Climate Science and the Ideology of Human Pollution

Linked on this blogs with Should Indians drive cars? Part 2, and my comment.

Published on political pa, by Gary Tedman, January 11, 2010.

-The UN Copenhagen climate talks are in disarray today after developing countries reacted furiously to leaked documents that show world leaders will next week be asked to sign an agreement that hands more power to rich countries and sidelines the UN’s role in all future climate change negotiations. [Source]

As Louis Althusser explained in “Spontaneous Philosophy…”, when ‘think tanks’ and similar ‘interdisciplinary’ institutions made up of experts from disparate fields are brought together, what inevitably results is that they cohere around the ideas which they all readily share and recognize. This is always their common ideology. And this ideology can be nothing but the ruling class ideology, i.e. in this case bourgeois ideology. 

As we all know, a body was set up in 1988 by the UN to officiate over the concern of harmful human induced climate change, called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It all began around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, which perhaps is no accident (but we will leave aside for the moment the need the dominant media/press seems to have to promote fear: mass extinctions by catastrophes and epidemics, such as avian/swine flu, asteroid impact, and so on, and how this ending of one big fear in the possibility of nuclear war, seems to have generated a need to fill this gap with new fears) … //

… So there are patterns that can be described in climatic change, but the element of chaos tends to obscure these regularities in any short-term view, and this short term is by any common human measure actually quite long. 300,000 year is the blink of an eye in geological terms. Given this, one mistake the climate warming scientists continually make is to refer to “imbalance” in climate taking place without explaining or justifying scientifically what the balance is, or might be, given time.

For, if the Earth can be said to have a normal long term climate at all, it would actually appear to be a warmer one than it is now. We are currently in a colder interglacial period. On the other hand, our planet is quite dialectical, in the sense that it usually fluctuates between the two opposed poles of temperature, any balance between these therefore also oscillates.

Thus, the long term weather of the Earth is an extremely complex, fractal system with a lot of capacity for change, but put basically, this is to hotter and colder environmental conditions, yet life is tenacious and has been around for a very long time, actually billions of years. All change can be considered harmful, and all stasis harmful, it depends.

Periodic climatic change is a scientifically established fact. However, the language of even the most respected scientific sources on this subject often reverts to trying to prove just this, that climate change happens (e.g. IPCC itself as a name), which is superfluous, rather than the more recalcitrant thesis that harmful human induced climate change is happening.

The case for harmfulness is of course harder to prove; it does not just necessitate understanding carbon emitting as a fact, but what harmful means, and depends on the timescale applied – the future is a long time. Whatever we do, or do not do, might be regarded as dangerous depending on where the line in time is drawn. Relying, as sometimes occurs, on data over the last 150 years in this context is disingenuous.

For example, in the long term, it even seems likely that the changing climate, even to its extremes, has (perhaps ironically) helped the evolution of our species, as does the changing seasons, over the last three billion years, including extinction events and bottlenecks.

The real and more difficult question is whether human industry, which is so extremely recent in terms of the planet’s long history, pollutes so much that it is going to have an injurious effect on the ecosystem of our planet, one that is unprecedented (as if from outside) and not capable of being counterbalanced by other existing forces without our conscious intervention, in the short space of time which means that it may be taken as an immediate danger.

Predicting climate change is made difficult because of the complexity and the amount of different physical processes involved. In this sense it is sometimes understood as a stochastic process, similar to the stock market, involving sequences of random variables. Can this harmful global warming currently be proved within a reasonable definition of proof? The scientific consensus is that human induced warming is taking place and is dangerous. We must accept this consensus. But this consensus is only consensus, and is not itself based in an indisputable scientific theory of climate that can predict entirely accurately. Such a complete theory does not currently exist. And remember, consensus has often been proved wrong in the history of science, by individual rebels against the think tanks. Nevertheless, not all sciences are exact sciences, and this does not mean they are unscientific.

With all the above provisos, the research so far points to dangers for our species and life as such on Earth that seem to be prevalent, and we should err on the side of caution and lessen the impact of our “footprint.” The human species has probably, in prehistoric times, been here before through ignorance combined (peculiarly) with economic success – through hunting without sustaining the hunted species – and we seem destined to repeat this same kind of mistake.

Action involves switching to sustainable resources for energy.

Unfortunately this is not something that capitalism is good at. The trouble is that the incentives produced in capitalist competition are usually to increase the profitability and reach of the existing oil industry and its derivatives by disguising oil use in different technical forms. And, for various oft cited reasons, it can be regarded as almost impossible in capitalist economics to enforce solutions outside this, not least because its ideology willfully regards planning the economy as a bad thing and the “free market” as the good, and in climate terms the free market will always be too short term.

As we have seen above, even the “green” + “cyber” capitalism that is being promoted as the savior from environmental doom inevitably presents false options and pseudo solutions based in vested interests, as do the various summits concerned with carbon trading. These almost always represent a serious failure to take into account the bigger joined-up economic picture that genuine sustainability requires.

It will seem a glib answer to conclude that socialism represents our only hope here, but, safe sustainable solutions to the energy crisis already exist in the form of technological uses of wood, water, wind, wave and solar power, the difficulty is social implementation and the political will. (full text).

Link: Copenhagen climate summit in disarray after ‘Danish text’ leak, The Guardian, 8 December 2009.

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