Much has been said on the moral obligations and ethical considerations relating to climate change impacts, economic and human impacts, vulnerability, aid, adaptation and mitigation, and so forth. Typically, ‘environmentalists’ (understood to mean those people who believe that a care of the natural environment is a primary moral duty) take the moral high ground, using the rhetoric of ‘responsibility’ and ‘duty of care’ as the expression of a value system which places humans as both participants in and guardians of the planet.
This can be seen to relate closely to the religious underpinning of many societies’ value systems. Not only the Christian tradition, in which we are seen as the ‘inheritors’ of Adam and Eve’s duty to God to maintain paradise, and are able to approach a state of grace through our care of ‘God’s first gift’ (life and nature itself), but also in traditions such as Shinto and Buddhism, where we are placed within nature as a participant and agent, with a moral status no greater than the other objects of nature around us.
The moral foundation of practical and economic attitudes is more closely associable with the broadly humanist tradition. The measure of value of an action or choice is based on an idea of ‘the sum of human happiness’ or similar notions. Here, moral discussions are founded on issues of which actions or choices contribute most or least to the sum of happiness in the present or in the future. A characteristic area of disagreement is between how to balance considerations of present ‘happiness’ against future ‘happiness’. Arguments tend to revolve around the relative moral value of protecting or compromising the sum of current happiness against protecting against the risk of a loss of happiness in the future. It could be argued that such values are visible in approaches to climate change such as Bjorn Lomborg’s ‘Copenhagen Consensus’, or possibly the Pielke Research Group’s ‘vulnerability paradigm’.
Public discussion of climate issues seem very often to revolve around criticisms of either scientific or political morality. Counter-responses to individual points often make use of assumptions about the moral status of scientists or policy makers, and readers are invited to recognise that certain individuals, as representatives of a particular ‘position’ on climate change, are either morally superior to their opponents or morally suspect as individuals. This takes the form of criticisms of what they do; claims of dishonesty or hypocrisy; accusations of acting as paid agents of one politically motivated faction or another (the ‘oil interests’, ‘global megacorporations’, ‘government lackeys’, etc.); charges of changing the facts to suit the ‘desired result’ out of self-interest; there are almost too many examples.
One consequence of this ‘moralising’ is that, irrespective of the original stance of the ‘speaker’, each assumes moral rectitude as his or her own opinion, and moral turpitude as a defining characteristic of those who dare to disagree. As a result, very little of the disagreement that can be read online, or reviewed by the news media, is actually rational. This has important implications for those who have the job of communicating to the public and the media about climate or policy, as representatives of science or government. If a substantial proportion of the audience’s reaction to any statement is ethically-founded, (in that it involves a value judgement of the communicated information, or ‘text’), then an appeal to reason is of limited use and likely to have a limited impact, except among those for whom rationality itself is valued.
What am I getting at, here? The effort to convince or alter perceptions or understanding based on an ‘appeal to reason’, which is, in essence, what all scientific texts are based on, will not, on its own, work. In order to establish in the mentality of the audience a doubt about his/her scepticism, or a justification of her/his concern, the appeal to the dominant underlying ethics of a society is more likely to produce an impact. If scientists want to get their point across, they have to address the fundamentally irrational nature of the perceptions and understanding of their audience, the general public, or the policy maker.