When is it ok to discuss climate change?

I just watched this speech by the Philippine Climate Change Commissioner, Yeb Saño, at the UN climate conference in Warsaw. He pleads for action on climate change with passion, breaking down in tears at one point. It’s well worth watching.

Yeb Saño makes a direct connection between climate change and the tragedy unfolding in the Philippines as a result of typhoon Haiyan. He also tells everyone he will go on a hunger strike until meaningful progress is made.

I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate. This means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this Cop, until a meaningful outcome is in sight.

Good on him, I say. Many people will criticise him for making this connection but this is something we need to discuss. Why can’t we talk about climate change in the context of natural disasters?

Recently, Australia had the earliest start to the bush fire season, ever. Temperatures are going up in Australia, winters are warmer than they used to be and summer arrives sooner. It seems to me that with hotter temperatures we will see more bush fires. This is entirely reasonable to me to suggest and talk about. Yet when this connection is made, some people are very quick to criticise and they even go so far as to suggest it is immoral to do so. Why?

My own view is that while it’s not possible to link one specific event to climate change, it is ok to observe and acknowledge a trend. Wottsupwiththatblog has a post today about possible trends in increasing cyclone intensity. Phil Plait also has a post at Bad Astronomy about the increasing intensity of cyclones and global warming. According to him, the fingerprint of global warming is already visible in cyclone intensity which has gotten stronger over the last 30-years.

Earlier this year I found some graphs produced by the insurance industry which showed trends towards more weather-related catastrophes. If anyone ought to know whether natural disasters are getting worse and/or more frequent then the insurance industry should.

But the real question I have been wondering is why it might be considered immoral to make the connection between climate change and natural disasters, especially when there is strong evidence that there is one. Is it because people think that natural disasters evoke strong emotions in us and so therefore it would be wrong to draw on these emotions? I think the idea is that when we are guided by our emotions we don’t always make the best decisions. This may be true to a certain extent but we *are* emotional. Is it really desirable to ignore this?

It’s impossible not to have an emotional reaction to human suffering and devastation. I have always felt that human emotions are given too little weight in decision-making. This is not to say that our decisions should not be grounded in careful reasoning and justification but that our shared emotions should be a part of this reasoning. Our emotional response is important. Fear, for instance, can save your life when used as a precautionary measure. Without it we would take all sorts of unnecessary risks. If we universally conclude that the suffering caused by natural disasters is a bad thing and we can effectively demonstrate that some disasters are getting worse and/or more frequent because of CO2 emissions, then this is a sound basis for arguing in favour of action on climate change.

Natural disasters are terrifying. If climate change is responsible for increasing cyclone intensity, and it’s looking more and more like this is the case, then this is a very strong argument in favour of emission cuts simply because of the harm and suffering these disasters cause. Some, Bjorn Lomborg for instance, argue for adaptation rather than cuts to emissions and in doing so, they ignore this element of human suffering.

I think it’s fairly clear what people living in the Philippines think about Bjorn Lomborg’s suggestion.


  1. Empathy, sympathy, pity, humanitarian and all forms of concern for our fellow human beings are emotional. These things are the best part of us and often the best motivation to stop ignoring a problem and the most moral aspect of ourselves.

    I strongly suspect that those who use the word immoral are themselves making an unethical misuse of it, just to score points.

    It is entirely reasonable that the scientific aspect is detached and rational, but the motivation to remedy surely stems from the best and most moral of our human emotions.

    And, good will does need to stamp it’s feet sometimes in order to make progress.

  2. Emotions are fine, they are what kept us alive during all the dangerous days during our evolution. If possible, it is good to back emotions up with evidence because emotions are easily manipulated. Many Americans still think Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and many people are willing to give up their human rights for some protection against terrorists, which is not exactly a major cause of death, but provides captivating videos.

    I see no moral reason not to discuss the relationship between natural disasters and climate change. That it is typically not possible to relate any individual disaster to the climate is no problem, one can simply state how much more likely the disaster is.

    In this specific case, I do worry a little. The proof for the relationship between climate change and tropical cyclones is still thin, as far as I can judge. This is not the part of the science that is settled. Thus it is well possible that science will still change its mind. I would be more comfortable with such a discussion during a heat wave.

    Such cyclones inspire humility. Nature is powerful and we should not mess with a complex system we barely understand and on which our lives depend. That is one of my moral values as a real conservative of the progressive kind.

  3. So many commentators were ‘slammed’ for mentioning climate change while devastating fires were still burning in the Blue Mountains recently, accused of being ‘heartless’. But, in Australia we are unfortunately in a ‘conservative’ political space right now, and this ‘debate’ is still alive. We gave up our initiative on climate change action when we allowed corporate interests and corrupt politicians to convince the voting majority that climate change was a dying ‘religion’ – all in the space of about two or three years.
    The Philippines typhoon has helped to inject some reality into this conversation, because more people are now waking up to the fact that the seas have been absorbing some of the extra heat energy in recent years, which has been leading to higher-intensity ocean-borne storm systems.
    Lomborg and others who think adaptation is the way to go, are living in a dream world where they imagine a warmer, more tropical, utopian world climate is on the way – and those that say it is wrong to link climate tragedies with human activity are only trying to promote their own warped and selfish views while trashing the science. They delude themselves, and are in the pocket and service of the coal/oil/nuclear boys…

  4. Victor,

    I’ve corrected the link and title to Xbox’s blog, thanks for pointing it out.

    Yes, I agree that we still need evidence to support our decisions. Sometimes though, even when we have all the evidence it can be difficult to choose which path to take. Some emotions are universal, like pain and suffering, and so I think these things should be a part of our decision-making in addition to solid evidence. I don’t think people like Lomborg give much thought to this aspect at all.

    And yes, I acknowledge that the evidence for increasing intensity of cyclones is still thin. This is something scientists have been predicting will happen in a warmer world though and my view is that the possibility of this outcome alone should be enough to jumpstart action. I don’t think we should should wait in this instance for concrete proof because by then it will be too late.

  5. Hi AsGrayAsGray,

    Thanks for the reblog. I followed the recent discussions in Australia about the link between bush fires and climate change and this is partly what motivated me to write this. It seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to discuss and yet people on the contrarian side of the fence got very cross about it.

    But why? Scientists have been saying for years that we will see more heat waves and with more heat waves more bush fires. Ok, so we can’t link one specific bush fire to climate change but we can acknowledge an overall pattern and we can surely have a discussion about it.

    I also think it’s very embarrassing that Australia has chosen not to send a minister to the climate change talks in Warsaw but this is not surprising given the anti-science Abbott government. Australia is the largest per capita emitter of CO2 and the government is about to repeal the carbon tax. It’s beyond belief.

  6. You’re right Rachel,
    Australia is an embarrassment to itself on so many levels right now. I could probably right an essay on all the obvious ridiculous positions that are being adopted. The aspirational voters here were suckered big time…
    The denial comes from selfishness and refusal to accept responsibility. We know it is our lifestyle choices (aided by a profit-at-all-costs corporate community) that make us the big emitters we are, but we have been told by ‘them’ that we are only responsible for ~2% of global emissions, and therefore, we get told: “what difference would it make if we expended any effort to reduce our polluting ways? The problem lies in China and India where their economies are growing rapidly. And besides, the growth of our economy is more important than caring for the environment, which is fine anyway, because we don’t have any influence on it.”. Fear of job losses caused by a ‘constrained economy’ (as promoted by the right and the media in their pockets) helped to swing the national sentiment away from affirmative action…
    We also know that the contrarians, as you call them (I like that), once they have adopted their denialist position, are very firm in their stated belief and will fight very hard to do anything except admit that they are wrong. The rest of us, and the future generations, are the ones who will pay the price for that.
    All the best!

  7. As someone has pointed out, the same logic that would criticise people who raised climate change in connection with bush fires should have criticised former Oz prime minister John Howard for raising gun ownership restrictions after Martin Bryant murdered 35 people and injured 21 others in a shooting spree in Port Arthur in 1996.

    Yet it was one of Howard’s finest hours to seize the occasion and introduce tighter restrictions on gun ownership.

    Gun ownership and mass murder have a fuzzy, indirect relationship rather like climate change and forest fires, yet nobody that I recall accused Howard of being “heartless”.

    On the other hand, were the same sequence of events to occur in the United States, where many people believe that the only defence against “a bad guy with a gun” is “a good guy with a gun”, I imagine many people would have been offended.

    Which tells you something.

    1. Good point, MikeM. We ought to be able to discuss gun ownership restrictions after a mass shooting in the same way we should be able to discuss climate change after extreme weather events.

  8. MikeM, that is a really going point. What I find frustrating is those who play the statistics game. When someone points out that a warmer climate implies more rainfall, they point out that there is no statistically significant trend in flooding. When someone points out that we can already measure a trend in the strongest cyclones, they point out that there is no trend in those that make landfall. However, we don’t need statistics to conclude that if rainfall is going to increase that we risk more flooding. We don’t need statistics to conclude that if the strongest cyclones are going to get stronger, that we risk more damage. Statistics is important, but we should be using it to properly interpret data, not to find reasons to dismiss something that seems inconvenient.

  9. Thanks, Wotts. It does look like people are twisting the statistics to downplay an inconvenient truth. More worrying, is that so many people fall for it. Although, I think this might be starting to change.

  10. When there is smoke, there’s fire. What do skeptics need to believe? A natural calamity that directly affects them? Now is the time for action. Better to be safe than sorry.

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