“Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.
Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure – that it is possible to live and not know.... Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority... Here lies a responsibility to society.” -Richard P. Feynman1
Richard Feynman, who worked on the Manhattan Project as a young man, got to know a thing or two about the relationship between science and democracy, before he got a Nobel Prize in 1965. There is something unnerving for politicians about the right and obligation of science not just to question, but to perpetually doubt absolute answers and absolute decrees, which are by and large the stock and trade of political expediency.
Of course, that also poses some problems for scientists who align themselves too closely to the whims of politicians. Science is inherently democratic, because it involves always being open to and weighing a variety of options or explanations. In that sense, casting doubt on certainty is a professional responsibility, as well as a professional handicap, and hindrance to political chicanery.
One of the problems scientific knowledge elicits is the potential to fall into facile relativism which can be mistaken for skepticism. Relativism – the proposition that all statements are equal leads to what can kindly be called “delusional thinking,”2 which in politics, is less kindly known as the nihilism that unlies “fascism.” And fascism, has to be the ultimate manifestation of “democratic deficit,” and abdication of responsibility to society.
It is a fine line between knowing that truth exists, but is difficult to approximate, and claiming that because it is difficult to approximate it does not exist. While we may have only tacit knowledge of truth the difficulty of demonstrating it should not be taken to exclude or negate it. Yet that is exactly what political expediency does.
The tacit knowledge that science has is commonly found in “definitions.” Definitions in science are not final – they are provisional summaries of what is known about a phenomenon. In that sense they have a contractual character and are an essential part of the democratic character of science. Science and democracy both share in a contractual understanding of relationships. Only fundamentalists or extreme politics take definitions to be absolute rules rather than guideposts.
The hallmark of fascism and anti-democratic movements is to refuse to recognize established contractual relations – be they definitions or social contracts - in order to re-write the contract for the arbitrary personal advantage or gain of a dominant party.
In the last week we have had two recent national and international examples of the attempt to re-write definitions to bolster political positions . The first is a recent deliberate distortion of Mike Hulme and Martin Mahony’s review article of the IPCC for the journal Progress in Physical Geography,4 distorted by climate change denier, Lawrence Solomon, in The National Post. 5 While this was immediately refuted by Hulme,6 it has only led to further equivocation by Solomon.7 The second has been the political boondoggle surrounding the American Power Act, which is the climate bill drafted by senators Kerry and Lieberman, and which the Harper government proposes to emulate.
A General Problem with Climate Change Discussions
There are a number of contradictions surrounding discussions of climate change. Perhaps the most glaring is the fact that as climate change proceeds, opinion is largely divided between a vocal and opposition to status quo, which would have us believe that it is possible to turn back the clock, and a similarly large number of pundits who minimize the reality and propose to maintain status quo and pretend that climate change is not man-made and has nothing to do with current rates of industrial development.
Both of these groups fail to understand that notwithstanding seemingly spurious discussions about whether ongoing, measurable, climate change is anthropogenic or not, climate change is now a demonstrated given in the scientific community. The reality is therefore how we are going to adapt to changing climatic conditions and what that entails. It is not whether there is or there is not “scientific consensus.”
The contradictions in these two movements have actually been quite well discussed by Mike Hulme, the founding director at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, in the last two decades, particularly so in two publications: Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity and “Five Lessons of Climate Change: a personal statement.”8
The approach and position taken by Mike Hulme represent the best in the scientific tradition. Contrary to Solomon’s extremely selective quotation and misrepresentation of Hulme’s analysis of how the IPCC arrives at a consensus and how it establishes truth within the state of information, Hulme and Mahony’s review is particularly interesting because it begins by reminding the reader that the IPCC is largely a product of American apprehensiveness of letting UNEP handle climate change assessment in 1988:
“the emergence in the late 1980s of the IPCC as the politically favoured means of climate change knowledge assessment owed much to American unease about UNEP and to their desire to find a means of balancing the advocacy positions of the fossil fuel and environmentalist lobbies in the USA.”9
In other words, the IPCC began as an institution intended to placate Big Oil concerns in the hope that it might “balance” these concerns with global environmental concerns. The results may not be those that were politically intended by either side, because the process remains faithful to the guiding principles of scientific independence: skepticism as the acceptance that there is no final certainty, and tolerance – the acceptance that there are numerous means to truth.
Hulme’s analysis takes these principles one step further, by trying to reconcile the scientific assessment of risk and response with cultural “truths” and insights. While the physical principles of climate processes are being clearly analysed and modelled mathematically, climate change research has to extend beyond these mechanistic confines. Climate change assessment must now extend its concerns into problems associated with the question of how we understand the relationships between nature and society. In this respect, climate change assessments have cultural dimensions that have hitherto been largely overlooked.
As noted above, the IPCC is a product of North American cultural and economic hegemony. 85% of the climate scientists involved in the IPCC are from OECD, or “developed” countries. This poses large problems for 5 out of 7 aspects of climate change assessments. These five are: 1) socioeconomic activity and greenhouse gas emissions, 2) impacts on ecosystems and human society, 3) adaptation, 4) mitigation and, 5) social systems. Science alone is ill-equipped to develop requisite social policy – these are areas where cultural “social sciences and humanities research had most to contribute.”10
Hulme’s position is therefore that if the IPCC is to provide policy answers, it needs to take a more culturally pluralized approach to the risks posed by climate change. It has to include the input of developing countries. Addressing the risks requires inclusion – if only to build trust. As he notes with reference to a study by Myanna Lahsen:
“Brazilian climate scientists reflect some of the distrust of ... the IPCC, which they describe as dominated by Northern framings and therefore biased against the interpretations and interests of the South.”11
The interpretation of Solomon preys on the vulnerability of Hulme’s acceptance of cultural plurality. Solomon exploits the tenuous relation between cultural pluralism and cultural relativism as an opportunity to relativize the generally accepted truth of climate change. The IPCC consensus is the definition, or social contract, that the IPCC has with the global community. Somewhat ironically, the position advocated by Hulme moves away from the IPCC’s original intent as an instrument intended to protect the interests of Big Oil, and as all good science it lives up to the IPCC ‘s democratic social responsibility to the global community.
What really shocks Solomon is that the IPCC consensus is an implicit questioning of the authority of Big Oil and of Western cultural hegemony.
In recognizing that there are different ways of framing the climate problems, Hulme has also been an object of contempt by North American and European environmentalists. In “Five Lessons of Climate Change: a personal statement,”12 Hulme makes two important points that would never garner him the enthusiasm of the environmental lobby. He first stresses three points that are in accord with mainstream environmentalism: 1) that climate change is an extremely serious concern not to be minimized; 2) that climate change policy is at odds with Western energy policy, and 3)that merely technical solutions such as geo-engineering are dubious. However, he also notes that climate change risks are relative risks perhaps not as extreme as the most pessimist advocates suggest, and that the global community has unmet development obligations to the undeveloped world.
The Democratic Deficit Abroad and at Home
The West’s attempt to escape the development obligations it has to developing countries is part of the broader democratic deficit that marked the Copenhagen accord. It is also part of the growing democratic deficit linked to energy policies at home which is becoming obvious in the wake of the BP scandal in the Gulf of Mexico.
If we accept the proposition that climate change is a culturally modulated phenomenon, that is, a tacitly demonstrable set of phenomena, the magnitude of which is differently interpreted and responded to by different cultures, then the risks of climate change are relative. This is not to say that they are minimal or can be relativized away, as so-called climate sceptics would have it, but that they are relative to the way we understand them culturally.
There is an important consideration here. The reality of climate change is inescapable – how human cultures will respond and adapt will come in the variety of cultural responses associated with development, land-use and energy policies. The reality of climate change will be managed and adapted to by a variety of cultures – not necessarily by a comprehensive monolithic North-American / OECD response. In many ways this is in keeping with the cultural responses that are currently beginning to come out of the failure of Copenhagen, such as the Cochabamba Summit.
Managing therefore means that while we collectively accept the tacit definition, we manage the risk differently according to what climate means to us culturally. A homogenizing North American response would negate the inherent obligations which the developed world has to the undeveloped one, and at home it would perpetuate a failing economic system which has led to growing economic maldistribution.
And that is the rub with the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act which the Harper government wishes to emulate.
Growing Rejection of Prevarication
The ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has brought with it a growing realization that oil dependency has social and environmental costs. This brings brings us, North-Americans, to re-consider our relationship to the energy policies we take for granted.13 This climate change bill represents a watershed in the Obama administration’s drift away from the grassroots that brought it into power. While the passing of a bill, any bill, that would recognize both the reality of climate change and the need to address, it is better than nothing and is a necessity – the BP scandal and Gulf disaster is also forcing these same grassroots to re-consider the energy policies and ethical relativism that underlies this bill. Green NGO’s that originally signed on to this legislation, are now measuring the bill’s inconsistencies and are reconsidering their support.14
A bill that promotes off-shore oil drilling, coal mining and nuclear energy is not really a climate change bill – but a desperate attempt to maintain status quo.
Major groups such as Sierra Club are currently wavering, and opposition is mounting from Climate Reality Check,15 which is a broad coalition of 400 environmental and social justice organizations – including Greenpeace. The collective response to the American climate bill can be found in the recent letter sent to Senator Boxer , which focuses on the need for the US climate bill to be consistent with the nation‘s international obligations.16
The long and short of the position taken by the 400 organizations that support Climate Reality Check is simple. It is not just that governments must face reality, and cease trying to support an unsustainable status quo. Governments must cease doing what all governments in power are prone to do – and we have seen so many so-called “progressives” do in power – prevaricate and relativize to appease and maintain status quo, that is, slide into friendly fascism.
Progressives must meet the contractual obligations they have with their electorate, and address the issues that define the moment. The Gulf of Mexico lesson is simple – it is a logical outcome of what we can expect when governments avoid accepting contractual obligations inherent in the definitions of problems of a shifting reality. It is a political failure in social responsibility.
- Richard P. Feynman (1999). The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Perseus (Helix Books), 146.
- http://www.sciencelive.org/component/option,com_mediadb/task,view/idstr,UCL-Science_in_an_Age_of_Delusions__Some_Examples_from_Scientific_Fraud__Quackery__Religion_and_University_Politics___Tue__28_Oct_2008_14_17_45__0000/Itemid,26 ; http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/aug/15/endarkenment.
- Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch (1975). Meaning. University of Chicago Press, 246 pp.
- Mike Hulme and Martin Mahoney (12 April 2010). “Climate Change: What do we know about the IPCC?” http://www.mikehulme.org/2010/06/what-do-we-know-about-the-ipcc
- Lawrence Solomon (13 June 2010). `The IPCC consensus on climate change was phoney, says IPCC insider. National Post.
- Mike Hulme (15 -16 June 2010). `Correcting and Clarifying Hulme and Mahoney on the IPCC Consensus``; Further Clarification on my remarks http://mikehulme.org/
- Lawrence Solomon (16 June 2010). IPCC insider explains embarrassing disclosure that went viral. The National Post.
- Mike Hulme (2009). Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Cambridge University Press, 392pages; http://www.mikehulme.org/wp.../the-five-lessons-of-climate-change.pdf
- #4 p.3.
- #4 p.6.
- Lahsen, M. (2004). “Transnational locals: Brazilian experiences of the climate change regime.” Earthly politics: local and global in environmental governance. S. Jasanoff and M.L. Martello (eds.) MIT, 161.
- Thomas L. Friedman (11 June 2010). “This Time is Different.” New York Times.
- Joshua Frank (20 June 2010) “Not all environmentalists pleased with Climate Legislation.” Truthout.