Anthropology and Climate Science Controversies

Brad Walters (Mount Allison U.)
Anthropology News (American Association of Anthropology), vol. 51(5):36-37 (May 2010)

Enormous research effort has been invested in the study of climate change. Many scientists reveled in the acclaim that followed last-year’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This year, some of these same scientists have faced an onslaught of criticism as a result of a few mistakes found in published reports of the IPCC and leaked emails from an eminent, UK-based science group that revealed an all-too-human side of the scientific endeavor (so-called “climate-gate”).

The editors of the pre-eminent science journal Nature commented that these supposedly explosive revelations would be laughable were it not for their policy consequences. Like many, they recognize that the real scandal has little to do with climate change science, but everything to do with its political ramifications.

The scientific consensus on climate change is rock solid on the most critical issues: greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are now warming the earth’s climate at a rate that is extremely rapid by historical and recent geological standards and this poses increasingly serious risks our well being (Union of Concerned Scientists, March 2010, “U.S. scientists and economists’ call for swift and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions,” The evidence for this general conclusion is so broad, diverse and compelling that virtually no reputable scientist doubts it.

Yet, large swaths of the American public and many opinion leaders continue to doubt the reality of climate change. A major reason for this is that the controversies over the credibility of climate science are to a large degree intentionally contrived by people and organizations with vested interests in the economic status-quo and fear of government regulation, particularly members of the oil, gas and coal industries. What we are witnessing today, according to authors James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore (Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming) and George Monbiot (Heat), is a similar but much more ambitious replay of the tobacco industries’ campaign in the 1980s and 1990s to sew doubt about the scientific consensus on the health risks of smoking. These climate deniers understand what many social scientists do: where there is uncertainty in the minds of the electorate, the political cost of inaction falls while the cost of decisive action rises.

These climate controversies raise intriguing questions for anthropologists who may have interests in issues of public knowledge formation, risk perception, and the application of expert and non-expert knowledge in policy making. But, what motivated me to write this column is a different question: do many anthropologists also not trust the credibility of the scientific “experts” on the matter of climate change?

I came to this question as a result of recent exchanges on the Environmental Anthropology (E-Anth) List-serve that revealed a far less solid consensus on the matter than is found within the mainstream climate science community, which is dominated by natural scientists. Specifically, postings by some list members revealed a surprising lack of trust in the credibility of scientific bodies like the IPCC and the National Academy of Sciences. Even more troubling was their referencing of scientifically un-credible sources—climate skeptics’ blogs, for example—as the basis for their opinions on the status of climate science.

Anthropologists are not alone in having within their ranks credentialed scientists who espouse views on climate change that are totally unsupportable in any reasonable scientific sense. But is it possible that anthropologists are particularly vulnerable to this kind of anti-scientific way of thinking about the issue? Has the disciplines’ deep emersion in subjects like the social construction of knowledge produced social scientists with so little trust and respect for the work of natural scientists that they won’t (or can’t!) distinguish between peer-reviewed research and politically-motivated blog postings?

There is a point reached—and we are now well passed it in climate science—where theoretical arguments and empirical evidence are so overwhelmingly compelling that positions contrary to the scientific consensus are simply untenable. Perhaps it is time for the AAA to step-up as a body and officially state their position on this most critical of issues.