Category Archives: The media

When Elites Threaten the Future: Peter the Great, Democracy and Climate Change

In late 17th century Imperial Russia, Peter the Great sought to modernize his country – adapt the modern ways of the west, and put down the old backwards which held his country in the dark ages. A major force for backwardness in his kingdom were the Boyars. The Boyars were the highest rank of the ancient feudal aristocracies in Russia – dating back to the 10th century. They grew their beards long, liked their streets narrow and were opposed to the adoption of Western ways and new technology.

From Russian Project

Peter’s solution was to establish the Table of Ranks. The Table of Ranks disconnected the titles of the Aristocracy from the land they possessed and from their lineage – it was now tied directly to services they performed for the Empire. Instituting mandatory civil service for the Aristocracy was beneficial in two ways – first, the nobles were highly occupied trying to one-up each other to increase their rank, so as to be less able to organize their common forces and threaten the authority of the monarch. And second, it provided Peter with an army of bureaucrats organized in hierarchical institutions which he set himself atop, which could organize and carry out the westernizing reforms that would bring Russia into the modern European world. As a side benefit, it inculcated the idea of meritocracy into the Russian noble mindset.

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Science never stops

I have written before about how climate change deniers never retract an argument, no matter how thoroughly debunked and discredited it has become. By contrast, climate scientists admit their mistakes, which can make them seem less credible than the hyper-confident advocates of inaction.

In their new book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway bring up a related issue:

Doubt-mongering also works because we think science is about facts – cold, hard, definite facts. If someone tells us that things are uncertain, we think that means that the science is muddled. This is a mistake. There are always uncertainties in any live science, because science is a process of discovery. Scientists do not sit still once a question is answered; they immediately formulate the next one. If you ask them what they are doing, they won’t tell you about the work they finished last week or last year, and certainly not what they did last decade. They will tell you about the new and uncertain things they are working on now. Yes, we know that smoking causes cancer, but we still don’t fully understand the mechanism by which that happens. Yes, we know that smokers die early, but if a particular smoker dies early, we may not be able to say with certainty how much smoking contributed to that early death. And so on.

There is much that is laudable about the way scientists communicate their ideas – cautiously, with reference to evidence, and so on – but it is also easy to see how public relations people looking to discredit scientific conclusions can use quirks in scientific communication to their advantage.

Thankfully, it does seem that climate scientists are becoming more savvy about media relations, and are increasingly making the point that choosing to do nothing while even more evidence is accumulated is a reckless strategy. We cannot wait for all aspects of the science to be settled; rather, we need to start taking precautionary action now, before the worst impacts of climate change become measurable.

A case in point is Canadian climatologist Andrew Weaver’s libel suit against The National Post, which alleges that they misrepresented his views, in the wake of the University of East Anglia email scandal. The paper misinterpreted his criticisms of elements of the IPCC process as evidence that he had rejected the key elements of climate science. It is good to see him being active in pointing out that miscategorization.

Let Rational Discourse Drown out the Testeria

Years ago I worked for the School of Nursing at the University of British Columbia. BC was in the process of registering midwives and one of the School’s professors, a midwife herself, was among three experts interviewed by a talk radio show. The two other experts were male doctors who vehemently opposed the idea. The professor later told me that she felt the doctors were being testerical.

I had never heard of the word ‘testerical’ before and it intrigued me. I knew that hysteria was coined in the 19th century to describe a condition experienced by women, primarily those well-to-do confined to a life of boredom. Some WWI soldiers, who couldn’t handle being stuck in trenches, were also diagnosed with what doctors could only describe as hysteria at the time. If hysteria is a condition experienced by those who feel trapped and not in control of their situation, testeria, I believe, is the condition where one feels in control and is terrified of losing it.

Much ado has been made of climate science of late. People who call themselves deniers or sceptics of climate change claim that the recent hacking of emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, and minor errors found in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, are proof positive that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by a clique of scientists, the purpose of which is unclear.

Rather than provide advice on improving the process, climate change deniers are, for the most part, suggesting that we ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’.

Any opportunity to improve the IPCC Reports is always welcome. Any opportunity to review the data, improve the research, limit mistakes and inaccuracies is encouraged. The IPCC has expressed a strong willingness to improve transparency, demonstrated in inviting an independent panel to review the recent mistakes and accusations. Rather than support and applaud this action, many who disagree with the IPCC findings dismiss this attempt as disingenuous.

Science is rational, curious and cautious. The response from those who deny climate change, certainly anthropogenic climate change, is neither rational, curious nor cautious. Scientists speak in terms of probability, based on findings collected to date. Climate change deniers speak in absolutes. They believe in something and cherry pick data to support their belief.

I respond to deniers. They contribute to our public discourse, including newspaper op-ed pieces, podcasts, radio programs and online media comment sections. I’ve been advised to ignore them and I would if those who respect the IPCC reports dominated the public conversation on this issue.

Unfortunately, deniers and sceptics quite often take over the conversation, which is affecting how the broader community regards climate change. Will more rational voices prevail? Over time, I believe they will. The problem of course is that we don’t have much time. We need governments to act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and governments are less inclined to do so if the voting majority loses its appetite for climate action.

Climate change denial is not surprising. Whenever the status quo is challenged, some will go to whatever lengths to keep things the way they are. Many American civil rights activists in the 1950s and 60s were spat at, cursed, beaten and some were even killed, simply for calling for the end of racial segregation. Members of Tommy Douglas’ government had their lives threatened when attempting to legislate universal health care for Saskatchewan residents in the 1960s. Opponents warned of big brother watching patients through hidden cameras in examination rooms. It was predicted that marriage would fall apart once gays and lesbians were allowed to marry. These claims, of course, were ludicrous but they are typical whenever anyone calls for change.

The more that concerned citizens lend their rational voices to the climate action debate and call for positive change, the more the broader public will do the same or at least accept action on the issue. Then people can see deniers for who they really are – a tiny minority of people scared of change, desperate not to let go. In a word – testerical.

Hegel and Climate Denial

From Philosophy of right § 132:

“The right of the subjective will is that whatever it is to recognise as valid shall be seen by it as good, and that an action, as its aim entering upon external objectivity, shall be imputed to it as right or wrong, good or evil, legal or illegal, in accordance with its knowledge of the worth which the action has in this objectivity.”

There is a standard dogma in contemporary ethics which says that any ethical theory must decide whether any action is right either because of the intention behind it, or because of the results that it causes. (As with most problems in contemporary philosophy, this one is caused by ignoring Hegel – the historical genesis of this rejection can be traced largely to Russell, whose dominance was cemented in the American academy by post war McCarthyism).

What Hegel is asserting in this quote is that the rightness of an action can be comprehended neither by simply by looking inside to the pure validity of motive (as in Kant), nor purely by evaluating external effects no matter their connection to motive (strict utilitarianism), but rather that what makes an action right has to do with a motive which already grasps the worth of that action’s external, objective effects. Humans are not purely internal subjects – they are always engaged in a world, and all of their actions are, to an extent, pre-comprehensible in their objective ramifications. This is obvious to everyone, except perhaps some moral philosophers, and is enshrined in our legal system through the duel requirement of an actus reus and mens rea for conviction in a criminal case. If Hegel, in saying this, adds something to this everyday liberal notion, it is only that the external and internal elements in a moral act mutually include each other – a mens rea is only a mens rea when it contains the actus reus as “knowledge”, and that an “actus reus” is only genuinely a moral transgression if it is generated out of a subjective will which entered into external objectivity in accordance with knowledge of the worth of the objective act in its knowledge.

But what does this have to do with climate change? It would mean very little, almost nothing, if Hegel were merely asserting a slightly different way to metaphysically understand the relations between the actus rae and the mens reus. However, Hegel actually disagrees with the standard liberal notion that “the criminal in the moment of his action must have had a ‘clear idea’ of the wrong and its culpability before it can be imputed to him as a crime”. On the contrary – the fact that we have insight into the objective good means that we can be culpable for failing to exercise this insight:

“But to turn momentary blindness, the goad of passion, intoxication, or, in a word, what is called the strength of sensual impulse (excluding impulses which are the basis of the right of distress – see § 127) into reasons when the imputation, specific character, and culpability of a crime are in question, and to look upon such circumstances as if they took away the criminal’s guilt, again means (compare § 100 and the Remark to § 120) failing to treat the criminal in accordance with the right and honour due to him as a man; for the nature of man consists precisely in the fact that he is essentially something universal, not a being whose knowledge is an abstractly momentary and piecemeal affair.” (my emphasis)

Hegel’s conclusions follow from taking seriously the fact that humans are “something universal”, which means here merely that they are capable of knowledge and responsibility – that they are not simply random assemblages being but things that transcend beings, stand over beings, can see and know beings. If we really believe humans are capable of knowledge, that means we can understand them as being guilty for failing to have knowledge in a particular circumstance. This does not mean humans are guilty of every mal effect of their actions which they do not happen to predict – but it means that the negative effects of actions can be understood as having a form of presence in the knowledge of those subjects who acted – a negative presence, a lack for which they are culpable. Failing to recognize the culpability people can have for not knowing the effects of an action means treating them as beings for which knowledge is only a “piecemeal affair” – they know something one minute, and forget it the next.

Now, Hegel is using this argument in Philosophy of Right to claim that punishment is demanded even in situations where the criminal did not have what liberal scholars today would call an mens rea – because that mens rea is really contained in the lack of a mens rea when a universal being fails to grasp the ends of their actions in, for instance, lighting a building on fire. However, the same argument extends to moral issues where the lack of some knowledge (such as knowledge about global warming) might be used to assert those who don’t know about global warming, or those who choose to believe global warming is not a serious problem for our generation, are not morally culpable for climate damaging activity which they engage in out of this ignorance. Perhaps the greatest climate damaging activity of all is the reproduction of false claims concerning global warming – because of the huge practical effect of mainstream media in contemporary society. We tend to think that people are ignorant, and that it is our duty to enlighten them. While this is certainly true, what Hegel might say is that because we understand humans to be capable of knowledge, those who fail to gain knowledge about the effects of their actions when such knowledge is readily available (i.e. through blog projects like this one), can actually be held morally culpable for their ignorance.

This of course does not apply only to the case of climate change – it applies to all practical action. For instance, if knowledge concerning state injustices against specific groups is readily available, it might be right to hold you morally culpable for not engaging in specific boycott and divestment campaigns. Similarly, actively and passively concealing knowledge about past crimes is morally condemnable, insofar as you are capable of knowing about them – mediated by the fact that we are finite and can’t help but set personal priorities concerning how much time we can spend working on various issues.

All citations of Hegel in this post are from paragraph number 132 of the Philosophy of Right, Knox translation.

Monbiot on leaving it buried

An article written by George Monbiot in The Guardian does a good job of explaining why we should not celebrate new fossil fuel discoveries, why peak oil is a climate danger if it encourages the use of unconventional fuels, and why governments serious about climate change need to be leaving fossil fuels underground:

But whether we burn filthy unconventional fuels or slightly less filthy oil and gas, beyond a certain point they will tip us beyond a critical level of global warming. Most governments identify this as 2C. Several game-changing papers published in Nature last year suggest that even if we were to burn no unconventional fossil fuels, we can afford to use only 60% of current reserves of oil, gas and coal if we’re to prevent the global average temperature from rising by more than 2C.

In other words, if governments are serious about climate change, then far from encouraging the expansion of supplies, they should be deciding which 40% or more of current reserves they are going to leave in the ground. Current policy suggests that they are not serious about climate change.

Monbiot has long been ahead of the curve, as a journalist reporting on climate change. Hopefully, the logic of leaving fossil fuels unburned will spread into the wider societal discourse, eventually becoming the subject of public demands for action.