[Originally published in Opinion column of the Vanuatu Daily Post.]
Faith. Belief. Trust.
These sentiments spring quickest to mind when we talk about what animates us, about what makes us strong and what keeps us on the moral path. We express these thoughts in terms of light and face constant imprecations to turn our back to the shadows.
I admire them all, but like objects of great value, sometimes they seem to be a little too fragile to handle, too easily sullied by circumstance. When it comes to coping with the world and its complexities, doubt is my tool of choice.
Doubt – the willingness to question every assumption – seems at first to cast shadows on everything. But every light does this, so we can clearly see the contours. True, this makes the picture more complex than it was. In that sense, doubt is subversive and troublesome. It makes our elders fret and leads the naive astray.
But it works.
So what to make of the ‘debate’ currently raging over humanity’s role in global climate change (Anthropogenic Global Warming, or AGW)? At first glance, it seems to pit the skeptics and doubters against the true believers. Wait a minute, say the skeptics, are we 100% sure about the data? What proof do we have? Can we trust that proof?
The believers, having already completed over a decade of deliberation and debate, impatiently try to move the conversation away from discussing whether AGW is true. That’s established fact, they say; it’s time to decide what to do about it.
Again and again the doubters drag the debate back to first principles. How can we be sure about all this? Isn’t science about proof? Where’s the proof?
Doubt, like salt, is useless alone. While it’s often useful to question ‘common knowledge’, the goal is not to come out knowing less but to learn more. Doubt must be the search for better answers. And that requires reason.
Do we know what next year’s weather will be like in Sydney? Do we know how many years we have before Tuvalu sinks below the waves? Do we know whether we’ve already gone too far, or whether we can still pull ourselves back from the brink? No, we don’t.
Do we know that man-made carbon dioxide has caused a drastic rise in the level of atmospheric CO2 in the last 50 years? Do we know that the world hasn’t seen a comparable increase in the previous 200,000 years? Do we know that atmospheric CO2 traps heat? Yes, yes, yes.
Like faith, doubt can be misapplied too easily. When it’s used to obscure rather than to illuminate, when it’s used selectively rather than systematically. When it refuses the possibility that it might ever be satisfied.
The Bislama phrase ‘askem question’ carries heavy connotations. It implies that something is not settled, that consensus has not been achieved. And without consensus, we have nothing. At least, not in Vanuatu.
But often enough, the process of asking questions, offering contradictory interpretations of events, or even just bull-headed denial, consists of nothing more than opposition for opposition’s sake.
Most of the opposition to movement on Climate Change is economically motivated. Simply stated, those who stand to lose the most protest the loudest. There’s nothing innately wrong with that; honestly, one would expect no less. What’s upsetting is the dishonesty of it all.
They pretend to want a dialogue, they appeal to science, but they don’t ever admit that a satisfactory answer is possible. They demand godlike knowledge, even certainty, from all-too-human scientists. They pester and pester and pester and, when the scientists finally snap at them, they howl that they’re being persecuted.
They are specifically, deliberately opposed to the very dialogue they claim to be denied.
This tactic is quite familiar in Vanuatu politics. On more than one occasion we’ve seen various political players pee into the well rather than let others drink from it. Speaker Korman’s antics last week are only the most recent example.
So the question then, is what can we do? If developed nations and certain industries are going to be deliberately dishonest about the extent, the nature or even the existence of global climate change, what can we, the most vulnerable nations in the world, do?
We can apply the tools of doubt. We can ask again: What is the relationship between climate change and development? Has the fundamental problem of global environmental degradation significantly changed in the last few decades, or just our understanding of it?
What, ultimately, is the difference these days between combating climate change and development? Are they not ultimately the same thing?
If that’s the case, then what we’re really seeing in Copenhagen is the refusal of the world’s economic leadership to admit that there should be limits to the damage humanity inflicts and that we must become our brother’s keeper, whether we like it or not.
The crisis of the world has not changed, except in immediacy. We must, as we always have, continue to question our faith in development as proffered. We require only that the rest of the world admit that real, honest answers are possible.