Speaking power to truth

The climate movement has yet to make climate change an election-defining issue. The 'truth' of peer-reviewed science might not be the weapon we thought it was, write Aruna Chandrasekhar, Nathan Thanki and Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik

February 6, 2021 · 9 min read
Extinction Rebellion protestors in London. Credit: Stefan Müller

‘Knowledge is power,’ says the scheming courtier Littlefinger to Queen Cersei Lannister in an iconic Game of Thrones scene. Unimpressed by a thinly-veiled threat to reveal her secret, Cersei orders her henchmen to kill Littlefinger but calls them off just before they do. ‘Power is power,’ she retorts.

Like Littlefinger, the climate movement has focused too much on knowledge, in particular knowledge of an objective, scientific ‘truth’, and not enough on power. While the cultural impact of Game of Thrones has faded, this simple lesson shouldn’t be forgotten.

Whose truth?

Extinction Rebellion (XR) has garnered significant media attention by turning out thousands of people (of certain demographics) to the streets of London. Its most memorable demand is that governments, media and environmental NGOs ‘tell the truth’ about the severity of climate breakdown.

This demand is somewhat undermined by XR’s own open relationship with facts and its selective presentation of information. Although improving, XR and others often focus their communications on the universality of climate crisis. Yet it is an empirical observation that we are not equal when it comes to climate change – neither with regard to its causes nor its consequences. They tell us that ‘we are all in the same boat’ but they neglect to add that some of us are in the first-class lounge while others are locked up below deck.

Selective truth-telling extends to XR’s second demand that the UK achieves ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2030. This is by no means an incontestable target. Rather, by several measures, it is insufficient and inequitable in tackling climate breakdown.

According to charities using data produced by the Climate Equity Reference Project, for the UK to take on its ‘fair share’ of the global effort to limit climate change, it would need to cut emissions equivalent to 200 per cent of 1990 levels within the next decade. In practice, this would mean producing nearly zero emissions within the UK’s own jurisdiction, while enabling the same amount of mitigation in developing countries through grant finance and technology transfer.

This truth has been carefully overlooked by XR and the climate movement generally, which somewhat understandably thinks that the idea of owning up to Britain’s colonial past – and its exported emissions today – will not go down well with the majority of the British public. ‘Truth-focused’ approaches to climate organising will always raise fundamental questions such as whose truth? And how are those truths constructed?

Science has always been based on beliefs and values as well as facts. Truth is forged not in a vacuum but in a specific context. As the US scholar James C Scott points out in Seeing Like a State, power relations are embedded in all forms of knowledge production. You only have to look to the history of colonialism to understand who made the maps, who measured and categorised nature into ‘natural resources’, who standardised units and for what purpose.

This is not to say we should reject science, merely that we better understand how it is produced. Boldly defending and upholding science has been a valid strategy in the face of heavily-funded campaigns by fossil fuel companies to derail climate policy but it has evolved into an unthinking proselytising that serves little strategic purpose.

Political choices

A fatal flaw of basing one’s vision for the world on what science demands is that science doesn’t actually demand anything. Numbers do not speak for themselves. Science tells us how bad the situation is and what could help, not what to do about it. That is the realm of politics.

Take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose reports have become gospel for the climate movement. Everything about the IPCC is political, from what gets accepted for peer review, to who conducts the review, to the infamous line-by-line negotiation of the key ‘summary for policymakers’ document that informs climate diplomacy. The assumptions that underpin its models are made by people who have worldviews shaped by their experiences and political pressures as much as by scientific method.

The production of scientific knowledge often reiterates a reductive, industrialised worldview at the expense of diverse and complex indigenous understandings of our Earth…

Models, as mathematician Cathy O’Neil writes, ‘are opinions embedded in mathematics’. And they embed the opinions of those with power. The production of scientific knowledge often reiterates a reductive, industrialised worldview at the expense of diverse and complex indigenous understandings of our Earth and lived, contextual experiences of political realities. While the climate movement does acknowledge traditional and indigenous knowledge, it is often fetishised. Other lived truths, even those confirmed by science, are dismissed because they disrupt the neat binary politics of the climate movement. The impact of air pollution on historically marginalised communities, land grabs and conflict from migration are reduced to ‘environmental justice’ fights and the wider inequities are often deemed too political to get into.

What does it say of groups that rally around slogans such ‘this is what democracy looks like’ outside Westminster when they do not include the political choices of peoples outside the UK’s borders?

Even the ‘best available science’ is rammed full of political choices about acceptable levels of warming, carbon removal technology and the role of the market – all of which tend to play down the degree of political-economic change that is necessary. When it comes to climate change, science is deployed as a problem fixer, with the impossible goal of making our current systems fit within planetary boundaries, rather than in the service of envisioning new realities entirely.

Semantics are all-important political choices too. For example, IPCC guidelines only require emissions inventories to account for ‘national emissions’ – burying the responsibility of major fossil fuel exporters. Such assumptions shape the accounting of carbon emissions and give an incomplete picture of responsibility. If someone in the UK buys a luxury car made in China, or a pair of jeans woven in Bangladesh, the emissions involved in producing those items will be accounted for by China and Bangladesh. The wealthiest states and populations, responsible for most emissions, can be let off the hook. The same accounting methods can let industrial elites and corrupt governments profit off a crisis. Per capita emissions can conceal vast intra-country inequities between the richest fossil fuel billionaires getting bailouts and the poorest being forcefully evicted for a coal mine. Instead of being ostracised, countries are rewarded with credits for manipulating baselines and setting low targets. Science, when weaponised, can allow even the biggest emitters to mine the past to offset the future.

Armed with science

During the 2007 UK Climate Camp, activists boldly declared, ‘We come armed… only with peer-reviewed science.’ Unfortunately, corporate polluters come armed with sophisticated, well-funded propaganda, armies of lobbyists and promoted campaigns designed to look like they’re grassroots. They can count on the power of states to reduce red tape and scrutiny, on the one hand, and monitor and prosecute anyone who gets in their way, on the other.

The approach of fossil fuel companies towards ‘transparency’ is increasingly mirrored in environmental governance that privileges measurement, reporting and verification over actual accountability or real change. This, in turn, allows for market-based instruments like carbon offsetting to proliferate. Shell and BP have both announced their intention to be ‘net-zero’ or ‘carbon neutral’ in the coming decades.

It could be that we do not know how to wield it, or it could be that the ‘truth’ of peer-reviewed science is not the weapon we thought it was. In the 14 years since the first Climate Camp, we have yet to win the fight to make climate change an election-defining issue anywhere.

With climate science regularly exposing the failures of states to curb climate change, there is a desperate burden being put on other areas of science, as hopes are raised that yet-to-be-invented technologies (and their corporate owners) will step in where governments have failed.

Meanwhile, the climate movement worries about making the world believe in basic climate science that tells us what we are already experiencing and know to be real. But what has that changed? Nothing. The climate movement must instead concern itself more with questioning, building, seizing and sustaining power than with an idealised ‘truth’ and what look like baby steps in its direction. Because power is still power.

Nathan Thanki (@n_thanki) is a co-coordinator for the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice. Aruna Chandrasekhar (@aruna_sekhar) is an environmental journalist from India currently based in Oxford. Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik is a writer and campaigner.

This article first appeared in Issue #230, Struggles for Truth. Subscribe today to support independent media and get your issue hot off the press!

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