Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The anatomy of denial

Any discussion about the faltering progress of international climate policy usually ends up revolving around the role of climate ‘sceptics/deniers/contrarians’ – call them what you will – in sowing doubt about the science and therefore obstructing political progress. I’m no climate denier, according to conventional categorisations. If I’m a ‘sceptic’, then I’m sceptical about such categorisations and the way they get bandied about with gay abandon in political debate. So where do these categories, and the political objects and subjects that populate them, come from? And do they make any sense?

This month’s issue of Global Environmental Politics features a forum discussion on the phenomenon of ‘climate denial’. Three authors – Gert Goeminne, Peter Jacques and Tim Forsyth – propose quite distinct ways of accounting for denialism and for assessing its political and epistemic implications.

For many commentators, high-profile denial of the scientific reality of climate change is largely to blame for the impasse in international climate policy. In the first paper, Goeminne conversely argues that the phenomenon of climate denial is a symptom of a poorly-realised science-policy relationship, rather than a cause of it. He imports the notion that antagonism is an important part of the political from Mouffe and Ranciere to enable a critique of hegemony and orthodoxy in environmental policy discourse. For such thinkers, the relative resurgence of the far right (and occasionally the far left) as a frustrated response to the economic crisis and the stifling consensual environment of centrist, technocratic, managerialist politics is an example of the return of antagonism and dissent. Following Erik Syngedouw’s recent arguments in Theory, Culture and Society, Goeminne suggests that a similar process may be at work in climate politics:

"Lost in the translation from science to policy, the concernful work of composition that goes into the construction of a matter of fact is obscured in consensual decision making, leaving policy nothing but externalities to be managed in a technocratic way.”
Goeminne argues that science is inherently political. By this he means more than just ‘science is situated’ or ‘science is uncertain and incomplete’. Rather, science is always-already political, as the construction of matters-of-fact is inseparable from the construction of matters-of-concern. This is not to say that scientific statements have no meaning outside of political influences, but rather that scientific facts have explanatory value in relation to the matters of concern which give rise to them. This, following Mouffe and Ranciere’s antagonistic politics, gives rise to questions of exclusion – of people, of non-humans, or of alternative problem-framings:

“Understanding the task of raising and addressing matters of concern as a work of composition ... is the true political heritage of constructivism, conceiving politics as a struggle for who and what is to be taken into account"
These political acts of exclusion and discursive foreclosure (i.e. of depoliticization) generate the conditions for a ‘return of the political’, often in the form of denial of the tenets of climate science. A zero-sum game is enacted where it’s cap-and-trade or the end of humanity. Science is politicized, politics is scientized. The only way to express fundamental political dissent is therefore to couch it in scientific arguments. It should therefore be no surprise that those who look to alternative visions turn to those which feature “a straight denial of sound scientific arguments”.

In ‘A general theory of climate denial’, Peter Jacques locates the birth of the phenomenon not in the straitjacket of global environmental politics but in an ontological framework whereby the holders of certain (right wing) political ideologies perceive in climate science an existential threat to Western models of free market economics and development. Jacques criticises climate change deniers on epistemic and ethical grounds, and draws striking (and highly provocative) parallels with the forms of reasoning employed by ideologically-driven Holocaust deniers.

As pointed out by Forsyth in the final piece, Jacques’ arguments contain a measure of contradiction. Jacques acknowledges that erecting binary divisions between ‘believers’ and ‘deniers’ of climate change is both meaningless and unhelpful. He also recognises the political character of science as described by Goeminne and critiques both ‘sides’ of the debate for attempting to reinforce untenable Enlightenment ideals of science-as-authority and antidote-to-ideology. Jacques however slips into binary mode in describing the ideological underpinnings of climate denial, and implicitly suggests that these ideological trespasses into scientific territory are at the root of the global climate policy impasse.

Tim Forsyth completes the triad by joining with Goeminne to round on Jacques and his moralistic and ideological definition of denialism. Forsyth urges us to follow the paths of the radical-pluralist democrats like Mouffe rather than the mid-20th century Critical Theorists like Habermas, the ghosts of whom stalk Jacques’ analysis of ideological reasoning. This means recognising diversity in environmental risks and political norms, rather than clinging to notions of absolute moral and scientific authority.

Forsyth also draws out some geographic elements of the debate in arguing that the ‘exclusions’ which Goeminne drew our attention to often include particular ways of understanding the vulnerabilities of the world’s poor, while the neoliberal demand for growth is not restricted to Western conservatives, as suggested by Jacques. The political silences which Goeminne places at the root of denialism can therefore also be seen as being generative of a discourse which excludes the kinds of alternative problem framings which may be more relevant to environmental politics in less industrialized countries. Both Goeminne and Forsyth cite Agarwal and Narain’s 1991 statement on the injustice of universal greenhouse gas metrics as an early example of the ‘kick-back’ against the orthodox scientific/political framing of climate change. Rather than seeking ideological or epistemic fault in the arguments of climate ‘believers’ and ‘deniers’, we need to investigate how scientific and political norms have inflected each other, and how this process may have moved the dominant discourse away from some of the most pressing environmental and social problems of the day, with the effect of disempowering and excluding certain political actors. Forsyth thus leaves us with a lesson:

“Political analysis of environmental science needs to consider how science and politics evolve together, rather than identify one or the other as dysfunctional".
So where does this leave our understanding of ‘climate denialism’, of the sort which we encounter daily on blogs, websites, in newspapers and on our TV screens? What this exchange in GEP makes clear is that we cannot hope to come to any understandings by conceiving of denialism in terms of a ‘deficit’, be that of epistemic competence or ethical integrity. Binaries between denialists and believers have little conceptual worth, and neither do binaries between science and ideology. Both sides of the debate frequently portray themselves as defenders of scientific purity. Not only are such positions untenable on the basis of observations of scientific practice and the complex intertwining of ‘fact’ and ‘concern’; they serve to depoliticize a deeply political field while excluding a whole suite of disparate objects and subjects from debate. I agree with Goeminne and Forsyth that it is this which is at the root of the kind of denialism which is so prevalent in the media and in political debate. If we follow Jacques, then the solution is to root-out malignant ideological positions and keep them away from the science. I’m with the other two. If we want good environmental policy – and good science – then we need to let the politics back in. 

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