23 July 2017

A ‘self-perpetuating gap’ that must be closed

Mouse-ear cress

Ten years ago, I worked summers as a lab grunt, for the third largest employer in my hometown (which happened to be a university). I was assigned to the Œcology and Evolutionary Biology department, and spent most of my time with a tally counter thumbing over the number of siliques on dried samples of mouse-ear cress while listening to books-on-tape, or transcribing handwritten field notes into Excel – while listening to books-on-tape. The most exciting part of my job was when I got flown to Finland to visit Oulu at the height of summer, where I spent twelve-hour days in the great Finnish wilderness on hands and knees, examining little mouse-ear cress plants as they came up and sprouted their first bright-green pair of little round leaves, as they ‘bolted’ (sent up their first stalk), and as they put out their first tiny white flowers. And, given that this was just below the Arctic Circle in late June, I would come back home at eight in the evening and there would still be six hours of daylight left. I’d usually order a tuna-fish pizza or fry some chicken for dinner and spend my evenings watching pirated fanservice-heavy Masami Ōbari OVAs in the solitude of my sublet apartment.

But on that job I also got to visit Norwich, England. Our department partnered with the University of East Anglia, which was also the home of the undeservedly-notorious Climatic Research Unit, which was literally right next door to us and with which our research team shared both faculty and data. Mouse-ear cress is a model organism for genetics research, annual, self-pollinating, quick to reach maturity, with only five chromosomes; it can grow in any number of different climates across the European, Asian and American continents. The research project I was assigned to, was attempting to measure the impact of environmental and climatic factors on genetic expression and mutation across multiple generations of the species. Naturally there was considerable coöperation to be done, and so with us the Climate Unit scientists were mostly friendly and open. Still, there was certainly something of a siege mentality toward the outside – rather an understandable one, in retrospect, given the hacking that would happen a little over two years after I left. But even when I was there, there was something of an attitude toward CRU faculty and working-class staff that could be felt. Sometimes we and our English counterparts would go down to a pub in Norwich for dinner and beer, and one night a rather buzzed-looking fellow, clearly one not affiliated with the University of East Anglia, came up to us and asked, on hearing what it was we did and where we worked, ‘you don’t really believe all that global-warming shite, do you?’

This incident came back to mind a few weeks back when a fellow member of my church, a wonderful fellow named T— (who’s been very good about sending me tips on job opportunities and advocating for me among his acquaintances in higher education and the private sector) and I got into a discussion on the topic of climate change. T— is, for lack of a better word, a sceptic of climate change. But the one thing he is not, is unintelligent. He’s far better-read than I am. He’s a professor of philosophy and ethics. He has a strong sense of œconomic equity and justice. But he’s also convinced, not only that the principles and methods of climate science are dubious at best, but further that there is an ulterior motive behind climate research, that it’s driven by an élite globalist agenda of deindustrialising and financialising the American œconomy, and robbing American workers of their self-sufficiency, to favour the industrial sectors of China and India. There was definitely an undertone in that discussion of: ‘you don’t really believe all that global-warming shite, right?’

Well, let’s put it this way. I agree completely with T— that our élite class has done a bang-up job of advancing globalism, deindustrialising and financialising our œconomy, all to the detriment of the working class. The relevant data do show that much quite clearly. What’s far less clear to me, however, is that climate scientists – at least in this country – ever had much to do with that agenda in the first place. Much of the ‘dirty work’ that went into the globalisation and financialisation of our œconomy happened between 1978 and 1985, with the advent of neoliberalism, union-busting and outsourcing, as is evident from the charts and papers that can be seen above. Politically speaking, the greenhouse effect was present but not really high on anyone’s priority list, even of the environmentalist movement, until NASA physicist James Hansen’s testimony to Congress in 1988. So there’s something of a time-based causality problem for those who want to argue that climate advocacy has been a tool of neoliberal œconomic planners and a weapon of global finance against the American worker.

On the other hand, environmental initiatives have been, for a very long time, a convenient political punching-bag for those concerned about job losses and œconomic restructuring. Certain environmental advocates really haven’t done their cause many favours in that regard by embracing a neo-Malthusian misanthropy. Many working-class Americans see hypocritical virtue-signalling endorsements of all things ‘green’ by celebrities leading jet-setter rich-and-famous lifestyles, alongside many of the same policies that continued to immiserate them through the 1990’s, and come to an understandable conclusion about the Beltway-led haute-bourgeois nature of climate advocacy. Is it any wonder the topic of climate change evokes such scepticism?

And then, of course, there is the circle-the-wagons tendency among scientists themselves – particularly climate scientists – who see their discipline as being under attack. In the CRU’s case, they actually were under attack, so I can completely understand that reaction. Having known personally some of the people involved, I couldn’t help but feel a personal stake in that whole affaire. But circling the wagons doesn’t actually help. As Independent Voter Network contributor Remy Reya puts it:
The lack of clarity comes from a self-perpetuating gap between the scientific community and the general public: researchers publish papers that must be actively sought out and use terminology inaccessible to large sectors of the population. Without having heard from the scientists directly, citizens grow weary and skeptical of their claims. In the end, media outlets end up with broad authority on the public’s perception of climate change.
I admit to having a ‘side’ here – the same side as Solzhenitsyn, in fact, which I’ve found is generally a good side to be on. I actually do ‘believe all that global warming shite’. The hierarchs of my Church have spoken on this issue (vehemently, unanimously, multiple times and through multiple outlets); so I follow my Church. It helps, of course, and I’m not at all surprised, that what my Church teaches is largely in agreement with the climate scientists I’ve worked under. But I won’t forbear in criticising my own ‘side’ when I believe they’re making an error – either a moral error, a factual error, or an error in tactics. I think a significant part, the significant part, of the onus is on them, as experts, to do the heavy-yet-needful civic work of convincing (not brow-beating, not condescending, not belittling) non-experts, why the science is solid, why it matters now, and why action is needed.

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