The Calculus of Climate Change morality

A couple of days ago Jo Nova highlighted another example of an environmentalist, Jonathan Moylan, who thought that to save the planet they were morally justified in committing criminal acts. My posting is on one journalist’s opinion that Moylan should be applauded, not prosecuted.

Katherine Wilson in the Age opinion says

Moylan’s hoax asks us to consider a broader category of victims: the world’s citizens and environments who are facing the real consequence of big polluters such as coal companies.

When asked by the Newcastle Herald whether his actions were justified, Moylan said

 My intention was to get ANZ Bank to expose themselves as the backers of the Maules Creek project. Some media organisations have used the word ”justify” – this is not my word. My prime concern is the local community, which has been feeling very despondent – the forest, our health and our water.

That is Moylan does not think he is saving the planet from catastrophic climate change. Or at least he claiming not to do have done so after the event. Let us, however, assume that Katherine Wilson is correct in assuming Moylan’s actions were more to do global climate change than local environmental issues.

The moral case is that the harms caused in the necessary publicizing of an issue are insignificant compared to beside larger damage occurring. It we were able to go back in a time machine to April 20th 1889, and strangle the newly born son of Klara and Alois Hitler, would we be justified in doing so. One death could have saved the life of millions, as without a charismatic leader the extremist nationalist elements in Weimar Germany would never have come to the fore. But what if the communists had come to power in Germany instead? They were certainly the main opposition that the Nazis staged street battles with in the 1920s. Suppose that they joined with the Soviets to invade Poland and then the rest of Europe? With the many millions of people that died in the Gulags, along with the tens of millions that had died in the collectivisation of agriculture, could the death of an infant conceivably have caused even greater misery?

I use this example, not to ponder nor the morality of killing infants (or later killing the Adolf Hitler once he became the charismatic leader of the Nazi party). It is to consider whether, for climate change, such a calculus of causing a small harm will lead to the prevention of a larger harm. With respect to climate change, this depends on three factors. First, the likely harm from future unimpeded climate change will have catastrophic consequences. Second, the likely harm of the action to highlight awareness of the issue is trivial compared to the impending climate catastrophe. Third, that will be significant success in getting the issue recognised.

If climate change is vastly exaggerated then there is a risk that Moylan is campaigning for policies that are not justified. The treatment is more harmful than the ailment. If the harm caused by the action is vastly greater than anticipated, or the full extent is not recognised post the event (“you’ve got to crack a few eggs to make an omelette” mentality), then there is an element of recklessness. If there are already policies in place to optimally tackle the issue, and the media is already on the side of the consensus opinion, then aggressive action to further highlight the cause is that is already more than fully recognised is positively harmful to society. It could lead to policies not justified by the scientific evidence, however construed.

Consider the following from Katherine Wilson’s argument.

At the parliamentary level, Greens senator Christine Milne has applauded his actions as being ”part of a long and proud history of civil disobedience, potentially breaking the law, to highlight something wrong”.

Read more: 
http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-hoax-we-had-to-have-20130110-2cix8.html#ixzz2HrZL2qbJ

Like the Nazis smashing up the shops of Jews, or beating up communists to highlight that their great nation is being over-run? Most people will now accept that the racist laws that existed in America’s Deep South in the 1950s, or the denial of universal suffrage for all adults in Britain prior to 1918 were immoral, and therefore at least some of the protests were justified. But most sane people will accept that the cause of the Nazis was evil, so any sort of illegal actions to promote their ideas is wrong. Wilson and Milne are assuming they stand on the moral high ground. Whilst not considering them as bad as the Nazis, I do believe them morally to be nearer to that position than of Martin Luther King, or Emmeline Pankhurst, as the points below will demonstrate.

For those citizens who have not given up on the conviction that taking action is ”the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation”, there is little choice but to pull off hoaxes of this kind.

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-hoax-we-had-to-have-20130110-2cix8.html#ixzz2HrZbJTY9

Again, others may disagree. Al Qaeda sees the greatest challenge as spreading Islam. For millions in Southern Europe finding a job, or being paid for their work, is far more important. Dr Indur Goklany. looking at the consensus projections of climate impacts thinks that in the next few decades there are far more important issues facing humanity.

Moylan’s hoax asks us to consider a broader category of victims: the world’s citizens and environments who are facing the real consequence of big polluters such as coal companies.

Read more: 
http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-hoax-we-had-to-have-20130110-2cix8.html#ixzz2HreCE8d7

For more than two billion people in Asia, any environmental problems of rapid development may seem trivial to the huge benefits of being able to eat better, or having access to ever-increasing levels of healthcare and education.

For all the ”free market of ideas” posturing, the media and finance marketplace that Moylan sought to disrupt is not some equal playing field operating under rules of fair play. As countless journalism academics have documented, news agendas are set by public servants, PR agents, politicians and business leaders.

Read more: 
http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-hoax-we-had-to-have-20130110-2cix8.html#ixzz2HrZwtWaP

It would be nice to know where Moylan’s views are under-represented. I know that I live on the other side of the planet here so I may have the wrong perspective. Did the Gillard Government enact a carbon tax last July to look tackle the problem of climate change? Was this policy one of the most stringent in the world? Does the “Age” publish the opinions environmentalists? Does the “Age” give fair coverage of both sides, or does it give voice to those deliberately misrepresent the sceptic position? Does the major TV network give impartial coverage, deliberately misrepresent one side? For example, when Jo Nova was interviewed for a “debate” on climate.

This is why Moylan orchestrated his hoax at a time when the Australian Securities Exchange is operating at a fraction of normal levels.

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-hoax-we-had-to-have-20130110-2cix8.html#ixzz2Hra4WJ6L

Wilson is implying that Moylan planned the attacked to minimize the potential damage. But Jonathan Moylan has said

“.. it has had a much bigger impact than I expected.”

It looks like Katherine Wilson is trying to make Moylan out as somebody who understood the cost-benefit calculus of minimal damage for maximum effect, whereas Moylan is claiming the opposite.

True, his action may have affected the sort of ”ordinary” people who have blind faith that finance markets are based on trust and immutable laws. But are the people who gamble their spare funds in coal industry investments really the victims here?

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-hoax-we-had-to-have-20130110-2cix8.html#ixzz2Hre6ea2i

Wilson in effect condemns Moylan. Finance markets are based on trust. If the hoax has consequences for undermining peoples trust in making contracts, then the consequential costs are far greater than the short-term losses. She would have to show that she has in place an alternative system where trust is not important. I can think of some, but these are inferior to a market-based system, both morally (based on rule by fear) and economically. Wilson then makes an assumption about the investors. It might be people’s pensions that are at stake here. It might be from people who do not share environmentalist’s morality, or who simply think that the Labor Government is doing sufficient from the carbon tax.

To charge Moylan on the basis of fraud would also be disingenuous. As Fairfax journalist Eric Johnston reported on Tuesday, the ASX is subject to frequent hoaxes. How many rogue traders have used false takeover bids or issued statements to profit illegally from movements in the market? How many finance journalists and PR agents were complicit in deceiving finance markets in the lead-up to the global financial crisis?

Read more: 
http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/the-hoax-we-had-to-have-20130110-2cix8.html#ixzz2HrerI3p2

My reading of the law is that Moylan should be charged just the same as those who hoax for personal gain, or simply to cause damage for non-ideological reasons. The motives should be taken into account in deciding the severity of the charge, and if found guilty, the severity of the punishment. It could be argued that his hoax should be treated far more seriously than a fraud for personal gain, as it could viewed as an act of economic sabotage. In fact Wilson in effect condemns him For instance, burning down an empty building to instil fear should be viewed far more seriously than an arsonist who has a fixation with seeing buildings burn. In the first case, it undermines the rule of law, along with the other causes

In summary, none of the three conditions to say that there is a moral benefit in breaking the law are met. First. the climate change issue is likely to be grossly exaggerated. Second. the hoax may have had huge harm. Third, climate change policies have already been enacted and the media presence is considerable. For a journalist to claim otherwise is the sign of a blinkered extremist.

Kevin Marshall

My opinions are my own. If they are in error, then I will consider reasoned replies. If anyone would like a right of reply, I would be happy to publish it, so that people can compare the arguments. I reserve the right to publish a counter argument. If you wish to contact me, please do so through the comments. I will not publish any approach for debate, but reserve the right to publish any approach that uses threats to shut-off my counter-arguments, despite due warning.

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1 Comment

  1. In summary, none of the three conditions to say that there is a moral benefit in breaking the law are met. First. the climate change issue is likely to be grossly exaggerated. Second. the hoax may have had huge harm. Third, climate change policies have already been enacted and the media presence is considerable. For a journalist to claim otherwise is the sign of a blinkered extremist.

    Reply

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