An anti-climate action rally in Australia.

An anti-climate action rally in Australia. Cole Bennetts/Getty Images


A Post-Fact World

How the Attack on Science Is Becoming a Global Contagion

Assaults on the science behind climate change research and conservation policies are spreading from the U.S. to Europe and beyond. If this wave of “post-fact” thinking triumphs, the world will face a future dominated by pure ideology.

The last tweets that British Labor MP Jo Cox sent out into the world were about oceans, fishing, and trawler fleets. The day before her assassination by a right-wing nationalist last June, she shared an article on Twitter about why scientific advice is so important for fisheries policy and how it helps replenish depleted fish stocks. A further tweet showed Cox’s husband and their children in a rubber dinghy on the Thames, taking part in a bizarre symbolic “battle” about Britain’s departure from the European Union. 

Cox’s tweet referred to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, or ICES, one of the oldest international scientific institutions in the world. It was founded in Denmark in 1902 with the purpose of putting oceanic activities on a sound scientific footing. Since then, the network has grown to include 4,000 scientists from 350 oceanographic facilities in 20 member states. 

Here, international science and scientific political consulting are practiced par excellence. Politicians cannot know how many fish live in the ocean, which is why ICES researchers measure the stocks of hundreds of species and recommend the degree to which they can be exploited or if they need to be protected. Before the European Union fixes fishing quotas, it consults ICES. 

The Cox family was photographed in their dinghyflying an “In” flag in favor of staying in the EU, as Brexiteers doused them with water. The family was opposing a fleet of fishermen that EU enemy Nigel Farage had organized. Farage criticized EU fishing quotas as an attack on Britain’s national sovereignty and held them — and not rampant overfishing — responsible for the decline of British coastal towns. 

On the day that Cox was murdered, the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson (who has since been appointed Foreign Secretary), visited a fish factory in the north of the country with the same objective of garnering votes for Brexit. Like Farage, he argued against the science-driven policies of the EU. His verbal attacks were directed not only at people like Cox, but also, in a more fundamental way, at the scientific process underlying what is called “evidence-based” policy. 

A different scientific body is already used to being a target of anti-science forces. In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created with the express objective of keeping governments around the globe abreast of developments in climate research. Hundreds of scientists from all over the world collaborate in the IPCC, among them some of the best minds in the field. The IPCC warns of the grave consequences that will follow in the wake of unrestrained CO2 emissions. By now, some 190 countries have accepted the findings of the IPCC, as demonstrated by their signing of the Paris climate change agreement reached last December. 

The continued skepticism about climate change is a repudiation of global and empirical thought.

Most recently, however, new enemies have joined forces with traditional foes of the IPCC, such as the fossil fuel industry. Just as British opponents of the EU reject the findings of fisheries science, many other like-minded politicians — including, of course, Donald Trump; the neo-nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD); and other proponents of the new European Right, such as former Czech president Václav Klaus — flatly reject the findings of climate research.

Ostensibly, they do so out of methodological doubt or economic interest. At heart, however, the continued skepticism about climate change is a repudiation of global and empirical thought. Hostility toward science is on the rise. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained quantum chemist, recently warned that Western societies are faced with a “post-fact world” in which emotions and ideology threaten to suppress scientific knowledge and evidence. 

The foreign policy expert Ulrich Speck of the Washington, D.C.-based Transatlantic Academy has dubbed this new camp “territorialists,” in contrast to “globalists.” Territorialists find climate change suspect, in part because it could mean that Europeans or Americans have to forego material wealth in order to help other people living in faraway lands, such as the inhabitants of Pacific Islands. The climate doesn’t have walls, and the science studying it is globalist by nature. The worldwide network of measuring stations that monitor temperature, water salinity, and air currents is the same kind of masterpiece of international cooperation as the retrieval of the hugely important Vostok and Dome C ice cores — with their invaluable climate data — from the Antarctic by European, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian scientists, among others. 

It is precisely this global ethos of science that draws the territorialists into the fray. When asked recently why he disliked environmental thinking, Alexander Gauland, a leader of Germany’s AfD, answered: “Excuse me, but ‘environmental’ has nothing to do with national identity.” This type of thinking is on the rise, and it could have earth-changing consequences. If Donald Trump is elected president, he wants to rescind the Paris climate agreement, dealing a major blow to efforts to mitigate global warming. 

Trump’s position is shared within the new populist movements of Europe. Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, of the right-wing Law and Justice Party, announced in January that his government “wants to cure our country of a few illnesses” such as “a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy.” Poland aggressively tries to block EU climate change legislation. In France, the right-wing National Front has launched its own “New Ecology” group. Mireille d’Ornano, a National Front politician, described international climate talks as a “communist project” in an interview with The Guardian, adding, “We don’t want a global agreement or global rule for the environment.” 

There are other examples in both Europe and the U.S. of how a wave of “post-fact” politics is endangering science-driven progress. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was founded in 1948 with the objective of protecting the environment and biodiversity. One of the IUCN’s most important activities is to draw up red lists of endangered species. The scientific studies conducted to this end involve plants, insects, mammals, fish, and many other forms of life. Again, hundreds of scientists from across the world are trying to discover through fieldwork, long-term observation, and data analysis what species are declining or are in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth. 

One of these threatened species is the Delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus), a two- to three-inch long, visually unspectacular fish that only lives at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers in California. This fish used to be abundant, but the IUCN has now classified it as “critically endangered” because of drought and over-pumping of water for agriculture. The Delta smelt is one of Donald Trump’s most defenseless targets, and when he appeared in California earlier this year, Trump refuted the findings of several scientific institutions, including the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), claiming there was no drought on the U.S. West Coast. Farmers didn’t have enough water, he said, because too much was being pumped into the Delta — to the benefit of “a certain three-inch fish,” i.e. the Delta smelt. 

Will the future be shaped by empiricism and empathy or by modern ideologies of egotism and hatred?

To Trump, the findings of NOAA and the IUCN mean little, and, if necessary, he would annihilate the Delta smelt. Here, too, his aggression is directed not only at a wild creature, but also at science, which describes this living thing, measures its global chances for survival, and develops categories for the urgency of protection measures. 

All this shows that the new breed of ideologists not only has the potential to trample on universal human rights, but also empirical science, which, unlike any other system of thought, rests on a global foundation. The first globe that depicted America, constructed by Martin Waldseemüller at the beginning of the 16th century, revealed to all the earth’s interconnectedness. Three centuries later, Alexander von Humboldt, with his idea of a “world organism,” transitioned from scientific empiricism to global empathy. At the beginning of the 20th century, in the middle of ubiquitous nationalism, scientists, in particular, developed an avant-garde global citizenship. During the Cold War, it was the academies that cultivated the dialogue between the West and the Soviet Union. 

Most recently, science contributed to development of the Internet, a structure that connects everything and everyone. Science also has devised the idea of the Anthropocene, which maintains that humanity’s collective impact on Earth and has created a new geological epoch and a new shared responsibility. 

This thinking makes it seem meaningful to forego coal-fired power plants in Europe, for example, in order to prevent Pacific Islanders from being inundated by rising seas. But if the current wave of “post-truth” and “post-fact” ideology grows larger, not only climate science, but all of science, might be next in line to be charged by the extreme-right with systematic lying. Climate change denialism might only be the beginning of a much broader development toward a post-empirical world dominated by pure ideology. 

In Britain, Jo Cox’s assassination by a pro-Brexiteer didn’t stop a majority of voters from supporting Brexit. The country is now faced with the task of designing its own rules for fisheries, conservation, and carbon emissions, and it remains to be seen if Britain’s new Conservative government will adopt less stringent environmental standards than the EU. 

The outcome of the current conflict between territorialists and a science-driven global environmental community will help determine the direction of the 21st century. How we treat fish in the ocean, the animals we have brought to the brink of extinction, and the climate that sustains life is a reflection of whether we want to be sensitive and empirical in our modern lives, or not. 

In these issues, all the big challenges of our time are being mixed in disturbing ways: The crisis of the scientific method, the crisis of nature, and the crisis of humanism become one. The question is whether the future will be shaped by empiricism and empathy along the lines of Alexander von Humboldt’s ecological humanism, or whether modern ideologies of egotism and hatred will prevail.