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Climatologist Judith Curry calls attention to a new kind of attack on climate denial

“Imposing some government restrictions on free speech does not necessarily ruin the public debate and cause citizens to be less informed,” says Trygve Lavik of Norway’s University of Bergen.

In a May 2015 Washington Post op-ed, Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island asserted, sort of, that climate-consensus-denying business interests have earned scrutiny through the lens of RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. It originated nearly a half century ago to send mobsters to prison. When 20 climatologists—including Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research—resurrected Whitehouse’s idea in a September letter to President Obama, the conservative press and kindred blogs expressed alarmed contempt, tinged with outrage.

How will they—how will others—react to the academic paper that Judith Curry recommended in her blog on 5 January? In “Climate change denial, freedom of speech and global justice,” Trygve Lavik of Norway’s University of Bergen philosophy department calls for “a statutory ban on climate denialism.”

Early in 2014, when Steven E. Koonin welcomed participants to the Climate Change Statement Review Workshop he was chairing for the American Physical Society, he made a point of acknowledging Curry and a few other “experts who credibly take significant issue with several aspects of the consensus picture.” Early in 2015, when congressional Democrats demanded information from seven climate testifiers’ universities—including Georgia Tech, because of Curry—she charged in her blog that the political motivation for attacks on deviations from scientists’ climate consensus is “apparent from barackobama.com.” She pointed to a page there urging, “Find the deniers near you—and call them out today.”

She also responded to being called out herself:

As a scientist, I am an independent thinker, and I draw my own conclusions about the evidence regarding climate change. My conclusions, particularly my assessments of high levels of uncertainty, differ from the ‘consensus’ of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Why does this difference in my own assessment relative to the IPCC result in my being labeled a ‘denier’? Well, the political approach to motivate action on climate change has been to ‘speak consensus to power’, which seems to require marginalizing and denigrating anyone who disagrees. The collapse of the consensus regarding cholesterol and heart disease reminds us that for scientific progress to occur, scientists need to continually challenge and reassess the evidence and the conclusions drawn from the evidence.

Curry cited Lavik’s paper not in any context of mindless denial that humans affect climate, but in the context of doubts that climate models establish a need for precautionary measures. Lavik’s 6400-word essay appears in the Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics with 16 endnotes and 33 references, among them works by Greenpeace, Philip Kitcher, George Monbiot, and Naomi Oreskes. The abstract requires quoting:

In this paper I claim that there are moral reasons for making climate denialism illegal. First I define climate denialism, and then I discuss its impact on society and its reception in the media. I build my philosophical arguments mainly on John Stuart Mill and Thomas M. Scanlon. According to Mill’s utilitarian justification of free speech, even untrue opinions are valuable in society’s pursuit of more truth. Consequently one might think that Mill’s philosophy would justify climate denialists’ right to free speech. A major section of the paper argues against that view. The main arguments are: Climate denialism is not beneficial because its main goal is to produce doubt, and not truth. Climate denialism is not sincerely meant, which is a necessary condition for Mill to accept utterances. Climate denialists bring harm, by blocking necessary action on climate change. Primarily they harm future generations and people in developing countries. Hence the case can be made in terms of global justice: Would future generations and people in developing countries support my claim? I think so, or so I argue. My argument from global justice is built on Scanlon’s distinction between the interests of participants, the interests of audiences, and the interests of bystanders. The climate denialists have participant interests “in being able to call something to the attention of a wide audience”. Audience interests consist of “having access to expressions that we wish to hear or read, and even in being exposed to some degree to expressions we have not chosen”. Future generations and people in poor countries are bystanders to the climate debate. If the debate postpones necessary actions, it is the bystanders who must pay the price. I argue that bystanders’ costs outweigh participants’ and audiences’ interests, and that this is an argument for a statutory ban on climate denialism.

Lavik opens with a gedanken hypothetical that, in an endnote, he links loosely to the thalidomide debacle of a half century ago, when mistaken judgment about a pharmaceutical led to large numbers of deformed babies. He declares he “will argue that climate denialists commit a crime similar to that of the fictive pharmaceutical industry denialists in [his] thought experiment.” He condemns what he calls “the well-organized and well-funded campaign by a handful of scientists, free-market think tanks and industry to produce doubt about climate change.” He professes admiration for skeptics who seek the truth, but condemns as deniers those who do “not respect the force of the better arguments” once those arguments are established.

Only then does he stop to define “illegal climate denialism” for his paper’s purposes. It’s “a well-organized and well-funded campaign by a person or group with authority in society, which keeps repeating the same untrue and damaging claims about climate change, without mentioning conclusive counter arguments.” He targets three levels of denial: that there’s a warming trend at all, that it stems from human causes if it does exist, and that it will cause harm. He stipulates that “some phenomena should not be considered illegal, such as a climate scientist who publishes peer-reviewed articles that deny man-made climate change, and [a] layman who writes climate denial opinions [sic] pieces in newspapers, or participates in the climate denial blogosphere, and so on.” He indicts the Heartland Institute and the political campaign against climate scientists that has been called “climategate.” He doesn’t even begin to explain how legislators could actually write applicable laws or how prosecutors could actually apply them.

Lavik contrasts climate denial to denial of evolution, of the attacks of 9/11, and of the harmful effects of tobacco. He continues:

So why then ban climate denialism? The reason is simple: the climate crisis is not just a single political problem among many other problems. The potential of catastrophe as a result of global warming makes the climate crisis an exceptional problem in the history of mankind. The climate crisis calls for immediate action, so we cannot wait and see if public debate merges with scientific consensus. Climate change will bring harm to others at a scale unlike any other event in the human history.

He quantifies his foreseen scale: “If the widespread practice of climate denialism prevents actions to stop the burning of fossil fuels, the result will be runaway climate change that will kill tens of millions.” To that he adds, “In other words, climate denialism may kill people in the future, in a way that Holocaust denial, of course, cannot. Hence, climate denialism brings more massive harm into the world than Holocaust denialism.”

Arguing for rights for poor countries, he asserts, “If climate denialism blocks necessary actions to reduce the emissions, then it is not fair to allow climate deniers the right to spread their message.”

And as to basic political rights? Lavik includes a pointer to an endnote when he writes:

In On Liberty, Mill makes a strong case for freedom of thought and expression.... I shall now argue the opposite.

Mill defends free speech as the best means for producing more truth; it is declared useful because he thinks it increases the sum of justified beliefs. I claim that the opposite is the case in the current climate debate.

Concerning all of that, his endnote 10 says, “Someone might argue that they do not accept the utilitarian justification of free speech in the first place. They could argue: The freedom of speech is a basic right, and it does not matter whether it us useful or not. However, I shall not consider this objection in this paper.”

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Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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