Skip to content

Rt Revd Dr Peter Forster: Ethics, Science And Climate Policy

Rt Revd Dr Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester

Peter Lee’s essay on the ethics of climate change policy is to be warmly welcomed as a substantial contribution to a debate that proponents of the IPCC scientific consensus appear to wish to close down.

My own interest in the scientific and ethical issues surrounding climate change (whatever one means by that deceptively simple phrase) arose from a surprise that climate scientists were so confidently predicting climate conditions several decades hence. My background is as a chemist, and in my subsequent theological and ecclesiastical career I have devoted considerable attention to the history of science as a cultural force, as well as trying to keep abreast of major developments in science itself. The work of Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi had demonstrated the ways in which a theoretical consensus can develop and reinforce itself, precisely in the face of criticism that later proves to be valid. This is a phenomenon that is not confined to the natural sciences, but arises in every area of learning, for example economics, where evidential proof will eventually prove decisive.

While scientific theories are often developed on intuitive and expert speculative grounds, they have ultimately to answer at the bar of experimental evidence. A year or so ago I was fortunate to be present in the physics department of one of our leading universities, when the professors were discussing their current work. A professor of theoretical physics outlined the latest ideas about aspects of fundamental physics, string theory and so on, backed up by complex models embedded in a huge array of computers, which filled a room. The professor of experimental physics wryly commented that if an experiment could be devised to test such theories, he would gladly do so.

That is how scientific certainty, such as it ever is certain, is established. In 2015 we will celebrate the centenary of Einstein’s 1915 paper on general relativity, but it was only when Sir Arthur Eddington’s 1919 expeditions to the Gulf of Guinea and Brazil to observe a total eclipse of the sun led to experimental confirmation of the bending of light by a heavy object that the theory became widely accepted. Many additional empirical confirmations have followed.

This point reverberates through Dr Lee’s essay. Evidence and proof undergird intrinsically moral questions, if hundreds of billions or even trillions of public expenditure are at stake, and many millions of lives would be adversely affected and much avoidable poverty generated by the wrong global policy decisions. What experimental support, beyond sophisticated computer projections, exists of the theories behind the current IPCC consensus? What proof can exist? It should be acknowledged, of course, that the case for increasing carbon dioxide concentrations having a forcing effect upon global temperatures is very strong, but the quantitative link between carbon dioxide levels and average temperature is very much less certain, as is the effect of other influences on the long-term climate.

In order to predict the future climate a theoretical model is needed, one which encompasses all events on the surface of the planet, events in the ocean depths and in the atmosphere (clouds etc.), levels of carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, water and methane, and also events on the surface of the sun that are determined by its interior. The outputs are then projected forward for many decades.

The level of certainty, admittedly within various envelopes of uncertainty, that has been expressed in the IPCC consensus is surprising, not least in the face of the current, and entirely unpredicted, 18-year global standstill in average surface temperatures. The IPCC coolly refers to this as a hiatus, as if such hiatuses are a rationally understood, normal part of science. They are not. The overconfidence of the IPCC has blended rather easily with, and been reinforced by, the guilt-driven quasi-religious Western fervour to save the planet. It is a short step to label those who question the IPCC certainties as climate change deniers, with unpleasant echoes of holocaust denial.

It is agreed that even if catastrophic global warming does not result from current trends in increases in carbon dioxide concentrations, the possibility that it might do so demands that all necessary measures must be taken to limit carbon dioxide emissions. This is called the precautionary principle. In a central section of this essay Dr Lee demonstrates that invoking such a principle easily becomes a lazy substitute for rigorous argument and empirical evidence.

We are entering a crucial phase of national and international debate, as the clock ticks and successive political initiatives end in failure. The temptation to raise the alarmist hyperbole is reminiscent of preachers and orators who note alongside a weak section of their script: ‘Speak louder’.

The UK government has recently strengthened the legal framework to enable the maximum exploitation of its national hydrocarbon reserves, while signed up to an IPCC consensus which, on its own terms, requires most of the currently proven global reserves of oil and gas to remain in the ground. As Martin Wolf concluded in the Financial Times on 18 June 2014: ‘The world has got itself into an extremely contradictory place’.

Dr Lee’s essay explores these matters from the moral and ethical perspectives that might arise. The issues can doubtless be argued in different ways, but that they do need to be opened up for mature debate is vital for the future of our society, given the huge expenditures of public money that are potentially involved. Democratic consent to whatever is decided will not be forthcoming if the debate is not engaged in the depth which Dr Lee demonstrates is necessary.

Rt Revd Dr Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester