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Climate change and the politics of perception

The marketplace for ideas and information is never completely free, open and fair, says Rajni Bakshi. So how do we the people make sense of the conflicting views of the alarmists on climate change and those who deny its seriousness?

The controversy about Himalayan glaciers – vanishing or not – is more about  the politics of perception than the state of our environment. There are  clearly two separate struggles underway. One is internal to the scientific  community and its ceaseless process of refining valid knowledge. Second is  the battle for our, the public’s, mindspace. 

Over the last few years it seemed that the global discourse had settled on  a middle ground between the most dire and the most mild assessments of the  extent of climate crisis. Recent controversies indicate that the common  ground may have shrunk again. 

It would be good if this shrinkage were to create more space for deeper,  nuanced enquiry. But it seems much more likely that the shift is driven by  preferences and priorities which are ideological – that have to do with  conflicting visions of how we should organise the economy and society and thus how we relate to the rest of nature. 

So how may we navigate our way through this confusion? One possible way  would be to accept that we live on the edge of a paradox. If we park our  minds in the camp of those who want to deny or underplay the extent of the  climate crisis, what now seems ‘alarmist’ could come true. But if we accept  and act on the mounting evidence of a deepening crisis, rapidly shifting  individual lifestyles and production systems towards a better balance with  ecosystems, we might just find that we have over-reacted. 

Of course these terms – ‘deniers’ and ‘alarmists’ -- are used, mutually, to describe the ‘other’. Those who believe that the prevailing model of economic growth is a paramount and worthy goal tend to feel that many environmentalists are ‘alarmists’. They in turn appear as ‘deniers’ to those who are keeping track of the staggering evidence of ecosystems in deepening crisis. 

Deniers come in many shapes and sizes. They are not limited to companies  whose profit-models are hit by accepting a particular assessment of the  climate crisis. Some individuals are so hard-wired to focus on GDP growth  that they treat most environmental concerns as sentimental, even  regressive. This position is accompanied by claims that the earth’s  ecosystems are far more resilient than ecologists make out and human  ingenuity will indefinitely ensure that our species survives and thrives. 

This position in its extreme form may be on the fringes, but shades of it  wield considerable power – both in government and the private sector. For  example, ten years have gone by since Amrita Patel, Chairperson of the  National Dairy Development Board, urged that we should measure and give  greater importance to our ‘Gross Natural Product’. Such concepts are still  slowly inching their way out of the fringes and show no signs of becoming  the mainstream norm any day soon. 

At the extreme end of the other side, ‘alarmists’ can rise from the ranks  of those who feel that the industrial revolution and much that has followed  is a fundamentally destructive enterprise – and thus our species has  over-stayed its welcome on this planet. Traces of what is sometimes  described as ‘eco-fundamentalism’ are evident in the play for public  mindspace. In addition there are now powerful financial vested interests  in the ‘alarmist’ camp ---such as sections of the biofuel industry, carbon  credit trading etc. 

So how do we sift insight from ideology? Is that at all possible, since the  marketplace for ideas and information is never completely free, open and  fair? 

For instance, it is not easy to build precise knowledge about the extent to  which nature’s ecosystems can cope with the impacts of the human economy.  Fortunately, there is more and more rigorous knowledge addressing this  challenge. However, while this work gets relatively less media space, a  controversy like ‘Climategate’ and the ruckus over glaciers grab big  headlines. 

Just before the Copenhagen summit began, old emails of some IPCC scientists  at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, England) were hacked and put in  the public domain -- along with the allegation that these offered proof of  how the scientists had fudged data. This was widely seen as a successful  strategic manoeuvre by deniers, who dubbed the episode ‘Climategate’. 

There followed a flurry of analysis by both media and scientists, which  indicated that the hacked emails could be interpreted several different  ways – they don’t necessarily indicate that the people involved were  deliberately fudging. But by then there was a dent in the IPCC’s public  image. 

I am not concerned with defending the IPCC. A jolt to the  credibility of the IPCC would not by itself be bad if it helped the body  refine its methods and have stronger filters against ‘bad science’. The  problem is that there can be power play in how ‘good science’ is defined.  Thus we must make a distinction between genuine efforts to improve  the internal rigour of the IPCC and the motives of those whose aim is largely to discredit not only the IPCC but a still larger body of research on human  impacts altering climate patterns.

We may sometimes feel bombarded by the battles being played out in the experts’ stratosphere and how these seek to shape our perceptions.  And yet, how we live -- and consume resources -- need not conform to any particular narrative -- whether it is one that pushes us towards panic or another that encourages complacency.    

Perhaps it is more powerful to rely on our direct experience of the natural world – of mighty rivers that have been reduced to open sewers, of barren hills, degraded soils, dwindling freshwater …as well as the latent promise of valiant efforts to revive ecosystems.   

It might be helpful, along the way, to remember that nature bats last and it owns the stadium.      

(Rajni Bakshi is a freelance journalist and author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For a Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear.)  

Infochange News & Features, February 2010