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Disinformation, Social Stability and Moral Outrage

The following entry by guest blogger, Dr. Kenneth Shockley, Associate Professor, University of Buffalo, makes a strong case that the nature of the harm caused by the disinformation campaign calls for collective moral outrage

Preface. ClimateEthics has recently completed a detailed four part series on the ethical dimensions of climate change disinformation campaign in which we distinguish between responsible skepticism and the ethically abhorrent tactics of the climate change disinformation campaign. See the last entry: Irresponsible Skepticism: Lessons Learned From the Climate Disinformation Campaign

The following entry by guest blogger, Dr. Kenneth Shockley, Associate Professor, University of Buffalo, makes a strong case that the nature of the harm caused by the disinformation campaign calls for collective moral outrage.

Disinformation, Social Stability and Moral Outrage

Those who deny the reality, importance, or magnitude of climate change warrant our collective outrage. Whether by action or inaction, their denial blinds us to the risks, vulnerabilities, and threats to our well-being posed by climate change. Insofar as claims of ignorance are becoming increasingly implausible, those who support or propagate the disinformation campaign about climate change are guilty of more than deception. They are guilty of exacerbating risks to our collective well-being and of undermining society.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the current misinformation campaign waged against climate science. I will, therefore, take it on assumption for our purposes here that both (1) there is overwhelming evidence that climate change is taking place and (2) there is a concerted effort, through activity or negligence, to convince the public that there is no need for action. I take (2) to constitute the essence of what I will call the disinformation campaign about climate change. I take (1) to provide the focus of such a campaign, a campaign focused on convincing any and all that the science of climate change is not worth taking seriously or that the consequences of climate change are too uncertain to justify action.

What I am interested in is the nature of the harm associated with the disinformation campaign. The disinformation campaign is more than a coordinated effort at misrepresenting the science, it is a violation of body politic. Our collective well-being is being undermined, and this should provoke moral outrage, both domestically in the US and UK where it seems to have its home, and internationally where some of its more egregious and immediate consequences are felt. Just as the sense of moral outrage is the proper result to violations of one's individual person, we owe collective moral outrage to violations of our collective body politic. The harm associated with the disinformation campaign goes beyond a simple matter of dishonesty (which it is). Insofar as the disinformation campaign blocks efforts to address climate change that campaign is complicit in increasing the risk of being subject to the more calamitous consequences of a changing climate.

The recent IPCC SREX report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters To Advance Climate Adaptation, (IPCC, 2012), paints a vivid picture of the risks and vulnerabilities presented by climate change, both now, and in the future. Similar warnings have been expressed in the United States National Academy of Science's recent report America's Climate Choices (US Academy, 2011) and in a wide range of other sources. What should we say about those who in the face of overwhelming evidence that we are at risk of significant harms encourage us not to act in the face of those risks? What would we say of those who convince us that an impending flood is not real, and hamper our efforts to prepare for, or minimize the effects of that flood?

This question should frame the way we think about the current effort to deny the clear and overwhelming scientific consensus that we are facing a changing climate, with the risks and concerns noted by those best able to assess them. After all, these vulnerabilities pose a risk to our well-being; they have great moral significance.
In blocking efforts to address, respond to or adapt to climate change, the disinformation campaign exacerbates our vulnerabilities to a changing climate; given the scale and magnitude of the problems we face, exacerbating vulnerabilities to climate change puts social stability at risk. This risk constitutes a threat to our well-being, and the well-being of our children; to increase this risk is to incur blame.

As the actions of the disinformation campaign put society at risk, those in support of this campaign, knowingly or out of culpable ignorance, similarly deserve our ire. Efforts to ignore this risk should provoke our individual and collective moral outrage. Political officials who endorse, accept, or adopt this campaign and its goals are in violation of the public trust; such officials are acting contrary to the public good with which they are entrusted. Those who illicitly attempt to influence the political process by means of this campaign of misrepresentation are complicit in this violation.

By misrepresenting the science of climate change, the disinformation campaign is complicit in putting social stability at risk, with the attendant moral consequences; they are complicit in increasing the probability and extent of widespread human misery. Those who are engaged in this campaign are guilty of violating the sacred trust of their office, guilty of culpable ignorance (for surely we trust those who make political decisions to use the resources of their office to find the best available data for that decision; simply failing to recognize the nature of the science is culpable when the well-being of the society they represent is at stake), or corruption (for passing off as public reason, reasons based self-serving motivations that run contrary to the long term well-being of our society is surely an inappropriate influence on the body politic, a corrupting influence of the most vile sort). Violation of public trust, culpable ignorance, or simple corruption. I see no other options. The point now is to move forward.

We must bring to light the corrupting influences. We must compel the media to make clear that there is only as much debate about the science behind climate change as there is debate about the science behind the existence of the dinosaurs (for while in both cases we may doubt the details, there is little doubt about the overall picture). We must compel our political agents to make clear, in the starkest moral terms, why they are making, or failing to make, the decisions they make. This should motivate a movement at least as ferocious as the Occupy Wallstreet movement. The Occupy Wallstreet movement was focused on the very real and morally potent concern that our economy is shifting us toward a society not in line with the basic moral principles on which our nation was founded and on which our hopes and expectations are based. To some extent that economy is reversible. The concern that motivates moral outrage at inaction and obstruction regarding climate change should be focused on the very conditions that make possible a stable society for us, and for our children. Our influence on these background conditions is not so reversible, at least on time scales that matter to our children. For the sake of our children, and for the sake of our own moral decency, this disinformation campaign should inspire moral outrage.

References:

IPCC, 2012, Special Report on managing Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Mitigation, available at ; http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/images/uploads/SREX-SPM_FINAL.pdf/

US Academy of Science, 2011, America's Climate Choices, National Academies Press, http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12781.

By:
Kenneth Shockley, Ph.D.
Associate Professor,
111 Park Hall
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260