Should we tolerate climate denial?

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McKinnon, Catriona (2016)

At 18.27 on 12 December 2015, Laurent Fabius brought down his gavel to mark the adoption of the Paris Agreement by nearly 200 countries. Even the most optimistic commentators agree that the scale and speed of the action needed to realize the ambitions of the Agreement are daunting. The history of action on climate change gives us no grounds for optimism. But perhaps, we still have grounds for hope (McKinnon 2014).\ud \ud Many things could snuff out this fragile hope. In this article, I shall address conduct that explicitly aims to do so: climate change denial (from here on in, “climate denial”). By “climate denial,” I mean the deliberate and deceptive misrepresentation of the scientific realities of climate change, such as the fact that climate change is happening, its anthropogenic causes, and its damaging impacts (Dunlap 2013). What I do not mean by “climate denial” are minority or outlier positions on aspects of climate science that lie within the range of normal and healthy disciplinary disagreement. There is an established international network of well-funded organizations devoted to organized climate denial, and their activity is on the increase (Boussalis and Coan 2016). The epicenter of this activity is in the United States, where climate denial has had a significant impact on public opinion (Leiserowitz et al. 2014), and has impeded legislation to tackle climate change (Farrell 2016; Oreskes and Conway 2012).\ud \ud My question is: should we tolerate climate denial? The “we” in this question refers to broadly liberal people and legislators in democratic societies, for whom principles of toleration and the virtue of tolerance are of fundamental importance in social and political life. Toleration is a matter of principled self-restraint with respect to conduct that would alter, suppress, or prevent the characteristics or conduct of people opposed by the tolerator (McKinnon 2006; McKinnon and Castiglione 2003). The tolerant agent refrains from interfering with those she dislikes or of whom she disapproves even when she believes that her dislike or disapproval is well-grounded. The agents of toleration can be individual people—when toleration is likely to manifest as a virtue, or as a civic disposition—or institutions, when fundamental political principles, the constitution, and laws and their implementation, are framed to respect the limits of toleration (McKinnon 2013). Toleration is difficult to justify and hard to practice at both the personal and institutional level, particularly for liberals (Scanlon 2003a). Liberalism is committed to freedom of association, conscience, worship, movement, and expression as a matter of fundamental principle (Rawls 1971). This delivers a distinctive liberal, permissive vision of the limits of toleration with respect to acts of expression. Given that climate denial is achieved through acts of expression, there is a heavy burden of proof attached to any liberal proposal to be intolerant of climate denial.1\ud \ud My aim in this short article is to identify the proper site for this debate. What are the questions to be answered in deciding whether climate denial lies beyond the limits of liberal toleration? Although I do not answer these questions, by correctly identifying them I hope to show that the burden of proof is perhaps not as heavy as we initially might have thought.
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