Monday, October 03, 2011

Denial of Harm on Climate Change

For the last couple of posts I provided a proper conservative response to the issue of climate change that an intellectually honest and responsible conservative should provide.

My first post covered the moral argument. Conservative moral principles say that it is wrong for a person to act in ways harmful to others without, at the very least, compensating others for the harms they suffer. This justifies moral prohibitions on things such as murder, rape, theft, vandalism, and fraud. It also provides a moral prohibition on throwing a chemical into a person’s eyes that blinds him, or into the air that summons a wave that destroys his property. Throwing greenhouse gasses into the air obligates those who do so to compensate others for the harms done. Conservative principles of individual rights and responsibility require this. Yet, no conservative politician seems interested in defending these principles.

My second post covered the economic argument. Free market principles prohibit non-free (coerced) economic transactions. In order to prevent economic transactions that produce a net economic cost, people are obligated to provide those harmed with compensation for harms done. This means that economic transactions either need to create enough of a surplus to cover those costs, or the person who performed the transaction (rather than those harmed) suffers the costs of their mistake. This gives people an incentive to discover and avoid those mistakes. On the other hand, if people are permitted to pass costs onto others against their will, the lack of an incentive to avoid those costs means that people will inflict a lot of costs that would otherwise have been avoided.

Both of these arguments rest on the assumption that greenhouse gas emissions cause harm. This is an assumption that some people might want to question.

Child molesters do this. In order to give themselves permission to have sex with children, they deny the strong scientific consensus that says that these types of activities are harmful. How can they be harmful? Sex is fun. It is pleasurable – or it can be.

They also engage in the habit of dreaming up other possible causes of the harm. If there is any harm being done it is caused by those who have a totally irrational reaction to these relationships. It is always somebody else's fault.

A lot of people are going to be jarred by this comparison, but it still stands. Denying harm as a way of giving oneself permission to do things harmful to others that one wants to do is a very common human quality. But that does not make it a good quality. It is a quality that we quite sensibly condemn and detest - because of the harms that people who display this quality commonly do to others.

Drunk drivers provide us with another example. "I'm okay. I can make it home." A great many harms are caused, in fact, by people who simply refuse to admit that the behavior they engage risk the well-being of others - until those others end up maimed or killed or their property is destroyed. And still the morally irresponsible person will insist, "It wasn't my fault" in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.

Even if it were to turn out that climate scientists had made some huge mistake - which is extremely unlikely - we can see massive evidence of clutching at straws in denying home among many who question the consensus on climate change. The quality of the arguments is truly pathetic.

Like the claim that the little ice age provides evidence against global warming (global warming is not inconsistent with regional cooling).

Like using news articles from news magazines in the 1970s talking about "the coming ice age" to discredit climate change science. (News magazines are not peer-reviewed science publications, there were no predictions of a coming ice age in the peer-reviewed literature, and even if there were, scientists change their minds with new data.)

Like using the fact that there has been little atmospheric temperature change in the past few years to discredit the science. (Energy also gets stored in a system by means of a phase change - the melting of large quantities of ice - and warming of non-atmospheric heat sinks such as the deep ocean - which brings in a whole new set of risks).

Like the claim that humans contribute a small amount to the overall carbon emissions. (All natural emissions are balanced by natural absorption as shown by 10,000 years with little fluctuation in greenhouse gas emissions. The only change in missions in the last few years that exists to account for the change of concentrations is the increase in human greenhouse gas emissions).

Like the argument that there us a lot if complexity in climate science and we really do not know what the results will be. (This is consistent with the possibility that human actions could trigger a natural response that will make things far worse than we currently expect - such as the massive thawing of frozen deep-sea methane caused by deep-sea warming.)

These are all foolish arguments, easily seen as flawed by anybody truly concerned not to cause harm, but greedily clutch by those who want to deny responsibility for the harms and risks they impose on others.

The latter argument in particular is a lot like the drunk driver claiming, "You don't know for certain that I will kill somebody on the way home, so give my the keys."

I do not have to know for certain. It is enough to know that you are risking lives, health, and property that are not yours to play with. Recklessness is still a moral crime - one defined by the reckless disregard its agents show for the harms and risks they impose on others.

Whenever I see any of these arguments show up in a debate, I know that I am dealing with an individual with a recklessly irresponsible disregard for the potential harms and risks he creates for others.

If somebody dislikes being put in the same moral category as others who deny harms in order to give themselves permission to perform actions harmful to others - if they hate being in that category - my advice is to quit clutching at clearly irrational straws in denying the potential harms and risks of their actions. As long as they continue to clutch at these straws, they fit in the same moral category as others who clutch at quite similar straws.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

"If somebody dislikes being put in the same moral category as others who deny harms in order to give themselves permission to perform actions harmful to others - if they hate being in that category - my advice is to quit clutching at clearly irrational straws in denying the potential harms and risks of their actions."

And if If somebody dislikes being put in the same moral category as those who joyfully accept harms in order to justify controlling the lives of others, my advice is to quit clutching at clearly irrational straws in accepting the unsubstantiated harms and simply go back to Russia.

cheers

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yep, I would have harsh things to say about those who irrationally or intentionally assert harms that are not real - such as make false or irrational claims about the dangers of homosexuality or atheism.

But, with the science of climate change going back 150 years, those claims appear to be on solid footing, and none of that changes the fact of the irrationality of the objections that I listed above.

gmcrews said...

Hi Alonzo,

Two points.

1) It's not black or white. Everyone who drives puts other people at risk. Accidents happen. Irreplaceable losses occur (people die). Anybody can make a mistake. Traffic laws are set knowing everyone could follow all the rules of the road and still people would die. So how can you defend saying: "It is enough to know that you are risking lives, health, and property that are not yours to play with"?

Obviously, it's *not* enough. Drivers put other people at risk, traffic engineers put people at risk. Every day.

And on the practical side, since all risks are relative, who gets to assign them? Am I allowed to demand you never drive since I might one day be crossing a street you happen to be driving down?

2) I don't deny your debating points or your logic. But you argue against a straw man. The issue is scientific skepticism.

Science is not a debate. The process used is called the scientific method. So to the extend your arguments are debating points, you do not actually address the real issue.

Science is not an exercise in logic. In fact, there are two logical flaws in the scientific method. Flaw 1: Theory is abduction -- reasoning from the specific to the general. Flaw 2: Peer review is an appeal to authority.

These two flaws are the reasons most scientific theories are eventually found to be wrong. Otherwise, science would be a logical certainty and all scientific theories would be truths.

To counter this, the method has subtle, clever, and robust error management. The biggie, of course, is that all theory must be tested by experiment using real life data. No exceptions.

There exists rational skepticism, even a denial, that the global climate models, the lynchpins of determining the probable effects of climate change, have been subjected to proper and sufficient experimentation. There is skepticism about the uncertainty associated with the models.

I am skeptical that the global climate models have undergone sufficient independent verification and validation (of which there is a large body of knowledge about IV&V backing me up) to justify making policy decisions -- that is, justify the assignment of risks.

I'm guessing you would have a bit more difficulty in explaining to me how my scientific skepticism is not moral or ethical. But I would like to see you do it.

mojo.rhythm said...

The other day, Chris Christy, the great white hope of the GOP, was accused by Chris Wallace and Herman Cain on Fox News of being "too liberal" because he (a) accepted the scientific consensus on climate change, (b) accused the Sharia Law alarmists of being hysterical and propounding non-evidenced assumptions, and (c) didn't think that immigrants were the scum of the earth.

Seriously. What the flying f*** is wrong with America? Almost every conservative in every other country accepts those three points automatically. Yet you aren't a true conservative in America unless you are so outrageously far to the fringe right that Obama appears to be a Maoist by comparison? Seriously, WTF!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

gmcrews

It's not black or white. Everyone who drives puts other people at risk. Accidents happen.

And people who cause accidents are held responsible for them. That is what insurance is for - to cover the costs one is liable for in cases where one causes attributable harm to another.

You seem to be taking what I wrote as saying that there is an absolute prohibition on putting others at risk. You are correct, that certainly is not the case. But, in putting others at risk, one is still morally accountable for attributable harms. Smash your car into somebody else's car, you'll be liable for the harms done. Do so with a callous disregard for the well-being of others (reckless driving), and you will be committing a moral and legal crime.

(2) I don't deny your debating points or your logic. But you argue against a straw man. The issue is scientific skepticism.

If you want to argue that climate change ought to be treated differently than other actions, then you are going to have to provide something that distinguishes climate science from the knowledge we use elsewhere - such as child abuse, drunk driving, forensic science used to convict criminals of all types.

The climate models are not used to argue whether or not we ought to permit a certain level of CO2. Climate models are primarily concerned with a scenario called "2xC)2" (twice pre-industrial CO2 levels) which people pretty much consider inevitable or unavoidable. It is an attempt to predict what we are now effectively powerless to prevent so that we can prepare for it.

We know that greenhouse gas emissions will warm the earth by some basic amount. However, once this warming takes place, it triggers a set of feedback mechanisms - melting ice, cloud formation. It also affects different parts of the planet differently. So, there is a question - what exactly can people in specific parts of the country expect. What types of policies would best suit the people of this or that region? The climate models aim to provide that information.

But, I repeat, the climate models are focused on giving policy makers data on a degree of global warming now considered inevitable. They do not provide the scientific case for climate change itself. That is based on much more basic physics well known for over 100 years.

The claim that the case against CO2 emissions is based on what we know from the climate models is false. But, for some, it is a very convenient and useful fiction and one worth propagating if one wishes to sew confusion and inactivity - to get away with doing harm without paying the consequences.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I should like to add that, so far, the climate models have in fact shown themselves to have significant errors.

The effects of climate change have so far happened far faster and been far worse than the models predicted.

So, as is the way of science, the scientists are needing to update their models to take new data into account.

gmcrews said...

Alonzo said:

The effects of climate change have so far happened far faster and been far worse than the models predicted.

Debating point statements such as the above are of no practical value. Why? Because the statement is subject to rational skepticism and "denial". That is because the global climate models (GCMs) have failed to undergo consensus independent verification and validation (IV&V). Therefore, you cannot show the statement is true. (It may be true, but cannot be demonstrated.)

It is improper to perform risk analyses and then decide policy issues based on GCMs that have not been IV&Ved. This is a huge issue with the GCMs.

When I was an engineer, I designed and helped build things that were potentially very dangerous. I decided this was ethical/moral as long as the calculated risks were determined and handled correctly. Over time, I noticed that my employers/clients would let me spend, based on probabilistic risk analyses I performed myself, from about $300K to $3M on safety per life potentially saved. (Note. These are anecdotal numbers, decades old.)

What are the calculated risk numbers regarding climate change? We don't know! IV&V on the GCMs have not been performed. We cannot have confidence in the numbers. So how can we manage our climate change risks?

The reason I'm bringing this up, Alonzo, is that I fundamentally like the approach you take on issues addressed on your blog. Risk analysis is subjective (Bayesian) and thus it is necessary that it be performed ethically. A further complication is that overall risk is not a scalar, but a vector. For example, my risks from climate change may differ by orders of magnitude from my neighbor's risks -- some neighbors will actually benefit. So I would like you to consider cases where "buying insurance" is too simplistic. Climate change is such a case.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

gmcrews

I do not yet see how you have identified a problem unique to climate change that argues that it be treated differently than other concerns.

A person is driving down the road, turns a corner, and enters a fog bank. His loss of visibility creates risk for others. It gives him an obligation to slow down. We don't have a need for any computer models identifying the risks created by driving at certain speeds through fogs to know that the fog and the lack of visibility has moral relevance.

If the driver should run over a pedestrian walking along the side of the road, no claims about the difficulty in calculating risk numbers on the fly is going to save him from his moral culpability.

gmcrews said...

Alanzo said: "I do not yet see how you have identified a problem unique to climate change that argues that it be treated differently than other concerns."

That's right. I'm not arguing for different treatments. I'm arguing that your treatment is inadequate.

If I make some arbitrary, capricious, and whimsical claim of harm from anything, climate or otherwise, such a claim cannot then be used to argue that those who deny or are skeptical of the claim are somehow unethical.

Since the climate models have not been IV&Ved, any claim of denial of harm on climate change being unethical is unjustified.

A person could try to argue that IV&V has been adequately performed, or it is somehow unnecessary. But I think they would find either of these tasks very difficult. These are complex technical questions. Not philosophical ones.