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West West Coast councillors are right to demand proof

Gary Judd QC defends decision to seek evidence of man-made contribution to climate change.

By Gary Judd

Sun, 10 Feb 2019

Published by NBR

The New Zealand Initiative chairman Roger Partridge perceptively noted in his recent column, “The Age of Unreason,” (NBR, Dec 7, 2018) that

“Instead of applying dispassionate analysis and common sense, the 21st century prefers to wallow in ignorance and emotion… [These forces] are a threat to reason itself. To the very foundation of enlightenment civilisation… The next time someone in authority utters irrational nonsense, each of us can stop nodding and call them out. We can point out the contradictions, and demand evidence and analysis.”

He does not explain what he means by reason. He refers to philosopher Immanuel Kant, implying he employed reason. Yes, he did, in a sense. But the reason was all in his head. A basic tenet of his philosophy is that reality cannot be known to man. He distinguished between the noumenal and the phenomenal.

Here’s a description from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“Noumenon, plural Noumena, in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich) as opposed to what Kant called the phenomenon – the thing as it appears to an observer. Though the noumenal holds the contents of the intelligible world, Kant claimed that man’s speculative reason can only know phenomena and can never penetrate to the noumenon.”

When I first heard about Kant’s strange notions, doing stage I philosophy many years ago, I thought it was nonsense. Nothing in the decades since has given me any reason to change my mind.

If Kant thought man can only know phenomena (ie, what’s in his mind), what did he think he was doing when he put pen to paper? Wasn’t he holding a pen, putting it on paper and using words he placed on that paper to express his philosophy? Wasn’t he intending to convey his views to others? Were there others? Or were all these things just in his mind, incapable of being known by him or anyone else?

Contrary to Kant, reason is all about reality and our minds’ awareness of it. It is the ability that people have to perceive what is in nature outside the mind and to work out how they should deal with it.

“Nature to be commanded must be obeyed,” Sir Francis Bacon said (1857). Reality is absolute. Nature does not conform to anyone’s wishes or whims. It obeys laws derived from the identities of its contents.

Nature of reason Reason is the discovery of the real world and how to use it. Reason provides people with knowledge. To discover the real world, we need evidence about it. We get that evidence through our senses providing evidence of the real world, not through our emotions or feelings. We use logic to deal with matters that are not able to be directly perceived.

This brings me to what prompted me to write this article.

The West Coast Regional Council opposes proposed legislation to enshrine emission targets in law. The council says: "To ask the people of the West Coast to commit to an emission target, the evidence proving anthropogenic climate change must be presented and proven beyond reasonable doubt.”

The council and its members have been described as “idiots” and irresponsible.

Three concepts relate to “the evidence.” Climate change. Anthropogenic. Beyond reasonable doubt.

Let’s start with the last one.

Beyond reasonable doubt Most people will be familiar with the requirement of the criminal law that guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. There are various formulations. There has to be certainty. No other logical explanation to be derived from the facts except that the defendant committed the crime.

Although the criminal law is the most familiar application of the beyond reasonable doubt idea, it reflects that in human affairs the more important a matter is, the higher must be the standard of proof to be applied.

No doubt the council considers that committing to an emission target will certainly have impacts on the people of the West Coast. It is right, and a reasoned approach, to demand proof.

There are two questions. First, should the proof be beyond reasonable doubt? Or should it be to some lesser standard? The second question is whether evidence exists to be proof to whatever standard is adopted.

I would say the council has a case for demanding proof beyond reasonable doubt. Committing the people of the West Coast to emission targets will have a detrimental impact because they are intended to restrict those at whom they are directed. Reduction in the use of fossil fuel energy is likely to be harmful to the employment of miners.

To take a related example, the government’s decision to prevent further gas exploration off the Taranaki coast has potentially huge implications for the population as a whole. What happens when existing supplies run out? Does not that decision demand proof beyond reasonable doubt of whatever purported to justify the decision?

Climate change The second concept is climate change. Any change in the climate is “climate change.” The switch from global warming to climate change introduced a description that could never be wrong. The climate is always changing. But what is meant – nod, nod; wink, wink – is global warming.

This is an example of what Hayek called “Our Poisoned Language” (in The Fatal Conceit). He starts the chapter with a quote from Confucius: “When words lose their meaning people will lose their liberty.” He notes that when many widely held beliefs “live only implicitly in words or phrases implying them and may never become explicit … language [may transmit] a type of folly that is difficult to eradicate.”

The effect is seen in commentaries on the West Coast council’s submission. Some commentators proceeded as if the council was denying the existence of climate change. But, of course, the council wasn’t doing that: it was asking for evidence proving anthropogenic climate change, ie, man-made climate change or man-made warming. Which leads to the third concept.

All the council could be concerned with was anthropogenic change. Its statement was perfectly clear in that regard, yet in reported news and comments the council was accused of asking for evidence proving climate change. The reaction is a good example of the ignorance and emotion of which Mr Partridge was speaking.

Gary Judd QC was chairman of ASB Bank from 1988 and its associate life assurance company Sovereign from 1998 until he retired from ASB involvement in 2011.

This is supplied content and not commissioned or paid for by NBR.

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