September 5, 2015, by Warren Pearce
The crucial role of culture in climate change
On Wednesday, I attended the US Ambassador’s ‘digital dialogue’ event on climate change at Winfield House, where policy wonks, journalists, NGO representatives and academics discussed their current hopes and frustrations. Beyond the usual grumbles about ‘bogus arguments’ against climate action, it was pleasing that some attendees outside of the social sciences chose to highlight the key role of cultural factors in climate change.
One interesting example cited was that of Debbie Dooley, an original organiser of the libertarian Tea Party group who has become a passionate advocate for domestic solar power. Dooley sees solar as fundamental to preserving some of the necessary conditions (“clean air and clean water”) for a functional free market. Her values are front and centre of her argument for solar power and against fossil fuels which contribute to air pollution. Scientific knowledge is implicit in her concerns, but they are not used as a primary lever for action. One can picture a (vigorous!) debate around the values upon which different types of climate policy might be based. However in the case of Dooley at least, it seems unlikely that such arguments will be reduced to disputes over scientific statistics.
My science is better than yours
Such business as usual bickering has been prominent in recent days, following the appearance of Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum on the Bill Maher Show. On the programme, Santorum claimed that “57% of scientists did not buy [the idea] that CO2 is the knob that’s turning the climate”. This statistic appears to come from a recent re-analysis by climate bloggers of an original survey of climate scientists by Verheggen et al. The bloggers’ claim of considerable disagreement amongst the scientific community is radically different from that of the authors, one of whom (Verheggen) has reaffirmed his position that “scientists overwhelmingly agree that recent global warming is to a great extent human caused”.
Verheggen et al’s survey is the latest effort to quantify the level of scientific consensus regarding the role of human activities in climate change. Such research is typically justified by the presence of a ‘consensus gap’ between the views of scientists and the public (Verheggen et al., 2014, 8963; Cook et al., 2013, 1; Oreskes, 2004), the assumption being that accepting that human activities are changing the climate is a ‘gateway belief’ for support of climate policies. Consensus quantification seeks to overcome the perceived problem of climate critics picking apart the science (which is always provisional, subject to doubts etc) as a means of confusing the public regarding the true level of consensus, and thus arguing that we need more against climate policies.
Ironically, Santorum’s intervention shows that such social scientific research is just as vulnerable to reinterpretation and reframing as the physical science research it seeks to assess. It is telling that when asked about climate change, Santorum immediately heads for the solace of numbers as ‘facts’. Maher rebuffs him in typically colourful style, citing the famous 97% consensus figure. However, Santorum merely reasserts his 57% figure, leaving Maher to (implicitly) accept that such a trading of numbers is a fruitless way to talk about climate change and amounts to nothing more productive than “my number is better than yours!” (see 2m 38s on the video).
Back to values
Maher then changes tack towards a more values-based discussion around the Pope’s recent encyclical which included climate change (see paragraph 20 onwards). Maher treats it fairly shallowly, and is on uncertain ground bearing in mind his trenchant views on religion. Yet this shaky step towards talking about the values that underlie climate policy does yield a more promising result, with Santorum taking a somewhat more conciliatory approach, talking about opening up a discussion between people who disagree with each other. This is a marked change of tone from when the discussion was based around the level of scientific consensus. Whether or not Santorum’s 57% is correct (on the face of it, this is unlikely) is neither here nor there in this example. The point is that attempting to discuss values, and in particular the religious values which run deep in US politics, a space for more productive dialogue was opened up. (Even today, a similar brouhaha occurred over inaccuracies within Emma Thompson’s Newsnight appearance about climate refugees.
Values first, science second
Taken together the Santorum and Dooley examples point to something fundamental to the climate debate: we are at a stage where increasing weight of scientific research is unlikely to change anyone’s opinion about climate change. Even if it were, whether or not the public (including politicians) share the same level of consensus as scientists is not the primary concern. As Dan Sarewitz argued, increasing the supply and communication of scientific knowledge does not help us with climate politics at all. Rather, we should focus on discussing how the diverse values that exist within societies shape our responses to climate change.
Too often in the past, debates have focused in the first instance as to whether or not climate change exists, then what we should do about it. Focusing on values rather than science in the first instance, provides the space to talk more openly about both the science and the outcomes. Engaging Santorum on his values is likely to prove more fruitful than attempts to conflate politics with physics, an approach which will continue to put undue pressure on climate science as the locus of climate change debate, a function it is ill-equipped to fulfil. Putting science before culture and values is counterproductive to good policy outcomes. Thankfully, the evidence from Winfield House, and even the Bill Maher Show, shows that the importance of cultural factors is being increasingly recognised outside of the social sciences. I hope this trend continues.
What do you mean here? In what way is physical science research vulnerable to reinterpretation? Can you give an example?
To be clear, Santorum statements is inconsistent with even the re-analysis of Verheggen et al. That re-analysis simply claimed that only 43% agreed that it was extremely likely that more than 50% of the warming was anthropogenic. That is not consistent with 57% thinking that something other than CO2 was the control knob. If you’re referring to people completely mis-representing something, then I’m sure that’s true of any research. I’m just not seeing how this is an example of social science research being as vulnerable to reinterpretation as physical science research.
Yes that is basically what I’m saying…I won’t get into an epistemological discussion about interpretations here.
Santorum did indeed mangle the numbers. It didn’t actually matter in the context of the chat show – the protagonists chucking numbers at each other proved to be a waste of time, even if one had better numbers than the other. What is perhaps more common than Santorum (or indeed Thompson’s) mistakes is the selection of isolated facts which look good, while omitting important context.
The key point is that simply doing more research, and thus creating more numbers, is unlikely to help anyone win any arguments outside of academia. As one participant at the Winfield House event remarked, the work that the IPCC does is valuable but it won’t ‘move the needle’ on the politics. This is the point Sarewitz made in an earlier paper about scientific controversies (including climate): http://archive.cspo.org/_old_ourlibrary/documents/environ_controv.pdf
Okay, but one factor is that Santorum managled numbers from blog science, not from actual published work. He didn’t mangle numbers from Verheggen et al (there was no explicit 43% in that work).
This may be true, but it is not an argument against doing this research. I’ll say what I may have said before, it would be really nice if STS researchers spent more time trying to study, and understand, how politics could become more evidence-based, rather than pointing out that it’s unlikely to become more evidence-based. Of course, this may not be a fair reflection of STS in general. I may be wrong, but I also get the impression that some take great pleasure in pointing out that something like the IPCC is unlikely to ‘move the needle’ on the politics. I fail to see how this is something to be happy about.
What evidence are you referring to?
Do you mean what evidence for my comment, or what evidence do I mean when I say “evidence-based”? If the latter, then the evidence I mean is the evidence that would be provided by doing more research and providing more numbers. The “more research” and “more numbers” that – according to your quote – is unlikely to win any arguments outside of academia.
imho this is a utopian view which assumes that all the actors involved share the same interests and definition of the policy issue. I co-authored a short editorial on this at http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tpp/ep/2014/00000010/00000002/art00001 In short, you can’t take the meanings out of evidence. This is not a situation I take any glee from, as it makes the world exceptionally difficult to navigate. However, we have to try.
For clarity, research is of course extremely useful in lots of cases. However, it is not useful in all cases at all times. Ultimately, the evidence we choose to use, and when we use it, is rooted in our values.
This is of course dangerously close to old, silly debates about science results being just human constructs. However, I trust that you mean that scientists just need be cautious and see themselves as discoverers of tidbit of truths (the Newtonian pebbles), rather than Purveyors of The Truth.
In other words, the pebbles are just pebbles compared to the vast ocean, still they are not imaginary, or purely fashionable pebbles.
Concerning the climate change debate, I am not an alarmist but can’t wait for home solar to improve to the point when we will have energy just too cheap to meter. Who wouldn’t be very happy with that? This hints at the old suggestion about focusing on quick wins and items that “will be of value whether or not there is future warming” (W Eschenbach, 2007).
There is no indication anyone in the “climate change is the highest danger the world is facing today” camp, has any interest in those.
I really have no idea why you would think this or why this is relevant to the interests of the actors or the policy issue. How does wanting to find ways for evidence to inform policy more effectively, imply some kind of utopian view? I said “more effectively” not “used in some ultimately perfect way”. The former is possible, the latter is not.
Of course, and I’m not suggesting that it isn’t rooted in our values. In a sense, I’m trying to suggest that a politician taking a piece of poorly thought out blog science out of context, is something that we should be encouraging politicians to avoid. IMO, all that Santorum’s claim illustrates is that some people are idiots. I guess that is relevant to society in some sense, but I find it hard to see how it has any broader relevance.
It’s also one thing for someone’s values to inform how they might consider the relevance of some evidence. It’s entirely different when someone uses their values to simply make stuff up, or latch onto stuff that is largely made up.
Just re-read my comment and could have been clearer – apologies. What I mean is that the production and selection of evidence is based in value judgements. For production, this is based on what research questions get asked and researched adequately. For selection, it is about the criteria upon which evidence is deemed to be admissible.
He may or may not be an ‘idiot’ but ~4m people voted for him in the 2012 primaries. Perhaps that merely means they are all ‘idiots’ as well. However, they do all get a vote, so my view is that it is good to work out what makes them tick (culturally) and how they can be included in a political approach which focuses on climate-friendly outcomes.