Tag Archives: climate change

The Maldistribution of Security: the (In)vulnerability Paradox

This post is inspired by a short conversation I had months ago about climate change. It went something like this:

  • Hello passerby, do you want to learn more about sustainability?
  • Passerby: why yes, I am very interested in that topic. I always keep a clean house, I compost so I don’t waste food, I ride my bike as much as possible, and I use organic products, so I am definitely living sustainably.
  • Me: that’s interesting and very commendable! Have you thought about how you can contribute to the cause?
  • Passerby: well, I feel like I’m doing everything I should, and if everybody lived the way I do, we’d all be better off, but I can’t tell other people how to live. Besides, all that stuff about climate change just doesn’t seem to be based on fact.

Since ‘the great hunkerdown’ began, I’ve been thinking about this point of view alot. I see similar, if more extreme, ideas being circulated in the media. There’s an invisible line drawn between ‘my world’ and ‘what I’m responsible for’ and ‘the world of others’ and ‘what they are responsible for’. An individualistic approach to problems is our reflexive reaction in the Anglo settler countries of the developed industrialized world. Individualistic liberalism dictates that the line of ethical responsibility for others is determined by each person, as they make free decisions based on their own values and interests.

There’s something to be said for the power of this idea and its influence on liberal culture. After all, it is liberalism which first originated the modern language of rights and constructed a political space for imagining an ethic of agency which has been highly effective, at least within its own parameters.

It is appropriate to imagine that collective problems can be solved by individual action, indeed it is difficult to imagine how any progress can be made absent people ‘buying in’ to it, for example by changing their own consumption patterns.

Those countries around the world that ignored individual freedoms in favour of panicked enforced lockdowns in response to the pandemic will likely pay a high price in legitimacy, which will be costly in the end. Those countries that have enjoined their populations to ‘do the right thing’ have implicitly drawn on people’s genuine fears of their own contagion rather than a commitment to civic duty.

In the developed world, we should all pay deep respect and homage to the Italians for their sacrifice in helping us to learn that we were vulnerable. However, those countries that have relied almost exclusively on fears, without any reference to civic duty, have fared even worse than Italy, because in a liberal culture the absence of a sense of civic duty means that individual freedoms end up trumping everything else. Now more than ever, the paradoxical nature of individual freedom, based on a confident sense of security and separateness, is being laid bare.

It is liberalism which first originated the modern language of rights and constructed a political space for imagining an ethic of agency which has been highly effective, at least within its own parameters.

The gaps and limits of liberalism are being made visible, even obvious, as the logic becomes extended to its absurdities and extremes. Why not me first? Why care about others, isn’t that their job? My house is in order, I am healthy, I am reducing my footprint, I’m doing the right thing, I’m not the threat, why do I have to pay a price?

A really clear gap of liberal culture as it lives today, is its lack of any distributional ethics. Liberal thinking is essentially blind to the question of how security, or any other value, should be distributed. Since the only value worth distributing is individual freedom, and the only way to measure it is by each persons’ values and preferences, there is little to no room for considering exactly how equitable social distribution might actually work to enhance individual freedoms. The idea that each person’s freedom will be enhanced when decisions are made equitably, with the collective interest in mind, is alien and foreign.

The passerby who cares deeply about the cleanliness of her own household, and believes she alone deserves the benefit of her efforts, is blind to the myriad ways in which her choices are supported by the collective decisions of the past (and the present) that have made those choices possible. Indeed, the entire institutional structure of individual choices enjoyed today by those who most strongly defend their ‘freedoms’ has been made possible by the collective decisions of societies in the past (not by individuals). Ultimately, in history, it is only collective action that lasts, since the length of individual lifetimes is too short for leaders to see their ideas become permanently embedded. Thatcher had it exactly wrong: it’s not that there is no such thing as society, in the end there is only society.

Ultimately, in history, it is only collective action that lasts, since the length of individual lifetimes is too short for leaders to see their ideas become permanently embedded. Thatcher had it exactly wrong: it’s not that there is no such thing as society, in the end there is only society.

The cracks in this edifice are showing. The maldistribution of security, including the inequitable distribution of (in)vulnerability, is becoming glaringly obvious. The invisible line between ‘immunity’ and ‘vulnerability’ is being revealed for what it is: a collective construction. Immunity/vulnerability is a paradox. Immunity is always dependent, derivative of the vulnerability of and to others. The confidence in individual choice that liberalism empowers is at its core a function of the maldistribution of social vulnerability. Immunity can never be ‘just for me’ if it is to be a real thing and not an illusion or myth.

My protest to be mask-free is predicated on the existence of modern medical knowledge, nurses, doctors, and ventilators which can catch me if I fall. My resolve to open my business profitably is predicated on the willingness of customers to take risks AMA (against medical advice). All of this means that I have to be very strident to convince enough of the community to my side if I’m going to make a go of it.

My sense of safety in my own home, my ‘home immunity’ is predicated on the risks and vulnerability of service workers, first responders, grocery clerks, truck drivers, payroll clerks, meat plant workers, sewage workers, and an army of government employees. My insistence that I am only responsible for my own house is predicated on the edifice of social protections that society has established collectively. This edifice includes the effort and sacrifice of climate activists who may eventually contribute to finding a collective solution to the threat of climate change without my help.

If and when solutions are found, as a liberal focused on the ethics of individualism, I would have no qualms in making a claim for the immunity created by the vaccine for myself and my household. Similarly, I would have no qualms about defending my right to enjoy the benefits of a livable planet, including my freedom, as long as someone else pays the price. The question is, would anybody care enough about me to listen?

The Politics of Oil

Talk scheduled for October 18th. Oil is essential to industrial society as we know it.  The history of the industrialized world has been shaped by changes in the environmental, economic, social, and political dimensions of oil.  In this session, we will learn about the history, the present challenges, and the future of oil in an environmentally-stressed planet. Participants will emerge with a deeper appreciation for the complexities of oil politics.

Works

Lee, J (September 7, 2019) “The World’s Oil Glut is Much Worse than it Looks” Bloomberg Opinion

Bloomberg. Woolley, (2013) “Selling Carbon Taxes in the Exurbs” Francis Worthwhile Canadian Initiatives

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.

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.