Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Public Recognition of Risk and the Role of Expert Networks

Crisis, like extreme weather anomalies in the summer, come and go. Risk is distributed across a multitude of variables from ice sheets losing mass to bizarre weather patterns and invariable climates. That the Earth’s mean surface temperature has changed .8 degrees over the past 100 years is beyond the scope of one human’s experience and their intuitive capacity to under crisis. The only way lay people can make sense of global warming’s totality is by the come and go of anomalies, in such a way that a swelling hot day in Texas one summer becomes the crisis ordinary. Why then does Hansen’s journal article insist that public recognition of global warming is so critical? Why do we need to convince everyone about the realness of global warming if we need to use elegant mathematical analyses to prove its impact?

I understand that risk must be socially recognized if it is to become a matter of politics and public debate, but why are we fascinated by the question “is global warming real?” rather than “should we reduce greenhouse gases and other byproducts of industrial overproduction?” Why does Hansen think that wide-scale public recognition is so necessary if the systematic way of dealing with risk largely requires international co-operation by political actors? I am fascinated by Hansen’s warning that everyone needs to understand—that if we do not together reverse-engineer the escalation soon—we are doomed. He says, “stabilizing climate with conditions resembling those of the Holocene can only be achieved if rapid reduction of fossil fuel emissions begins soon.” If global warming is recognized by all national science academies, all multinational development agencies, all industrialized nations etc., why does Hansen make such an obvious claim seem threatening? And what does “soon” mean in this context? If it is impossible to conceive of global warming on personal, local scales, if it is impossible to appreciate or discern long-term, invisible change, and we must rely on the Global Historical Climatology Network to imagine the unimaginable, then we need to make decisions in real-time and make decisions now. A la Jameson, we need to use the power of networks to regain our ability to act, but convincing people to reduce personal risks is futile. Global warming is so much larger than an individual node that we need a top-down intervention. Otherwise, we will miss the boat. 

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