Frankenstorm Sandy, currently ravaging the northeastern US, is testament enough to the predictable unpredictability inherent in global warming. What I mean by “predictable unpredictability” is something like the following: though we cannot know exactly how individual weather systems in particular regions will change in response to the overall alterations in climatic patterns caused by human activity, meteorologists have an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how certain climate patterns influence specific kinds of weather patterns and events.
For example, links have recently been made between extreme and extremely prolonged weather events in the US and the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, which is itself due to human activity altering the global atmosphere. Stu Ostro, senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service, is outspoken in his attempts to draw attention to how uncannily apparently “deviant” weather events of the past decade cohere with predictions about climatic changes and the best available knowledge of how climate influences weather. So climate scientists are increasingly on board with drawing these kinds of connections and rhetorically labeling certain events as caused, at least in part, by global warming.
Climate change policy, however, still seems arrested in a state of deadlock.
To whit: it did not come up once during the three debates between presidential candidates, nor did it in the vice presidential candidate debate. Climate change itself was obliquely mentioned (and then, only in hushed, glossy tones), but no discussion was ever held about implementing policies to mitigate global warming, or even about the possibility of such policies in the next four-year presidential term.
I want to put forth a hypothesis about why this might be so. This hypothesis concerns a particular ethical decision making strategy that appears to have taken hold of the policy process in this country: therapeutic nihilism, which demands full scientific understanding of the situation at hand before any intervention is permitted.
Therapeutic nihilism, in the sense in which I mean it, is essentially the principle of precaution taken to the extreme. We ought to be prudent, it recommends, wherever our intervention or manipulation of large-scale, complex systems is likely to result in both intended and unintended consequences (which, a strong therapeutic nihilism may argue, is every situation involving large-scale and complex systems), but prudent to the degree that unless the dimensions of the system and the potential effects of the intervention are known completely and exactly, we ought to choose not to intervene.
This is similar, I think, to the politics of tobacco and pollution that Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway detail in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt. The tagline gives a good indication of this policy stance: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Vested industrial interests, in other words, rhetorically polluted the political and policy arena in order to stall or outright preclude any policy measures designed to address issues such as the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica or the dangers of tobacco smoking.
Gene Hargrove, resident environmental philosopher at UNT and one of the founders of the field of Environmental Ethics, details the history of therapeutic nihilism in his book Foundations of Environmental Ethics. Physicians in 19th century Vienna began recommending a course of non-action in cases where a particular disease and/or its proper treatment were unknown to medical science, lest they make the disease worse or cause the patient undue pain or other harm. Rather, they argued that it was better to wait to see if the disease would resolve naturally – that is, if the patient’s immune system would ultimately kill it – or, in the event of the patient’s demise, study the symptoms and effects in the hopes of one day finding a cure.
Hargrove also relates the history of how this medicinal practice found its way into environmental policy, particularly concerning intervention in wilderness areas for the purposes of land or game management (in national parks, for example), and outlines a number of reasons why, even though such an approach to environmental policymaking is pragmatically acceptable for the time being (though I do not agree with this assertion), it will be problematic in the future.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I have not actually learned to love therapeutic nihilism (nor, for that matter, have I ceased worrying about climate change). Rather, I want to extend Hargrove’s historical analysis to say that therapeutic nihilism is not simply an epistemic argument regarding policymaking strategy – that is, an argument concerning what we know and how – but is also (and more disturbingly) an ethical strategy on the basis of which policy decisions are made when there is an ethical choice at stake. It is a moral position.
There are, for example, a myriad of ethical dimensions requiring committing to a particular moral choice, or position, regarding responding to climate change: what obligations, if any, do we have to future generations that will be more severely impacted by climate change, and our decisions about it in the present? Should governments fund costly high-risk-moderate-reward geoengineering projects? How much responsibility should be borne by those who emit the most greenhouse gases? Are cap and trade policies viable if, in the course of reducing emissions, the gap between rich and poor widens? Should green companies be given favorable economic and/or regulatory treatment over companies that have high emissions? More traditional approaches to such ethical questions would perhaps employ cost-benefit analyses to decide among various options which is more (economically) viable, or may employ a strictly utilitarian logic in determining who benefits most by which policies or decisions. Or, others may invoke notions of egalitarian justice: ensuring the equal and wholesale protection of basic human rights, political participation, legal representation, multiculturalism, etc, for all persons everywhere.
The implicit ethical claim here is that every human being ought to be allowed to flourish insofar as their basic human rights are not infringed upon by the unfair distribution of goods, services, or political participation; or by institutionalized discrimination; or through circumstances that are beyond their immediate control, but are being perpetuated by systems that are within human control (i.e., the global economy, or an oppressive political regime). By the same rationale, one can identify that the implicit ethical claim of therapeutic nihilism is that extreme precaution ought to be the primary principle of action when making choices that have potentially negative outcomes in addition to benefits, particularly concerning interventions in complex systems like the economy or global climatic patterns.
But what’s the problem? Prudence is, after all, a virtue.
I don’t disagree that prudence is a virtue. As I see it, though, the problem is that therapeutic nihilism is often, when it comes to highly charged debates such as climate change, wielded as a political weapon against action. It is a wholly different ethical approach from the ones listed above in that it effectively advocating non-action, no matter what the cost. In historical Vienna, the cost was human lives; regarding climate change, the cost is the possibility of continued human civilization on this planet. If we strip away all of the contention about non-anthropocentric value in nature as a justification for caring about the existence of other species, the reason climate change is so alarming is that it threatens the extinction of human civilization. That is something about which we are intimately concerned, and that is what is really at stake in climate change policy. Therapeutic nihilism, however, misses the point of this “cost” in its stringent, axiomatic advocacy of non-action.
Non-action, however, is still a choice. By choosing not to act (or politically stonewalling action), one is making a positive choice to allow the current state of affairs to continue unimpeded. Regarding climate change, such an approach would eventually be catastrophic for the majority of the world’s species – including, of course, human beings.
Extreme prudence, then, is not always the best policy. In the language of philosophy, this means that prudence is not an unconditional (or absolute) good – and in some cases it may actually be unethical. Climate change, I argue, is one such case. So the challenge now is to find general, guiding principles (“rules of thumb”) that work in spite of the lack of comprehensive and certain knowledge of causes and effects regarding climate change. That we do not know perfectly what changes will be wrought upon the world from a shifting climate, or exactly what the effects of our efforts to forestall catastrophic climatic changes, does not mean that we do not have a good idea and reasonable (as opposed to exact) estimates of the effects both of changes in the climate and what effects our actions to mitigate them will likely have.
What this amounts to is constructing a description of how climate change is affecting the world currently, and acting on the basis of principles which allow for action in the present, rather than waiting for predictions to become accurate enough to form a basis for making policies to mitigate future effects. Were I to don my cynical hat, I would say that predictions of the sort that would be ideal for making definitive, long-term policies will never exist, no matter how much time scientists are given to study the phenomenon; probability and exactitude are mutually exclusive categories. Nietzsche was thinking about this same kind of situation almost a century and a half ago. He described it as the essential ambiguity of existence.
Of course, outlining such principles requires a basis in the latest knowledge – knowledge, for example, of the distributed effects of current climatic changes across difference regions of the world scientifically, politically, legally, socially, and culturally. I argue, however, that the timeframe in which we have to act, that is, the amount of time we have before the effects of global warming become unmanageable (presuming, that is, that they are at least somewhat manageable now), is sufficiently narrow as to make the therapeutic nihilism approach of waiting for the accumulation of precise and accurate knowledge of the whole system in play unfeasible as a policy response to the scale and scope of global warming. But it is more than simply unfeasible; it is highly immoral.
Fortunately, some climate scientists have already begun thinking through such general, guiding principles to help reduce our carbon emissions. Dr. Kevin Anderson, for example, of the Tyndall Center at the University of Manchester (one of the world’s leading climate research centers) has suggested that rather than focusing regulations and legislation at supply-side carbon emissions reduction (such as emissions by factories and manufacturing plants, power stations, and transport of fuels), demand-side changes (changes in products consumed directly by the public that are the result of those supply chains) are not only much more feasible for accomplishing immediate reductions, but also can accomplish reductions without relying on new technological advances – or the promise of them. Anderson notes as an example that the Audi A2 3-litre emits 75 grams of carbon per kilometer travelled, which is well below the UK national average of 175g/km. He estimates that existing automobile technologies can be leveraged with appropriate regulations establishing emissions limits to reduce carbon emissions in the UK about 50% by 2020; to that add campaigns to promote carpooling and conservative vehicle use, and his estimate climbs to about 70% reduction.
Daniel Sarewitz has identified a related and analogously puzzling policy phenomenon, which he calls an “excess of objectivity”: for every “objective” scientific (or other) expert one can marshal to support one’s policy claim, there is another expert one can draw upon to support the exact opposite. Sarewitz ascribes this to the fact that scientific information relevant to policy making always involves interpreting the relevant data, and that the scientific community contains far more diversity of interpretation than many would like to believe. In other words, there is never complete consensus in science, and this is readily evident regarding climate change. Though a deficit of knowledge may be a legitimate explanation for why a pause is necessary when it comes to designing and enforcing public policy, it is by no means an excuse for the intransigence of climate change policy; that is, the stalling may be explained by a lack of scientific consensus, but this does not absolve the policy process – and, importantly, those involved – of the moral obligation to act.