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Will Sidelining Science Help Advance the Climate Debate?

By Keith Kloor
Feb 5, 2014 2:17 AMNov 19, 2019 8:23 PM


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From the Department of Counterintuitive Thinking:

The debate about climate change needs to become more political, and less scientific.

That is from climate researcher Mike Hulme, in a provocative essay at The Conversation. The above quote makes more sense when you read the sentence that follows:

Articulating radically different policy options in response to the risks posed by climate change is a good way of reinvigorating democratic politics.

I'm all for this, but you can only have a robust debate about potential solutions if enough people feel strongly that there is a globally significant threat worth discussing and acting on. But the nature of the climate problem--its complexity and timescale--make it hard for us to wrap our minds around. For a recent explanation on why that is, read this piece by Bryan Walsh in Time, headlined:

Why we don't care about saving our grandchildren from climate change

The biggest stumbling block, as Walsh notes, is that "climate policy asks the present to sacrifice for the future." Even western Europe, which has perhaps the most climate-concerned citizenry, is now less inclined to do this. So context is everything in the climate debate. Hulme argues that we should proceed from this framework:

What matters is not whether the climate is changing (it is); nor whether human actions are to blame (they are, at the very least partly and, quite likely, largely); nor whether future climate change brings additional risks to human or non-human interests (it does)...in the end, the only question that matters is, what are we going to do about it?

No, what matters equally is just how much we feel threatened (right now) by the risks of climate change. This is what David Ropeik gets into when he talks about our "risk perception gap." (See here and here.) Several years ago, Andy Revkin helpfully summarized a body of behavioral research:

a large part of the climate challenge is not out in the world of eroding glaciers and limited energy choices, but inside the human mind. There’s the “finite pool of worry” (Did we pay the rent this month?). There’s “single action bias” (I changed bulbs; all set.) There are powerful internal filters (dare I say blinders?) that shape how different people see the same body of information. And of course there’s the hard reality that the risks posed by an unabated rise in greenhouse-gas emissions are still mainly somewhere and someday while our attention, as individuals and communities, is mostly on the here and now.

I agree with Hulme when he says that debates about climate change "will not be settled by scientific facts," but rather will turn on "debates about values and about the forms of political organisation and representation that people believe are desirable." This is why I've said numerous times that the symbolic importance of the Keystone pipeline is under-appreciated by many commentators. In of itself this one pipeline isn't going to affect the trajectory of climate change, but climate activists have effectively used it as a means to build a larger movement that is very much values-oriented, as in: Should we continue supporting an energy infrastructure that reinforces societal dependence on fossil fuels ? That is an important question to take up in the context of climate change. And it's likely more productive to engage it from a values--rather than a risk--perspective.

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