To begin with, I take it that part of Dr. Stauder's point is that we should be careful before easily accepting anyone's claims regarding the state of the environment. Of course. Central to any academic discipline familiar to me - from the methodologies of the natural and social sciences to the various examinations of knowledge claims in philosophy, philosophy of science, and philosophy of religion - is the rational demand that claims be tested and weighed in light of the best available evidence and argument. This attitude is sometimes called skepticism, after the ancient Greek skeptics who first compiled some of the most serious objections to prevailing knowledge claims in the domains of traditional religion, "common sense," and philosophy itself.
Clearly, the evidence for global warming is complex and to some degree controversial. While there is considerable evidence for global warming as an observable fact concerning our environment, and while my view is that the evidence for global warming overrides the objections of the skeptics — I agree with the general point that we need to be careful about accepting important claims at face value.
So far, so good. But where I may part company from Dr. Stauder — or, perhaps more importantly, from some students who drew certain conclusions from Dr. Stauder's talk here last spring - is first of all in terms of what this epistemological observation - i.e., that there are varying degrees of uncertainty regarding important claims about the environment - further means?
They want us to believe, in particular, that this uncertainty derives from hidden agendas and suspect ideologies. If the scientists disagree regarding the facts - then some of the scientists must be letting their personal beliefs and/or personal financial interest bias their collection and interpretation of data. [This is the charge raised, for example, by Richard S. Lindzen, "Global Warming: the Origin and Nature of Alleged Scientific Consensus," Environmental Gore: a Constructive Response to Earth in the Balance, John Baden, ed., 123-136, (San Francisco, CA: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1994), p. 132-134.]
Continuing with our critical thinking exercise,
a) we should always keep in mind that virtually all words and phrases are ambiguous - they have more than a single meaning, and
b) self-interest and personal bias, as affecting one's conclusions, are not the exclusive possession of the environmentalists. On the contrary, it is easy to show that the "conservative" argument rests not a little on such self-interest and personal bias.
Example: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the United Nations and the World Meterological Organisation in 1988, issued a report in 1995 assessing the scientific and technical information regarding climate change. Some 2,500 scientists from over 60 countries reviewed more than 20,000 papers in scientific journals to develop, through a peer-reviewed process, the most comprehensive summary of our best current understanding on climate change. (The reports are available in print and on the Internet.)
In summary, the IPCC finds:
greenhouse gas concentrations (long-lived) have continued to increaseThe IPCC report also notes both
anthropogenic aerosols (short-lived) tend to produce negative radiative forcings (i.e., "cooling")
climate has changed over the past century - generally, in the direction of warming
the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate
climate will continue to change in the future, specifically:
- 2°C increase by 2100 over 1990 temperatures (mid-range, best estimate)
- sea level rise of ca. 50 cm by 2100
- more vigorous hydrological cycle (redistribution of drought/flood, "more extreme rainfall events")
- shifts in species balances, including "forest migrations" (of ca. 150-550 km poleward, with possible increase in carbon released into the atmosphere)
(a) "an increasing realism" in the computer simulations, which increases condience in their use, while at the same timeWhere do these uncertainties derive from? The document states:
(b) "there are still many uncertainties"
Many factors currently limit our ability to project and detect future climate change. In particular, to reduce uncertainties further work is needed on the following priority topics:
° estimation of future emissions and biogeochemical cycling (including sources and sinks) of greenhouse gases, aerosols and aerosol precursors and projections of future concentrations and radiative properties.
° representation of climate processes in models, especially feedbacks associated with clouds, oceans, sea ice and vegetation, in order to improve projections of rates and regional patterns of climate change.
° systematic collection of long-term instrumental and proxy observations of climate system variables (e.g., solar output, atmospheric energy balance components, hydrological cycles, ocean characteristics and ecosystem changes) for the purposes of model testing, assessment of temporal and regional variability and for detection and attribution studies.
Future unexpected, large and rapid climate system changes (as have occurred in the past) are, by their nature difficult to predict. This implies that future climate changes may also involve "surprises". In particular these arise from the non-linear nature of the climate system. When rapidly forced, non-linear systems are especially subject to unexpected behaviour. Progress can be made by investigating non-linear processes and sub-components of the climatic system. Examples of such non-linear behaviour include rapid circulation changes in the North Atlantic and feedbacks associated with terrestrial ecosystem changes. [emphases added - C.E.]As will be especially important for our discussion of how we morally respond to uncertain knowledge about important issues - please notice that "uncertainty" here is
1) partially a matter of current limits on knowledge necessary for more complete understanding - limits that, in principle, can be overcome as more data is collected, systems better understood, etc., andThis latter sort of intrinsic uncertainty is different from the uncertainty presumed in the "conservative" argument.
2) partly intrinsic to the nature of the entity under study - i.e., the non-linear, dynamic system of climate (sometimes understood as "chaotic" in a specificable, technical sense). This sort of uncertainty cannot, in principle, be overcome with more data.
That is, one can plausibly argue that the IPCC findings are "uncertain" in the first sense, and draw the conclusion that "more study needs to be done; in the meantime, we need do nothing to change our behaviors."
But if the IPCC findings are "uncertain" in the second sense - then much different conclusions may follow, as we will see. And to confuse the two different senses in an argument is to commit the fallacy of equivocation.
The Western Fuels Association, among others. Their response includes the following attack on the professional environmental community as being like
...the ancient Druids. Environmentalists, like their druidic predecessors, hold a world view based on mysticism and are confident they are right, no matter the facts.Ad hominem again! Beyond that, would we have reason to suspect that the Western Fuels Association - along with any other business that makes its money from the sales and consumption of fossil fuels - will have an important economic stake in UN recommendations regarding the reduction of fossil fuel consumption? Of course.
My point here is that economic self-interest and other forms of ideological self-deception operate not only for the environmental activists. Rather, this is a commonly shared problem - everybody can probably use with a dose more critical thinking!
Global Warming III: what moral conclusions may be drawn from uncertain information?