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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.

Clive Hamilton — Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University

Clive Hamilton

Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University

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 comments

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117 thoughts on “Hamilton: Denying the coming climate holocaust

  1. Kim

    This is one of the instances where my fundamental belief in the freedom of speech is sorely tested and where it is impossible not to argue without attacking the messenger. The fact that the comments are made by someone seeking democratic office makes it even worse.

    Clive Hamilton, with comments like this, you will only allienate people and achieve nothing; Except to make it even more difficult for those who argue intelligently and purposefully for the case you purport to support.

  2. Dikkii Webb

    I must admit, Hamilton did kinda play into the hands of climate change deniers here in invoking the holocaust. It’s bad enough that they insist on misusing the term “skeptics” without a post like this making it worse.

  3. james mcdonald

    “Instead of dishonouring the deaths of six million in the past, climate deniers risk the lives of hundreds of millions in the future.”

    Consider that instead of just imagining they can bring the six million back, those who use the “denier” slur toward climate dissenters risk the lives of hundreds of millions in the future. They do this by alienating (no matter how morally right you may be and how morally wrong they may be) some very powerful people whom you are still going to have to work with to make this happen.

    I agree with Meski.

  4. marcerin

    The best thing you can do for the environment Clive is to stand down as the Greens candidate for Higgins0! After finding out you were selected I decided to stop voting Green, and know of many other people who are doing the same.

    What did you hope to achieve by writing this article? The only thing this article ensures is a swift response from the climate change skeptics, who will probably rebut with the usual phrases like ‘the extreme greens who won’t listen to reason’, you may write a response to it, then so will they until we’ve had a series of articles written which are essentially two groups of people calling each other names and no progress has been made towards saving the climate.
    You could have written a piece about the investments that could be made in renewable energy or about other measures other countries are taking that we could be just as easily doing.

    All this ‘climate change deniers are…’ and ‘those extreme greenies are…’ is just political point scoring between two groups of people who are more interested in talking themselves up and their opponents down rather than focus on any real issues.
    In that respect you are perfect for politics, only i feel you would feel more at home in the Labor or Liberal party, they’re just as interested in putting point scoring ahead of focusing on the real issues, don’t ruin a real party like the Greens.

  5. Altakoi

    I don’t think you can have a consequentialist ethic about something which happened 60 years ago. The problem with holocaust deniers is not that they fail to honor the dead of WWII but that they are usually pushing a contemporary agenda of racial dominance and hatred. Climate change deniers are not, for all their faults, actually arguing that we should kill a couple of billion people they just don’t believe its going to happen. Thats being wrong, not evil, and I think confusing the two is not a good way to convince the doubters. As has been pointed out, Godwins law is not entirely facetious. If I had to pick a WWII analogy for the denialist position it would be ‘peace in our time’. Woefully wrong, desperate in clinging to the false comfort of inaction, but not actually said by Hitler.

  6. meski

    Invoking Godwin isn’t something I’ve seen politicians or the media do, it’s a usenet phenomena.

    Godwin has argued[4] that overuse of Nazi and Hitler comparisons should be avoided, because it robs the valid comparisons of their impact.
    (from wiki, google it, I’m tired of getting moderated each time I post a url)

    I’m saying that analogising climate sceptics to holocaust deniers is something that we should avoid.

  7. meski

    Invoking Godwin isn’t something I’ve seen politicians or the media do, it’s a usenet phenomena.

    Godwin has argued[4] that overuse of N*zi and H*tler comparisons should be avoided, because it robs the valid comparisons of their impact.
    (from wiki, google it, I’m tired of getting moderated each time I post a url)

    I’m saying that analogising climate sceptics to holocaust deniers is something that we should avoid.

    FFS, even using the N & H words gets me moderated.

  8. Dikkii Webb

    You are correct, Meski, however there is an insistence on steering clear of the term “denier” in the media and in politics because of its association with holocaust deniers. I don’t believe that use of the term “sceptics” by the media or politicians is unrelated to this. And I’m not necessarily certain that the term “Godwin’s Law” needs to be spelt out when invoking it.

    Hamilton well and truly overstepped the mark in specifically equating climate denialism with holocaust denialism in this instance.

    The fact remains, though that denialism is what it is. Personally, I would have preferred that Hamilton used creationism (evolution denialism) or Big Tobacco’s denial of smoking-related cancer deaths in order to illustrate his point.

  9. Jamie Reeves

    I agree with the comments here that this is a very poor thesis indeed, especially well put by Altakoi. Apart from the word “denier” the two things have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with each other. If the idea is to use history to try and understand current behaviours, then surely there are more analogous situations for comparison (but maybe that’s too much effort, and no where near as sensational?).

    The only good reason I can see for publishing is that it sheds some light on Hamilton prior to the by-election, which is a pretty useful insight for the good folk of Higgins.

  10. james mcdonald

    What’s wrong with calling them “Dissenters”?
    I see three advantages:
    1. More polite; the same word is used of a judge disagreeing with the rest of the bench
    2. Avoids implying the scientific/rational high ground as “skeptics” does; it simply means they disagree
    3. It does imply, however, that they are outside the prevailing scientific view

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