Cuffe in Cancun

Minister of State Ciaran Cuffe represents the government at the international climate negotiations in Cancun. His speech is here. This visit is part of the normal business of government.

Mr Cuffe announced a contribution of 23 million euro to a new UN fund. This contribution follows from earlier commitments and it is appropriately stingy. The new UN fund is a bribe for developing country negotiators to behave. I have yet to see evidence that the money will be put to good use. Although the Irish contribution is a logical result of earlier decisions, it is a tad insensitive to announce a 23 mln euro reward for bad behaviour at the same day as you are cutting the benefits to the blind. Fortunately for Mr Cuffe, bankers got a bigger reward for worse behaviour on the same day.

Mr Cuffe said more. He announced legislation for climate policy, continuing the Green charade of being in and out of government at the same time. He announced support for new research by the World Resources Institute — a project that still has to go to tender as far as I know — although funding for Irish research on environmental matters has been severely cut.

Mr Cuffe also said “Ireland supports the case for strong urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to stay as far below a 2 degree Celsius increase in global temperature. We know from the scientific advice that this is a necessity in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.” In other words, Mr Cuffe argued that science necessitates action. This is not true. Science will tell you what if. If you do not like the prediction, you should do something about it. That is a value judgement, however, rather than a scientific fact. There is a long tradition of politicians hiding behind climate science. It is the root cause of politically motivated attacks on the science of climate change, and the consequent politicization of climate science. It is unfortunate that, a year after climategate and glaciergate, Mr Cuffe chose to reinforce the problem.

71 replies on “Cuffe in Cancun”

What is this doing on Irish economy.i e? Can we have a thread by some other outlier explaining that the Irish banking meltdown is all a fantasy?

@R Tol
You state that “funding for Irish research on environmental matters has been severely cut” – can you provide details of what these cuts are?

I think it is unfortunate that there appears to be only one climate change/green policy contributor on this blog that presents only one viewpoint – another perspective would be interesting to hear instead of continual green bashing.

The EPA is the main funding agency for climate research. It announced a 100 mln euro programme in October 2007.,23628,en.html

Only a fraction of that money has materialized. In fact, the EPA has seen its budget cut by much more than other agencies. This site is not up to date — — but there have been few calls for proposals in 2010.


At least try to engage with the argument. You’re just posting your opinion of Tol.


Surely it’s a stretch to say that politicians hiding behind climate science is the root cause of politically motivated attacks on climate science? I would have thought that most of it was about economic winners and losers?


Very good point, though perhaps you have interpreted Mr Cuffe somewhat uncharitably — reading his text benevolently, it does appear that he is vaguely aware of the ‘logic of instrumental reason’. Yet the way he puts it shows that he doesn’t draw a clear line between ‘advocacy science’ and truth-seeking science that ‘follows the argument wherever it goes’. He’s another cherry-picker and data dredger — and there are plently of them on both sides of the divide in the field of climate change.

At the risk of teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, I recommend the following book as a must-read.

The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics
by Roger A. Pielke Jr.

The book’s focus is on the interaction between climate change science and climate change policy. Chapter Six is particularly fascinating (Title: When scientists politicize science).

The Greens ” We must have an election immediately after the budget! No! Immediately after our pet projects are passed so we have a platform!” deserve everything they get. I’m delighted Richard calls them on their inconsistencies (which is surely a full time job?)

In other words, Mr Cuffe argued that science necessitates action. This is not true. Science will tell you what if. If you do not like the prediction, you should do something about it. That is a value judgement, however, rather than a scientific fact.

How dare Mr. Cuffe come out with such balderdash.

It is like someone saying I had to hit the brakes because a woman walked in front of the car. The driver clearly did a complex calculation based on on the velocity of the car and then made a value judgment based on the likely injuries to the woman, his legal liability, the sociological and economical cost of mowing down women crossing the road and made a value judgment.

Or it is like politician in the lashing rain saying they had to put up their umbrella because of the rain. More lies and dissembling by the mandacious political classes. They assessed the wear and tear to the umbrella likely to be caused by the rain, the damage which could be caused by the rain to their clothes and health, their tough man image, the possibility of a photo-op, how other people would regard their use of an umbrella in the rain and then made a value judgment.

It is about time somebody called a halt to the misleading, deceiving and distorting statements like these which are destroying public debate. These short, clear and simple statements lack the length, complexity and endlessly-recursive qualities needed to properly inform the public!

I’m not sure you can rail against the “politicization of climate science” when your articles on the environment focus on politics rather than science.

@Marcus, Zhou
The logical framework is
“science predicts A unless I do B” + “I don’t like A and I don’t mind B” = “I do B”

In climate, this has been shortened to “science says do B”.

People who are opposed to B could of course first replace the shorthand with the proper logic, and then argue that B is worse than A. Alternatively, they could attack the science. The latter is simpler and more effective.

You get more bang per buck improving efficiency in developing states than say in Ireland where a well known insulation scheme is expensive and saves relatively little energy.

To quote another Richard Tol
‘I’ve argued elsewhere that the international framework for climate policy is complete, and that we should now focus on reducing national emissions at minimum cost.’

It would be just terrific if Mr Tol, Bjorn Lomborg and Steven Leavitt could club their comments somewhere ideologically safe and free from the contributions of climatologists, leftists and altruists.

Oh, and just to reinforce this, if it is between trusting the value judgements of a climate change scientist or those of a market fundamentalist economist I know which one I and I suspect 90% of the population would choose.

Dihydrogen Monoxide is the most deadly and widespread pollutant on the planet, contributing hundreds of times more to global warming than all the other greenhouse gases combined. If Cuffe can get agreement in Cancun to ban this ghastly stuff then all our problems will be over.

@ Richard Tol

I’ll take the opinions of Bill McKibben over yours any day. Until you get published in the New York Review of Books I’m afraid in my book you just don’t count. The opinions of my employer have nothing to do with it. And that’s very poor form from you.

@Edmund Burke:
“… ban this ghastly stuff ….”
Especially in whiskey.

@Shay Begorrah:
“… fundamentalist economist ….”

Someone has to work out how to pay for things.


You’re right Richard, GCAA doesn’t aim to reduce energy directly, it ‘tackles climate change adverse effects on communities through active projects implemented within eighteen most vulnerable countries’

i.e. helping other countries deal with the consequences of countries like Ireland who spent a decade churning out greenhouse gases to create empty houses.

That’s what it says on the tin. Reality is different. Note that adapters to climate change have studiously avoided the lessons of 50 years of development aid.

@Brian J Goggin Says:

“Someone has to work out how to pay for things.”!

Absolutely and the economist is the person best qualified to study and suggest generally where the money came from, where it went and whether it took an unnecessary detour along the way. Economics is fascinating and revealing and the little glimpses I get here of what happens inside the economy are fascinating.

I would hold however that economics is a social science with a fundamental dependency on value judgements and which is inextricably tied to political outlook – left wing monetarists are in short supply, ditto right wing Keynesians (to a lesser extent).

Economics is also an important weapon on battleground of ideology and let us not pretend that we do not have a preferred side in the war or worse that the “laws” of economics support a certain political viewpoint or organization of society.

@ Shay Begorrah

One thing I dislike in social sciences is the way that people try to pigeonhole authors/researchers according to their perceptions on a left-right scale. The left-right divide is unhelpful as it ignores the underlying logic that led the person to their conclusions. You’ll find that even most of the economists you label as ‘right-wing’ will hold apparently ‘left-wing’ views regarding some issues (e.g. education health etc), but right-wing views regarding other issues (e.g. some unions). With that in mind, I cringe when I hear someone labelled (even if by themselves) as a ‘Keynesian’, ‘austrian’ or ‘monetarist’. I doubt many people could have their thinking summarised by these terms.

What I’m getting at is this – you seem to be judging economists who write on climate change by your perception of either them or of economics itself. This is quick and easy, but inaccurate. The arguments themselves are what matter.

Sure. I raise four issues:
– Is it wise to transfer 23 mln euro of Irish money to the GCCA?
– Will the government introduce the climate bill or not?
– Did Cuffe announce research funding that bypassed the tendering process?
– Did Cuffe further politicise climate science?

This has nothing to do with left or right, green or brown.

My view
1 – yes, at best it gets cash to projects in developing states that have to cope with the consequences of Irish emissions; at worst it means getting 18 votes to join the EU bargaining position
2 – if the govt lives long enough it will
3 – no – it contributed to a EU pan-governmental fund.
4 – no, see 1


How does the Irish contribution compare to others? Or our BBB+ peers (South Africa & Libya)?

1. your conditional yes of course assume that the EU bargaining position is worthy of support

3. Cuffe announced two pots of money. The big pot is kosher. I’m not so sure about the small pot.


Firstly I do have a regrettable tendency to label people and the whole rush to submit pressure on a blog does not help – it is easy to be cruel and thoughtless to strangers.

On politics and climate change there is obviously crossover between the left and right, Marxists are frequently openly contemptuous of the environmental movement, many advocates of a low carbon economy are nimbyists who want to preserve the scenery and stop the poor multiplying and using up valuable natural resources.

Am I wrong about Mr Tol though? Do you think that he is not informed about which arguments he takes up by his beliefs about how the world should be? Really?

There are very few politically or philosophically disinterested participants in these arguments, most of those on the opposite sides of arguments also have very different ideas about what the “good” is and this argument is one that you can not argue well from first principles.

“Mr Cuffe argued that science necessitates action. This is not true.”

Climate change does not occur in a gradual, linear way, but is non-linear, with all sorts of amplifying feedbacks and tipping points. There are already clear indications of accelerating problems that lie ahead. These include:

• Melting of the Arctic Ocean ice during the summer, which reduces the reflection of sunlight as white ice is replaced by dark ocean, thereby enhancing global warming. Satellites show that end-of-summer Arctic sea ice was 40 percent less in 2007 than in the late 1970s when accurate measurements began.4

• Eventual disintegration of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, set in motion by global warming, resulting in a rise in ocean levels. Even a sea level rise of 1-2 meters would be disastrous for hundreds of millions of people in low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam and various island states. A sea level rise at a rate of a few meters per century is not unusual in the paleoclimatic record, and therefore has to be considered possible, given existing global warming trends. At present, more than 400 million people live within five meters above sea level, and more than one billion within twenty-five meters.5

• The rapid decrease of the world’s mountain glaciers, many of which—if business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions continue—could be largely gone (or gone altogether) during this century. Studies have shown that 90 percent of mountain glaciers worldwide are already visibly retreating as the planet warms. The Himalayan glaciers provide dry season water to countries with billions of people in Asia. Their shrinking will lead to floods and acute water scarcity. Already the melting of the Andean glaciers is contributing to floods in that region. But the most immediate, current, and long-term problem, associated with disappearing glaciers—visible today in Bolivia and Peru—is that of water shortages.6

• Devastating droughts, expanding possibly to 70 percent of the land area within several decades under business as usual; already becoming evident in northern India, northeast Africa, and Australia.7

• Higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere may increase the production of some types of crops, but they may then be harmed in future years by a destabilized climate that brings either dry or very wet conditions. Losses in rice yields have already been measured in parts of Southeast Asia, attributed to higher night temperatures that cause the plant to undergo enhanced nighttime respiration. This means losing more of what it produced by photosynthesis during the day.8

• Extinction of species due to changes in climate zones that are too rapid for species to move or adapt to, leading to the collapse of whole ecosystems dependent on these species, and the death of still more species. (See below for more details on species extinctions.)9

• Related to global warming, ocean acidification from increased carbon absorption is threatening the collapse of marine ecosystems. Recent indications suggest that ocean acidification may, in turn, reduce the carbon-absorption efficiency of the ocean. This means a potentially faster build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.10

But never mind. The ESRI have a climate SWITCH model that shows the environment is doing very well.


Thanks for having this thread. I posted this yesterday:

Why are we allocating €23m of borrowed money into this type of overseas aid pot. If we are not going to stop overseas aid totally at this point we should be more circumspect about where we place it. How can we have such severe cutbacks locally – can/should we not say sorry this year we cannot contribute?


Get with the times! Virtually all the alarmist points that you list have been disproved or downgraded since ClimateGate, HimalayaGate, and others.

Even former AGWers have returned to the practice of science rather than dogma, viz Judith Curry.

““It’s a very complex scientific problem. There’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “It’s not that we’re incompetent, there’s just a lot of inherent variability. A lot of that is unknowable.”

@ Shay

Glad you agree somewhat. I just think that it’s better to question someone’s logic than their character/perspective. I’m not saying the latter two don’t affect people’s statements, but rather that if they do then it should be apparent in the statements themselves. I’m trying to avoid the “playing the man, not the ball” metaphor, but I think it’s the simplest way of making my point.


Having denounced Cuffe for confusing politics with science, you then make a spurious argument that the 2deg target is the ultimate reason for the politicisation of climate science.

Is it not more reasonable to blame the serial science mercenaries like Singer, Soon, Baliunas (etc. etc.), people with a long and well documented history of signing up to whatever anti-science campaign is ongoing, and of profiting personally as a result? Cigarettes and lung cancer, the ozone layer, climate change etc are all one to them.

Fred Singer recruits Hal Lewis to sign an open letter and apparently that’s news. Then Lewis resigns from the APS and signs up with the GWPF and that’s news again. How many more times will the same guy doing the same thing continue to be news? And more to the point, shouldn’t you therefore direct some of that ire against Singer who has left a paper trail a mile long detailing his commercial dealings with the oil and tobacco industries?

Climate science has become politicised because the denial industry lays out arguments more like defensive trenchlines than as part of a coherent scientific schema. They can’t win the scientific argument — they don’t conduct observations or publish papers because they’ve nothing to say. Rather, only by politicising the argument can they drag the conversation on ad infinitum — and only by ensuring no conclusion is ever reached can they avoid losing the debate.

@ fergaloh

yes, at best it gets cash to projects in developing states that have to cope with the consequences of Irish emissions; at worst it means getting 18 votes to join the EU bargaining position

There’ a curious lack of interest by Mr. Tol in the established fact (thanks to Wikileaks) that the US has already been down this road (paying development money to other countries) in pursuit of whatever game they were playing at Copenhagen.

Or, maybe not so curious, given his track record.

@ Adrian

Having denounced Cuffe for confusing politics with science, you then make a spurious argument that the 2deg target is the ultimate reason for the politicisation of climate science.

Bingo. The poor state of the ESRI these days, part XIV.

this is a common thread in Tol’s contributions. Outlandish nonsensical rant – followed by progressive retraction, obfuscation, clarification…confusion. As they say there is no such thing as bad publicity..move along – nothing to learn here

Tol: “The logical framework is “science predicts A unless I do B” + “I don’t like A and I don’t mind B” = “I do B”

In climate, this has been shortened to “science says do B”.”

But not in Cuffe’s speech. Not at all. He said:

“We know from the scientific advice that this is a necessity in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.”

The key part of that being “in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change”. I think you’re being needlessly pedantic anyway, but your argument of people “shortening science” doesn’t even apply here. What he said doesn’t equate to “science says we must do this”. It equates to “science says we must do this if we want to avoid a certain consequence”, which is exactly what you’re advocating he says.

You would be right if Cuffe would derive “worst” (in “worst effects”) from his value system. The way I read it, “worst” derives from “scientific advice”.

@RIchard Tol
With reference to the cuts to the EPA I think it is worth mentioning that Minister Gormley requested a review and public consultation for the EPA in early 2010 to look at its scope and mandate.


Is there any application of the word “worst” which isn’t somewhat dependent on some form of value system? This is a bizarre level of pedantry. “The worst effects of climate change” is a pretty reasonable phrase.

If a paper talked about avoiding the “worst effects of a cancer”, it’d be reliant on a value system, but still entirely reasonable.

Far too much comment on this thread is of the “how dare Tol say this”, “no, he has a right to say this”, variety. I think the anti-Tol people are personalising this and the pro-Tol people address all their responses to whether Tol has a right to speak. Tol’s posts can comes across as abrasive. Maybe that is his natural manner. He tends to be curt, direct and has a mathematical logic. These are unIrish traits but we live in a multi-cultural world. Exchanges on this forum probably don’t help. Also anything connected with the GP now has an automatic negative effect on many people, seemingly him included. Then there was the bad blood from the incinerator debate.

For anti-Tol people I would say that you are losing the opportunity that a Tol post on this forum provides to discuss what you think and why on these particular issues. You should see his posts as an opportunity to put your case, not a heresy that needs to be righteously dismissed lest it pollute feeble minds. It also makes for a terrible thread. I would recommend that you just stop talking about Tol, or his right to speak, and instead focus on putting your own case.

@Richard Tol
Regarding your last post: they think exactly the same about you! What both parties have to do is keep it civil, address the substance of your posts and if points about the wider climate debate are made do so in a non-school yard fashion. Instead of attacking/defending Tol, please discuss the bloody post! This is going to be very hard as relations are clearly fraught. But remember, you are at all times addressing the blog readers, not just each other.

Regarding my posts on other threads: yes I am being fairly hypocritical! But I think my advice is still valid.

@Ahura Mazda
Libya and South Africa may actually receive money from the new fund.

A fairer comparison is Greece. No mention of any hand-out in this speech:

Portugal commits 36 mln euro though:

Iceland gives 1 mln dollar:

You are of course right that there is a proper science of climate. Lets try WMO, as published on the Met Eireann website (not known for their religious fundamentalism) of December 2nd :

The year 2010 is almost certain to rank in the top 3 warmest years since the beginning of instrumental climate records in 1850, according to data sources compiled by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The global combined sea surface and land surface air temperature for 2010 (January–October) is currently estimated at 0.55°C ± 0.11°C (0.99°F ± 0.20°F) above the 1961–1990 annual average of 14.00°C/57.2°F. At present, 2010’s nominal value is the highest on record, just ahead of 1998 (January-October anomaly +0.53°C) and 2005 (0.52°C). The ERA-Interim reanalysis data are also indicating that January-October 2010 temperatures are near record levels.

You, Baron Blaby (Nigel Lawson), Hal Lewis (that name again) over in the Global Warming Policy Foundation announce that “2010: An even more unexceptional year” with cryptic gems like “Because the world has been markedly cooling for the past four months unless November and December are extraordinary and go against this trend, then 2010 will be cooler than 2005 and 1998, at least.”

As you rightly state “religion is beyond reason” but I am having trouble spotting who the zealots here.

It is a clear value for Cuffe (and all of us) to mitiigate the worst results of global warming.

Those worst results are informed by the science, which basically says that developing countries wll be hit first and hardest, in their food supply.

So I think the supposed fact vs value conflict is non-existent. A value can be a general consequentialist principle, while a fact is specific.

While not wanting to “get at” Richard, it is ludricous to find him still riding the *-gate hobbyhorses along with his denialist obsessive mates. why should these faux-scandals (e.g. 5 enquires with no sunstantive findings, a report on the IPCC with minor suggestions) mean anything?

For the benefit of those who have not read the Scientific American article, it makes no reference to a green brain or to religion but a sub editor uses the word heretic in the title

Judith Curry is not a heretic, just a scienist who has found a way to gain her 15 minutes of fame.

She has no more or less claim to authority than any other scientist.

I notice Richard once again has mounted his clapped-out Rosinante: “Climate Science is a religion”. That spavined old beast won’t carry you far, Professor.

Perhaps you would list for us those you consider “proper” scientists a la the Tol Criterion, and the benighted religionists from whom no good can some?


Glad to hear you say it. I do agree the gentlemen you mention wear their hearts on their sleeve somewhat, and often overstep the appropriate level to pitch their case, but I think “religion” is going a bit far.

Far scarier is the anti-intellectualism and obscurantism you find on all denialist websites, especially, if you delve into the comments. I gave up reading them some time ago as being too depressing, but it is worth the exercise as a one-off.

I regard the Cancun Convention (is that the correct term?) as being in the realm of politics rather than science. Given the forces involved, it is about the best that could be achieved in the circumstances. I fear many more negative outcomes of global warming must become manifest before more forceful action is taken.


Whatever about nutters, I reject the implied equivalence of “both sides”. There is only one side, which is the scientific one. There is a minority view which is too small to be called a side, and then there is a fringe movement in the media and blogosphere.

I have noticed that at least most media outlets have ceased to bother getting the mandatory quote from deniers when reporting global warming. That is good, because the fiction of “both sides” and “scientific debate” has persisted for too long.

Our response to the scientific facts has to determined by our values, which is another story.

Thanks Richard,

The Brits are a bit generous. Are they diverting funds from overseas aid budgets to this? Equally, I’d hope the Irish do the same. I’m surprised the Irish overseas aid funds have remained in place.

Although a little abstract, this reminds me of Judge Peter Kelly’s comments in Brendan Murtagh’s case: “Mr Murtagh would have to come to terms with the fact he was no longer very wealthy and may have to reduce his living standards accordingly, and consider a number of matters including whether he needed two houses, the judge added.”

I think many politicians still don’t get the extent to which our circumstances have changed.

by the way- as per Press Release – the money is going to the Global Climate Change Alliance which is an EU initiative – not a UN Fund ( (I trust this is not indicative of Mr. Tol’s general scant analysis of facts?)

It is of-course an unscientific leap of faith to jump to the unqualified conclusion that this fund amounts to a ‘bribe’. Mr. Tol says he has seen no evidence to the contrary although he provides no evidence to support his assertion – which seems to be borne more out of his pre-analytic bias.

With respect to insensitivity – there is a world of difference between austerity and starvation – most Irish people understand that despite our woes we are extraordinarily lucky unlike the majority of humankind. That is why we continue to be extremely charitable people.

The five GCCA priority areas include :

• Adaptation: Building on the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) and other national plans: in-depth research on the likely effects of climate change and reliable climate observation is essential for all adaptation measures. Furthermore this information needs to be translated into practical information for use by policy and decision-makers. The GCCA supports developing countries improve their knowledge base on the effects of climate change, so as to develop and implement adaptation strategies.

• Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD): About 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by deforestation. In LDCs, 62 % of total emissions originate in land-use change, primarily deforestation. The GCCA seeks to decrease the CO2 emissions from developing countries by creating incentives for forest protection, while preserving livelihoods and ecosystems depending on forests.

• Enhancing participation in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM): The CDM has the potential to bring significant foreign investment to poor countries given that it costs less for industrialized countries to invest in emission abatement in developing countries than at home. At the same time, developing countries receive advanced technologies helping them in their own sustainable development efforts. So far, however, the poorest countries have attracted only few CDM investors. By building capacities and providing technical support, the GCCA will try to level the playing field and promote a more equitable geographic distribution of CDM projects.

• Promoting Disaster Risk Reduction: There has clearly been an increase of natural disasters linked to extreme weather events, resulting from climate change. The GCCA will assist the most disaster prone countries in building their capacities to prepare for, mitigate and prevent natural disasters.

• Mainstreaming climate change into poverty reduction development strategies: Climate change affects many sectors and needs to be integrated or “mainstreamed” into poverty reduction efforts to ensure sustainability. The Alliance will strengthen the on-going implementation of the EU Action Plan on Climate Change and Development (focused on mainstreaming) in the most vulnerable countries.


Mea Culpa. Science does not tell us to do things.

Perhaps I should have let the facts speak for themselves!

€23m for the Global Climate Change Alliance? As I say on my blog:

“(T)he less developed countries rightly point out that the richer countries caused the bulk of the problem, and the poorer countries are suffering the consequences. That’s why we’re helping out… Some might argue that such money shouldn’t go abroad at a time of economic austerity at home, but the funding will help some of the most impoverished nations to adapt to a crisis for which we share responsibility.



I wish I could share your optimism. The foreign-funded-adaptation-to-climate-change community has consistently ignored the lessons from 50 years of development assistance. The new 7.2 bln euro fund will be run by the European Commission which has a poor record in development aid.

Chances are, most of the Irish 23 mln euro will be wasted.

Ethics and Sustainability

By Professor Frank J. Convery, Chairperson of Comhar Sustainable Development Council and Director, Earth Sciences Institute, University College Dublin

Friday, 17th December 2010

Ethics is about doing what is right, regardless of the cost to oneself.

One of the authentic Irish heroes is Tom Crean of Anascaul, Co. Kerry, who went on Antarctic expeditions with Scott and Shackleton. When he and two others – Lashly and Evans – were hauling a sled back to base in deep soft snow across crevasses in ferociously cold and stormy weather, Evans collapsed and had to be carried; food and other supplies ran out; they were exhausted, starving and suffering from snow blindness.

Evans begged Crean and Lashly to leave him and save themselves, and doing so seemed to be their only hope of survival. But they refused.

In the end, Crean went a further 60 kilometres on his own, got help, and all three survived. And in a number of other cases, he continued to demonstrate this combination of selflessness, courage, calmness under extreme pressure, good luck and doing what was right rather than what was expedient or in his own interest.

The most powerful piece of writing on environmental ethics comes from Aldo Leopold. In his ‘Sand County Almanac’, he makes the point that the human ethical view evolves. He uses as an example the fact that when god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged a dozen slave-girls of his household, whom he suspected of misbehaviour during his absence. They were property, to be disposed of as he saw fit.

But 3,000 years later, in most parts of the world, his action would be judged unethical, reprehensible and wrong. He goes on to argue that: “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for)… The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

In our own time, we can observe in many countries the evolution of the ethic that today says it is unacceptable to smoke tobacco products in enclosed public spaces.

And so ‘caring for God’s creation’ has become part of the ethical compass of most religions and ethical systems.

But going from a broad conviction to an ethic that influences behaviour requires us to translate philosophy into guidelines for action. Empathy and understanding the processes of science are prerequisites.

In ‘A Theory of Justice’, John Rawls proposed that we should adopt values as if we operated behind a veil of ignorance, and had no idea at the outset of our lives where we will end up: “No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like”.

He concludes that if an individual does not know how he will end up in his own conceived society, he is not likely to privilege any one class of people, but rather develop a scheme of justice that treats all fairly; we would all adopt a maximin strategy, defined as one that would maximise the prospects of the least well-off. Specifically, if there was one chance in seven that we would end up amongst the one billion poorest citizens on the planet – afflicted by hunger, malnutrition, disease, lack of access to electricity and very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – what would our priorities be?

The problem, of course, is that we do know our fortune and our social status, and so we are invited to imagine, and to act upon, a situation that does not exist. Understanding enough about science and how knowledge evolves to support appropriate public action is an important requirement for coherent and ethical citizenship.

A good start would be to require every schoolchild to understand the history of science and the role of interest groups in addressing some of the key public interest challenges of our time, including – for example – the implications for public health of smoking tobacco products, producing and using asbestos, using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and radioactive materials, and greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

The cycle of discovery and the reactions thereto resemble, in some respects, the five stages of response to terminal disease: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It also fosters a better appreciation of uncertainty; of thresholds; and of the balance of probabilities: we can never prove unambiguously that smoking causes increased incidence of cancer, that ozone depletion is responsible for increased incidence of melanoma, etc. Understanding emerges as scientists develop theory and compile and interrogate data, including comparing control samples with others that are affected; testing propositions in the lab and in the field; replicating where possible; discussing margins of error; and drawing inferences.

It’s important to create the right incentives, get the policy right and – where we can do so – enhance economic performance while we protect the environment.

But, in the end, action on our part is needed and this sometimes requires sacrifice. Next time we argue that the burden of protecting our planet should be passed onto someone else, we should think of Tom Crean.

Comments are closed.