Disinformation, water scarcity, and conflict: Opinions have ethical implications

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol
Posted on 9 February 2014

This article by Suzanne Goldenberg in The Guardian caught my attention because it points to another potential source of violent conflict from climate change, namely the depletion of water in some parts of the world. To quote from her article:

Already a billion people, or one in seven people on the planet, lack access to safe drinking water. Britain, of course, is currently at the other extreme. Great swaths of the country are drowning in misery, after a series of Atlantic storms off the south-western coast. But that too is part of the picture that has been coming into sharper focus over 12 years of the Grace satellite record. Countries at northern latitudes and in the tropics are getting wetter. But those countries at mid-latitude are running increasingly low on water.

The folks who specialize in conflict management, the Pentagon, recognizes the water problem as a potential source of conflict:

The US security establishment is already warning of potential conflicts – including terror attacks – over water. In a 2012 report, the US director of national intelligence warned that overuse of water – as in India and other countries – was a source of conflict that could potentially compromise US national security.

So it is not just heat stress that may trigger violent conflict, perhaps via forced migration as a mediating variable, but also water scarcity. Lest one think that this is an issue for the distant future, several scientists have recently pointed to a link between drought and the war in Syria; for example, here and here. Even the Washington Post reported on the link some months ago. (None of this is to ignore the politics of the conflict, but societal stressors should not be overlooked.)

Also today, the UK Met Office released a climate statement that states the obvious:

There is an increasing body of evidence that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is consistent with what is expected from fundamental physics. There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly heavy rain events.

Floods or droughts, depending on where you live, all consequences of ongoing climate change. Consequences that were predicted decades ago by climate scientists. Consequences that continue to be denied by a propaganda machine that scholarly research has revealed to be funded by up to a billion dollars a year.

Opinions have ethical consequences. The dissemination of scientifically unfounded opinions to delay political solutions to a problem that was once fairly readily solvable, and is now solvable only at increasingly greater cost, has ethical implications. It also establishes a potential causal link between misinformation and each of the increasing number of climate-related extreme events--perhaps the floods in Somerset, just a few short miles from here, should be framed as being provided by the infamous Heartland Institute.

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