Culture and the Science of Climate Change

George Monbiot at the Guardian has finally begun to take account of Cultural Theory as a possible explanation for why people either believe or ‘refuse’ to believe in climate change. He cites an article in Nature by Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School Cultural Cognition Project.

Prof Kahan says:

‘we need a theory of risk communication that takes full account of the effects of culture on our decision-making.’

However, Monbiot claims the cultural biases in CT don’t fit his particular case, since he sees himself as an Egalitarian who has unwillingly been put in the invidious situation of defending scientists against their detractors, many of whom are themselves Egalitarians.

But a closer look at Monbiot’s article reveals that he has in mind an ‘ideal type’ of scientist, who precisely fits the Egalitarian conception of how scientists should behave. There are three key characteristics.

  • First, Egalitarian scientists should do no evil. Weaponising anthrax is out, as is the development of terminator genes in food crops. A non-Egalitarian argument can be made for both these activities, but Monbiot isn’t interested in that.
  • Second, Egalitarian scientists should produce freely accessible knowledge. Locking it away in pay-to-access journals isn’t on, and all well-meaning scientists should act together to end the monopolisation of knowledge the journal publishers have created for themselves (actually I think it’s a cartel, but we’ll let that pass).
  • Third, and most importantly, the kind of scientific knowledge Monbiot as an Egalitarian is especially interested in is what he thinks scientists should be producing impartially: hard evidence of major threats to civilization. A fact, on this view, is something that has the power to bring the group closer together and promote group behaviour. What self-evidently guarantees the veracity of such facts is the classic Egalitarian resort to ‘consensus’.

Taken together, these features of ideal science make it clear that the Egalitarian worldview describes Monbiot’s position to a tee.

He asks how it is possible to persuade people who just don’t want to be persuaded – and has no answer. The answer, from a cultural Theory perspective, is fairly straightforward.

People and institutions with different cultural biases create, fund, support and pay attention to four very different types of evidence. What matters then is to produce and shape a variety of evidence, not only the Egalitarian evidence that Monbiot privileges as the only kind of truth.

Here are some suggestions:

Egalitarian climate change:
demonstrate with science and/or emotive rhetoric (whichever appeals best to hearts and minds) that our very civilization is in danger unless we change our profligate ways. Changing our energy sources is to be depicted as only a preliminary step to changing our values. Peter Preston says we need an ‘eco-prophet’ to show us how to believe but this is emphatically wrong. Such Egalitarian eco-prophets as have arisen – Al Gore, even George Monbiot himself – have been shot down in flames, derided as extremists.
Egalitarian authority comes from the masses. Common sense, what everyone knows, is what is true. That’s why scientific consensus is so much more important to Egalitarians than it is to scientists themselves.

Individualist Climate Change:
provide information and examples on how to make a profit from climate change. If it turns out you actually can make a profit from climate change, and do so better than your competitors, then it must exist.
Alternatively, demonstrate concrete (not hypothetical or future) impacts on the bottom line of those institutions that have ignored Climate Change.
On this view scientists who make photovoltaics competitive with coal fired power stations are doing more to combat climate change than any amount of hand-wringing by the likes of James Hanson, who is simply discounted as a crypto-religious or crypto-communist ‘fanatical environmentalist’. A figurehead Individualist expert would be someone like Shi Zhengrong, China’s first solar billionaire. Money doesn’t lie.

Hierarchical Climate Change:
develop and promote management theories of climate change. If you can reconfigure governance to take account of climate change in ways that enhance management functions, if it makes sense to have a Minister for Climate Change for instance, then  it must exist. Alternatively, demonstrate (perhaps by means of case study) real and damaging governance failures of those institutions that have ignored Climate Change in their management structure. Ideal Hierarchical experts will be at or near the top of the tree. It will be their status that speaks loudest. If Prince Charles and the Pope and the President all worry about climate change, who are we to argue?

Fatalist Climate Change:
demonstrate the randomising impact of climate change on the status quo. Fatalism thrives by enhancing and systematising the luck of the draw and turning it into policy (explicit or, more often than not, tacit), or reward (the lottery). Fatalists tend to say ‘climates change!’ with the implication that there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Fatalist institutions tend to make a virtue of doing nothing about it, and try to make sure no one else does anything about it either. Science which proves it’s pointless to act in response to climate change is favoured by Fatalism. In some respects climate change isindeed a classic example of the ‘postcode lottery’, in which where you happen to live makes all the difference.

About these ads

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 101 other followers

%d bloggers like this: