From the Religion Report Down Under: The ethics of climate change

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Michael Northcott: Well I think there are quite a lot of people in Australia and beyond who would deny that global warming is a moral issue, but many people in the world still do not think that global warming is a consequence of human action. So first of all, to understand it as a moral issue, you have to embrace what the science now clearly shows, which is that industrial emissions of greenhouse gases are changing the climate, and that's the first thing. The second thing then is if you accept that industrial emissions are changing the climate, those who have put the most emissions up there historically have a very grave moral duty to act, and act first. Well what is actually happening is that countries like America, and indeed Australia until very recently, have argued that they're not going to act until China and India act. And that's why this is a fundamentally immoral issue because of the injustice of the fact that here in Australia you have 20 tonnes per person greenhouse gas emissions; in Africa you have about 0.2 tonnes per person greenhouse gas emissions, but it's the Africans who are already suffering from malnutrition, whose farms and crops are failing.

Stephen Crittenden: The big ethical enemy in the book is neo-liberal economics, and the accompanying loss of a sense of the common good.

Michael Northcott: Yes, well I think neo-liberalism is easier to fix than sin. It's a fairly recent idea, or set of ideas, it had its day in the 19th century, it was called laissez-faire economics in those days and it's come back in the late 20th century to affect Australia, New Zealand, Britain and America primarily, but from their influence, much of the rest of the world.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchClimate Change, Weather* Economics, PoliticsEnergy, Natural Resources* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

Posted March 27, 2008 at 6:06 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:

to understand it as a moral issue, you have to embrace what the science now clearly shows, which is that industrial emissions of greenhouse gases are changing the climate, and that’s the first thing.

Er, no. My first two degrees are in geology, and you’ll find that most geologists—and most astronomers—simply don’t accept that “science” at all. Geologists and astronomers learn to think in four dimensions, with the result that ten million years is mere pocket change.

Advocates of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) believe that recent warming is in both rapidity and intensity. It is not. Far from it. Some 50 million years ago (last week in geological terms) Earth was so warm that the North Pole had a climate similar to Memphis, TN. 90 mya there were crocodiles swimming in the Arctic Ocean.

AGW theorists link atmospheric CO2 levels to global temperature. Geologists know that 450 mya CO2 levels were more than ten times higher than today—yet Earth was at its coldest in the last billion years.

The “science” promoted by AGW advocates relates back to Antarctic ice core studies in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They choose to ignore the 1998 to 2004 re-do of that work which because it worked with intervals an order of magnitude shorter than the early studies, was able to demonstrate that temperature increases lead CO2 increases by about 800 years. If there is a causal relationship at all, it is temperature driving CO2 and not the other way around.

This might be related to the fact that CO2 absorbs energy at a wavelength at which only 8% of Earth’s heat is radiated, and even that is fully saturated above 200 ppm (we’re now above 350 ppm).

There’s a LOT more science I could throw in here, but for those seriously interested in an open-minded approach to all of this, I strongly encourage repeated visits to Climate Debate Daily, a site provide brief synopses and links to work on both sides of the issue.

As for the moral dimension, let us wonder about the morality of a solution in search of a problem. The proposed “solution” to global warming—higher taxes, greater regulation, bigger government, and trans-national sovereignty—is exactly the same as that proposed as a “solution” to AIDS and global diseases, and proposes as a “solution” for ‘gender inequality,’ and proposed as a “solution” for global poverty. Et cetera ad nauseum.

It is the tendency to create panic repeatedly in order to impose a political agenda that is immoral.

March 27, 10:20 am | [comment link]
2. Irenaeus wrote:

“Neo-liberalism is easier to fix than sin”—-Michael Northcott

Nice turn of phrase.

March 27, 10:56 am | [comment link]
3. libraryjim wrote:

How can a natural cycle have ‘ethical’ consequences? Our response to that natural cycle definately does, but not the cycle itself. 

If we go all hysterical and say “we are to fault” (I.e., the sky is falling) and blame our brothers and sisters (and propose legislation to punish those we think responsible) for something over which we have no control, then that is (IMO) a sinful response.

If on the other hand, we say, “The cycle is changing again” and put forth ways for our brothers and sisters to help them through the changes the Earth is going through, then that is a godly response of loving our neighbor.

Jim Elliott <><
(PS, in case it’s not clear, I believe the scientific evidence for natural cycle is more convincing than that for anthropogenic.  And, to head this false accusation off at the pass, yes, I am in favor of reducing pollution, clean air/water, etc. One does not negate the other!)

March 27, 12:33 pm | [comment link]
4. Don R wrote:

Good grief.  In critiquing “neo-liberal” economics, Christian academics have a lot more to work with than just the received wisdom of Marxist analysis, but you’d never know it.  Scripture and the thinking of Christians through the ages are only invoked to the extent they’re consistent with socialist politics.

And this:

And unless we [know the production details of everything we buy], Berry suggests we’re living irresponsible lives.

is a preposterous standard.  I briefly entertained similar notions in high school, but even at that callow age it soon became clear one would need omniscience in order to succeed.  It’s thinking like that that led Norman Mailer to assert that, since we can’t know the ultimate results of our actions, we shouldn’t have to worry about moral culpability at all!

Of course, maybe Berry’s (and Northcott’s) real project is to promote the sort of agrarian utopia that he believes existed in some idyllic lost past.  The sort that, unfortunately, only existed before the Fall.  How would we, through our own efforts, restore that world?

March 27, 1:51 pm | [comment link]
5. Don R wrote:

And, amen to libraryjim‘s postscript.

March 27, 1:53 pm | [comment link]
6. Bill Matz wrote:

CNBC was reporting today that 90% of the increase in CO2 emissions is coming from the developing world. China has been the leading CO2 emitter since 2006. Yet Kyoto exempts China (and India) and requires the developed nations to buy carbon credits from developing nations. Maybe that is why the Senate unanimously rejected Kyoto.

March 27, 2:45 pm | [comment link]
7. magnolia wrote:

well, for those of us who actually believe that global warming is caused by human activity i just wanted to say thanks so much for posting this elves! great interview even if i didn’t agree with every single thing. it seems like a great responsibility indeed to monitor every single thing in ones life to make sure it is fair to everyone else; i do try to live up to it as best i can…but sometimes life just isn’t going to be equally just to everyone.  thanks again.

March 27, 5:45 pm | [comment link]
8. Tom Roberts wrote:

“Michael Northcott: Yes, well I think neo-liberalism is easier to fix than sin. It’s a fairly recent idea, or set of ideas, it had its day in the 19th century, it was called laissez-faire economics in those days and it’s come back in the late 20th century to affect Australia, New Zealand, Britain and America primarily, but from their influence, much of the rest of the world. “
Actually the liberal economics of Adam Smith were principally derived from non British historical experience, to include the historical record of Italian and Flemish/Dutch entrepreneurs prior to the 1800’s. Comparison to the merchantilist experience of the French, British, and Spanish was illuminating to the liberals like Smith.

When academics are spurred to stretch the truth by “journalists” putting forth conclusions as a prerequisite set of assumptions for their discussions, you get didactic treacle like this interview.

March 27, 9:06 pm | [comment link]
9. MargaretG wrote:

We had Professor Northcott at our church recently—he was supposed to give the sermon. What we got was a diatribe about how evil economists were, and how wonderful the world would be if only we all followed him (and I mean Northcott not Jesus).

Anyway my husband was there—not just an economist, but one who had worked on climate change issues for the New Zealand Treasury—so doubly or triply evil in Northcotts view. My husband asked some very basic questions about what Northcott thought about some of the key literature that anyone in the field should not only have read but be prepared to interact with. Northcott got really wild at that point - clearly he hadn’t done his homework enough to actually have read the key literature - let alone be able to give a coherent and reasonable answer.

In other words the man may have written a book, but don’t look for scholarship in it.

March 28, 12:07 am | [comment link]
10. DavidH wrote:

Bart Hall, I do not have a degree in geology, and spend most of my life doing non-science-y things, so I am not prepared to go toe to toe and study for study with you.  But I have read enough on this issue to know that there is a lot of science that tends to show humans are contributing to climate change.  Let me pose 3 questions to you:

1) Are you 100% certain that you’re right?

Dick Cheney has been a famous advocate of the 1% doctrine—that if there’s a 1% chance terrorists could acquire weapons of mass destruction, it’s worth a lot of effort and money to prevent that.  (Not that I like Dick Cheney, by any means.)  Would you argue that there’s not a 1% chance (or 10%) that humans are contributing to global warming?  If so, isn’t it worth taking some substantial steps to try to prevent the kinds of devastating consequences to which global warming can lead?

2) How do you regard your fellow scientists who believe very strongly in global warming?  (Tim Flannery, for one example.)  Are they just fools?  Or liars?

It has been my experience that climate change dissenters are quick to subscribe to conspiracy theories—e.g. that it’s all an anti-Western propaganda movement—that don’t make a lot of sense.  But I am genuinely interested in your thoughts.

3) Suppose you’re right and that the warming that’s underway is not unusual over Earth’s history.  Does that say anything about whether we want to take steps to try to mitigate or prevent climate change?

I’ve been to Memphis in the summer.  I shudder to think of a world where the coolest places have that climate.

Finally, Bill Matz, 6, ask yourself this:  If you and I were both dumping some hazardous substance in a lake, and I had been dumping lots more than you for decades, but you recently started dumping more than me, wouldn’t I have a greater responsibility in clean-up?  Certainly there are tough issues to be worked out going forward as to various nations’ share of responsibility.  But the developed world has a lot of historical responsibility here.

March 28, 7:31 am | [comment link]
11. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:

DavidH—it’s late in the thread but your thoughtful comments deserve a response. Let me say first that science is, or at least ought to be, organised skepticism. Consequently I tend to be skeptical even of my own conclusions, by which I mean that I actively search for non-confirmatory evidence. Most people exhibit a strong “confirmation bias” leading them to look only for confirmatory evidence.

100% certain? Well about the geology, and its implications, yes. Fossilised cypress trees within about 500 miles of the North Pole are pretty convincing. About CO2’s absorptive spectrum compared to that at which Earth radiates heat? Yes, these are known physical characteristics.

I’m quite certain about the analytical techniques used in studying ice cores. In a nutshell, there are three slightly different forms of oxygen, and when oceans are cooler the heaviest one evaporates less easily than the predominant form. That ratio carries through to the snow, and when snow falls it entraps air. As snow compresses into ice some air gets trapped in bubbles, where now (hundreds of thousands of years later) we can measure its CO2 content.

That said, future studies may be able to examine ice cores at even shorter intervals (better resolution), and it is at least possible that such higher-resolution studies might reverse the current understanding that global temperature leads CO2, and not the other way around. Possible, but highly unlikely, because when Study B has a higher resolution than Study A and B changes understanding of the phenomenon, putative Study C at even higher resolution almost never changes the overall conclusion. Thus I expect some future study might determine that the CO2 lead is only 550 years—or perhaps 1100 years—but not return to the 1980s-era conclusions developped at low resolution.

Scientists are not generally fools or liars (though there are some of each out there), but we are human. If you have a political view and a strong confirmation bias it is quite easy to confuse the association of two phenomena with some sort of causality. Our perspectives do influence our views, and we ought to take very seriously the fact that scientists with a real time perspective are often quite skeptical about anthropogenic global warming.

A number of Canadian astronomers are quite concerned about potential global cooling and are wondering if current low solar activity heralds a return to the Maunder Minimum of the late 17th Century. Check it out. It wasn’t fun, especially in northern areas.

Finally, I believe rather fervently that in either case, warming or cooling, the most cost-effective path is that of mitigation. For humans to believe we can out-muscle solar warming (or cooling) of the oceans is as foolish as it is arrogant.

And for what it’s worth, the current short-term warming trend (since the 1970s) probably peaked about ten years ago. If we’re entering a Maunder Minimum the next several generations will not be a lot of fun. If we aren’t, then the apparent current “short-term” cooling should run for another 30 years or so, during which time the “returning glacier freakout” folks of the late ‘60s can have another spell in the spotlight.

And if true to form they’ll propose ... greater regulation, higher taxes, bigger government, and trans-national sovereignty.

March 28, 9:35 am | [comment link]
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