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Posted on January 22, 2020 at 5:36 AM

Written by Stephen Rainey

In the midst of global climate change set to devastate entire ways of life, and ultimately on track to render the biosphere uninhabitable for all but the most adaptable organisms, it seems timely to question how political legitimacy relates to matters of scientific fact. While it seems mostly desirable that groups of people ought to be self-determining in terms of how they get along with the business of living, there appears to be a limit wherein this principle renders mutual self-determination among groups impossible.

Self-determination among different groups in some sense generates contradictory demands. Especially where limited resources are a factor, not everyone can successfully pursue their own ends, which generates tensions between groups. Among the limits that prompt such mutually challenging ways of life are the kinds of facts discovered in scientific research. We know from trends observable by climate scientists that patterns of living currently enjoyed by many are unsustainable and are causing damage to the possibility of continued living on Earth. Yet this is known in a rather strange way.

If we knew the car hurtling toward us had no brakes, we’d swiftly act to get out of the way. Where climate change is the hurtling car, though, nothing of the urgency in the analogy can be seen. We wryly sneer at the very idea of world leaders jetting off to summits, emblematic as it is of the issue at hand. At the same time, we puzzle over our household waste to ensure the right sorts of used containers end up in the right bins. All the while we know these are virtuous but futile gestures outside of a fundamental change in global attitudes to resource consumption. States, industries, and global businesses are the players whose act needs to change.

This leads back to the idea of how political legitimacy can be affected by scientific fact: How can we bear governance that fails to recognise its role in addressing runaway climate change? Political legitimacy is at stake because where nothing, or too little is done politically about climate change, the idea of self-determination hits the wall. Resources dwindle, and the context for human activity diminishes such that options are constrained objectively, not just by means of expressed preferences.

Even the barest forms of political philosophy, like that of Thomas Hobbes, hold the sovereign responsible for retaining a state preferable to that of brutal interpersonal insecurity. The dictator-like sovereign can be replaced where they fail in their basic duty. Climate change represents a slide into utter insecurity, albeit only as a step on the way to obliteration. No political stance that ignores climate change, or that is superficial about it, ought to be tolerable as a legitimate stance.

On the level of existential threat, it looks like a no-brainer: climate change is the chief driver of anthropogenic extinction events. But of course nothing is ever simple, and to stack political legitimacy against science is not a simple matter. Scientists are people with their own political views (many of them terrible). To suggest that political legitimacy ought to be exhausted by a scientific worldview would be to go too far. In fact, ‘a scientific worldview’ would itself be revealed as a hodge-podge of conflict not dissimilar to the erosive hegemonies witnessed in generalised self-determination. We all know the physicists would claim ultimate insight into how things work, much to the chagrin of chemistry, biology, statistics, and so on. Moreover science itself changes in time, in a form Thomas Kuhn likens to political revolution.

While it seems like what’s needed here is a discussion of how much politics ought to bend to science, in fact I think what’s happening is the revelation of an anaemic politics, hollowed out through decades of misapprehension. It’s not that politics and science are or ought to be juxtaposed, but that over time politics has drifted from an engagement with human affairs writ large, and toward silos of technocratic competence. Where, for instance, the size of a national economy is taken as that which politics ought to concern itself with, much withers that isn’t seen as central to that project. And much of politics, certainly in the UK for at least the past 40 years, has been predicated on very narrow economic terms. This preoccupation has characterised what is and what is not truly political in a way that has warped away from broad discourse about human flourishing, and toward conserving capital at the upper levels of society.

A broader discourse over those 40 years might have had the UK better placed to conceptualise, if not deal with, climate change. Such a broad discourse appears to be part of the kind of political realignment envisioned for New Zealand by Jacinda Ardern. In that scheme, markers of life being lived well are evaluated as well as sheer numbers. But more, and more widely spread, change will be required if political structures are to respond to challenges of continued living in the face of group interests and desires.

Some form of widespread political realignment is required that takes the form of discourse from an expressive one, wherein social demands are measured and sated, to a reflective one, wherein needs are evaluated and weighed. That this comes in the maw of a crisis makes it perhaps more difficult, but the crisis only arose thanks to complacency from prior generations. What’s more, it ought not to be considered odd that fundamental political change should be necessitated by the state of the physical world. The idea of group living under political regimes requires that we ought to be able to thrive among our diversities, or else face erosive contradictions. The world itself provides a context that cannot be ignored, as might a voice in a discussion. And seen through the lens of longstanding economic-based oversimplification, its state is the result of a political cowardice. Our diminishing biosphere, in that sense, is a political player with quite some clout.

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