MARK BEESON. Politics and climate change: Academia’s missing contribution

Aug 1, 2018

Academics who specialise political science are frequently not taking the implications of their discipline seriously when it comes to climate change.

Going to academic conferences is always interesting; sometimes fun. While the general public may view such events with a healthy degree of scepticism⎯ they generally foot the bill, after all⎯they do offer an opportunity to take the intellectual temperature and see what one’s peers are up to. 

After recently attending one of the biggest political science jamborees this country has ever hosted, I found the results somewhat deflating, especially for anyone hoping for innovative ideas about how to address climate change. The unfortunate reality is that the academic community is usually (very) long on rhetoric and rather short of ideas about how to stop the planet from becoming an unliveable wasteland.

There were, to be sure, no end of earnest, well-intentioned discussions about the ‘securitisation’ of the environment and the importance of discursive practices. Indeed, it is impossible not to like and rather admire the seriousness with which one’s colleagues address such issues: they are undoubtedly some of the smartest people one could hope to meet and possessed of uniformly impeccable morals and values.

Unfortunately, many of the people causing the problems are not. On the contrary, the likes of Donald Trump, and his recently departed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, are seemingly entirely without morals or any sense of shame. Even more alarmingly, they are also either genuinely ignorant about basic climate science or dismissive of its importance because it conflicts with their personal political and/or economic interests.

Pruitt’s replacement as EPA head is Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist who has earned more than $700,000 spruiking the benefits of continuing coal use. 

Much the same sorts of points could be made about the Australian situation where the government continues to champion the merits of the industry and its role as a reliable and cheap source of energy. Even more improbably, Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg argues that there is a ‘moral imperative’ for Australia to follow the US lead because coal can allow countries such as India to escape energy poverty. This ought to be one moral debate my colleagues could win.

Yet anyone who has been paying attention to the debate in this country or the US will be entirely unsurprised by these facts – yes, there still are such things in the world. While my clever colleagues may be right to highlight the importance of the discursive production of knowledge, they seem less concerned about thinking about its consequences. No matter how brilliantly argued their disquisitions about the moral imperative of applying notions of universal justice and equality may be, they are almost laughably at odds with the political reality we collectively face.

At a time when popular confidence in expert knowledge has never been lower, arcane debates about epistemology and ontology are not going to resonate outside the seminar room. This is not an argument for dumbing down the conclusions of our research, but it is a plea for making it a little more accessible and relevant. While we are locked in our self-referential intellectual universe and largely immune to the consequences of the problems we claim to be concerned about, the planet’s beginning to fry.

Unfortunately, much of the academic debate about climate change resolutely ignores the fact that saving the planet is as much a political problem as it is an environmental one. The popular discourse around this issue is important, no doubt, but at present it is dominated by the likes of Fox News and the very industries that currently profit from business as usual. No amount of banging on about moral imperatives is going to change that.

One thing the academic community could do, of course, is to stop flying around the world to conferences that could be conducted by Skype – or not at all. Who, after all, other than the academic community and the growing conference industry would notice the difference? 

A cheap shot and not a little hypocritical? No doubt. But if all these smart people can’t come up with a ‘counter hegemonic discourse’ that actually shifts the debate, what’s the point? If people working in political science and international relations don’t take the politics of climate change seriously, why should we expect ‘ordinary’ people to do so, or even recognise the problems? Taking on the likes of the coal industry may mean coming down from the ivory towers and getting our hands dirty.

Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia.

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