Time Magazine is devoting a substantial amount of space in its current issue to global warming, under a title page that says, "Be Worried. Be Very Worried."
To a certain extent, that does not mean much. News outlets like sensational headlines because they help sales. Still, every once (as with the weeks after 9/11) it is possible to have sensational headlines that actually reflect something of the real world.
When I left college, I became particularly interested in global warming (a.k.a. "climate change"). This is in part because my first serious job after college involved working for an environmental consulting firm, and papers on climate change crossed my desk every day.
One of the arguments that climate change critics constantly used -- one that the Bush Administration still uses -- is that the climate change is complex. We really do not know what is happening; therefore, we have no reason to take any action against it.
Now, imagine that you are a passenger on a cruise ship. Those who study the north Atlantic have warned that there may well be icebergs in the water up ahead. However, the head of the company that owns the ocean liner says that it would be bad for business if the ocean liner did not make the trip to America in record time. Therefore, he orders the ship to travel at full speed.
Then, they see the iceberg. Because of the speed at which the ocean liner was traveling, it simply cannot slow down or turn fast enough to avoid a collision.
With other lives at stake -- particularly the lives of children at stake -- this type of decision is not just another innocent miscalculation. This is recklessness. At best, this is a moral crime. At best, this is a crime as bad as the mass murder of, let us say, 1,500 passengers who died as a result of the chain of events that this decision set off.
On the issue of global warming, the morally responsible course to have taken when evidence of trouble ahead started to come in would have been to slow down -- to give us a better chance to maneuver around any climate obstacles that may have shown up ahead of us. Instead, our CEO ordered "full speed ahead," because anything less would have economic costs.
As if running into an iceberg would not have economic costs.
The argument, "we do not know what is up ahead; therefore, we have nothing to worry about," is an example of the informal fallacy, "argument from ignorance." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance Any use of an informal fallacy is an example of intellectual recklessness. When an informal fallacy is used in conjunction with a policy that puts lives and well-being at risk (particularly the lives and well-being of children), we have a moral fault.
Throughout the 1990s, scientists we claiming that the sea levels could rise from 0.5 to 1.0 meters as a result of global warming. This mostly had to do with the fact that water expands as it gets warm, and that expansion would raise sea level.
Global warming skeptics made their argument that climate science is uncertain, and they could easily be wrong. Because they were wrong, we have nothing to worry about.
A morally responsible person would have recognize that if there is a possibility of error, then that possibility could go both ways. If scientists are wrong, it is just as possible that they had underestimated the rise in sea level as it is that they over-estimated sea-level rise. But the skeptics did not wish to consider this possibility. They continued to argue, "we know nothing; therefore, we have nothing to worry about."
Current research shows that scientists might have actually made a mistake about sea-level rise. Current data suggests that the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are melting. Instead of a 1 meter rise in sea-level, we are now looking at a 7-meter (about 23 feet) rise in sea-level.
So, if you are inclined, go onto the internet and look at some nice coastal pictures. Imagine a two-story building sitting right on the shore at the high-tide mark. Next, imagine that sea-level is now at a height equal to the roof of that house. Then, trace that sea-level inland and look at what will be lost.
Imagine that for every coast on every continent.
What we are about to lose is going to cost us a lot more than an ocean liner with 2,300 people on board (of which only the wealthy will be able to get into the available lifeboats). The cost, this time, is going to be global.
Intellectual recklessness such as this is one of the most violent and destructive of all moral crimes. Murderers destroy lives and can devastate a community, but the intellectually reckless now have the capacity to sew destruction on a planetary scale.
The magnitude of the destruction that they cause means that the intellectually reckless or orders of magnitude more morally corrupt than the serial killer or serial rapist.
It is well past the appropriate time to get appropriately angry at those who engage in and promote the moral crime of intellectual recklessness. If we, ourselves, turn out to be among those people, it is time to feel an appropriate level of shame and to resolve to do a better job in the future.