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27.7.06

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.

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