The Ethics of 'the Ethics of Climate Change'

by | Jul 1, 2008

James Garvey didn’t like Ben’s review of his book on Culture Wars. But instead of responding to it, he seems to have merely laid out the same argument again.

Science can give us a grip on the fact of climate change. (For a start, have a look here: We know that temperatures are rising; the sea level is rising too; sea ice is thinning; permafrost is melting; glaciers are in world-wide retreat; ElNino events are becoming more frequent, persistent and intense; and on and on. We know that our fellow creatures are already suffering as a result of climate change. We know that human beings are suffering too and that they will continue to suffer. The Red Cross argue that as of 2001 there were as many as 25 million environmental refugees, people on the move away from dry wells and failed crops. That’s larger than the number they give for people displaced by war. One sixth of the world’s population gets its water from the melting snow and ice tricking down from frozen sources which are likely to dry up in the years to come. There is a lot of suffering underway and on the cards. It’s this suffering which makes climate change a moral problem.

Again, Garvey defers the understanding of the problem to ‘science’, and directs us to the IPCC. There are two main problems with this. First, the IPCC is not beyond scientific challenge as Garvey suggests it is. Second, the imperatives seemingly generated by that scientific definition of the problems – even if the science is true – do not follow necessarily from it. Yes, we may well be inducing climate change, but there may be – in fact, there is – a moral argument that places industrial and economic development over mitigation, in spite of its effect on the environment. Garvey just doesn’t get it. But science cannot and must not be allowed to generate moral and political imperatives. To allow it to do so is to undermine Garvey’s own discipline. In doing so, the best he can offer from moral philosophy is a reduction of complicated scientific, political, and economic arguments to facile comparisons of ‘business as usual’ to ‘standing around, watching a child drown’. Garvey’s inconsequential and trite prose isn’t moral philosophy, it is just standard moral posturing.

But, if Garvey wants to wave science around as a moral weapon, let us look at his understanding of the ‘science’. He says that “we know that…”

“… temperatures are rising”.
But we also know that they are falling. It’s very clear from the following graph that temperatures are lower in recent months (in fact, lower than at any point) than they were a decade ago, according to any of the four main observations. There doesn’t seem to have been much warming over the period either. Of course, this is not to say that there is ‘no such thing as man-made global warming’. The problem is with factoids like ‘temperatures are rising’ being used to arm moral and political arguments. Facts and data require interpretation. Factoids require bins.

“… the sea level is rising”

As indeed they have been for quite some time, at various rates. As IPCC TAR shows there has been 120 meters of sea level rise in the last 20 thousand years. Sea level rose nearly 20cm over the last century – little, if any of which could be attributed to global warming – without too much fuss. Why is it suddenly so problematic? Whether or not human CO2 has contributed to sea-level rise, and whether or not it will continue to, or make things worse, mitigation will have very little effect in the near and mid term, and the problem of ‘natural’ sea level rise will still exist, regardless of what we do or do not do.

“… sea ice is thinning”
Arctic ice extent – not thinning – does seem to be following a negative trend.

But the Antarctic shows the opposite trend.

So to what extent can we say “sea ice is thinning”? What was the rate ‘before’, and how is it different now? What ‘should’ it be doing? In fact, there isn’t much data available. AsIPCC AR4 reports, “Thickness data, especially from submarines, are available but restricted to the central Arctic, where they indicate thinning of approximately 40% between the period 1958 to 1977 and the 1990s. This is likely an overestimate of the thinning over the entire arctic region however.” There is no substance to the claim that Garvey makes. The science is most certainly not in.

“… permafrost is melting”
While this poses some practical problems for people, melting permafrost also creates positives, with new areas being opened up for human use in agriculture. Expensive action to mitigate climate change creates little or no net benefit, especially given that we are, apparently, committed to some level of climate change, leaving fewer resources available to local adaptation. As we often say, ‘environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy’. We mitigate at the expense of our ability to adapt, which makes it a destructive folly. Garvey can only think of one course of action to follow because he needs there to be a black-and-white matter of absolutes and imperatives. He doesn’t want us to be able to do a cost/benefit analysis on human terms. Furthermore, we know that permafrost was melting anyway, before any human-induced change.

“… glaciers are in world-wide retreat”
They were anyway. As IPCC AR4 reports “Most mountain glaciers and ice caps have been shrinking, with the retreat probably having started about 1850 [NB: the end of the ‘little ice age’]. Although many Northern Hemisphere glaciers had a few years ofnearbalance around 1970, this was followed by increased shrinkage.”

“… El Nino events are becoming more frequent, persistent and intense”.
This is simply nonsense. Here is a graph, plotting ENO since 1950

There has not been any unusually intense or persistent El Nino event since 1997/8. A graph we posted back in April shows the danger of looking at ENO to substantiate claims made about anthropogenic global warming.

This goes to show that temperatures are more closely related to ENO than temperatures are related to CO2, let alone ENO is related to CO2. Hence the Hadley Centre’s making of some fairly safe bets, but changing them, not as new scientific evidence emerges, but according to what they expect theENO to do in the near future, or is already doing. Claims made by sceptics that the effects
of the current ENO as it enters a negative episode, since last year, yielded temperature anomalies much lower than in recent years (in fact, very much average at near zero), have been waved away by alarmists claiming that they are the result of ‘natural variability’. So, isENO the product of anthropogenic CO2, or the source of natural variability? This is a question Garvey does not seem to ask nor answer, yet wants to draw moral authority from, as though it had been answered.

From the science, Garvey moves on to the human effects, as if they were inevitable.

We know that our fellow creatures are already suffering as a result of climate change. We know that human beings are suffering too and that they will continue to suffer. The Red Cross argue that as of 2001 there were as many as 25 million environmental refugees, people on the move away from dry wells and failed crops. That’s larger than the number they give for people displaced by war. One sixth of the world’s population gets its water from the melting snow and ice tricking down from frozen sources which are likely to dry up in the years to come. There is a lot of suffering underway and on the cards. It’s this suffering which makes climate change a moral problem.

The first thing to point out is that an ‘environmental refugee’ is not the same thing as a ‘climate change refugee’, let alone a human-induced-climate-change refugee. The claim that people are ‘already suffering as a result of climate change’ is totally unsupported. Climate is a problem for people, regardless of whether it is changing or not. The Red Cross, never mind scientists, however noble their intentions, cannot make the distinction between a human caused climate event, and a ‘natural’ climate change event. And what is spectacularly absent from this kind of calculation is the extent to which industrialisation – the process which has put distance between environmental effects and human suffering, and which is blamed for causing climate change – has obviously reduced the extent of human suffering. It has brought benefits to a great deal more people than 25 million, and is evidently what is missing from the lives of the vast majority of those 25 million ‘climate refugees’. It is this absence of development which is the problem, not the fact of different climatic conditions. But without this form of environmental determinism, Garvey cannot make a case that climate change demands a new ethical perspective on ‘equality’.

Science can give us the facts, but we need something more if we want to act on the basis of those facts. The something more has at least a little to do with what we think is right, with justice, with responsibility, with what we value, with what matters to us. You cannot find that sort of thing in an ice core. You have to think your way through it. It helps to start small, with everyday thoughts about doing the right thing.

And without that form of environmental determinism to provide him with imperatives, Garvey would find it very difficult to explain what ‘justice’, ‘responsibility’, and ‘values’ actually are. It is only in the face of a problem that he can generate any meaning to provide these terms with. He can’t conceive, for example, of an argument for equality in human terms, he needs environmental crisis in order to legitimise an argument for negative equality. He can’t conceive of an argument for justice without a crime. Not, notice, a crime against a person, but a crime against the environment, which is later visited on people by consequence. This is ‘environmental justice’. He cannot conceive of any human values without connecting humans to the environment. This empty perspective is finally shown in his appeal that we ‘start small, with everyday thoughts about doing the right thing’ – he cannot conceive of big things like solving the material inequalities that allow people to suffer from the effects of climate. He cannot conceive of a genuine form of justice, where people are protected from the climate. He doesn’t value that sort of justice. He doesn’t think we have that kind of responsibility. This ‘thinking small’ mentality barely registers as even thinking at all. According to this ‘small’ doctrine, justice is done, equality is achieved, and your responsibilities are met by having a shower instead of bath, recycling your newspapers, and not using plastic bags. Who would have thought that ending world poverty was so spectacularly easy?

If walking past a drowning child is wrong, particularly when one is well-placed to help, then the West is doing something wrong by carrying on with business as usual. It amounts to walking past, to doing nothing, in the face of human suffering. It stands out even more given the West’s capacity to do the right thing. Maybe it’s a kind of moral outrage.

Garvey compares our ‘inaction’ on climate change to walking past the drowning child. Perhaps Garvey doesn’t sense any problem with this patronisation of both his readers and those he wishes to save from climate change.

Yes, the industrialised world can help the developing world. But, only by virtue of its industrialisation – the very thing that ‘the ethics of climate change’ asks us to turn back the clock on. All he has to offer the poorer inhabitants of the planet – assuming firstly that the ‘science’ is true, and secondly that mitigation will have any noticeable effect – is marginally different weather. Slightly different weather will not end poverty. It will not create opportunities for development, it will not even make soil more fertile, nor irrigate fields. It will not change the economic or political circumstances in the Third World. All it will do is put a greater number of the world’s population into a relationship with nature where human suffering is far more directly influenced by environmental changes; it is a necessary fact that increasing your dependence on nature makes you more vulnerable to it. As we have said before, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

These are the ‘ethics’ of climate change. What they reveal is an intellectually bankrupt moral philosophy, which cannot conceive of the world in terms other than culpability and victimhood; it lacks a positive conception of ‘good’. This in turn reflects the political exhaustion which drives political elites towards such vapid ethical constructions to attach themselves to. It is only by jumping aboard such a hollow vessel as ‘the ethics of climate change’ that today’s politicians can claim to be offering the world anything, without actually committing themselves to anything meaningful. But in truth, this is a ship of fools.

Despite Garvey’s claims that there is more to understanding climate change than the ‘science’, without the ‘science’ narrating the apocalyptic story driving environmental ethics, there is nothing for the moral philosopher to consider; it is ‘unethical’ not to ‘do something’ to ‘combat climate change’. Therefore, the only role that ethical philosophy plays is in explaining – rather than informing – the decision to ‘act’. Garvey asks us to take the scientific ‘facts’ of the matter for granted. But the truth is there are many ways other than mitigation to approach climate problems – whether or not it is changing, and whether or not we are causing change. He claims that science provides facts which cannot be questioned. But by forcing ‘nature’ and ‘science’ between people with environmental determinism, he naturalises the way real people actually relate, and demands that people accept the limits that he sets for them, and lower their expectations. It prevents a genuine understanding of real inequalities in the world in favour of a hollow, surrogate system of ethics that exploits images of inequality for its own ends and offers nothing other than an empty promise not to make it worse.


  1. Lee

    Great response. You should ask CW to post this as your riposte (or, at least, a link to it). Your paragraph starting ‘Yes, the industrialised world’ is excellent – I wish I’d had that under my belt last weekend when I spoke at the Battle for Progress!

  2. Alex Cull

    An image that comes to mind is that of a crowd of people trapped at the bottom of a deep pit (poverty, material inequality). At the top of this pit we have cables, winches etc. (opportunities for economic development) that can be used to lift people out. But instead of doing this, some would want to dismantle the machinery and jump down into the pit to join the folks already there. In effect, saying “Well, we could have used the cables to pull you out. But we felt guilty for being up there, while you were all down here. And believe us, life up there is not as wonderful as you’d imagine. We get bored you know, and sort of empty, even with all our consumer trinkets. So we thought we’d join you down here instead. Now we’re all equal, and we kind of feel rather noble for having done this. All right, so we’re all sitting here in the dark, exhausted, hungry and exposed to disease and natural disasters. But the guilt has all gone away now, and we feel sure that the planet is expressing its gratitude to us, even though you won’t.”

  3. Derek D

    Alex Cull you are a true wordsmith. Your analogy is dead on save for one point. I categorically deny that the AGW crowd really would climb down into the pit with us out of guilt. I think they would dismantle their machines and bombard the people in the pit with the pieces. “Serves you right” they’d say. “You dug this pit with your machines, see how you like them now”.

    You see the AGW crowd are not the guilty enviro-lovers they claim to be. They represent two personality types, both flawed, and both shameful. The first are the sad bitter people. For whatever reason, factors in their lives have led them to feel meek, inferior, and powerless. This is why their guise usually fails to cover the obvious fact that their anger is directed towards creature comforts enjoyed by those who have accomplished more than them. Is it a coincidence that luxury cars, big houses, airplanes, appliances etc, are the things most demonized by the enviros? They are sad people that feel so unempowered, and incapable that the only way they can envision leveling the playing field is by destroying your nice stuff. The idea of going out and achieving their own success is totally off the radar. It used to be cults that wooed these types. But as religion has fallen from prominence, the AGW agenda has stepped in to play the role of enabler. To feed this totally misguided thinking for “their” own benefit.

    But who are “they”. “They” are the other half of the enviro movement. The empty soul less scum of the earth. They are the ones running the cult, and recruiting the downtrodden. They are the ones who will stare you in the face and swear unblinking that “the science absolutely proves A” knowing full well the science actully proves B. They are the ones who call AGW skeptics “deniers” and claim they are all agents of big oil. Meanwhile they remain heavily invested in big oil and get rich when their friends in the media hype carbon trading schemes that speculate the cost of oil up and up for their benefit. They are the ones who call the $15 million the oil companies spent studying the validity of the AGW hypothesis is “dirty kickbacks”. Meanwhile they bestow the Nobel Prize on Al Gore who admits to having hundreds of millions of dollars invested in business that hinge on political outcomes that he and his cronies are involved in deciding.

    So no my friend these people would not feel a shred of guilt if they found us in a hole. They would smash us with our own luxury items. And when we’re good and dead, they’d come down, pillage our wallets, take the luxury items back, and move into our abandoned homes with them. They are nothing but phonies. Claiming some moral high ground while they try to legislate themselves a free pass to same things that good, right-minded people earned through hard work.

    Plenty of study by real scientists has shone a positive light on the grim predictions of AGW. That this should make the so-called environmentalists so angry, makes you wonder if they are even environmentalists at all…

  4. Mark

    Thought provoking post. A strong, industrial economy is the reason that hundreds of thousands are not killed when a major natural disaster strikes a developed country such as the US. It’s clear that the salvation of those in third world countries whose lives are devastated by natural disasters is not going to be found in slightly reducing the power of climatological disasters(oestensibly to pre-industrial levels when they were also quite good a killing people.) Industrial development also reduces the impact from non-climatological disasters – a two-for-one deal! As obvious as this is, it seems the GW folks leave this out of their computations.

  5. geoff Chambers

    As you point out, “an ‘environmental refugee’ is not the same thing as a ‘climate change refugee’”.
    The Guardian, July 2, 2008 has a headline: “Climate more urgent than economy, say voters”, followed by an article which starts:
    “Voters think that taking action against climate change matters more than tackling the global economic downturn, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today.
    Then comes the poll result:
    “When asked whether tackling the environment or the economy – given global economic problems – should be the government’s priority, 52% said the environment and 44% said the economy”

    Note how “tackling the environment” in the poll becomes “tackling climate change” in the article. This Humpty Dumptyesque attitude to language is symptomatic of more than sloppy logic. You frequently point out the psychlogical impetus behind the adoption of global warming hysteria by politicians. Others in the sceptic blogosphere occasionally refer to “mass hysteria” or “cognitive dissonance”, but I’ve yet to see a serious psychological analysis of the warmist phenomenon. Here’s a possible starting point, and I’d like to see some competent person (maybe you?) explore it.

    Three years ago there was a movement to “Make Poverty History” with Mandela in Trafalgar Square and Blair strutting and fretting on the world stage to universal applause. It seemed a key moment, in world history, like the abolition of slavery or of apartheid (Mandela’s comparisons, not mine). A significant part of Western public opinion seemed determined, even at the cost of financial sacrifice, to do some good in the world. Then suddenly, within matter of two years, the very same people were obsessed by their carbon footprint, determined to deprive themselves, and a posteriori, everyone else, of the benefits of three centuries of technical progress. Nothing happened in the meantime to cause this sea-change, so I can only assume the change was psychological, within the minds of the participants. I have some ideas on the subject, but would like to know if anyone else in the blogosphere has been looking into this.

  6. editors


    While it is certainly tempting to write off environmentalists as mentally deluded or the victims of mass hysteria, we think it is a mistake to do so. The trouble with touting such psychological explanations is that it makes environmentalism unchallengeable on political grounds. Environmentalism is a political phenomenon, not a medical one. And anyway, while many Greens are plainly hysterical, a political movement that is supported by only a minority of the public can hardly be described as mass hysteria.

    However, we do nearly agree with you on the significance of the Make Poverty History movement. But surely, the dashing of optimism that you describe is the result of political, not psychological exhaustion. And remember that environmentalists believe that they are helping the world’s poor. The trouble is that a western world that is so lacking in direction itself is reticent to help in the very ways it can help – using and sharing the fruits of its own development. Rather, with so little idea of how to build on its own success, it is prone – as Alex suggests – to pull up the development ladder behind it in the mistaken belief that that development is at the root of the problem.

    It’s also interesting that accusations of mental deficiency are a staple of environmentalists’ attempts to undermine those who disagree with them. There’s Andreas Ernst, who compares the psychology of sceptics to that of rats, and Steven Moffic, who thinks that aversion therapy involving the use of “distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming” can cure sceptics of their sociopathy. We’ve covered this stuff here.

  7. hollywood video promotion

    Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular article!
    It is the little changes that make the largest changes.

    Many thanks for sharing!



  1. Why Do Environmentalists Hate Liberty? » Climate Resistance - [...] 2008, I reviewed The Ethics of Climate Change by James Garvey, who was at the time working our of…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.