Few issues strike so close to home as human-driven climate change. Although one form or another of this explanation has been acknowledged by the vast majority of scientists, the general public has proved less ready to accept that this is the case. A recent Pew study revealed that 67% of Americans thought that there was “solid evidence that the Earth is warming,” with only 44% conceding that human beings are causing it.

This in itself is not entirely surprising given the gigantic sums of money being poured into climate change denial by the likes of the Koch brothers (who have apparently spent more than $67 million since 1997 to get their point across). Add that to the ready access to media time provided to members of the lunatic segment (one can no longer call it a fringe) of the Republican Party such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Paul Ryan and it is easy to see why the proposition that the climate isn’t changing (and that the Earth is flat) gets so much play in the US.

This illustrates the difficulty, not simply of conveying the gravity or the timescale of climate change to people, but even the fact that it is happening at all. Even among those who believe in the reality of climate change there are those, like the technology fetishists at the Breakthrough Group who argue that so-called “scare tactics” are counterproductive. Putting aside for a moment the question of whether being scared of a process that could quite easily lead to a serious civilizational break is, in fact, a rational response, it is nonetheless the case that conveying the reality of climate change in the current media-political environment is a challenging task.

A new book written by the historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway attempts a novel approach to the problem. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future presents clothes a Jeremiad about the dangers of climate catastrophe in the moderate style of an academic treatise. Although the results are, at times, compelling, it is hard to see how this can get out of the dynamic of self-interested pettifoggery that has hamstrung all such efforts to make these points.

In this particular instance, one uses the word “novel” advisedly. There is nothing new about dystopian fiction. From Brave New World to On the Beach, to Oryx and Crake, fiction writers have mixed the known and the speculative to emphasize the risks from everything from totalitarianism to asteroid strikes. Recently, authors like Tobias Buckell (Arctic Rising) and Kim Stanley Robinson (The Capital Code) have begun to address the possible effects of global warming in works extensively informed by the most up to day science on the subject. Oreskes, a historian of science who teaches at Harvard University, and Conway, the in-house historian at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, have offered a slightly different approach, couching their speculations in terms of a fictitious scholarly essay composed in the year 2300.

Oreskes and Conway already have a track record on this topic. In 2010 they co-authored Merchants of Doubt which dealt in depth with the ways that a small number of scientists (many of the more prominent of whom were formerly dedicated Cold Warriors) had lent their scholarly reputations to the project of raising spurious suspicion toward well-grounded science on issues from the ill-effects of tobacco and acid rain, to anthropogenic climate change. Funded by a network of far right think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the George C. Marshall Institute (the Koch-funded Heartland Institute also fits into this mold), paid obfuscators engaged in a project of destabilizing established consensuses that ran counter to the political and financial interests of their employers.

Double entendre. US, 2013.

Double entendre. US, 2013.

This exercise in what the historian Robert Proctor once termed “agnotology” was generally well received, at least by those outside the echo chamber of the hard right think tanks. But like many such debunking projects, it ran into a fundamental problem: the book was most convincing to people already political disposed to agree with its conclusions. Therein lays a central problematic of elucidating the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change for a mass audience. The sociology of knowledge, particularly as it relates to power, stacks the deck in favor of the know nothings.

In their latest book, Oreskes and Conway have attempted to circumvent this via an exercise in future history. The story they present is thoroughly grounded in middle of the fairway climate science and the predictions stemming therefrom. Rising temperatures will, by the middle of this century cause significant rises in world sea levels as well as concomitant severe weather.

The resulting dislocations of population, combined with the pressure put on an already fragile global food infrastructure leads, on their account, to a breakdown of democratic institutions in the West. It is the Chinese, with their more centrist political organization, that are best able to withstand the shocks. This represents a subtle attempt by the authors to play on the anti-government inclinations of many among the climate skeptics. When serious catastrophe strikes it will only be through an extension of centrist modes of power that civilization will be preserved.

A second major theme to which Oreskes and Conway devote considerable attention is the irony that the climate-driven collapse could (from the perspective of the future) have been prevented if the knowledge available at the time (i.e. currently) had been properly employed. The failure to do so is linked to a number of causes, including the politically-driven insistence on an unrealistically rigorous standard of proof (Fischerian statistics,) the prohibition on scholars commenting on fields outside their own areas of disciplinary specialty, and the failure of the Baconian account of knowledge and power the work to the advantage of the scientific community.

Tacheles squat. Berlin, 2007.

Tacheles squat. Berlin, 2007.

The phrase “knowledge is power” is frequently attributed to Francis Bacon. As with most sound bites, the devil is in the details. In his Meditationes Sacrae (1597), Bacon wrote that “knowledge itself is a kind of power.” Thomas Hobbes, who served as Bacon’s secretary as a young man, made the point slightly more appositely in the Leviathan (1668) when he wrote, “The sciences are small powers; because not eminent, and therefore, not acknowledged in any man; nor are at all, but in a few, and in them, but of a few things. For science is of that nature, as none can understand it to be, but such as in a good measure have attained it.”

The relationship between knowledge and power is, as readers of Foucault’s oeuvre will know, exceedingly complex and by no means unidirectional. Knowledge can often form the basis for a kind of effective power, but it is more appropriate to say, as Foucault did in Discipline and Punish, “There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.”

As Oreskes and Conway’s previous book had shown, those whose power is imbricated in the possession of capital can deploy their own knowledge/power in ways that disrupt the truth narratives of more narrowly scientific discourses. Thus, the failure of scientists to transform their (relatively more) value-neutral account of the relationships between human action and climate change into the dominant narrative has as much to do with the political economic formation in which they operate, as it does with their own efforts and inclinations. While the authors do take note of this, including in their future history the arrest in the near future of 300 climate scientists who failed to toe the politically generated line, their account has a tragic dimension. Given that the state of North Carolina has already passed a law banning the use of climate change projections of sea level rises in the formulation of coastal policy, the prospect that some more muscular efforts might be taken along these lines does not seem all that remonte.

Oreskes and Conway are clear that the political and economic atomization wrought by neoliberalism on Western civilization was (is) a crucial factor in the dynamics that led to the disastrous changes in the climate. But their analysis of the Baconian dynamic seems to lay rather too much blame or responsibility on scientists themselves for failing to overcome the manifold efforts of the deniers. And this is the nub of the problem, both in terms of climate change, and of scientifically based efforts to prevent civilizational collapse more generally. Certainly the power of capital owners to distort scientific discourses is an important element of this. But it plays into a broader dynamic, a failure to accede to (in the broadest sense of the term) scientifically established facts running the gamut from an amorphous and mugwumpish skepticism to the netherworld of Holocaust denial. Popular climate change skepticism synergizes with (and is in a sense and element of) the complex of power and knowledge mobilized by the owners of capital.

Where then does that leave attempts like those undertaken by Oreskes and Conway in both of their recent books, and in efforts by what Karl Rove once dismissively designated “the reality-based community” to use science to forestall future disasters? It is worth noting in this context that neither side had a monopoly on facts. The distinction lies, rather, in the capacity of those in control of political and economic capital to deploy their power-grounded knowledge in ways that devalue the more narrowly scientifically grounded capital of the opposition.

Perhaps the increasing tempo of ecological transformations will serve to concentrate the minds of people currently deluded by the denialist line, mirroring in some ways the rise of class consciousness attendant upon the intensification of capitalist exploitation. Then again, history has shown that that particular faith did not end well. In the end, it is probably a matter of deploying the widest possible range of tools for raising consciousness and hoping that we are not swamped by rising seas before the take hold.


Photographs courtesy of carnagenyc, duncan c, and steev hise. Published under a Creative Commons license.