A scholar traces the history of fear about global warming, leading to current conceptions of a “climate catastrophe.” Let the blogging Rorschach tests begin.
A new paper on climate change is starting to make the rounds in the blogosphere, but this one isn’t about the latest report of rising sea level or increasing drought — it’s about fear of the consequences of climate change.
In the paper, “Climate Catastrophes and Fear” (sub rqd for full text), University of Strasbourg historian Matthias Dörries traces the history of fear — in his words, “asking how our current society has come to conceive of climate change in terms of catastrophe and fear, in line with historians’ demands for a more subtle cultural and historical understanding of climate and fear in human society.”
If there is a single bottom line in the paper, it’s this (from the abstract):
The current discourses of fear over climate change reflect the attempts to come to grips with the long-term issue of anthropogenic climate change; they are appeals for action (or calls to inaction) and imply claims to power, while stressing that the issue is political and cultural, not merely a matter of science and reason alone.
If the conclusion is not exactly revolutionary stuff, the history Dörries traces is fascinating and in many instances illuminating. We are moving, he argues, from “the grand narrative of the Enlightenment interpretation of science as antidote to fear” to one in which historians examine how fear is framed within the realms of science, culture and politics, and how that framing can be both “constructive” and “destructive.”
The current framing of fear, in the context of climate change, began with the end of the Cold War. Referring to the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, Dörries writes:
Fears in the Western world were no longer immediate—persecution, war, hunger, or nuclear holocaust—but rather the long-term fears of the environmental consequences of our own actions. For Beck, strongly influenced by the German environmental debates over ‘Waldsterben’ (forest death) and the German antinuclear movement, the affluent Western societies of the 1980s now had the time and the money to worry about lasting and partly invisible environmental problems, like pollution and nuclear radiation. Instead of saying ‘I am hungry’, a new generation now said, ‘I am afraid.’
Scientists have “contributed to provoking fear and anxiety.” But these emotions have not been “manufactured by science and technology themselves,” Dörries argues.
Fear of climate and anthropogenic climate change did not result from technological artefacts, but from scientific modeling and its claims about the future. The 1960s and 1970s, I suggest here, were characterized by an increasing appropriation of the future by science.
This “appropriation” came about as science increasingly was capable of identifying the huge impact of ice ages and catastrophes such as meteorite impacts and volcanic eruptions. And over time, the environmental sciences “expanded considerably the repertory of dreadful imagination, providing fresh new reasons for fear,” Dörries writes.
These projections not only operated on vague, cosmic time scales, but also, helped by rapidly developing computer technology, took on a more imminent importance, moving into the more human timescales of a few years and—with increasing computer power—decades. Scientists’ claims about the future started to seriously interfere with politics and economic planning. Though Enlightenment thinkers believed that scientists should know better than to be afraid themselves, now, scientists relying on modeling were confronted with possible futures, some of which were bleak. Increasingly, they stood up and made their worries known to politicians and the public. In Germany and elsewhere, anthropogenic causes of global warming were first brought up by atmospheric scientists, and only then spilled over into the political and public realms.
No doubt, the paper will become something of a climate change Rorschach test for climate bloggers. Already, Anthony Watts has has written a post about it, appropriating this EurekAlert press release headline: “Should our biggest climate change fear be fear itself?”
The bottom line for Watts:
For Professor Matthias Dörries from the University of Strasbourg, a culture of fear is alive, and doing very well.
The implication is that the culture of fear has been manufactured by misguided scientists, and that we actually have very little to fear.
But to Watts’ credit, he also quotes this from the conclusion of the paper, which provides a different perspective:
For the very long run, science has indeed some terrifying prospects to offer for the planet Earth, and on a scale of decades, science has identified serious threats, such as anthropogenic climate change. The current discourses over fear of climate change reflect the challenges of facing up to the issue: They include either calls to action or appeals to denial and inaction, while casting the issue as a political, cultural phenomenon transcending the realm of science and reason.
Given the “terrifying prospect” that Dörries acknowledges, and that science has clearly identified, the answer to the question posed by Watts in his headline is a resounding, “No.”