Climate Debates and the Nature of Expertise
I can only imagine how dizzying it must be to try to make sense of climate science as a non-climate scientist. My background and training doesn’t really equip me to engage in a discussion about the accuracy of climate models, the relative importance of various gas emissions in affecting degrees of heating, or the significance of sea ice extent in the summer in the Arctic. In fact, my engagement as a political scientist in these debates would be highly counterproductive to the discussion and would contribute zero to the stock of climate knowledge as it pertains to the prognosis for the earth.
The Nature of Science and the Science of Nature
One of the mistakes we often make is confusing scientific debates with political ones. This is what fed the ‘climategate’ debacle and what continues to make any whiff of scientific controversy pure oxygen for climate skeptics. However, criticisms of scientists (as opposed to science) mistake the forest for the trees. Scientists are not ‘debating’ the climate so much as they are refining the cumulative knowledge that is their scientific purview, a body of knowledge which is the culmination of centuries of practice, experimentation, rigid application of standards, and a continual cycle of testing and iteration that has stood the test of time. One might also add the contribution of the body of indigenous knowledge that arises from centuries of close experience with changing ecosystems. This knowledge has provided a proven basis for human survival and thriving through millennia of climate changes.
One of the mistakes we often make is confusing scientific debates with political ones.
These methods of knowledge production have produced our most reliable and predictable technologies, things that we use every day without questioning or even knowing anything about their scientific basis. When we check our phones for the correct time or our GPS to figure out how to get to Auntie’s house for dinner, we don’t interrogate the motivations that drive scientists to do their thing, we just make use of it. We’ve forgotten that accurate clocks and navigation systems are the products of the same efforts and methods that produce climate knowledge.
What Role for Political Science?
So, where does that leave me? Shifting the lens means looking at how people learn, where their confidence in their knowledge comes from, and assessing their claims on the basis of mutual respect for each others’ life experience and formal and informal learning.
Assessing claims over time gives better confidence in their robustness, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to truth. Knowledge is socially produced, and so helping to understand how and why social innovation happens is one way that political scientists can contribute to our understanding of climate change.
This is the purview of political science – at the core we political scientists are about improving our knowledge about how people learn, how they come to their beliefs, and how decisions result from that interaction.
What Political Science Might Say
Here’s what political scientists might conclude about the current debates over climate change:
- Climate change is a complex of human and nature interactions, incorporating both ecosystem and social system changes. Ask a biologist – life has shaped the planet as much as the planet has shaped life.
- Debates about the causes of climate change say more about the ability of powerful voices to shape discourse than they do about the science or the state of human knowledge. Check the historical and current role of the fossil fuel industry in shaping discourses.
- Humans deploy information as a tool to resolve psychological and social problems, such as cognitive dissonance or hypocrisy.
- Humans deploy information as a tool to foment problems because it brings them social benefits such as inclusion and acceptance into a group they aspire to. This observation applies to scientists as well as everyone else, but scientific testing is explicitly designed to moderate and reduce the impact of this human tendency on the knowledge produced.
- Human social reactions to emerging threats vary hugely based on their perceptions, but depend inordinately on social relationships. Human social innovations in response to climate change may be classified into two broad forms: social control or mobilization.
- Those closest to the object of knowledge (ie scientists, marginalized peoples in developing countries, indigenous peoples and their leadership) will be most widely questioned as dissonance grows, they will also be the most likely to try to mobilize their knowledge
- Those furthest from the object of knowledge (non-scientists, the wealthy and geographically mobile) will be just as likely to experience dissonance but will prefer social control strategies over mobilization
- Human inequality encourages suspicion of the motives of others, which in turn leads to widespread mistrust of knowledge claims of any basis. This is supported by both observational and experimental evidence.
- Mobilization does not require special knowledge or access, nor does it require knowledge to be certain or definitive
- Social benefits and costs will not be distributed evenly, leading to further pressures on decision making, as sorting these out distracts from collective action
- Cognitive dissonance and time pressures leads human decision making groups to narrow the range of choices available in ways that make decisions ultimately less adaptive and optimal.
Knowledge is socially produced, and so understanding how and why social innovation happens is one way that political scientists can contribute to our understanding of climate change.
What to Do?
Some of these observations are more pessimistic, and some are more optimistic, when it comes to the prospects for taking climate action. On the pessimistic side, widespread and deep questioning of the basis of human knowledge is most counterproductive when humans most need to grow their knowledge in order to act effectively. On the other hand, the prospects for collective mobilization may grow over time as climate change impacts become more widely felt.
We are in a novel historical moment which challenges the full range of human ingenuity. Whether mobilization or social control will win out is an open question. I’d speculate that social innovations tend to be more adaptive in a stable climate than they are in a rapidly-changing climate. I know which I’d prefer, but history (if it continues at all) will be the ultimate judge.
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