Monday, February 15, 2010

Himalayan howler

The climate debate has exposed the entangled link between press, politics and science
The Kathmandu Post
John Narayan Parajuli
FEB 14 -
The Nepali cabinet meeting at Everest base camp in December last year may have helped to highlight the effects of climate change in the Himalaya in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, but the revelation of a serious omission in the projection by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has set in motion a debate that is likely to undermine the very basis of climate claim in the region. Facts on the ground notwithstanding, such high profile “crying wolf” about the intensity of the process is likely to weaken even realistic claims about the region. Add to that Indian Environment Minister Jayaram Ramesh’s hard line against melting glaciers in the Himalaya or cutting carbon emissions by India.

It is understandable that India, like China, does not want to commit itself to a target that would jeopardise its own growth, but it is myopia of Himalayan proportions not to take into account a cost-benefit analysis of the long-term environmental impact. There is clearly a divide even among the developing countries. Those that are rapidly developing and industrialising do not want to give up their “right” to burn more fossil fuels on their path to prosperity. Those who are downright poor and have no greater prospects for an industrial revolution and are at the worst receiving end of climate change are clamouring for action. But who is listening besides, of course, the lip service and unbinding commitments?

A glance at the geopolitics of negotiating international environmental negotiations on climate change at the Copenhagen Summit draws attention to the tricky issues of international political economy — different North-South priorities and responsibilities, as well as different levels of susceptibility to climate change. Poorer countries are much more vulnerable than richer countries; logically they want prosperous countries to cushion the effects for them. But the overriding assumption at the Copenhagen Summit was that science as an international enterprise is a neutral process aloof from political and social underpinnings of the environment it operates within. But the work of Golinski and others indicate that even the very “hardest” strain of science is not free from social relations.

Prof. David Demeritt of King’s College London, in a journal article in 2001 entitled “The Construction of Global Warming and the Politics of Science”, said. “[T]o insist, therefore, that science is also political, in the broadest sense of that word, is not to say that science is only political and thereby collapse entirely the distinction between the two. It is to recognise how problematic this distinction is. The social relations that science involves necessarily influence both the character of scientific understandings upstream and the particular political outcomes that may result from them downstream in legislation or administrative law rulings.”

The extent of ideological closure on issues on both sides of the climate change divide (anthropogenic/natural or happening/hoax) in the global North, and between the countries in the North and the South, is now becoming more apparent. The IPCC’s cavalier sourcing of WWF’s erroneously published report on Himalayan glaciers combined with the e-mail scandal from the University of East Anglia has emboldened the critics so much so that the British minister responsible for climate was forced to declare war against the climate change sceptics. It almost sounds like some politicians need climate change to be happening to grind their own axe.

Is this unravelling simply a human error or is it more human than researchers would like to admit? What does this tell us about the gung-ho climate change believers (including East Anglia scientists who have shied away from being transparent about the process by which they drew their conclusions) or the gung-ho sceptics? Can we say for sure that their work is entirely apolitical, and that they are not driven by some ideological considerations? For example, the belief that the climate is changing, hence it must be proven by any means. Or it is a left-liberal conspiracy, and that all the facts are cooked. And how does the media fare, where a contest for the hearts and minds of the public is raging?

The answer to these questions is not easily forthcoming. But the debate on climate change has highlighted how entangled the relationship is between the press, politics and science; and how different perceptions are formed from the same facts. Different interpretations of scientific facts have either belittled or exaggerated the science behind environmental degradation; both extremes are risky because it foments either complacency or panic among the public and the policy makers. Politicians and interest groups have hijacked the scientific agenda. For better or worse, the scientific claims have now become part of the international political and corporate agenda, and public attention is not necessarily drawn by new scientific findings and urgency based on facts, but rather shaped by political action, industry lobbying or extreme weather patterns.

In Germany, where the green industry is booming, the media stands accused of exaggerating the climate change claim. In the U.S., the challenge to scientific claims of global warming due to human activity benefits certain industries. The fossil fuel industry provides substantial financial assistance to its “political allies” and a small number of dissenting scientists to dispute the claims of the larger scientific community. The reliance of politicians and political parties on the financial contributions of the fossil fuel industry in large part (because of their good earnings) to win re-election makes even well-meaning politicians susceptible to the pressure and lure.

Politicians provide a powerful voice to those whose profits depend on continued emission of carbon or green subsidies and funding for alternative energy. It becomes a media event when a politician remarks on a “controversial” topic. In addition, dissident scientists in league with the fossil fuel industry, or NGOs and lobbyists spreading the climate change message and their respective public relations machinery provide a drama that a media bound by journalistic norms gives equal space to the two sides and sensationalises it.

At a certain level, it seems fair to give equal weight to both parties in a dispute. But the problem is that this competition is not about mundane things like groceries, and presenting science as a purely ideological contest is neither fair nor balanced. But even the alternative of supporting one claim or the other is equally fraught with problems. After all, there seems to be a bit of politics built into all aspects of climate change.

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