The Ethics of Climate Change (Conversation Starter)

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I’m still struggling to compartmentalize the Peter Gleick/Heartland Institute dust-up and thought it might be interesting to start a conversation here so that we might help each other see this issue from differing perspectives.  With that, I’ve seen numerous condemnations (Notably Marc Gunther, Megan Mcardle and Andrew Revkin) of Peter Gleick’s actions, and a handful of strong rebuttals (Michael Tobis and Richard Littlemore).   What I’ve yet to see is someone who hasn’t flung themselves to either pole on this issue.  I see this as a complicated matter which pulls the knee-jerk strings of right or wrong depending on the perceiver’s biases, but I’m not sure either is right.  This feels like a case of System 1 thinking getting the better of System 2 — an idea put forth by behavioral psychologist, Daniel Kahnemann.  Here’s a quick synopsis:

System 1 is generally automatic, affective and heuristic-based, which means that it relies on mental “shortcuts.” It quickly proposes intuitive answers to problems as they arise. System 2, which corresponds closely with controlled processes, is slow, effortful, consciousrule-based and also can be employed to monitor the quality of the answer provided by System 1. If it’s convinced that our intuition is wrong, then it’s capable of correcting or overriding the automatic judgments.


If that’s the case, then maybe some will gravitate back to the center of this spectrum, although it might be difficult to retrench some of the more damning comments.

Another facet of this issue is the question of consequentialist ethics known commonly as “The ends justify the means” thinking.  This perspective is typically taught as being an inappropriate was to justify actions, but does that always hold true?  If one of Hitler’s men had succeeded in assassinating him, would that not have averted untold suffering?  Would that have been unethical to break ranks and do so?  And what about the case of Tim DeChristopher, the climate activist who is spending two years in prison for his role in a fossil fuel land-lease auction?  Tim is incarcerated for impersonating a bidder at the auction where the attention he brought helped invalidate some illegal leases.  Tim has largely been lauded for his bravery, leadership and selflessness.  I’ve purchased and sent books to Tim, so don’t think I’m taking a position against what he’s done.  Rather, I bring up the case to juxtapose it against that of Peter Gleick.  If you support one and vilify the other, can you share why?  I may be missing something here, but I’m not yet seeing much daylight between their actions.  So, I’m asking, what do you think?

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Thank you,


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10 thoughts on “The Ethics of Climate Change (Conversation Starter)

  1. I think Gleick has hurt himself more than he’s helped himself by this, so in that sense, he probably shouldn’t have done it. But the real question is whether he has hurt or helped the cause of promoting public understanding of the issue. I am not sure at this point… Certainly knowing who Heartland is funding and what they are planning is good. But the way Gleick has become a poster child for an alarmist who will do anything is definitely bad. Which is more significant in the long run? I don’t think it’s clear. So I’d say the jury is out.

    • Craig,
      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I think it will be interesting to see whether the Heartland Institute loses funding/significance as firms attempt to distance themselves from the negative publicity, or if they’re able to parlay this incident into increased opportunities/prominence.

  2. Chris, thanks for starting this conversation here. I believe Peter did the right thing. Personally, I am approaching my “wits end” and have begun to repeat the following phrase in letters to my Senators, the President and others in high places: “It’s time we declaare waar on those who have declaared waar on planet Eaarth.” I was fortunate to meet Ben Santer yesterday. He has a fire in his belly that I share … passionately supporting Peter.

    Consider these which I discovered via a post on the “Climate Reality Check Coalition” FB page”:

    “It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.” Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91 (

    ‎”Why is that reasonably rational individuals who are able to follow an argument and who are unable to refute it are at the same time incapable of making the transition from thought to action? What is stopping them? Humans are clearly smarter than yeast, what does that matter if they are incapable of acting any more intelligently?” (

    Whatever one believes about the urgency of taking action on global warming or peak oil, it seems to me that we need to get serious and stop dilly dallying. Time to declaare waar for the sake of Eaarth and Humaanity.

  3. Chris, thanks for this post, and you don’t have to stretch all the way to Hitler to come up with examples of ends justifying means. To uncover and combat housing and job discrimination, black and white people pretending to be looking for an apartment or a job hide their true intentions; this is one way fair housing and fair employment laws are enforced.

    This, though, is different. First, what are the ends here? Did we learn anything from the Heartland disclosures? Not much, I’d say. Anyone paying attention knows they try to undermine mainstream climate science. Their budgets are quite small and despite claims that they are a front for the fossil fuel industry, I’ve yet to see evidence of that.

    More important, the argument about climate science is in the end an argument about trust, truth, integrity. If we want those in the middle to trust what we say, we should try to be trust-worthy, right? If we want them to believe that we are telling the truth about global warming, we should try to tell the truth about everything. Same with integrity.

    Gleick’s action fails on those counts, and I’m even raising the legitimate question of whether he forged the so-called climate strategy document, which would be even more shocking. Yes, he says he got it in the mail but I can no longer trust what he says, for obvious reason. It’s all terrible sad.

  4. Pingback: The Ethics of Climate Change (Conversation Starter) | Ethics |

  5. I think this will shake out to be an important moment on both sides of the debate. On the one hand we have a scientist devoted to ‘Truth’ that used deceit to – in his mind – promote that truth. On the other hand is a group devoted to sowing doubt and discord using lies, who were legally and legitimately wronged. This truly and effectively muddies the waters when it comes to making the claim for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

    As you said in your intro, Chris, the incident sparks in me two responses:
    – Peter did wrong. Period. You cannot on one hand condone his actions while crying foul at the actions that led to ‘ClimateGate’ – same actions, if for a different purpose.
    – That said, the truth about actions and motivations of Heartland and their ilk should be exposed. Is there a legal method for that? In the end, exposing the goals and motivations of the tobacco industry in creating more addicts for $$ was a storyline that eventually led to a reduction in smoking. If we could promulgate this same information about climate deniers being driven by craven greed, but not when it is stolen, that could make a real difference! (I believe I recently saw that every year climate action is delayed adds $500 Billion to the bottom line of fossil fuel companies – can someone confirm or correct?)

    So my question is this – is vigilante justice still JUSTICE? If it hadn’t been one of the premier climate scientists that lied to expose Heartland, how would this incident have been different? (Think Andrew Breitbart – his sole purpose seems to be to break the law, not to provide any meaningful benefit to society – there’s my bias.) What if someone from ELF or ‘Anonymous’ had stolen the documents and sent them to press?

  6. Even in this debate – well intentioned and earnestly conducted as it is – we are playing into the hands of the sceptics. We are making far far too much of “belief” in climate science. Would I push my kids in front of a bus because I’ll only believe that would be dangerous if I can model exactly which bones will be broken? The climate scientists, egged on by the environmental movement at large, are doing their best to “win” an argument about the robustness of future modelling, when in reality no modelling is perfect, and you only get to prove the predictions when it is too late to take action. We are fighting on the wrong ground. I am passionately committed to sustainability but I really don’t care whether climate science is “right” – I think it probably is, but it isn’t central to the question of sustainability. If the issue isn’t greenhouse gases some other source or sink will be exhausted (as many are being!) Let’s stop wasting so much skilled time and resource on this futile debate, and lead by action. The vast majority of people outside the influence of the GOP do more or less get sustainability (although it’s true that few commit themselves to action), and they will be far more influenced by an environmental movement focused on constructive engagement and action, rather than one mired in endless debates about data and modelling, let alone about the ethics thereof. I’m interested in the ethics of getting things done, not the ethics of being right, and I wish Peter Gleick had found something more useful to do with his time!

  7. Chris, as I mentioned on Twitter, I believe Gleick was absolutely wrong to use deception as he did. My standpoint is that of a former investigative journalist. I spent a quarter-century trying to publish stuff other people didn’t want made public (when I wasn’t doing, you know, the odd weather story or filling in on the city desk and whatnot). And “never” is a long time, but one thing I did only once was use deception. With the exception of sneaking into a Ku Klux Klan rally in Iredell County, NC, in 1985, I never represented myself as anything other than a reporter, and I almost always was fully forthcoming about the story I was working on, to the extent that I knew enough at that point to even know myself what the story was.

    And there’s a reason for that: Credibility matters. Honesty matters — honesty in your writing, honesty in your reporting, honesty in your coverage decisions. They matter to the source. They matter to the reader. And, dammit, they matter to me as the reporter, too. So Gleick was wrong, full stop.

    However, there’s a reason we don’t hang speeders: That punishment would be grossly disproportionate to the crime on a moral basis and “cruel and unusual punishment” on a constitutional basis. In other words, speeding and murder are both legal and (I would argue even in the case of speeding) moral violations. But they are in no way, shape or form equivalent. Bribing scientists, obfuscating science and using vast financial resources (relative to the average person’s wealth and income) to distort the social, economic and political public conversation, with potentially devastating consequences for people and the Earth alike, are far greater crimes than Gleick’s.

    So, yeah, Gleick was wrong, and he’s already beginning to pay a price in the court of public opinion, as he should. But let’s keep our eye on the ball here. We have far bigger problems than Gleick.

  8. I’d like to thank you all for taking the time to share your thoughtful comments. I’m still struggling to reconcile my thoughts with the seemingly diametrically opposed positions of people who I genuinely respect, trust and admire. If nothing else, this has been a great navel gazing exercise which I believe will prove invaluable if our climate continues to trend negatively. We may be forced into making decisions under duress, and having the benefit of forethought may save us from regrettable choices. Maybe the value of Peter Gleick’s action is not the outing of a thinly veiled climate denial organization, or the cautionary tale he’s likely to become, but the real benefit of being better prepared for the difficult road ahead. Whether we stand with (or against) Peter today may be of little consequence if the end result is better choices by all of us in the future.

    “The moral calculus needed to weigh one social benefit against another, or against its financial costs, has not yet been developed.” Michael Porter

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