Climate Change Is Morally Repugnant

I’m a pretty sorry excuse for a blogger, since I’m only just now getting around to commenting on a much-blogged article by Daniel Gilbert about climate change. Gilbert argues that people aren’t concerned about climate change, because people all have certain evolved cognitive biases.

The problem is that it’s not “people” who are unconcerned about climate change, because many people are concerned. Any psychologically worthwhile theory of risk perception must be able to recognize the diversity of views and account for both the skeptics and the alarmists.

Gilbert is right to point out that risks will attract more attention if (among other things) they’re blameable on humans, morally repugnant, immediate, and quick. But he writes as if these four criteria are objective features of various potentially risky activities. That assumption may be close enough in the case of immediacy and speed of onset. (Though we should note the big debates over whether certain particular events, such as Hurricane Katrina, are immediate impacts of climate change. Depending on where and how you live, the impacts may be much closer than they are for other, more sheltered, people.) But Gilbert’s first two criteria are clearly not objective. Whether a risk is human-caused or morally repugnant depends on your worldview — so therefore some people do get worked up about climate change, while others brush it off.

Let’s start with whether climate change is human-caused, since that one is easy to dispose of. Gilbert frames it as a matter of impersonal atmospheric chemistry. To see that an alternative frame is possible, all you need to do is mention climate change to an environmentalist (or even just a run-of-the-mill Democrat). You’ll quickly learn that climate change has a few definite faces behind it — President Bush, oil company CEOs, and SUV drivers in particular.

Then there’s the most talked-about aspect of the article: Gilbert (following Mary Douglas) says a risk must be “morally repugnant” to generate concern. This is as culturally-relative a criterion as you could ask for. Take his example of the “risk” of homosexuality. For people who incorrectly think that homosexuality is morally repugnant, it’s easy to see it as posing a major risk, conjuring up scenarios of the breakdown of family bonds and plagues of STDs. But for those of us who don’t find homosexuality to be morally repugnant, such scare stories sound ridiculous. Right or wrong, moral views shape risk perception.

There are two mechanisms leading from assessing an activity as morally repugnant to seeing it as having risky consequences. On the one hand, there’s a functionalist route — sounding the alarm about a risk will justify implementing policies that you liked anyway. On the other hand, there’s the role of avoiding cognitive dissonance. We like to think about things as being either good or bad, so if we already think something is bad, we’ll be more open to believing additional bad things about it than additional good things, and vice-versa.

Now let’s turn to climate change. Gilbert declares that it is not morally repugnant — but morally repugnant to who? It should be no surprise that concern over climate change has found a comfortable home among those of us who think, on independent grounds, that the modern capitalist system is in need of an overhaul (whether reformist or radical). The modern economy produces inequality, unhappiness, unfreedom, and anomie*. So it’s not a big leap to see that system as also producing risks such as climate change (and pollution and deforestation and so on). Perhaps more importantly, as David Roberts and the Bishop of London point out, the consequences of climate change are morally repugnant to those of us who have well-tuned moral senses.

On the other hand, those whose moral compasses are calibrated to approve of the modern lifestyle are going to be disinclined to worry about climate change. After all, action to avert or mitigate climate change would require things like regulation and changes in conusmption patterns, which such people regard as morally repugnant.

We won’t understand why there isn’t more concern about climate change if we treat people in general as an undifferentiated mass.

*The point here is that it produces too much of these things, regardless of whether or not it produces less than some other economic system that has been tried.

Cross-posted at debitage

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9 Responses to Climate Change Is Morally Repugnant

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  2. 2
    Q Grrl says:

    Way to introduce moralism into the issue! I’m sure you missed the irony of the energy consumption you used to type, post, and maintain your screed.

    You shameless immoral slug you!

  3. 3
    Robert says:

    The actions of the people who are in arms about climate change can be explained outside of the thesis. Everyone I’ve ever heard evangelizing on climate change issues has another agenda which would potentially be advanced by an acceptance of what climate change believers say is true (usually some economic policy or other).

  4. 4
    Jake Squid says:

    Robert, chicken or egg? Plus you can make the same statement for climate change deniers. Essentially, that is a meaningless statement. And that is aside from whether or not it is actually true and ignores the fact that there is a preponderance of evidence regarding climate change that has overwhelming support from the scientific community.

  5. 5
    Q Grrl says:

    I actually think I agree with you Robert; but I had to re-read your posts a couple of times. Can you rephrase?

  6. 6
    Robert says:

    Yeah, I guess that’s not my best writing ever. (Note to self: coffee first.)

    We don’t need a new theory to explain the actions of people who believe in a climate change crisis. Their actions are easily understood because they have something to gain if their view becomes prevalent. Al Gore gets to be President (or at least gets to be an influential person). Greens get to have a more eco-socialist economy. And so forth.

    Whereas this theory does give us something new vis a vis people who are climate change skeptics (hey, that’s me).

  7. 7
    Charles says:

    Robert,

    I think Stentor’s theory is much more useful than your’s for explaining climate change theory preference, although I think for many people the moral repugnance comes from the potential degree of harm, rather than a hatred of modern industrial society per se (I don’t think Al Gore hates modern industrial society). While it is true that many people attempt to piggy back their own societal preferences on to whatever they advocate for, the steps necessary to hugely ameliorate climate change are not ones that will bring about a eco-socialist utopia (and it is hard to argue that Chancellor Merkel is going to continue the Germany policies to reduce CO2 output because she hopes for a eco-socialist utopia).

    If Gore had not been a huge supporter of Kyoto (fighting hard to water it down enough that he thought there was any chance of it being ratified in the US, more fool him), he would probably be president now (or more likely have lost the 2004 election, after having been blamed for not preventing 9/11). Furthermore, his change in emphasis from Bushian malignance and incompetence to climate change is probaly less likely to get him into office, or keep him politically significant. Had he gone directly from failed presidential candidate to climate change advocate, his political visibility would be much less than it is today. I would guess that he is actually spending political capital on climate change issues.

    So what does Stentor’s theory say about your side (and why am I unsurprised you are a climate change sceptic)?

  8. 8
    Arwen says:

    All you need for moral repugnance is a grabby hook.

    Starving polar bears have changed some minds that were otherwise occupied. I was on a bus yesterday and heard the kids a chattering about how “gross” those “flabby bastards” were to let the polar bears starve. I’m a huge eavesdropper. My sense, perhaps unfair, of these particular teenagers was that caring one way or the other was a relatively new experience.

    Anyway, I’d have to disagree with you, Richard. I decide with simple risk analysis. I have absolutely no other reason to want us to move to greener technologies other than climate change:

    If the (vast majority) of scientists are right, but we do nothing, then my kids will live in a hot, fried world where biodiversity is compromised and my grandchildren will be facing an uphill battle with the survival of the fittest.
    If the (vast majority) of scientists are wrong, but we do everything in our power to reduce CO2 anyway, then all we’ve done is switched economic drivers. Maybe even out of the Mid-East. But I don’t really give a r*t’s ass.

    Frankly, the fact that nations change economic engines is something we’ve done historically with discomfort, but relative aplomb. We need farmers to feed us all, and shelter makers, and everything above and beyond that is detail that we switch around through culture and time. So I have no doubt we have the ability to cope with economic readjustment.

    On the other hand, if our food sources are compromised, we’re dead.

  9. 9
    Steve says:

    Robert I can see your thinking but the way to prove your thesis is to tease out those methods that are green but don’t support the other agendas. For instance using green technology on existing industry where it benifts the industry as much as the environment.
    In most cases I believe youb will see the love affair is most passionate with those techniques that are most harmful to making a profit in a capatalist society. Nuclear Power (when not regulated by nitwits or Anti-nuclear partisans). Look for the economic impact related to the method chosen.