I have been surprised at the persistence of doubt about climate change science among anthropologists. There are lots of strains to this doubt but, partly, it is surprising because it re-frames many debates from the old ‘science wars.’ This time, the politically conservative position points again and again to the constructed nature of science, whereas those on the left tend to accept the science as a matter of course. For environmental anthropologists a rift has opened up. Climate concerns have the tendency to trump or swamp other environmental concerns. Those other concerns, often much older, are motivated by a tendency toward libertarianism and organic intellectualism (no pun intended). No matter how you spin it, climate change is not.
As I’m involved in studying climate change as an anthropological topic – what I sometimes refer to as the ‘cultural significance of climate change’ – I am often called upon to take judgement on the veracity of climate change science. This is an extremely tricky topic, but one I think anthropologists need to confront directly. Personally, I feel that statements such as by the National Academy of Sciences are judiciously true, by which I mean it must remain open to revision, while the IPCC is true enough for government work. But that is not the point. To claim the science is true and then ask why people don’t believe it is intellectually & ethically stingy.
Debates on the Environmental Anthropology email list, however, often seem to conflate our responsibilities as scholars, as citizens, and – the point that unites those two – as lovers of truth and freedom.
To be sure, I don’t consider myself an expert on the climate science, and my interest is far more in global attempts to deal with climate change by managing the atmosphere. But I think it is crucial for anthropologists of climate change to find an analytical mode in which doubts about the science can be expressed by groups with diverse commitments. Doubts about climate science are integral to the cultural significance of climate change. All of climate science is organized around a problem of anticipating an uncertain future. Hence it plays into the quasi-apocalyptic fears of American religions, whether of ecological end-times or of political domination by financial Illuminati. But it plays into other things as well – financial strategies, for instance.
There is a long-standing tradition of anthropologists studying rumor and gossip, which aptly recognizes that determining the truth of a rumor is irrelevant from the perspective of the anthropologist. Rumors don’t circulate because they are true, but because the possibility that they might be true is dangerous.
The challenge for citizens is different than that of scholars. As citizens we are called upon to respond to public problems and ecological dangers; we must assess the science (as citizens, not as scientists), come to conclusions and pursue action. Even if the science is 100% certain, the action will always be characterized by uncertainty. Why? Because political action is irreversible, unpredictable and prone to failure. Political practice happens ‘in time’ in a way that is very different from drawing scientific conclusions. There are lots of different ways to put a price on carbon, for instance. All of them have important risks, and if I’m an investor, your risk is my opportunity.
And yet these problems of action must also fit within the anthropological, scholarly framework. We have seen this problem before; it was called reflexivity.
Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers makes an important observation about Creationism which strikes me as relevant here. She argues that normal biological science – Darwinism – is often treated as unproblematic, transparently factual, unconstructed, ‘neutral’ – all of the things STS has called into question. Calling attention to parents’ committees, pressure groups, and other forms of organizing, she writes, “It is as if collectives were needed, capable of providing organized resistance, tenacious and fanatic, to certain types of knowledge, so that the transmission of that knowledge in schools might acknowledge its risky, selective, interesting mode of existence – the very thing that demonstrates its scientific nature” (Cosmopolitics I, 268, n.3).
I am not trying to associate Creationism with any of the comments that have been made by anthropologists. My point is different.
But before I make this point, let me draw one more connection, now between climate skeptic positions and those of political radicals in the far-left ‘climate justice’ camp. There are important parallels. Both tend to take a dire view of the future, neither are particularly subtle about how scientific conclusions are used in debate, both worry a lot about the role of money in science and policy, both are afraid of social-engineering solutions (such as carbon markets) and both tend to exaggerate the political importance of authoritative bodies, especially the UN, whether from an anti-authoritarian or a regulatory view point. Both worry obsessively about American consumer entitlement while referencing US global military dominance – both for good reason.
So it strikes me that the debates we’ve been having on E-Anth are unsurprising from a broader social perspective – they deal with many of the same issues that characterize American debates more generally and they resonate with problems surrounding not individual scientific conclusions per se but the conditions in which that knowledge was produced, the work it is expected to do, and especially the implications of that science for existing human practice.
The solution – it seems to me – to the analytical puzzle is to point out that the experience of climate change is one of threat/opportunity before an uncertain future. This even applies to how climate change became a scientific problem. But as the science has become accepted, an implication is that lots of people take climate change as an opportunity, and this opportunism is threatening. To use Stengers’ words, climate science is risky, selective, interesting – it is real science – because it is risky, selective & interesting sociopolitically. The possibility that climate science might be true is dangerous – not only because of biophysical atmospheric changes – and this danger is what we anthropologists might be discussing, as lovers of truth & freedom.