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Climate Change And The Politics Of Perception
The marketplace for ideas and information is never completely free, open and fair, says Rajni Bakshi. So how do we the people make sense of the conflicting views of the alarmists on climate change and those who deny its seriousness?
Over the last few years it seemed that the global discourse had settled on a middle ground between the most dire and the most mild assessments of the extent of climate crisis. Recent controversies indicate that the common ground may have shrunk again.
It would be good if this shrinkage were to create more space for deeper, nuanced enquiry. But it seems much more likely that the shift is driven by preferences and priorities which are ideological – that have to do with conflicting visions of how we should organise the economy and society and thus how we relate to the rest of nature.
So how may we navigate our way through this confusion? One possible way would be to accept that we live on the edge of a paradox. If we park our minds in the camp of those who want to deny or underplay the extent of the climate crisis, what now seems ‘alarmist’
Of course these terms – ‘deniers’ and ‘alarmists’
Deniers come in many shapes and sizes. They are not limited to companies whose profit-models are hit by accepting a particular assessment of the climate crisis. Some individuals are so hard-wired to focus on GDP growth that they treat most environmental concerns as sentimental, even regressive. This position is accompanied by claims that the earth’s ecosystems are far more resilient than ecologists make out and human ingenuity will indefinitely ensure that our species survives and thrives.
This position in its extreme form may be on the fringes, but shades of it wield considerable power – both in government and the private sector. For example, ten years have gone by since Amrita Patel, Chairperson of the National Dairy Development Board, urged that we should measure and give greater importance to our ‘Gross Natural Product’. Such concepts are still slowly inching their way out of the fringes and show no signs of becoming the mainstream norm any day soon.
At the extreme end of the other side, ‘alarmists’
So how do we sift insight from ideology? Is that at all possible, since the marketplace for ideas and information is never completely free, open and fair?
For instance, it is not easy to build precise knowledge about the extent to which nature’s ecosystems can cope with the impacts of the human economy. Fortunately, there is more and more rigorous knowledge addressing this challenge. However, while this work gets relatively less media space, a controversy like ‘Climategate’
Just before the Copenhagen summit began, old emails of some IPCC scientists at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, England) were hacked and put in the public domain -- along with the allegation that these offered proof of how the scientists had fudged data. This was widely seen as a successful strategic manoeuvre by deniers, who dubbed the episode ‘Climategate’
There followed a flurry of analysis by both media and scientists, which indicated that the hacked emails could be interpreted several different ways – they don’t necessarily indicate that the people involved were deliberately fudging. But by then there was a dent in the IPCC’s public image.
I am not concerned with defending the IPCC. A jolt to the credibility of the IPCC would not by itself be bad if it helped the body refine its methods and have stronger filters against ‘bad science’. The problem is that there can be power play in how ‘good science’ is defined. Thus we must make a distinction between genuine efforts to improve the internal rigour of the IPCC and the motives of those whose aim is largely to discredit not only the IPCC but a still larger body of research on human impacts altering climate patterns.
We may sometimes feel bombarded by the battles being played out in the experts’ stratosphere and how these seek to shape our perceptions. And yet, how we live -- and consume resources -- need not conform to any particular narrative -- whether it is one that pushes us towards panic or another that encourages complacency.
Perhaps it is more powerful to rely on our direct experience of the natural world – of mighty rivers that have been reduced to open sewers, of barren hills, degraded soils, dwindling freshwater …as well as the latent promise of valiant efforts to revive ecosystems.
It might be helpful, along the way, to remember that nature bats last and it owns the stadium.
(Rajni Bakshi is a freelance journalist and author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For a Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear.)
Infochange News & Features, February 2010
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