Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Letter to The Psychologist

The February edition of The Psychologist contained a series of papers dealing with climate change and the role psychology could play in relation to supporting the work of response to the perceived climate crisis. The March edition also includes a short letter on the subject, adding new aspects of psychology which might be appropriate starting points for the study of human behaviour with respect to climate.

Both sets of contributions start from the assumption that anthropomorphic climate change is a given, citing the politically driven findings of the IPCC as a basis for this status claim. In fact, the Non-intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), which is supported by far more scientists than the IPCC, reaches a different conclusion, namely that man made greenhouse gas emissions contribute hardly at all to cyclical changes in the climate.

We should be careful not to fall into the political trap of claiming that "the science is settled" and then labeling as deviants in need of a psychological explanation those who take a contrary view. We should be just as interested in the groupthink of alarmists and the naive view of those who think that small changes in human behaviour can have a major impact on solar systems, sun spots, ocean currents and other factors which contribute far more to climate variability than CO2 emissions.

Science is not a democracy. It proceeds through dissent, disclosure, debate and discovery. The fact that some scientists take one view and others take another provides the praxis on which knowledge develops. The science is never “settled” – we are still debating whether Einstein’s theory of relativity is accurate in all of its details and the conditions under which it is not. We have rejected the former consensus over eugenics.

It is a characteristic of post-modern politics that the narrative is more important than the facts. For example, the narrative of the critical importance of Kyoto is more important than the fact that almost none of the countries who committed to it have compiled. It is interesting that the narrative concerning the nature of science with respect to global warming conveniently neglects both evidence – the earth has not warmed since 1998 – and reality – there are some 3,200 qualified scientists who do not accept the hypothesis that man is the primary cause of changes in climate. While it is acceptable for Gordon Brown or David Cameron or Barrack Obama to speak glowingly of the green economy and how the new world order will rely heavily on renewable, it is clear to dispassionate observers that this too is another post modern Mandelsonian discourse divorced from the realty of such schemes, which cost jobs, increase energy poverty and cause increases in taxation to pay for subsidy.

For the psychological study of scientific discourse and its impact on individual and group behaviour, it would help if those who have already closed their minds to the science understood that others have not yet done so. It would also help for them to understand the socio-economic context of this debate as well as the complex and emerging science of climatology.

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