Venture a doubt about climate change politics or ethics, and you’ll likely be asked, “Don’t you believe in global warming?” If you express suspicion about the prominence and function served by alarm and catastrophe in arguments for political responses to climate change, it will be assumed that you don’t understand “the science”, or you simply aren’t aware of “the science”, or you are denying “the science”. As we’ve observed before, the debate is presented as one between sides attached to either the proposition “climate change is happening” or its denial, “climate change isn’t happening”.
It is a mistake to see the debate in this way for a number of reasons – most of which we’ve discussed here before. The point of this blog post is to stress what is interesting about the statement “climate change is happening”. For a statement with such huge implications, it is entirely devoid of meaning or content.
The expression, “climate change is happening” seemingly stands for a scientific theory, empirical observation, a projection and its human consequences, a moral imperative, and of course, a political response – all at once. We have pointed out before how this progression works and the problems that exist with it. Unpacking the argument reveals (in our view, at least) a presupposition that climate’s sensitivity to CO2 (and other GHGs) is equivalent to society’s sensitivity to climate. That is to say that society is as vulnerable to atmospheric CO2 as the world’s climate system’s current state is. As we have pointed out, this statement of equivalence in turn presupposes society’s impotence, or put more explicitly, it denies human agency. If this isn’t clear, what we’re saying is that the getting from climate science to climate politics in less than one step – by saying “climate change is happening” – presupposes a great deal.
Moreover, that the expression can be unpacked in such a way reveals its emptiness. It is a mere container for prejudices and preconceptions. It is a box, with the word “SCIENCE” painted on the side to flatter the bearer. The proposition “climate change is happening”, then, says more about the person saying it than it says about the material world.
It means different things to different people. “Climate change is happening” means we must all become anarcho-eco-socialists to the radical crusty protestor. To the capitalist climate change guru – Nick Stern, perhaps – it means we need to create carbon markets. To others, such as the New Economics Foundation, it means the entire world must reduce its wealth, and share the little that exists ‘equitably’ through “contraction and convergence”. To the leaders of some western nations, Gordon Brown, for instance, it means that a legally-binding treaty must be created, complete with supra-national, supra-democratic climate political institutions. To the person living a “sustainable lifestyle”, it means moral purpose and direction and smugness. To the local government official, it means a legitimate basis for their increasingly regulatory and authoritarian function (in spite of record low voter-turnouts). Need we go on?
You see, to take issue with any of these positions would elicit the same response “climate change is happening”, as if that was all that needed to be said. It is as if, for instance, supra-national institutions and treaties would exert legitimate influence over sovereign, democratic countries, by virtue of the mere fact of climate change “happening”. No question asked about the degree or consequences of it “happening”. If you don’t like the way the local authority is behaving… tough… climate change is happening… are you denying climate change?
As we have said before, this in some way explains Climategate. Datasets that show warming such as that produced by the authors of the leaked emails are the pivot, so to speak, of the entire climate change movement. The debate has been polarised in this way by those taking their authority (see above) from the binary fact of climate change. Excluding from debate any question of degree, or scrutiny of the process that turned climate science into climate politics has left just one thing for the argument to be about. So all that needed to be done to deprive climate politics of its basis was to show that, in fact, climate scientists are human, have their own prejudices, and make mistakes.
The idea that climate science and climate scientists were not vulnerable to prejudices, interests, influence allowed people to believe that to challenge any aspect of climate politics is seemingly to “deny” climate science. Here is one such politician doing exactly that…
“Climate change is happening” means different things to different people. Ask what it means, and get as many different replies back as people you asked. It is not, by itself a statement with any scientific meaning, but one which clearly carries many political consequences. It allows people to express certain ideas about the world – anything between generalised grumble about things, to a design for the entire world’s organisation – in one neat little declaration. And interestingly, it seems to bring together the establishment and radical subversives (they like to think) in one, hollow, hollow slogan.