Author: Joseph Waggle
I don’t want to discuss climate projections or the repercussions of climate change here, because that conversation is a much larger one that is still going on in labs and communities all across the world. I also don’t want to debate the causes of climate change, or the contribution that human activities make to the process, because those issues reached consensus long ago. Instead, I want to focus on the role that fear—particularly, fear from scientists—plays in the climate change policy debate.
If the question is why scientists are the best subjects for this kind of exhibit, then the most obvious answer is in their expertise. Scientists are the people with the best information. If the experts are afraid, shouldn’t we all be?
In fact, research my coauthors and I published last year demonstrates empirically that political debates about the science of climate change are, in fact, made up large networks of such actors, all arguing slightly different elements of climate change policy with one another. Furthermore, we found that this political noise was used strategically to mask ideological differences about the economic impact of climate change legislation, not the scientific consensus on climate change causes or impacts.
Still, looking at these images, it is hard to deny that the worry in those faces is an incredibly effective medium for an exhibit such as this. But scientists are not the only actors involved in climate policy. They are not even the largest slice of that population. They aren’t even the most vocal. Scientists are, however, unique among other political actors in that they are not, ostensibly, political.
Of course, scientists are human beings who come to their field with a lifetime’s worth of political beliefs and social biases. Since Weber, sociologists have acknowledged that no expert can completely remove herself from her work. And that’s okay.
But Bowers highlights something else that sociologists have been saying for long time now: natural scientists enjoy a unique—and uniquely contested—kind of expertise. They are perceived by most publics as objective and disinterested experts, and when they step outside of this boundary, they often lose legitimacy and credibility. This risk is the constant reality of the activist scientists.
As my current research suggests, climate scientists are torn between two political poles. On one hand, they must stay committed to the objectivity of scientific conduct. On the other hand, they are inhabitants of the world they study, as are their friends and families, and thus they have a personal stake in passing effective policy. Their expertise is thus in constant tension, pulled between the professional restrictions of their discipline and the immediate social and ecological implications of their work.
I would argue that it is this tension that makes these photographs so effective at conveying the urgency and danger of ignoring climate change. In Bowers’ own words:
A quick chat to the experts and it’s immediately apparent that climate change is not only real: it’s serious. Very serious.
But this isn’t what scares scientists.
They're afraid humanity will continue to bury its head in the sand; instead of facing its greatest challenge head on.
Scientists don't want to be right, they want to be wrong. Research shows this is our last decade to slow climate change before it's too late. The science community believe [sic] if people are willing, we can transform the current trajectory from one of fear to one of hope. But the science can only take us so far. If we want a safe and sustainable world, we need to take the facts seriously - and do what needs to be done to change them.
The message is clear here: what scares the experts should really scare the rest of us. Fear is effective here because in normal science, fear should not exist. But more to the point, fear is effective here because, no matter how much we learn about the causes and mechanisms of climate change, what really matters is understanding how that information best translates into political and social change.
*Notable in their absence here are social scientists, whose expansive list of climate-related concerns goes largely unaddressed. Still, the last thing this debate needs is more fear. Social science will just have to occupy itself with finding solutions.
---Joe Waggle, firstname.lastname@example.org