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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. Jim Reiher

    I wonder if the reason so many people have reacted badly to this article is because they are either skeptics or denialists (of climate change) and they are freaked out because their denialism (or skepticism) has being discussed in the same article as Holocaust denialism. Or just because nobody likes talking about the Holocaust.

    I did not read Hamilton as making the two comparable. In fact he qualified that quite clearly. They can’t be equal, but depending on one’s way of evaluating things, they may be more or less evil in the way they are concluded about.

    So… all you critical people: Read him again… it is solid reflection … but not impossible to understand! He is philosophizing and reflecting about the way we judge things. Of course he could have written about the science of climate change. Or the economic and social effects. Or the ways to fight it. (He does do that to, at other times, remember).

    But when he reflect on different ways of evaluating something … suddenly everyone is jumping down his neck. … What the? …

  2. Most Peculiar Mama

    “…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…”

    What a stupid, stupid statement.

    What proof do you have that anything even remotely like this is going to happen?

    None.

    You’re just as big a shrieking harpie as Hamilton is.

    You can join him at the bottom of the garden with the other fairies on the lunatic fringe.

  3. Dikkii Webb

    I rather like “dissenters” and for the reasons that you discuss.

    The only thing I don’t like about it is that it suggests that that it gives the appearance of a legitimate debate when some would suggest that an “artificial controversy” has been generated. Which can be problematic.

  4. meski

    Nothing like an ad hominem argument to make your case MPM.

  5. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Clive I posted this on BK’s comment space today ……………………

    ” BK, good on you.
    Your approach has more power than most will appreciate.
    The recalcitrant luddites, or those posing as denialists as all are in the habit of calling them, laugh at the effort made to convince them with good science and smart reason. It’s a waste of time.
    You may, on the other hand, be showing them that their self serving motives are best put aside for the time being as the whole thing is starting to give them a bad look of the kind they won’t afford.
    Especially as on the same page Clive Hamilton is doing an excellent job of discovering a brand new gruesome very hairy look to boot.”

    My parents were twice thrown into Nazi concentration camps (not for being Jewish) and escaped (as did some Jewish victims) three times and then became Aussies thanks to the Red Cross & Aus after living for three years in Germany under threat of recapture.
    They escaped to Germany in 1942 choosing likely death over certain death (proof coming) by Stalin’s pure Pol Potian motivated eradication (the 1st Pol Pot) of my father’s whole large family who were far more frightened of Hitler and stayed (for the chop).
    I am not sure if they were counted in the 20 million that Stalin murdered most of whom weren’t Jewish and have thereby been so conveniently forgotten.

    So I am the son of a man who stuck his 2 fingers up to the most serious murderers in recent history, first Stalin then the other one, survived them both and raised me ‘finger sticking goodly’.
    And I have and am practicing the art.

    Someone out there think they’re qualified to teach me the meaning of life?

  6. sean

    Lets get it straight…objectively hamilton is right in making such a comparison. As you say Dikkii the problem is that its probably not politic to do so cos then you get all the self righteous ranters and wingnuts going on about the immorality of invoking the holocaust and pulling out the irritatingly ubiquitous cornflake box notion of Godwins law – All of which are dumb efforts to avoid having to argue the fact that if you deny climate change and the need to address it – you’re essentially either an idiot or corrupt.

    Now before I get howled down for that very reasoned and considered statement, the fact is, dear deniers, that in denying the science you’re denying something that you have no capacity to deny. I expect that if you notice a lump in your groin (or more likely on your brain) then you’ll go to a specialist for treatment – not to some alternative herbal quack who wrote a book once about the evil mainstream medical industry. Unless of course I’m wrong about that too, which come to think of it, is possible, in which case I hope the herbal ointment works!. But if not, please spare us your irritating, illinformed ranting. Go over to Andrew Bolts blog and you can all speak in tongues together.

    If, on the other hand you’re prepared go in to scientific detail as to why, for instance, NASA’s chief climate sceintist is wrong, or the other 95% of world climate scientists are wrong, then I’ll listen to your argument – as long as you don’t pull out any of the Pilmer style shiboleths sponsored by Shell oil that have been doing the rounds of every right wing nutter on the planet. If you’re just gonna drone on about the importance of ‘skepticism’ when in fact youre not a sceptic but a rather dim witted denier then you’re not worth listening to either. Further to that I’d suggest you might want to get some therapy and find out what weird psycho pathologies are clouding your judgement. Good luck.

  7. billie

    I think the Greens supporters in Higgins feel very frustrated that global warming deniers have hijacked the debate.
    Thanks Clive Hamilton for framing global warming as the great moral issue of our time.

  8. Jamie Reeves

    Hi Jim – Just for the record I believe the majority scientific opinion re climate change: we’re (especially our kids) in some deep shit. I reacted badly to this essay because I think it is crap from someone who probably could’ve done better. That’s all.

  9. Dikkii Webb

    Hi Jim,

    For the record, I reacted badly to this because I’m sick of climate change deniers using the “I’m no holocaust revisionist” as a podium to legitimise their positions. I felt that Hamilton was played like a fiddle in actually using it in this post.

    I also object to the use of the term “climate skeptic”. The media and politicians have dropped the ball on this one.

  10. D. John Hunwick

    Thanks Clive for clarifying the position of the sceptics and denialists. MY only comment is that the figures of future catastrophe are far too low. As water becomes a contraint, as food becs more expensive, as carbon-based energy supplies wilt in the heat, there will be an outbreak of civil disobedience that won’t hesitate to become violent. The responses by nature to what is happening will prove to be largely unpredictable – and then we will really know the cost of not listening to the best available scientific advice.

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