This is a response to some heated debate currently occurring on Bristol Indymedia…
Some thoughts on the Proff’s
‘Climate change is happening. We, and the generations before us, have caused it. It should not matter whether we believe it or not.”‘
And Art’s reply
‘Just read that last sentence again – “It should not matter whether we believe it or not”.
AH YES IT S*DDING WELL DOES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’
I think both positions here can be understood as being right in very different ways. While you appear to have diametrically opposed positions, this is mainly because you are looking at the same question in different ways.
While the first part of the Proff’s sentence is very dubiously if painstakingly analyzed; while the climate on Earth is obviously changing as it’s a nonlinear dynamical system, it is not certain that ‘we’ have caused it. The best available evidence (IPCC) suggests that it is very likely (90-95% chance) that we are responsible for changes in the global climate. Very likely and certain are very different… However if it is very likely that we are doing something which is going to create an immense amount of suffering for humans and a huge number of extinctions among other life forms on Earth, then taking action on the issue seems the only logical outcome from a systemic perspective. While some individuals may benefit short term from continuing with our current systems (for example the oil industries who once again are reporting record profits), the social and environmental ecologies as a whole would benefit from changing structures so that operate in a ecologically sustainable way.
The proff is right however insofar as his statement sits within the philosophical tradition of realism – the commonsense contention that the world exists outside of our belief structures (as with many things in life, this is not a certainty – I could be a dream, a brain in a jar or innumerable other things which could not be empirically verified, however the probability of such scenarios seems incredibly small). If I decide not to believe the the moon exists few people would argue that my belief structure will mean the moon would no longer exist. If I decide not to believe in cancer, malaria and aids then those illnesses will not stop killing people. Similarly deciding to believe that ACC is not happening and that expecting that this belief means that my ecological footprint does not have material consequences is clearly ludicrous. Until advances in science which evolved during the last century people did not believe in quarks or quantum mechanics. This did not mean that they did not exist. Until recently people did not believe that their radiative forcing was likely to impact on the global climate in ways which are detrimental to other humans and animals. That people did not understand the ramifications of their actions did not mean that those consequences failed to occur, although the scale to which the human population and mechanized industrialization have grown has made these consequences at a global scale more apparent..
By contrast Art is right in that for action to be taken on a variety of social and environmental issues it helps for people to believe in those causes. Only through such socially held belief and desire is beneficial action likely to be taken to remedy problems. During the 20th Century a sustained campaign by feminists saw the democratic right to vote extended to women, alongside other changes to patriarchal society such as (more) equal pay for different sexes and equal rights for women. These changes to the fabric of society occurred precisely because people believed in the justice of the feminist cause. Had no one believed that women deserved the right to vote, then they would have remained without it. This example highlights the importance of what people believe. While the beliefs themselves do not effect material reality, the actions of those people who hold the beliefs can and does effect change.
Consequently while I would argue that while the scientific reality of whether or not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and land usage change (particularly deforestation) is not dependent on whether or not people believe in them, the potential capacity we have to act on the scientific evidence available to us – which currently suggests that it is very likely that we are altering the global climate in a way that will cause suffering for billions of humans and extinction for many other species of life – does depend on whether people that science, and also on whether or not people exist in social systems whereby they believe that they have the capacity to collectively effect changes to minimise the suffering of other people and animals.