Reflections on climate change

I’m not a climate-change sceptic. But I am, to some extent, a science-sceptic.
This position, strange though it may be, allows me to ask: What, among all other factors, has persistently weakened the climate change case over the last 20-30 years, giving fuel and comfort to dyed-in-the-wool C-C deniers?
Two things, it seems to me:
(1) The compulsive invocation of scientific authority as a means of epistemic silencing. As in “the science is settled”–a remark that always seems to imply, in Bill Maher fashion, a silently-added “you moron.” The problem is that the climate-change science has been “settled,” over and over again, for decades now, and always with the same public performance of scientific authority within our culture. Doubters, who are supposed to be silenced once-and-for-all by each performance, are precisely empowered when it has to be reiterated. “You shut us up 10/15/20 years ago,” they can, correctly, say; “and in exactly the same terms. If the science wasn’t really settled then, why should we believe it’s settled now?” The epistemological serenity of climate-change science ends up looking like its ideological stupidity.
(2) The rush to apocalypse as an interpretative trope for the data. The story is never just “system x has undergone alteration y.” It is, rather, “system x is heading for an inevitable conclusion of alteration y in total breakdown z.” And when? Always, “soon.” It seems that climate-change scientists cannot resist making predictions of this kind; the internet is littered with mocking lists of the ones that have failed to come true. I suspect that we are dealing here with a hermeneutic tendency of modern natural science that goes very deep–which is why practicing scientists, in their unreflexive innocence, helplessly follow it. When it gets them into trouble, all they can do is repeat the trope once more–and/or, fall back on repeated invocations of their cultural authority (see (1)).
It would be much better for climate-change policy, and thus, for the world, if we could get some clarity on the historical and phenomenogical reasons for both (1) and (2).
A good starting-place might be in early-modern Paracelsianism and Neoplatonism, and in the emergence of modern natural science precisely and explicitly as an end-times knowledge.
Hey, somebody should write a book about that. Might be timely. Helpful, even.
But probably before that can happen all the humanities departments will be writing-centres for climate-change students.

Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in the intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). Philosophically, for me, these issues are subsumed in hermeneutics.

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