Sunday, January 24, 2010

Word Games: Rhetoric and Climate Policy

This post is about climate rhetoric (sorry, I can't do math all the time, I'm not Erdos). I was googling around (don't ask) and found an interesting article (if you can bear to wade through the academic jargon) which inspired me to play a word game. Here's my re-jiggering of a few of their opening paragraphs:
Configuring democracy science and dissent into a political incongruity, a contradiction of terms, is rhetorically strategic to dividing the world inextricably between good and evil, us versus them, in a deadly dual for global domination. Not since the Cold War has an American administration articulated an apocalyptic vision backed by such a massive commitment of military technocratic might, huge expenditure of economic resources, and wanton sacrifice of human life academic integrity. By presidential IPCC decree, everyone must decide whether they are allies or enemies of the United States Nations in a global war to eradicate terrorism carbon-based energy. No shades of grey, no differences of perspective, no room for dissent can be abided if freedom human civilization is to endure and democracy world government by committee is to prevail. The boundary must be drawn fast and firm between righteous truth and wicked persuasion. Thus, the domestic dissenter skeptical outsider symbolizes democracy's climate-alarmist policy's foreign threat, its enemy Other, a traitor to the people and their cause. Or so an empowered elite would have the public believe rather than suffer even a modicum of democratic rational self-rule policy making.
Accordingly, one might conclude that unmaking the oxymoron of democratic dissent climate-policy skepticism would be tantamount to striking at the rhetorical Achilles heal of a discourse that suppresses the actual practice of politics science in the very realm of the political. The political is the realm of antagonism endemic to human relations, as Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau emphasize, a realm marked by a basic condition of struggle, contested opinion, and "undecidability" (Laclau and Mouffe 2001, xi). Politics is the process of articulating and taking contingent decisions in a context of irreducible difference, conflict, and division through "persuasive redescriptions of the world" (Torfing 1999, 302). That is, by "the elaboration of a language providing us with metaphoric redescriptions of our social relations" we might achieve a revised, expanded, and provisional hegemony of interpretation and political motivation short of insisting on consensus "in a context crisscrossed by antagonistic forces" and contrary to enforcing an ideologically constructed reality of "fully constituted essences." (Mouffe 1993, 57; Torfing 1999, 116). Indeed, social division "without any possibility of a final reconciliation" is inherent to "the very possibility of a [pluralist] democratic politics," which in turn requires a lively dynamic between consensus and dissent (Laclau and Mouffe 2001, xvii, xiv; Mouffe 1996, 8). Politics, in short, is an "ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions which seek to establish a certain order and organize human coexistence in conditions that are always potentially conflictual" (Mouffe 2000, 101). The central question of democratic politics is how to tame and diffuse antagonism in human relations, not eliminate it, how to articulate strategically a practical but partial unity in a pluralistic context of conflict and diversity, by transforming sheer enemies into legitimate adversaries, i.e., by achieving what might be called a fluid condition of consubstantial rivalry. Thus, by this account, the "aim of democratic politics is to transform antagonism into agonism" so as to establish an "us/them" relation "compatible with pluralistic democracy" (Mouffe 2000, 103, 101).
Without open debate, governments tend to exaggerate the danger to the nation, target unpopular groups for vilification and repression, enact preexisting political agendas under the cover of national security scientific certainty, and generally spawn a culture of secrecy and suppression that fosters poor decision making with regrettable consequences.
Isn't it fun to imagine conspiracy and oppression? I think it is America's second favourite pastime. Silly word games aside, the basic fallacy of much of the rhetoric on both sides of climate policy debates is that scientific consensus should imply political consensus.


  1. I've been using this list to see where I am in the popular taxonomy of the climate policy debate.

    Where are you?

  2. Reason cannot establish values, and its belief that it can is the stupidiest and most pernicious illusion.
    -- Allan Bloom

  3. Mr. Marburger, the former Bush science adviser, said he frequently heard policy makers express frustration at the lack of certainty in many areas of science, including climate. "'Why can't we get better numbers?' Everybody asks that," he said. "But science rarely gives you the right answer. Science tells you what the situation is, but it doesn't tell you what to do."
    Push to Oversimplify at Climate Panel

  4. From Rock… Paper… Scissors… Science: Anyone can construct a superficially plausible disaster story and then demand that only the scientist with the exact pertinent qualifications can stand in the way of its moral authority. It is the straightforward application of the precautionary principle.

    Such arguments are scientific only in the sense that they are expressed in technical terms, or require some technical knowledge to unpack them. They are not claims of the same order that are made more often in the debate that attempt to match theory with empirical evidence.


    Not simply the worst-case scenario, but the worst-possibly-imaginable scenario carries more weight in debate than anything rational. And it is passed off as “science”. To challenge it is to “deny” science. This is not a phenomenon that it is unique to climate politics.

    [Rumsfeld Unknown Unkowns Video]