Ethics of Recent Report on Climate Change Science

donald_a_brownBy Donald Brown
Scholar In Residence, Ethics and Law,
Widener University School of Law.
Donald writes on applied, environmental, 
and climate change ethics.

Published March 9, 2014

Climate Evidence and CausesThe National Academy of Sciences and its British counterpart, the Royal Society, have published Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, a very easy to understand primer on the science of greenhouse-driven global warming. Although there is not a lot new in this report as a matter of science, it makes the strong scientific consensus on human-induced climate change that has existed for some time clearer and more accessible for non-scientists particularly on the major issues that need to be understood by policy-makers and interested citizens.  The report is written in simple language and filled with pictures and graphs which illustrate why almost all mainstream scientists actually engaged in climate change science are virtually certain that human activity is causing very dangerous climate change.

This report is ethically significant because:

(A) It is a report of two of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, namely US National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. Because of the prestige of both of the institutions writing this report, those opposing actual climate change have an ethical duty to acknowledge that the scientific basis supporting action on climate change is entitled to respect. They cannot reasonably claim that there is no strong scientific basis for policy action on climate change or even worse that climate change science is a “hoax.”  Which institutions have made claims that humans are engaged in dangerous behavior has ethical significance. If, for instance, someone is told by an expert in toxicology that chemicals he or she is discharging into a water supply will kill people, he or she has more of an ethical duty to stop discharging the chemicals until the issue of toxicology issues are resolved than they would if the claim about poisoning came from a religious leader or a tax accountant. When claims about danger are made by world-class scientific experts, as a matter of ethics, the burden of proof shifts to those potentially harming others to show that their behavior is not dangerous.

Given the enormity of harms predicted, climate skeptics should have the burden of proof to show that human-induced climate change is not dangerous.

Skepticism in climate science should still be encouraged, but skeptics must play by the rules of science including: (a)  subjecting all claims contradicting the mainstream scientific view on climate change to peer-review, (b) subjecting claims that humans are not causing dangerous climate impacts to review by scientific institutions that have sufficient broad interdisciplinary expertise among its members to review such claims against all the contrary evidence from all relevant scientific disciplines, and (c) acknowledging all the contradictory evidence. Given the enormity of harms to citizens around the world and future generations predicted by mainstream scientists, those who seek to undermine proposed climate change policies on scientific certainty grounds should be understood to have the burden of proof to show by high levels of proof that human-induced climate change is not dangerous.

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