climate denialism as hysteria?


(Posted simultaneously at Immanence.)

Dipping once again into the public debate around climate change science — today it’s in the responses to MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel’s op-ed in the Boston Globe, to which no less than 15 comments were added in the couple of minutes it took me to write these first couple of sentences — I’m realizing that it’s not enough to refer to a “climate denial machine” (as I’ve done here before). There is certainly an organized, machinic quality to denialism, with well-funded nodes of misinformation generating the talking points disseminated across the internet/mediasphere by climate denialists. But the intensity of many of the comments has made me think about the virtues and pitfalls of another frame, that of “hysteria,” since it really seems akin to the kinds of hysterias chronicled by historians like Norman Cohn and the more familiar territory of conspiratorial claims and counter-claims around such issues as alien abductions, satanic ritual abuse, or JFK and 9-11 conspiracy theories.

At the same time, there’s a risky irony in suggesting that climate change denial is a hysteria, since to deniers it’s precisely the claim of anthropogenic global warming that appears hysterical and millennialist. Hysteria, both the diagnosis of it and the thing itself, relies on a reading of “signs” or “symptoms” as indicative of a cause much larger than what one can easily deal with. There’s a monster lurking behind those markings on one’s skin, or in the body politic. And just as conspiracy theories aren’t wrong by definition (and my listing of those in the previous paragraph wasn’t intended to suggest that those ones were), so hysterical reactions aren’t necessarily unproductive — they are a response to something that one cannot respond to in a more direct and appropriate way. The politics of climate change, in any case, carries something of the “paranoid style” that Richard Hofstader identified in American politics back in the 1960s. But since then, we’ve moved more deeply into a kind epistemologically unmoored world, a world in which we rely on experts to inform us about basic risks that are not directly perceivable by us (such as those from nuclear radiation, environmental contaminants, and the like) but in a context where the structures of epistemic authority are no longer holding up well at all, in which common sense is undecideable and skepticism extends “all the way down”, as Jodi Dean has put it. This is especially the case in societies characterized by wide cultural divides, such as that of post-Bush II America.

In such epistemologically unmoored social worlds, claims of hysteria are double-edged swords: calling deniers paranoiacs or hysterics only echoes back what they call us, since if the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis is really scientifically unfounded, then why are scientists and environmentalists so insistent that it’s true? It can only be because we’re hysterical, or paranoid (afraid of Mother Nature’s revenge at our ecological sins), or self-hating humans (the pan-human equivalent of “self-hating Jews”), or cynically and/or desperately dependent on more research funds, or some monstrous mixture of all of the above. So how does one talk about it without fueling the very process that generates more distrust, more paranoia, more hysteria? We can engage the denialists while remaining calm and just clearly persisting with our arguments — scientific (about anthropogenic climate change, made by climate change scientists), sociological and political-economic (about the lobbying and funding of climate denialism), pragmatic (about the necessity, in any case, to shift towards sustainable use of resources), etc. Or we can ignore them and hope they go away, all the while working on the coalitions that can make a difference — for instance, between local initiatives, governments, NGOs, and climate justice activists around the world.

Calling denialism “hysteria” also captures some of its phenomenology — its affective, contagious quality (which the metaphor of a “machine” doesn’t adequately convey, though the source of that metaphor in Deleuze and Guattari was intended to do that). But it ignores the fact that both sides operate this way: both generate signs and images intended to carry emotional, affective flows in a certain direction or other.

More important to remember, I think, is that what’s at stake here is the authority of science, which is no longer granted the unreflexive epistemic privilege it once had — thanks in part to the questioning of that privilege by left-wing social critics over the last four decades — but which nevertheless still works according to recognizable patterns. Yes, science is, in part, a matter of collective opinion and social process (as Thomas Kuhn and sociologists of science have argued over the decades). So it’s important to establish exactly where the disciplinary support is for the Anthropogenic Climate Change (ACC) hypothesis and where it isn’t, and what the relationship is between climate change science and politics, funding, the interest of interested parties, and so on. But it’s just as important to establish all of that for the Non-Anthropogenic Climate (Non-)Change hypothesis, which is really at least two different hypotheses: the Non-Anthropogenic Climate Change (NACC) hypothesis (“yes, global climate is changing but human activities aren’t responsible for it”) and the Non-Climate Change (NCC) hypothesis (“no, global climate is not changing, at least not any more or less than it has always done”). Since the institutional and disciplinary bases of support for both of these are much smaller than that for scientists pursuing the ACC hypothesis, their “consensus” much less a consensus, and since their relationship to funders and interested supporters is also more direct and conspicuous (Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute, the Global Climate Coalition, the Greening Earth Society, the George Marshall Institute, et al.), putting the science into a broader social, political, and economic context would, in effect, highlight the weakness of the denialist case.

One of the articles cited by one of the Boston Globe’s denialist commenters, Mark Landsbaum’s opinion piece in the Orange County Register, is a good example of how effectively this information can get presented. The article is a list of all the different “gates” — ClimateGate, FOIGate, ChinaGate, HimalayaGate, PachauriGate, SternGate, et al. — that make up the supposed world scientists’ global warming conspiracy. Every single one of them, from what I can tell, is at least in part, if not wholly, manufactured by the denialists as a kind of hyperreal “event” that becomes more real through repetition, exaggeration, multiplication and proliferation. And the more these “signs of scandal” multiply, the more the deniers go apoplectic about them. (See those arguments on the Boston Globe op-ed page, or practically anywhere else where climate change is being discussed.) On the other hand, articles like this and web pages like John Everett’s extensive and seemingly well documented show us how reasonable those same arguments can appear. The appeal of climate change skepticism, then, isn’t an exclusively emotional one, though that’s part of it.

But these are all still quite different from the patient and painstaking collective process of generating data, developing and testing theories and models, etc., that one sees in climate science of the last twenty years, including in its most public venture, the IPCC process. What the broader public discussion seems to lack — partly because journalists aren’t trained to think in these terms — is the broader sociological contextualization of science that would clarify the many differences between the climate change case and its opponents. In this case, that would mean understanding the differences between rival theories or research programs, including their internal differences (e.g., how productive they have been) and their external differences (how one has been funded as opposed to another, etc.). In the case of the “debate” between biological evolutionists (of one or another kind) and “scientific creationists,” this comparison has been pretty easy to make, and anyone but a biblical literalist tends to “get it.” With the climate change debate it’s been more elusive, though Al Gore’s portrayal of it in easy numbers (“97% of all climate scientists” or whatever it was that constituted the “consensus”) was a good try; we just need to get a more sophisticated picture right now.

There are people working on the sociology of the climate change debate, including on climate skepticism (like David Demeritt), and some good folks blogging about it and responding to climate skeptics effectively. But I’m not aware of an obvious go-to place — a web site or think-tank or center — that would communicate this broader (social/political/economic) picture of the climate change debate in a consistent, effective and reliable way. The IPCC was caught off guard by its critics because it wasn’t prepared to deal with that side of the issue. The weaknesses in its reports may have been minor, but when one’s enemy has such good eyes and sharp teeth, even the most minor flaw can become a tragic vulnerability. As the science continues to move forward without the political will to follow up on it with action, we can certainly hope that the skeptics are right and the models wrong. But I fear we will need more hope than that.

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About Adrian Ivakhiv

Adrian Ivakhiv is a professor of environmental thought and culture at the University of Vermont.
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