The ultimate downfall of climate scepticism

October 11, 2012

The childishly simplistic maxim, ‘Thou shalt not intitate force or fraud against the property or person of another’ lies at the heart of libertarianism, and by proxy much of ideological climate scepticism. It is a credo that appeals to those who believe that the moral consequences of the exercise of power can be coherently divided between politics and economics; typically because they have rather more of one sort of power than another. Holding that only the use of force in a physical sense is morally problematic ignores a whole category of other kinds of harm that economic power permits one to perpetrate. Regardless, this principle is useful inasmuch as it provides a clue as to the ultimate downfall of climate scepticism: the fact that, by this principle, contributing towards climate change is a crime.

If you steal from me – if you procure through force what is mine – I must have recourse to justice under. Assuming that some kind of government exists and my access to justice is not limited to beating you up, some kind of ruling is required in order to ascertain the facts of the matter. My own testimony that you initiated force against my property is insufficient for conviction if you deny it; justice is not conditional on my evidence alone. It requires a body to whom we have both given exclusive rights to the use of force to adjudicate.

The reason this is a problem for climate scepticism is that ultimately the debate is about a crime, albeit a crime we are committing against ourselves on a civilisation-wide scale. By your emissions of greenhouse gases, you are harming the biosphere I from which I acquire air, water and the sustenance of the industrial civilisation I have come to rely for the amenities of modern life. My side of the debate claims that this crime has happened and is happening, while climate sceptics, here playing the role of the defendent, insist that it is not.

We do not normally conceptualise climate change as a crime because it has unpleasant implications: namely, that we are all criminals. I am currently writing this on a computer with a 300watt power supply. Assuming it is running at full tilt, by the time I have used this computer for an hour I will have committed offences against myself and my fellow citizens totalling about 150g of CO2 and its equivalents. This is not illegal, and yet – given the above principle – it is clearly immoral. I have initiated force against you and your property, and there is nothing you can legally do about it. I am a criminal in the broadest sense of the word, and yet I walk free, because to incarcerate me would require that everyone else be imprisoned too.

Instead, we subject policies designed to counter climate change to the court of public opinion. Our efforts to rehabilitate ourselves through low-carbon measures only make sense if we have genuinely committed a crime, and so message boards and blogs throng to the sound of people furiously protesting their innocence. Discourse will never solve this issue by itself, because – much like the claim and counterclaim of stealing given above – it is merely one set of persons’ word against another. As a result, the debate has begun to shift into the courts, where resolution can be reached. The case in March this year in which a climate sceptic state attourney general attempted to prosecute a university under US legislation designed to prevent fraud against taxpayers is an illustration of things to come. It is interesting that it has been climate sceptics in the main who have started the legal bandwagon rolling; this makes more sense if one considers these court cases as less about discrete matters of science and more as appeals against an Establishment view that has already found itself guilty of this crime and is beginning to institute punishment.

So far, the sceptics are losing, and I would expect them to keep doing so. There is only so many times that a court can rule against a position before it loses all credence, and I expect that the climate sceptics will attempt to reach this limit before finding another reason to be resentful of a world rapidly changing around them. It is possible, if the rule of law is sufficiently subverted, that they may win a few rounds, but the end outcome is not in doubt. They will seek to appeal our own innocence on behalf of us all, but ultimately this will be their downfall. We have initiated force against ourselves, and justice must be served.

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