Etikk i praksis. Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics (2016), 10 (2), 75–90
Climate change denial, freedom of speech and global justiceTrygve Lavik
Department of Philosophy, University of Bergen, Trygve.Lavik@uib.no
In this paper I claim that there are moral reasons for making climate denialism illegal. First I define climate denialism, and then I discuss its impact on society and its reception in the media. I build my philosophical arguments mainly on John Stuart Mill and Thomas M. Scanlon. According to Mill’s utilitarian justification of free speech, even untrue opinions are valuable in society’s pursuit of more truth. Consequently one might think that Mill’s philosophy would justify climate denialists’ right to free speech. A major section of the paper argues against that view. The main arguments are: Climate denialism is not beneficial because its main goal is to produce doubt, and not truth. Climate denialism is not sincerely meant, which is a necessary condition for Mill to accept utterances. Climate denialists bring harm, by blocking necessary action on climate change. Primarily they harm future generations and people in developing countries. Hence the case can be made in terms of global justice: Would future generations and people in developing countries support my claim? I think so, or so I argue. My argument from global justice is built on Scanlon’s distinction between the interests of participants, the interests of audiences, and the interests of bystanders. The climate denialists have participant interests “in being able to call something to the attention of a wide audience”. Audience interests consist of “having access to expressions that we wish to hear or read, and even in being exposed to some degree to expressions we have not chosen”. Future generations and people in poor countries are bystanders to the climate debate. If the debate postpones necessary actions, it is the bystanders who must pay the price. I argue that bystanders’ costs outweigh participants’ and audiences’ interests, and that this is an argument for a statutory ban on climate denialism.
Keywords: climate change denial, freedom of speech, global justice, utilitarianism, harm principle
Imagine the following thought experiment:
The pharmaceutical industry has invented a medicine that eliminates morning sickness during pregnancy.1 The medicine has been tested, and there is no indication that the medicine will affect the baby. The babies that are born are normal. However, a scientist has begun to research whether this medicine may have potential long-term effects. Will these babies’ lives be negatively affected as they grow up, or when they become adults? Let us assume that, according to other well-established medical research, there are good reasons to believe that these babies will suffer paralysis of the legs when they have grown up. Experiments with animals that reach maturity in one year also show that many of these animals suffer paralysis when they mature. The scientific society takes this very seriously, and establishes a panel that reviews all the research in the field. After reviewing all the science on the subject, the panel concludes that it is very likely that this medicine will have the very dangerous adverse effect described above. Furthermore, the academes of science in all the leading countries have approved the scientific reasoning and support the conclusion of the panel. However, at the same time, the pharmaceutical industry launches a campaign to create doubt about the scientific conclusion that has been reached through research. They establish quasi-scientific institutes and hire acknowledged scientists to argue that the science is not settled at all. Moreover, they initiate a petition that completely denies that this medicine might have dangerous long-term effects. They pay a lot of scientists to sign the petition. The media want to be fair and balanced, so they present both sides of the issue. The result is that many women continue to take the medicine during pregnancy. Twenty years later, tragedy strikes. The legs of the children of the mothers who took this medicine during pregnancy become paralyzed. The question now is: is it reasonable to claim that someone has committed a crime against these children? And if so, is this not an argument for introducing a law prohibiting this kind of crime? I believe so, and in this paper I will argue that climate denialists commit a crime similar to that of the fictive pharmaceutical industry denialists in my thought experiment.2
The claim I will defend in this paper is that there are moral reasons for making climate denialism illegal. I shall first describe climate denialism and then discuss the impact of climate denialism and the role of media (sections 1-3). Then I shall discuss the usefulness and harm of climate denialism and then claim that climate denialism should be prohibited (sections 4-5). In the final section, I will discuss some problems with enacting a law against climate denialism (6).
I. What is Climate Denialism?
Fredrick Seitz is a former president of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS). In 1998, Seitz wrote a document (later called the Oregon petition) in which he denied the central theses of man-made global warming. He deliberately printed it in the font and format of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the journal of the NAS. The NAS council soon after released a statement saying that NAS had nothing to do with the document, and that the academy was worried about the confusion this document had caused. According to the petition’s home page, 31,487 scientists have signed this petition.3 The Oregon petition was long ago exposed as a fraud. Most of the signers were not scientists at all, and many of them did not know that their names were on the list. Despite this, the Oregon petition is still very much alive (Monbiot 2006: 29-31). The Oregon petition is one example of the so-called “denial industry”. This term, introduced by George Monbiot, describes the well-organized and well-funded campaign by a handful of scientists, free-market think tanks and industry to produce doubt about climate change (Monbiot 2006: 20-42). Denial campaigns against science did not occur for the first time with the theory of global warming. In the book Merchants of Doubt (2010), Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway demonstrate how a handful of scientists have obscured the truth on issues like tobacco smoke, acid rain, ozone holes, second-hand smoke and global warming. The story they tell is about a small group of scientists, who in collaboration with right wing think tanks and industry, have run a successful campaign to mislead the public about science.
Many would probably say that this small group of scientists do us all a favour. Scepticism is a good thing in science, and in public debate. A sceptic is a person who does not accept truths just because an authority or a majority believes so: he wants to hear all the arguments. However, he is no longer a sceptic if he does not respect the force of the better arguments. In this paper, I will argue that while sound scepticism is a good thing in science and public debate, denialism is not, and there is a big difference between scepticism and denialism.
So how is it possible to distinguish between scepticism and denialism? I propose that the distinction can be made with the help of the concept of “good faith”. To be in good faith means to be sincere. But how can we know whether someone is sincere or not? We cannot look in to other people’s minds. To answer this question it is instructive to consider how good faith is treated in law. In law, good faith does not mean what you actually think or what you claim to know and not know. It means what you under certain circumstances should know. If you for example buy jewellery from a drug addict on the street, you might claim that you acted in good faith, and perhaps you also did not know better, but under such circumstances you should have known better. You are not acting in good faith. To make this point clearer I will also bring in another concept from law, namely the principle of “caveat emptor”: let the buyer beware. For example, when you buy a flat you have a duty to investigate the property for sale. Let us say a man named Bob buys a flat. After Bob has lived there for some weeks he discovers mould in a wall. Bob complains to the salesman and asks for a price reduction. The salesman refuses to pay, and Bob takes the case to court. In court Bob claims that he acted in good faith when buying the flat. He really believed that it was a flat without defects. Bob loses the case, because he should have inspected the flat and thus known that the flat had a defect.
The distinction between being in good faith and not being in good faith is useful to explain the difference between a sceptic and a denier. A sceptic acts in good faith, a denier does not. If a denier claims that climate scientists do not take sun activity in to consideration, he is not in good faith. He should have investigated what climate scientists say about the subject first. My distinction between scepticism versus denialism reflects a central definition of climate denialism. Michael Shermer argues that denial is the “automatic gainsaying of a claim regardless of the evidence for it” and that “denialism is typically driven by ideology and religious belief” (Shermer 2010: 36). Shermer is of the opinion that the so-called climate sceptics are mostly deniers, and not sceptics at all, because scepticism entails taking a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims. Washington and Cook say that: "…refusing to accept the overwhelming “preponderance of evidence” is not scepticism; it is denial and should be called by its true name" (Washington & Cook 2011: 2). Stefan Rahmastorf has devised a typology of climate sceptics that has been adopted by many commentators. He distinguishes between three levels:
This dinner party is an analogy to the climate debate in the public. And the denial industry can be compared with the three deniers at the party. None of these deniers are acting in good faith, they are not sincere. The fact that the activities of the denial industry are dishonest is well documented. The strategy used by climate deniers is very much like the one used by the tobacco deniers. Many of the same people who were engaged in the denial of tobacco are also involved in the denial of climate change (Oreskes & Conway 2010, Monbiot 2006: 31). No one has formulated this strategy better than they have themselves: “Doubt is our product”, proclaimed an internal tobacco industry document in 1969. “Spread doubt over strong scientific evidence and the public won’t know what to believe” (Saloojee & Dagli 2000: 9003).
When proposing a ban on climate denialism, it is necessary to distinguish illegal climate denialism from legal climate denialism. In this paper, “illegal climate denialism” will mean “a well-organized and well-funded campaign by a person or group with authority in society, which keeps repeating the same untrue and damaging claims about climate change, without mentioning conclusive counter arguments”. The Oregon petition, and its legacy, is a clear example of climate denialism that can be subsumed under this definition. I will also give another example: The Hartland Institute is a right-wing think tank and lobby group that receives massive financial support from Exxon Mobil. In 2007, the Hartland Institute published a list of 500 scientists who were said to deny human-induced climate change. Shortly afterwards, many of the scientists declared that they had been falsely cited, and they demanded that their names be taken off the list immediately. By 2009 none of the names had been removed from the document (Monbiot 2009). Finally, the so-called “climate gate” campaign is another example that clearly can be subsumed as illegal climate denialism. However, some phenomena should not be considered illegal, such as a climate scientist who publishes peer-reviewed articles that deny man-made climate change, and a layman who writes climate denial opinion pieces in newspapers, or participates in the climate denial blogosphere, and so on.
II. Is the denial industry a reason for inaction on the climate problem?
George Monbiot (a recognized environmentalist and author) writes that “the professional denial industry has delayed effective global action on climate change by several years (Monbiot 2006: 39).4 Philosopher Philip Kitcher thinks that “climate deniers have successfully blocked attempts to introduce policies for coping with potential environmental change”(Kitcher 2011: 243). I take it that Monbiot and Kitcher implicitly reason as follows: the denial industry spreads misinformation through newspapers, radio and television. This misinformation deceives a major portion of the public. Hence, the majority do not think that climate change is a big problem. And the result is that people do not put pressure on governments to act. However, there are many objections to this line of reasoning. I will address three of them:
a) There is not much climate denialism among people;a) There is not much climate denialism among people:
TNS Gallup has recently conducted a survey on climate change notions in Norway. Among “major challenges facing Norway” people rank climate change number six, behind health care, schools and education, immigration and integration, expanding roads and railroads, and increasing violence and crime (TNS Gallup 2011).
In the same survey, people were asked whether they had confidence in the conclusions of the IPCC. The results were
Table 1: TNS Gallup 2011
Only one-third of the respondents had very high/high confidence in the conclusions. In the survey, 41% said they thought that the IPCC is influenced by politics, while 33% held that the IPCC is independent. The rest (26%) said they “don’t know”. The survey also showed a decline in the belief that climate change is man-made. In the autumn of 2009, 74% totally/partially agreed that climate change is human-induced, while in the autumn of 2011, 65 %said that they totally/partially agreed that climate change was man-made. This may seem like a high score. However, many of the 65% just partially agree. A survey conducted by YouGov showed that almost half of the Norwegian population believe that the climate problem is exaggerated (NRK 2010). Moreover, in another recent survey 42% of the respondents totally/partially agreed that “Climate change is only natural variation in the temperature of the Earth” (Andersson 2012 in Bergens Tidene).5 Conclusion: there is increasing climate denialism among people.6
b) The lack of political action causes apathy in the public:
Another objection is that climate deniers are not those who cause apathy in the public; instead, it is the lack of political action. The argument goes: the public see that politicians are not trying to solve the problem. They therefore think that politicians do not believe global warming is a big problem. The conclusion drawn (by a large part of the public) from all this is that climate change is not a big problem.
There are several problems with this explanation. One premise is that people regard their politicians as the most important authorities on questions concerning what to believe about the world: for example, that a politician is more authoritative on scientific issues than a scientist. Another problem arises if we try to turn this explanation into a deductive-nomological model of explanation:
L If the public perceive that their leaders are not trying to solve an assumed problem X, the public will tend to believe that X is not a serious problem.
Let us then replace “X” with “health care”, “crime”, “immigration” or “roads”. It is then apparent that this explanation cannot be generally valid. Thus, it can hardly explain the widespread belief that the climate change problem is being exaggerated. One could argue that in matters like health care, crime, immigration and roads, people see and experience the problems themselves, for example when they watch the evening news, or drive over a bump in the road. So if the politicians do not act, they still know that the problems remain unsolved. The problem with this objection is that it introduces another argument: the reason why people do not believe in climate change is because they cannot see or experience the problem first-hand. But this explanation is quite different from that which explains disbelief as a result of a perceived lack of political action.
c) There is no causal link from climate denialism in the media to climate denialism among people:7
A major problem in recognizing climate change as a big problem is that people cannot directly experience it. This explanation, which is almost self-evident, is based on human psychology. Human psychology is probably the most important source of climate denialism. Short-term thinking, self-deception, and the unwillingness to sacrifice achieved goods are all human vices. Many people would most probably have become climate deniers even without the denial industry. However, it does not follow that the denial industry has no impact. These human vices provide fertile ground for promoting climate denialism. The fact that there is fertile ground for denial among people is not a strong case for claiming that the denial industry does not have any effect on people’s thinking. That would be similar to saying that advertising agencies do not have any impact merely because there is already demand for the products (for example, face moisturizer) in the market. The denial industry spends millions of dollars to produce and spread climate scepticism. They would be wasting their money if there was no connection between climate denialism in the media and public opinion. A lot of sociological research has been done on this subject, and Dunlap and McCright are crystal clear about what their findings tell them:
The climate change denial campaign has been successful. Organized and well-funded denial efforts have convinced many policy-members and citizens that the scientific evidence for human caused atmospheric warming remains so uncertain that regulating carbon emissions is not urgent (Dunlap & McCright, 2013: 2).Conclusion: the denial industry is a reason for inaction on the climate problem. However, the denial industry could not have achieved this without help from the media.
III. Climate change denial and the media
There are at least three factors that shape how the climate problem is portrayed in the media:8
1) Political dependency;It is obvious that certain media institutions, such as the Fox News channel, are not independent of political interests in their coverage of climate change (Dimiero 2010). The media are not independent of commercial forces, since media institutions need readers, listeners and viewers. If a debate on climate change on television presents ten climate scientists, all of whom agree that climate change is real, human-induced, and impels us to change our lifestyles, the show will probably get bad ratings. A debate between one climate scientist who claims that climate change is human-induced and one denier who argues that there is no climate change at all is more likely to attract an attentive audience. I believe it is non-controversial to be critical of the media’s dependency on political and commercial interests.9 The topic for this paper, however, is to demonstrate how climate denialism is supported by our idealistic norms of free speech, as echoed in the journalistic norm of balance.
Balance demands that all perspectives on a controversial issue be illuminated. Obviously, the climate deniers benefit from the ethics of journalism. Ross Gelbspan has given a good analysis of the situation:
The professional canon of journalistic fairness requires reporters who write about a controversy to present competing points of view. When the issue is of a political or social nature, fairness—presenting the most compelling arguments of both sides with equal weight—is a fundamental check on biased reporting. But this canon causes problems when it is applied to issues of science. It seems to demand that journalists present competing points of views on a scientific question as though they had equal scientific weight, when actually they do not (Gelbspan 1998: 57-58).There is nothing wrong with the norm of balance in media, but the way this norm has been applied in the coverage of climate change is highly questionable. Julius and Maxwell Boykoff studied the media coverage of climate change in the USA between 1988-2004. They found that 53% of the coverage was “balanced”, that is, it gave equal time to the majority view of science and climate scepticism. This balanced coverage was named “balance as bias” by Boykoff & Boykoff (2004).
The journalistic norm of balance is rooted in the values of free speech, which most of us consider vital for the well-being of a democratic society. The common view is, as I have said, that free discussion is always a good thing. In the next two sections I challenge that view.