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Climate Change Deniers April 7, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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Cross-posted at Reviving the Left

I’m curious. What makes people cavalier about making the earth uninhabitable?

Freeman Dyson is without question a brilliant physicist (although not a climate scientist). But, as this recent NY Times article reminds us, he continues to claim that we ought not do much about global warming?

The consensus among climate scientists that anthropogenic climate change is real is substantial. I understand that there are some scientists who question the models on which projections of global warming are based. But how confident can we be in these dissenting opinions given the substantial consensus? Scientific consensus is sometimes mistaken, but it isn’t typically mistaken, and is seldom entirely wrong about very settled beliefs. Getting on board with the deniers seems a risky bet. It is possible that our climate models are wrong but surely the probability is relatively low.

I understand that there is considerable uncertainty regarding the effects of climate change. How large the climatic effects will be, what parts of the world will be most affected, etc. cannot be known at this point, although we can make some highly educated guesses. But why would it be rational for any country to gamble that they won’t be affected given the potential for catastrophic outcomes?

And there is justifiable controversy over how much the mitigation of the effects of climate change will cost and who will bear these costs. There are clearly opportunity costs to spending lots of resources on mitigating climate change—the money could be used to alleviate poverty, for instance. But most current models of the effects of climate change predict significant disruption in agriculture and habitation patterns that promise substantially more misery than the disadvantaged experience today. If we ignore climate change, we are taking great risks with their lives.

Moreover, there is credible evidence that new green technologies will be a powerful stimulus to economic growth both in developed and underdeveloped countries.

My problem with global warming deniers is not merely that they are opposing the scientific consensus. Science often advances when qualified scientists challenge the consensus. There will always be scientists who devote their lives to showing an hypothesis to be false, if they can. That is their job. My problem is with the judgment that we ought to base policy on this aspiration to be iconoclastic.

Risking lives on the basis of a belief one knows to be probably false is a case of bad moral judgment. This is true even if one has doubts about the climate models. The issue is not so much a matter of science but of morality. It is morally wrong to risk great harm based on a hypothesis that is likely to be false.

Like Wall St. bankers, climate change deniers think they can make risky bets and someone else will pick up the tab.

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Comments»

1. The “Values” of Global Warming Deniers « Philosophy On The Mesa - July 8, 2009

[…] As I have argued in the past, the consequences of not doing anything if the predictions about climate change are accurate are overwhelmingly, catastrophically bad. And the consequences of doing something if it turns out not to be a problem are not horrible. There are costs but not catastrophic costs. […]


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