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Climate Change and Moral Knowledge

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Aug 17, 2012

Since writing yesterday’s On the Culture entry, The Moral Downside of Climate Change, I’ve received quite a bit of email, including some from Catholic climate scientists, contesting and, in some cases, misunderstanding the point I was trying to make. Let me say at the outset that, after doing some more research, I will write something about the specific disputes among scientists concerning climate change. Because I am not yet prepeared to do that here, many will be disappointed. But for now I wish to offer some clarifications relating to my original moral point.

I have argued that it is both wrong and dangerous to elevate climate change into a moral cause, and I would first like to explain more carefully what I do not mean by this statement. First, I do not at all mean that we should be unconcerned about those who may be adversely affected by climate change. Many Catholic bishops and even Pope Benedict himself have pointed out, quite rightly, that any problems which may be occasioned by climate change (or, indeed, by any damaging weather condition) will fall most heavily on the poor, for the strained resources of the poor do not permit them to protect themselves as easily against the repercussions of drought, flooding, rising sea levels, or anything else which might negatively impact their homes or their livelihood. Clearly, it is a central moral demand of Christianity to assist the poor in their distress.

Second, I do not mean that there are no compelling reasons to do some of the things advocated by those who have elevated stopping climate change itself to the status of a moral cause. For example, there are many good reasons to limit both our use of fossil fuels and the way in which we use them. It is good to reduce pollution, to conserve resources for future generations, to decrease our dependence for fuel on unstable regions of the world, and so on. There are both pragmatic and specifically moral reasons for taking these goods seriously.

Third, I am not here disagreeing with any Catholic moral teaching. Churchmen are as free to have opinions on climage change as laymen, but at the Magisterial level the Church can only explain the moral principles which govern our judgments and actions; she cannot determine whether climate change exists, whether it is dangerous, whether it is caused by human action, or what might be done about it.

Now the legitimate moral concerns I have just discussed are very different from a moral obligation to resist climate change in itself. Many conditions on this earth change over time without any human responsibility for the changes, and many of these changing conditions are harmful to specific persons or groups of persons. One thinks of earthquakes, volcanos, continental shifts, normal variations in polar ice which affect sea level, tsunamis, warming and cooling trends that we do not yet fully understand (but are likely at least partially related to natural events going on elsewhere in our solar system), the natural warming and cooling of fissures which derive their heat from the earth’s core, and so on. When people are harmed by these things, the relevant moral knowledge is that a brother or sister is suffering and needs our assistance. But is there any relevant moral information concerning climate change in and of itself?

Well, there may or may not be. What would determine the answer?

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Moral Considerations

There are many things which are intrinsically immoral. We know them from the natural law, which is often reinforced by Divine Revelation. It is the first responsibility of the human person to avoid doing things that are intrinsically immoral. Moreover, if we do something that is intrinsically evil, and someone else suffers as a result, we have a strong moral obligation in justice to make restitution. But climate change is not intrinsically immoral. Therefore, any moral imperatives concerning climate change must derive from secondary considerations, from the harm that climate change does and from the degree of responsibility others have to prevent or ameliorate that harm.

Climate change is a natural phenomenon, and we may gain some insight into questions of morality surrounding natural phenomena by comparing climate change to one of many possible simpler but ultimately similar phenomena. Let us take fire. Fire is natural, and it can have good or bad natural consequences. It goes without saying that the human person wishes to escape bad natural consequences (commonly called “evils”, but not in the moral sense) , and if he sees that a fire will cause bad natural consequences, he will almost always consider some form of intervention to minimize those consequences. But he must be cautious in his interventions, because he does not always know the full range of consequences of the fire (both good and bad), and he does not always know the full range of unintended consequences of his intervention.

Thus, for example, the conventional wisdom used to be that forest fires should be fought because the destruction of forests was a “bad” natural consequence. As knowledge of the role of fire in the pattern of nature grew, we learned that periodic burns were part of a natural cycle that was, on the whole, beneficial in the natural sense. Therefore, forest managers began to call in fire fighters only when significant human assets (including human life) were at stake. This of course reflects our culture’s continuing (though perhaps waning) appreciation for the superior importance of the human person in nature. The moral imperative here is to protect human life and property whenever it is reasonably possible to do so. And if it is not possible to provide this protection in a manner commensurate with the number of lives and amount of property to be affected, then the next recourse is to evacuate the threatened persons.

Sources of Moral Responsibility and Justice

So far so good. The same criteria can reasonably be applied to extreme weather or to climate change in general which, should it arise, will certainly affect some more than others. By virtue of solidarity, we all have a moral responsibility to provide reasonable assistance to others in escaping the bad consequences of natural threats that are beyond their control. There is also a general moral responsibility to assist injured or displaced persons in returning to a reasonable level of safety and prosperity. We are quite simply wrong to habitually ignore those in need, even if each given situation requires an honest assessment of how we might or might not choose to help.

But there is no moral obligation to fight the fire at any cost, or perhaps even to fight the fire at all. That obligation depends on what is at stake, whether it is reasonably possible to preserve and protect what is at stake, whether there is a consequent moral obligation on the part of the larger community to preserve and protect what is at stake (as there certainly is with human life), and whether fighting the fire at some particular level of commitment is the best way to preserve and protect these endangered goods.

Of course, the problem escalates with its severity. If fires suddenly become increasingly frequent and widespread, such that they regularly threaten a great many human goods, the need to understand them and prevent them from happening grows very strong. At one level, this is a pragmatic matter of self-defense, which is not a moral imperative but a natural and normal response to a threat. At another level, this arises from a genuine moral responsibility to assist others through prevention because so many people are being adversely affected by the trend. (Even so, a community could decide that it is best simply to trust in God, though such a community would be very different from our own!).

Now we must ask if there is anything which could tip the scales so as to significantly raise our level of moral responsibility. The answer is, perhaps, obvious. If we find that human action is causing or significantly increasing the threat of damaging fires, then there is a corresponding moral responsibility in justice to compensate those who have been injured and either to eliminate that human action in the future or to alter it in a way that prevents others from being harmed. This moral responsibility increases if these human actions are, by any reasonable standard, optional. It increases still more if these human actions are deliberate. And the moral intensity reaches its highest point when these human actions are chosen from a range of options to maximize the good of one person or group while being aware that these actions will threaten or harm others.

As a matter of solidarity and charity, of course, good people will attempt to limit the damage or assist those injured in their recovery. But when we add some or all of the conditions in the preceding paragraph, there is also a matter of justice at stake. Particular individuals and organizations must be held accountable in justice for causing fires, to a degree corresponding to their knowledge and their willfulness, and in justice they must also be prevented from causing more fires in the future. More generally, if we find through experience and study that a general method by which we achieve certain goals or accomplish certain tasks in our culture as a whole is contributing significantly to a higher incidence of damaging fires, then any sane culture will seek to restrain or alter that method, and a just culture will press even harder to do so out of its moral obligation to protect the innocent from harm.

Caution and Care

We must remember in all this that natural phenomena are something of a mixed bag. The annual monsoon, for example, is absolutely necessary to the economic life and sustenance of those who live in monsoon regions, and yet any given monsoon may wipe out the homes or businesses or even lives of some particular persons and families. We do not therefore seek to ban the monsoon. But if some person or persons were taking actions which significantly increase the incidence and severity of monsoons, we might look to correct that situation, assuming we understood monsoon formation well enough to reach a clear conclusion, and always assuming we were not prone to blame all the usual suspects—that is, whoever the witches in our culture happen to be.

As with an increasing incidence of monsoons or fires (which, indeed, some argue are related to climate change), so too with climate change itself. We must beware of our culture’s confidence that we can transcend and improve on nature (which historically leads us to charge into government regulation whenever we perceive the slightest problem). But if we are reasonably certain that a broadly damaging trajectory in climate change is occurring, and we are reasonably certain that we know how to correct this problem, we might investigate the possibility of attempting the correction because we share the normal human propensity for survival or even for comfort. But we might also be foolish to attempt this correction if we concluded it were part of a natural cycle, a cycle that we did not yet fully understand, for we ought to be leery of both the costs and the unintended consequences of imperfect human tinkering. Under these circumstances, prudence would suggest that we must be faced with a great need and a severe threat to attempt to compensate.

Still, if after careful study we become reasonably certain that it is human intervention which is causing a clearly traced and damaging trajectory in climate change—and we also find that this human intervention can be eliminated, altered for the better, or reversed—then it would be reasonable to attempt the fix, but only if the expected expense, effort and full range of consequences will be less damaging than the initial problem. And finally, if we see that those least responsible are suffering most from this damaging trajectory caused by human action, then we would have a strong moral charge to correct the problem (if possible), and certainly to protect the innocent from its consequences.

Back to the Science

Ultimately, then, there is a natural reason to pit ourselves against climate change only if we are reasonably certain (a) it is occurring along a clear and damaging trajectory; (b) we understand it well enough to fix it; and (c) we have good reason to believe our fix will be manageable, and will not cause more problems than it solves. (At this natural level, when these conditions coalesce in a way recognizable as a clear threat, it is reasonable to suppose our human survival instinct will finally bring the debate to an end.) But in addition to this natural and normal human response to a threat, there is a moral imperative to pit ourselves against climate change only if we are also reasonably certain that this same well-understood and damaging trajectory is being caused by human action, such that there is a need in justice to restrain the guilty or protect the innocent.

Because climate change is not intrinsically evil, these judgments are necessarily provisional, and they depend entirely on the clarity of our understanding of the reality, the trajectory, the causes, the consequences, the damage, and the potential corrections of climate change. Once we understand the reality, the trajectory, the causes and the consequences of climate change, it will often (but not always) be easy to assess the damage. But we must rely on the physical sciences to understand the reality, trajectory, causes, consequences and potential corrections. Therefore, our moral conclusions are inextricably dependent on what we learn about climate change from the scientific community.

When we map things out in this way, we see more clearly the heavy and comprehensive demand we are making on science and its fallible human practioners, especially in connection with such a vast system as climate, with such an enormous number of variables. One could write an entire book on both the successes and the failures of scientists, on how science works in the modern world, on whether scientists are immune from finding what they are expecting to find, on how few scientists are actually in a position to determine something based on their own research, on how hard it is to nail down scientific agreement on matters which are hotly contested in society as a whole, and so on. We could also carefully explain why all scientific findings are by nature provisional, and we could debate whether our culture is wise to place an easy trust in science as compared with other forms of knowledge.

But while all of this might make us even more wary, it would not change the reality that we must rely on science to determine whether climate change is occurring, whether it is dangerous, whether it has human causes, whether we can isolate these causes, and what we might do about them. I freely admit that the conclusions in my previous essay stand or fall on whether my assessment of the prevailing scientific claims is correct. This is not something we can know from Revelation or philosophy. But does that not give us even better grounds for caution, for a careful examination of the scientists and the evidence they present, and for an airtight case before making moral claims?

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Show 14 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jhlangerman2329 - Nov. 29, 2012 9:03 AM ET USA

    Our Pope has clearly and repeatedly stated that AHTHROPOCENIC [anthropogenic - ed.] global warming (a phrase created by the Nobel Laureate he appointed to study the topic) is responsible for climate change. Every single national institute of science on earth has verified the truth of this. I challenge skeptics to research this fact themselves using peer-reviewed scientific journals publicly available. The science is in, and it is irresponsible for us as Catholics to continue to deny it. Our Pope would be ashamed.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 20, 2012 5:53 PM ET USA

    I think I've mentioned this before. East Anglia data on p. 599 of the textbook I use for my earth system science course shows a relatively flat trend from 1850-1930, then a roughly increasing trend from 1930 to 2002, then a flat or even decreasing trend from 2002-2009, the last data point in the time series. As portrayed in this data, annual global mean temperature has increased above an arbitrary 30-year baseline since 1930, but the recent trend is either flat or decreasing since 1998.

  • Posted by: lynnvinc7142 - Aug. 20, 2012 1:54 PM ET USA

    I think failing to mitigate ACC (tho it lead to annihilation of most, even all, of life on earth) is not much of a sin; nowhere near abortion or voting for an abortion-promoting candidate. We each play such a tiny part in the harms. OTOH, I think misrepresenting the work of, slandering, and imputing evil motives to climate scientists & environmentalists & thereby dissuading others from mitigating ACC may be a worse sin than one personally failing to mitigate.

  • Posted by: aclune9083 - Aug. 19, 2012 10:41 PM ET USA

    Whether or not man's industrial processes have accelerated or exacerbated the well-established natural cycle of climate change--and, more importantly, whether or not the unilateral attempts to limit or reverse such effects through draconian and economically devastating actions on the part of the United States--it is clear that the environmental left wishes to use this issue so as to remake the US into a European-style, highly regulated socialist government. Obama has gladly jumped on that train.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Aug. 19, 2012 1:09 PM ET USA

    Wow! Science has become a religion. Yes, climate change is real - no one has even denied this fact! There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the reality that is free from change - including the climate. The problem is the fundamental reaction, including scientists, concluding man is to blame for the present climate change. If we don't act now, we are going to destroy what God has given us. Yet, there is no room to allow the scientific process to play out to figure out what is really going on.

  • Posted by: BLRallo3059 - Aug. 19, 2012 8:45 AM ET USA

    Politics and science make bad bedfellows. Climate change as an academic discipline is in its infancy. It's taken more than one hundred years for modern physics to reach its present stage of complexity and there is still so much we can't even identify, never mind explain. Any good scientist knows that effects don't automatically point to definitive causes. Time out, people. Good job, Dr. Mirus.

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Aug. 19, 2012 8:34 AM ET USA

    Furthermore, and to address what I believe is the point of this essay, it's being reported that crucifixions of Christians and apostates have begun in Egypt. These and other recent murders are real, and are terrorizing the Christian communities in the middle east. These are not computer simulations, but are real events that require our prayers, thoughts and actions. Nobody is disputing or debating these atrocities, they are just not getting much attention.

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Aug. 19, 2012 8:08 AM ET USA

    There is a reason why the "problem" has evolved from global warming to climate change, namely because there hasn't been any warming in the past 10+ years as predicted, and those with vested interests have had to redefine the problem. Global cooling was the previous version, and chicken little was the one before that. This gnostic impulse has merely latched on to science and spreadsheets as a means to justify itself. Malthus anyone?

  • Posted by: impossible - Aug. 19, 2012 12:24 AM ET USA

    Well said Dr. Mirus.

  • Posted by: lynnvinc7142 - Aug. 18, 2012 3:58 PM ET USA

    We like JPII started mitigating ACC before it reached scientific certainty in 1995 & have found to our delight that we've saved $1000s while reducing our GHG emission (& concomitant pollution) by 60%+, while increasing living standards. So while those who dithering over ACC are holding bags of debts, we'll be laughing all the way to the bank & singing, "Seek ye 1st the Kingdom of God and His righteouness....Alleluia!" BTW we've been married 44 yrs & never had an abortion either.

  • Posted by: ronaldruais1947 - Aug. 18, 2012 12:33 PM ET USA

    I have had a long standing affinity for science. But it is gone. The link below best explains it. It is summed up by the Latin phrase “Nullius in verba.” Additionally, I am not a fan of correlation studies being interpreted as cause and effect. It takes the “scientific method” to find causes and effects. Scientist rigging their data is most upsetting. If we can’t rely on scientist to tell the truth then where are we?

  • Posted by: tiomax6441 - Aug. 18, 2012 8:26 AM ET USA

    Pick the top 50 best climatologist (With Phd and publish in peer reviewed journals) you will only get 2 deniers (4%). Raise the number to 100 and you get one more denier (3%). what is obvious is that the scientific community is not in doubt about AGW (Anthropogenic Greenhouse warming.) We already have climate related refugees. The doubt is being fostered by the coal and oil industry's paid spokesman just like tobacco companiens paid doctors to do research proving that tobacco was harmless.

  • Posted by: soulful018583 - Aug. 18, 2012 4:23 AM ET USA

    The science is airtight; the debate is over, except for the right-wingers. The Chicago Tribune had an editorial yesterday entitled, "No denying it: climate change is real. Liberals, conservatives, let's deal with it." The editorial drew attention to the recent NYT op-ed by "physicist Richard Muller, a prominent climate change skeptic who has ... changed his mind. Overwhelming evidence now backs scientists who warn of global warming. The doubters cling to wishful thinking."

  • Posted by: mr.michaelgirard4559 - Aug. 17, 2012 6:58 PM ET USA

    I pray you do not act as you have written. Your second sentence states that you intend to write of the conflict of scientist on climate change. That will not do. You could only be correct in writing of the conflict of climate scientists. When I was young atoms could not be seen, yet today we are capable of imaging them. We do not have the luxury of time for clarity in the case of climate change. There are several catastrophic cascade events awaiting an unchanging course of behavior. Moral pause?

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