Geoscientists: saints or sinners?

Professor Noel Castree has recently published in Nature Climate Change, a monthly journal dedicated to publishing the most significant and cutting-edge research on the science of climate change, its impacts and wider implications for the economy, society and policy.

The paper argues that geoscientists must forge new alliances with social scientists and humanists to bring the climate change debate to the next level and allow society to better respond to global environmental change.

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Should we simply thank or instead seek to challenge those geoscientists warning us about the profound effects of human actions on the face of the Earth? After years of attacks by sceptics like Ian Plimer, geoscientists seem to have won the argument. It’s clear that anthropogenic environmental alterations will be ‘game changing’ for future generations, as soon as a century ahead. Geoscientists are now urgently gearing up to work with politicians, businesses and others to prepare societies for everything from sea level rises to more frequent heatwaves. They are no longer just ‘canaries’ alerting us to big trouble on the horizon; they are now wanting to operate ‘off campus’ to help societies devise measures to cope with environmental change.

In a new paper in Nature Climate Change University of Wollongong Professor Noel Castree argues that there are problems with geoscientists’ new determination to be of social use. After systematically analysing their many recent publications, Castree and colleagues arrive at two key conclusions. First, they show that geoscientists often view the world as presenting problems that, like mechanics, they believe they can fix. Second, they thereby ignore many crucial questions raised by global environmental change – such as whether humans lack humility and wisdom. Geoscientists, Castree and coauthors argue, risk using their authority to convince others that future Earth surface change is no more than a fiendishly complicated alteration to fairly well understood physical systems. What is needed is a deeper appreciation that such change will cause fundamental disagreements about responsibilities, right and duties – among humans and towards nature. Such appreciation will come, in part, if geoscientists forge new alliances. The many social scientists and humanities scholars who study the implications of environmental change are primed for such alliances. Geoscience can no longer afford to pretend that value questions about the sort of societies environmental change could and should engender can be bracketed. Meanwhile social scientists and humanists can no longer presume to leave geoscience to its own devices.

While we should be grateful that cynical attacks on geoscience by sceptics are on the wane, we should nonetheless not trust uncritically in the words of geoscientists. Social scientists and humanists now have a responsibility to change the latter’s thinking so that societies can more intelligently transform themselves in the face of environmental change. Castree and his 21 international coauthors call on environmental researchers across the disciplines to urgently rethink their modus operandi. If heeded this call will, the group hope, significantly enrich public debates about how to respond to environmental change.

It could allow important new questions to be asked that might currently appear off limits. For instance, what sort of evidence and what sort of technical ‘solutions’ would be deemed relevant if geoscientists embedded their inquiries in the sort of indigenous cosmologies studied by cultural and environmental anthropologists? If geoscience more robustly acknowledges the different worldviews that people have developed to lend meaning to life – their own and others – it could help move us away from the mistaken idea that ‘objective’ analysis of biophysical change will deliver us to the ‘right’ fixes.”

Changing the intellectual climate can be accessed here.

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