Robert Wade, Professor of Global Political Economy in the Department of International Development, contemplates the polarisation of debate in contemporary discourse on climate change, taking a conference organised and later cancelled by L’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei as an example.
My essay ‘What is the harm in forecasting catastrophe due to man-made global warming?’ placed the debate about human influences on the climate in the context of a larger process of polarization common when scientific disagreements become public. As described by sociologist of science Robert K. Merton, each group then responds to stereotyped versions of the other. ‘They see in the other’s work primarily what the hostile stereotype has alerted them to see, and then promptly mistake the part for the whole. In this process, each group … becomes less and less motivated to study the work of the other, since there is manifestly little point in doing so. They scan the out-group’s writings just enough to find ammunition for new fusillades.’ 1 Karl Popper’s epistemological basis for knowledge – knowledge advances by disconfirmation – goes out the window, for the birds, as what scientists believe to be approximately true becomes a function of their group identity.
The result is what I call a ‘syndrome of exaggeration’: each side is inclined to exaggerate evidence in its favour and downplay evidence against, which justifies the other in exaggerating evidence in its favour and downplaying evidence against; and back again. It is a syndrome in that the behaviour of each side confirms the negative expectations of the other. Members of each side often go at each other ad hominem, like adolescent schoolboys, including people who regard themselves as serious scientists. In the digital era members are able to quickly find each another and the enemy, and communicate without editing.2
Global warming and climate change provides fertile ground for these social processes, not least because many scientists, journalists, activists and others regard global warming as the impending catastrophe, the existential threat to humanity and life on Earth, and see it as their supreme duty to warn humanity and to help mobilise countervailing action globally, nationally, locally; while a small but vociferous set of scientists and others believe that to be a big exaggeration. Amped up through the syndrome of exaggeration, each side becomes predisposed to draw conclusions on individual issues (e.g. extreme weather) less from the evidence of those individual issues and more from packaged-up ideological visions, the better to maintain clear moral battle lines; disagreement becomes moral heresy.
Unfortunately, the Merton polarisation dynamics tend to squeeze out non-polemical consideration of intermediate arguments.
In contemporary terminology, the dynamics could be called ‘cancel culture’, defined in Wikipedia as ‘a modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles … a form of boycotting or shunning involving an individual … who is deemed to have acted or spoken in a questionable or controversial manner’. In climate change, the dominant side, by far, is the side which says that the ‘catastrophe’ scenario of humanity’s future is likely enough that we must use it to mount major changes in public and private resource allocations and changes in individuals’ behaviour all around the world over the next several decades, with the overriding aim to reach ‘net zero by 2050’. Almost all the attention for avoiding catastrophe is on cutting emissions so as to minimize global warming; questions of adapting to climate change are confined to the margins. This side’s members commonly embrace the morality of cancel culture when it comes to those whom they call ‘deniers’, regardless of scientific qualifications.
Recently I read on Climate Etc. (the blog hosted by climate scientist Judith Curry) ‘A climate of dialogue’, a pacated dialogue between two scientists who have rather different approaches to issues of climate change.3 (‘Pacated’ means to make less hostile, peaceful – an unfamiliar word that deserves wide currency in these polarized times.) One of them was Andrea Saltelli. Through him I learnt of a conference that was to be hosted by the main and oldest Italian scientific academy, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, titled ‘Global warming: mitigation strategies’, on Environment Day, 12 November 2019. Professor Saltelli was to be one of the speakers. But then the Lincei cancelled it, without official explanation. Unofficially the reason was the backlash from invited participants at the inclusion of a paper (one of 14 papers) challenging the evidence given in support of the hypothesis that current global warming is caused almost entirely by human activities. One of its seven co-authors (among whom were climatologists and physicists) was a professor of physical chemistry and reputed “denier”. Through Saltelli I contacted Dr Monica di Fiore, who wrote an essay questioning the wisdom of cancelling the conference, published in an Italian academic discussion journal. With her help I reconstructed the following account of cancel culture in action.
(1) From many submissions (all by scientists), a host committee of four selected 14 papers to be presented. One of the papers had seven authors, including climatologists and physicists. The paper, ‘Critical considerations regarding the anthropogenic global warming theory’, took issue with the argument that current global warming is due almost entirely to human causes, spelling out why the kind of evidence given in support of the hypothesis is insufficient to confirm it. Its thrust was in line with the Popperian principle of falsification as the route to get closer to the truth.
(2) The newspaper la Repubblica ran a story (18 September 2019) focused on the fact that one of the seven authors of this paper, Franco Battaglia, had not published about climate in peer review journals (he is professor physical chemistry at the University of Modena). La Repubblica said that the Lincei was lowering its standards by including this paper with ‘denier’ Battaglia as a co-author. The Lincei sent a short article to la Repubblica explaining the reason for the conference and the inclusion of this paper, which la Repubblica refused to publish.
(3) When some intending participating scientists read the Repubblica article, they disinvited themselves on account of not wanting to be in any way associated with Battaglia and his (and six co-authors’) argument. Some also said that the question of ‘attribution’ (the extent to which global warming is due to human causes) lay outside the scope of a conference on mitigation strategies, and should not be included in the program. Some also affirmed that there is simply no room for doubt – all reputable scientists accept that current global warming is due almost entirely to human action, so it would be a waste of everyone’s time to hear the paper (as though it was arguing that the earth is flat). None had seen the disputed paper.
(4) In response to the hostile Repubblica article and the wave of protest from intending participants, the Lincei decided to cancel the conference altogether – informing only the participants, giving no public notice.
(5) Later (30 September 2019), la Repubblica published an article titled ‘Clima, la fronda degli scienziati italiani che negano la scienza’ (‘Climate, the fringe of Italian scientists who deny the science’), about the petition signed by over 145 scientists supporting the legitimacy of challenging the man-made global warming hypothesis, where it mentioned the cancelled conference.
(6) Monica Di Fiore (National Research Council) published an essay in ROARS, an online discussion journal for Italian academics, on 6 March 2020 titled ‘Il silenzio dei Lincei. Cui prodest?’ (‘The silence of the Lincei. Who benefits?’), in which she questioned the wisdom of cancelling the event. Her essay attracted 24 comments. The large majority supported the Lincei’s decision, and the large majority were expressed in polemical, ad hominem language, with little or no engagement with either the argument of the paper or the ethics of the Lincei’s decision.
What could be the net benefit of cancelling the whole conference in order to prevent discussion of one out of 14 papers, one of whose seven co-authors was a reputed “denier”? Notice the title of la Repubblica’s article, ‘Climate, the fringe of Italian scientists who deny the science’. This converts ‘the science’, as an approach to knowledge, into The Science, a body of knowledge with the status of Revealed Truth.
Cancellation of the Lincei conference on mitigation strategies is a microcosm of the morality of cancel culture in the scientific establishment. It was cancelled to prevent the presentation of a paper questioning whether full-on mitigation – big cuts in carbon emissions – is imperative to save humanity; and to block the voice of an outspoken ‘denier’ (a professor of physical chemistry). The fate of the conference illustrates the danger that the Merton dynamics in global warming focus the attention of scientists and science on the fight against the other and away from dispassionate analysis and assessment of the goodness or otherwise of models, data and mechanisms. And also away from other pressing environmental concerns which cannot be treated simply as reflexes of climate change, including collapse of insect populations and fisheries, atmospheric pollution, plastic pollution, endocrine disruptors, and several others of global scale – issues which are relegated to second- or third-order, once it is accepted as true beyond doubt that humanity is on the path to catastrophe unless we reach net zero by 2050 or maybe 2075. Meanwhile, we the global public have to realise how useful the ‘climate emergency’ is for political leaders to be able to pledge their undying commitment to – and divert attention from more awkward topics. Imagine the relief of the G7 heads of government meeting in Biarritz, August 2019: their officials had prepared the way for a G7 discussion of how to make capitalism ‘fairer’ and reduce income and wealth inequality, but the heads of government gratefully let the discussion of climate, with its class-free and more distant horizons, marginalise how to create a fairer capitalism.
More than this, the Lincei case illustrates the dangers of scientists blurring the responsibility to ‘inform’ with the more political task to ‘persuade’. As informers they are morally obliged to follow Einstein’s dictum: ‘The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognised to be true’. As persuaders they are not, and their incentives too easily produce Merton polarisation dynamics with sharp lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’, between ‘heresy’ and ‘Truth’. The public should be beware that evidence and conclusions are affected by these politics, not only by ‘the science’.4
1 Robert K. Merton, 1973, ‘Social conflict over styles of sociological work’, in The Sociology of Science, University of Chicago Press, emphasis added. See also Anne Applebaum, ‘The new puritans’, The Atlantic, 31 August 2-021 online.
2See the website Watts Up With That? for many examples from a right-wing perspective, especially in the comments. Mark Perry, denouncing ‘experts’ who warn of climate dangers, paraphrases an expert prediction as, ‘If we don’t immediately convert to socialism and allow Alexandria Ocasio-Crazy to control and organize our lives, the planet will become uninhabitable’. Scientist Patrick Michaels, writing about academia (American and British), generalises : ‘… normal career progression is all but derailed if a person expresses a scintilla of non-left views in casual conversations, faculty meetings, public discourse, teaching, grant applications, submitted publications, or the promotion process.’ ‘Death spiral in American academia’, Watts Up With That?, 10 June 2021. Others on the website delight in describing those they disagree with as ‘totalitarian fanatics and extremists of the far Left in the West’.
3Andrea Saltelli and Paul-Marie Boulanger, 2020, A CLIMATE OF DIALOGUE, in DIMENSIONS OF INTRA- AND INTERGENERATIONAL JUSTICE IN THE DEBATES ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY, Silvija Serafimova Editor, published by Avangard Prima, Sofia. ISBN 978-619-239-433-2.
4Several friends who read this essay in draft and the long essay hyperlinked at the beginning of the first paragraph have been upset by them and implicitly or explicitly urge me not to publish, because they give succour to the ‘deniers’. One, a highly respected investigative journalist based in London, wrote: ‘ you are in the very dubious company of climate deniers. I’m just wondering Robert, where you got your material. Did you find this all yourself – or were you given it by someone else? No, you don’t need to give me an answer but you should ask yourself what you are doing and how you are doing it. And ultimately, whose fight you are fighting.’ I am struck that people (westerners) advocating fast exit from fossil fuels seem to be little aware of the situation of the large majority of the populations of developing countries; little aware of global energy demand as population in developing countries rises and standards of living rise (especially Africa). They imply that there is a pathway from today’s 80% of global energy from fossil fuels to 2050’s near zero, as though by magic; or else that ‘Africa and large parts of the rest of the developing world have to remain poor, their total energy use limited to renewables, because continued use of fossil fuels brings – we know – the ruin of humanity’. See also the Applebaum reference in footnote 1.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Image credit: Boredpanda.com.
Both sides have behaved despicably, deniers more so surely. But, the interesting question isn’t which side is (or looks) better, but which side is right. You haven’t got us any closer to resolving the climate controversy.
You took over my environmental teaching on the E&D masters at LSE when I left in 2001. These days I am in a department with climate scientists, at the University of Melbourne. I can’t see that they are at all wrong in their modelling of atmospheric dynamics, and they and thousands of others are getting closer to ‘truth’ than the few skeptics [Curry’s views, from what I member from listservs and blogs in the 2000s, being questionable here] . It is not just left-wingers in universities that feel that anthropogenic warming is a major threat – is is almost everybody. Even Down Under, as the 2022 AU election showed. The point about emissions reductions is that they are entirely necessary, and indeed in East and North Africa particular, there are numerous cases of state buy-in to that, partly because it is now economic to do so [geothermal energy in Kenya for example, wioth ground up renewables also embraced – see work of Paul Munro and Bonn Uni]. Other nations lag, like Ghana. The big difference of opinion is over the types of transitions proposed by the Breakthough Institute [tech, and nuclear power/geosequestration, should prevail to reduce emissions] vs a growing degrowth school, that calls for radical reductions in emissions from the polluting West, and localism, along with tackling the other issues you mention, like plastics. Neither accord with a classic leftist or Marxist line, but only the first one is really in line with a capitalist ethos. Also, the work on climate adaptation is massive. Tim Forsyth and I taught this in London in the 1990s and in regions like the Pacific, that is what everybody id focussing on. I would say cancelling the conference was a bit silly – the relevant paper could have been excluded – the issues are too important to platform the outsiders who often don’t have great atmos modelling data. But it is not as if such events make big waves and are really listened to – that occurs through the IPCC and the CoPs, building on science.