A bit of philosophy

Eric Steig and Gavin Schmidt

The two of us participated last week in an interesting meeting at the University of Washington on Ethics and Climate Change. Other scientists in attendance included Dennis Hartmann, who gave an overview of the current state of the science, and sometime RealClimate contributor Cecilia Bitz. Organized by Associate Professor of Philosophy Stephen Gardiner, the conference was dedicated to the particular ethical and moral issues raised by the spectre of anthropogenic climate change. Since we aren’t philosophers by training, and since it would probably stray too far from RealClimate’s focus on science, we won’t comment in great detail. However, we thought it worth making our readers aware that there is a very interesting and growing literature on the subject. Based on their remarks at the conference, we heartily recommend checking out the papers and commentaries written by the various philosphers, scientists, and political theorists who attended. You can get abstracts of their talks on the conference web page. Below, we simply wish to note several issues raised at the conference that we found particularly interesting.

Stephen Gardiner presented an articulate argument on the moral ramifications of geoengineering (in particular the proposal by Paul Crutzen to add sulphate aerosols in the stratosphere to increase the planetary albedo) about we have expressed some doubts previously, chiefly on scientific grounds). Among the cogent statements made by Gardiner was that while one may argue that research on geoengineering acts as a kind of insurance policy,

… there are many such policies; and there is a real concern that the narrow one of “Geoengineering Research Only” gains prominence among them only because it is the one that seems most congenial to us, the present generation.

If you are interesting in reading more, you can get the entire text of Stephen’s paper, here.

Another very interesting talk was that by Jeff Kiehl, a climate modeler at NCAR, who raised a series of ethical issues regarding how climate models are constructed and the ethical decisions that climate modelers face in conveying model results to the public. This talk prompted a lively discussion about the role of peer review, with the conclusion that the system probably works pretty well. It is imperfect, but it does act as a reasonable first filter to catch most egregious misuses of science.

Steve Schneider and one of us (Gavin) discussed the roles of public scientists and of scientists reaching out to the public and some of the pitfalls to be avoided there (see Steve’s site or this post for the kind of thing we were talking about).

Henry Shue, an Oxford philosopher well known for his work on such issues as the moral implications of torture and pre-emptive war, made the argument that the moral implications of not dealing with climate change should be thought of not only in terms of harm, but in terms of potential harm. Unfortunately for those of us that would like to keep burning fossil fuels at our current rate, Shue argues that uncertainty — the possibility that harm caused to future generations from anthropogenic climate change will be relatively small — does not get us out of our moral obligation to change our behavior. That is, one need only recognize that business as usual will increase the risk of significant harm – a point that almost nobody debates – for it to be clear that business as usual may be unethical.

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