Democracy under strain

By Bryan Walker 01/11/2010


I have recently often found myself thinking of a sentence in the late Stephen Schneider’s book Science as a Contact Sport, reviewed on Hot Topic a year ago. Towards the end of the book he reflected on the greed and short-term thinking which has led business interests to advance a campaign of confusion and doubt on the science of climate change, aimed at stalling action. It didn’t surprise him, but what worried him was that so many decent people are still taken in by it. Then came the sentence which reverberates almost daily for me:

What keeps me up at night is a disquieting thought: ‘Can democracy survive complexity?’

It is the run-up to the US mid-term elections which has ensured Schneider’s sentence nags so insistently. Candidate after candidate (mostly Republican) asseverates ’I don’t believe in manmade global warming’ or ’I have not been convinced’ or ’I am sceptical about the science’ or any of numerous similar positions which can be coupled with an assurance that he or she won’t back action to reduce emissions, and may even move aggressively to prevent it. As I read or, if I can bear it, listen, to these confident deniers, many of them articulate and well presented, I wonder where they find their assurance. Generally speaking they seem ignorant of the science. In fact their confidence seems in inverse proportion to their knowledge.

The clear message from the science simply doesn’t flow through society to these would-be decision makers. It is intercepted and at best muddied, at worst completely blocked. What is a coherent picture, supported by the vast majority of scientists with expertise in relevant fields, attested by highly reputable national academies of science and international  science organisations, somehow emerges in the hands of political candidates as variously highly debatable, deeply uncertain, or even the product of a vast conspiracy.

It is tempting to dismiss the candidates as a bunch of contemptible liars who cynically set the goal of gaining power well ahead of any regard for truth or human welfare. Maybe some of them are. But some of them no doubt genuinely think they are speaking truthfully when they voice their scepticism. They inhabit an intellectual world from which the real science has been excluded and they are unaware of the fact. The misinformers have done their work and constructed an alternative reality undisturbed by the need to take action against the threat of rising carbon emissions.

It’s a temporary alternative, and it only appears real.  Sooner or later the bitter truth will assert itself. But in the meantime the country on whom so much depends for effective action against global warming appears likely to spend a few more years in delay to the perceived benefit of vested interests.

To be elected these politicians need voters. They wouldn’t be saying the things they are about climate change if their sentiments weren’t shared by a wide slice of their constituencies.  Whole sectors of society have been taken in by the misinformation industry and its false assurances.

Climate science and the policies to respond to its message are complex, but hardly to the extent that they are incommunicable to the public at large. It is the ’deliberate special interest distortion’ and the ’knee-jerk media balance’ which Schneider saw as compounding the complexity and making it hard for democracy to deal with. Too hard, he sometimes feared. Many in America are probably sharing that anxiety right now.

I don’t know of any clever strategy to counter what we are seeing in the US. One hopes it will be largely confined there, though even if it is its effects will be felt throughout the world. All I can see is the need to continue to assert the key points, which were recently splendidly summarised by climatologist Richard Somerville, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Joe Romm at Climate Progress reproduced them from the original essay in the journal Climatic Change. Somerville makes six points:

  1. The essential findings of mainstream climate change science are firm.
  2. The greenhouse effect is well understood. It is as real as gravity.
  3. Our climate predictions are coming true.
  4. The standard skeptical arguments have been refuted many times over.
  5. Science has its own high standards. It does not work by unqualified people making claims on television or the Internet. It works by expert scientists doing research and publishing it in carefully reviewed research journals.
  6. The leading scientific organisations of the world, like national academies of science and professional scientific societies, have carefully examined the results of climate science and endorsed these results.

These are the bare bones. You can read the fuller and eloquent statements on Climate Progress or in the original longer essay. But the essential logic and plain good sense is apparent in the extract I have made. It seems to me to display the framework of what must be reiterated for as long as it takes for a democratic society to see clearly where the science is at and decide what should be done to address the threat it points to. Misinformation can only be answered with the truth of the matter.