Thursday, January 28, 2010

Scientists made scapegoats for climate change

Reading the blast of outraged hot air in the media about a flawed figure relating to Himalayan glaciers found in a 2007 summary report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), people might be starting to feel a little uneasy about the science of global warming.

So just to get back to reality, the World Glacier Monitoring Service, which has been measuring 90 glaciers in mountain ranges across the world continuously since the 1980s, has just published figures for 2007/08. These were compiled from satellite images and in-situ measurements of glaciers across the globe.

They found that “the average mass balance of the glaciers with available long-term observation series around the world continues to decrease” and that “the new data continues the global trend in strong ice loss over the past few decades”.

These, plus hundreds of other findings allowed the IPCC to recognise the flawed figure but at the same time restate: “Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by melt water from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.”

Yet the backlash against science and scientists continues. Yesterday the Information Commissioner accused the University of East Anglia of “crimes” under the Freedom of Information Act, piling more pressure on scientists embroiled in the leaked emails teacup tempest. And a couple of weeks ago scientists (and meteorologists) were forced to explain that a few days of heavy snow does not “disprove” the reality of global warming.

Climate change deniers virtually write as if the scientists themselves are working towards global warming – that global warming is being created out of the science itself. In capitalist society there are two common perspectives on how nature works. One is “teleological”, that is the religious or quasi-religious view that nature is working towards a specific outcome. Or there is the metaphysical, or post-modern view which would argue that there is no purpose or grand narrative in nature – stuff just happens.

There is a very different perspective – a dialectical perspective, which does not artificially separate “cause” and “effect”, but views them as interacting and contradictory opposites. Karl Marx, a key proponent of the dialectical approach, was a big fan of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species not only because it clarified much about the development of humans in nature, but also because Darwin had dealt teleology in science “a mortal blow”.

About dialectics Marx wrote that it “includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up.” It is this unavoidable breaking up of the present state of things that the climate change deniers and their corporate and political sponsors cannot countenance, even if it is heralded by a disintegration of the polar ice cap.

The dialectical method, beloved of eminent scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, can be of huge assistance to climate scientists in grasping the complex interaction between their work on the crisis of global warming, and the crises of economy and politics which are not parallel, but intimately interacting processes taking place in nature.

There is an actual political conflict going on here and scientists are increasingly finding it impossible to stand aloof from it. And of course it is a life and death struggle for all of us, as the reactionary backlash against action to reduce emissions gathers pace in the United States and elsewhere.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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