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The Race between Education and Catastrophe

David Ritter - 3rd June 2010

H.G. Wells, that prolific prophet and proponent of globalization who was never short of a nifty turn of phrase, remarked in the closing pages of his mammoth Outline of History that the human condition was becoming 'more and more a race between education and catastrophe'.

Wells' aphorism finds expression in the study of the role of epistemic communities in the global politics of the environment.  In most cases, scientific acceptance of at least the strong probability of the existence of a potentially significant environmental problem is a precondition for any effective global policy response occurring.  Unfortunately though, while a preponderance of serious expert opinion may be a necessary condition for action, it has all too often proved to be sadly insufficient.

This week efforts to tackle climate change - a race between education and catastrophe if ever there was one - come in to international focus again when the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change resume talks in Bonn.  Expectations are modest.  The hoopla of Copenhagen will be conspicuously absent.  It will be hard work to pick up the pieces left on the floor of the Bella Center in December last year.

It is one of the most curious and depressing features of the global politics of climate change that despite the strenuous efforts to educate policy makers at an official level through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that catastrophe has - so far - not been averted.

The findings of the IPCC represent a remarkable instance of planetary level scientific cooperation, probably unprecedented in scope and scale, with the central findings backed by elite national academies across the world.   It would be hard to imagine a stronger epistemic community, or one worthy of greater respect.  The central conclusion is that global warming is man-made, accelerating as a consequence of current human behaviours and likely to have devastating consequences. 

Despite this remarkable international effort at education, global action has been paltry.  Indeed, beyond the inaction there is a swell of individuals and organisations who actively seek to undermine the sound science.  In a perversion of the Wellsian axiom, climate change deniers attempt to devalue the best scientific education the world can muster in order to thwart efforts to ward off catastrophe.

There have been a number of important scholarly and journalistic efforts to understand the motives of climate change deniers, of which Clive Hamilton's commanding Reqiuem for a Species, is a significant recent addition.  Although the book is much more, Hamilton does a fine job of synthesising the most recent - and increasingly dire - scientific projections.  He calmly evokes the levels of barely suppressed panic and resignation that are growingly evident among climate change experts, monitoring the shocking disjunction between the latest scientific findings and the prevailing political inaction.  Hamilton then goes on to offer a useful description - almost a typology - of the varying forms of climate denialism.

In the context of this blog, it can be noted that the study of globalization is helpful to the enterprise of explaining the phenomenon of climate change denialism, as a few examples serve to illustrate.  At the better funded end of the pool of climate change deniers are a number of big-emitter transnational corporations, agents and beneficiaries of globalization, which have systematically funded the promulgation of doubt over climate change in pursuit of their narrow business interests.  Then there are certain explicitly anti-globalist insitutions and individuals who claim that efforts to tackle climate change are a Trojan horse for undermining national sovereignty.  Others belong to that category of insecure souls who feel threatened by the scale, speed and intensity of the changes that constitute globalization, of which climate change and its discontents is but one dimension, and seek refuge in denial. 

The grim ridiculousness of climate change denialism is corrupting of sensible policy debate and corrosive of political will to action.  Ultimately though, lying behind is the broader obstacle of the vested interests associated with existing patterns of high-emission production and consumption which so far - with certain notable exceptions like the very recent scrapping of the Third Runway expansion at Heathrow Airport by the new Conservative-LIberal Democrat Coalition Government in the UK - have proven largely impervious to the imperative for action on climate change.  The consequence is a plethora of inadequate national climate change strategies around the world and global negotiations which are in deep disarray.

In the climate change race between education and catastrophe, at the moment the latter is winning.