation campaign he talks about represents an immoral crime against humanity.

Are these corporations acting irresponsibly? Maybe. Though they are acting to protect the interests of their shareholders in the short-term, by not adapting to a changing regulatory and economic environment, they are short-selling their long-term interests.

Are they acting immorally? I need some help on this one. I'm not sure it is appropriate for us to think of corporations (or any other large social group with defined self-interests) as moral citizens who have a responsibility to act in the public's best interest. There is little evidence that corporate groups have ever acted in the public interest when it is dissonant with their own.

Illustrations of horrendous actions taken by corporations are endless. Think of Siemens profiting from immoral labor practices during World War II. Think of DuPont's negligence in Bhopal. Think of Massey Energy's negligence of safety equipment that led to those recent miner deaths in West Virginia.

But don't criminal or immoral actions always come back to individuals? Can a group be liable? If climate disinformation is indeed something that has put lives, health, and ecosystems at risk (and this assertion is not so uncertain) then who is to blame? But even if an industry or group of people cannot be immoral, people can be. Blame the people in charge. Where there is a crime there has to be a criminal. BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop

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