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Fighting climate change in a post-modernist world of pop art politics—Opinion by Phil Thornton


Pop by Roy Lichtenstein, 1966.

As someone has said, none of the numerous action plans being proposed by the elite networks of decision-making bodies today are going to make a difference if the world’s citizens don’t give them teeth and involve themselves in the solutions.

Should scientists, who work hard to provide the best knowledge possible to those ‘elite networks’, change tack and begin actively engaging the ‘world’s citizens’ directly?

Would this make a real difference in averting climate change and other disasters?


Phil Thornton is an expert in agricultural systems modelling and impact assessments as well as issues at the interface of climate change and developing-world agriculture. He leads CGIAR research on institutions and policies for climate-resilient food systems. Thornton makes the case for better and closer scientist-citizen engagement in an opinion piece published this week in the wake of this year’s national political election results in Australia, the UK and the USA. With many of the citizens of these leading democracies this year engaged in what Thornton calls ‘post-modernist’ (post-truth?) politics, Thornton argues that scientists need to figure out what’s behind the apparent cognitive dissonance, the wide disregard for established fact, displayed in this year’s political discourse.

To do that, Thornton says, will necessitate that he and his scientific colleagues in CGIAR and partner organizations revisit their assumptions and hypotheses about how science informs policymaking, investment choices and decision-making in pursuit of the CGIAR goals of poverty eradication, sustainable agriculture and food security. The very role of science—of credible, relevant, unbiased research evidence—in influencing world views on these issues, particularly in the face of so much politically inspired imagined reality and implacable self-regard, should, he suggests, become a focus of CGIAR’s research agenda. With failure, presumably, not an option.

‘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. . . .

[T]he 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. . . .

With post-modernist politics operating, there is no guarantee that improved science will have any effect on policy making whatsoever. . . .

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’ . . . .

‘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. . . .’

Read the whole of this opinion piece on the news blog of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS): Can we avert climate disaster in an increasingly post-truth world?, 28 Nov 2016.

One thought on “Fighting climate change in a post-modernist world of pop art politics—Opinion by Phil Thornton

  1. ‘After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

    ‘Why was this chosen?
    ‘The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics. . . .’

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