Worldviews and the (Economic) Merchants of Doubt

By Mark Edwards
Assistant Professor, School of Business, University of Western Australia
Posted on 20 December 2012
Filed under Culture, Politics

In the previous two posts, I made two principal points: In the first post, I noted that doubt about the efficacy of government intervention to address HICC may become as much a barrier to action as the denialist strategy of manufacturing doubt about the scientific basis of climate change. In the second post, I illustated this notion by surveying the range of climate policie across the entire spectrum.

In this final post, I take up the roles of worldviews and ideologies, and how they may give rise to a new type of "merchants of doubt" in the economic realm.

The concepts of worldviews and ideologies are central to the full analysis of the climate change issue.  In his recent review of the role of psychology in limiting the impact of climate change, Stern made the point that “values, attitudes, beliefs, worldviews, and emotional reactions” (Stern 2011, p. 309) are crucial players in policy and that “public support for policies to limit climate change is associated with environmental worldviews and fundamental values” (Stern 2011, p. 309).  He also remarks that, “Opposition to such policies is also linked to values and political ideology” (Stern 2011, p. 309). 

I would go further and say that values, worldviews and ideologies are associated with all policy responses to Human-Induced Climate Change (HICC). 

Both left wing and right wing and even third way ideologies are involved here. For example, the free market policy response to climate change has many connections with the ideological movement towards neo-liberalism and market fundamentalism that has been a feature of economic thinking over several decades.

Some form of what might be called “free marketism” is probably a relatively common ideological position even amongst those who recognise the reality of HICC and know that the science is valid. This is particularly relevant in the economics discipline where free-market driven policies responses to climate change are frequently espoused. It is particularly important here to recognise that different ideological positions are held by different scientists even when they agree on the science. Rational individuals listen to and defer to the opinions of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists who propose that HICC is real and that its impacts are significant and wide-ranging.

What should the response be, however, when highly respected scientists, including economists, engineers, chemists and agricultural scientists, agree that HICC is real but differ greatly with respect to the policy response to this threat. There may be a solid consensus among climate scientists that HICC is real but there is no consensus at all among scientists on the next most crucial question – What should we do about it?

So let me bring this issue of worldview and ideology back to the spectrum of policy responses. I have argued that the ideologically-driven battle over whether climate change is real or not will now be replaced by an ideologically-driven battle over what should be done about it. In particular, those who shape public policy including academics, and who all agree that HICC is real, will increasingly be divided in terms of their ideologies and worldviews and how these factors inform their respective positions on policy responses.  The different sides of the political spectrum will now both be able to claim (quite accurately) that there is strong scientific support for their opposing positions. 

The danger is that ideologies that underpin market-based policies, and which are also associated with denialist positions, will again work to cast doubt over what climate policies are to be implemented and, more particularly, over whether they should be government lead or market lead.   The "merchants of doubt" will not focus their attention on issues of science but on issues of policy. As I pointed out in the figure in the previous post, shown again below, the place on the policy spectrum where this becomes most crucial is where market-based policy (the C threshold) engages with a mixed policy position (the D threshold).

What will this battle look like? 

First, the battle will not be between expert climate scientists and self-educated bloggers. Nor will it be between “warmists” and “deniers”.  The lines that will separate the opponents in this emerging front will be more difficult to identify. The battle will be between, on the one hand, intelligent and highly respected scientists, politicians and business people who calmly argue that HICC is real and that both government policies and private actions are needed and, on the other hand, intelligent and highly respected scientists, politicians and business people who calmly argue that HICC is real and that markets will determine the best way to respond.  

In other words, the contest will be between those who want real action through government intervention and business and community action, and those who want real action by the invisible hand of the market only

The new economic "Merchants of Doubt"

This will be a major issue because this second group, the free marketeers, will cast doubt on the need for deliberate and targeted regulation of economic activity.  In essence, the free-marketeers will argue that nothing should be done because the market will naturally sort out the best response in the most efficient and effective manner. The free marketeers are the new (economic) merchants of doubt because they will bring uncertainty, suspicion, and distrust to whether any specific action should be taken to address HICC and to the motives for doing so.  The really difficult issue here is that unlike the debate between the climate scientists and the denier bloggers, this debate will be between respected scientists who differ only in their scientific worldviews.  The debate will be based not on the acceptance or rejection of science but on the more difficult territory of what kind of scientific worldview a scientist/economist holds and bases their research on. 

As societies all over the planet grapple with the questions of “what” should be done (e.g., tax or direct action), “how” should it be done (e.g., government or markets), and “who” should do it (e.g., individuals, companies, governments, international bodies), perhaps the most crucial issue of all will once again get lost in the furore: “When” should action be taken is the most crucial issue in climate change because the more action is delayed the less any of the other questions matter. This is why the debate over HICC and the casting of doubt over the science has been so destructive and why the new debate over how action should be driven may have similar reprehensible repercussions.

The market-lead HICC supporters will cast doubt over concerted and timely (if that is any longer possible) government and community-based action and once again this will lead to inaction.  Many long-standing social problems have festered for decades due to debates over whether government or the private sector should act to solve these issues.  These include child and adult obesity and advertising, inequality and poverty, homelessness, environmental degradation and the loss of indigenous heritage. In recent decades the pendulum has swung much more towards corporate self-regulation rather than government regulation, towards market-lead solutions rather than community-lead solutions. The same equivocation will probably be the case with the climate response debate. 

The role of economists will be increasingly important in all this as the need for economic intervention and government direction setting becomes more urgent.   One important group who will argue for the market-lead response to climate change will be conservative economists.  Although the great majority will agree that HICC is occurring, we will also hear from this group a range of arguments against direct government-lead action to address climate change.  These arguments will appear in many forms but they will tap into the usual psychological biases and weaknesses that previous doubt merchants have preyed upon (Gifford 2011).  The arguments of the new merchants of doubt (e.g. economists who support HICC and argue for market lead “policy” response) will raise doubt and bring about inaction.

This will create a very difficult barrier for those wanting to take targeted action to address HICC. 

One very real and unpalatable possibility here is that a new anti-climate-change alliance will emerge between the radical denialists and those with a scientific and rational perspective on HICC but who endorse the free market response.  Two powerful forces may bring these two groups into an expedient coalition.  First, both will share free-market ideologies and so government regulation of climate change policy will be anathema to their worldviews. This will occur irrespective of whether they hold a scientific or anti-scientific worldview.  The connections they have in believing that government regulation needs to be minimised at all cost will override any divergent views they have about the scientific validity of climate science.  Second, money and the funding of research will form a convenient bridge between radical denialists and scientists seeking backing for their research. 

My prediction is that corporate and private funding of hyper-technologies and geo-engineering efforts such as carbon sequestration and sulphate seeding of the upper atmosphere will increase dramatically in the coming years. Again, the outcome of all this will be to stymie direct government-led legislation and regulation to maintain the status quo of free-market operations.

In summary, the climate change policy spectrum shows that the battlelines of the climate wars will shift and new alliances will be forged as the need for climate action and intervention in markets and economies inevitable grows. In particular, it shows that the analysis of worldviews, values, scientific paradigms and political ideologies will take centre stage in our response to HICC.  The need for a deeper understanding of how our metatheories and worldviews affect the choices and decision we make will become ever more crucial as the urgency of action escalates.  

References

Gifford, R 2011, 'The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation', American Psychologist, vol. 66, no. 4, pp. 290-302.

Stern, P 2011, 'Contributions of Psychology to Limiting Climate Change', The American Psychologist, vol. 66, no. 4, pp. 303-314.

Bookmark and Share

Comments Policy

Post a Comment

You need to be logged in to post a comment. Login via the left margin or register a new account.