Environmentalism As Moral Crusade

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It was not just that an attack on a particular means constituted the end for the CAN, but that any suggestion that parties should be able to 'buy their way out' should be morally condemned. The objection here was, as philosopher Robert Goodin (1992,102-3) has pointed out, to the very notion of 'buying' a right to pollute. We often forget that the notion of 'pollution' is first and foremost a moral or at least judgemental category. We were reminded of this by the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1966), before the emergence of modern environmentalism and since. 'Purity' and 'pollution' are moral categories, usually applied regardless of whether they are also associated with the presence or absence of risks or dangers, as in the German use of the word Schmutz (dirt), for pollution. The emission of GHGs such as CO2 thus represents the commission of a sin for morals-based environmentalists. As Goodin has argued, environmentalists object to the selling of 'licences to pollute' through either tradable permits or payment of fees and taxes for the same reason that Martin Luther objected to the selling of papal indulgences at the dawn of the Reformation: that what is morally wrong cannot be made right by the payment of a price. But whereas indulgences, we now have reason to suspect, are ineffective, emissions trading might be. Emissions trading tends to be morally repugnant to environmentalists, while being a mere matter of interest to the EU policy-makers.

This is an important point, because this difference between a utilitarian approach to environmental problems and a morality-based one has consequences for politics, and ultimately for policy development. To anticipate the discussion of this point, the distinction between those things which are wrong in their consequences and wrong in themselves distinguishes the political mainstream from radical politics. Much environmental politics is radical for this reason, and such radicalism is indeed useful in getting issues on agendas. It is of more dubious value in developing policies of any complexity. But most policy issues of this kind also involve interests, and those interests which coincide with or are reinforced by strong moral arguments are advantaged, particularly in comparison to those which are opposed by the moral argument. More on this later.

Not all environmentalists are strongly ethics-based, but most of the prominent NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth demonstrate a considerable element of such a basis for their ideologies, and use 'blame and shame' rhetoric both to bring pressure to bear on their targets and to 'affirm the faith' with their adherents. Such morality is usually linked quite strongly to science, in a set of ecocentric or biocentric ethical beliefs. Greenpeace, for example, professes allegiance to the 'laws of nature' which are higher than the laws of man. We do not wish to engage in a detailed critique of such ethical approaches, but it does seem to us that there are substantial difficulties associated with this, not least of which are attempts to derive ethical principles from factual statements (the naturalistic fallacy). Even leaving aside the epistemology of ethics, there seem to be substantial difficulties with the science from which such ethics claim to be derived (see Chapter 6). Most such sets of ethics are based upon assumptions that nature is stable, benign and harmonious, and should be left to find its own balance in the absence of human agency. And it is held to have intrinsic value without human appreciation. Such ethical positions contain a substantial element of teleology, and see nature as involving a purposive progression towards the balanced, climax community. Unfortunately, such a myth of nature is no longer supported even by ecological science, though its 'poetry', as Budiansky (1995) has put it, retains a political appeal especially to a generation of younger people clearly disenchanted with humanity and frightened by the prophets of man-made ecological doom.

Nature, contemporary science tells us, is chaotic. It is marked by perturbation, disturbance and ecological succession, 'non-linearity' and unpredictability, where small changes can have large consequences. A decision for humanity to leave nature alone, were it possible, would be a decision, for example, to allow a particular ecological succession to proceed, and might result in the loss of the ecosystem for which protection is sought. For example, the American prairies and much of Australia's 'natural vegetation' are the products of fire -much of it initiated by indigenous people. To suppress fire in the prairies is to create the very conditions which will allow it to return to forest. Much of modern environmentalism both is out of tune with this science and ignores the substantial role of indigenous people and farming in modifying their environments. This rather patronizing view of indigenous peoples, reflected in the frequent description of forest cover, for example, at the time of European contact (1492 in the USA, 1788 in Australia, and so on) derives from a sentimental romanti cism which still runs through much environmentalism. There is a yearning for a past golden (pre-Enlightenment) age, or even the Garden of Eden, when people lived in a more harmonious relationship with nature, ignoring the point that life for most people was, compared with today, nasty, brutish and short.

Environmentalism is often described as a new social movement; like the social movements of the past, it emerged in a period of rapid social change (as during the Industrial Revolution). It reflects a yearning for stability, including the certitude of moral rectitude. It involves a radical politics, which (as Theodore Lowi, 1987, has put it) concerns itself with things which are 'wrong in themselves' rather than 'harmful in their consequences', which is the basis of the mainstream politics of post-Enlightenment liberalism within which most mainstream political parties and interest groups operate. In liberalism, the concern is with the minimization of inevitable harm; in radical politics, the concern is with putting an end to sin. In liberal politics, most things are fungible; in radical politics, almost nothing is, and economic motives are considered base. What makes some environmentalism here more persuasive, and from our perspective more dangerous, is that the consequences of the sin of GHG emission are not observable today or even in the past, but rely on predictions from rather dubious 'earth systems' models that can be 'tweaked' to predict doom or nirvana, once these states are defined by the modeller or his funders.

Much of the way in which climate change science has been employed reflects this erroneous view of nature as being stable if left alone, but subject to enormous perturbation through human interference. Ironically, chaos theory informs much of climate science, but is usually accommodated in representations of the results of human agency rather than in depictions of nature itself. Most graphic representations of mean global temperatures, for example, tend to depict the available surface record since about the middle of the nineteenth century; this neatly coincides with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the commencement of widespread fossil fuel combustion. It is a fundamental part of the definition of the 'Climate Change Problem' as one resulting not just from burning coal and oil, but from the folly of post-Enlightenment Man and this is enshrined as given in the FCCC, with the IPCC (see Chapter 5) not asked to discover whether this assumption was true, but to quantify it and work out how to prevent it.

If the frame of analysis is taken out to accommodate geological timescales (as John Adams, 1995, for example, has done), the observed changes of the past 150 years are but a minor bump on the course of time. Temperatures and major GHGs such as CO2 and methane have danced about in chaotically choreographed fashion for as long as geologists can tell. (The apparent connections between temperatures and GHGs in the absence of significant anthropogenic sources is one reason why many sceptics consider the causality might be the opposite to that in the IPCC consensus: that global warming might lead to rises in GHGs; see, for example, Mudelsee, 2001).

Data for the past 150 years do show a rise, but zoom out to a frame of analysis which covers the past millennium, and the 'stability' view of nature runs into perhaps even more serious difficulty. Not only does the post-1850 rise in mean global temperatures seem to be associated with the long, slow climb out of an unusually cold era (which caused widespread famine), but our best existing knowledge (scientific and historical) suggests that in the early Middle Ages the climate was substantially warmer than it is now. Not only does this 'Medieval Climate Optimum' followed by the 'Little Ice Age' suggest substantial natural variability, but these are also reports of enhanced agricultural productivity during the former. Much of Greenland was farmed and grapes were grown in Britain, suggesting that future warming might be at worst benign and at best beneficial, rather than the catastrophe predicted.

For the above reasons, the 'hockey stick' research picked up so enthusiastically by the IPCC and used as the basis to announce that the 1990s were the warmest decade of the millennium resonates perfectly with the marriage of morals and science inherent in green political thought (see Chapter 6). This argument not only attempts to do away with the inconvenience of the Medieval Climate Optimum and the Little Ice Age, but it produces a picture of a relatively stable climate, with a long, slow decline in temperatures before the rapid rise post-1850. It is perfectly suited to the green view of nature. Ironically, much of the 'chaos' recorded by historians is removed from the 'handle' of the hockey stick, yet chaos theory is relied upon to produce the sharp upturn, since only positive feedback loops in General Circulation models can turn even a doubling in concentrations of a minor GHG like CO2 (responsible for less than 2 per cent of natural forcing) into a warming which is so rapid as to be catastrophic. The climate before anthropogenic contributions of CO2 is viewed as relatively harmonious; afterwards, chaos leading to catastrophe. Perfect!

Many other aspects of the climate catastrophe discourse suffer a similar distortion. For example, malaria is absent from Europe and the USA, so it is assumed that the status quo is stable and benign. As we shall see in Chapter 6, the reality that malaria was endemic on both continents and conquered only recently in human history even in Europe by human agency is ignored. 'Climate change from anthropogenic causes will bring malaria', goes the warning cry. Floods, famine, pestilence (and possibly even death of the first-born) lie ahead. All are bound to happen regardless, and each occurrence will be (and already is being) marshalled as evidence of the perils which result from the 'sin' of emitting CO2. Like all claims of miracles and witchcraft, such bringing of evidence to the 'morally ordained' theory will ultimately be undone one way or the other by science, which restores scepticism to its rightful, central place. But to the extent that sceptics can be dismissed as practising the 'witchcraft'

sponsored by economic interests such as the fossil fuel industry, the defence of the discourse will be robust.

If talk of witchcraft sounds a little like 'old time religion' it is probably because this strand of environmentalism is closer to religion than its devotees would care to acknowledge. Besides alerting us to the cultural and moral significance of pollution, Mary Douglas (1992, 15) has also suggested that risk (like witchcraft) is often used as a blaming device to attack disliked elements in society, including multinational corporations such as oil companies and coal producers. Here we note a link with left-wing infantilism, a simple Marxist faith that equated profits with corporations and now with emissions. We all fear the power of large corporations - often with very good reason - so implicating them in the cause of some looming catastrophe serves as a ready means of attacking them and causing them harm. The fact that the catastrophe is unlikely to be disproved in our lifetimes makes it ideally suited to the task. Anti-corporate rhetoric has replaced Marxism since the fall of communism, so many sceptics are found on the political right.

But, as with all risks, there is a serious danger related to man-made global warming that we need to consider. To assess the size and likelihood of this we need the best possible (sceptical) science, rather than 'incomplete science' which has made itself too closely relevant to a particular 'problem' and thus moral discourse. As Douglas (1992, 33) has noted: 'When science is used to arbitrate in these conditions, it eventually loses its independent status, and like other high priests who mix politics with ritual, finally disqualifies itself.' This danger is inherent in the dominance of the IPCC in climate change science, with the marginalization of sceptics from the process by various means, ranging from the rhetorical to the institutional. Douglas also notes that the likely result, when 'objective' science is used to mask evaluative questions, is that the different sides to any dispute will simply engage their own experts, and science will be debased and its all-important integrity, its function of speaking truth to power, will be lost (Wildavsky, 1987).

There is ample evidence that this has occurred with the science of climate change (see Chapter 7). Those with interests reinforced by the IPCC pronouncements on the supportive scientific consensus enthusiastically endorse especially its summaries for policy-makers, and seek every new piece of published research which supports the theory they prefer on principled grounds. All the while, they have developed a new scepticism in the science of sinks, a subject previously of little interest to them. On the other side, those with interests disadvantaged by the IPCC science bring every contrary finding to support their position. This extends not so much to a disagreement over the raw, ungarnished science, but over what it means. Most sceptics acknowledge that we are experiencing some warming, but remain sceptical about causes, about whether it is a bad thing globally, and whether the proposed abatement costs are worth it, given so many other competing global and not so global problems. They also point to the undoubted progress of technology towards reduced carbon intensity. It extends to how the problem is defined: is it just a fossil fuel/technological innovation problem, or should other GHGs be tackled first if that can be done more cheaply?

There is nothing unusual in the various parties to a disagreement seeking their own expertise to assist their argument, but it does mean that we should not be particularly sanguine about the extent to which complex science still engaged in active research (prior to 'closure') can be a force for consensus in international politics, even when linked to strong moral discourse (see Skolnikoff, 1993). As we noted in Chapter 2, Ernst Haas sees more potential than Peter Haas for science to redefine interests, but it is fair to say that this is likely to be a slow process and one which will be limited by the relative importance of existing and nascent interests. While a consensus over science is not insignificant in international environmental politics, it is probably best seen as a necessary rather than a sufficient condition for political agreement. This was of course recognized by the pro-warming interests, who therefore strongly supported the idea of IPCC consensus rather than the once mooted idea of allowing minority reports. Moreover, where that consensus has been 'manufactured' by institutional means (as with climate change) rather than allowed to evolve (as with acid rain and ozone depletion), the more likely it is that its practitioners will be seen by those with contrary interests as 'high priests mixing science with politics', and the less likely that science will produce agreement beyond the initial stage of agreement on the need for more research and undefined action in a framework convention or similar device.

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