Environmental Ethics and Climate Change Denialism in Neo-liberal Times

Upendra Baxi (baxiupendra@gmail.com) is an Emeritus Professor of Law at University of Warwick and Delhi.
31 March 2023

This article analyzes the problems with climate change denialism (CCD) and discusses the challenges of dealing with climate change in a post-truth world. 

Climate change denialism (CCD) is a response to global, regional, national, and local social change polices opposed to further progress on climate change amelioration (CCA). CCD is thriving well, despite some contrary reports that “naysaying climate action” may have declined over the past decade (WEC 2022). The holding of the Conference of Parties (COP)-27’ caused some climate activist to protest because Egypt has organised a violent state conduct that has led to a total erasure of the Arab Spring movements, thus raising questions about the knotty relation between human rights and CCA global change policies. These questions have multiplied manifold with the decision to have Sultan Al Jaber as the Chair of the next COP heading the country's state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). A global network of more than 450 climate justice organisations have written to the Secretary General stating that “there is no honour in appointing a fossil fuel executive who profits immensely off of fuelling the climate crisis to oversee the global response to climate change.”

Any consideration of ethics/eco-ethics must at the threshold confront the issue of the ethical judgment on the venues of global COP to Paris Framework Agreement, 2005. If one makes an argument that no such conference may be held at the venue where human rights are violated, we end up in a situation where no conference can be ever held since governance world over always manifests righticidal practices. Even if one were to move the focus to the “core” human rights (freedom, equality, and subsistence), considerable theoretical and policy disagreements on the occurrence of gross and fragrant violations of these human rights may occur. But one may say with some moral cogency that that no votary of CCD should ever be the Chair of such a conference even when the host state and some others (including government and industry actors) welcome this move.

What is climate change denialism?

 At the outset, one may consider the similarities and differences between denialism and conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories entail some “deregulation of cognitive markets,” swift “constitution of myth,” the “swarm effect,” and “viewing the world in a paranoid fashion” (Bronner 2015). Denialism in general and CCD in particular—its close conceptual cousins—follow suit. However, unlike most conspiracy theories, denialism is a coat of many colours; it may comprise, for example, denial of historical events, epistocracy, (most simply put, rule by experts), governments and processes of governance, certain processes of society, and self-making (Kahn-Harris 2018a, 2018b). It expresses itself in various ways from simple denial to complex forms of distrust. Not all denials are based on distrust and vice versa. For example, denial/distrust may be sometimes welcomed as democracy-reinforcing and democracy-destructive (Ely 1981). Further, CCD on social media is one form; there are others such as corporate and governance and even state/governance denialism. Not much of “hard” science and technology seems to be involved in the forms of corporate or state denialism of civil and political rights compared with social, economic, cultural rights, though many forms of denialism entail recourse to what is called “alternative science.” 

The difference between conspiratorial theories and denialism will also lie in the types of denialism. One of my favourites and an important work on denialism is Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial (2001) where he studied at least three forms of human rights denialism: “literal, interpretive and implicatory denial.” In the first form “the fact or knowledge of the fact is denied;” in the second “the raw facts (something happened) are not being denied” but “they are given a different meaning from what seems apparent to others”; and the third form where “there is no attempt to deny either the facts or their conventional interpretation” but stand “denied” or “minimized are the psychological, political or moral implications that conventionally follow” (Cohen 2001: 7-8). Cohen’s insights remain critically relevant also to the new assaults on CCA now. This is important more so because of the need to relate much discourse on CAD to violations of core human rights by governmental and corporate denial cultures.

Climate Change Denialism and Ethical Concerns

Focusing on CCD raises some additional ethical questions. CAD (Climate Action Data) involves mainly science change denialism (SCD), which is indeed sad as it holds back urgent law, policy, administration, and social action. SCD is scarcely new, as we know from instances such as President Theo Mbeki’s (1999-2008) actions as he denied the linkages between HIV and AIDS and was reluctant to implement the national treatment programmes, resulting in the deaths of 3,30,000 people. To take another and possibly less calamitous illustrative domain, the resistance to vaccines from polio to COVID-19 on religious or health grounds have caused much preventable human pain and suffering (cf.  Levine 2018). Does any human rights accountability (and if so on what standards and levels of just compensation) attach to those who suffer (and perish) lethal sovereignty of the state and corporations? How are we to make accountable the challenges to the findings of earth scientists and others that anthropogenic global warming ever occurs and poses an imminent threat of planetary extinction of all species, including humans? In contrast to CAD, it was found in 944 peer-reviewed abstracts on climate from 1991–2011 matching the topics “global climate change” or “global warming” that only 0.3% were uncertain about its causes. Approximately, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. The study concluded that “the number of papers rejecting the consensus” on global warming is “a vanishingly small proportion of the published research” (Cook et al. 2013).

Likewise, in the Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognised upfront that “it is not possible to make deterministic, definitive predictions; climate will evolve over the next century and beyond as it is with short term weather forecasts” nor it is to make projections of the frequency of occurrence of all possible outcomes ….” Projections of climate change are “uncertain” because first they are “dependent primarily on scenarios of future anthropogenic and natural forcings that are uncertain the climate system” and second because of the “existence of internal climate variability. The term climate projection tacitly implies these uncertainties and dependencies.” This acknowledgment is “good-faith skepticism—that is, skepticism that attempts to hold science to the highest possible standard through independent scrutiny and questioning of every minute detail—is not only a good thing in science but, in fact, essential” as its “lubricant” (Mann and Toles 2016: 1). But these “uncertainties and dependencies do not deter the conclusion that: s ‘greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations’ continue to rise, we expect to see future changes to the climate system that are greater than those already observed and attributed to human activities” (Knutti et al  2013: 1034).

CAD takes a different form when it occurs on the social media. The recent COP-27 was greeted by thousands of CCD social media messages reaching hundreds of thousands of people, which variously maintained that (1) a “grand solar minimum” will lead to a natural fall in temperatures without any global agreement; (2) CCA technology is inherently unsafe; and (3) it would “increase mass” impoverishment (Schraer and Devlin 2021). John Cook invented the CCD acronym as specifically comprising the FLICC, for “fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry-picking,” and created a detailed taxonomy (2020). But overall CCD is a mélange of opinions, expectations, and attitudes that occasionally influence public choices and even become regime policies. Thus, is variously insinuated a different narrative is thus making more complex and complicated ethical ambiguity (or ‘Ecoambiguity’ to adapt somewhat Karen Thornber’s key concept, 2012).

There is much to be learnt from Sean B Carrol, a distinguished professor of biology at the University of Maryland and a science educationist (2020), who has discussed “the six principal plays in the denialist playbook” as: “doubt the science, question scientists’ motives and integrity, magnify disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies as authorities exaggerate potential harm, appeal to personal freedom, and reject whatever would repudiate a key philosophy.”

The ambiguity arises at the level, of what I call here, beliefs, opinions, attitudes, judgements complex (BOAJC). I will not enter here the questions of what comes first or how one changes into other, but say merely that once can arrange these forms in terms of temporality: an opinion may change quickly (some even say like quicksilver!)..  But as the sociologist, diplomat, and American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: “you are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” Obviously, scientists (and technologists) have their opinions, but their research comprises studying facts and they must revisit their opinion in view (what Sir Karl Popper described ) of the principle of “falsifiability” of their hypothesis.

Beliefs, Opinions, Attitudes, Judgements Complex (BOAJC) and Scientific Facts

The individuals are entitled, as a matter of democratic right, to express their BOAJC as they prefer. And at that level, the fact that CCD stories are not at all scientifically credible does not matter to the sender/recipient of the message; it is the BOAJC truth of the stories that matters. A belief need not be verifiable (for example, the belief in God) but that does not make it necessarily untrue for a believer. However, this does not address group, social, political, and institutional levels particularly when there is a clash of beliefs, just as it exists between CCA believers and deniers.  

We can here do no more than flag the issue of when is normative coercion (by law) justified to forge or enforce such beliefs? Is it ethical to justify de-minoratisation of BOAJC? Is the Indian Constitution morally wrong when it put the right to conscience (a BOPJC web) first and the right to “essential” religious practices of religion second (Article 25)? Is democracy (ways of just social cooperation among diverse BOAJCs) more to be preferred than democratorship (a term recently coined to suggest popularly elected rulership or authoritarian legality ethically superior)? Hochmann (2019) illuminatingly dwells on the difficulties involved in regimes that have features of both democracy and dictatorship and asks whether terms like “demi-democracy, demi-authoritarianism, illiberal or defective democracy and electoral or competitive authoritarianism” all mean the same thing or are they, in fact, different? “A large number of humans everywhere seem now/entitled to their own facts… they can select or reject ideas, facts or histories to match their own goals because meaning has become transactional” (Solnit 2022).

May be beliefs are more powerful than reasoned judgements; but moral pragmatism rightly counsels us to avoid any kind of ethical “absolutism” because “moral psychology and cognitive science” disclose that often enough our moral judgements are in fact based on demonstrable errors and problems often of “contamination,” and accordingly, “we should make moral judgements sparingly” because “we are no good at it” (Sauer 2021: 137-151.

But “sparingly” does not mean that one does not make any effort to verify the truth of one’s beliefs or of BOAJC. We surely know about conspiracy theorising and are quick to say that in the absence of verifiable data it is unsupported. Denialism is often a species of conspirationalism in which we are asked to believe that climate change and global warming is not happening at all because some people assert this as their belief. As Jeremiah Bohr, studying the structure and culture of CCD, says: “the organizers of climate change denial repeatedly prove their ability to strategically adapt to their political environment, seamlessly shifting between narratives of ‘climate change is not happening’, ‘climate change is happening but humans are not driving it,’ and ‘climate change is happening but it is nothing to worry about” (Bohr 2001).  A similar narrative Merchants of Doubt brings to us examples of networks of dissenting (and often heretic) scientists who promoted uncertainty around climate science and other environmental and public health issues (Oreskes and Conway 2010). All this is distressingly familiar to those who have studied similar denialist practices in situations of multinational industrial mass disasters like the Bhopal and Agent Orange catastrophes, tobacco (corporate propaganda denying cariogenic impacts on consumers), or water and air or asbestos pollution.

It is said, for example, by Mark Keenan, a former scientist at the United Kingdom Government Department of Energy and Climate Change and formerly of the United Nations (UN) Environmental Division, that “powerful special interests have tried to convince the world that Co2 is a climate changing toxin but  the UN climate change narrative, that Co2 causes climate change, will be remembered as the greatest mass delusion in the history of the world” (Keenan 2022). He speaks about the “current globalized system” that “involves the promotion of beliefs and fake science that claim to be unchallengeable truths, but are, in fact, ideologies in which evidence is manipulated, twisted, and distorted to prove the ‘governing idea,’ and thus promote its worldwide dissemination.”  Further, human-made climate change due to anthropogenic carbon emission is a major example of this. In the world of 2022, objective truth has been replaced to a very large extent by an ideology with the “bogus mantra”— “my opinion is as valid as your opinion”—causing “a consequent vacuum of no objective truth, ideological power then is what has been dictating reality.”

CAD has seeped into public consciousness too because of the denial assault. One such conversation is about a “grand solar minimum,” which will lead to a natural fall in temperatures without human intervention. True, this is a real phenomenon when the sun gives off less energy as part of its natural cycle; and especially a reduction of the average terrestrial temperature will occur in the decade 2031–43. Of course, this period may have major differential planetary implications entailing many a special inter-government planning effort. But all this may not belie the fact of global warming of about 1.2C over the past 200 years  that will continue to escalate to an estimated  2.4C  fin de siècle. Nor is the claim true that global warming is “good” because it will make parts of the earth more habitable, and we know that cold kills more people than heat. This cherry-picking does not sit well with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other similar findings, to health [and] livelihoods,’ regardless of global cooling in some parts of the world.

CCD cannot be justified as any strategy of ethically valid corporate or governmental denialism just because the BOJAC differs. The critique of scientific methods, even that much debated notion of “epistocracy,” must continue and an unquestioning reliance on the epistemic expertise of ecocrats or environmental epistocrats is here not urged (see, on the notion of ‘epistocracy,’ Estlund 2008; Gaus 2021; Kasper Lippert Rasmussen 2012). One may legitimately seek to understand differences but that does not mean accepting these, as demonstrated by the situations of genocide, ecocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression, cross-border terrorism, or the so-called insurrection at the United States Congress. Neither the State or multinational corporation and other state-transcendent entity may knowingly urge or perform a moral or human right to cause preventable harm to others, and doing this is never justified by a mere belief in belief.

Upendra Baxi (baxiupendra@gmail.com) is an Emeritus Professor of Law at University of Warwick and Delhi.
31 March 2023