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Peter Lee: Adaptation, Not Mitigation, The Realistic Climate Debate

Peter Lee, The Australian

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 likelier 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.

Two philosophers of science, Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz, challenged the rigid methodology and codes of science in framing what Ravetz calls ‘‘the scheme of post-normal science’’. The purpose of post-normal science, especially in environmental or climate studies, was to broaden the range of inputs into the policymaking process, so as to include not only accredited scientists and the rigid rules of science but also ‘‘all the stakeholders in an issue’’ who, in turn, could ‘‘deploy ‘extended facts’, including local and personal experience’’ and unconventional sources of information.

As a result, the science — or rather post-normal science — that would shape climate policy would incorporate subjective dimensions, individual and collective special interests, and ideological elements. Facts would be combined with values in driving social change.

The attraction of this philosophical approach for some climate scientists is obvious: the old restrictions of the scientific method could be set aside, fractionally or completely, in the pursuit of personally or ideologically ‘‘higher’’ goals.

The emphasis on codes, rules and practices that have shaped ethical scientific practice from the earliest days of the Enlightenment would be relegated in favour of a values-driven, ideologically motivated philosophy of science that emphasised instead the importance of the ends being pursued (which is itself a value judgment).

It also helps to explain why climate change advocates, especially more extreme alarmists, continue to make the accusation of ‘‘climate-change denier’’ against individuals who publicly acknowledge the existence of climate change and the science that underpins it but want to discuss the extent to which it is induced by human behaviour, its likely consequences for Earth and the best way to ameliorate any threat.

Such advocates often have an anti-­capitalist emphasis or incorporate an unstated commitment to the global redistribution of wealth. 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.

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 maintain the integrity of science?

If climate consensus can be achieved only 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.

The real ethical dispute arises when climate change advocates take the view that ‘‘trivial’’ inaccuracies in detail and argument can be overlooked for the sake of some anticipated greater good: the ends justifying the means.

Climate change and the setting of climate policy may call for decisions to be made about the relative importance of human welfare and the welfare of the natural environment on which we depend. While it is theoretically possible to apply equal weight to each it is likelier that greater priority will be given to one over the other.

It should be immediately clear that individuals, organisations or governments who adopt an ideological stance that heavily prioritises the environment will be more prepared to enact climate policies that have a deleterious impact on human beings, religious or otherwise, whose ideological roots prioritise human welfare.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the earlier Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summaries for policymakers present an apparently ethical ideal to the world that somehow enables the mitigation (reduction) of greenhouse gases, facilitates sustainable economic growth and eradicates poverty at the same time. The UNFCCC and IPCC approach appears to have been that if the ethical ideal of simultaneous sustainable growth and climate change mitigation and alleviating poverty is written and spoken of frequently enough it will somehow become real without ever having to identify or make the tough policy choices it demands.

For when real-world political positioning is examined it becomes clear that an ethical illusion has being ­constructed and sustained through a lack of complete scientific honesty.

Political practicalities quickly emerge when the hard policy discussions begin and leaders conduct a cost–benefit analysis of climate change threat, mitigation and/or adaptation against every other economic, social, security, medical and educational concern they face — in both the short and long terms. Here are several competing elements of the carbon dioxide ­dilemma:

  • Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are at record levels.
  • The climate is changing.
  • The global economy assumes or aspires to both continued and continual growth.
  • Populations demand higher living standards.
  • Wealth creation emits carbon ­dioxide.
  • Renewable energy sources require significant financial subsidies and reduce economic competitiveness against those who do not use them.

These conflicting elements are further complicated when assessing the ethics of climate policy by the following:

  • Democratically elected leaders cannot sustain unpopular climate policies in the face of opposition from voters.
  • The global economy has not recovered from the 2007–08 financial crisis.
  • Wealthy countries use more energy than poor ones but the growth of energy use is greatest in developing countries.
  • In 2010 one-fifth of the global population was living on less than $1.25 a day (down from two-fifths in 1990).
  • Fossil fuels are much cheaper to use than renewables.
  • New technologies like fracking have vastly increased the amount of potentially available oil and gas over the next century.
  • Fracked gas has significantly reduced America’s carbon footprint in recent years.

Many environmentalists and environmentalism groups, especially in Europe, are vociferously opposed to fracking regardless of any potential economic or energy security benefits.

The UNFCCC and other global institutions minimise the harsh choices that must be made — each of which includes ethical as well as political and economic elements — in addressing these competing interests.

Every indicator I can imagine suggests that a mitigation policy will not work in practice. For me — and there is no escaping the subjective dimension of ethics — to ask those living on less than $1.25 a day to remain poor for one day longer than necessary is unethical.

Only people who have not lived in drought, famine, starvation and negligible healthcare could even contemplate such a demand. Prioritisation of concern for the environment above concern for the poor would appear to be related to the wealth of the individuals and nations concerned.

If mitigation is the preferred course for ideologically convinced climate change proponents, then adaptation is the pragmatic choice, practically and ethically.

For millennia, humans have adapted to climate change, whether those changes be in response to local extreme weather events or widespread global climate change.

The ethics of this approach to climate policy are pragmatic rather than idealised. They will not satisfy those who are true climate alarmists and who have unstated ideological ambitions such as anti-capitalism or wealth redistribution, though they may be acceptable to the merely climate concerned.

This is an edited extract from Peter Lee’s Ethics and Climate Change Policy paper published this month by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. The full paper is at  – Dr Lee is a lecturer in ethics and political theory at the University of Portsmouth in Britain and author of Truth Wars: The Politics of Climate Change, Military Intervention and Financial Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), out this month

The Australian, 27 December 2014