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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.

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.