Thursday, May 17, 2007

Understanding the global warming narrative

It is not often that a writer manages to approach a familiar subject and imbue in it a new meaning, an understanding that informs and provides guidance on how it should be analyzed and understood in the future. Josie Appleton has performed such a contribution with her review of a new book on global warming. It is easily the most original and provocative framing of the global warming narrative since Phillip Stott' summaries on Envirospin.

Appleton suggests that ..g
lobal warming is now not so much a problem to solve, as an issue around which to reorganise society.

She correctly identifies that the less self-reflective the science, and the more it is founded on political and moral campaigns, the less reliable it is likely to be. And...we see how global warming science has become a foil for a whole series of political and moral agendas, a way of discussing everything from the sins of consumerism to human arrogance.

it is perhaps political rather than scientific analysis that can help us to understand the bias that underlies today's climate science. The notion of nature as fragile and subject to collapse is a relatively recent one, which is likely to owe more to the anxious zeitgeist than to climate realities.

Pivotal to this political framing is the positing of environmentalism as a moral choice. Appleton highlights a quote from Al Gore who stated:
  • The climate crisis also offers us the chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence….'
She then explores the ramifications of climate as a moral mission:
  • Here's the rub: when an environmental problem becomes a generational mission, nobody wants very much to solve it.
  • Carbon dioxide becomes the nexus between individuals, the thing that connects us to other people and to the future of the planet. This infuses the most banal acts with a deep moral meaning.
  • The campaign against global warming provides answers so that we no longer have to think about the questions. In Gore's words, this is 'the thrill of being forced by circumstances'. The certainty of planetary emergency seems to provide a cause that is solid, a cause that is not chosen and therefore beyond dispute and doubt. It is this relief of finding a point of ideological certainty that explains the grip of global warming on the contemporary imagination.
  • The notion of teleology that appeared first in Christianity (Christ's birth, death and return), then liberalism (progress towards a state of perfect liberty), and then certain brands of Marxism (the development of productive forces, leading towards revolution), appears now in the form of climatology. The progress of civilisation is re-read in terms of the accumulation of carbon dioxide, which will eventually – and as a result of feedback that occurs independently of human will – lead to a dramatic transformation in the planet's climate. Apocalypse and final judgement are replaced by the 'tipping point', with the downward spiral into the circles of global warming hell.
In contrast, climate change could be viewed as just another environmental issue to be resolved. How? The same way humans have resolved all real problems: by adaptation through the application of ingenuity and technological advancement.
  • Techno-fixes are not some airy-fairy notion, some leap of faith. This is otherwise known as innovation, the only way that environmental problems have ever been solved or new energy systems produced. I am not aware of a major environmental problem successfully tackled by the mass of people consciously and systematically abstaining from some or other desirable activity. The lesson of history is that techno-fixes happen, and they happen fast in societies that are looking for solutions.
Appleton concludes:
  • We need a new school of thought in the global warming debate, which is founded not on scientific facts but on political critique. It is only this that can explain the way in which the issue is framed, or its hold over social life and public debate.
It's not often I read something that causes me to pause and reflect as profoundly as did this article by Appleton. I have quoted from it extensively as it is both well written and well worth reading in its entirety. My only fear is that in the compartmentalized world of academia, many climate scientists will either fail to read it and/or fail to understand its import for the meaning of what they do and how it is their science is used in the real world politics of contemporary ecomyths.