Climate Change: Love it or Deny It?

November 10, 2010 | Posted in: Editor blog

by Kathleen Dean Moore

It’s happened again.  I’m on book tour with Moral Ground, a call for moral action to avert the worst effects of a warming and degraded planet.  The audience is convinced; climate change is real, it is dangerous, it is upon us. They are empowered; nothing is stopping them from dramatically changing how they live on earth. The first question out of the box is, What about those Rapture-Ready, End-Times people who can’t wait for the world to end?  Forest fires, earthquakes – bring it on!  Those people are never going to take action against climate change. The second is, What do you say to the people who deny climate change altogether? How do you change their minds?

Full disclosure: What half of me wants to say is, I’m not especially worried about the people busily denying climate change or closing their bank accounts.  I’m worried about us, the believers –  people like me (and you) who shake our heads at the dangers we face, truly worried, unable to sleep, and don’t do a damn thing of any meaning whatsoever. Lunatics aren’t the problem; hypocrites are. But that wasn’t the question, so here I go.

What about those Rapture-Ready people? Honestly, what about them? How many are there? Compassion would advise us to let them wise up on their own.  People aren’t irredeemably stupid, and time is the great teacher.  It’s possible that at some glorious moment in time, a few of the believers will float, grinning, to heaven, while an equal number of them are sucked into hell, disappearing like astonished gophers into the bowels of the earth. Or maybe none of this will happen. It’s not on my Top Ten List of Things to Worry About.

But what about those people – more than half the population – who distrust climate change science and deny the dangers we face? That’s a truly interesting and important question that goes to the heart of the nature of science and human nature.  So first, a story; then a short discursus on the practical syllogism.

The story: So. I ask my brother if he’d like to drive to Ashland to see a performance of HamletWhat, he says? Ashland is a seven-hour drive, and the hotels there cost hundreds of dollars a night. We can’t do that. Okay, so Ashland is in fact four hours away, and nice rooms cost a hundred dollars.  What gives?  The deal is that a discussion about the facts is easy – we’re used to talking about what is true.  But talking about values is hard – nobody knows how to address the question of whether watching Hamlet is a good use of time. So we debate the facts, endlessly, avoiding altogether the harder conversation about what is good, what is worthy, what is of value.

The syllogism:  Every argument that has as its conclusion a statement about what we ought to do, will have two premises. First, it will have an empirical premise, a descriptive premise that comes from scientific or other observation.  It is a statement of fact. It says, this is the way the world is, this is the way the world will be.  (For example, global climate change is real, it is dangerous, it is upon us.)  But you can’t get to a conclusion about what we ought to do on the basis of facts alone; you need a second premise.

The second premise is ethical.  It is an affirmation of what is worthy and worth doing, of what is right in human actions, of what is of deep value.  It says, this is good, this is sacred, this is what I believe in, this is what it means to be fully human.  (Say, for example, this world is worth saving).

From the descriptive premise and the ethical premise, but from neither alone, a conclusion follows about what we ought to do.

  1. Climate change will undermine the well-being of future people. (statement of fact)
  2. It’s wrong to undermine the well-being of future generations. (statement of value)
  3. Therefore, we ought to take action to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

This logic explains, I believe, why people work so hard to deny the reality of climate change. I think people intuitively understand this logic. They understand that if you don’t want to accept a conclusion about what we ought to do, there are two ways to refute it.  One is to challenge the facts.  The other is to challenge the values.

It’s easy to challenge facts.  We know how to do this. We know a variety of fallacious ways to do it – challenge the character of the persons making the claim (argumentum ad hominem), generalize from one scientific mistake to all of science (fallacy of over-generalization), or simply refuse to believe on the evidence (the fallacy of invincible ignorance).  But we also know how to debate facts honorably, and that is happening too, although it’s hard to hear over the ruckus.  The point is that from kindergarten on, we are trained in empirical reasoning, bringing evidence to bear to establish a claim.

It’s more difficult to challenge the values.  We don’t know how to have reasonable discussions about competing values (cf. the shouting on Fox News). Do we have a moral obligation to the future?  Is our profligate use of fossil fuels an intergenerational or international injustice?  How to we weigh values like personal freedom  against values like compassion and justice?  Do we have an absolute liberty to serve our own interests?  How do we weigh the interests of our own children against the interests of others’?  Do others have any claim against us at all?  Do we have an obligation to what is beautiful and life-giving on the planet? These are tough questions, deeply ethical questions.

What I think is happening is that those who do not want to take action against climate change, for whatever reason, find it easier to undercut the science than to engage in real dialogue about the values. So we have a national climate-change debate that is marked by a furious, often fallacious, certainly futile debate about facts. But the national discourse about values – the conversation about what we most deeply value in our lives, about what we most owe the future – has gone missing.

America has a long tradition of public moral discourse.  Think of the debates that resulted in the affirmation of human values of life and liberty of conscience that are encoded in the Declaration of Independence.  Think of the movement to abolish slavery, which turned on arguments of human liberty and worth. Think of the civil rights movement, the dream, the national debate about what is worthy of us as moral beings.  We have done it.  We can do it.  We must do it again.

Do we have a moral obligation to the future to leave a world as rich in possibilities as the world we live in?  Let’s talk.

8 Responses

  • mark johnson → December 9, 2010, 6:49 am

    Hey there, what no Seattle date for the Moral Ground tour? UU ee
    what’s up with that.

    Reply
  • I have just discovered Moral Ground this morning in an ad in E- The Environmental Magazine. I usually never click on ads, but the palm photo quite caught my attention, and I was curious. I am thrilled at finding your book, and hearing of the actions steps you are taking. I am deeply thankful for your wisdom and your skill of being able to raise this conversation. I feel such deep relief when I hear you talk of values. It is a critical step in people exploring their own motivations and actions. I have been a national park ranger for many years and have been dismayed at how difficult it is for people to become aware of the vast interconnections of their choices. Changing behavior can be challenging, and yet can also be empowering and freeing. When you share we have been able to discuss values before and we must do it again, perhaps sharing some tools and resources will be supportive. Local guided nature connection activities, connecting with your farmer at a farmer’s market, mindfulness practice such as yoga or Vipassana Meditation, supportive communication techniques such as NVC- Non Violent or Compassionate Communication, etc… I am thrilled to read your book, follow your journey, and pass you along. This is an idea that will fire and fuel conservations around the dinner table, in schools, and with policy makers. THANK YOU!!!!!!

    Reply
  • Do you folks have a fb fan web page? I regarded for one on twitter however could not discover one, I would like to grow to be a fan!

    Reply
  • It’s sad we just on media rolled the next day now worming is faster the our flying wheels

    Reply
  • Healthy Skepticism → June 14, 2011, 6:44 pm

    With a BA in philosophy, and having taken a few logic courses, I take issue with the author’s syllogism:

    “1.Climate change will undermine the well-being of future people. (statement of fact)
    2.It’s wrong to undermine the well-being of future generations. (statement of value)
    3.Therefore, we ought to take action to avert the worst consequences of climate change.”

    This syllogism, presented as a logical necessity, is flawed.

    The first statement, that climate change will undermine the well-being of future people, is not a statement of fact. It is a prediction. It also assumes that climate change is necessarily harmful, which is not proven. Not all change is harmful. The future effects of climate change are by no means certain.

    The second statement makes two unproven assumptions: first, that climate change is caused by humans, and second, that humans can prevent (or substantially reduce) climate change. Neither statement is a proven fact.

    Because the first two statements are flawed, the conclusion is necessarily flawed. Good intentions and the desire to take the moral high ground do not make one’s conclusions automatically logical. No more than a parent’s strong feeling that their child should become a Peace Corps volunteer is more logical than that child’s desire to become a Las Vegas blackjack dealer.

    Reply
  • @Healthy Skepticism
    I don’t have any formal logical/philosophical background, but looking up the word ‘syllogism’ suggests that the items can be premises and don’t have to be established facts.

    I think the (excellent) point of this article and its example argument is that we (U.S. in particular) as a society have a lot of trouble discussing values and thus prefer to argue over statements of fact or form.

    Furthermore, I think your comment proves the article’s point. Rather than engage in an enlightened argument about our moral obligations to present and future generations with respect to environmental harm (or any other matter), you choose to argue against the premises or against the idea that there’s *anything* we could possibly do to lessen our own impact so that future generations can have a more verdant earth.

    Whether your facts are right vs. the author’s doesn’t matter to the moral argument. I posit there *are* environmentally destructive choices we make regularly as a society and we seem to have very little ability to discuss the moral dimension of those choices. You may not agree with me or may not wish to explore the moral dimension, but there is good work to be done here to help those who care about the future make intelligent decisions.

    Reply
  • Healthy Skepticism → June 23, 2011, 8:47 pm

    @Soren: Your response goes far beyond the scope of my post. My point was that Ms. Moore bases her conclusion (that we ought to take action to avoid the worst consequences of climate change) on a syllogism. If the syllogism is flawed, then the conclusion is flawed. Your response — if you will excuse me for paraphrasing you — is that it doesn’t matter if the logic is flawed; you accept the conclusion anyway.

    The problem with accepting flawed logic is that it can lead to waste and destruction.

    In addition, your response conflates climate change with enviromental responsibility. You aren’t the only one who does this; in fact, it is ubiquitous. We should be environmentally responsible regardless of whether climate change is a fact or not, and regardless of whether it is caused by humans or not.

    Pollution and destruction exploitation of natural resources are unquestionably bad things. The syllogism for that problem is undeniable:

    1. Wildlife and forests are absolutely essential to human well-being and ecological stability;
    2. The destruction of forests and wildlife would result in an extreme degradation of human well-being;
    3. Therefore it is essential that we take all necessary steps to preserve wildlife and forests.

    That’s solid logic. Ms. Moore’s syllogism incorporates unproven assumptions. And that is precisely why my own position is that we should approach the entire climate change issue cautiously, while the scientific inquiry continues. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to encourage conservation, reduce pollution, and aim for sustainability. Those are logical, common sense approaches which have no downside.

    The climate change activists approach the subject social engineering implications that somehow if people in the West have a high standard of living that it necessarily means that comes at the expense of people in other parts of the world. That turns the world into a zero-sum game wherein one person’s comfort comes at another person’s expense. That is not the case. We can all live well. But that’s another debate.

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