Call time on climate name-calling: start talking risk politics

My post about ‘climate dyspeptics’ has won a bit of attention here and there from the ‘sceptic’ blogosphere. That’s what I hoped for. But it seems that for some readers I may not have laid out clearly enough that my suggestion that we use the term climate dyspeptic in place of climate sceptic was intended as a joke (admittedly a weak one), and part of my point was to push right over the end the idea of constructing clumsy binaries of ‘believers’ and ‘skeptics’.  If you’ve arrived here for the first time there are a couple of other posts elsewhere on my blog on why I think climate change is a distinctive cultural and political problem. But here I just want to ask for an end to name-calling.

‘Warmists are either stupid or dishonest.’

‘Of course climate deniers are not merely stupid, ignorant… They are also dishonest, manipulative, and arrogant.’

These are two sample quotes picked out in a few seconds of googling. It’s not good is it? Climate change science and policy has risen in prominence in parallel with social media, where distance and anonymity can erode the kind of good manners almost all of us manage to muster in real public places. Sociologists exploring racism or other kinds of discrimination talk of processes of ‘othering’ that make it possible for one group of people to dehumanise another.

Terms like climate sceptic, denier and contrarian have served to cluster anyone with some good questions about climate change science and policy into a discrete group. This has solidified into an identity. ‘We’re climate deniers you know’ said a professional couple to me during a good-natured and intelligent conversation in a bar. Neither were stupid or dishonest, and I don’t think they would have thought that of me, although we disagreed on some significant points. None of those disagreements were really about science – at root they were all about how we thought about economics, politics, risk and the future. I got the sense that they felt that their thoughts about these sides of the question were not just being ignored but being buried under the edifice of ‘climate science’.

But isn’t it patently absurd to suggest that anyone is ‘against climate science’. Similarly it is odd to my mind that some social researchers and commentators talk of climate change science ‘beliefs’. Very few people have beliefs as such about numeracy or grammar, and climate science describes researchers’ attempts to make the best sense possible of a complex set of interactions. It is like saying you are against mathematics or English language: its a nonsense to oppose an area of inquiry. But this research area has sketched out potential hazards that most involved in it suggest hold potentially great significance for society, policy and politics. That’s where things hot up, and the name calling starts.

I’ve worked with researchers from quite a range of disciplines that contribute in one way or another to climate science research. It is hilarious to consider any of them stupid or professionally dishonest. They’ve all chosen to work in academia when their skills set could have provided them with vastly greater salaries. They work (almost all remunerated at fixed pay scales) on questions that interest them. A small number have behaved defensively – even badly  – in the face of some very nasty treatment, much of it in the form of (often anonymous) ad hominems.

I suggest we should let the numerous and varied projects that add up to climate science ‘run in the background’ and ask them to keep coming out and telling us about the new things they’ve found now and again (the IPCC would do this a whole lot more effectively if they spent a good chunk more on communications. I hope the blogosphere will support them in that…). Digital and social media make it easier for that work to be more transparent in process, and indeed for more people who aren’t engaged in science professionally to comment and participate.

But the real action in terms of citizen and political debate should be around how we think about risk and the future. Everyone should feel free to express an opinion around what we should do about the difficult knowledge around climate change without being called one sort of name or another.

(PS: I’m assuming, hoping, the bit about beheading me was metaphoric?)

(PPS: Realise I’ve rather gone on about these themes recently but its now out of my system for a while I hope. I expect to post something about a new book I’ve co-edited in the next couple of weeks)

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