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Lying and deception can be justified, says climate change ethics expert

James Garvey, a philosopher and the author of The Ethics of Climate Change has written a defence of Peter Gleick at the Guardian:

What Heartland is doing is harmful, because it gets in the way of public consensus and action. Was Gleick right to lie to expose Heartland and maybe stop it from causing further delay to action on climate change? If his lie has good effects overall – if those who take Heartland's money to push scepticism are dismissed as shills, if donors pull funding after being exposed in the press – then perhaps on balance he did the right thing. It could go the other way too – maybe he's undermined confidence in climate scientists. It depends on how this plays out.

It's good to know that environmentalists feel this way about telling the truth. We have had similar insider views on truth-telling from, for example, the Open University's Joe Smith, who reported the decision to issue tactical lies over the nature of the global warming debate.

Hard also to avoid Stephen Schneider's famous quote:

...we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

I guess Dr Garvey has cast his vote for effective rather than honest.

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Reader Comments (158)

Did Gleick act ethically or not. Not clear -- still developing...
Film at 11
Feb 28, 2012 at 11:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterDEEBEE
I find it interesting, if not significant, that nobody here (never mind the Gleick apologists, they're too young to know ...) has drawn the real life parallel between the statement 'if you want to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs', commonly used at the time of Stalin's great purges against even the old guard of communists, never mind the ordinary people.
I find it odd because many here are aware of Lysenkoism, but don't seem to look further and recognise that biologists didn't get their fingers slapped, they ended up in the GULAG, with the well known consequences.
While for a time Lysenko was a hero, and was right to break eggs according to the communist mantra, slapping Gleick's wrist while proclaiming that his deed was sort of heroic anyway shows exactly the same sort of world view.

Philosophers and apologists, sitting safely in their nice and warm ivory towers, very often overlook that their pronouncements and deeds have real ife consequences which ends in death for some people.

I don't think there was that much difference, personally, between our old age pensioners who died of hypothermia, combined with under-nourishment, and that of the GULAG inhabitants - who died of the same causes.

I suggest these heavy-weight 'philosophers' take time out of their oh-so-busy schedules and read a few books. Arthur Koestler's 'Darkness at Noon' might be a good start if 'The GULAG Archipelago' is too unpalatable for their vapid minds.
Feb 28, 2012 at 11:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterViv Evans
Gary Hladik (Feb 27, 2012 at 10:23 PM) <blockquote>Heartland Institute as the tank man of Tiananmen Square? I like it!</blockquote>

Garvey has already cornered the Tiananmen Square image for his “side”. Gleick is the tankman Garvey has been waiting for. Here he is last June at

<blockquote> I gave a talk on the ethics of climate change last night to the good people of 10:10, ... The team involved are environmental X-Men, each one with a different superpower.  If you let your guard down for a second, you’ll find them inspirational. 
 It got me thinking about moral revolutions.  There are moments in human history when the stars line up [eg Bono?] and people insist on something else entirely, largely or anyway partly because they think that it’s right.  Think of the end of slavery in the US, campaigns against child labour or in favour of suffrage... I wonder what it is that shifts moral talk from irritating moralising that no one wants to hear, to a reason for standing in front of a tank.  Any idea?</blockquote>
Feb 28, 2012 at 3:20 PM | Unregistered Commentergeoffchambers
Anyone can \"justify\" anything, but that doesn't make it Right.
Feb 28, 2012 at 4:42 PM | Unregistered Commentertadchem
Gleick was about to chair a committee on ethics in science for the AGU and Garvey is a philosopher writing on ethics. Does the study of ethics lead to unethical modes of thought?
Feb 28, 2012 at 5:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Austin
Robert Austin said:

\"Gleick was about to chair a committee on ethics in science for the AGU and Garvey is a philosopher writing on ethics. Does the study of ethics lead to unethical modes of thought?\"

Think of it like a person getting into psychology in order to understand why they have emotional problems. Ethicists study ethics because they don't understand them.

For most of us ethics are easy to understand but sometimes hard to practice. For ethicists ethics are hard to understand and, subsequently, hit and miss whether they are practiced.

I suppose there is a distinction between \"good\" ethics and \"bad\" ethics. LOL
Feb 28, 2012 at 5:41 PM | Unregistered Commenterchris b
As Rudyard Kipling wrote:
"If you can keep your head my son, when all about you are losing theirs, you'll be a man my son."
I will try - as will all you too, I am sure.
Feb 29, 2012 at 9:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobin

Richard when you make similar high profile comments about Michael Mann and his "Hockey Stick" fraud, I'll start to trust you.
Until then,,,,,,,

Mar 12, 2012 at 9:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

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