Saturday, February 19, 2011

Climate science & the imaginary culture wars

Climate is a polarized issue, and when you think about it, you wonder why that should be.  Since when did scientific specialties become our cultural flavour of the week?  Lady Gaga is up.  Climate science is down.  Elephants are trending hot again, but marathon swimming polar bears are fading fast.

Why should this be?  The answer is clear when you think of it as another culture war.

Climate science is not cultural, of course.  It’s physics, measurements, predictions based on the evidence. 

But our collective response to climate change may have to be cultural in many ways.

There’s the rub.

Climate change means cultural change because it means doing things differently from the way we have been doing things up to now.  A world where our affect on tomorrow becomes as real to us as our affect on today, that’s a different world from the world we are living in.  We as a civilization are going to have to change, to adapt ourselves to a climate and to circumstances which our civilization has never had to face before.  That’s obvious.

And some people are afraid of those changes.  Their fear of change makes them demonize the scientific messengers, the climatologists who keep on telling them that things have to change.  Their fear makes them identify these sober people in lab coats with hippies and communists and tree-hugging grandmothers and all the other cultural bogies they have been taught to deride and fear. 

The fear of change transforms what is after all a merely scientific message into some kind of paranoid cultural propaganda.  The consequences that they see in the message have become confused in their minds with the message itself.

Thus scientific truth—a truth that we really must start paying attention to seriously—becomes a casualty of a fear of change and of an imaginary culture war.

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