Currently Reading

COVID, Crypto, and Climate: We Are in an Increasingly Abusive Relationship with the Idea of ‘The Science’ by Calum T. M. Nicholson

15 minute read

From Issue

Vol. II, No. 2

Read Previous

György Lukács – the Hungarian Marxist by Lili Zemplényi

Fuel Prices – How Long Can the West Survive? by Tamás Orbán

Read Next

Opinion

COVID, Crypto, and Climate: We Are in an Increasingly Abusive Relationship with the Idea of ‘The Science’

Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Allegory of Science (ca. 1760). Jacquemart-André Museum, Paris

‘Man has to awaken to wonder—and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.’1 – Ludwig Wittgenstein

It is hard to miss the fact that we live in an age in which public orthodoxies—and the censure which challenges to them inspire—are often legitimated by claims to a foundation in ‘The Science’. Most topically, we have seen this with discussions of COVID, and the widespread claim by governments that they have ‘followed The Science’ in their lockdown policies. This is, of course, a claim that overlooks the inconvenient fact that the question of the proportionality of lockdowns is not a strictly scientific one. Deciding whether to put entire populations under indefinite house arrest is less a matter of the objective facts of the disease, and more a matter of our subjective, collective understandings of what constitutes an acceptable level of risk. Clearly, most governments decided that there was, as Jonathan Sumption has written, nothing more important in life than the avoidance of death, an outlook that reflects a rather impoverished understanding of what it is to be both human and alive.

Similarly, in recent years we have seen the rise of blockchain-backed cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin and its innumerable imitators, and so-called ‘non-fungible tokens’ (NFTs). Finance has always had a technical component, but the belief at the heart of the current fever surrounding ‘Web 3.0’ is that blockchain’s encryption removes the dangers of forgery or theft—and thus the need for middle-men or the state itself—through the application of particularly fiendish math.

On average, the greatest threat when putting one’s resources into a single currency is not fraud, but rather systemic instability

As with discussions of COVID, this suggests less a rich understanding of (computer) science than an impoverished understanding of society, and—in this case—the social basis of all forms of value. On average, the greatest threat when putting one’s resources into a single currency is not fraud, but rather systemic instability, the loss of public trust and faith in a currency, and a lack of institutional recourse in that event. Crypto’s advantages are in the tangible letter, not the intangible spirit, of finance. It may have mitigated some technical risks, but its social ones are arguably far more pronounced. Only someone myopically focused on ‘The Science’ of the former would be so wholly blind to the latter.

The same pattern, and logic, can, of course, also be found in discussions of anthropogenic climate change. Once again, many governments appeal to ‘The Science’ in their declarations that everything possible must be done to both mitigate climate change, and adapt society to it.

Yet, as with COVID, and crypto, what is often excluded from this discussion is a real reflection on the subjective, societal considerations built into any such discussion. What exactly do we mean by ‘adapt’, and what, indeed, do we mean by ‘society’? As with advocacy of lockdowns, there is a failure to understand that our subjective attitudes to risk are as relevant to formulating public policy as the ‘objective’ facts of the climate science itself. As with advocacy of crypto, there is a failure to recognize that the variable of vulnerability is not the element legible to science, but the societal context that reacts to that element.

Contrary to what is often assumed by people who position themselves as ‘climate sceptics’, the real problem with our understanding of climate change is not, in fact, to do with ‘The Science’ at all. As a general rule, climate science is quite good for what it is, which is statistical modelling. As with epidemiological models of COVID, there is room for error, as the accuracy of the predictions is dependent on the selection and weighting of variables inputted into the model. However, with those caveats in mind, the models are sophisticated, subtle, and in the final analysis, impressive.

The real problem lies not in the climate science, but in the social science. The social science of climate change’s impact on society should not be assumed to be simply an afterthought. Rather, it ought rightly to be taken as the very context of our concern for ‘The Science’ of climate change. We care about climate change, after all, because it is presumed that it will have a significant—and indeed, a negative—impact on society. Robust and unambiguous social science would lend legitimacy to this framing concern.

Among the most intuitively ‘obvious’ and ‘straightforward’ topics for social scientific investigation on the societal impacts of climate change is its impact on human migration patterns. Will climate change effect the size, speed, and trajectories of migration, and if so, how, and to what extent? One might assume answering these questions is quite simple, or at least relatively elementary compared to examining other social impacts. Migration, after all, would seem quite easy to identify—a discrete social phenomenon in itself. Yet the tale the social science tells on this topic is cautionary, encouraging restraint and circumspection, not a bold rush to action.

Take, for instance, a piece entitled ‘Climate Migration Myths’, published in Nature Climate Change in November 2019 as part of a Special Issue on the topic of ‘Climate Migration’. Peer-reviewed, and co-authored by thirty-one leading scholars on the topic, the central claim of the ‘Myths’ piece was that ‘categorizing climate migrants as distinguishable from “non-climate migrants” is not empirically possible in most, if not all, circumstances. As a consequence, predictions of mass climate-induced migration are inherently flawed.’2

The article also states that ‘although the potential for climate change to disrupt livelihoods and threaten lives is real […] international migration and climate [policies that assume] anthropogenic climate change already is, and will increasingly be, a major driver of mass migration from the Global South to the Global North […] reinforce a false narrative that predicts large numbers of ‘climate refugees’.3

The only genuinely clear and consistent pattern across the literature on so-called ‘climate migration’ is that nothing clear or consistent can be said on the topic

Although these statements might seem surprising to many people, they are old hat to those who have followed the research on the topic. The only genuinely clear and consistent pattern across the literature on so-called ‘climate migration’ is that nothing clear or consistent can be said on the topic. It is not simply an empirical problem of insufficient data. The problem is no one knows what or who ‘climate migration’ even refers to, nor how we could go about arriving at a definition that is not simply so narrow as to lack utility, or so broad as to be meaningless. The only surprising thing about the ‘Myths’ piece was that it was published in Nature Climate Change, a publication in which one can otherwise discern a preoccupation with narrative over rigour.

In fact, one does not have to look far for an example of the journal privileging the orthodox and normative narrative around climate over the rigour so evident in ‘Climate Change Myths’. One need only look at the ‘Abstract’ and ‘Editorial’ for the Special Issue in which the ‘Myths’ paper appeared. Despite the ‘Myths’ contributors’ stated concern for challenging ‘misleading claims about mass migration induced by climate change [that] continue to surface in both academia and policy’,4 the ‘Abstract’,5 ‘Climate Migration’, and the ‘Editorial’,6 ‘From Migration to Mobility’, gave special prominence to perhaps the most egregious example of a ‘misleading claim’ that exists in the literature on the topic, one which was made thirteen years ago in a Christian Aid report, and has long since been dismissed as a ‘divination’,7 and has been ‘harshly rebuffed by the scholarly community as unserious and overly alarmist’.8 In so doing, the ‘Abstract’ and ‘Editorial’ gave these figures a renewed lease of life, infusing them with the authority that comes with being quoted by Nature Climate Change.

The ‘Abstract’ states that ‘estimates for the number of environmental migrants by 2050 range from 25 million to 1 billion, so understanding when, where and how people will move (if at all), what it means to be a climate migrant and how best to govern the problem is crucial’.9 This appears to be a derivation from a longer statement in the ‘Editorial’, which states that:

‘By 2050, estimates for the expected number of environmental migrants are between 25 million and 1 billion. These numbers are, of course, uncertain and debated. But the idea of masses teeming from storm-ravaged and drought-stricken land is probably wrong, or at most only one small aspect of what is likely to unfold. When, where and how people will be forced to move as a consequence of climate change remains elusive, as are definitions about what it means to be a climate migrant and how best to govern the problem.’10

This statement is problematic for at least three reasons. First, it is important to explain why it is deeply concerning that the above figures are being cited in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal of the repute of Nature Climate Change, even with the caveat that they are ‘uncertain and debated’. They are neither. They are false, and this is not a matter of debate. This is best shown by detailing the source of these figures.

The ‘Editorial’ links to an IPS News article11 for these figures, which itself links to two sources: a webpage of United Nations University (UNU),12 and to the IOM & Climate Change home page.13 On neither page is the claim made. A google search reveals that the only reference UNU had made, before or around the time of the IPS News article, is in fact a (now dead) webpage that linked to the same IPS article.14 As for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the only references they have made to the figures is in a 2008 report15 by Oli Brown in which he mentions the estimates,16 citing a Reuters article;17 and subsequent 200918 and 201419 reports, both of which mention the figures uncritically, 20, 21 and without attribution (but presumably with the confidence that they were cited in Brown’s 2008 report).

We actually find the figures’ provenance in a 2007 Christian Aid report,22 which was what the Reuters article that Brown referenced was discussing. In this report, the writing team, led by Rachel Baird, cobbled together rough estimates of the numbers of people displaced by 2050: 50 million people displaced by conflict; another 50 million by natural disasters; 645 million people displaced by development projects such as dams and mining; 5 million refugees; and 250 million people displaced by climate-related phenomena such as floods, droughts, famines, and hurricanes.

The first and third figure—together making up 695 million of the 1 billion total—have clearly and expressly nothing to do with climate change. This in itself undermines the claim in the ‘Editorial’ that estimates of ‘environmental migrants’ range as high as ‘1 billion’.

The fourth figure is similarly unrelated to the environment or climate. According to the report’s endnotes, the final figure is based on a 14 March 2007 interview that Christian Aid conducted with the late biodiversity specialist Norman Myers, whose methodology has been heavily criticized by scholars ever since.23 Indeed, in his 2008 IOM report, Brown wrote that Myers had—in personal correspondence— told him his estimates (which had grown with the telling from 150 million in 1993,24 180 million in 1995,25 200 million in 2002,26 to 250 million in 2007) were based on ‘heroic extrapolation’.27

As prominent scholars on the topic, the contributors to this Nature Climate Change special issue on ‘climate migration’ were surely aware of the provenance of the ‘25 million to 1 billion’ figure, and thus must have known how deeply problematic and inappropriate it was. It is therefore puzzling that these figures were so prominently placed in both the short ‘Abstract’ and the ‘Editorial’ for the entire special issue. In doing, and without a clear and definitive statement that these figures were categorically false, they risked provoking precisely the sort of alarmism around ‘climate migration’ that they are (especially in ‘Climate Migration Myths’) otherwise and rightly intent on challenging.

The quoted statement from the special issue editorial is also problematic for two further reasons. It states that ‘when, where and how people will be forced to move as a consequence of climate change remains elusive, as are definitions about what it means to be a climate migrant and how best to govern the problem’. First, if we do not know the what, the where, the when, or the how, then logically how we can talk of ‘the problem’ to be governed. Second, given that the associated paper ‘Climate Migration Myths’ talked of the need to escape the ‘narrative in scientific literature and policy reports [that has entrenched] climate migration as a looming security crisis without an empirical scientific basis’,1 why does the ‘Editorial’ here present migration as a ‘problem’ in need of governing at all?

We should not assume that ‘The Science’ is always rigorous and reliable

There are two lessons in the case of this Special Issue of Nature Climate Change on ‘Climate Migration’: one about the subject in question, and the other about the status of ‘The Science’. The first lesson is that the social science on the societal impacts of climate change is ambiguous, at best. The second lesson is that we should not assume that ‘The Science’ is always rigorous and reliable, and free from sloppy sentiment at best and political ideology at worst. Indeed, the problems with academic peer-reviewed literature in general are eerily similar to the problems with blockchain.

Blockchain, of course, is touted as more robust than traditional fiat currencies as each ‘block’ has a ‘hash’ of all previous blocks embedded within it, and that copies of these are distributed across a peer-to-peer network. As such, it is seen as unchangeable, incorruptible, and therefore reliable. However, as the OneCoin pyramid scheme scandal revealed, it is quite easy to give the impression to the layman of having blockchain technology where none exists.

Likewise, academic literature is touted as more robust than everyday forms of knowledge, in no small part because (1) each paper has references to previous papers embedded within it, and (2) most academic journals rely on a network of peer-reviewers to give quality assurance. As with blockchain, it is in these references to previously peer-reviewed work, and in the peer reviewing of the current work, that published academic work finds its reputation for truth and reliability. But as the ‘Abstract’ and the ‘Editorial’ of the special issue in Nature Climate Change demonstrate, these safeguards are in fact only a guarantee of reliability when the journal in question operates in good faith, and with an interest in the integrity and rigour of the academic process over the political orthodoxy of the scholarly output.

Unfortunately, contemporary academia— particularly in the social sciences—is governed by a fetish for output on an industrial scale. In this system, which has spread across academia in recent decades like a bad fungus, the main metric by which the quality of a scholar is assessed is not originality or creativity, but by how many papers they have written, and how many citations those papers receive. Whether the papers themselves contain a valid basis in reliable citations seems as much a concern to some journals as the absence of underlying blockchain technology seemed a concern to the unscrupulous pyramid schemers behind OneCoin.

A provocative claim, perhaps. But we can again turn to the notorious ‘Abstract’ and ‘Editorial’, published on 26 November 2019, for proof. This author wrote to the Nature Climate Change editorial board in mid- February 2020, bringing the baselessness of the figures they cited to their attention. They neither printed the letter, nor fixed the text. At the time of writing, in mid-February 2022, two full years after the errors were brought to their attention, they remain in place, and untouched.28 We often hear ‘The Science’ cited as not only the foundation for public orthodoxies, but as justification for censuring challenges to those orthodoxies. Yet science is merely a tool. Tools may be used—and abused—towards this or that end, but they do not determine the end that is chosen. Choices are made by us, not by our tools. As the late, great English journalist A. A. Gill once wrote, ‘the world isn’t spun by cogs, it’s turned by people’.29 No form of technical knowledge can protect us from venality, cowardice, bad intent, or simply the banality of expedience. As we face the confrontations of ‘The Science’, we must awaken to its abuses. In Wittgenstein’swords, ‘man has to awaken to wonder—and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.’30


Calum T.M. Nicholson holds an undergraduate degree in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge, a masters from the University of Oxford, and a PhD in Human Geography. He is a former visiting fellow at the University of Oxford, and has also served as a researcher in the British Parliament. He is a specialist and consultant on climate migration, as well as on the historical significance of social media. He is currently teaching courses on international development, international migration, and the impact of social media at the University of Cambridge. He also writes and speaks on a wide range of social, political, and cultural issues for various outlets, including The Economic StandardThe New Humanist, and the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna.


NOTES

1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (University of Chicago Press, 1980), 5e.

2 Ingrid Boas et al., ‘Climate Migration Myths’, Nature Climate Change, 9 (2019), 898–903, 902.

3 Boas et al., ‘Climate Migration Myths’, 901.

4 Boas et al., ‘Climate Migration Myths’, 901.

5 www.nature.com/collections/dagebcjjai.

6 www.nature.com/articles/s41558-019-0657-8.

7 Giovanni Bettini, ‘Climate Barbarians at the Gate? Refugees”’, Geoforum, 45 (2013), 63–72. A Critique of Apocalyptic Narratives on “Climate François Gemenne, ‘Why the Numbers Don’t People Displaced by Environmental Changes’, Global

8 Add up: A Review of Estimates and Predictions of Environmental Change Supplement, 21 (2011).

9 Online Abstract, ‘Climate Migration’, Nature Climate Change, 9 (2019), www.nature.com/collections/dagebcjjai.

10 Focus Editorial. ‘From Migration to Mobility’, Nature Climate Change, 9 (2019), 895.

11 www.ipsnews.net/2017/08/climate-migrants-might-reach-one-billion-by-2050/.

12 https://ehs.unu.edu/blog/5-facts/5-facts-on-climate-migrants.html.

13 www.iom.int/migration-and-climate-change.

14 https://unu.edu/media-relations/media-coverage/climate-migrants-might-reach-one-billion-by-2050.html.

15 www.ipcc.ch/apps/njlite/srex/njlite_download.php?id=5866.

16 Oli Brown, ‘Migration and Climate Change’, IOM Migration Research Series, 31 (2008).

17 www.reuters.com/article/idUSL10710325.

18 www.iom.int/sites/g/files/tmzbdl486/files/jahia/ webdav/shared/shared/mainsite/activities/env_ degradation/compendium_climate_change.pdf.

19 https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/mecc_ outlook.pdf.

20 International Organization for Migration, Compendium of IOM’s Activities in Migration, Climate Change and the Environment (Geneva, 2009). 

21 Alex Flavell, ‘IOM Outlook on Migration, Environment and Climate Change’ (IOM, 2014).

22 Rachel Baird et al., Human Tide: The Real Migration Crisis, a Christian Aid Report (Christian Aid, 2007).

23 Gemenne, ‘Why the Numbers Don’t Add up’; Alexander Betts and Angela Pilath, ‘The Politics of Causal Claims: The Case of Environmental Migration,Journal of International Relations and Development, 20 (2017), 782–804; Betsy Hartmann, ‘Rethinking Climate Refugees and Climate Conflict: Rhetoric, Reality and the Politics of Policy Discourse’, Journal of International Development, 22 (2010), 233–246; Gaim Kibreab, ‘Environmental Causes and Impact of Refugee Movements: A Critique of the Current Debate’, Disasters, 21/1 (1997), 20–38; Vikram O. Kolmannskog, Future Floods of Refugees: A Comment on Climate Change, Conflict and Forced Migration (Oslo: Norwegian Refugee Council, 2008).

24 www.jstor.org/stable/1312319.

25 http://climate.org/archive/PDF/Environmental%20Exodus.pdf.

26 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1692964/. 27 

27 Brown, ‘Migration and Climate Change’, IOM Migration Research Series, 31 (2008).

28 www.nature.com/articles/s41558-019-0657-8.

29 A. A. Gill, Previous Convictions: Assignments from Here and There (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

30 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 5e.

Tags: