Should Scientists go on strike over climate change?

April 14, 2014 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

Well that’s a relief. The most recent IPCC report indicates that it needn’t cost the earth to save the planet (Ottmar Edenhofer’s line). It’s bizarre that the test of whether we should avert ecological catastrophe is whether we can afford to, but lamenting that absurdity is for another day.

In response to this latest report I was tempted to repeat a surprisingly popular post in response to another IPCC report a fortnight ago, but at a certain point the pattern of report publishing/report responding feels like complicity in climate inertia. We need to look at alternatives more closely.

The curious idea of scientists striking came, almost in passing, from an article by Bill Mckibben(above), who is perhaps the best known climate activist in the USA (we don’t have an equivalent person in the UK), known for his advocacy of divesting in fossil fuels, and most famous for his celebrated Rolling Stone article which made it clear why the only serious solution to climate change is to keep most of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground (and why, alas, that is never likely to happen).

His full post on MSNBC is here but these extracts give the jist:

“They’ve said it with graphs, they’ve said it with tables. They’ve offered colour-coded guides to future decades. They’ve told us about basic science and, when that didn’t work, they’ve tried to explain it in terms anyone could understand…

They’ve done their job. (And they’ve done it for free – working on these endless IPCC reports is a volunteer job). They’ve warned us, amply. The scientific method, with researchers working hard to disprove each others’ hypotheses, has worked. It’s yielded a concise answer to a difficult problem in chemistry and physics. When you pour carbon into the air, the planet heats up and then all hell breaks loose. That’s basically what you need to know.

But if science has worked, political science has failed…So at this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more.”

Now there is an idea.

 

(From ‘Climate Camp‘. Image via www.otesha.org.uk)

People typically go ‘on strike’ with trade union support, using the considerable strength of ‘collective bargaining’ to improve workers’ negotiating power over pay and conditions. Public support for this kind of action depends on our sense of whether the cause is just, and the action proportionate.

So what would we feel about strike action that takes roughly the form: “You say you value our approach and expertise, but your inaction in response to our outputs offends our collective sense of professionalism as Scientists, and we won’t work any more until you show through your actions that you are taking us, and our profession seriously.”

It is not clear if McKibben just means IPCC members should go on strike, but the idea has broader applicability. I hesitate to make an estimate, but a brief Google search suggests there are approximately (depending on definitions) six million ‘Scientists’ in the world.

At present, these six million or so Scientists do not have what Marx and Engels referred to as ‘class consciousness’, but they have a great deal to unite around; a shared commitment to certain methodologies, principles, values and practices and a worldview that respects appropriate responses to data and evidence.

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

From this shared sense of identity and purpose they would generally respect the verdict of their climatologist colleagues (better not to say ‘comrades’…) that climate change is happening because of what governments are allowing people and businesses to do, and that we ought to ‘do something’ rapidly to change that. (The most recent report helpfully gave some detail on that typically generic injunction ie we need a rapid transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy).

The vast majority of scientists, across fields, would generally share the verdict of the IPCC chairman Rajendra K.Pachauri: “The high speed mitigation train needs to leave the station very soon and all of global society has to get on board.”

Could Scientists stand together in solidarity in this way? Can we imagine an ENT surgeon, an inorganic chemistry PHD student, and a recently graduated engineer feeling ‘common cause’ in this way and taking professional action accordingly? It’s a bit of a stretch, because Scientists of all stripes and seniority would need to feel somehow ‘offended’ by the lack of respect given to the work of their colleagues to take collective action. At first blush it sounds and feels drastic, but is it really? Given what is at stake?

Assuming the rationale makes sense, could it ever happen practically? What would it look like in practice?

A long shot it may be, but it could have a huge effect. Scientists carry a great deal of societal esteem because what they do requires knowledge and diligence and a respect for something other than their own opinions.

However, while they have lots of  ‘soft power’ – the power of attraction – the relatively ineffectual responses to their IPCC reports suggest they tend to lack ‘hard power’ – the power to change policy at scale, and they don’t always want it either! Striking would be both a form of communication and a form of direct action; and we need both on climate change.

As with every other aspect of the climate crisis, Scientists have a collective action problem. If there was some way for Scientists to better make their collective presence felt, for instance by their collective absence, this might be a powerful collective action solution that would communicate more effectively than any report every could.

Scientists of the world unite! You have everything to lose but your brains.

 

Comments

  • Sadmaninagame

    I think if climate scientists went on strike it would be a very good thing indeed. A great deal of public money would be saved and long suffering tax payers, particularly here in the UK, would be given a break. If you could go on strike until the end of the century that would be absolutely splendid.

    +1 I support this idea.

  • Aaron

    “Questions of science….do not speak as loud as my heart” – “The Scientist” – Coldplay.
    As I’ve witnessed so many extreme climate events in recent years, and the science has grown more certain, and the dangers more clear, I’ve wondered why there isn’t more urgency to address it. Perhaps there needs to be a conscious effort to appeal to the hearts, and not the minds, of folks. I’m thinking of that song ‘the Russians’ by Sting, “I hope the Russians love their children too”, well he desperately tried to get the message across to listeners that if you love your children, you must avert the dangers, and climate change is going to ruin the future and quality of life for future generations. Maybe we need a huge contribution from film makers, singers, artists, poets, writers, and all artists to appeal to the emotions. To me Al Gore’s “An inconvenient truth’ was amazing and powerful, but maybe the average Joe can’t grasp the science, but who doesn’t love their children? and want to protect them? Hansen tried writing for his ‘grandchildren’, but maybe it is too scientific and complicated for our dumbed down world. Advertisers know how to appeal to viewers like this, maybe that must be the way to get to people to care more. These are just my guesses, ’cause I don’t know what’s goin’ on anymore, it’s just so surreal how we can let the known disaster play out right in front of our eyes.

  • Latimer Alder

    Climos on strike? 97+% of the world won’t notice. But shares in international airlines and conference hotels in nice resorts will plummet.

  • victor g martinez

    “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology” Carl Sagan

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  • Asdfgh

    Get on with it already!

    I must say though that I will not exactly be holding my breath waiting for it to happen. Would love to be PROVEN WRONG BY SCIENTISTS though!

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