Category Archives: Environmental Research

On Climate Debates: A Political Science Viewpoint

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Humans deploy information as a tool to resolve psychological and social problems, such as cognitive dissonance or hypocrisy.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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.
  9. Mobilization does not require special knowledge or access, nor does it require knowledge to be certain or definitive
  10. Social benefits and costs will not be distributed evenly, leading to further pressures on decision making, as sorting these out distracts from collective action
  11. 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.

Is the World Getting Better or Worse?

This presentation takes a practical look at recent trends in the world and analyze whether the world is getting better or worse. We will look at trends in democracy, human rights and freedoms, economic growth and inequality, environmental degradation and climate change, human health, population, and governance, among others.

About Turn: Canada and Climate Change Policy (Talk)

Hear about the history of Canada’s efforts to address this crucial global problem of climate change and explore the challenges ahead. Canada is struggling to balance an economy highly dependent on natural resources with the increasingly urgent need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change: Deconstructing Conservative Fatalism

Photo Credit: Thinkstock
Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Recent comments about climate change policy from conservative world leaders Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott suggest an important shift in conservative thinking about climate, science, and the role of country governments in tackling the problems of climate change.  Having lost the public relations fight about climate knowledge, conservatives now either vacate the field or adopt a discourse of what Stephen Colbert might call ‘truthiness’.

Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the conservatives under Stephen Harper have ‘called out’ the world over inaction on climate change.  This strategy has had some success.  Harper stated recently that “no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country is seeking.”

In this way, conservatives can claim to be the real ‘truth tellers’ who can then freely take the low ground of inaction.  By doing this, they make common cause with critics of climate politics while also maintaining a distance from the more extremist deniers [who quite frankly are starting to look rather foolish]. This discursive strategy is nothing new to the Harper conservatives, who have had some success in using it to justify pulling out of the international effort to negotiate a new agreement.

In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, a child is the only one who sees that the Emperor is not wearing rich clothes but is indeed wearing nothing.  The child has done what none of the Emperor’s advisors dared to do, and so has credibility because of his/her relative freedom from social constraints.  These constraints restrict what subordinates may say to the Emperor, and so make it difficult to oppose his views.  The child, unrestricted by expectations, has the ability to speak their own mind without fear of the consequences.

Much is forgiven when a speaker can be said to be ignorant and unsophisticated, and the moral of the story is that wisdom and social value can come from the mouths of innocents not captured by the oppressive dictates of social expectations.

Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.

However, taking a ‘truth teller’ role in international relations has many more risks and is far more complicated.  Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.  Norms are built in the space created by uncertain statements, blurry commitments and nondescript agreements.

Social expectations and norms in other settings can become a straightjacket of nakedness, as the moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes suggests.  But international relations is different.  In IR, social expectations and common norms are flimsy and weak.  The risk of defection from any common enterprise is so high that the appearance alone of cooperation (nakedness) is often the only thing carrying the projects of climate change agreements forward, and making progress possible.  Bravery means a willingness to be at least a little bit naked, and aware of one’s own vulnerability.

For this reason, Conservative ‘truth telling’ should be seen for what it is:  first, it is an unabashed instrumental rationalist strategy for defecting from a common effort to address climate change.  It is not a cowboy-esque statement of independence worthy of respect for its pluck and grit.  It is not brave.  It is not radical.  It is not inspirational.

78806802Second, using ‘truth telling’ as a political tactic obscures the fact that defection imposes costs on all of the other countries seeking a means of fairly distributing the disastrous effects of adaptation to climate change.   Defection means cheating.  Any common benefits that come from an agreement, such as a reduction in emissions, will be enjoyed by all, whether they have paid any part of the cost of adjustment.

Conservative ‘truth telling’ is not brave.  It is not radical.  It is not inspirational.

Canada and Australia, as wealthy developed economies, will be enjoying the benefits of the economic adjustments imposed on poorer, less developed economies.  Canada is not the weak ‘child’ calling out the powerful Emperor, but rather, Canada is like the Emperor exploiting the helplessness of his subjects for his own vanity.

Any real effort to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change needs to demonstrate a willingness to pay a price for the achievement of real emissions reductions.  No one is saying that countries aren’t reluctant to take on that price.  To say so is not ‘truth telling’ but a recognition of the difficulty of achieving agreement.

To recognize the difficulty and then back away from it reveals a self-serving policy that celebrates weakness and apathy, not strength and independence.  Conservatives are banking that their celebration of ‘do-nothing’ policies will play on peoples’ fatalism and fear about climate change.  Let’s not let the Emperor succeed in this vain pretense.

 

The Place of Intrinsic Value in Environmental Politics

The news this year on the climate front continued to be alarming, especially the record low extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic.  The anthropocentric case for doing more to combat climate change seems self-evident.  A changing climate is very likely to be less hospitable to human needs than a stable one.  Arguments solely from self-interest therefore appear fairly quickly in the discussion of what to do.

But what of arguments not based on self-interest?  What place is there in the environmental discussion for a non-self-serving ethic, based on the idea that the natural world has intrinsic value, independent of human needs or human culture?  In fact, these ideas have been elaborated since the early days of the Does nature have its own intrinsic value?movement by Arne Naess and many others.  The notion of intrinsic value has seen its most prominent political expression in the discourses around parks and protected areas.  Groups like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society continue to be  influential in establishing that ecological integrity should be a guiding principle of parks governance.  Protected areas symbolize many things, but one of the impetuses for protection is the awareness and recognition of a natural world with its own logic, its own measures, and its own ethical integrity, independent of the human.

Arguments that go beyond human self-interest, however, have not made a huge impact in the climate debate.  One problem is that an ecocentric ethic has been too closely associated with wilderness preservation.  Wilderness preservation is a legitimate basis for political action, however, wildernesses today are too physically remote, too closely managed, and too narrowly defined to be a solid basis for elaborating a larger argument about intrinsic value.  Biodiversity holds more promise, since natural biodiversity can be understood to operate from non-human principles.

Searching for intrinsic value.But what if the biosphere changes radically in response to climate change, what then becomes of an ethic of static preservation and intrinsic value?

In fact, I would argue that the best way and most effective way to integrate an ethic of intrinsic value in political decision making is to use an expansive and embedded approach. Such an approach would first of all recognize that intrinsic value and use value are not mutually exclusive ideas, and that something can be valued both for its usefulness to humans, and for itself.  Aristotle used the example of eyesight.  We value our eyesight both for its usefulness (we can see things and interact with the world more effectively with sight) and for its intrinsic value (we can appreciate sunsets and see the faces of loved ones).   The key test is not whether it would benefit humans to protect it, but would we miss it if it were suddenly taken away?  We can all imagine the sense of loss we would feel if our eyesight were suddenly removed, and we can all imagine the sense of loss as species disappear from the tree of life and the biosphere becomes irrevocably changed and even degraded.

This is a basis for building political action because of its universality.   Cultures may not agree on the value of any individual species but they can agree on the big picture of loss.  Practically speaking, the notion of intrinsic value for Canadians can be easily compared to the language of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Just as rights require entrenchment and defence by government and ordinary citizens, so, too, does nature.

Let’s not be afraid of the language of intrinsic value.  It is already all around us in political discourse.  Arguing that nature should be protected for its own sake makes a more robust position in favour of protection possible.  For example, it puts the onus on oil pipeline companies and developers to prove the worth of their activities, rather than on nature to prove its worth in human terms.

A Leaner, Meaner Politics in the US: What About Canada?

In his book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity will Remake American Politics Thomas Byrne Edsall argues that shrinking public and private resources will make politics leaner, meaner and less civil.  It’s not just that right and left disagree on how to distribute resources, it is a fundamental rift in the understanding of the purpose of the state itself.   It’s also not just a fight over ideas:  it is a battle for survival.  The supporters of the right, to pearth_tighten_belt_800_clr_7668araphrase Edsall, are ageing, embattled, middle to upper class whites living in decimated and depopulated suburbs who are increasingly bitter about the direction of the redistributive state.  In the past, the right’s call to arms was a kind of negative freedom (‘Don’t Tread on Me’) which fought to preserve the individual’s ability to choose their own forms of happiness unimpeded by state regulations.  The premise of this, we know now, was the expectation that everyone could gain from a growing pie.  No more.  Programs for which supporters of the right are the primary recipients (including Medicare and social security) are considered sacrosanct.  Programs from which others benefit (read black, immigrants, poor or public sector workers) like Medicaid, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or income supports, are untenable ‘entitlements’.  On the left, there is a counter-move to protect the public sphere from erosion while simultaneously trying to remain coherent in the face of a fiscal crisis and an unrelenting personal attack on Obama during an election year.  The left is increasingly turning to middle class minorities, immigrant and young voters who are far less steady in their support and are on the whole less well-established and more vulnerable both economically and politically.

These kinds of politics reveal rifts that have historically deep-soil_money_canada_pc_800_clr_2385eated roots but which linger below the surface until austerity and crisis reveal them.  What rifts lie below the surface of Canadian society that have been eroding the social consensus gradually and unrelentingly?  Could Canada go down a similar route?  Recent battles paint a picture of the possibilities.  With vitriolic flourishes the Harper government and environmentalists are fighting an increasingly pitched battle over oil resources.   The push for a pipeline to expand foreign markets for oil, whether through a Northern route or Keystone, has as its root a long-standing fear that overproduction of oil will drive the price down and shrink profits.  This is a real fear, since the flattening of oil prices will make the billions of dollars already invested uneconomic, and capital will flee.  On the one hand, it seems more like an embarrassment of riches than a problem of austerity: oil consumption is maintaining a steady stiff pace overseas and is set to grow, along with its negative climate impacts.  On the other hand, it has all of the set piece features of a zero-sum fight over a shrinking resource.  As anti-fossil fuel efforts grow, and as more bitumen-type oil production facilities are being developed in Latin America and more unconventional oil is prospected in the Arctic and other areas, the chances of oil revenues becoming restricted in the future is higher and higher.  If this happens, look for politics here to follow a similar path to those in the US, with the centre of the storm being the role of shattered_dollar_coin_800_clr_8730the state as a (re)distributor of resources.  With potentially shrinking state revenues due to tax reductions and few other signs of growth outside the resource sector, the temptation to retrench at the expense of the poor, immigrants, the disabled and other marginalized groups may well be irresistible.  On the other hand, another fight between regions in true Canadian fashion may be brewing.  I want to end on a positive note here.  Everything I’ve learned in teaching young people about politics in the last 15 years has taught me that if anything, youth are more accepting, welcoming, compromising and diverse than ever.  I can only hope that these qualities will enable the cultivation of a middle ground in the future in Canada that seems increasingly elusive in the divisive and paralyzing politics down south in the US.  If we are to believe Edsall, however, austerity could bring out the worst in all of us.

The Future is Now: Rio+20

History’s largest international conference is taking place this month to commemorate a series of milestones and assess progress on key environmental issues.  After thinking and writing about these issues for so many years, I hope readers will forgive the tone of this post, it’s admittedly ‘glass half empty’—on another day I might be more optimistic.

It’s been 40 years since the world’s first international Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm in 1972.  Since then, anniversaries of these milestones have been held at various intervals, with the key turning point being the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio which established the notion of sustainable development and set the global agenda for the 21st century.

Sustainable development is development that…

In the past 40 years, entire generations of people have emerged from poverty, gained education, raised children, fallen into war, lost their homes, tackled disasters, and accumulated debt.  Countries have been formed, economies bankrupted, and entire societies have risen, fallen and stagnated.  The unrelenting trends of environmental destruction have been unshaken by these human earthquakes.  Virtually every curve follows the same pattern: from carbon emissions to depletion of the ocean fisheries to accumulation of plastics, the trends are unchanged.   The human acceleration of the carbon cycle, depletion and degradation of energy, growth in global population, and accumulation of wastes has proceeded at an unrelenting pace.

organic_growth_graph_400_clr_5097In 1992, Agenda 21 listed a series of aspirational goals: international cooperation, peace, and participatory sustainability were among them.  It was optimistic and mediocre.  It was the best we could do at the time, and in hindsight, probably the best we’ve ever done.  Looking back now, we can see the forces that were brewing to both advance and hobble the emergent global consensus.  Businesses got on board for the first time: tired of being labeled the enemies, and realizing the need to forestall government actions, they either went wholesale for a radical re-hauling of their practices or threw money and marketing at the problem to change perceptions.  All these years later, it’s hard to say which tactic had the greater impact.

As the environmental damage of some business activities became harder to avoid, reduce or hide, businesses changed tactics.   They labeled their environmental critics as ideological nutcases or foreign enemies.  Scientists were a tougher community to silence, but not impossible.  Funding think tanks to stir up doubt about global warming and buying politicians bought some industries some time to become too big to fail and so lock governments into subsidizing them when the inevitable crisis hit.

stick_figure_insert_key_earth_hole_pc_400_clr_1318For their part, the environmentalists were caught off guard by the ferocity of the counter-attack.  Hostage to the business cycle, their pessimistic message found solid ground in those populations whose stakes were lower and who had the most to gain from changes: the lower middle and upper middle (both countries and classes) had sufficient resources to spend with some discretion and when given a choice that make economic sense, they were willing and able to make changes.  They created new green enterprises, touted urban farming and wind and solar energy, and focused on changing the local level, leaving the large businesses the global field upon which to play.

In taking this hunker-down survivalist approach, however, many forgot that their local environments were dependent on the global in inseparable ways.  Their urban and suburban lifestyle was oil-fuelled and globally-adapted and vulnerable at its very core.

Governments essentially vacated in the face of irresolvable differences: they were derailed by issues of  fairness in compensation for losses, human rights claims, global inequities in resource distribution, and the unwillingness to give up any sovereign claims whatsoever.  While talking a good game, they utilized any and every opportunity to shift costs onto others and spare their own any discomfort.  The ‘others’ included future generations, other countries’ territories, and other species.  To be fair, there is no room for heroes in environmental negotiations, since the fault is increasingly everyone’s, and so, essentially, no one’s.123088183(2)

There are real problems to be solved here: air, land and water pollution can be reduced, species can still be saved, warming can be either accelerated or slowed.  Imagine what might be done in the next 40 years.  The earth cares not about how these things are accomplished, just whether they are.

#RioPlus20; #EndFossilFuelSubsidies

For more analysis and some governance solutions, see the excellent Earth System Governance Project: http://www.ieg.earthsystemgovernance.org/

Student Showcase

Political Science students at Okanagan College this past Fall term have worked very hard to prepare work on cutting-edge political topics and issues.  Students were challenged to analyze a political problem, consider various policy options, and come up with creative solutions.  They prepared a blog, poster or paper to present their work.  This showcase is a sampling of some of the best work done this term.  My thanks to all of my hard-working students, it was a close competition among some outstanding submissions.  I am blown away with the outstanding work that you do!

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