Contrary to the conclusions drawn by the "conservative" argument uncertainty regarding environmental claims does not necessarily mean that we can simply ignore claims regarding global warming altogether. [And it certainly does not mean that we can simply dismiss concerns about global warming as something of issue only for "environmental wackos."]
In particular, the dynamic, nonlinear character of the global environment means that our knowledge about the environment will in principle include a considerable degree of uncertainty.
what does uncertainty about environmental claims mean - especially in moral and political terms?
In light of these claims - especially taking into account their uncertainty - what are my moral obligations to both self and others, if any?
It is one thing to notice that our state of knowledge about important issues is less than perfect - and then to say, "Aha! We are under no obligation to change our individual and collective behavior, because currently we just do not know enough and with enough certainty to decide whether or not our current way of doing business is really damaging the environment or not." I don't know that Dr. Stauder intends his audience to take such a response away from his lecture - but I know from student reports on his lecture that they made such a response.
But of course, it is one thing to notice that our state of knowledge about important issues is less than perfect - an epistemological observation- and another thing to draw moral and political consequences from epistemological uncertainty.
I have two observations to make here.
One, the condition of uncertain and incomplete information is not unique to environmental issues. On the contrary, it is difficult for me to recall an important moral or political decision which has enjoyed the advantage of complete and certain information about all the relevant "facts," (where "facts" exist at all). Rather, one of the characteristics of moral decision-making is precisely the uncertainty and incompleteness of information that surrounds them.
As an example, consider the contentious issue of abortion. Some years ago, my wife and I had reason to believe that she had become pregnant with what would be our third child. While I had been teaching ethics in general and about the abortion issue in general for several years, there is nothing quite so profound as facing the issue and the decision first-hand.
Part of the difficulty of our decision was precisely our incomplete and uncertain knowledge about so many of the pertinent concerns. What would the consequences of having the child be - especially since we already had two? We had made a commitment to raise our children with a full-time mother - i.e., one income, and the one income of an assistant professor of philosophy in a struggling college in the Northwest was barely sufficient for the needs of our family as it was. But perhaps our income would go up. Perhaps our parents would help out. Perhaps I'd win the lottery... Perhaps I would lose my job (a real possibility) and we'd find ourselves with three children and very limited resources.
Were we sure that abortion would be an option? As practicing Christians, we attempt to lead our lives in part by reference to Christian teaching. But Christian teaching - like Jewish teaching - is divided. For some Christian traditions, life does not begin until the fetus is ensouled - or, in some traditions, until the child is actually born. For others, of course, the child is a full-fledged human being at the moment of conception. How could we know with certainty which of these views is the right one?
For anyone who has faced a real moral dilemma, it becomes obvious that despite the lack of perfect information, we must nonetheless act. However desireable it would be to wait until more complete and more certain information were available - most often we do not have the luxury of waiting. If we are to act, and act responsibly, then we make the best judgments we can and act accordingly, even if subsequent information and experience may suggest that we did not necessary make the best decision. This is the sort of situation we find ourselves in all the time, especially when faced with difficult moral choices.
Two, if it's true that most of our moral and political decisions are made in the context of incomplete and uncertain information - then what moral and political consequences can we draw from such information?
Such uncertainty, of course, can cut both ways. "Conservatives" - i.e., those who want to preserve the status quo regarding current property laws, business practices, etc. - will want to say, that the incompleteness and uncertainty of information regarding the environment means that we don't have to worry; we can simply continue happily along until more certain and more complete information comes along.
I would suggest, on analogy with the abortion decision, that this is actually a liberal view. When faced with the abortion questions, a liberal response to the uncertainty and incompleteness of information is to say "we can't know with certainty that abortion means killing a child - so let's just let people do as they choose until better information comes along."
By contrast, a conservative argument would be "we can't know with certainty that abortion means killing a child: given the possibly irreplaceable value of the entity we're proposing to destroy [namely, the fetus we have conceived together] - let's not take chances on killing what might turn out to be a full-fledged human being."
I can tell you from first-hand experience that when actually faced with a real dilemma such as abortion - what I'm calling the conservative response becomes compelling.
But of course, in the environmental debate, the analogous, genuinely conservative response would be: "in the face of uncertain and incomplete information - and given the irreplaceable value of the entity we're talking about [namely, the environment of the planet] - perhaps we'd better not take unnecessary chances on killing what might turn out to be the environmental quality we (and all other living species) need to live and thrive."
At this point, I'm not immediately arguing for either "conservative" or "liberal" conclusions: my point is rather that the fact that knowledge claims may be incomplete and uncertain, as they certainly (!) are regarding environmental and other important moral and political choices, does not immediately force us to conclude logically either that "nothing need be done" or "everything must be done" to save the environment from the destructive consequences of human impacts. Rather, my initial point is that epistemological uncertainty regarding important claims may arguably lead to either moral position of environmental conservativism or environmental liberalism.
But this means: these are moral positions, and our consideration of them must include more moral argument.
Next Topic: U.S. Forests
Possible tangent: positivism in American culture and its role in forming our expectations regarding how certain knowledge must be before we can act.