We’re all grateful to Andrew Revkin for keeping us up to date on the controversy surrounding hacked email messagesfrom the UK. Calls for a more inclusive science, or at any rate an approach to science that doesn’t assume the authority of its expertise, do in fact seem a long time in coming. The circles I sometimes run in – I’m thinking of people who work in development in Southeast Asia, mostly expats with a technical bent and a generally progressive but practical outlook – are deeply skeptical of the demand from the heights of the ivory tower to jump (how high?) on the climate bandwagon, especially when their imperious demands are coupled with the naive, bureaucratic idealism of United Nations proceduralism. When all of a sudden climate change adaptation and mitigation monies become the major driver of aid investment, red flags will fly.
But the disappointing aspect of the hacked email messages goes to a problem advocates for climate justice have been pointing out for a long time. All of a sudden climate science is obliged to pay much more attention to a rear-guard move to protect the legitimacy of their work, but what we’re left with is a silly, irresponsible debate between elite Northern science and the elite Northern conservative populists who don’t want the UN eroding their right to play frontiersmen on the grand stage of American exceptionalism. Meanwhile, ecosystems around the world are changing dramatically – but has anyone bothered to make localized, intimate environmental knowledges the object of public debate? The question here is trust and the mythos of provability. For some odd reason scientists and the people who fund them still think proof is only a relation between complexity of the data and the theories that may or may not account for them. Robust knowledge, on the other hand, would have a long time ago began to correlate science with localized ecological changes and the vast social and social justice implications of those changes.
Kim Fortun has brilliantly called attention to skepticism of computer modeling in the field of toxicology by pointing out that models imply one must either be a savant or be willing to trust the savants. Climate change originated as a problem based on Fourier’s thermodynamics calculations in the 19th century. Decades of advances in elite Northern science (linked to environmentalism as a cultural movement) fed into a drive for advanced computer simulation of climate calculations, with climate science and advances in computational power driving each other to ever-ethereal heights. In fact the either-or dead-end of trusting the science or denying the problem is an artifact of theparticularistic (dare I say it?) American commitment to science/anti-science dualism.
This conundrum means ‘we’ will trust ‘our’ scientists if we must, but there’s no way we’re going to trust marginalized brown people who might stand to gain from what they say. One may trust the numbers, or one might trust one’s neighbors – hopefully these things would confirm each other. I have no patience at all for claims for more and better rationalism as a solution at this point: it assumes that things were going more or less fine as it was when in fact things were deeply messed up. George Monbiot‘s response to the email thing left me breathless. He’s never felt so alone? Yes, that’s what rationalism will do to you. Try talking to other people for once – and ignore the skeptics. But another way of saying this is that precisely what’s excluded in the science/anti-science conundrum is the fact that the status quo is deeply political. The obvious way out is to simply disenfranchise the skeptics who after all simply critique the science as a wedge to protect their way of life.