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Climate change denial not about the science

Climate change is a direct challenge to the philosophy of neo-liberalism that has made a very small group of people exceedingly rich, writes the University of Auckland's Dr Neal Curtis. It's never been about the science - it's the ideology.

On the 29th January, San Francisco-based political magazine Mother Jones ran an article claiming a journal funded by US billionaire Peter Thiel—a man known in New Zealand for the controversial way he received his citizenship—was publishing articles dismissing the science on climate change.

The only thing new here, though, is the addition of another name to an already long list of very wealthy businessmen who are denying the consensus on scientific facts shared, according to NASA, by 97 percent of the scientific community who are publishing on the subject in peer-reviewed journals. To call the agreement on climate change a consensus, then, seriously underestimates just how in sync so many of the world’s leading experts are on this matter. But really, climate change denial has never been about the science.

Science by definition is refutable. Karl Popper’s famous argument, that for knowledge to be regarded as scientific it needed to be falsifiable, makes the argument that the “science” or the “data” is contestable fairly meaningless. In a scientific context this is a given, and it is the methods that determine whether something is false or not that is leading the scientific community to believe man-made climate change is true, factual, and demonstrable from the evidence currently available. But as I say, refuting climate science has never been about the science. It is a matter of ideology and the maintenance of a political dogma.

Climate change and the environmental imperatives that follow from it challenge deeply-held assumptions that are central to the Western worldview. They challenge our anthropocentric belief that everything is ours to use as we see fit. It questions our dominion and the separation of ourselves from nature. We like to think we are a special kind of animal with a status that gives us an exemption from dependency on the environment so fundamental to other species; a dependency borne out by the catastrophic rate of extinctions.

But more specifically climate change challenges the fundamentals of an ideology that has become political dogma over the last 40 years, namely the doctrine known as neo-liberalism. This was presented as an economic theory, but was in reality a political ideology that privileged the individual, privatised resources and services, reduced society to exchanges in a so-called “free market”, and sought to eradicate the role of the state. It was a system that worked in the sense that it succeeded in completing one of the greatest redistributions of wealth in modern history, with Oxfam reporting that 82 percent of the wealth produced in 2017 went to the top 1 per cent of the population.

However, climate change is not only a threat to the planet and the life on it, it is also a threat to this ideology. What climate change shows us is that we need to transform the way we live, curtailing our use of disposable commodities and the fossil fuels that currently drive our economy; but more than this, climate change shows us how dependent we are on the planet. We will no doubt want to maintain human rights in the future, and the individual freedoms of speech and thought they protect, but climate change shows us that prior to this is a dependency and a responsibility that no individual can escape.

It also shows us how connected and implicated we are in the lives of others. It points to the need for mutual, collective action. At the international level it requires regulation and the imposition of certain limits. The wealthy people who oppose climate science are so privileged that they cannot imagine and will not tolerate any limit being placed on them. They will certainly not countenance any limit on their self-appointed right to accumulate infinite wealth, nor any proposal to distribute means more equitably.

Socially, climate change also shows we are all in this together and need to practise a profound solidarity to solve our problems. This is nothing like the sense of community that often comes with the exclusive knowledge of who and who isn’t a member. This is about an extended and anonymous social imagination that allows us to consider the needs of those who are radically different from us.

Finally, the solutions require the concerted effort of the state. Certainly the private sector has a role to play, but the pursuit of profit is inadequate to the task. Climate change demands carefully planned, co-ordinated and urgent action that is beyond the ad hoc, competitive logic of companies seeking to increase shareholder value. It will also, no doubt, require the use of taxation as a means to nudge behaviour in the right direction. What climate change shows us, then, is that the political priorities of the traditional left—even if we rebrand them as a Green New Deal—are much more suited to the crisis we face.

So, climate change is a direct challenge to the philosophy of neo-liberalism that has made a very small group of people exceedingly rich, and which is why they no doubt want to ignore it. But what is so maddening is that they act as if some billionaire friend, a fantasy figure like Marvel’s Tony Stark, will offer them—at the right price, of course—a personal technological solution or a place on their rocket ship to start life somewhere else. It is laughable, but true. Science is not the issue, it is ideology.

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