MOEN: Is climate action ethical?

Neil Degrasse Tyson has implicitly made a number of extraordinary claims and fallacious leaps in logic

Tim Moen Montreal QC

Neil Degrasse Tyson once tweeted, “If I and my advisors had never learned what Science is or how & why it works, then I’d consider pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord too.”

I want you to consider what he is saying here because he is not simply saying that science is telling us that man is changing earth's climate. He is declaring that science says this change is going to be catastrophic.

He is saying that science is telling us that this catastrophe we face is best solved by dramatically restricting and controlling the very energy that individuals use to protect themselves from an adverse climate.

That science says we ought to use state violence against people who don’t obey these dictates and that growing government and redistributing wealth is the scientific way to combat catastrophe.

Neil Degrasse Tyson has implicitly made a number of extraordinary claims and fallacious leaps in logic. This is the same fallaciousness many climate alarmists engage in. Barack Obama is guilty of this fallaciousness.

He once tweeted out, “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: #climate change is real, man-made and dangerous.”

Obama was referring to the famous study that found that 97% of scientists agree that global warming is mostly driven by human activity. Let's set aside the skeptical position that only 1.6% of the papers reviewed explicitly endorse this conclusion and assume that Cook et al aren’t exaggerating when they say that 97% of scientists agree that humans are the main cause.

What the study does NOT say is what Barack Obama and John Kerry and almost every other climate alarmist claim it says --that global warming is dangerous.

I’m not going to let conservatives off the hook here either. My sense is that many conservatives fall prey to the same fallacious thinking that progressives do.

I suspect that many conservatives dispute the idea of climate change because change is catastrophic and catastrophe requires government force.

Elder conservative statesman Preston Manning has acknowledged that humans are changing the climate and since change is catastrophic to his conservative mind and must be opposed by government force he promotes a carbon tax.

Andrew Scheer has made noises that while he doesn’t support a carbon tax he will lower carbon emissions some other way (yet to be articulated) and will keep us in the Paris Climate Accord.

There is a prevalent assumption on both the left and the right that if the climate is changing we need government force.

I want to challenge readers to think about this assumption critically because government force is not something to be trifled with not only because it usually invades the rights of the individual, but because it tends to come with an abundance of negative unintended consequences.

Before threatening people with force it is worth thinking about whether that force is ethical and whether it will even achieve your goal.

If we’re going to have a discussion about the ethics of climate action we need to ensure we have the same underlying values. I’ve noticed two competing sets of values or principles when it comes to this subject:

  1. Our highest value ought to be minimizing human impact.
  2. Our highest value ought to be maximizing human life.

If you think our highest value is to minimize human impact then we are enemies. The natural consequence of this value is that humans have to go; we are a blight on this planet and have no place in nature.

We can’t cut down that tree to make a house. I value my kids and my fellow humans more than I value any other part of nature. If you tell me their lives or well being need to be sacrificed so that some trees can flourish, then we can’t have a conversation.

On the other hand, if you agree with me that our highest value ought to be the maximization of human life then we can have a conversation.

It may well be that our current trajectory harms humans over the medium to long term and then we can talk about what to do.

We can talk about interacting with nature in a way that promotes human flourishing. We can talk about what sacrifices need to be made so that our children and grandchildren can flourish.

So how would we even know if climate change was dangerous or whether it is good? What would we measure?

If you agree with me that human life is our highest value then we want to look at human activity as it pertains to human life.

The environment is important as it sustains humans and supports our life and flourishing it is not a value in and of itself.

When we eventually colonize Mars our goal isn’t going to be climate stasis or minimally impacting the Martian environment it will be to transform the environment and interact with it in a way that supports human life.

So if we want to determine whether human activity is dangerous we need to look at metrics of human flourishing.

Over the past 90 years while CO2 emissions have escalated we have seen climate related mortality drop by 98%. This is because Earths climate is full of unpredictable extremes; drought, flooding, heat waves, cold snaps, hurricanes, weather extremes.

To protect against an adverse climate humans need a civilization powered by energy and thanks to fossil fuels we now have abundant energy.

At the same time climate deaths have plummeted, we have seen dramatically improved food production, distribution and access worldwide.

We’ve seen dramatic improvements in sanitation, clean drinking water, medicine, poverty, morbidity and mortality rates.

As our physiological needs have dramatically improved the need for violent conflict and struggle has diminished and we have seen liberal democracy spread worldwide.

So if you are a catastrophist, you shouldn’t just speculate about the adverse affects that global warming, less alkaline oceans, rising sea levels, and melting ice caps might have on your fellow humans.

You should also consider the adverse effects limiting use of fossil fuels will have on your fellow humans.

You should consider the catastrophe that would happen if fossil fuel use was cut by 45% over the next 12 years and completely eliminated by 2050 (IPCC goals).

If this were to happen right now we would kill millions if not far more. Surely that would be catastrophic even if we conserved some glaciers.

It makes one wonder about the motivation and underlying values of catastrophists that we never hear concern for the human environment, it is almost always the environment for polar bears or coral that seem to be top of mind.

We never hear about the 3.8 million people every year that die prematurely from exposure to cooking smoke. Isn’t this catastrophic?

Shouldn’t liberating these people from death be an urgent goal of catastrophists? Improving the environment of these people is suspiciously not on the agenda.

Also not on the agenda is looking at the unseen costs of climate action. The National Climate Assessment speculates that the worst-case economic cost of climate change will be 10% of US GDP by 2100, assuming climate models are accurate, assuming the unlikely event of the worst case climate scenario, and assuming no technological innovation (pretty big assumptions).

Noticeably absent is any mention of the cost of climate action. What cost would a dramatic restriction on CO2 have on GDP? We only hear crickets.

What would raising the cost of everything that relies on energy have do to the economy? Crickets.

What affect would these costs have on people living on the margins? Crickets.

Climate action will cause the catastrophe that climate alarmists could only wish climate change would cause.

One can’t help but wonder if maybe that’s the point. Nah, you’d have to be anti-human.

It should also give us pause to consider that almost all the political action around climate change is aimed at averting change.

If we were colonizers on another planet and our goal was to terraform it to make it maximally suitable to sustain human life surely we wouldn’t be satisfied with a planet as cold as Earth.

Wouldn’t we want to keep warming the atmosphere to increase the amount of arable land available and increase green foliage?

How would a global ruler know whether to tax and restrict CO2 emissions or subsidize and promote CO2 emissions? This is the wrong question to ask.

Embedded in the question is the assumption that we need centralized control of the climate. Humans have mostly progressed due to the recognition and protection of the individual as the sacrosanct unit of civilization.

Are we now expected to believe that for the first time in history only a giant centralized government program will save us?

Is it more likely that a bunch of government bureaucrats and politicians will save us from the eventual death of our Sun or a market full of Elon Musks?

So far this conversation has been about measuring the consequences of climate action versus the consequences of a changing climate.

It seems pretty clear to me that the consequences of climate action will be catastrophic to human life.

It is not clear to me at all that the consequences of climate change will be catastrophic to human life, it may well be that on the whole a warming Earth benefits humanity.

I don’t know and I doubt anybody else does either. We just don’t know enough to predict all the future harms and benefits.

But what if measuring consequences on a global scale is the wrong conversation to have?

Clearly climate change will adversely affect some people even if we were to say that on the whole climate change might be favorable for humanity and liberalization of fossil fuels and markets is dramatically improving the lives of humanity.

If you agree with me that recognition and protection of the individual has been the primary driver of human flourishing then we wouldn’t undermine individuals to benefit the mob. This is why we have property rights.

All of the solutions to mitigating the harm of climate change are focused on global collective consequences and none recognize the individual.

We wouldn’t say that if my pollution has adversely affected a nameable individual then I ought to pay a tax to government.

This does nothing to protect the individual, but rather sets up a system of payment to governments for the right to harm individuals and funds more government jobs and power in perpetuity.

We wouldn’t say that I should pay money to a company working on green energy either. Again, this does nothing to repair the harm I’ve done or bring justice to the individual.

Real justice is restoring the victim of my pollution by paying them for damages.

Tort is a far better solution to mitigating climate harm than a tax or subsidy.

Tort helps us derive the actual cost of CO2 emissions rather than having government funded institutes guess at the cost of carbon dioxide emissions while failing to take into account the unseen costs of climate action.

It is estimated that 80% of CO2 emissions come from 122 corporations. A few high profile class action lawsuits brought by individuals who have been harmed by CO2 emissions could dramatically change the game.

A focus on promoting property rights and installing legal institutions to defend those property rights seems like a superior approach on all levels of analysis. It gets individuals who have had their property flooded by the ocean or their arable land made barren by climate change access to restoration.

It passes the cost on to corporations and the consumers of their products and sends a price signal that allows them to weigh the actual cost versus benefit of their activity. It incentivizes innovation towards lower CO2 emitting energy alternatives.

It avoids the growth of government. It gives scientists their day in court and clarifies and communicates the actual state of climate science free of ideological spin. It focuses science on measuring metrics of human flourishing rather than metrics that get them government funding.

My thinking is evolving on this subject but right now here is where I stand. The Earth is warming because of manmade CO2 emissions primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. This will be harmful to some and beneficial to some but will not likely be catastrophic. Most proposed climate action will be catastrophic.

Torts are probably the most effective way of mitigating the harm caused by manmade climate change. If climate change will be catastrophic to humans on the whole then we need to immediately lower taxes, deregulate and get out of the way of individuals who will get us to the next energy paradigm and find solutions because more government is not the answer.

Recognizing the individual and protecting property rights (aka liberty) seems like the best path forward to a future that both liberals and conservatives can endorse.

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