Image for Climate Change Alarmism as a Moral Responsibility

Two recent Tasmanian Times articles have been commendably direct and clear-eyed about the scale of the threat that anthropogenic climate change poses for humanity

David Hamilton: The Four Reports of the Climate Apocalypse?

Steve Biddulph: The Next War Won’t Have Guns

As a result they have attracted a fair share of dismissive comments from climate change deniers, many of which – explicitly or in effect - accuse the article writers of unwarranted alarmism.  There seems to be a rather odd notion amongst climate change deniers – of whom Andrew Bolt is perhaps the best exemplar - that all they need to do to discredit what the (mainstream, consensus) science of global climate change is telling us is to dismiss it as “alarmism”.  After all, who is going to believe that climate change could actually have serious consequences and really be worthy of an alarmed attitude?  How ridiculous, as if anything really bad could ever actually happen!

This is head-in-the-sand denial at its all-time historical worst.

The reality of course is that very bad things actually do and have happened from time to time.  Some extremely bad things have happened to human societies over the course of history, and very often because of over-exploitation and misuse of natural resources, as Jared Diamond1 and Tim Flannery2 have rather pertinently reminded us.  The cities of early Mesopotamia, the Anasazi towns of southwest USA and the Mayan cities of Central America really were abandoned after excessive water exploitation and soil salinization made them unviable.  Easter Island’s society really did collapse when they deforested the island. The New Zealand Maoris really did suffer a food crisis after killing all their megafauna. The list goes on and is a long one.

Whilst those listed above might be considered merely local disasters, there has also already been a human-caused disaster of global scale.  That was World War II, which is possibly the best analogy (in its effects if not its causes) to the crisis we now face. That greatest of Twentieth Century disasters really happened, it really plunged the whole world into a nightmare of war, death, starvation and suffering that lasted six years, and it really did profoundly change the lives of a huge proportion of the world’s population at the time.  Worse, there were those such as Winston Churchill who could clearly see the warning signs and tried to urge stronger action to contain Hitler, but were ignored by appeasers (aka ‘deniers’) such as Neville Chamberlain.  As a result the world was plunged into a civilisation-wide nightmare which arguably might have been avoided if the warnings had been heeded early enough.

Bad things can and do happen. The real message of the climate change deniers response to our latest and greatest looming environmental disaster is that the lessons of the past have simply not been learnt by too many people.

Climate change deniers often seek to legitimise their dismissal of climate change warnings as alarmism by drawing parallels with previous bogus, frivolous and uninformed threats of doom, such as the long-running and repetitive religious prophecies of the end that fail with boring frequency, the 2012 Mayan ‘end times’ prophecy nonsense, or the rather odd “Year 2K” computer scare.  However there is a critical difference.  Bogus prophecies of doom are invariably the province of religious nutters or other fringe groups with strange beliefs and agendas, and are easily recognisable as such.  In stark contrast the warnings of dire consequences from anthropogenic climate change are coming from the most credible possible sources, namely the mainstream global community of climate scientists and their peak scientific establishment bodies.  This is the critical difference; warnings of impending climate-related disasters are coming from solid mainstream science3, not from a few fringe dwellers.  Which makes it rather ironic that now deniers are trying to attack the scientific consensus by promoting the minority views of a few ideologically-driven fringe scientists (whose specialist knowledge almost invariably lies outside climate, typically in areas such as mining geology), and illegitimately hailing these as more credible than the mainstream climate science consensus that is warning us of disaster. Indeed, in a further bizarre twisting of the historical lessons of science, some deniers seem to even try to suggest that if there is a scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, then that in itself somehow virtually proves it to be wrong4.

Despite the obscurantism of climate deniers, I believe most people would hold it to be self-evident that any person who is aware of a threat to other people has a moral responsibility to warn of the threat. Thus the bottom line must be that if mainstream groups representing the authoritative consensus of modern professional climate science can clearly see a danger emerging in their area of expertise, then not only is that threat a credible one, but there is also a clear moral responsibility on those who can see it to warn society.

The denier response of dismissing these authoritative, scientific, evidence-based warnings as merely “alarmism” should be seen for the gross irresponsibility that it is.

Today is one of those times in history when something very bad is about to happen if we don’t very soon do something to avert it.  Indeed, we have already left it too late to avert many serious consequences, some of which are in fact already happening (although the denial response of “it’s just natural variability” will no doubt continue for some time).  Dismissing the warnings as alarmism is –  depending on how informed the person in question ought to be – either simple ignorance and don’t-want-to-know complacency (in the case of the poorly informed), or else irresponsible ideologically-driven denial (in the case of those who have the capacity to better inform themselves but have failed to do so).


1Jared Diamond, 2005: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive; Penguin Books, 575 pp.

2Tim Flannery, 1994: The Future Eaters; Reed Books Australia, 423 pp.

3The World Bank, 2012: Turn Down the Heat; Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided; A Report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analysis, published by The World Bank, Washington DC, USA, 84 pp.

4This is a rather common refrain amongst those with fringe or minority scientific views.  The idea generally seems to be that because some (initially) minority ideas have in the past been rejected by the establishment yet have later been shown to be correct, therefore any alternative view that challenges mainstream views must somehow ipso facto be similarly right (Galileo’s astronomical discoveries are often cited an example, despite the fact that it was actually the religious establishment – and not any scientific one – that improperly forced him to recant). This rather simplistic view not only conveniently ignores the fact that - whilst it is true that minority views sometimes do indeed turn out to be correct - it is also true that 99% of the minority views that have been put forward have historically turned out to be wrong.  At a deeper level this sort of view seems to be based on a kind of post-modernist fantasy that there is no robust body of scientific knowledge at all, but rather the scientific ‘consensus’ is regularly and completely overturned by ‘paradigm shifts’ so that any minority view is in the end as valid as any other.  In reality the history of science has actually been one of a slowly expanding body of robust, well-tested knowledge to which new insights and deepening understanding of existing knowledge are gradually being added through the proposal, testing and commonly rejection of competing hypotheses at the continually-expanding frontiers of scientific knowledge.  A classic example of failure to understand how scientific knowledge grows is the often-cited notion that Einstein’s physics disproved and overthrew that of Newton. It did not; Newtonian mechanics remains as robust (and widely applied) as ever; Einstein simply showed it to be a special case of a broader relativistic physics, which applies only to objects moving at relative velocities well below the speed of light such as we experience on the Earth’s surface. Those prone to the fallacy of assuming that all scientific knowledge is equally tentative seem to fail to comprehend that the (very argumentative) process of proposing multiple hypotheses, testing and comparing them, and rejecting most to leave only the few that continue to survive testing, is the core virtue of the scientific method and the source of its efficacy, not some sort of indicator of confusion and uncertainty.

*Chris Sharples is an Honorary Research Associate at the School of Geography & Environmental Studies (Spatial Science), University of Tasmania

Chris Sharples earlier on Tasmanian Times: Tasmania, Tourism and the Elephant in the Room

SMH: Sir David Attenborough warns against growth