Jo Nova reports that Prof Richard Parncutt, who suggested that climate change sceptics could face the death penalty for their crime, has taken down the original text of his argument and has apologised.
Though I would have preferred a more convincing reflection on his mistake, all’s well that ends well. So what follows is not intended to browbeat the professor at the University of Graz — of music, after all, not a discipline that typically reflects on the rights and wrong of killing people. Nonetheless, one doesn’t get to the position of professor (I used to think) without some broad acquaintance with ideas and their histories and some capacity for reflection on one’s own perspective. The mistakes he makes demonstrate the problem with many arguments that put the environment at the centre of their perspective, even those who do not call for the execution of sceptics. I hope to point out those mistakes — which are broader and deeper than just calling for your political opponents to face the death penalty — below.
Parncutt states his objection to the death penalty…
I have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases, and I have always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty International on this issue. […] Even mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion. Consider the politically motivated murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011. Of course the murderer does not deserve to live, and there is not the slightest doubt that he is guilty. But if the Norwegian government killed him, that would just increase the number of dead to 78. It would not bring the dead back to life. In fact, it would not achieve anything positive at all. I respect the families and friends of the victims if they feel differently about that. I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a logical argument.
… But then he finds an exception to his objection…
I don’t think that mass murderers of the usual kind, such Breivik, should face the death penalty. Nor do I think tobacco denialists are guilty enough to warrant the death penalty, in spite of the enormous number of deaths that resulted more or less directly from tobacco denialism. GW is different. With high probability it will cause hundreds of millions of deaths. For this reason I propose that the death penalty is appropriate for influential GW deniers. More generally, I propose that we limit the death penalty to people whose actions will with a high probability cause millions of future deaths.
Parncutt claims that his idea has been produced by thinking ‘logically’ and ‘objectively’ about the problem of what to do about all those pesky climate change deniers. I don’t find that claim at all plausible. The argument I make on this blog is that what appears as self-evident to the environmentalist owes much more to environmentalism than to facts unambiguously presented to the environmentalist by the environment. The environmentalist’s thinking is littered with his own prejudices.
Indulging Parncutt’s incautious rant allows us to bring out environmentalism’s ‘ideology’ — it’s presuppositions, prejudices and logic — more starkly than is typically possible with more guarded environmental waffle.
For instance, Parncutt asks us to think about doing something wrong (executing people who deny climate change) to correct a greater wrong (preventing the deaths of people from climate change). But how does one get to such a position using ‘logic’, per his claim?
It’s certainly true that killing people who disagree with you prevents dissent. Similarly, we could claim that all crime, no matter how petty, should be punishable by death. Suddenly crime rates would plummet. What’s not to like?
It turns out that we prefer justice to be proportionate. And that is a trickier metric to get to grips with than ‘logic’ or ‘objectivity’can help us with. There simply isn’t an objective or logical measure of proportionality — it’s a complex idea, which different cultures and different ideologies form different perspectives on, for historical reasons. And so it is with the Parncutt’s blood lust.
The passages of Parncutt’s text are an example of a knot that moral consequentialists find themselves tied up in fairly often. When trying to weigh up the rights and wrongs of doing wrong to do right, consequentialists find themselves committed to some unpleasant ideas, as the Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:
A well-worn example of this over-permissiveness of consequentialism is that of a case standardly called, Transplant. A surgeon has five patients dying of organ failure and one healthy patient whose organs can save the five. In the right circumstances, surgeon will be permitted (and indeed required) by consequentialism to kill the healthy patient to obtain his organs, assuming there are no relevant consequences other than the saving of the five and the death of the one.
Even if we grant — for the sake of argument — that Parncutt’s argument proceeds logically, it proceeds from a basis where something like consequentialism has been presupposed. Another view might be that even if the consequences of allowing people to speak freely is an environmental disaster of the magnitude he predicts, it is nonetheless incumbent on environmentalists to make the persuasive argument. So there are now at least two views — with very different consequences — that ‘logic’ and ‘objectivity’ can proceed from. The problem being that logic and objectivity have little to say about the right way to navigate the between allowing free speech on the one hand, and terminating interlocutors on the other. Ending up at such an extreme speaks about something else that’s going on inside the professor’s head. ‘I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a logical argument‘, he says. But we can see as plain as day his self-deception. Rather than admitting that his argument is based on something like consequentialism — or more crudely, the ’24’ defence of torture — Parncutt tries to use the weight of the consequences to make the argument.
Objectivity aside, the argument fails on logic, too, though. Consider this passage:
GW deniers fall into a completely different category from Behring Breivik. They are already causing the deaths of hundreds of millions of future people. We could be speaking of billions, but I am making a conservative estimate.
Deniers ‘are already causing the deaths of hundreds of millions of future people‘. In Parncutt’s logic, the future is the present. There are two problems with this.
First, the linguistic sleight of hand is something looked at previously on this blog:
It would all be so much easier for everyone concerned if we could just linguistically lump the present in with the conditional future from the word go. Something like ‘Climate change is will being responsible for [insert climatological ravage here]’ should cover it.
How can an action in the present ‘already’ have caused a consequence in the future?
Parncutt might well be right, and us ‘deniers’ will have campaigned against action to stop climate change, leading to the deaths of millions or billions of people. But it might also be the case that he is wrong. And there are many other possibilities. Climate change may continue at any degree between benign and something worse than even Parncutt has considered. But even then, such changes in the environment may not cause a single death, because — as is argued on this blog — human society is less sensitive to climate than Parncutt estimates, or because we are capable of organising ourselves against such problems as they happen. After all, we have thousands of years to cope with sea level rise. The migration away from, and the loss of the twentieth century’s great cities may cause people in the thirty-first or forty-first centuries no more anguish than the loss of Anglo-Saxon villages causes the average Briton. The human race might well prosper in the future, even without ice caps.
Second, a moral perspective premised on bringing the future victims of our carbon profligacy to the present is fraught with problems, as has also been discussed here before. Nearly five years ago, I reviewed James Garvey’s attempt to set out ‘The Ethics of Climate Change’:
Producing carbon dioxide – that is to say, using more than our fair share of carbon sinks – is not simply a moral wrong in the present, according to Garvey. What we do now carries consequences into the future. Accordingly, he challenges us to consider that moral responsibility isn’t limited by any kind of proximity. We have as much a duty to reduce our carbon emissions for the sake of the starving child on the other side of the planet as we do the starving child a thousand years into the future.
But Garvey’s moral calculations are easily challenged. How might the same starving child, were he standing right in front of us, be helped by us reducing our CO2? To suggest that it would help would seem entirely uncaring, and not at all ‘ethical’. Garvey might answer that CO2 emissions are what have caused hunger and injury. But this would seem to forget that famine, drought, and disease have historically always been part of life for individuals and communities living at the edge of society. Such forms of poverty are not new, but they are ‘natural’. If we can’t say that reducing CO2 emissions would help this child, it is hard to see how Garvey’s argument against proximity can be sustained. If, in a wealthy country, we were to stumble across some case of poverty, we would not say that the conditions people were living in were the result of climate change. We would not, as Garvey does, say that it was a consequence of our ‘moral failure’ to consider the connection between our CO2-producing actions, and their consequences. We would instead suggest that it was a social problem, arising out of material inequality. So why aren’t the problems faced by Garvey’s victims, thousands of miles away, not also problems of material inequality? Why are our responsibilities to people thousands of miles away different to our responsibilities to people right in front of us?
[…]Garvey’s portrayal of the remote, poverty-stricken victims makes use of the environmentalist’s maxim that ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. But the sense of responsibility that Garvey appears to wish us to understand is not responsibility in the sense of commitment, or duty, but culpability. We are asked to engage with Garvey’s view of the world as culprits. And as culprits, we are asked to stop what we are doing, and ‘give’ back to the poor what is theirs by some kind of right. In this relationship, the poor are like puppets that Garvey uses to act out a kind of morality play to elicit our sympathy – or guilt – for his cause. And just as Garvey needs distance and poverty on this stage, he also needs victims to make his case. After all, where is this system of ethics, if there are no victims? He does not allow us to consider how we might begin to change things so that people are not poor – to make things better – but how we can avoid being responsible for making things worse.
The imperatives of ‘sustainable development’ demand that we consider the interests of ‘future generations’ — people who do not exist yet, but who are represented by the likes of Garvey and now Parncutt. It’s an interesting paradox: people who aren’t yet alive have some kind of rights in the present, whereas people in the present who speak in public about the daftness of giving non-existent people rights in the present deserve to be put to death.
What strange ‘ethics’: killing today’s sceptics so that tomorrow’s sceptics may live. But again putting its more egregious consequences to one side reveals the broader problem with environmental ethics.
An eco-centric perspective means robbing people in the present and the future of the thing that makes them different — being alive rather than merely being a life. Being alive means (for humans) being aware of oneself, and a sense of your own desires, will, ambitions and future. But the desire to protect ‘future generations’ denies people in the present and the future a right to express their own ideas about their own interests. After all, how can people in the future express themselves in the present? They can’t; they can only exist as statistical quantities, with statistical approximations of ‘interests’… so much water, air, and carbon. The remainder — things that make life worth living — is thrown out. Humans are not moral agents on this view; the concept of agency doesn’t exist at all, except in the sense of blame. Hence, the consequence of putting so much emphasis on life as a metabolic process, rather than on the experience of being alive. Environmentalism’s ‘ethics’ are as cold as spreadsheets.
This very limited view of humanity causes environmentalism to conceive of people as helpless without it: unable to adapt to changing environmental conditions, incapable of overcoming their dependency on natural processes, and driven by material instincts to consume until everything is gone or the waste overwhelms the consumer.
For instance, Parncutt claims:
When the earth’s temperature rises on average by more than two degrees, interactions between different consequences of global warming (reduction in the area of arable land, unexpected crop failures, extinction of diverse plant and animal species) combined with increasing populations mean that hundreds of millions of people may die from starvation or disease in future famines. Moreover, an unknown number may die from wars over diminishing resources (more). Even if that does not happen, thousands of plants and animals will become extinct. Islands, shorelines and coastal communities will disappear.
Parcutt’s claim to objectivity and logic weakens even more here. There is no scientific basis for the two degree limit. ‘Two degrees’ is a horizon of uncertainty, not a threshold of the environment’s functioning. And the consequences of exceeding two degrees that he lists are equally mere speculation. Previously, this blog has argued that global warming and its consequences can be divided into first and Nth-order effects. While we can be more sure of first order effects, Nth order effects such as feedback mechanisms are far less understood — climate sensitivity remains a controversy, not a matter of fact. And we have barely got into the discussion of ‘interactions between different consequences of global warming’. These interactions and their sensitivity to climate change are presupposed by environmentalism — they have not been detected by science. But much worse than this is the way in which Parncutt imagines that human society is sensitive to these speculative Nth order effects.
Starvation, disease, famine, and war over diminishing resources are as inevitable consequences, it would seem, as the melting of ice. You heat ice, it melts. You heat the planet, you get wars. Parncutts denial of human agency in his ethical framework is matched by a denial of human agency in the real world. The limited, metabolic view of humanity in his eco-centric ethics corresponds to his highly deterministic view of society’s relationship with the environment. This deterministic framework allows him to prophesize: ‘interactions between different consequences of global warming […] combined with increasing populations mean that hundreds of millions of people may die’. Looking to the future is just a matter of doing the math.
Were it not for the seemingly shocking argument that climate sceptics should be executed, Parncutt’s hollow argument would have gone unnoticed. It would have been a run-of-the-mill, boring whinge about people who don’t agree with him. We’ve seen thousands of them. Arguments such as Parncutts pour out of government departments and organisations that have sought to identify themselves with the climate issue in recent years. But nobody was listening. The environmental movement failed to achieve any momentum. Nobody believes people who dress up as planet-saving superheroes. In order to explain their failure, environmentalists had to invent a demon — the denier… An all powerful being who could manipulate the public. Says Parncutt…
Much more would have happened by now if not for the GW deniers. An amazing number of people still believe that GW is a story made up by scientists with ulterior motives. For a long list of climate change deniers and their stories see desmogblog. The opinions of everyday GW deniers are evidently being driven by influential GW deniers who have a lot to lose if GW is taken seriously, such as executives in transnational oil corporations.
This is why intellectually weak arguments like Parncutt’s tend to alarmism and to shrill, shocking, and sensational statements. ‘GW deniers’ were never powerful, influential, or well-funded. Environmental alarmism was born out of a growing isolation of the political class from the wider public. Terrifying stories about the immanent deaths of millions of people was not intended to engage the public as much as it was to arm organisations and governments with a sense of legitimacy and purpose in spite of public opinion. Efforts to turn environmental alarmism into international treaties and organisations was never set back by public opinion — they were never vulnerable to democratic control. Meanwhile, radical organisations that attempted to use environmental crisis to engage with the public merely secured their own isolation. And as environmentalists isolation from reality and the wider public increased, so they sealed themselves away from criticism of their ideas. Nobody would challenge the logic of arguments such as Parncutt’s, they would merely say ‘yes, logic and objectivity, hurrah’. Consequently, the quality of the arguments offered by environmentalists has diminished as their tone has grown ever more shrill.
Parncutt’s essay, far from being logical and objective, reflects environmentalism’s failure to make logical and objective arguments, much less persuade anyone with them. In his frustration, Parncutt escalates his claims against those he blames for environmentalism’s failure. Along the way, he reveals the ideological nature of environmentalism, and betrays his own inability to reflect on his failures, and to take responsibility for them. It wasn’t deniers who held up environmentalism’s progress; it was environmentalists.