Fight Climate Change with Epistemology

I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty!

– random sample from that 90’s-tastic Trent Reznor/David Bowie album

President Obama spoke to the UN Climate change summit in NYC today (text available here). He said:

“We know what needs to be done. We know that our planet’s future depends on a global commitment to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution. We know that if we put the right rules and incentives in place, we will unleash the creative power of our best scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to build a better world.”

Wow, we know everything! It is pretty uncanny that “We” happen to have all this ultimate knowledge sitting around…though I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising since “We” (God/the State/the patriarchy) always seem to come up with all the neat and correct answers right when you need them.

Unfortunately, climate change is an extremely complicated non-linear animal — for example, the possible carbon feedback loops (like melting tundra releasing previously trapped carbon into the atmosphere) are pretty much unpredictable at this point. David W. Orr from Yale writes: “Given the roughly 30-year lag between what comes out of our tail pipes and smokestacks, the climate change-driven weather effects we now see are being caused by emissions that occurred in the late 1970s. What is in store 30 years ahead when the forcing effects of our present 387 parts per million of CO2 are manifest? Or further out when, say, the warming and acidifying effects of 450 parts per million of CO2 — or higher — on the oceans have significantly diminished their capacities to absorb carbon? No one knows for certain, but trends in predictive climate science suggest that they will be much worse than once thought.”

So there’s a real element of uncertainty here. (Usually when people say stuff like this, they are trying to suggest that anthropogenic climate change doesn’t exist — I’m going to defer to many years of empirical evidence and broad scientific consensus on the matter and suggest that it does.) In calling attention to this uncertainty, I’m trying to play the old post-modernist game of subverting modernist narratives of progress. I admit I’m a little rusty at it.

When “we” claim to know everything and thus claim the ability to dictate the solution to climate change (hey, just like those one-shot solutions to poverty, famine, water shortage, etc. How are those working out?) you can be sure that said solution is going to be lucrative for all the right people and pretty securely fastened to already problematic patterns of “development.”

Should we cease to care about climate change? No. But we could learn something from Adam D. Sacks who decries “our failure to understand that greenhouse gases are not a cause but a symptom, and addressing the symptom will do little but leave us with a devil’s sack full of many other symptoms, possibly somewhat less rapidly lethal but lethal nonetheless.” Which is to say, building new technology and making grandiose pronouncements about cutting greenhouse emissions is not good enough — we have to address the whys and wherefores of how our civilization got into this mess in the first place.

Sacks goes on: “Living sustainably means, in Derrick Jensen’s elegantly simple definition, that whatever we do, we can do it indefinitely. We cannot use up anything more or faster than nature provides, we don’t poison the air, water, or soil, and we respect the web of life of which we are an intricate part. We are not separate from nature, or above it, or in any way qualified to supervise it. The evidence is ample and overwhelming; all we have to do is be brave enough to look.”

But why bother looking when we already know everything?


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One Response to “Fight Climate Change with Epistemology”

  1. tripinchina Says:

    Seems kind of silly to be the first comment on my own blog, but in retrospect my point here isn’t totally clear so I wanted to clarify a little (especially because the last time I wrote critically on the ‘going green’ phenomenon I received a whole string of approving comments from anti-environment types…)

    So yeah: my point here is that uncertainty is all the more reason to act drastically. The risk of catastrophe is unacceptable especially because we can’t pin it down — we can’t manage it in the straight forward way that Obama suggests. Paul Krugman makes a similar point in his blog today:

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