“Gross mismanagement of the forests”!1 Selfish migrants wanting what we have. Bloody expensive coffee. These are responses to the things we see around us. Things like pillars of smoke rising from Californian hillsides, migrants crossing borders, and prices fluctuating. What we don’t see is that they are manifestations of an atmosphere thrown out of balance. Humanity is racing toward the precipice2 of climatic catastrophe and the prospects for organised life on Earth are worsening. Will the dizzying accumulation of disaster be recognised for what it is – an outgrowth of anthropogenic climate change?
We are already witness to the consequences of climate change. And due to the trajectory of the climate, it’s not hard to imagine scenarios of increasing severity and complexity in the near future. Decline in food variety and affordability. Infertilities of arable land. Unprecedented displacement of peoples. Ever more frequent and devastating extreme weather events. Images of such scenarios may confront us in media and culture as they unfold, but rather than understood as interconnected symptoms of an ailing planet, they may be received as a disorientating series of unfortunate events.
People pushed in to boats, looking for better lives, confront us in numerous ways: as crises of nationalism, of humanitarianism, of the economy and employment. But not as crises of nature. The scale and intangibility of the latter makes it a horror always one step removed – abstract and absent. By affirming it instead as a material force, as real as the boats and bodies themselves, a sense of urgency will be found in our relationship to climate change.
It is with the popularisation of climate science that this affirmation can take place. For the climate to be seen, it must be understood. This would mean communicating the ways in which it is measured and the mechanisms by which it changes. Providing clarity in the science but also proximity to it; encouraging inquiry and disseminating information – as earthrise journal hopes to do.
The value of popularised climate science is in its capacity to collapse the seemingly disparate phenomenon of world crises into a coherent narrative. It is the assembly of a puzzle that depicts our harmful effect on the environment and, in consequence, the environment’s harmful effect on us.
This is shadow puppetry. Like the dark, threatening shapes of animals on a surface are revealed to be the shadows of human hands against a light, we hope a popularisation of climate science reveals the shapes of crises across the world to be cast from the hands of man against the climate.
What popularised climate science offers isn’t only a coherent narrative – one that can ‘rival’ another. It is a narrative with the scientific method at its core. And here is its virtue. One can be taken through the process, be shown the workings-out, and review the evidence themselves. Faith does not simply have to be had in environmentalist rhetoric, or even in the presentation of climatological conclusions – faith can be dispensed with entirely when the logic of a claim is spelled out and the scientific method behind it is laid bare.
Laments about the politicisation of climate change stem from this fact. Why should scientific consensus be politically disputable? When the consequences are so great, why do we treat the repercussions of our consumptive and productive habits as a matter of opinion? Shouldn’t an open, rational society be more receptive to a science-backed caution? Apparently not!
The process by which we arrive at these scientific conclusions isn’t political3. However, it is abundantly clear that political realities must be contend with. The application of science, the reconfiguration of production, and the mitigation of disaster requires political machinery. A machinery that must be struggled for. And crucial for struggle is consciousness – one that can be cultivated by popular climate science.
But the act of communicating science can only do so much. It takes time and engagement on the part of its recipients to be made useful. We recognise that this is an investment not everyone can make. Opportunities to self-educate are luxuries out of reach for overworked people. This is another reality that must be contended with and a task for communicators of science to work through.
The climate isn’t the sole mover of people, economy and catastrophe. We do not suggest all crises we see are determined by atmospheric change. However, the climate’s impact is uniquely invasive and getting worse with great inertia. If we have any chance of overcoming the present hardship and impending calamity, a political remedy is necessary. And integral to this remedy is a widespread consciousness of climate science - made possible through popularisation.
1 Donald Trump attributing California’s wildfires to poor forest management (“so poor”!), rather than the shortening of precipitation periods, lessening humidity, and drying of vegetation - climatic changes.
2 Thank you, Noam Chomsky! Very cool.
3 Waiting for your postmodern critique of climate science (maybe next issue). The production of scientific knowledge is a function of power (see Foucault!), for instance dodgy climate research funded by oil companies.