by Judith Curry
What does this perception of climate controversy reveal about our own understanding of the relationship between science and society, nature and culture, and more generally about our relationship to modernity? – Lionel Scotto D’Apollonia
Global warming: A trojan horse of modernity?
Lionel Scotto D’Apollonia
Abstract. This paper sets out to untangle the complex issue of global warming controversy. In fact a number of overlapping issues are intertwined: ethical, ideological, political, philosophical and epistemic amongst others. What does this perception of climate controversy reveal about our own understanding of the relationship between science and society, nature and culture, and more generally about our relationship to modernity? Have we achieved Bacon or Descartes’ grand design of mastering and possessing nature? To answer this question several points need to be clarified: firstly, the debate in sociology relating to scientific controversy; secondly the treatment of uncertainty in discourses and the ideological, ethical and political aspects of that controversy. Finally, the paper seeks to demonstrate how the IPCC is built on a strong modern genetic code, and how it in fact reflects complex interrelationships between the West and modern democracies. The paper proposes to use the metaphor of the Trojan Horse as the most effective tool to understand these questions.
Published in Science in Society, link to full paper [here]. Excerpts:
Anthropowarmists is a neologism I have created somewhat in opposition to climate-skeptics. They consider that there is enough tangible proof to attribute the causes of global warming to human activities.
Climate Skeptics refer to the issue of uncertainty as a core element of their argument. [One] kind of sophism maximizes uncertainty as an argument in order to avoid taking any political decisions designed to reduce carbon emissions. Some others skeptics consider that the IPCC itself is a real problem on the grounds that it simultaneously mixes political and scientific issues and that science doesn’t require consensus to move forward but rather uncertainty and controversies. Climate Skeptics have denounced a sort of global warming myth.
It is worth noting that climatologists are happy to address issues relating to controversy and uncertainty. The two groups, anthropowarmists or Climate Skeptics agree on one point if not much else besides; to say that uncertainty exists. They are fully aware that of what scientific points need to be investigated more deeply. It has been interesting to note their opinion of those scientists who delegitimize climate controversy, such as Naomi Oreskes and various others. Even for anthropowarmists and of course for skeptics controversy is entirely natural for science, and there really is an element of uncertainty. Jean Jouzel vice president of the first IPCC panel notes that “we never hide the fact that there is a good deal of uncertainty”. However anthropowarmists consider that uncertainty comes from the complex and chaotic nature of climate, and that we have sufficient proof to engage political decisions to reduce CO2 emissions. Climate Skeptics emphasize uncertainty as a prerequisite in any debate – virtually in all interviews and articles. So overall, it’s possible to consider that the two groups consider uncertainty in the same way. But a more nuanced approach might well be possible. In fact some climatologists don’t speak in the same terms but rather vary their discourse according to the public they are addressing. When talking to their peers they seek not to minimize uncertainty. But when they dialoguing with lay people, they tend to minimize uncertainty.
As one particular climatologist member of IPCC put it: “in general I say that there are three certainties that the composition of the atmosphere is changing, it’s linked to human activity, and that the climate keeps on warming”. Because he supports a political message he considers that it’s vital to communicate clearly without any element of uncertainty.
On the other hand, a large majority of scientists are anthropowarmists but also take the view that there is no uncertainty. They disqualify other scientists who are considered as deniers.
One researcher stated quite clearly that he doesn’t want to use words such as “Climate Skeptics” or “controversy” because there is no scientific controversy. Others take the view that scientific controversy is legitimate within scientific fora, but are more ambiguous when it comes to public debate.
They understate uncertainty because they need to justify their own perception of risk. In fact, science tries to objectify uncertainty, while risk is constructed with social subjectivities. This mechanism of the subjectivities of risk is constructed principally on two inter-related antagonist elements: on the one hand an imaginary scenario and fears associated to technology and the rationalization of future consequences on the other. This perception of risk is built on a subjective dimension in respect to which various actors remain unaware. As Frewer has demonstrated, these actors minimize or erase uncertainty by fear of creating confusion.
In France, a community of geographers is worthy of note: they believe that there are too many “complex and various causality factors”. One particular geographer affirmed that they: “don’t believe in models because there is too much uncertainty”. They prefer to ask questions in terms of human adaptability at local level. Anthropowarmists might well consider that they are skeptics but this is not how geographers see themselves. All of this means that any differing opinions are considered to have come from Climate Skeptics without any additional information or detail.
A clear normative distinction has thus emerged between scientific study scientists who believe in human responsibility, and others who can be characterized as being more moderate. When I say normative, I think they don’t really produce science, but normative or subjective science which depends on their own ideological or political positions, without real reflexive work. So if science studies really do wish to analyze climate controversy they must surely carry out some real reflexive work prior to any investigation, and clearly define their own criteria scientifically. But actors base their discourses not only from a scientific point of view, but also ideologically and politically – issues which this paper will now seek to address.
There are several types of messages contained within their own discourses. Climate Skeptics consider that more pressing problems exist, such as the distribution of water or the issue of hunger in the world, and adopt a position which can be characterized as a “wait and see” approach. They also take the view that progress and technology will provide solutions. Broadly speaking they are in favor of the free market. They maintain the posture of modern man as master of nature, in an anthropocentric way. This would tend to imply that humanity is more important than nature. On the other side, there is a distinct lack of cohesion. In fact an analysis of their arguments reveals political positions against modernity, the liberal market, but also progressive view. A few actors advocate ’negative growth’ in France, meaning reverse economic growth with a Marxist twist thrown in. They consider that humanity would be able to turn off its anthropocentric position and considering Lovelock’s Gaia theory as the solution. Some have become vegetarians as part of the fight against global warming. Others, such as Climate Skeptics think that humanity is a priority but that it’s also vitally important to take good care of nature too. They consider that it’s really urgent to take political decisions against carbon emission. A failure to do so, the argument goes, could lead to the end of the world as we know it. Nevertheless they remain convinced that science can produce solutions for this thoroughly modern predicament.
So the question to be asked is why it is so difficult to have real and informed argumentative debate within the public arena? The usual practice is for democracy to be built on the possibility of the coexistence of all types of discourses. So controversy should really be viewed as a gift to modern democracy.
If we compare the controversy to a Trojan horse entering a besieged modern city, for those who seek delegitimization, it could actually destroy modernity. Because the authorities would be unable to make decisions designed to ensure that we avoid the forecast disasters. Western societies were built on the modern ideal of progress based on reason by the prevalence of science and technology at the expense of morality and ethics. Democracy is built on the possibility of the coexistence of all types of discourses.So promethean man, able both to master and change nature, can heal his guilt with the progress of techno-science and the levers of political action, while giving back a sense of morality and ethics to a new and rather grand modern narrative: the fight against global warming. This is precisely why this metaphor has been put forward: not to answer the question, but to open a debate from an alternative perspective.
JC comments: I received a link to this paper via email from Lionel Scotto d’Apollonia. Lionel is a Professor of Physics and Chemistry (University of Science and Technology Montpellier, France), who is also conducting Ph.D. research in Sociology.
This article provides some interesting insights into the scientific and public debate on climate change. Particularly memorable are ‘anthropowarmist’ and ‘trojan horse.’ We have often discussed taxonomies of actors in the climate debate; for characterizing those on the ‘warm’ side of the debate, i think ‘anthropowarmist’ is the best I’ve seen.
The ‘trojan horse’ metaphor is also very apt, one that I think is worth exploring further in the more general context of super wicked problems and messes.