Climate Science and Power 

Gabriel M P Perez – g.martinspalmaperez@pgr.reading.ac.uk 

Introduction  

Climate science, especially climate-change science, is increasingly becoming a source of power in society and integrating politics. As an academic in meteorology, I started realising how possibly other scientists and I rarely think about how our profession fits in the power networks that constitute politics; on the contrary, it seems that we often think about our scientific outputs as something detached from the wheels of history.  

In this essay, I paint a picture of how climate science relates to the main sources of power in the civic sphere by building upon some of my recent readings in history of ideas and philosophy. I also discuss a few past and recent instances where alleged “apolitical” scientific discourse was moulded to support politics of domination and exclusion. By better understanding the relationships of power surrounding our science, we can be more confident that our scientific outputs will contribute more positively to society at large.  

The participation of climate-change science in politics is not exactly new: it has existed for at least three or four decades. However, up until the early 2010s, the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming still faced a few challenges in the scientific realm. Perhaps the last of these challenges was the alleged 1998-2014 warming hiatus – climate scientists had to answer to the public and come to an agreement as to why the increase in global temperatures appeared to halt. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, anthropogenic warming is a consensus and the most relevant contenders of climate science are found in the political realm. 

Historical background

In the seminal text “A discourse on the method of correctly conducting one’s reason and seeking truth in sciences”, Descartes proposes a method of pure reason to conduct scientific research. He proposes that the inquisitive individual should start by forgetting everything he learned and start deriving basic truths from simple logical statements and build up from that to provide scientific answers to more complex questions using “pure reason”. This text was one of the starting points of a scientific revolution and helped build the bases of modern science. Although epistemology quickly moved on from the Cartesian thought, it still affects the way we do science. After years in academia, trained scientists grow to believe that their scientific outputs are disconnected from the other spheres of society and the networks of power. This “apolitical” mindset will then affect, for example, our ideas, hypotheses and communications regarding climate change.  

The historian of ideas Michel Foucault in his book “The Order of Things”, deconstructs the idea that the scientific discourse is independent of the surrounding socio-economic environment. He argues that the scientific discourse is inherently tied to the “lenses” by which scientists of a certain time are capable of analysing the physical world. Foucault calls these lenses “epistemes”. The epistemes are the ways of thinking in each stage of history that define what is acceptable scientific discourse. Let us take Descartes’ Discourse as an example of that: the author lived in a highly religious time, and, although in Parts 1 to 3 of the Discourse he describes his method of “pure reason”, in Part 4 he employs his method to argue for the existence of God: this would not be acceptable scientific discourse in the 21st century. Therefore, even the brightest minds are subject to having their scientific discourse shaped by the epistemes of their time. 

For some scientists, accepting that our science is shaped by factors outside of the realm of pure reason may be uncomfortable. However, embracing our episteme and the historical forces that drive scientific paradigm shifts may aid us in producing and communicating science in ways that are more likely to impact society positively; this could also help prevent distortions and misuses of the power stemming from our science.

For example, the scientific consensus has been distorted in the past to provide an intellectual background to the darkest side of environmentalism: “ecofascism”, a political model that, in the early 20th century, used environmentalism to justify white supremacy and genocide of indigenous peoples (see the New Yorker article “Environmentalism’s Racist History” by Jedediah Purdy). Sadly, such distortions of environmental sciences are not buried in the past, on the opposite, they are gaining popularity in certain extremist groups (Lawton, 2019; Taylor, 2019) and even influencing today’s politics: the Portuguese ecofascist party was an important early supporter of the current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose policies are ironically accelerating the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest (Pereira, 2020). In United States politics, we have recently seen in the media the eco-fascist “shaman” invading the White House after Donal Trump’s defeat. 

The power relations of climate science 

Power can be defined as the ability to have others do as you would. Evoking Foucault one more time, there are two kinds of power: the repressive and normalising power. Repressive power is a second-rate type of power that requires the use of force to control the actions of others.  Normalising power, on the other hand, is silent, non-aggressive, and much more effective than repressive power. Normalising power controls what other people want. If you have normalising power over others, they will do as you would because you have succeeded in making them want the same as you. As climate researchers, our scientific output is a growing source of normalising power. More and more people and governments want to do what climate science says is better for life on Earth. Therefore, “power” hereafter refers to “normalising power”. 

Power is present in all spheres of human relations (e.g., family, workplace and institutions). Here we will discuss power in the civic sphere, i.e., the power of having groups of people or societies do as you would. The civics educator Eric Liu suggests that power emanates from six sources. Here, I list four of these sources that I deem most relevant to climate science and discuss some ways that they relate to it: 

  1. Ideas Ideas, hypotheses and theories about the physics, impacts, mitigation and adaptation of climate change emanate almost exclusively from academia.  This directly places climate scientists from top institutions as raw sources of power that shape how people and governments think, behave and act towards climate change.  Combining David Hume’s proposition that ideas come from the impressions one has had throughout their lives and Foucault’s theory of epistemes, we may come to the conclusion that this source of power (i.e., scientific ideas) might not be as purely rational as one might have hoped. 
  2. Wealth Since ideas stem from academia, it is important to remember that most top institutions are in the wealthy nations of the Global North. Moreover, most scientists in these institutions were born and raised in the same wealthy nations. Naturally, the bulk of scientific outputs, both in terms of results and communications, are tied to the episteme, or “ways of thinking”, of this particular set of scientists.    Wealth is also related to science through the sources of research funding. Decisions regarding the allocation of research funds are often made by boards composed by either: 
  • Scientists in wealthy countries or 
  • Influential individuals outside academia 

A controversial example of B is the influence that Bill and Melinda Gates, through their foundation, exert over the World Health Organisation, having a disproportionate influence on scientific and public health decisions (Wadman, 2007). The issue is that Bill and Melinda’s suggestions are often not aligned with the public’s best interest or the scientific consensus, but rather with the personal motivations of these individuals. The power of wealth in climate-related negotiations is further evidenced when we notice that ideas such as climate debt (Warlenius, 2018) are typically ignored by current and former imperialist nations. These ideas were advocated by Global South agents in the widely ignored “World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” held in Bolivia in 2010. 

  1. Numbers Climate activists, when numerous enough, have the power to pressure or convince governments and individuals to act according their beliefs. These beliefs are largely based on climate-change scientific literature. Scientists sometimes also take a more direct approach and practise environmental activism of some sort. 
  2. State action Governments are themselves a source of civic power but also subject to the other sources of power (i.e., ideas, wealth and numbers). Democratic states, as representatives of the people, have the power to directly and indirectly influence climate change by reducing (or increasing) emissions, funding climate research, educating the future generations, and many others. The governmental action, in its turn, is constrained by law in states under “Rechtsstaat” (or “the rule of law”). This raises the question: are lawmakers, prosecutors, judges and other agents well equipped to make decisions around climate change? In the next decades, it is not hard to imagine climate scientists being consulted regarding climate-change litigation in national or international courts. A few weeks ago, for example, the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was accused of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court; his policies were said to be “directly connected to the negative impacts of climate change around the world”. 

Conclusion 

In this essay, I have outlined and attempted to disentangle a few existing and emerging power relations around climate change. I argue that as climate scientists we are sources of power in society. Therefore, we should be aware of our own “ways of thinking”, or “epistemes”, and remember that these are driven by external factors. Those external factors have the ability to shape our ideas, hypotheses and communications regarding climate change. Being aware of our role in the complex network of power known as politics could maximise the positive impact of the power stemming from our scientific outputs. Hopefully, this awareness could help prevent this power from being misdirected to support politics of domination and exclusion. Moreover, as the impacts of climate change are increasingly damaging to life on Earth, it is likely that in the next decade’s climate scientists involve themselves with litigation in national and international courts of justice. It is, therefore, timely for us to be aware of our roles in all levels of politics. 

References and further reading

Descartes, Rene. A discourse on the method of correctly conducting one’s reason and seeking truth in science. 1637

Foucault, Michel. The order of things. 1966.

Lawton, Graham. “The rise of real eco-fascism.” New Scientist 243.3243 (2019): 24.

Pereira, Eder Johnson de Area Leão, et al. “Brazilian policy and agribusiness damage the Amazon rainforest.” Land Use Policy 92 (2020): 104491.

Purdy, Jedediah. Environmentalism’s racist history. The New Yorker. 2015 https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history

Taylor, Blair. “Alt-right ecology: Ecofascism and far-right environmentalism in the United States.” The Far Right and the Environment. Routledge, 2019. 275-292.

Wadman, Meredith. “Biomedical philanthropy: state of the donation.” Nature 447.7142 (2007): 248-251.

Warlenius, Rikard. “Decolonizing the atmosphere: The climate justice movement on climate debt.” The Journal of Environment & Development 27.2 (2018): 131-155.

Eric Liu Ted Talk about civic power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cd0JH1AreDw

List of resources about climate debt: 

https://fascinated-soccer-ac0.notion.site/Climate-Debt-Resources-f7f24ce9a7344aa1a3e5290f853b6b4f

History of ecofascism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkhmP7yDWeY

2 thoughts on “Climate Science and Power 

  1. Pedro A.S.M. Ribeiro (@pedroasmribeiro) November 10, 2021 / 7:27 pm

    Gabriel, do you think that, maybe, scientists, professors and teachers job is to actually dilute power by giving to all (ordinary) people information and knowledge so they make their own decisions, for good and for bad?
    After all, nobody is born with any kind of formal education, scientists one day were as knowledgeable about their area as any other citizen.

    Like

    • Gabriel M P Perez November 17, 2021 / 5:46 pm

      Hey Pedro. I believe we create power out of thin air and that currently we have little control on what happens with it. So, I would say that spreading what we learn to the people can create more power that will hopefully be used in good ways.

      Like

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