Can we avert climate disaster in an increasingly post-truth world? 

We live in an age of post-modernist politics.  I’m currently based in Australia (the world leader in climate change denial, according to a 2015 paper in Global Environmental Change) with family in the US and the UK.  In all these places, politicians regularly spout known falsehoods, on climate and many other topics, with the express purpose of misleading, bamboozling and deceiving, but none is ever held to account; what bothers me most is that it never even seems to matter.

Speaking just from a climate change perspective, the outcome of the votes on Brexit and the US presidential election is profoundly discouraging: addressing climate change will need massive transformations of society in the future, and these can come about only through collective action on a hitherto unimagined scale. Both of these votes make this collective action that much more difficult to achieve.  Whatever one may say about the EU, the collective cross-border action on environmental issues has been highly effective (a simple example: compare Britain’s beaches now with how many of them were 30 years ago).  The EU as a bloc does seem to bring about more effective environmental policy making than most single states seem to be able to manage.  As for the US, the president-elect denies that climate change even exists, and has promised to make the most use of coal possible. The US stance on climate change from the top down is undeniably important, and the risks of undoing or stalling the Paris Agreement are real.

Up to now, I’ve always thought that climate change denialism would go the way of asbestos and tobacco denialism: the combination of ever-mounting robust scientific evidence and patient, well-informed advocacy would eventually outweigh the massive special interests lined up against acknowledging the obvious truth.  Now I’m not so sure.  The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) is designed around a set of “impact pathways” or hypotheses about how we see science informing policy making, investment and decision making in the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals of poverty eradication, sustainable agricultural production, and food security for all.  With post-modernist politics operating, there is no guarantee that improved science will have any effect on policy making whatsoever. As we’ve recently been told, people in Britain “have had enough of experts”: and this in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.  It’s difficult to make well-being comparisons across the ages, but there seems little doubt that the sum total of human misery is less than it has ever been: literacy rates are at an all-time high, infant mortality rates and poverty rates are well down, the food-secure outnumber the food-insecure by a factor of many, and much of this is down to the achievements of science and technology.  This is nothing to get smug about, though: 21,000 children die each day, many from perfectly preventable causes, and many more go to bed hungry each night.

But in attempting to contribute towards solutions, we all need seriously to examine our most basic assumptions. In a post-truth world, if the notion of the Rational Decision-Maker is a myth, then we had better figure out what it is that moves vast numbers of people to accept non- or pseudo-science as “par for the course” in choosing the people who represent us and act on our behalf.  We cannot underestimate the dominance of beliefs, ideas and interests in shaping our world, and so scientists need to give much greater attention to these as objects of research and as levers for action. The days of scientists pronouncing ex cathedra may be behind us: we must attach even more importance to process, and engage in meaningful ways with different stakeholders in society who may have radically different worldviews to our own.

Without this very basic understanding, as scientists working on climate change adaptation and mitigation, we have no chance of modifying the discourses that help form world-views, let alone policy.  And how else will the transformations come about that are needed in society, if we are to avoid disaster?

Philip Thornton leads the flagship on Policies and Institutions with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), based with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).