Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Risk in Light of Facts

In some ways Ulrich Beck would probably interpret the “Perception of Climate Change” study as a step in the right direction, however his paper highlights some important aspects of risk which is blatantly fails to address. The paper is quite rigorous in elucidating the overwhelming likelihood of global warming through the direct mechanism of analyzing the previous fifty years, and the changes of mean temperature month-by -month. Their most effective argument can be summed up with two pieces of data, the fact that there is a 2.3% chance of the temperature exceeding 2 standard deviations (of local seasonal mean temperature) and a 0.13% chance of an excess of three standard deviations, paired with the actual  recorded changes of these events occurring around the globe. Their study showed that with more and more frequency abnormally high temperature have occurred around the globe, with zero percent of the globe seeing surface temperature anomalies above 3 standard deviations happening in 1955, 65, or 75, however in 2009, 10, and 11 the percent effected were  17.6%, 13%, and 14.8% respectively  - and recent abnormalities of 2 standard deviations have been consistently 10-20 percent higher than those recorded in the first three decades mentioned.  Furthermore they do not draw their maps along national boundaries which is aligned with Becks’ thinking that risk is amorphous and not evenly distributed. While this evidence is very convincing of general climate change, nonetheless according to Beck it may very well not ferment any significant change in humanities actions.
                The authors of the study say in their conclusion “With the temperature elevated by global warming, and ubiquitous surface heating from greenhouse gas amounts, extreme drought conditions can develop” (Hansen et al, 8) and reference other projected effects, such as hotter summers, unusually heavy rainfall, and change in the range of animals. However the devil is in the details here – yes, they have statistically shown that it is very likely that global warming is happening – but the link to greenhouse gasses which they mention is not highlighted in their study. While they name various risks, these are all risks mainly explained in terms of how they will affect the environment, and ignore one key point which beck warns against:  letting humans atrophy from the natural in the terms of your debate. Indeed they mention that people who have lived through the fifties on might notice the frequency of these abnormally hot summers; however this  can oxymoronically reduce this group’s worries as those who’s livelihood isn’t directly changed by the natural factors have probably not been worried by these changes – and may have even enjoyed the rays of sunshine. As Beck says “In definition of risks, the sciences monopoly on rationality is broken. there are always competing and conflicting claims, interests and viewpoints of the various agents of modernity and effected groups” (Beck, 29).
            Those groups which have a financial stake in the question whether greenhouse gasses are to blame for this climate change (and subsequently, the source of these gasses) will “and attempt to bring up other causes and other originators" (Beck, 31). Indeed there are many huge industries which rely on the continued production of greenhouse gasses – oil, and coal as fuels –and as such they will attack this Achilles Heel of the argument that this paper puts forward. Likewise, this study does not really address risk multipliers, such as the self-reflexive cycle where increased submerging of the polar ice caps reduces their ability to reflect the sun and thus causes the poles to absorb more heat, further speeding this process. Though more extreme weather patterns are already visible in many facets, this does not change social perception - "risks have something to do with anticipation, with destruction that has not yet happened but is threatening, and of course the sense that risks are not yet real today” (Beck, 33).
            So with the combined force of not entirely certain causes, and many industry advocates trying to confuse the public discussions of global climate change the public is unlikely to demand change, and divided politics keeps any fundamental change from happening.  “The old question: how do we wish to live? What is the human quality if humankind, the natural quality of nature which is to be preserved“ (Beck, 28) is obfuscated by shortsightedness, and the dual nature of risk as real and unreal. The death blow is delivered when "causes dribble away into a general amalgam of agents and conditions...this reveals in an exemplary fashion the ethical significance of the system concept: one can do something and continue doing it without having to take personal responsibility for it" (Beck, 33). I think Beck’s main critique of this study would be that “scientific rationality without social rationality remains empty" (Beck, 30), empty in the sense that something must be done with this data, but in going directly against the overwhelming mode of industrial production the argument reaches an impasse. It is not that the Hansen et al. make an argument too extreme, but that they make an argument not extreme enough, or not fully realized. Albeit, one scientific study can only cover so much ground, and so it must be viewed in the context of a puzzle piece but not as the whole of an argument.

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