Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Climate change and the role of philosophers

Last week NASA administrator Michael Griffin questioned the urgency of global warming, commenting to NPR's Steve Inskeep that NASA should have a lesser rather than a greater role in performing climate science and monitoring climate change. While Griffin does acknowledge that the global climate is warming, his comments support Bush Administration cutbacks to earth observation work.

The comment that caused the fuss:
I have no doubt that ... a trend of global warming exists. I am not sure that it is fair to say that it is a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change. First of all, I don't think it's within the power of human beings to assure that the climate does not change, as millions of years of history have shown. And second of all, I guess I would ask which human beings -- where and when -- are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now is the best climate for all other human beings. I think that's a rather arrogant position for people to take.

This comment begs for analysis, and there's a fine one here, at Adventures in Science and Ethics.

NPR ran its own commentary later in the day, an interview with Penn State geosciences professor Richard Alley.

First, he addressed Griffin's claim that we cannot evaluate whether the current climate is the optimal one. Rather than drop his jaw in disbelief at the question of optimality (as many commentators did), Alley notes that biological sciences do have reasons for saying that some states of affairs are better (for us, and for other living creatures) than others. This is because we can assume that living creatures have, to some degree, adapted to the current conditions. Of course, adaptation is continuous (e.g., there is still on-going postglacial migration of tree species in North America), but humans are more likely to be able to cope with climate conditions in which they already thrive than with alternatives.

Second, interviewer Michele Norris asked Alley "Are we tiptoeing into the realm of philosophy?" by considering how to respond to climate change. Alley says
If we aren't, I think we should be. The energy system, the climate in which we live...are such big questions that it would be the height of arrogance to leave them to no one but the scientists and the engineers. I certainly hope that the philosophers and theologians are thinking about these too.
Thus, there is a point of agreement between Michael Griffin and his critics. The point is made over and over again in this debate that there are scientists (they are the ones that measure things) and then there are people who are qualified to make assessments of what the science means and what should be done. They are variously called policy-makers, philosophers, or the public, and they are not always educated in the relevant sciences. To be fair, Alley says only that it should not be only scientists who think about what should be done, while Griffin's position is much stronger. A few days after the NPR interview, the AP reported that
Griffin reiterated that NASA’s job was to provide scientific data on global warming and leave it up to policy makers to decide what to do with it.
There is some irony in this, and especially in Alley's appeal to philosophers to get on the job of evaluating the moral response to climate change. Namely, philosophers, by and large, do not do that kind of work. Consider a recent table of contents from The Philosophical Quarterly, "one of the most highly regarded and established academic journals in philosophy... [which publishes] high-quality articles from leading international scholars across the range of philosophical study." It is all fine work, but mostly in metaphysics, and not relevant to applied policy decisions.

What many people believe philosophers do and what philosophers actually do are two different things.

However, in the third part of Alley's commentary he goes on to do himself just exactly what he thinks philosophers are best equipped for--to give a sensitive overview of the ethical implications of climate change. He argues that Griffin is correct that some people will no doubt benefit from climate change (Alley omits mentioning the insurance business as most likely to profit) and others will be harmed. And there is ethical weight to identifying who these parties are. He says that places that have winter, places that have air conditioners, and places that have bulldozers at their disposal for shoring up sea-walls will all be harmed less than poor nations and people who live at the equator and near the poles.

It is a fiction that only professional philosophers are equipped to make such judgments, and it would be harmful to wait until the philosophical community came to recognize the importance of focusing on such issues. Scientists themselves can and do make value judgments.

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