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Risk: Reason and Reality

The Heartland Institute and "Climate DenialGate"

      This space recently offered some thoughts about “The Ethics of Climate Change Denial”. The basic case was that denial which arises out of the innate subconscious urge we all have to adopt views that agree with our tribe, because of the importance of social cohesion, does not seem unethical. That sort of denial is a product of subconscious motivations, to a large measure beyond our free will. But the deniers who are consciously trying to sow doubt, and block action on what could be an existential threat to human life as we know it, not purely as a matter of ideology but to protect their profits and power and personal interests, clearly are behaving unethically, and we should be outraged.

     Now come documents leaked from the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank funded in part by many major corporations that have worked to spread doubt about and block action on climate change. Heartland also receives a lot of funding from the Koch Brothers, who control Koch Industries, a major oil company, and whose strident climate denial is certainly consistent with burning more fossil fuel, not less. Those documents spell out plans to establish public school curricula for the explicit purpose of undermining the teaching of climate change in schools. (There is a good summary of the fuss in this article in the NY Times, with links to the Institute’s plans, and even their funding documents.

     The Heartland Institute describes itself as libertarian. It have long denied climate change, and their leaked documents describe most principals and teachers as biased and alarmist. Their program would encourage schools to teach that “whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy.” Actually, there is overwhelming agreement among a vast majority of the world’s scientists about climate change. Some disagree, certainly, and science should continue to skeptically challenge any assumptions, in order that our knowledge becomes more reliable. (That’s what science does, of course.)  But then, people disagree with evolution, or whether vaccines cause autism, or whether the U.S. and Israel were behind the 9/11 attacks. That makes those issues controversial, but it does not also mean we can reject the evidence simply because some people don’t like it.

     The furor this has stirred is instructive on several levels. Heartland is furious at the leak and angrily threatening whoever is behind it. Which is undoubtedly drawing nasty snickers from the climate change camp, who see that as tit for tat with the “ClimateGate” fuss a couple years ago,when someone from the climate denial camp stole emails from climate researchers to discredit them (emails that certainly made some of those researchers sound frustrated and even petty but in the end discredited none of their science).

            But far more importantly, this effort by Heartland raises again the question of whether it is ethical to deny overwhelming evidence about a huge threat to all our health, when that denial clearly has deep motivations of self-interest, not just ‘honest’ ideology’. Can a society accept people who put themselves above the rest of us? What do we do when some people in the boat in which we are all traveling threatens to spring a leak, and a few passengers try to toss the rest of us overboard to keep themselves safe?  It’s hard to imagine a more clear cut case of UNethical behavior.

            It’s not a simple as this, of course. The deniers putting up big bucks to block action to mitigate and/or adapt to climate change, which is clearly the prudent thing to do given the stakes, are also ‘honestly’ ideologically motivated. It’s not just about personal gain, even for those who do in fact have a lot to gain personally by preventing the rest of us from protecting ourselves. Whether someone is the head of a coal company with mega profits on the line or just a working class conservative, ALL of our positions on issues arise in part out of a subconscious desire for social cohesion and safety. In other words, they are not purely a matter of free conscious will.

            But we are not absolute slaves to these instincts. We do have will. We can reason. We are all responsible to some degree for our choices and behavior, responsible not only to ourselves, but to each other. That’s the very idea of ethics, isn’t it?  It may take more cognitive effort to think critically and independently rather than just parrot our tribal leaders (like some Limbaugh-ian “Ditto Head”) but that simply can not excuse people knowingly and selfishly putting themselves and their self interests above others in their community and as a result putting the rest of us at risk. Whether the community is local or global, and whether the issue is climate change or jeopardizing the economy with ridiculous investments that make you rich, the principle is the same. It is fair to call unethical, and be enraged by, the conscious actions of those who would put the rest of us in serious danger in order to protect their safety and profits and power, and it is fair to believe there is some of that involved in climate denial          

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