“Climategate” and the polar bears – Engelsberg – section “history and knowledge”

Posted on May 14, 2010


(The section “Belief and knowledge in the climate question” will come later)

When I received the invitation to participate in the symposium “Climategate and the threat to the polar bears” the program showed that there would be an introduction section where history and science in general would be discussed before it was time for “belief and knowledge in the climate question”. The debate about the symposium at Engelsbergs Mill has already concluded at the blogs, “The Climate Scam”, “The Globe” and “The Uppsala Initiative”. My contribution will, therefore, be a summary of a number of very interesting days. Before 6 June I will write an essay on my presentation.

It is understandable that Lotta Gröning (the well-known journalist) and Axess [a Swedish TV channel “devoted to current affairs, science and cultural programming”] want to take up the issues of “Clmategate” and the polar bears since these components of the climate debate have received considerable mass media attention. (A film on the debate will be broadcast by Axess.) I myself have been involved in this debate previously. A cancellation by one of the intended participants two days before the symposium began led to me receiving an invitation from Lotta Gröning. The intended participant had been prevented from attending by the ash from volcano “E15” (i.e. Eyjafjallajökull – E15 is the first letter plus the number of following letters).

I prepared a Powerpoint presentation but the big surprise came when I arrived at Engelsbergs Mill – I could not use my precious Powerpoint presentation. What a challenge!

In his introductory comments, Kurt Almqvist, the managing director of Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson’s Foundation, said that they wanted to organize symposia that promote debate. With this symposium they succeeded 100%. “Climate Skeptics” have long complained that they have not been allowed to participate in the debate on climate change. This was a daring initiative. I knew that there were tensions between the two sides but the result was nearly a volcanic eruption – an “E15”.

In judging the three introductory presentations one must do so on the basis of that they were meant to address – “history and science” as it relates to the climate issue. Niklas Ekdahl began by discussing the importance of weather in daily conversation and asserted that there is always a reason to discuss the weather. As the climate issue has become coupled to weather it has also become natural for everyone to discuss this issue. Anyone that wants to participate in this discussion around the coffee table also takes a stance on the issue. The participants’ opinions are usually coloured by some TV or radio program that they have heard. The fact that Climategate is discussed and that television shows dramatic pictures of suffering polar bears makes these issues decisive for many people’s thinking and attitudes. (Before we began I received permission to film the symposium.)

Niklas also discussed the importance of our cultural and Lutheran heritage and that we have strong attitudes on crime and punishment. The fact that we do not need to focus on where our next meal is coming from also gives us time to think about the future. When it comes to the general attitude towards climate change in a nation this is also affected by the nation’s relative dependence on fossil energy for infrastructure and development. In Sweden we have, in principle, fossil-free electricity and so we can afford the luxury of a different attitude from e.g. that of the USA that uses coal for over 50% of its electricity production. We who have, in principle, a enough cars and roads can afford a completely different attitude towards the climate than, e.g. the Chinese (who are building 1000 km of four-lane highway per year. There are attitudes for and against these things at an individual level, an organizational level and between nations. Niklas Ekdahl said on the greenhouse effect that, “I personally do not doubt that the greenhouse effect can become a problem in the future but I think, so far, that the debate has said more about our mental attitude than about the future’s weather patterns”. In the blogosphere Niklas has been criticized by both sides and that indicates that he has done a good job. (You can listen to Niklas Ekdahl here – part 1 and part 2 – and I hope that you will see what I mean.)

The next presentation in “history and science” was given by Ulf Danielsson, a colleague of mine at Uppsala University. Ulf is known for his books on popular science and he has also participated in countless radio- and TV-programs. For a number of years he has been responsible for leading the Physics Faculty at our university. Ulf has experience in evaluating research, including areas outside his own research interest. From the starting point of his experience he wanted to discuss how politicians and journalists should regard research.

He asserted that, in the evaluation of research, one can identify three different steps or actions that often overlap. First there is the analysis of the scientific work. Then one identifies whether a scientific consensus exists and, if so, what it is. Third, one decides what must be done based on this collected knowledge base. The first two steps are about scientific content while the third involves political and ideological beliefs. This means that, based on the same scientific facts, one can make different political decisions dependent on what kind of society one wants to have. Thus it is sometimes difficult to define the boundary between ideology and science. To make this distinction in the social sciences is often more difficult than for the natural sciences. For the climate issue it can seem, from the conduct of the debate, that drawing the line between science and politics is as difficult as for the social sciences. The comments on Ulf’s presentation show that many possibly did not understand the aim of his talk. The speakers are meant to prepare essays based on their presentations and further details in Ulf’s presentation can be studied there.

The third person in the “history and science” section was Svante Nordin, Professor in Ideas and Education History from Lund University. He spoke on “our need for ruin”. He noted that, since ancient times, we have an underlying need for ruin but that our conception of this has changed. The climate issue should be a practical matter of reducing carbon dioxide emissions and the solution could be to expand nuclear energy or something similar. But if the question is deeply ecological at the level of our attitude to life then nuclear energy is not the solution, even if it does not emit carbon dioxide. Since nuclear energy is identified, ideologically, with other industries that do emit carbon dioxide, it is not seen as a solution by many groups of activists.

The fundamentalist ideological attitudes to climate change resemble those of the bible’s attitude towards crime and punishment – the great flood, Noah and the Ark or Greek mythology’s description of the sinking of Atlantis – greed leads to punishment, i.e. the Hubris – Nemesis theme in our culture. Or, as one usually says, pride goes before a fall. In the bible God destroyed the Tower of Babel, a symbol of pride, by confusing the tongues of the workers. Svante Nordin considered that it was no accident that Bin Laden chose for his attack the World Trade Towers – two towers that were the symbol for economic power. Rather, there was a fundamentalist ideological basis for the choice.

In fundamentalist ideology crime and punishment is always a part of the most dramatic issues – an issue never becomes politically significant if this component is lacking. The dramatic element of the climate issue was hyped before the climate meeting in Copenhagen – the Great Flood as well as the Greek myth of Atlantis could be included symbolically by the rise in sea levels. The classic fundamentalist ideological components were played up and I can see Fredrik Reinfeldt’s role in this as representative for the EU. The game culminated when Obama arrived.

It is fascinating that one can, in this way, compare the discussion on climate change with other great historical issues. But it seems that we can only handle one great, dramatic issue at a time. Now we have dropped the issue of nuclear weapons even though it, in the near future, has a greater potential probability of affecting us. I very much look forward to Nordin’s essay on his presentation.

In the “judgment” from The Uppsala Initiative they couple this presentation with that of Niklas Ekdahl, “The reason why these presentations were included in the symposium at the Engelsbergs Mill is clear. They were not meant to illustrate how people evaluate scientific information but only to create, from the start, a distrust of the researchers that were there to inform us about climate change. Meanwhile, The Climate Scam wrote, “Svante Nordin described fundamentalist ideology and the environment issue as world views. Much in the environmental area is founded in crime and punishment, hubris and nemesis-thinking. Quite simply, humanity needs its collapse scenarios. A good, interesting lecture. If you have the chance to listen to Svante Nordin then take it.”
(Fortsättning följer)

(To be continued)

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