Some philosophical thoughts on Climategate

The Guardian has an article the title of which they changed because…

…we got the impression people were reading just the headline and not engaging with the article before commenting, which tends not to result in the highest quality debate.

It’s not as if we’ve changed the question raised by the event, which is still referenced in the article and open to discussion.

The question being “Is climate change scepticism the new Holocaust denial?”

I say no, yet again, because the question, as it stands, conflates history with science, and is nothing more than a smearing device. If I had lost someone to the Holocaust, I would be very upset if someone used the event to score brownie points in their juvenile debates. There are some interesting (in a thoughtful way) comments on the piece though, which merit discussion and I have picked the one that I think is the most intelligent.

Jonathan, referring to a faction of the naysayers who subscribe to “libertarian conservatism” writes

There is really a very simple explanation for this. The brand of conservatism to which you refer has as one of its basic premises the principle that rugged individualism is a core virtue for humankind, and that government interference should always be minimised, since lots of individuals acting ruggedly in an individualistic way are always better able look after themselves than can be achieved by any government organised arrangement.

The problem with climate change is that it is too big a problem for the solution to be achieved in this kind of unorganised way. Moreover, if humans by means of the carbon emissions necessary for their individual comfort are in fact collectively harming the planet, this is an issue where rugged individualism, far from providing the solution, is actually a key contributor to the problem.

If climate change is (at least in large part) man-made, then efforts to tackle the causes will have to be global and government-led, and moreover will have to be co-ordinated internationally.

This is such anathema to the rugged individualists, that it is unthinkable. So they unthink it. They refuse to believe that climate change is man-made and therefore that rugged individualism is causing any problem at all. Because to accept the evidence would mean they would have to give up one of their most cherished principles.

The author of the original piece notes that when confronted with attacks from the skeptics, “the language of the left has become increasingly vitriolic.” To which the above commentator replies-

This is not surprising, though it is mistaken. The left is misunderstanding the underlying causes of the resistance. They are working on the basis that if the evidence is presented clearly enough, any reasonable [person] would accept it. What they fail to realise is that resistance to belief is not based on any kind of misunderstanding or doubt about the evidence, it is based on loyalty to what the climate change skeptics perceive as a higher principle. Therefore banging on about the quality of the evidence will have no effect on the skeptics.

In this respect, the tactics (and in many cases even the language) of the climate change skeptics is remarkably similar to that of the Creationists and the proponents of Intelligent Design. They aren’t in the least bit interested in objectively analysing the evidence, but look instead to cherry-pick bits of evidence to fit their higher principles, and to find ways of muddying the debate in order to prevent the defeat of those principles.

In the last fifteen days or so, this is the first comment that I have read which actually understands a big part of the “libertarian conservative” opposition—I don’t buy his head-in-the-sand conclusion, but that’s quibbling over a minor issue—which merely goes to show the level at which the mudslinging across the aisle has been taking place.

For the purpose of this piece, let me stipulate the existence of AGW. Now, here are some problems with the proposed “solutions.”

One, AGW is not universally harmful. Countries that lie in arid regions or that have some area of their coastline under what the new sea level might be, will suffer. Countries that have most of their area under permafrost, or are cold, or near the poles will benefit. Those who settled where they did, and are suffering as a result of the same, cannot ask others to compensate them for changes that take place in their environment over extremely long periods. For example, (this is what I can think of right now!) someone who builds his house at the edge of a cliff, “for the view,” cannot demand compensation from traders who have been using mountainous pathways to lead their caravan of elephants(!) because his house might collapse. Tough luck. He should move.

Two, causation. If you have to pin down guilt, you must be able to locate the source. How much carbon dioxide, and emitted by whom, is responsible for what part of the rise in sea level which is causing problems in Tuvalu? There are seven men in a room, the lights go out, two gun shots are heard, the lights come on, and we find two of them dead and two guns lying on the ground. If forensics fails to identify the killer(s), should all five go to prison?

For those comfortable with the “command economy” political system where governments wheel and deal and citizens are obliged to give in to orders from the top, whether from an emperor, or a president, these are mere “technicalities.” The scientists have pronounced their verdict, what’s the problem? Ban this, ban that, and lets get things done. The individualist is not in a position to accept this because of his “higher principles.”

All this gets lost in the “bigger debate” over “denialism.”

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  • Jack  On December 5, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    The holocaust denial is certainly distasteful

    However the burden of proof is on the AGW theorists not the deniers. The solutions suggested so far are draconian and are nothing but an attempt to send us back to the dark ages.

    As for cherry picking the evidence by the skeptics climategate has shown that its not just the skeptics who do it its the AGW theorists as well.

    the researchers in this instance did everything in their power to subvert the peer-review process. In email after email, they spoke of ousting journal editors who may have wavered in their commitment to the cause, of thwarting requests for their raw data or methodologies, and of coordinating with their fellow travelers to present a united front when conducting peer review.

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