Saturday, February 11, 2012

When money and political posturing clash with science.

The debate about global warming – now called climate change – is driven by conflicting interests.  On the one hand there are climate scientists who are concerned that their projections suggest frightening changes coming upon the earth; on the other are the corporate interests that cannot bear for this to be known because it’s bad for business.  So the moneyed interests have turned the issue into a political flash point. 

Actually the issue is not new among those who have been looking at such things.  As far back as twenty-five years ago one of my colleagues showed me a graph of the amounts of CO2 levels at various times over the last several thousand years, based on ice cores taken from the Greenland icecap.  What struck me then was the noticeable rise in CO2 about 10,000 years ago, which we speculated could have been caused by the invention of slash-burn (or swidden) agriculture.  Neither of us was surprised at the far more dramatic rise in CO2 levels beginning in the twentieth century, the time when the automobile was coming into vogue; the amounts have been rising ever since, and dramatically so recently.  At the time, I had no idea what those rising levels might mean for the planet we live on. 

The consensus of the climate scientists is that the earth is warming at an ever faster pace.  The voices contesting this come from outside the community of scholars specializing in global climate.  Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway call those nay-sayers Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010).  Philip Kitcher summarizes their point in his review of “The Climate Change Debates” in Science(vol 328, p. 1230-34, June 4, 2010):  “Opposition to scientifically well-supported claims about  the dangers of cigarette smoking, the difficulties of the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), the effects of acid rain, the existence of the ozone hole, the problems caused by secondhand smoke, and -- ultimately – the existence of anthropogenic climate change was used in ‘the service of political goals and commercial interests’ to obstruct the transmission to the American public of important information.  Amazingly, the same small cadre of obfuscators figure in all these episodes.”  Oreskes and Conway discovered that scientists tied to particular industries, with strong political connections, have played a disproportionate role in debates about contested issues.  Even though they obtained their stature in fields with little pertinence to the issues in question they have posed as experts, many of them paid by “think tanks” devoted to contesting claims that threaten the interests of powerful corporations and political interests.  The attempt has been to shape the way the public thinks about the natural processes that threaten the world.  In fact, it seems certain that any attempt to deny the processes of nature cannot prevail, at least in the long run.  The world operates according to its own mechanisms, whatever we might think about it.  We cannot create a "reality" by mere rhetoric or ostrich-like denial.  

The task of science of course is to faithfully seek an understanding of the world as it is.  Obviously, if the climate experts are right the earth is facing critical developments that will not go away. 

What most climate scientists foresee is indeed worrisome.  If we consider how the dangerous trends in the world can be turned around, to turn back the trend of CO2 production that is causing climate change, we find reasons to consider the situation dire.  That is, there are natural processes and there are social processes.  Anthony Giddens, the sociologist who has joined the debate (The Politics of Climate Change, 2009), puts it this way:  “It will be a colossal task to turn around a society whose whole way of life is constructed around mobility and a ‘natural right’ to consume energy in a profligate way.”  A colossal task, yes.  Turning around a civilization that is hell-bent on carrying on as it always has, driven by institutional conventions that are ensconced and opulently funded will indeed be a Herculean task.  That the system in place will seek to deny scientific findings that threaten it is to be expected.  So why does Giddens add to the above eminently formulated assertion the following codicil: “Yet it isn’t as hopeless an endeavor as it looks”? He provides no evidence to support this claim.  We wonder: Did Giddens reach for a straw to avoid admitting how unlikely such a turn-around is?  It seems obvious enough that what is actually required for the world to transform itself is a huge effort.  So, really, how likely is it?  Minimal.  Is the reality too hideous for Giddens to put it into words? 

Nancy Lindesfarne [Anthropology Today 26(4):1,2 2010] describes the collapse of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, December, 2009:  "No one  ... imagined what shape the Copenhagen Accord would actually take. ... Alone, the heads of five states brazenly decided, in a last minute, back-room fix, to do nothing at all to prevent catastrophic climate change.   These five states are among the world's largest coal consumers.  ... they are all states that would have to change most to address climate change.  In the midst of the global financial crisis, they decided it would just cost too much. ..."  In response to the failure of the Copenhagen talks Evo Morales Ayma, President of Bolivia, called for a World's Peoples Conference on Climate Change and affirmed, "We have two paths: to save capitalism, or to save Mother Earth." 

Capitalism or global collapse:  That's an option our world leaders must never have to face.

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