An insistence that science alone is the only true guidance for action can be its own trap.
Fridays for Future is playing a pivotal role in mobilizing global climate action, yet the movement is now facing limits imposed by its own rhetoric, according to a new study in Nature Climate Change.
The key point of the critique by Darrick Evensen, an environmental social-psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, is simple yet important: the movement’s young Swedish founder Greta Thunberg’s insistence on science as the only guidance for action can be its own trap. Scientific evidence warns us and helps us make better choices; however, science alone is insufficient to help us make ethical decisions outside hard data and facts, Evensen suggests.
First of all, approaching science as a final arbiter “misunderstands the role of knowledge in ethical action” leading us towards “unquestioned scientific progressivism of the modern era”. It takes for granted science as such, forgetting about the variety of values and aspirations of scientists and decisionmakers alike. While scientific fact is presented as non-negotiable truth, almost all the choices we make in regards to climate action are often based on economic considerations such as the price of renewables.
Second, path dependencies, institutions lagging behind, and the fossil fuel lobby are among factors that slow down effective action even as we try to make scientific facts fit a particular agenda and certain interests. As Evensen notes, the “scientization” of particular choices based on individual values is an error even the most respectful academics commit on regular basis. Scientists are also prone to underestimating the worst possible impacts for fear of not being objective.
Finally, rational thinking and economic reasoning, which are so favored by scientists, don’t nearly work as well as inspiring people and telling them imaginative stories of a different future. To make the new world possible, we can’t wait for economics to tell us that investing in climate action will be a good bargain. We need creativity to imagine how a different future could look like, as well as bold leadership to make it happen.
This research is in line with other recent studies that underline the point that on science alone, without accounting for a religious and cultural diversity of societies, can harm public support for climate action. Many potential supporters could even turn into denialists. On the other hand, a strict focus on forecasting and business-as-usual scenarios limit innovative thinking, while community planning based on back-casting from desired futures often gives birth to the most captivating visions of a more livable and thriving planet.
Science can tell us what can happen if we don’t act and how fast we need to change. It can also tell us about the benefits of richer biodiversity and a more stable climate. It can help us count how many lives will be saved and which cultural heritage might be lost. Science can even calculate the probability of different proposals being embraced by society and the potential effectiveness of sustainable marketing campaigns.
However, when science meets people it needs vision and passion. It requires a feeling of personal responsibility and strong ethical commitment. It needs to acknowledge cultural diversity, political context, and varieties of local worldviews. For decades, evidence-based science on climate change has been available, but only active public participation and strong pressure from civil society have made the Paris agreement a reality.
As Evensen notes, quoting Nobel Laureate Lord Bertrand Russell: “Almost all the questions of interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer.” And he is sure that climate change is a question of this kind. If we want science to really help us, we need to go beyond science alone. It might be the time Fridays for Future started using this insight effectively.
Thunberg herself admits that she says what people are ready to hear and understand, brimming with ideas for how to reshape the current global system, from the broader implementation of the circular economy to wide-scale urban rewilding. Fridays for Future activists are well aware of the global sustainability discourse that goes far beyond the “divest from coal” and “100% renewables” rhetoric.
It might now be time they stepped beyond what people are used to hearing and into a world of how much more is possible.