|The Climate Change debate in the United-States:
Political polarization, Skepticism and the role of Experts
by Florian Varin
The possibility of a rational public discussion about Climate Change resulting in efficient solutions seems slimmer than ever in the United States at the time when the urgency to act is increasing. This situation seems to be largely a consequence of intensifying polarization of political parties in the United States. As the Pew Research Center's survey published in June 2014 shows, the trend towards greater polarization has been stronger since 2004 and the number of Republicans and Democrats seeing the other party as a ”threat to the Nation's well-being" is also on the rise. This greater polarization is not limited to the politicians; the general public is also highly polarized along political lines. A rational discussion leading to efficient solutions of climate change has become a casualty to the polarized political climate. Climate change deniers and politicians arguing against man-made Global warming among the Republican Party have had a considerable impact on the public as well as on public policy and legislations. Kirkman (2002), and Mooney in (2005) and Oreskes and Conway (2010) have depicted the techniques deployed by Republicans to undermine the confidence in the science of climate change. Scholars such as Antonio Brulle, McCright and Dunlap have demonstrated a link between the diffusion of Climate change skepticism downwards from the political elite and affiliated agents to a larger public.
I use the case of climate change skeptics to examine the relationship between scientific expertise and political ideologies, and the possibility of viable policy solutions to complex problems like Global Warming. Various scholars of the left such as Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault have often pointed out the political nature of expert knowledge and have criticized the presumed objectivity of scientific knowledge. In the Climate Change debate the conservatives have taken the critical stance towards scientific knowledge but in this instance not to interrogate power-relations but to reinforce the primacy of free-market capitalism. Accusing climate change advocates of being "believers" Conservatives argue that science behind climate change is more of an in Ideology, similarly to a situation where left-orientated thinking would accuse free-market economist of being ideologically orientated. The electoral victory of the GOP in 2014 elections may make it more difficult to find resolutions to Climate Change and thus to find solutions we may have to go beyond federal government to state and local governments in the United States for action on Climate Change.
The Climate Change debate in the United-States:
Political polarization, Skepticism and the role of Experts
The second half of the 20th Century brought environmental issues to the forefront of global political agenda. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, was a milestone in raising awareness of how humans are changing the environment perhaps beyond repair. But with Climate change, or Global warming, the scale and importance of the human impact has been dramatically reevaluated: the Earth Climate is warming up, and following unprecedented rates. Starting in the 1970's a consensus between scientists formed on the implication of greenhouse gases in the process, and that these emissions created by human activities were deeply influencing the Climate. Since the 1990's the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has produced a scientific consensus that human activities are responsible for climate change. The panel was first established in 1988; it works under the banner of the United Nations, and involves more than 300 Scientists from all over the world. Its goal is to assess information relevant to human-induced climate change, its impact and the option for adaptation and mitigation. The reports produced for policy-maker by the IPCC is supposed to help governments implement efficient policy in order to curb the ever-increasing trend in climate change. Understood as a major issue by most of the Western countries, policy makers have endorsed mitigating climate change as a national priority in almost all the developed industrialized countries in the West.
But the United States seem to stand alone among advanced industrialized countries as a nation that is still debating whether global climate change is a reality, the sources of climate change and solutions for this problem. As one of the biggest emitter of Greenhouse gases the result of this debate has consequences for the whole world. Though Al Gore shared the 2007 Nobel Prize with the IPCC former vice president because of his work in raising awareness of global climate change but Al Gore may have inadvertently done more damage to the resolution of Global Climate Change because they became a controversial figure after the 2000 election his advocacy of the issue pushed the Republicans to question the very reality of Global Climate change. The political polarization on the issue of Climate Change in the United States has added to the difficulties of an already complex process of effective implementation of Kyoto Protocol. (McCright and Dunlap, 2011).
The actual possibility of efficient and rational reactions to climate change seems slimmer than it as every been and is decreasing whereas the urge to act is increasing. This situation seems to be largely a consequence of intensifying polarization of political parties in the United States. As the Pew Research Center's survey published in June, 2014 shows the trend towards greater polarization has been stronger since 2004 and the numbers of Republicans and Democrats seeing the other party as a ”threat to the Nation's well-being" is also on the rise. Following this vision of the other party as the enemy the attempt to undermine and discredit the other side has reached an all time high. As a result there is a deadlock in Washington. This greater polarization is not limited to the politicians on both sides; the general public is also highly polarized along political lines. This general attitude and its ideological mechanism influencing the American public is well described by Thomas Frank in his book published in 2004: “”What’s The Matter with Texas?” Thomas Frank argues that ideological polarization is pushing certain groups to vote against their interests. Perhaps same thing could be said about climate change that Conservatives have successfully convinced their supporters that Climate Change is not a reality.
Antonio and Brulle in "The Unbearable Lightness of Politics: Climate Change Denial and Political Polarization"(2011) as well as McCright and Dunlap in “The Politicization of Climate Change and Polarization in the American Public’s Views of Global Warming, 2001-2010,” (2011) show a link between the diffusion of Climate change skepticism downwards. The main factors leading to this skepticism are described by the findings of Brulle, Carmichael and Jenkins (2012). Several authors such as Kirkman in "Skeptical Environmentalism" (2002), Mooney in "The Republican War on Science" (2005) and Oreskes and Conway in" Merchants of Doubt"(2010) have depicted the techniques deployed by Republicans to undermine the confidence in the science of climate change. The electoral victory of the GOP in 2014 elections may make it more difficult to find resolutions to Climate Change and thus to find solutions we may have to go beyond federal government to state and local governments in the United States for action on Climate Change. Benjamin Barber in his book: If Mayor Ruled the world suggests that the solution to gridlock in Washington could be found by seeing how mayors of big cities resolve problems. Even if innovative ideas such as Benjamin Barber's re-scaling of decisional-power or Jeremy Rifkin' Third industrial revolution might help to find alternatives to Nation-states’ inability to address environmental issues, it will not prevent extreme events or foster Ecological consciousness everywhere. These Ideas will have very locally centered effects (if they actually are put into action) and can be seen as rather optimistic or even unrealistic. The problem explained before might lay in a more fundamental and systemic issue within our democratic institutions. The role of expert and expertise and it's orientation towards the decision-making process have a very peculiar importance in our democratic process. The case of climate change skeptics is very useful in order to examine the relationship between scientific expertise and political ideologies, and the possibility of viable policy orientated solutions to complex environmental problems. Various critical scholars such as Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault have often pointed out the political nature of expert knowledge and have criticized the presumed objectivity of scientific knowledge. Interestingly enough the current situation involving the GOP and the debate around global warming is an example of this model. Accusing climate change advocates of being "believers" they labeled climate change as in Ideology, similarly to a situation where left-orientated thinking would accuse free-market economist of being ideologically orientated as well. Consequently the Conservative movement, advocate of progress achieved by technological means and science, faces a paradoxal situation when experts are taking the lead in sending warning concerning the impeding threat of Global warming, which should result in a change or a shift in economic practices.
As the divide between Republican and Democrats gets bigger, their political common ground shrinks. The more political elites have difficulties to settle on an issue the harder it becomes to settle on policy solutions. As noted by McDonald (2009: 52) “When elites have consensus, the public follows and the issue becomes mainstreamed. When elites disagree, polarization occurs, and citizens rely on other indicators, such as political party or source credibility, to make up their minds.” Surprisingly enough we can observe the absence of far-left Democrats who would have counter-balanced the Conservative in gaining the public attention on Climate Change. The reality of the situation is that on an extended set of issues involving the need of any kind of regulation and compromises are hardly accepted and regarded by Republicans as relevant issues and de facto do not fit in their agenda as priorities. In order to discard many inconvenient issues where compromises and common ground would have to be found Republicans have been demonstrating an attitude of skepticism towards the importance of those issues as well as the actual science behind it. The increasing polarization within the American Political apparatus is expressed by the findings of the Pew research center: both parties are indeed most engaged and partisans in the opinion expressed. The ideological battle involves parties that are holding increasingly more extremes lines. According to the large survey from the Pew center: "Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the last two decades". The political polarization among elected official is the starting point of a top-down causal effect in creating greater skepticism among the American public regarding host of issues but particularly on Climate Change.
As previously stated this is nothing new, but the characteristics of this situation are getting more apparent and deep. With different parties successively ruling the White House opposite political views has relatively counter-balanced each other throughout the years. But in the recent years the parties have increasingly grown divided regarding to all the main policy dimensions in politics. The Republican Party has seen itself increasingly holding conservative lines whereas the Democrats stand more and more on liberal ground (Layman and Carsey, 2006). In parallel Layman and Carsey are defining the occurrence of the singularity of the situation of a division on the entire major policy dimension as "conflict extension" (2006). Nevertheless the first focus here stands as an analysis of the Republican attitude and its constant focus on arguing over any major societal issues that would question the neo-liberal politics and thus bring any kind of regulation or social reform. Even if the attention here is directed to the attitude of the political consortium led by conservatives and its growing influence on the matter of Climate change, the laissez-faire and the preservation of the status quo easily discards many other societal issues. Social inequalities and racism in the United States are two convincing examples.
This Polarized political sphere is deemed to have wide consequences on fundamental questions and issues involving the possible jeopardy of future generations. In recent years the conservative party has gained influence and consensus while facing the liberals. The neo-liberal techniques expressed by the far right are generally successful and embraced by a substantial number of the working class in America. The result in taking economic policies as solution to the environmental problems off the table and it leaves you with lesser tools to explain and argue on the failure of the system and the necessary adaptive solutions. In a larger scheme the answer found by conservatives to win the spiritual battle is to blame liberalism and criticize the foundations of their statements, conclusions and incentives. Conservatives are depicting liberals as valueless and acting only in ways that are destructive to the American way of life. As explained by Frank on p.137 they" developed an elaborate theoretical system for generating the politicized anger that is so much in evidence these days and for diverting this resentment from its natural course"(Frank, 2004). Lobbies and corporate forces are not out of the equation, and probably the most striking example is found in the Koch industry, which massively funds politically orientated magazines, conservative think tank and provides financial support to soon to be elected politicians (Frank, 2004). With the 2010 Supreme Court constitutional Law “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission" ruling for the unlimited amount of money that allows "corporations and unions to use their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures" this process has visibly been made easier. The Conservatives have been pretty successful in depicting the Democrats as "latte-drinking rich kids at fancy colleges, while the average working man stands tall for firearm and flag"(Frank, 2004).
The Conservative strategy works on multiples fronts: it is easily supported by the financial elite on one side, and is standing on classical values of self-determination and individualism for part of the upper middle-class. A great feat of strength has been to turn rural White America as core support group for the Republican Party. By distinguishing economy from values the "conservative backlash"(Frank, 2004) contributes in a great measure to political polarization. As the economy only possesses positive features it becomes very difficult to discuss societal issues partly or entirely created by it. This is where doubt and a strategy of discrediting the opposition find its place.
Layman and Carsey as well as Frank in their work are list issues where Conservatives and Liberals are deeply polarized: Civil rights, racial equality, abortion, homosexual rights, and religion (Layman and Carsey, 2006). But one essential and crucial for the American society as well as everyone else in the world is environmental issue and Global Warming. The more political parties and the public is polarized the less easy it is to have find room for a consensus on policy-making, even when scientific indicators are pointing towards great danger in not acting in a timely manner to address the issue. The interesting point made is that the increase in Political polarization concerns those who are the most politically active (which means Conservatives and Liberals) and involves a “rise of ideological uniformity" amongst these categories (Pew Center, 2014). Since 1994 when the GOP had the majority in both the House and the Senate the overall opinion of bother parties on each other has worsened: according to the survey: " negative ratings have risen overall " and " deeply negative views have more than doubled: 38% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans now view the opposite party in strongly negative terms"(comparing to 17 % and 16%, respectively for Republicans and Democrats). More than just having a very unfavorable vision of the opponent the relationship tends to lean towards what could be qualified as political despise. This has a tremendous effect on Americans, and in 2014 21% of partisans "believe the opposing party's policies "are so misguided that they threaten the nation's well-being" comparing to 10% in 1994. Once the other side is seen as wrong on all issues it creates an echo chamber in which people sharing the same thoughts within a closed circle reinforce ideological polarization. As showed by the data "Ideological silos" are forming, and even creating Conservative or Democrats cluster. Nevertheless Moderate Republicans and Moderate Democrats are present in the debate but as noted in the pew research the divide between Republican and Democrats gets bigger, their political common ground shrinks between elected and partisans. As a result the less-engaged Americans are following a pattern of political party sorting, cueing with one party or the other where" the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard through greater participation in every stage of the political process"(Pew Center, 2014).
According to John Dewey democracy is the manifestation of the Public will into tangible actions. We can easily spot a dysfunctional tendency here: by discarding the possibility of decision making brought by a minimum overlap of common ground, which could lead to negotiations; Political polarization lead to a relative failure in the democratic process, as the aggregated will of individuals (or as Jurgen Habermas would call a "collusion of different subjectivities") inevitably leads to a zero sum game, at least for the politically engaged and partisans, where no decision having a significant impact is ultimately happening. Then by a phenomenon of party sorting more moderate citizens find themselves in a position of outsider watching never-ending battle between the most fierce partisans and politicians. The Conservative Republican vision of a very minimal state and a market as free as possible is legitimated and reinforced by the defacto situation brought by polarization of very little decision making. The situation of laissez-faire comes as a default position and is perfectly suitable for neo-liberal policies.
As McCright and Dunlap note, the partisan split over global warming is entwined with a broader polarization that intensified since the late 1990s: the "forces of reflexivity" on one side (science and environmentalism mostly) and the forces of anti-reflexivity (such as industrial sector and Conservatives) (McCright and Dunlap, 2011). The Bush administration has been an important turning-point which pushed forward political polarization concerning the issue of climate change. McCright and Dunlap observe that as you start from the far right to the left side you can witness an increase in "the likelihood of reporting self-beliefs consistent with the scientific consensus" as well as "expressing personal concern about global warming".(McCright and Dunlap, 2011). Their research shows that the trend is clear and that it is increasing: according to their party affiliation Democrats/ Liberals and Republicans/Conservatives possess tremendously divergent opinion on climate change. Political party sorting is, as defined by McCright and Dunlap:" largely a top-down process, in which elected officials and activists lead the way in adopting sharply polarized positions – and then ordinary voters pick up the “cues” and sort themselves or adjust their beliefs according"(2011).
Moreover as the study show the top-down process does not stop here, and polarization of engaged citizens and partisans reaches the rest of the citizens. This attitude can be commonly referred to as “knee-jerk” reactions from most Americans, where you take political positions without being informed or by being informed by highly partisan sources. Some may argue that this common attitude is linked to a profound loss of interest of the American public to issues that do not impact their personal lives directly. Robert Brulle, Jason Carmichael and Craig Jenkins (2012) describe the importance of five different factors which are the most influential on public's opinion on Climate Change: extreme weather events; - public access to accurate scientific information;-media coverage;-elite cues and movement/countermovement advocacy. The public access to accurate scientific information and media coverage is intrinsically related. Indeed the media coverage is what should be the public access to accurate scientific information. According to what is called "The Agenda-Setting Hypothesis" (McCombs 2004; Dumitrescu and Mughan 2010) asserts that public opinion is deeply related to what the media are saying about certain subjects and how they are reporting it. As opposite views on climate change are related in the media at almost a similar rate by extension the information is able to influence in the right or the wrong direction. This lead us to the "party sorting theory" and the phenomenon of "cueing" ( the fourth factor analyzed by Brulle, Carmichael and Jenkins).These opinion as transmitted by media coverage, will affect people differently regarding to their political affiliation and so to which politically orientated media they are getting their information from. An element that has added to public skepticism on Global climate change is the 2010 economic recession. In a recent analysis, Kahn and Kotchen (2010) found that the business cycle influenced levels of environmental concern. Increases in unemployment and lower levels of income both had a negative impact on measures of public concern regarding the environment. Having increased leverage in recession and periods of economic insecurity, many American are receptive to conservative views—e.g. that regulating fuel efficiency, and thereby vehicle size and weight, increases energy prices and taxes, “kills jobs,” violates freedom of choice, and threatens overall liberty.. In a 22-nation Pew survey, the two greatest emitters of CO2, China and the United States had among the lowest percentages of people surveyed who consider climate change to be a “very serious problem".
Finally the perception of climate change as a tangible and visible phenomenon does not come easy for the average American. As noted by Kirkman:" Global climate is a scientific abstraction and, as such, is removed from perception and from the concerns of ordinary life; a change in global climate change is vast, so complex, so far reaching in its consequences as the defy imagination.” (p. 151) That is also one of the reasons why researchers and environmentalists alike have had so much trouble in motivating people to do something about it.
As a more general point we could assume that Political conflict is resolved through political mobilization and activism. Nevertheless it does appear in the situation in the United States that these two factors are not sufficient in raising the awareness to a point of action, and it has become more then evident that solutions are not seriously discussed.
As a matter of fact Climate change skepticism does relate to a bigger Republican driven political strategy: a contrarian view and a perpetual questioning on the science itself. McCright and Dunlap have spotted this attitude and coined the term as an "anti-reflexivity" movement, led by economic and financial forces as well as conservative think tank (gaining power and influence within decisional institutions). This growing movement achieving more success as Republicans are gaining influence is see as opposing a set of "Reflexive thinkers" such as Ulrich Beck or Anthony Giddens, who are pointing out the direct link between environmental concerns such as Climate change to the prosperity and even survival of our modern society (McCright and Dunlap, 2011).
In parallel to the increase of polarization towards major issues and the issue of climate change, and as a sub-category of a larger "Republican war on science" stand very peculiar methods and strategies from Conservatives concerning Climate change. The strategy symbolized by bringing doubt even when there is general scientific consensus. As concerning environmental issue and Climate change, the major setback occurred in 1994 when Newt Gingrich dismantled the Congress office of technological Assessment (Mooney). The climate change deniers say that they want to see good science and they see themselves as fighting for scientific truth. Bringing doubts in a "debate" where 97 % of active climate scientists agree on man-made climate change and when, according to the United States National Academy of Sciences: Climate change is occurring is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for - and in many cases already affecting -a broad range of human and natural system seems impossible, but it has been done. In 2007 40% of the Americans were thinking that scientific experts were still debating over the climate change (Mooney). So the typical technique by conservatives is to introduce contrarian views of Climate Change, based on data and theories that look alike legitimate scientific material, but which do not the classical scientific method including peer-review. The technique used by contrarians stands “outside the realm of normal science behavior"(Oreskes and Conway,)."Scientists debate each other's findings in the halls of science-universities, laboratories, government agencies, conferences, and workshops", conservative contrarians do not. While never published in any scientific journal these views refuting Climate change have a great impact on the public too. It becomes evident that "small amount of people can have large, negative impact, especially if they are organized, determined, and have access to power"(Mooney, 545). Their "science" is mainly based on technique of playing with the data, missing or misusing some information to support their argument. Through the prism of free speech the contrarian have seen their message being relayed by Medias of all kinds in service of equal representation of different opinion. Going from the postulate that they are playing in the same field as Scientifics, and succeeding in producing such an image, they are able to produce uncertainty regarding the science of climate change, and here comes the coup de grace: according to a rational decision-theory analysis when the outcome is uncertain, your best options come down to one thing: doing nothing (Oreskes and Conway). Then while claiming the need to rely on what they call “sound science". Consequently it becomes legitimate for even well-known and respected politicians to present such assumption as evidence that there is not enough scientific consensus to proceed on addressing climate change. To a lesser extent than what extremists contrarians would say (such as complete denial of climate change) ex-vice president Dick Chesney statement in a 2007 interview for abcnews exemplifies this strategy of ‘wait and see’ when he said “where there does not appear to be a consensus, where it begins to break down, is the extent to which that is part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which by man, greenhouse gases ” and he went on" I am not a scientist. I talk with people who supposedly know something about it. You get conflicted viewpoints". By presenting humanly induced global warming as a debate the fundament of the scientific method itself is questioned. To this effect we can assert that the science behind Global warming caused by man is sound but in the political arena can be presented as a hoax.
With the recent mid-term elections and the victory of the GOP regulatory measures to fight climate change will not be part of the political agenda. As Nation Geographic wrote:" Election results make U.S. Congress action on Climate Change even less likely to happen"(November 2014,). As a matter of fact after the mid-term elections Conservative Republicans are now able to block regulation by using the House and the Senate, as they gained majority in both. While Democrats were already unable to pass any effective resolution when they had majority in both house, the question being raised is how far back the new majority of the GOP is going to take us. As one of the main political advocate of climate change denial, Jim Inhofe, is about to become chair to the Senate committee on the environment and Public Work things are looking pretty grim. "The oil and gas industry has long been the senators’ largest source of campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, donating more than $400,000 for his recent election, which he won easily."
With a situation that seems to lead to a dead-end for national policies on environmental issues and Climate change. Already announcement of future "decisions" by Republicans are going against environmental problem solving and only taking care of "business as usual" in a literal sense here. The war on President Obama and on Liberals will make their attempt to implement environmental regulations, even if fairly modest, almost impossible because of political polarization. Even the case of the international agreement on carbon emissions with China, which still lies largely on business principles and is a lesser evil, is described as putting the nation at risk. As the Washington Times recently stated:" The economy harmed the most by taxing and regulating these energy sources eventually out of existence is that of the United States. Mr. Obama is vowing to advance policies estimated to put hundreds of thousands of blue-collar, mostly unionized American workers out of business. Coal regulations alone could render more than 150,000 coal miners, truck drivers and coal-power plant workers unemployed, Congratulations, Mr. President. What a victory"(Washington Times, November 2014).
Nevertheless the issue is not going away because American politicians "do not believe in it" or as the famous documentary by Al Gore in 2006 stated it is "an inconvenient truth”. Some solutions are being implemented, mostly at the local level. Because of the failure of federal government to address this issue the political energy has shifted to numerous locally rooted initiatives; and renewing the civic engagement of people amongst decentralized decision-making entities might be a positive step forward.
Going this way reconnecting citizens to the political realm as informed and active members is possible and would inevitably have the positive impact of driving society's decision towards what is good for everyone, and not just for business. Theoretically speaking inspirations to such prospects might come from thinker like Habermas or John Dewey. Habermas and other authors (Merton) will help us to analyses a major obstacle to this with the role of experts and expertise. After explaining what this entails exactly, we will examine options out of the nation-state framework.
While international discussions are on-going, the absence of the United-States, the main contributor to climate change, off the grid for the upcoming years calls for different solutions. One could be the resolution of climate change and environmental issues through a delocalization of democracy. This could first have an effect and go through a remodeling of the public opinion, even if this seems like a close to impossible task, or by a redefinition of towns, region government and structural decisional power. The solutions seem to be coming from transnational public sphere, which would be more likely able to develop a general, awareness of the risk and thus translate it into decision-making priorities. What John Dewey calls “global domestic politics "would then come when the general public realizes that the well-being of the rest of the world is related in extenso to a humanist sense of self-interest.
But what is stopping the US and its citizens to attain this "global domestic politics”? The actual representative democracy and its political system are suffering from a tremendous disinterest from the general public in issues affecting every citizen. Concerning environmental issues and more precisely climate change it seems that the global "consciousness" within the United States of America has increased. People in the U.S.A. tend to believe more in climate change, but do not seem to show a high level of concern towards its consequences. Indeed as Pew center polls show, "most American believes in Climate change, but gives it low priority". One could argue that the small exposure of the United States to extreme events is an explanation of the public's low prioritization of the issue. And as pointed out throughout this paper a manipulation of the science, a denial of its facts and the politization of global warming and its frame as an opposition of two ideologies are relevant factors or the misunderstanding of the public. In "Climate crisis? The Politics of emergency framing" Hodder and Martin are pointing out to the counterproductive of presenting the issue as the greatest emergency of our time. This, according to the authors, "may implicitly prioritize climate change over other important social issues" and bring a feeling of disempowerment to the citizens. Again this calls for a bottom-up solution and aim at building popular support for long-term efforts.Unfortunately, and most specifically in the United States, it seems unlikely that a movement big enough would form and that people would realize the importance and challenge of climate change without a speech able to bring the point across. The main idea here I think is to reframe the issue is such a way to bring it into a wider context. Climate change and its solutions appear as contradictory to the resolution of major societal issue: social inequalities, unemployment, the stability of the economy and so on... But it seems to me that the actual speech is poorly expressed, and by consequent poorly understood. The idea would be to make the people understand and realize the interconnection between all these societal issues, and the possibility, even the necessity of a positive shift. A first step would be to look into the relationship between citizens and scientific experts, in order to establish a clear vision of the situation, a vision free of personal interests driven arguments and pre-conceived ideological positions based on prejudices, or following the rule of political party sorting.
With the issue of climate skepticism and how scientific evidence can be manipulated and interpreted in many ways comes the question of how scientific expertise and expertise in general are used to follow various political agendas, and how the status of these experts could be readjusted for a more comprehensive and democratic way of dealing with fundamental issues such as man-made Global warming. It becomes difficult for American citizens and partisans of political parties to have a full understanding of what really matters in an environment ruled by interest-based opinions, ideologies and personal "divergences". The democratic process should allow its citizens to have a direct impact and knowledge of what is relevant and essential for it. But the complexity of knowledge involved and the indeterminacy of consequences make public participation in climate change debate superficial. Consequently with the presence of a "climate change debate" in the political arena “rational persuasion with respect to what is true has ceased" (Schmitt).
Historically the role of experts has always been rather controversial, as it usually separates the citizens from facts relevant to national policies. Classically Expert knowledge is distrusted by social theorists such as Jurgen Habermas as a threat to democracy, as it creates "an unbridgeable cultural gap between the world of illusions under which ordinary member of the public operates and the worlds of expert cultures". The authority of experts and their expertise has been criticized as being the tool and the reflection of ideologically constructed dogmas, principally as a way to maintain social control and to support the power elite' economic and political vision. It has been argued that authority attributed to these experts should be re-evaluated in a way that will redirect it throughout society and its citizens. Their authority and knowledge should be redefined more as relative or practical knowledge, as plumbers or electricians for example. The experts put on the political scene mandated by politicians and the power elite and their expertise are used to "educate" the public into getting to know what is true and on which side to stand on. Here lies the challenge of expert authority, or what Merton calls "cognitive authority" to the democratic process. The risk of losing objectivity and to express its own or someone's regarding to crucial matters is a danger faced by the experts and it poses challenges to the very foundation of the notion of government by the people. With the fact that experts are not democratically accountable their authority can easily be dismissed or questioned as serving personal/financial/elite interests more than a neutral advancement of knowledge. Within this classical liberal oriented view the expertise that is put forward and its interpretation is systematically the one that is going to be relevant for policy, and more specifically neo-liberal policies based on economic growth.
How expertise is framed and its relationship to the political world makes the climate change challenge an interesting case to work on. The basis of Conservatives skepticism involves the questioning of Climate change science as "sound science" and the accent is put on some uncertainties present in the final data. By denying expert knowledge and describing global warming as a “hoax" or the expression of a "liberal ideology" Conservatives (and neo-liberals) are attacking an institution that has usually been their asset and a tool they have used to legitimate their political agenda. As said in the previous paragraph, the roles of experts as tool of the power elite, as defined as the neo-liberal, financial powers takes and opposite direction with Climate change scientists. Climate skepticism deniers and conservatives found themselves trying to dismiss climate science expertise on the basis uncertainties and liberal bias of scientific community. But unlike most controversial political debates in the United States between Republicans and Democrats (ex: Creationists vs... Evolutionists) the issue of Climate change is not a subjective one. Usually the politization of a scientific subject occurs when there are grounds for questioning the legitimacy of expert claims. Given the growing evidence of Climate change and a near consensus among the scientific community the skeptics has succeed mostly because of extremely polarized political climate in the United States
So this debate is not only a matter of political polarization, but the result of personal interest driven forward. The redefinition of the role of experts including a higher involvement of the citizens and thus a participatory democracy-like situation appears as an ideal answer. The awareness of the public and the shared knowledge of climate change expert without the filters of political ideologies would largely be a determining step forward. Additionally alternative ways of approaching science are appearing. The debate on Climate change research act as a catalyzer for the destabilization of science in general and as scientific knowledge and academic insight are in principle preliminary, uncertain and fragmented finding a small uncertainties not difficult. But by insisting on the undeniable truth of their findings, climate change scientists take the stance of an authority, presenting themselves as indisputable experts are dismissed as ideologically driven. Thus the initial academic debate on our current knowledge about climate change turns into a "religious" debate on the right kind of faith, and whom as a right to proclaim it as universal truth. The tensions between science and public expectations set the frame for the polarized political public debate on climate change. A more deliberative production of knowledge, thus a change in the status of experts and expertise could be a game changing process that would lead to more comprehensive and legitimate political decision-making. Recently a a comprehensive scientific school has rooted for a "slow science " or a second order science: : a redefinition of the experts and their methods:The reconnection between experts and citizens is then the necessary movement towards a renewed vision of global climate change and environmental issues. Instead of acting and directing their knowledge only towards higher powers experts and scientists most in parallel reach to the overall population in a movement of downward spread of educated awareness towards Climate change.
Political inaction in Washington D.C. is also motivating a more grass-roots action on Climate change. Benjamin Barber in his book "If Mayors rules the World" calls for a delocalization of decision-making power to cities and an increased independence and power for mayors, who he argues are "problem-solver”. He emphasize what he calls "informal global governance"(Barber, 2012) and pushes towards the formation of a global parliament of mayors. The growing network of transnational initiatives working towards finding concrete solutions to Global Warming counts numerous organizations, such as C40 cities Climate Change leadership Group; International council for local environmental initiatives, World mayors council on Climate change. Following a transnational pattern and relying on pragmatic stances of local political entities (ranging from cities to regions) Jeremy Rifkin has convinced a concert of regions, towns, and maybe soon the European Union, to move towards an ecological transition, while shifting the market reliance on fossil fuel to renewable energy. Witnessing one of these programs called "master-plan" in action in my home region in France and being directed by my graduate school advisor, it appears that the effect and efficacy of such projects can be tremendous. But the good-will of these regions and towns are highly depended on the importance of oil-related industries, the influence of automobile industries, as well as the employment provided by these companies. In order to create a transnational public sphere powerful enough to create a settled and efficient community will inevitably "arises from the consequences of decisions which have come to seem problematic in the eyes of citizens". Thus a publicly perceived risk triggers communication among people who would otherwise prefer to have nothing to do with one another. It imposes obligations and costs on people who resist – and who often have the prevailing law on their side"(Dewey, 1927). Hence the question is until what level of risk will we have to wait until such consciousness appears ? The current political force appears to tilt towards economic concerns, large-scale lobbys and a mass Media generally oblivious to serious political debate regarding Climate change and systemic individualism. Reframing experts’ knowledge and the citizens’ relationship to politics and the decision-making process is a long process, and working outside of the national framework seems to have limited effect to curve Global warming. Now that the experts are talking loudly about climate change, the need for a stronger social movement relating to climate justice need to appear in the United states of America. As the main political debate is ruled by multiple and contradictory forces, the way the message is framed and delivered needs to be redefined. A new form of knowledge and a renewed way of spreading it from experts to citizens is needed in order to answer to this essential problem. The emergence of "Green knowledge"(Jamieson, 2010) is building up and needs to be more widely accepted and relayed. The relationship between the experts on Climate change and their fellow citizens must strengthened. To this extend a more participative societal decisions regarding response to Global Climate change must necessarily include input from many diverse and nonexpert stakeholders.
As it is today, the difficulty of an exact prediction of extreme events and consequences of climate change seems to be enough to justify inaction. As the current and recent Republican majority represents clearly this negative non-decision making attitude at the national level, the solution seems to have to come from two sources. The first would be the actions of enlightened intellectual, such as Rifkin, Barber, or even from people like Joel Salatin, a successful organic/traditional farmer fighting against the petroleum fueled modern agriculture. The second element necessary would be the creation of a wider momentum and a stronger identification with our crucial environmental issues. The importance of new ties between experts, Civil society organizations, and the general public, is an imperative for the realization of necessary changes. As states by Victor Hugo " All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come"; and hopefully this time is now.
- Barber, B. (2013). If Mayors ruled the World: Dysfunctional nations, rising cities. New Haven, London: Yale University Press
- Cahn, N., & Carbone, J. (2010). Red families V. Blue families. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. Henry Holt and Company.
- Frank, T. (2004). What's the matter with Kansas? New York: Metropolitan Books.
- Kirkman, R. (2002). Skeptical environmentalism: The limits of philosophy and Science. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
- Lash, C. (1995). The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company.
- Mooney, C. (2005). The Republican War on Science. New York: Basicbooks.
- Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. (2010). Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. New york, Berlin, London: Bloomsbury Press.
.- Rifkin, J. (2011). The third industrial revolution: How lateral power is transforming energy, the economy and the world. Palgrave Mcmillan.
Websites and Articles
- Aufenvenne, P., Egner, H., & von Elverfeldt, K. (2014). On climate change research, the crisis of science and second-order science. Radical Constructivism, 10, 120-129.
- Bennen, S. (2014, November 12). Republicans put the EPA in their crosshairs. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/republicans-put-the-epa-their-crosshairs
- Brulle, R., Carmichael, J., & Jenkins, J. (2012, January 13). Shifting public opinion on Climate Change: An empirical assessement of factors influencing concern over Climate Change in the U.S., 2002-2010. Retrieved November 5, 2014, from http://www.pages.drexel.edu/~brullerj/02-12ClimateChangeOpinion.Fulltext.pdf
- Dunlap, R., & McCright, A. (2008, October 1). A widening Gap: Republican and Democratic views on climate change. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from http://www.environmentmagazine.org/Archives/Back Issues/September-October 2008/dunlap-full.html
- Hickmann, T. (2014). Science-policy interaction in international environmental politics: An analysis of the ozone regime and the climate regime. Environmental Economics and Policy Studies, 21-44.
-Hodder, P., & Martin, B. (2009). Climate crisis? The politics of emergency framing. Economic and
Political Weekly, 44, 53-60.
-Jamieson, A. (201). Climate change knowledge and social movement theory. WIREs Climate Change, 1,
- Koch, W. (2014, November 5). 4 ways election results could intensify U.S.energy battles. Retrieved November 10, 2014, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2014/11/141105-ways-us-election-results-could-reshape-energy/
- Lachapelle, E., Montpetit, E., & Gauvin, J.-P. (2014). Public perceptions of expert redibility on policy issues: The role of expert framing and political worldviews. Policy Studies Journal,
- Maslin, M. (2013). Cascading uncertainty in climate change and models and its implications for
policy. The Geographical Journal, 179, 264-271.
- Moore, S. (2014, November 14). Climate change self- delusion. Retrieved November 18, 2014, from http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/nov/14/stephen-moore-climate-change-self-delusion/
-Newport, F. (2014, April 4). Americans show love level of concern on Global Warming. Retrieved January 19, 2015, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/168236/americans-show-low-levels-concern-global-warming.aspx
- Nisbet, M. (2009, April 1). Communicating climate change: Why frames matter for public engagement. Retrieved October 8, 2014, from http://climateshiftproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Nisbet2009_CommunicatingClimateChange_WhyFramesMattertoPublicEngagement_Environment.pdf
- Stehr, N. (2013). An inconvenient democracy: Knowledge and climate change. Social Science and Public Policy, 55-60.
- Turner, S. (2001). What is the problem with experts? Social Studies of Science, (31/1), 123-149.
- Political Polarization in the American public. (2014, June 12). Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/