Geoengineering & the cultural plasticity of climate change risk perceptions: Part I

Yesterday I posted a small section of a CCP paper, scheduled for publication in the Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Sciences, that reports the results of a study on how emerging research on and public discussion of geonengeering might affect the science communciation environment surrounding climate change.

I’ve been thinking of geoengineering again recently, mainly because on my trip to Cardiff University I got a chance to discuss public attitudes toward it—existing and anticipated—with Nick Pidgeon, who along with Adam Corner and other members of the Cardiff Understanding Risk Group, has been doing some great studies of this topic.

How the public will perceive geoengineering is fascinating for all kinds of reasons, but the one that I find the most intriguing is geoengineering’s inversion of the usual cultural meanings of climate change risk.

According to the cultural cognition thesis, we should expect persons who are relatively hierarchical and individualistic to be climate change skeptics: crediting evidence of the dangers posed by human-caused climate change implies that we should be restricting commerce, industry, markets, and other forms of private orderings—activities of extreme value, symbolic as well as material, to people with these outlooks.

By the same token, we should expect persons who are egalitarian and communitarian to be highly receptive to evidence of the danger of climate change: because they already are morally suspicious of commerce, industry, and markets, to which they attribute unjust social disparities (actually, they might like to take a look at the disparities that existed in pre-market societies & figure out which ones were greater, but that’s another matter!), they find it congenial to see those activities as sources of danger that ought to be restricted.

This is the plain vanilla rendering of Douglas & Wildavsky’s “cultural theory of risk” (I don’t actually buy it, to tell you the truth!)—and, indeed, Wildavsky, who died in 1993 (at the early age of 63), had already characterized global warming as “the mother of all environmental scares”:

Warming (and warming alone), through its primary antidote of withdrawing carbon from production and consumption, is capable of realizing the environmentalist’s dream of an egalitarian society based on rejection of economic growth in favor of a smaller population’s eating lower on the food chain, consuming a lot less, and sharing a much lower level of resources much more equally.

But Wildavsky—a mainstream political liberal whose experience with the radical “free speech” movement at Berkeley left him obsessed with the “rise of radical egalitarianism”—puts a spin on climate change that contravenes the fundamental symmetry of the laws of cultural cognition.

That is, he seems to imply that it’s only “egalitarian collectivists” who will be motivated to assign to evidence of climate change risks a significance biased in favor of their preferred way of life.

But if, as Douglas and Wildavsky so adamantly insisted in Risk and Culture, “[e]ach form of social life has its own typical risk portfolio”—if  all “people select their awareness of certain dangers to conform with a specific way of life,” and thus “each social arrangement elevates some risks to a high peak and depresses others below sight”—then there’s no more reason to expect hierarchical individualists to form reliable perceptions of climate change risks than egalitarian communitarians.

Wildavsky would have come closer to conveying the logic of his and Douglas’s own position, then, if he had called global warming the “mother of all environmental risk-perception conflicts.”

If we follow the symmetry of cultural cognition out a bit further, moreover, we can see that there is in fact nothing inherently “egalitarian” in climate-change belief or inherently “individualistic” in climate-change skepticism.

“Dangers are selected for public concern according to the strength and direction of social criticism,” we are told.  But because what effect acknowledging a particular assertion of risk will have on the stock of competing ways of life is determined not by people’s “direct examination of physical evidence” but by their understanding of social meanings (those are what determine for them what the “physical evidence” signifies), all we can say is that in the context of some particular society’s “dialogue on how best to organize social relations,” acceptance of human-caused climate change just happens to be understood as indicting individualism and vindicating egalitarianism.

But that could change, surely!

The case of geoengineering shows how.

The argument for investigating its development—one forcefully advanced by both the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Royal Society—obviously presupposes both that human-caused climate change is happening and that it poses immense threats to human well-being.

But the cultural narrative of geoengineering is quite different from any of the other proposed responses. Whereas carbon-emission restrictions proclaim the inevitable limits of technological and commercial growth, geoengineering (much like nuclear power) asserts the potential limitlessness of the same.

“We are not like the stupid animals,” the geoengineering narrative says, “who reach the pinnacle/mode of the Malthusian curve and then come crashing down.”

“We use our intelligence to shift the curve—deploying technology, fueled by commerce and markets, to successfully repel the very threats to our well-being that are the byproducts of commerce, markets, and technology! Brilliant!”

“It used to be said,” the geoengineering narrative continues, “that the natural population density of a city like, say, London, was  shy of 4,000 persons per mile—because at around that point people would inevitably die in droves from ingesting their own shit (literally!).”   “But we invented modern systems of sewage and water treatment—we used our ingenuity to shift the curve—and now we can have cities (London: 12,000/mile; Sao Paulo 20,000/mi) many many times more dense then that!”

“Well,” the narrative concludes, “the time has come again to shift the curve, to use our ingenuity to handle the byproducts of our own ingenuity, to blast our shit into outerspace so that we don’t choke on it! Let’s go!”

This is inspiring to the individualist.

It is demoralizing to the egalitarian.  The “lesson” of climate change, for him or her, is “game over,” not “more of the same”; “we told you so!,” not “Yes, we can!”

The answer to our “planetary over-indulgence” is a “diet,” not “atmospheric liposuction”!

And because the cultural narrative is demoralizing to the egalitarian, geoengineering is terrifying.

The risks form unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences are too high.  After all, the climate is a classic “chaotic” system—one the sheer complexity of which defies the sort of modeling that would have to be done to intelligently manage any geoengineering “fix.”

It will never ever work, and scientists like those in the NAS and Royal Society are being foolish for even proposing to investigate its risks and benefits. Indeed, it’s dangerous even to discuss geoengineering, the mere mention of which threatens to dissipate the surging public demand in the U.S. and other industrialized countries to impose a carbon tax and enact other sorts of restrictions on fossil fuel use.

But what if the best available scientific evidence on climate change—including the inevitability of genuinely catastrophic climate impacts no matter what level of carbon mitigation world governments might agree to (including complete cessation of fossil fuel use tomorrow)—suggests that that nothing short of geoengineering can stave off myriad disasters, including continuing rising sea levels, violent and erratic storm activity in various parts of the world, and famine-inducing droughts over much of the rest?

Who should we expect to be skeptical of that evidence? The egalitarian communitarian or the hierarch individualist?

If in considering such evidence, the two could be observed to be trading places on whether the “scientists were biased,” “computer models could be trusted,” “the call for action is premature” etc., would that not be a nice little proof of the cultural theory of risk?

Tune in “tomorrow” & I’ll show you what the results of such an experiment looks like!

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