The plantetary alarm bells are ringing, but climate change denialists claim they hear nothing.
It is good to see that there are some philosophers thinking about how climate denialism should be treated in the public sphere. In a helpful series of posts, the contributors to the Climate Ethics blog have distinguished between legitimate scientific skepticism and a climate change disinformation campaign. See particularly the posting by Donald Brown, Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign.
Brown discusses how climate disinformation uses a swag of propaganda-style techniques, such as:
- Reckless disregard for the truth.
- Focusing on unknowns and ignoring knowns.
- Specious claims of “bad” science.
- Front Groups.
- Conservative Think Tanks which aim to create a ‘parallel universe’ of doubting ‘experts’ and spurious claims
- Public relations campaigns designed to foster doubt about valid science.
- Astroturf groups to create an appearance of widespread grass-roots opposition to climate science .
- Cyber bullying attacks on scientists and journalists.
These tactics can be usefully supplemented by the five types of climate change denial argument, presented by Haydn Washington and John Cook in their book Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand (Earthscan 2011). While some of these are overlapping with the above tactics, they add a few extra rhetorical devices:
- Conspiracy theories
- Fake Experts
- Impossible expectations
- Misrepresentations and logical fallacies
(Co-author John Cook, Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, also maintains the excellent blog Skeptical Science: Getting Skeptical about Global Warming Skepticism.)
In contrast to disinformation tactics, Brown argues that legitimate skepticism ought to accept the following norms:
- The duty of skeptics to subject their conclusions to peer-review
- The duty of skeptics to subject any broad claims to review by organizations that have appropriate expertise.
- The duty to not overstate conclusions that can be inferred from any individual study.
- The duty to restrict claims to those that have adequate evidentiary support.
- The duty to acknowledge that it is not “bad” science to rely on less than fully proven scientific claims.
Next time any of us encounter a climate ‘skeptic’, it might be a good idea to enquire if they are prepared to allow their skepticisim to be ‘tested’ by application of the above norms. Do they genuinely want to enter into a discussion in order to reach a better approximation of the truth? Or is their skepticism simply echoing the myths of the climate disinformation campaign?
If the latter, then as Kenneth Shockley argues in another post on the Climate Ethics blog, Disinformation, Social Stability and Moral Outrage, we are entitled to express our moral outrage:
In blocking efforts to address, respond to or adapt to climate change, the disinformation campaign exacerbates our vulnerabilities to a changing climate; given the scale and magnitude of the problems we face, exacerbating vulnerabilities to climate change puts social stability at risk. This risk constitutes a threat to our well-being, and the well-being of our children; to increase this risk is to incur blame.
As the actions of the disinformation campaign put society at risk, those in support of this campaign, knowingly or out of culpable ignorance, similarly deserve our ire. Efforts to ignore this risk should provoke our individual and collective moral outrage. Political officials who endorse, accept, or adopt this campaign and its goals are in violation of the public trust; such officials are acting contrary to the public good with which they are entrusted. Those who illicitly attempt to influence the political process by means of this campaign of misrepresentation are complicit in this violation.
It should go without saying that our moral outrage at climate disinformation should be directed in a civil and non-violent way, as a contribution to the public discourse and the political process. Our outrage ought not deny freedom of expression. But let those who do freely engage in a campaign of climate disinformation (or aid and abet those who do) be outed in no uncertain terms; let’s not dress it up as ‘skepticism’ if it is really just disinformation.