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Slavoj Žižek, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Philosophy of Climate Change

(AP / Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“It does not take an expert logician to deduce that if climate catastrophe were really upon us, we would also observe people giving extreme warnings, and it could even be the case that they still would not support, for example, nuclear power.”

Climate change is, without a doubt, one of the central issues of our time. Even for climate skeptics or “climate deniers,” having to engage with the concept of climate change is hard to avoid. The fact that climate skeptics exist is even more evidence of the pervasiveness of the concept of climate change in public discourse—as it forces everyone to, at least, take a side. The problem is that the scientific dimension, while undoubtedly among the debate’s most important components, is far from the only one. It is true that a majority of climate scientists believe that climate change is happening—and that human activities have an impact on increases in global temperatures. But the skeptic side is not exclusively comprised of conspiracy theorists. Serious climate scientists such as MIT professor Richard Lindzen, who outlined his arguments in a 2017 Merion West piece, remain critical of the mainstream view. Now, I happen to believe that climate change is happening and that human activity has an impact on it, but I am not a climate scientist. Thus, I am neither the person most qualified to refute the arguments of serious climate scientists in the vein of Lindzen nor the best person to present the scientific case for its existence. As I said, there are multiple dimensions to the discourse surrounding climate change, so I will address some of the others. My concerns here are rather specific to certain political aspects of the debate and, particularly, their epistemological status or, put differently, the way in which we can analyze the validity of such arguments.

Climate change should be seen in this light too: as a challenge to the idea that the Earth and its biomes are somehow specifically apt to supporting human life.

Before dealing with the specifics, some context is necessary. One of the difficulties when talking about climate change is that the concept is difficult to grasp. In a recent Merion West piece, Matt McManus argues that climate change is a challenge to the anthropocentric worldview, which is prevalent in much of Western philosophy. In McManus’ view, an awakening to climate change is akin to three previous events in the history of ideas that have contested our anthropocentric worldview. This is a line of argument also identified by Slavoj Žižek in The Parallax View. In this book, Žižek argues that events such as the Copernican revolution, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the emergence of depth psychology deeply challenged the notion that we, as human beings, had a special place in the universe. The first one does this by refuting  ideas about our physical place in the universe, while the latter two dispel the notion that our rationality and other advantages (that we possess relative to other species) are anything other than biological accidents, resulting from (often) random chemical processes. Climate change should be seen in this light too: as a challenge to the idea that the Earth and its biomes are somehow specifically apt to supporting human life.

In a somewhat related fashion, British philosopher Timothy Morton argues that climate change (or global warming to use his own terminology) is what he calls a “hyperobject.” Morton’s theory of hyperobjects is part of a broader philosophical framework called Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). I disagree with many aspects of his perspective, and an explanation of the details of his position is beyond the scope of the present discussion. However, we do not need to be fully committed to OOO in order to appreciate some of Morton’s insights. The term hyperobjects refers to entities that are so spatially and temporally large that they defy human comprehension. Hyperobjects, according to Morton, are “viscous” and “nonlocal.” The former means that they tend to stick to (or affect) anything they come in contact with, while the latter means that any manifestation of the hyperobject that we experience is not the hyperobject itself, nor a separate related entity. More concretely, it is possible for us to observe and grasp events like the destruction of glaciers, but these events are not in themselves climate change. In a sense, then, our only experience of climate change is limited to things and events that fit in our spatial and temporal sense of scale. This makes the real phenomenon, the hyperobject, ineffable for us.

Whether one wants to commit to Morton’s philosophical framework and accept the reality of climate change as an actually existing object (or just take it as a useful cognitive model or a metaphor), Morton’s model does offer some perspective into the difficulty of contending with the magnitude of the climate change issue. The hyperobject model, along with McManus’s Žižekian approach, presents a deeply challenging problem, both technically and epistemologically. Now, as I stated in the beginning, my purpose here is to analyze specific arguments and their logical construction. However, this introductory context is crucial because I believe that this difficulty is at least in part to blame for the fact that notoriously bad arguments—when it comes to climate change—are still given credence.

One common argument, often put forward by conservatives has to do with the personal attitudes of advocates for reform. In a March, 2019 op-ed for Merion West, fellow University of Chicago graduate Matthew Pinna criticized Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her personal choices in transportation, implying that this should disqualify her as a voice for environmental reform. To his credit, Pinna says nothing in regards to  climate change as a whole, but it is not uncommon to see this same kind of claim used to also discredit the scientific evidence on climate change. One example of this was Fox News Host Tucker Carlson’s questioning of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ sincerity on climate change because of Sanders’ use of private jets during the 2016 campaign. However, while I think that this kind of individual attitudes argument is prevalent enough to warrant a mention, it does not merit much more attention. It could be seen as a particular case of a more general form of argument used by conservatives when discussing climate change. This argument could be considered an ad hominem, but the fundamental problem has to do with confusing necessary and sufficient conditions for logical inference. This will be explained in detail later.

A more sophisticated version of this argument (and one that has more merit) has to do with specific policy recommendations designed to address climate change. I first noticed this in informal discussions with more conservative friends of mine, but it is not a claim that well-established conservative publications and organizations such as the National Review, The Federalist, or The Heritage Foundation shy away from making. The basic point is the following: the scientific data that points towards the need to radically reduce carbon emissions in the short term in order to prevent serious damage to the biosphere can be safely dismissed because those who support these claims (generally those on the political left) do not put forward realistic solutions for the reduction of emissions, such as nuclear energy. Admittedly, it is increasingly rare for even the most consistently conservative publication to outright deny that climate change is happening—or that humans have an impact. Nevertheless, it is still prevalent among these conservative outlets to downplay the potential consequences or the urgency of the situation. Climate activists, and often the Left in general, are described as alarmist, hysterical, and as essentially using global warning as a tool to promote a certain economic agenda. If the direst predictions were accurate, then the Left should promote nuclear power, rather than trying to dismantle capitalism.

One popular dire prediction these days is the now perhaps infamous twelve years claim. (This refers to a comment made by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in which she said that Millennials and Gen Z are afraid that the world will end in twelve years if we do not address climate change). There are real concerns with the way scientific findings are portrayed in mainstream media, and I have no doubt that there were issues in the way this claim was presented in many news stories. Be that as it may, there is a real scientific origin to the twelve years timeframe. And even if it is not the countdown to our inevitable doom, there are serious implications to it, if we are to believe its source. This point comes from a 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report. The IPCC produced a shorter (but still quite technical) summary for policy makers, which contains this and other claims that have been targeted by conservatives. Like any scientific report, all claims are presented, not as the final word, but as risks and likelihoods of events happening. Claims such as these will always be made with medium, high, or very high confidence. The report also contains prediction models for irreversible effects, given the degree of current emissions and level of warning to the present day. The report further includes various models for different scenarios, assuming varying levels of future carbon emissions, including a hypothetical immediate freeze. This is where the twelve year timeframe comes into play, along with other points that conservatives have objected to.

The main goal of the report is to assess the impact to the environment and to the quality of human life within the range of possibilities from the present to 2100. The report starts from the observation that the average global temperature has increased one degree Celsius when compared to pre-industrial levels and gives a range for future increase of an additional half to one degree, putting the overall increase from pre-industrial levels in the range of 1.5 to 2.0°C. One of the central takeaways from the IPCC report is that in order to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, it is imperative to limit overall warning to 1.5°C. The report does not claim that the consequences will be suffered by 2030—or even that carbon emissions have to be fully eliminated by that year. It does, however, state that there are a few key milestones that have to be met by that year in order to avoid overshooting the goal of 1.5°C. To mention just one, the report states that “[i]n model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030.” There are other claims of this nature, but it would be redundant to include them all for the present purpose. But to reiterate, this is where the twelve year timeframe comes from.

Further in the report, in the more properly policy-oriented sections, there are estimates and analyses of what this would take. In terms of that, the report states the following:

Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors

One article from The Heritage Foundation actually takes issue with that very statement and quotes from it. The article’s analysis of this IPCC assessment is, in my view, somewhat hyperbolic, though depending on what one means by capitalism, not entirely inaccurate. The author interprets this as support by the IPCC for dismantling capitalism entirely, which is an outrageous conclusion. Now, of course, a historically unprecedented transition in all major sectors of infrastructure would require significant government intervention, to say the least. Whether this is, as the article’s title suggests, a dismantling of the free-enterprise system is not certain, but that case could be made. This is not to say that no one is explicitly and unequivocally calling for the end of the current economic system as a way to address climate change. The author does provide quotations from other actors, which explicitly advocate for this. But then, this is used as evidence that it is all political and that the warnings are nothing more than fearmongering designed to destroy the economic system. Further proof that those advocating for radical change are not serious, according to The Heritage Foundation article, is the fact that the IPCC does not give a shining endorsement of nuclear energy.

Now, before continuing onto discuss the problems with this kind of reasoning, I want to make one concession. I do think that nuclear power is a source of energy that should be seriously considered. The reasoning is the following. Nuclear power is in some ways inevitable. Its efficiency when compared to any other source currently available is about eight orders of magnitude higher, or to put it another way, about 100 million times more efficient. There is a simple way to know this. Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation has actually little do with the mechanics of the theory of relativity. The equation gives us the energy equivalence of a mass m. In the equation, c is the speed of light, which is a very big number, so the speed of light squared is much larger number, which means the actual energy stored in any small amount of mass is way more than we are able to extract. We could call the difference between the E in Einstein’s equation and the actual amount of energy extracted the energy wasted by that process. As things stand currently, nuclear reactions are the only way to extract any appreciable fraction of that E, at between 0.1 and 0.7% of E. And if nuclear power can extract energy 100 million times more efficiently, it means that the amount of waste per equal amount of fuel is incredibly lower. Our current energy needs could reasonably be served by other means. But if we do not destroy ourselves, it only makes sense that our energy consumption needs will only keep growing, and, at some point, nuclear will be the only available option. Even today, some alternative methods to nuclear energy production that virtually eliminate the problems associated with it, such as spent fuel and accidents, are becoming closer to a reality. This includes Thorium reactors, like CUNY Professor Matt O’Dowd explains in a PBS Space Time segment. However, it must also be acknowledged that these technologies aside, significant problems with nuclear energy remain.

None of this, however, excuses the faulty reasoning in the arguments described earlier. The problem with much of the conservative skepticism about climate change can be explained as a simple formal logical fallacy. In non-technical terms, the problem is that many conservatives are proceeding backwards from their desired conclusion. This could be that capitalism does not need to go—or that nuclear power is the real solution—therefore, reaching the opposite conclusion is evidence that whatever lead to it is faulty. More accurately, this can be described as a formal fallacy called “affirming the consequent.” One of the most basic rules of formal logic is modus ponens. This states that if a proposition P implies a proposition Q (and we know P to be true), then we also know that Q has to be true. Affirming the consequent means that if we observe Qthen we wrongly infer that P must be true. The problem here is that modus ponens dictates that P is a sufficient condition for Q but not a necessary one. In other words, Q could be the result of P, but it could also be the result of any number of other unknown factors. To return to the concrete example at hand, let us grant the point that if someone had the only goal of ending capitalism, a very effective strategy would be to fearmonger about the global climate. This is an implicit assumption made by many conservative climate skeptics. The problem is that conservatives observe Q, which is to say dire warnings about the global climate—and then wrongly infer that the necessary reason for this is the political motivation for destroying capitalism. But as I explained, even if we grant that this political objective is a possible explanation for climate-related doomsaying, the fact remains that politics can never be the necessary condition for it. The possibility always remains that even the direst of warnings is, in fact, real. It does not take an expert logician to deduce that if climate catastrophe were really upon us, we would also observe people giving extreme warnings, and it could even be the case that they still would not support, for example, nuclear power. This is because scientific facts do not entail support for particular policies.

In fact, I have no problem with honest scientific disagreement of the kind that Professor Lindzen presents. That is, after all, how science is meant to work.

This goes back to the fundamental difficulty of dealing with something potentially as big as climate change. Does it not make sense that a problem of a magnitude previously unencountered would also demand solutions of unprecedented scales? I am perfectly aware that none of this is an argument in favor of the scientific arguments on one side, and that was never the intention. In fact, I have no problem with honest scientific disagreement of the kind that Professor Lindzen presents. That is, after all, how science is meant to work. What this should be, however, is a clear explanation for why so many skeptical arguments on the political level fail the most basic standards of reasoning. Arguments like those are essentially equivalent to standing in the rain and claiming not to believe that it is raining because no one has an umbrella—or because some people are claiming that the only certain way to not get wet is to not go outside. After all, is it really raining, or is that just a fabricated claim, designed to keep people inside their homes? But even if some people have always wanted to prevent others from leaving their home, is staying inside not the most reasonable decision anyway if the rain gets sufficiently strong, despite how annoying the advocates for staying inside may be, even if one has a great umbrella? I do not wish to torture this metaphor any further, but hopefully it gets the point across, by changing the conditions to an extremely obvious situation.

Unlike a rainy day, something on the scale of climate change is very difficult to grasp. Even computer models and data cannot really convey the scale properly. Of course, the scale does not mean anything about the severity of the problem, but it does make its ineffability more dangerous if the gravest predictions are correct. Another famously difficult idea is Quantum Physics, particularly the unintuitive ‘Copenhagen Interpretation.’ What this interpretation actually says is not important for the purpose at hand, but there is one respect in which anyone concerned with the climate change debate should take a page from some quantum physicists. In an article in Physics Today, discussing the evident strangeness of this area of physics, N. David Mermin wrote: “If I were forced to sum up in one sentence what the Copenhagen interpretation says to me, it would be ‘Shut up and calculate!’” His point is that those in his generation were less concerned with the philosophical interpretations and more interested in following the mathematics. I do not believe this is always the correct approach, but it is useful in certain situations when trying to really think about something can be counterproductive. If the math tells us that we ought to smash capitalism to save the planet, then that is what we should do. If it tells us that it is not necessary, then we should leave that decision up to other discussions. What is decidedly wrong, however, is to approach the math having already decided that smashing capitalism is not the correct answer, and that anyone claiming it is must have committed a mathematical error.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette. He can be reached at nestor.kyat@gmail.com or on Twitter @nestor_d

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Darren Iversen
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Darren Iversen

What would a depth psychologist make of the term “Hyperobject”?

Darren Iversen
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Darren Iversen

Answer: a substitute God symbol. This is duplicated in the rather obvious religious “end times” language used by AOC.