Topic: Society

Global Warming Ethics: Part 3 of 3. Ideology and Bias
(3/31/2008)

During a televised GOP presidential candidates debate, now-vanquished contender Mitt Romney made an accusation: Senator John McCain did not espouse the "conservative position" on global warming. His statement was simultaneously nonsensical and alarming. The answers to the many questions surrounding global warming---the existence, extent and likely duration of it, its causes, what measures might be taken to counteract it and whether they would have any significant effect---are irrelevant to ideology or political identification. They depend upon data, unbiased analysis and reasonable conclusions based upon fact. This is an issue that has to be addressed based on what is, not on what people want to believe; on science, not philosophy. If the sky is blue, it's blue; don't tell me that the official position of my political party, church or activist group is that the sky is orange.

The fact that so much of the public, media, political establishment and scientific community treats global warming as a political controversy makes productive policy debate impossible. It means that the debate is driven, on both sides, by bias rather than objective analysis. If your favorite political party, columnist, elected official, movie star, talking head or uncle believes that global warming exists, is driven by human activity and threatens to end life as we know it, you probably believe it too. The fact that it is likely that not one of these people could decipher a climate change computer model or explain how it was created, or even pass a college level earth science exam, doesn't enter into the equation. Similarly, the fact that a public figure you don't like proclaims that global warming is a crock just reinforces your conviction. In fact, it bolsters two convictions: that global warming advocates must be right because Rush Limbaugh or George Will or Karl Rove say they're wrong, and that Rush and George and Karl proved themselves to be the evil creeps as you always thought they were by opposing the assertions of Barbra, Barack, Al and Katie. But this is bias, not analysis. You didn't investigate the problem; you simply listened to the messengers you liked and followed their leads.

But what determined which position those messengers took? In most cases, the answer is also bias, and for them, the bias is ethically reprehensible. Those of us who aren't scientists or policy-makers have no choice but to rely upon experts, journalists, and the people we elect to protect us. If they are simply following ideologically-driven agendas rather than making a good faith effort to determine what is true, practical and scientifically valid, what can we base our own decisions on?

More bias, that's all.

It doesn't take a brilliant scientist to figure out why liberals uncritically believe the worst-case scenarios about global warming. They passionately wanted to cut back on land use, carbon fuels, oil drilling and other industrial activities long before global warming was a glint in Al Gore's eye. Believing that restrictive controls on pollution, even those that would have devastating economic consequences, are essential to the survival of the earth, environmentalists regard global warming predictions as a powerful tool of advocacy. They have little motivation to be rigorous in examining the methodology of projections and the soundness of the science. The scientific predictions, right or wrong, are just a means to a desired end, and the more apocalyptic, the more persuasive they are. The logic is that when the consequences of global warming are so disastrous, even moderate risk is unacceptable. Do we want to bet against even a one in a hundred chance, when the consequences of that 1% chance occurring are so dire?

But it is a false choice. Nobody knows for certain whether there is a 1% chance of climate change catastrophe, a .01% chance, or a .00001 % chance. It may even be a 100% chance: today's news included notice that a significant number of scientists believe that carbon emissions need to be reduced to zero within a decade, or there will be Atlantic beach front property in Missouri. Is it possible to accomplish that? It is highly unlikely, which means that the prudent course might be to develop a completely different approach….like resettling on Mars.

Nor can the risks of global warming be examined in isolation from the hundreds of other serious environmental and infrastructure problems that not only have to be addressed, but that are far more well-documented and certain than climate change. Ocean pollution. Species extinctions. Drug-resistant bacteria. Collapsing bridges and rotting sewers. Climate change zealots are using highly speculative Armageddon predictions to push one environmental crisis ahead of all others, even though it is one of the most speculative. Yes, we could halt global warming and be over-ridden by famine, disease and pollution because we couldn't give enough attention to other looming problems. Thanks, Al!

This is why one of the most common arguments heard in rebuttal of climate change skeptics is invalid and unethical: "Even if scientists are wrong about global warming, we'll still be better off because we'll have eliminated our dependence on foreign oil!" Yes, that's a beneficial result of turning the economy and industry inside out and upside down to avert a catastrophe that is not at all certain. But there will be plenty of detrimental results too, not all of which we can anticipate now. It would be bracing if global warming advocates admitted that they are using the same logic as the Bush neocons who overstated the certainty of the existence of "weapons of mass destruction" to justify an Iraq invasion that they were certain would be a good idea, WMDs or not. You get rid of a ruthless dictator and mass murderer, his psychopathic sons, establish a democracy in the Middle East, enforce violated U.N. resolutions, and free millions of oppressed Iraqis. So what if the weapons never turn up? We'll still be better off.

Not necessarily.

The knee-jerk opponents of global warming predictions are, if anything, even less ethical than the advocates. They don't like the likely consequences of a conclusion that human activity causes climate change, so they simply condemn studies indicating so as "scams." They don't understand the science; they usually haven't read the reports. They believe science must be wrong, because, essentially, they want it to be wrong. Again, the model for this kind of warped and intellectually dishonest logic comes from the other end of the ideological spectrum, pro-abortion advocates who maintain that a fetus isn't a human life because their political position becomes tougher if it is. But political positions don't change scientific facts. It is supposed to be the other way around.

That so many academics, scientists, journalists educators and policy-makers have allowed ideological bias to determine where they stand on a matter requiring clear-eyed and unbiased science is a disgrace. Their biased attitudes make it nearly impossible to reach coherent and responsible decisions on matters that have long-term implications for world poverty, health, quality of life and survival. The only ethical way to approach climate change issues is to be honest about what we know, to be clear about what we don't know, to admit what we can't know, and to make intelligent choices among options determined by facts and analysis rather than manipulation and bias.

Until we reach agreement on that, everyone is wrong.

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