Freedom and responsibility


Arguments about how to address climate change often evolve around the concepts of freedom and responsibility. I was reminded of this by a recent discussion on the climate-policy blog Prometheus, where several comments from attorney “lgcarey” hit the nail on its head. E.g. here, (s)he writes

“…the key question here is about fraudulent conduct, not free speech. Free speech does not immunize me from liability for telling the guy who is interested in buying my house that the basement is dry as bone when I know that it leaks like a sieve every time it rains.” 

Of course, the issue is not whether a layperson is liable for expressing a thought that runs counter to the consensus. In complex issues, many people tend to not believe something of which they dislike the perceived consequences (“Back to the stone age!”). It’s unfortunate and perhaps unwise, but you can hardly put them on trial for that.

The issue is whether an entity (person, industry) with a financial interest in the matter, who knowingly distorts the evidence to increase their financial profit, is liable for doing so. To that, the answer is (or should be) yes.

The background to this discussion is some resurfaced old news that an industry funded lobby group distorted evidence about the reality of man-made climate change. Just like lobby groups before them did regarding health effects of smoking. History has a tendency to repeat itself. The NY Times has since published an addendum, but it didn’t change the bottom line very much in my view.

People opposing action on climate change often claim that their right to free speech is being stifled by, uhm…, yeah, by whom, really? I guess by the climate mafia, headed by Al Gore.

People calling for action on climate change on the other hand rather frame the issue in terms of responsibility.

Of course, both values are important, and a balance needs to be found between them. Freedom without responsibility leads to reckless anarchy, and responsibility without freedom is like a prison.

I, for one, hate it when somebody tells me what to do, or what not to do. I very much like my freedom. And I don’t want to take anybody else’s freedom away. However, freedom has limits. Your right to your freedom shouldn’t interfere with other people’s right to their freedom. I think that should include the freedom and rights of future generations and of nature at large.

If you don’t want to take your responsibility, it’s far easier for peace of mind to ignore the signs that you may adversely affect others, than to live with that uncomfortable knowledge.

If I’m addicted to smoking, I may be more likely to downplay the risks of smoking than if I weren’t a smoker. I would be pretty pissed off though with all those people around me telling me that indeed it isn’t harmful, especially if I somehow sensed that they withheld or twisted information to the contrary. And if decades later, suffering the full consequences of having smoked all that time, I found out that the tobacco industry had funded efforts to mislead and confuse the public regarding the health effects of its products, how would I feel then?

Will that be how future generations feel about (some of) us?

Haven’t we learnt the risks associated with “Buy now, pay later”? Isn’t it asocial to let somebody else pay for what you buy now?

As uncle Ben said to Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility”.


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