The Climate Change Debate
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The Climate Change Debate

An Epistemic and Ethical Enquiry

David Coady,R. Corry

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eBook - ePub

The Climate Change Debate

An Epistemic and Ethical Enquiry

David Coady,R. Corry

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About This Book

Of the two kinds of philosophical questions – epistemic and ethical - raised by the public debate about climate change, professional philosophers have dealt almost exclusively with the ethical. This book is the first to address both and examine the relationship between them.

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Year
2013
ISBN
9781137326287
1
Introduction
Abstract: We argue that philosophers, and especially epistemologists, have more to contribute to the climate change debate than is generally recognized. This book will be unique in addressing the epistemic as well as the ethical issues raised by the debate. We give a brief description of the book’s aims, followed by a brief description of its structure. We also introduce some terminology, which we will be using throughout the book, and give a brief description of climate science as we understand it.
Coady, David and Richard Corry. The Climate Change Debate: An Epistemic and Ethical Enquiry. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. DOI: 10.1057/9781137326287.
The climate change debate, to which the title of this book refers, is a composite debate, consisting of a wide variety of interrelated component debates. These debates can be distinguished by their subject matter (physics, biology, geology, politics, economics, ethics, etc.) as well as by their participants (the general public, scientists, the media, politicians, professional ethicists, etc.). The main task of this book is to subject these debates to critical scrutiny and, in the process, elucidate some of the relationships between them. As we will try to make clear, the scope for philosophical contribution to the climate change debate is much wider than many people, including many professional philosophers, have recognized.
A secondary task of this book is to use the climate change debate as a case study to defend some more-or-less controversial philosophical views. Applied philosophy, as we understand it, is not a one-way process, in which one simply teases out the implications of one’s preferred philosophical theories for a particular issue. Rather, it is a two-way process, in which theory is applied to an issue and improved understanding of the issue can lead to theoretical modification.
There are (at least) two branches of philosophy directly relevant to the climate change debate: epistemology, the study of knowledge and justified belief; and ethics, the study of right action and virtuous living.1 The epistemic character of much of the public debate about climate change should be evident, inasmuch as it is about what we should believe and what we can know. It is striking therefore that professional philosophers writing about climate change have largely ignored the epistemic issues2 and have concentrated almost entirely on the ethical issues. This book is the first to take seriously the epistemic as well as the ethical issues raised by the climate change debate.
We will identify a variety of common reasoning errors which crop up frequently in arguments about climate change. Of course, the fact that an argument is fallacious does not mean that its conclusion is false, or that there aren’t better arguments for the same conclusion. Nonetheless it is important to recognize reasoning errors for what they are. It is particularly important and particularly difficult for people to do this when the argument in question supports (or appears to support) a conclusion which they are inclined to believe. We are all inclined to lower our standards of rationality when it comes to arguments for our own views.
The logical geography of the debate
Our first task is to identify some of the main positions taken by participants in the climate change debate, say something about the logical relations between these positions, and introduce some labels that will assist us in the course of this book. It will be useful to begin with the following four claims:
(1)The climate is changing; in particular the world is getting warmer (on average) over the long term.
(2)This change is largely caused by human activity.
(3)This change is a bad thing.
(4)Something should be done to mitigate this change.3
The conjunction of (1) and (2) is the claim of anthropogenic climate change (ACC). We call the conjunction of (1) through (4) “the orthodox view“; we call proponents of this view “the orthodox”; and we call those who don’t believe one or more of these claims “skeptics”. Many of the orthodox will object to this use of nomenclature, saying that it is they who are the real skeptics, while their opponents, the “so-called skeptics”, should more properly be called “denialists” (see, for example, Garvey 2008, 143–147; Washington and Cook 2011; Garnaut 2011, 105–106). There is a widespread view, underlying this rhetorical move, that skepticism is a good thing, and that it is central to “the scientific method”. This leads many people on both4 sides of the debate5 to claim the label “skeptic” for themselves. In Chapter 2 we will argue that this is a mistake; there is no legitimate sense of the word “skeptic” according to which skepticism is a virtue. Skepticism about some topics is justified. Skepticism about other topics is not. Skepticism itself is neither virtuous nor vicious; it should be regarded as epistemically neutral. Confusion about this issue has muddied public debate about climate change (and a number of other debates6) for too long.
We reserve the term “denialist” for those who disbelieve one or more of the above claims. A denialist then is a kind of skeptic. A denialist hasn’t merely suspended judgment about something; he or she actually believes it to be false (i.e. he or she believes its negation). Whereas the word “skepticism” has positive connotations, the word “denialism” has decidedly negative connotations. In both cases the connotations are unjustified. The use of the word “denialist” by some of the orthodox to dismiss those who disagree with them is extremely unfortunate.7 It creates unnecessary bad feeling and makes rational discussion of the issues much harder. The pejorative connotations of the word seem to come from Freudian psychoanalysis, according to which denial (also called abnegation) is the psychological defense mechanism involved in the refusal to believe something one wishes were not true, even in the presence of overwhelming evidence that it is true. To call someone a “denialist” then is to treat his or her views as pathological. In general, we are opposed to pathologizing the views of those with whom we disagree. It is a practice with a disturbing history of being used to silence dissent.8
There has recently been a lot of talk about one particular form of denialism, “science denialism”. This has been defined as the rejection of a “scientific consensus, often in favor of a radical and controversial point of view” (Scudellari 2010). Now it should be obvious that, at least on this understanding, there is nothing wrong with science denialism. On the contrary, it plays an important role in scientific progress and the effective pursuit of truth. The rejection of the geocentric model of the universe was an instance of science denialism, as were the rejection of phlogiston theory and the rejection of phrenology. In each case, the science denialists were right.
It is good to have people who are willing to challenge scientific consensuses. Nonetheless it is also true that the existence of a consensus does, all else being equal, constitute genuine evidence in favor of the proposition consented to. Contrary to some prominent climate change skeptics (e.g. Plimer 2009, 14) the existence of a consensus in science is often a perfectly legitimate guide for people trying to work out what to believe, whether they be laypeople, scientists working in adjacent areas, or subsequent scientists working in the same area. This is a topic which we will address in some detail in Chapter 3, where we will argue that the existence of a (near) consensus of experts, seems to be one good reason (not the only reason) for nonexperts to accept the core factual (as opposed to evaluative) claims of climate change orthodoxy. In Chapter 4, we will consider this issue in the specific context of literature in the philosophy and social studies of science.
We continue the discussion of issues in the philosophy of science in Chapter 5, where we consider the charge that climate science is not really science since it does not meet the criterion of falsifiability set out by Karl Popper (1959). Popper’s views have been extremely influential, and not just within the philosophy of science. Scientists have taken Popper to heart, and his theories have even been enshrined in the U.S. legal system as a way to exclude evidence that is deemed nonscientific. Nonetheless, we will argue that Popper’s criterion fails to take account of the complexity of modern science, and climate science is a perfect example of this failure. The mismatch between Popper’s criterion and climate science is a reason for doubting Popper’s criterion, not for doubting the legitimacy of climate science.
In Chapters 6 through 8 we turn to ethical questions. These are not entirely independent of epistemic questions, since what you should do depends in part on what you should believe. It is natural to suppose that if you were a skeptic about any of propositions (1) through (3), then you would be a skeptic about (4) as well; and that you wouldn’t have to bother with ethical issues about what should be done and who should be doing it. In fact, things are not that straightforward. You might not believe there is a problem, but still think that something should be done to address the possibility that there is a problem. When you buy insurance, you don’t necessarily believe that you’ll need it. Rather, you think that there is enough of a chance that you’ll need it and that the eventuality you are insuring against would be sufficiently bad without insurance, that you should take precautions. Like John Broome (2012, 117–132) we take expected utility theory (or expected value theory), rather than the precautionary principle,9 to give the best account of how to make decisions in circumstances of uncertainty. It will be unnecessary for us to go into the technicalities of expected utility theory. The intuitively appealing idea guiding it is that rational decision-making (including ethical decision-making) is a matter of considering both the likelihood (or probability) of states of affairs and their value (or utility). Decision theorists like to assign precise numbers to both probabilities and utilities, but often that is impossible. Often, we are not only uncertain whether something will take place, we are also uncertain how likely it is that it will take place; these difficulties are compounded by the fact that we may not know precisely how valuable it is, or even (less ambitiously) precisely how much we value it. Furthermore, it may even be that there is no coherent way of understanding what it would mean to assign numerical values to some of these things. We will be wary of drawing precise conclusions in cases where precision seems to be impossible.
Even though the reader need not believe claims (1) through (3) to engage with our discussion of ethics, it will be convenient to write as though they are true, as indeed we believe them to be. Our discussion can be divided into two categories: (a) questions of public policy (including economic policy); and (b) questions of individual responsibility. Most of the philosophical literature on climate change is about (a). More specifically, it is about two intimately related issues, namely what would constitute a just or fair agreement to limit global emissions, and what would constitute a just or fair agreement on the costs of coping with the harms caused by climate change. There is widespread agreement that richer countries have greater obligations to reduce their emissions and pay for the costs of coping than poor countries do, but extensive disagreement remains about the extent of these differences and the underlying rationale for them. The obligations of rich countries will be discussed in Chapter 6.
The nature and extent of the obligations of rich countries toward poor countries is complicated by the fact that it is inextricably linked with another issue of distributive justice, namely the nature and extent of the obligations of the current generation toward future generations. A great deal of the philosophical literature on climate change presupposes, in effect, that there is some scientifically determined level of ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. 1  Introduction
  4. 2  Skepticism and Climate Change Skepticism
  5. 3  Experts in the Climate Change Debate
  6. 4  Climate Science As a Social Institution
  7. 5  Is Climate Science Really Science?
  8. 6  Climate Change and International Justice
  9. 7  Climate Change and Intergenerational Justice
  10. 8  Climate Change and Personal Responsibility
  11. 9  Conclusion
  12. References
  13. Index