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Nov 16, 2009

Hamilton: Denying the coming climate holocaust

Which is morally worse: Holocaust denial or climate change scepticism? It sounds like a no-brainer, but the real-life consequences of climate sceptics succeeding may far outweigh those of Holocaust denialists.

Climate sceptics resent being called deniers because of the odium associated with Holocaust revisionism.

Even critics of the sceptics are careful to distance themselves from the implication that they are comparing climate denialism with Holocaust denialism for fear of being seen to trivialise the Holocaust by suggesting some sort of moral equivalence.

Judgments about moral equivalence depend on the ethical standpoint one adopts.

For consequentialists the morality of an action is judged by its outcomes. For those who adopt this ethical standpoint, any assessment of the consequences of the two forms of truth-rejection would conclude that climate deniers deserve greater moral censure than Holocaust deniers because their activities are more dangerous.

If the David Irvings of the world were to succeed, and the public rejected the mountain of evidence for the Holocaust, then the consequences would be a rewriting of history and a probable increase in anti-Semitism.

If the climate deniers were to succeed, and stopped the world responding to the mountain of evidence for human-induced global warming, then hundreds of millions of mostly impoverished people around the world would die from the effects of climate change.

They will die from famine, flood and disease caused by our unwillingness to act. The Stern report provides some sobering estimates: an additional 30-200 million people at risk of hunger with warming of only 2-3°C; an additional 250-500 million at risk if temperatures rise above 3°C; some 70-80 million more Africans exposed to malaria; and an additional 1.5 billion exposed to dengue fever.

Instead of dishonouring the deaths of six million in the past, climate deniers risk the lives of hundreds of millions in the future. Holocaust deniers are not responsible for the Holocaust, but climate deniers, if they were to succeed, would share responsibility for the enormous suffering caused by global warming.

It is a ghastly calculus, yet it is worth making because the hundreds of millions of dead are not abstractions, mere chimera until they happen. We know with a high degree of certainty that if we do nothing they will die.

But not everyone adopts a consequentialist ethic. An alternative ethical stance is to judge climate deniers not by the effects of what they do but by the rightness of their activities (a so-called duty ethic) or by their character and motives (a virtue ethic).

From a duty ethic position, the moral obligation climate deniers are violating is to the truth. Here there is a moral difference between denying the commission of a great crime, for which there are whole libraries of documentation, and rejecting the overwhelming evidence from science in which uncertainties nevertheless persist. This suggests that climate deniers are less culpable.

From a virtue ethic standpoint, moral culpability depends on motives. Attempting in good faith to uncover the facts is a good thing, which is why we regard genuine scepticism as healthy. Denialism is not scepticism but a refusal to accept the facts, the rejection of all of the evidence.

We think of Holocaust deniers as being immoral because we suspect them of being motivated by anti-Semitism or a desire for political advancement through stirring up racial hatred.

We think of climate deniers as being immoral because we suspect them of being motivated, not by truth-seeking, but by political goals, a desire for funds from fossil-fuel companies or personal aggrandisement.

Those who adopt a duty or virtue ethic would probably feel more personal antipathy towards a David Irving than towards an Ian Plimer or Andrew Bolt. There is something especially repugnant, even evil, about Holocaust denial. Denying or covering up a monstrous crime makes Holocaust deniers somehow complicit in it.

Better to have your daughter marry a climate sceptic, who is perhaps motivated by contrarianism, foolishness or self-importance rather than wickedness.

If, like me, you adopt a virtue or duty ethic, but one tempered by consideration of the consequences of an act, climate deniers are less immoral than Holocaust deniers, although they are undoubtedly more dangerous.

However, as the casualties from a warming world mount over the next decades, the denialism of those who continue to reject the scientific evidence will come to be seen as more and more iniquitous. So the answer to the question of whether climate denialism is morally worse than Holocaust denialism is no, at least, not yet.

Clive Hamilton is the Greens candidate in the Higgins by-election.

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117 thoughts on “Hamilton: Denying the coming climate holocaust

  1. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvevy M Tarvydas

    Heathdon McGregor, re your last entry, please understand that I respect commonsense as much as you do. It and science are just different and a lot of the later has become part of our modern western commonsense. Nature is science in the absolute honest sense then along comes man (of all kinds) making discoveries in his terms about nature and calls it his science. I revere nature for what it is and man’s quality efforts for trying hard to find out.
    Nature doesn’t need anyone to prove what it is but a story of ‘understanding’ of a bit of nature needs proof of some kind or another for the rest of us to trust and accept the story.

  2. Heathdon McGregor

    It and science are just different

    Dear Dr Tarvydas

    I agree

  3. james mcdonald

    Hi Heathdon,

    Fair answer. Anyway, it was a way I had a bit of a laugh at myself which I thought I’d throw out there in case it was helpful, after you said “I dont know I don’t know”. I still don’t know either, I just stopped imagining that I could know better and took a leap of faith on the Enlightenment, imperfect as it is.

    Hi Harvey,

    My expressions of frustration were intended not so much to slur anyone as to protest at how this all has become an “us and them” thing. A war of words. The book I mentioned by Deborah Tannen explains how adversarial methods have become our standard way of seeking the truth even though they are useful only some of the time. The idea that “there are two sides to every story” has come to sound like a truism, but it’s not even true.

    I had also hoped to make the point that if this campaign is conducted as a war on big business, it will fail, whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter may be. If I’ve achieved nothing more than to make the matter even more divisive, then I hope a better intellect than mine, such as yours, can see that and can make the point better than I did.

    Hi Adam Neira,

    I don’t generally tick the box at the bottom to email me with follow-ups, so this is the only retrospective comment from you that I found. If there are others, please let me know.

    To answer your questions:

    (a) lately it’s all work and Crikey. The observation is well made and noted, thank you.
    (b) no … is anybody?
    (c) no … and congratulations, with that question you’ve got to the very heart of the matter.

    Bringing about social-economic collapse will not solve any problem. It will result in mass starvation, war, pandemics … and exacerbate any climate-related problems we may be causing.

    I assume we are causing a climate problem, because the scientific community says so. I believe the world needs to start placing a higher value on educated, accountable, scientific and academic expertise than it has done in the last century. I don’t necessarily hold that all academia has shown itself worthy of that level of reliance–in many ways it’s gone downhill from its zenith at the turn of the 19th-20th century–but among the alternatives are the pseudo-scientific movements that characterized the 1930s. I prefer to place some trust in the weight of informed reason, and expect them to rise to the challenge.

    In other words, if we successfully reform industry to a low-carbon model, and it turns out AGW was false and it was unnecessary, we will still have taken a step forward in the development of civilization, and we can move on from the dark age of the 20th century.

    Economically, I do not believe this requires making war on industry. First, everyone would lose such a war and it would defeat the whole exercise. Second, it is not necessary. There is a win-win way to accomplish these reforms and still have prosperity. We have only to stop tearing each others’ throats out and find it.

  4. @Comments

    The prior comments make for a fanciful read and all rather academic really. Like watching Parliament with nothing actually being achieved.

    James McDonald… “I assume we are causing a climate problem, because the scientific community says so. I believe the world needs to start placing a higher value on educated, accountable, scientific and academic expertise than it has done in the last century…..” Accountable ? To who exactly ?

    Noting firstly that a recent revelation out of the UK through disclosed emails from “Climate Scientists” has confirmed that that this so called human made Climate Change is a load of Bunk, as us lunatic “skeptics” have known all along…. Yes, we must prevent deforestation, I’m all for that. Yes we must start limiting our output of pollution, I’m all for that. Do we need to run around and turn everything off because we are killing mother earth with carbon emissions and introduce another Governmental institution called Emissions Trading – No. Kyoto was a farce as is Emissions Trading.

    Let’s take a more pragmatic look at this. A significant portion of the globe is overpopulated, living in squalled conditions, lacking resources, and are left to breed uncontrolled, while the rest of us are bombarded by television adverts seeking funds to prop us these unsustainable environments. Do I feel bad for those poor kids having to live like that ? You bet. Should it be happening, No it should not be. Is it “Climate Change” creating starvation ? Absolutely not.

    ….” Bringing about social-economic collapse will not solve any problem. It will result in mass starvation, war, pandemics … and exacerbate any climate-related problems we may be causing….”

    ….” and exacerbate any climate-related problems we may be causing….” Garbage.

    ….” then hundreds of millions of mostly impoverished people around the world would die from the effects of climate change.”….. So be it. Can the world continue to sustain such a population growth ? No.

    Pussy footing around the core issues is what got us here in the first place. No one had the spine to stand up and prevent massive logging and deforestation, and still don’t aka South America, nor manage trade with countries that have no regard for pollution control. Same goes for the Islamic issues. Just take a look at what’s happening all around us and as shown in this YouTube video that is doing the rounds at the moment. http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=RKgK-0HwN30

    Perhaps, being pragmatic here…., as we should have left the US Banks to sort themselves out, we need to leave these overpopulated “out-of-control” 3rd world countries to sort themselves out. If it means their Government’s standing up and taking responsibility for local conditions, or dying off, then so be it. It is a natural cycle. Something us humans need to accept for the common good. It is seen in many natural environments. And don’t tell me that this is what sets us apart from animals. We in fact could learn a lot from the animal world. How not to S**t in our own nest for starters.

    Scientifically, Climate Change as it is being touted as a “man made” phenomenon is a Rort. If there is starvation in Bangladesh and Etheopia, then stop procreating. If areas of India, Asia, and Miami, will be wiped out due to rising sea levels, then build a wall or move, but not to Australia, we have our own water shortages – due to population vs resource issues – not Climate Change.

  5. @Comments

    An addendum to my prior note…

    New York Times ( summary )

    Published: November 20, 2009
    Hundreds of private e-mail messages and documents hacked from a computer server at a British university are causing a stir among global warming skeptics, who say they show that climate scientists conspired to overstate the case for a human influence on climate change.

    The e-mail messages, attributed to prominent American and British climate researchers, include discussions of scientific data and whether it should be released, exchanges about how best to combat the arguments of skeptics, and casual comments — in some cases derisive — about specific people known for their skeptical views.

    In several e-mail exchanges, Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and other scientists discuss gaps in understanding of recent variations in temperature.

    Skeptic Web sites pointed out one line in particular: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t,” Dr. Trenberth wrote

  6. Bruce

    @Comments,
    I’m delighted that you’ve confessed up-front that you are a lunatic – along with the other sceptics – as it pre-warns everyone not to take your ramblings seriously. (“this so called human made Climate Change is a load of Bunk, as us lunatic “skeptics” have known all along”) It’s something I’d long suspected of you and your lot and the confession is just the evidence I need to discredit you completely.

    Or am I taking you out of context? Should not any selectively published information criminally stolen as part of a much larger tranche, and used entirely for the purpose of discrediting the authors, be interpreted carefully and in its original context?

    I have downloaded and read the article to which Trembath is refering in the “gotcha” email.
    http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2009/11/energydiagnostics09final.pdf
    Turns out the email is genuine, but it does not mean what you take it to mean. See also:
    http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2009/11/climate-hack
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/11/the-cru-hack-context/

    Trembath would like to account for the natural variability – the noise on top of the rising temperature signal. That noise makes it appear that warming has slowed or paused in the past decade, IF ONLY the (air) temperature record is taken into account.

    Other ways to measure climate change would be by the retreat of glaciers; the unprecedented decline in the summer Arctic ice cap; the increase in extreme weather, etc.

    A very important indicator of global warming that doesn’t show the apparent flattening of the temperature curve is ocean heat content. (see the first plot here:
    http://www.cmar.csiro.au/sealevel/sl_drives_longer.html)
    Yes it has variability (although this may be instrumental rather than natural), but it has clearly not plateaued. It is still going up. And the oceans drive the climate, so that’s where the temperature will be going in future.

    Now Trembath would like an explanation of the “natural variability”. Why has the temperature signal apparently plateaued recently? Temperature changes, even small ones, require the movement of heat. He is frustrated that climate science cannot yet link the energy in the climate system to the ups and downs, indeed the current “plateau”, in the measured air temperature.

  7. james mcdonald

    Yes, well I wouldn’t jump to conclusions just yet, it’s only been four days, and it can take up to about six months for these things to be all sorted out in the wash. I gather (though I’m not conversant in climate science) that the medium term cooling was later accounted for by shorter cycle factors, i.e. a temporary respite. I don’t know the details. If you’re familiar with oscillating functions, you’ll know they can be a sum of a range of component sine-wave functions with varying period, amplitude, and phase. The result can easily look like a meaningless squiggle, or appear to reverse the long term trend, until more data comes in. This is normal and it doesn’t surprise scientists, but it can annoy them no end when they know it’s going to be selectively quoted to a highly politicised audience, most of whom are scientifically illiterate (including many with “science degrees”.)

    All I’m saying here is don’t take a little piece of a puzzle as “proof” of anything on its own.

    As for deforestation, yes you have a very good point there.

    And foreign affairs, in general I would agree that countries should take care of their own affairs before interfering in others’.

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