Climate Change Debate: How digital transformation is playing a role in driving conflict and may lead to its potential resolution

February 24, 2020

In spite of all the scientific  evidence that Climate Change (CC) is real, the global debate about it is overwhelming. Serious arguments for (mostly) and against its real occurrence, about its danger, and the human responsibility behind it, number in the hundreds, if not thousands. In this introduction to CC, there is no need to mention more than the most striking. However, to put readers in a mood for salutary relativity, I invite you first to enjoy 4 minutes of pure mirth and view this hilarious clip by John Oliver, following an assertion via twitter by then President Obama that “Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: #climate change is real, man-made and dangerous”. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence,  to this day, there continues to be debate in some countries and some groups  on the matter. But this pronouncement by a loved and respected political authority did more than any other to boost the ideology of CC among the wider population.

It is not the purpose of the following meditation on CC to take or support a given position on the matter, but to examine the origin, motivation, formation and distribution of opinions, as well as some of their influence and consequences on social and political action. Both extreme positions put a heavy stress on the economy and world peace. The problem has reached such proportions, in particular over bush fires in Australia and melting icecaps on both poles that it has taken pride of place at the latest Davos World Economic Forum where world government and business leaders usually focus on the more preoccupying matter of making money. Another indicator of the global urgency is that, rising in importance since its first appearance on the sadly famous “Doomsday Clock”[1] in 2015, CC now overtakes the nuclear threat as a key factor that narrows the time left for humanity’s survival.

Central in pushing the CC issue center stage is the role played by social media, that is, by one of the key factors of the digital transformation. Indeed, the debate has been hijacked from the scientists by the “people” whose uninformed opinions go viral at the slightest provocation. An itemized list of CC deniers’ arguments can be found here. Most invoked by deniers are the lack of scientific evidence for any or all claims that global warming is happening, that it is man-made and that it is dangerous to humanity, sheer denial and downright refuting that the increase of fires, rise of seas, and melting of ice amounts to anything but natural occurrences (including Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison arguing disingenuously that bush fires “happen every year”), references to Paleo climate history that have no pertinence to today’s vast increase of world population and consequent augmentation of consuming and waste, etc. Again, this is not the place to argue such positions but to identify them and find out why and how they gather support against all evidence.

The result of this cacophony is conflicting and often bewildering arguments such as the following: 

  • The fear of total disaster stems from alarmism deeply seated in our ancestral unconscious
  • CC is a myth created by China to weaken the US economy
  • CC researchers don’t want to recognize the truth because they would lose their funding
  • Mars and Pluto are warming too, so why not the Earth.

And the best one of all: “What’s wrong with warmer weather?” The latter view is evident in the climate change scepticism in some northern European countries, including Norway and Russia.[1]

These kinds of objections hardly seem to require refutation. We can always speculate on motivations, ideological, scientific or self-serving, but the fact that they circulate, and gain traction underscores a great turmoil in global civil society. The geopolitical stage is caught between terrorism and populism, and faces the rout of democracy not only in immature political conditions, but more seriously among the erstwhile most stalwart representatives and defenders of a livable world order, that is, in three of the five main countries in the Anglosphere (the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom). It is likely that the present world disorder largely owed to the disruptive effects of the Internet and social media will eventually recover a lost equilibrium when digital transformation is completed but in the short term, governments and businesses will have to confront enormous challenges to either successfully convert or transform the economy and reduce  global waste and carbon pollution.

The Internet as a social limbic system

In mammals (including humans, of course) the limbic system is the name given to the sequence of organs that identify, assess and act upon internal or external triggers that provoke emotions, to control, resist or transmit them through gestures and utterances; the Internet may be the first technology that allows similar processing to occur and extend it to large swaths of people from a handful to a global response. More than a metaphor, the comparison with the limbic system is a lens to understand controversial social responses to climate change. A direct one-to-one correspondence between such biological organs and technological nodes, edges and hubs of Internet communications, in conjunction with the symphony (occasionally a cacophony) of other media, may not be necessary to establish corresponding functionalities expressed in such concepts as viral transmission, echo chambers and rapid circulation of emotional currents in society. The intent of this comparison is to introduce parallels that illustrate some of the most striking kinds of social responses that have occurred over the last ten years, from populism to climate change anxiety.

The “Thunberg Effect”

What appears from the rapid – and viral – uptake of Greta Thunberg’s initially modest, if not jejune protest is that it hit a nerve in the younger global population. No one predicted that school children could become a political force since the “Children crusade” of the Middle Ages (1012-1014). The idea here is that, notwithstanding the possibility that the symphony of media has played the dominant role in propagating the movement, the spark that ignited it and the response generated was and remains spontaneous, genuine and authentic, this again, not taking sides for or against the validity of the protest. It could be useful to examine generational differences regarding awareness and expectations about the present and the future outcome of these protests. 

Lying and denying: the post-truth era

Although one cannot help suspecting that denying climate change serves blatant private interests, the various disinformation strategies gathered under the label of post-truth, over and above pointing to potential malice, indicate that the global civil society is undergoing an epistemological crisis. Critics and commentators continue to blithely point out the obvious, that is, the gap between assertions and the reality they obfuscate, without examining why and to what extent opinion has ceased to need verification or objectivity. The evidence presented by proponents of climate change falls on deaf ears because they continue to oppose logical – and verifiable – arguments to a coalition of probably cynical self-interest coteries with a growing number of uninformed and impatient citizens who do not care for truth or evidence, neither being part of their normal frame of reference.

Towards a ‘global government’: is it a conspiracy theory or the effect of Digital Transformation?

The argument has been proposed that the Extinction Rebellion (X-R) movement is part of a conspiracy to achieve some sort of global government; the reasoning goes that a growing number of funders concur about the need to establish and enforce globally new regulations to eliminate social and economic practices that are deemed to provoke climate change (the recent (and re-igniting) bush fires in Australia providing a ready example). Be that as it may, the better argument is that, however it comes to pass, such an outcome, rather than from civil unrest and protest, is more likely to emerge from ongoing Digital Transformation than from anybody or any group’s intentions. The dominant trends and lines of force of digital media, beside their tendency to converge, are integration (in this case comprehensive regulation) and transparency, albeit fiercely resisted in today’s transitory situation. It is to be hoped that global unrest over  the wasteful behavior of whole societies recordeded and documented by algorithms will eventually lead  governments to apply available digital technologies to the development of a global social order respectful of the environment.

History of social – and personal – responsibility

Different social structures condition different attitudes in communities and among their members. Anthropology has long distinguished ‘shame’ societies from ‘guilt’ ones. In a shame society, honor, loyalty and social recognition (including saving face) orient the responsibility of individuals to the “other”, be it family, clan or hierarchy, or whatever order prevails in the community. “Reputation Capital” is one of the ways shame culture is developing as part of  Digital Transformation of the economy and society. It involves not only traditional meritocracy systems, but also threatening and enslaving methods of pressure and control. Conversely in guilt societies, the responsibility of individuals is primarily to themselves (even if the duty to others remains relevant). The unpleasant experience of guilt remains in the guilty even if no one is aware of the fault. Puritanism was built on this condition. But both guilt (thanks in part to Freud and psychoanalysis) and shame (because of a trend to eschew it completely by autocratic government leaders) are on the way out as dominant motivators. How long can we continue to worry about people’s sexual behavior (#metoo etc.) when everybody apart from dried up saints can be found and declared guilty? One big question today is whether guilt and shame are now giving way to a new, prevalent form of unease, directed not specifically to self or other, but to the whole planetary community of people under the threat of climate change that affects everybody and for which everyone’s consumption habits bear responsibility.  The corresponding ill-ease is leading to  pervasive anxiety and latent stress.

Impact on consumerism (goods, services and energy)

One predictable outcome of the growing anxiety about climate change compounded by global crises in geopolitics, as well as the collective and individual precariousness may be that it generates a radical reversal of consumption habits, including the growing trends of  veganism, general health concerns, and questions about energy use and abuse. This could slow the acceleration of local and global economies to a standstill. So how will that affect energy production, consumption and waste? The so-called Thunberg generation may or may not have a major role to play in this economic and social transformation.. At any rate, major oil companies are already showing the way by, for example, forfeiting the prospect of drilling in the arctic and in Greenland, or exploring with a new vigor renewable and environment-friendly sources of energy.[2] The most urgent challenge is the need to transform the economy without causing irreparable damage. It is becoming obvious to many responsible industry leaders that focusing purely on economic growth by uncontrolled consumption is harming the whole system not only for the average consumer, but also for their own business interests. While governments are still talking about ‘austerity’ as if it were a temporary measure, a much more radical approach is needed in order for us to recover an equilibrium before it becomes permanently out of reach. What are the  criteria for such a new approach and how can climate mitigating measures be applied taking society’s essential needs into account? And importantly for the digital sector, how can ICT become a major player in this debate? Our collective goal should be to have a positive impact on global sustainable development through the accelerated application of technological solutions, business innovation and structural changes. 

Derrick de Kerckhove is former Director of the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology at the University of Toronto, where he is professor emeritus at the Department of French. He subsequently joined the Faculty of Sociology of the University Federico II in Naples from 2004 to 2014. Presently, scienti c director of the Rome based monthly Media Duemila, and of the Osservatorio TuttiMedia. he is author of more than a dozen books translated in over ten languages. A Visiting Professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Milan, he is also Research Director at the Interdisciplinary Internet Institute (IN3) at l’Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona. His fields of research include Technopsychology, Psychotechnology, Neuro-cultural research, Art and communication technologies, Media Theory, Collaborative Educative Software, and Connected Intelligence.

Maria Pia Rossignaud is Editor in Chief of the digital culture magazine Media Duemila. She is also Vice President of the Observatory TuttiMedia, a cultural association created in 1996, where companies in various sectors (publishing, advertising, television, telecommunications) sit together to imagine the future and propose useful solutions to all with respect to the problems related to the advent of new media. She has been coordinator of Digital Lab Training Coordinator @ eg, and is a former professor of Sapienza University and LUISS. She organizes meetings and conferences on subjects of current importance. The most recent: “Public Mind: construction of public opinion in the era of the algorithm (September 24th, Frederick II Naples); “Program the world”. (September 28 Prix Italia Milan); “Is there a past in our future? Information between Liberty / Rules / Post Truth and Lies “. (9 March FNSI Rome).