I usually write about ethics, or, to be more specific, I write about the ethical questions associated with important public issues (aka politics). This essay might not seem like it’s about ethics, but it is. I can hardly think of a more clear-cut expression of our ethical commitments toward our fellow humans than taking seriously how we care for the Earth upon which people live. Please consider the following…
In business courses, students learn to consider the likelihood that each of their investments will succeed. They learn to assign a “weight” to each investment, sometimes called a “discount” or “discount factor,” and then they multiply the potential value of that investment by the discount.
For example, Johnny has one investment opportunity that, if it succeeds, will be worth $100. Given all the available information he can find, he estimates that there is a 90% likelihood that the investment will succeed. He multiplies the $100 by 90% and concludes that the investment should be considered to have a $90 value.
Similarly, Johnny has a second investment opportunity that, if it succeeds, will be worth $500. However, this investment is much riskier, and he estimates that there is only a 10% chance that the investment will work out. He multiplies $500 by 10% and concludes that the investment should be considered to have a $50 value.
Which investment is more valuable to Johnny? You might think that the investment with the greatest potential return is more valuable, or you might think that the investment with the greatest probability of success is more valuable. Assigning a “discount factor” to each investment is one way of helping to compare them.
Lately I’ve heard renewed opposition to the majority-held scientific position regarding climate change. That near-consensus conclusion is simple: Human-caused carbon pollution is a material cause of global warming. Specifically, I hear 4 opposition statements to that position. (I’m probably subconsciously borrowing these, in one form or another, from recently re-watching Al Gore’s excellent film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” so I give him some credit for helping to shape my thinking.) Climate-change skeptics commonly make arguments like the following:
1) The Earth isn’t really warming, or the warming is just part of a normal, long-term trend.
2) The Earth is warming, but it cannot be determined whether human activity is a substantial cause of the warming.
3) There is a significant disagreement among scientists about what all the climate research means.
4) Even if climate change is real, we can’t do anything about it.
Here’s my question to the climate skeptics: Why are you fighting these fights?
I’ll go ahead and confess that, truthfully, I suspect many of the skeptics are guided by unconscious partisanship. They have concluded that policies intended to address climate change are somehow liberal policies, and they don’t like liberal policies, so they oppose them. But they don’t make direct counter-arguments. It’s more comfortable to believe that there isn’t really a climate problem, so they fight hard to stay in the comfortable place of denial. I’m going to set aside my suspicions for a moment. I want to demonstrate that the skeptics’ argument are, or should be, irrelevant to our discussions about climate policy – EVEN IF THE SKEPTICS ARE RIGHT. So let’s assume, just for purposes of discussion, that the skeptics are correct about all 4 of the arguments I listed above. As you’ll see, even if they’re right, the skeptics are still fighting fights they shouldn’t want to win. Here’s why:
Assume for a moment that the Earth is warming only as part of a very long trend. (That’s climate-skeptical argument #1 above.) Just today I read a friend’s Facebook post arguing that the Earth has been warming since the last ice age, and he seemed to think that the current warming is only a continuation of that trend. For purposes of discussion, let’s accept that assumption for a moment, but please be aware that, to actually hold that belief, one would need to disregard a mountain of evidence. For example, one would need to disregard all the ice core samples showing that the Earth’s temperature has not warmed in this way for hundreds of thousands of years, at least. Even if the skeptic’s assumption is true, isn’t it still the case that the water’s rise resulting from that continuing “normal” trend will predictably cause damage? In fact, can’t it already be predicted that such water-level rise – even if it results from natural, normal trends – will cause BILLION, MAYBE TRILLIONS of dollars of damage to coastal residents and coastal economies? In short, even if global warming IS a normal trend, wouldn’t it be stupid to ignore it? Will it make anyone feel better if ordinary natural trends turn out to be the cause of millions of people losing their homes and/or their lives unnecessarily, when we might have done something to protect them if we had started acting sooner? Dear climate skeptic, why are you fighting against doing SOMETHING to protect your neighbor, regardless of climate change’s cause?!
Or let’s assume for a moment that carbon pollution from human activity cannot be determined to be a substantial cause of climate change. (That’s climate-skeptical argument #2 above.) Again for purposes of discussion, let’s accept that assumption for a moment. As before, please be aware that, to actually hold that belief, one would need to disregard lots of data. For example, one would need to disregard or explain away all the data demonstrating that global warming accelerated at the down of the Industrial Age (when large-scale human-caused carbon emissions began), and you’d have to explain how climate scientists have consistently and accurately predicted global temperature rises for decades by referencing the rise in human-caused carbon emissions. Even if we accept your assumption, what difference does it make for purposes of public policy? After all, saying that human-caused pollution isn’t causing climate change is not the same as arguing that human-generated pollution causes NO problems for the world.
Even if the skeptics’ assumption is true, it cannot be argued that pollution is good! Carbon pollution sickens people! I’m living proof of that reality – the air pollution in the city of my childhood (Birmingham, Alabama) resulted from the steel industry and caused respiratory illness throughout my entire school years, resulting in weeks of missed school annually. Witness also the illnesses in cities like Beijing, where carbon pollution has been so great that residents must wear masks during the summer! All that sickness-causing pollution (from cars, factories, etc.) is indeed human-caused – who could deny that?! I do realize that many of you view such air pollution as “regrettably necessary” (and therefore acceptable) because you want to save jobs (i.e., jobs that rely on polluting activities), but even those economic arguments have been rendered outdated – clean industries produce far more jobs than, e.g., coal-reliant industries ever will. That’s a fact. Even if humans don’t cause enough air pollution to warm the climate (as you suggest), human-caused pollution is still bad. Wouldn’t it again be stupid to ignore it? What justifies opposing any and all regulatory measures that would address such pollution and save many lives? Dear climate skeptic, why are you fighting against doing SOMETHING – ANYTHING AT ALL?!
Or let’s assume for a moment that there really is meaningful disagreement among scientists about what the research means. (That’s climate-skeptical argument #3 above.) Once again, for purposes of discussion, let’s accept that assumption for a moment, but please be aware that, to hold such a belief, the skeptic is making a silly, silly argument. We commonly read that 97% or more of climate scientists agree that human-caused carbon pollution is a principle cause of carbon emission, and climate skeptics love to argue that the 97% is an exaggeration. So what?! Even if it’s not 97% of scientists who warn against the danger of climate change, it’s still a large majority! In what universe is it reasonable to ignore the urgent warnings of a majority of climate scientists? (To be clear, what many of you are advocating really is tantamount to ignoring their advice.) And if one limits his/her review of climate research to publications in peer-reviewed publications (e.g., excluding research funded by parties like Exxon Mobile, which has a bias – an economic interest in proving that climate change either isn’t real or isn’t human-caused), then the consensus among climate scientists is indeed very, very great.
Recently I saw snippets of a 30-minute, self-funded video produced by a former TV weatherman who was arguing against the reality of climate change. Though he had no degrees in climate science (or even meteorology), he concluded – based on his personal anecdotal experience alone – that climate change is a hoax, and he wanted the world to know. He isn’t a scientist, and anecdotes aren’t scientific data. You need to be careful about the voices that grab your attention – voices like his shouldn’t carry the weight of thousands of climate scientists worldwide who disagree with him. And even if there is some meaningful disagreement among climate scientists (there isn’t), why would any reasonable person ignore so many climate scientists (the great majority of them) who DO agree with the central thesis that human-caused carbon pollution is warming the Earth? Dear, climate skeptic, can you see that you’re making a “distinction without a difference” when you worry whether the number is 97% or some smaller, yet still substantial majority of the world’s climate scientists? Why, friend, why do you insist on fighting to prevent the world from doing SOMETHING to address the risks of climate change?!
Finally, let’s assume that the skeptics are right with their argument #4, that humankind can’t do anything to fix a climate-wide problem. One last time, we’ll accept that assumption for purposes of discussion, but please be aware that, to hold such a belief, the skeptic is again disregarding persuasive contrary evidence. For example, one international treaty in the 1970’s phased out the use of certain chemicals (chlorofluorocarbons or “CFC’s”) that were affecting the ozone layer of our atmosphere. Over the course of 40 years, the results have been enormously positive both to the ozone layer and to the reduction of particulates that otherwise polluted our air. In other words, there is solid evidence that the worldwide community CAN work together on such a large scale that we CAN positively affect the global environment. Even if we can’t entirely stop the advance of global warming, generally, we absolutely have the power to reduce sickness-causing human-produced pollution, so there’s a benefit to human health even if global warming causes other catastrophes. Indeed, we may already be beyond the “tipping point” for global warming, too late to stop the worst impacts, but shouldn’t we do what we can MINIMIZE the impact? At minimum, shouldn’t we attempt to mitigate harms by, e.g., beginning to provide options for coastal communities, or planning for the mass refugee migrations that are predicted to occur in drought-stricken parts of the world? At this late stage, there may be disagreement among scientists about how much we can do to stop climate change (even if there really isn’t disagreement about whether it’s occurring), but still the substantial majority of those scientists are telling us that we CAN avoid the worst adverse effects. The longer we wait, however, the chances of having much impact diminishes. Why, my climate-skeptical friends, are you fighting against doing AT LEAST WHAT WE CAN?!
I’m hopeful that the skeptics are rational people, so I’m hopeful that they will embrace the idea of making data-driven decisions. Perhaps we can look back at the calculations that business students learn when assessing their investment portfolios. When it comes to climate science, perhaps we could similarly “weight” and “discount” the potential outcomes, and perhaps that could help inform the skeptics’ views about all this. Returning to our business course, we’ll ask “What would Johnny do?”
First, how might we value the benefits of choosing policies that reduce carbon emissions? If most climate scientists are right, then climate change (if left unaddressed) will result in massive loss of life and global economic catastrophe. The “value” of those losses would be virtually incalculable. If we “invest” in addressing climate change, what is the value of all that we save? Even if you discount the likelihood that the substantial majority of scientists are right, or if you discount the likelihood that we can succeed at mitigating the harms, the value of our investment is enormous. Just for purposes of illustration, if you think the value of what we save is $X Trillion (the value of cities and economies saved, plus the savings from not fighting wars resulting from massive refugee crises, not to mention the human lives saved, plus…), and you discount that estimate because you think the scientists might be wrong, perhaps you think the potential value is a mere $X-1 Trillion. Perhaps you also discount our climate policy “investment” further because you think we might fail to actually help the climate, so you conclude that our investment is only worth, say, $X-2 Trillion. However you calculate it, the value of reducing carbon emissions is gigantic.
Now compare that value – the estimated, calculated value of preventing avoidable climate harms – to the value of pursuing the policy the skeptics seem to advocate. If we follow the climate-skeptics’ policy preferences, we’ll roll back anti-pollution regulations that affect carbon-emitting factories. We’ll also eliminate requirements that cars meet better gas mileage standards. We’ll embrace policies that lead to more usage of coal instead of cleaner alternatives. I understand that some skeptics have a laudable hope that some people will be helped by such policy changes. Energy might be cheaper, at least temporarily. Cars might be cheaper. And some people will get jobs in the coal industry. But do note that more cars on the road and more energy usage actually increase pollution. And while I share their desire to help out-of-work communities find jobs, please do understand that more coal usage doesn’t actually create many jobs – the coal industry is largely mechanized and automated already. Increasing coal production only means that the coal companies buy more machines and hire a few people to run them. It will never be the case that thousands upon thousands of miners will regain their jobs. (And any politician who suggests otherwise is misleading you.)
What’s the value of achieving all the skeptics’ policy goals? Perhaps one could calculate the value in terms of car prices (i.e., cars wouldn’t be as expensive as the regulations might have caused them to be). Perhaps one could calculate the savings in energy costs. Perhaps one could calculate the savings to businesses from not having to comply with pollution regulations. Perhaps one could calculate the value of those limited number of additional coal mining jobs. If one manages to perform those calculations, he/she must be sure to subtract the loss of high-paying jobs in the clean energy sector, which have been growing rapidly. He/she must be sure to subtract the future revenues to the tech companies in solar and wind and hydro, all of which are tech markets where the U.S. leads the world (and all of which actually could lead to manufacturing jobs). And he/she must be sure to discount all of that by the likelihood that those policies will succeed. For example, energy prices are largely driven by world commodities markets – out of our control, so it’s possible coal won’t remain cheaper than alternatives. (Oh wait, it’s ALREADY more expensive than natural gas, so that’s another reason why we won’t achieve lower energy prices or more jobs following anti-climate policies). For purpose of illustration, if one could add up those values, the result is still only a fraction of the economy and, at most, some billions of dollars, which must be discounted.
If you compare the discounted value of addressing climate change, versus the discounted value of ignoring it, which policy direction is data-driven and rational? I shouldn’t have to answer that question, because the reasonable answer should be so patently obvious, but just in case I wasn’t clear enough – the calculations aren’t even close: the advantages of addressing climate change vastly outweigh the comparatively meager and temporary advantages of gambling that we don’t need to address it.
So why don’t we all reach this conclusion? Here’s my theory: It’s human nature to overestimate the potential value of our investments. We want them to be successful, and it’s also human nature to overestimate the likelihood of our investments’ success. If Johnny really wanted to value the benefits of following the advice of climate scientists, he might, because he is human, optimistically estimate that they are 99% likely to be right. In similar fashion, skeptics who want it to be true that climate change isn’t real will, because they are human, underestimate the value of following scientists’ advice and underestimate the likelihood that they are right. The skeptics will also overestimate the value of achieving their own policy goals, like overestimating the economic benefits of reviving the U.S. coal industry. All that’s human nature. Thankfully, the math in this case really helps to clarify things: Even if the skeptics are right about everything they want to believe, the math shows that it’s still just bad judgment to fight against prudent climate policy. One could, for instance, vastly undervalue the benefits of saving coastal cities and coastal economies worldwide (and the value of avoiding wars, and the value of saving lives, etc), but even a hugely discounted estimate of that value is still far, far greater than the overestimated value of more coal jobs and cheaper cars.
All of this can quickly be summarized: When you weigh the benefits of ignoring climate change – which are generally limited to economic benefits for a small segment of society — against risks to the entire planet, if there is even a moderately reasonable chance that the scientists are right, the only prudent decision is to support policies to reduce carbon pollution. All of that is true even if the skeptics’ most common objections are true, which means their objections are just distractions.
Climate science is not partisan. It is just science. But the skepticism about climate change has, at least in the United States, been anything but scientific, as evidenced by the fact that the skepticism has appeared predominantly in one political party. You, my climate-skeptical friends, might just be victim to the misleading leadership of your party, because you simply shouldn’t be arguing against climate-responsible policy. Those party leaders (and the carbon-reliant industries who support them financially) may have led you astray. Remember – climate affects all of us, so we should all care. People in both major political parties and people at every place along the political spectrum should be singing the same tune about the basic direction for climate policy, because the bottom line is this: Even if all the skeptics’ arguments are true, and even if there is SOME lack of clarity about aspects of the climate debate, a rational and prudent person would still choose to follow the policy path most likely to be a successful investment. The rational choice is to support policies that reduce carbon emissions and that attempt to make contingency plans to protect our people and our economies against climate-related harms. Dear climate-skeptical friends, you shouldn’t be arguing against such policies. Instead, it’s time for you to join folks like me in supporting policies designed to address climate change. Because even if you’re right about your objections, you should be smart enough to make the better investment.