The circles I (mostly) grew up in operated with a few fixed facts about climate change and environment, and a few clear stances of the actions needed to move forward.
It goes something like: “Anthropogenic climate change is raising the temperature of the earth, contributes to mass extinction, and exacerbates conditions more in less developed areas; therefore, we (the global human community) need to come to an international consensus on cutting emissions—keeping in mind concern for justice and equity between more/less developed countries—and this is to be done via a mass uprising movement coupled with heavy-handed institutional reforms that phase out the fossil fuel industry.”
That’s not bad, or untrue; but what we came to read and deliberate on in week 7 of classes this fall term was that this sort of thinking is one—but not the only—framework for climate facts and climate action. At a most basic level, a framework as we are referring to it is that which structures information/facts/data/understanding (in this case, climate facts) with meaning/motivation/action (climate action).
Now, the fact-ness of facts was troubled (and still is troubled) by an epistemological debate (having to do with truth) that peaked around the last decade of the 20th century. Most simply, this was a back-and-forth of arguments for realism vs. constructivism with regard to knowledge; because of the academic context in which this took place—examining the objectivity of fact claims in science—it’s called the “Science Wars”. To that end, we read two representative papers of the much bigger debate: a constructivist critique of scientific practice and the production of facts (Demeritt 2001) and its response (Schneider 2001).
Impossible to elect one or the other, both sides of the debate make sense. Scientific practice iteratively constructs for us understandings that ring true with reality in conditional ways: so, yes, the constructivists are right, and so are the realists.
When this abstract debate gets brought back into context—again, in terms of climate change—we no longer know what to do with the framework that operates on the lazy objectivity of truths, that hopeful facts-to-action framework. Not to mention that it seems to get us increasingly nowhere in climate change politics when we step back and take a look around us at phenomena like populism (Hurrell and Sengupta 2012; Lockwood 2018) and social media (Anderson; Hampton et. al. 2017; Poushter et. al. 2018) and the (seemingly) unwieldy influences they have are absolutely true in the big assemblage of our discourse, politics, and therefore our reality of climate change politics.
So what, then? Well, this post is getting long, so I’m going to save the juicy bits for a next time. 😉 But what we can—and perhaps must—look forward to are creative epistemologies (theoretical resolutions) that extend beyond the realism vs. constructivism debate. And we can hope that these will serve us in producing climate discourse beyond a facts-to-action framework that actively denies realities and people inconvenient to the usual, too-hopeful way of thinking (one rhetorical example here).
And if you want to start getting to know what it’s like to embrace these worthwhile challenges, see you at the 22nd Annual Environmental Affairs Symposium this coming week!
Anderson, Ashley A. “Effects of Social Media Use on Climate Change Opinion, Knowledge, and Behavior.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science, 2017.
Demeritt, David. “The Construction of Global Warming and the Politics of Science.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92, no. 2 (2001): 307–37.
Hampton, Keith N., Inyoung Shin, and Weixu Lu. “Social Media and Political Discussion: When Online Presence Silences Offline Conversation.” Information, Communication & Society 20, no. 7 (July 3, 2017): 1090–1107.
Hurrell, Andrew, and Sandeep Sengupta. “Emerging Powers, North–South Relations and Global Climate Politics.” International Affairs 88, no. 3 (May 1, 2012): 463–84.
Lockwood, Matthew. “Right-Wing Populism and the Climate Change Agenda: Exploring the Linkages.” Environmental Politics 27, no. 4 (July 4, 2018): 712–32.
Poushter, Jacob, Caldwell Bishop, and Hanyu Chwe. “Social Media Use Continues to Rise in Developing Countries,” June 19, 2018. http://www.pewglobal.org/2018/06/19/social-media-use-continues-to-rise-in-developing-countries-but-plateaus-across-developed-ones/.
Schneider, Stephen H. “A Constructive Deconstruction of Deconstructionists: A Response to Demeritt.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92, no. 2 (2001): 338–44.