Behind the stark issue of climate change — like the other challenges of our times — looms a concept essential to explore in Theory of Knowledge: shared knowledge. How does knowledge reach people? Through what process of sharing does the public gain knowledge that will affect their lives?  Two recent news reports highlight contrasting processes by which knowledge claims on climate change reach the public — with profoundly different implications for action.

The two reports I pick out are from science and from business/politics:

  • the first is the latest scientific consensus on climate from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  and
  • the second is an announcement that 10 of the world’s top public relations companies have publicly declared that “they will not represent clients that deny man-made climate change or seek to block emission-reducing regulations”.

The IPCC report is undeniably significant in summing up the current state of scientific knowledge, including strong warnings about the future. But is it possible, for the way knowledge is shared with the people whose lives are affected, that the story about the PR companies may be even more important?

The non-news: IPCC confirms the scientific consensus, updating it.

The draft report from the IPCC is scarcely news at all. It “seeks to tie together previous reports the panel has released over the last year and offers a stark assessment of the perilous future the planet and humanity face due to global warming and climate change.” The Associated Press quotes Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann in his reaction to the draft:

“The report tells us once again what we know with a greater degree of certainty: that climate change is real, it is caused by us, and it is already causing substantial damage to us and our environment. If there is one take home point of this report it is this: We have to act now.”

The IPCC report is a synthesis of what the international group of scientific experts have communicated already. They have followed the methodology of science to share their findings with each other, have reported their consensus to a world body, and are giving us knowledge that has urgent implications: that we have to act fast to mitigate the impact of climate change that is already upon us. But these implications are the very reason for the false “controversy” over climate change that has claimed so much media space.

Look closely at what Michael Mann is saying:

  1. fact: climate change is real and already damaging
  2. fact: it is caused by us
  3. implication: “We have to act now.”

The first two knowledge claims are scientific conclusions, justified on the basis of evidence. The third is not. It is ethical, political, economic….it is social, involving people and change. It is an imperative for action resisted by coal and oil companies, whose profits would be affected by regulation. In the case of climate change, the implications of the scientific conclusions have all along been the reason for industry denial of the science and their funding of the denial campaigns.

The real news: Many PR companies will no longer accept clients or campaigns that deny climate change.

And that is why I suggest that the second news story may actually be more important for the way knowledge on climate change is publicly shared. If Public Relations companies, recognizing the significance of IPCC reports, no longer accept to run campaigns denying climate change, then the public is much more likely to gain accurate information. “Public relations firms,” comment journalists with the Guardian, “have played a critical role over the years in framing the debate on climate change and its solutions – as well as the extensive disinformation campaigns launched to block those initiatives.”

In early August, the largest American PR company, Edelman, joined the original ten PR companies with the following strong statement:

“Edelman fully recognises the reality of, and science behind, climate change, and believes it represents one of the most important global challenges facing society, business and government today. To be clear, we do not accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change.”

The withdrawal of major PR companies from funded disinformation does not, unfortunately, solve the problem of increasing greenhouse gases. The IPCC report, as reported in the New York Times, found that efforts around the world to limit emissions are being “overwhelmed by construction of facilities like new coal-burning power plants that will lock in high emissions for decades.” Moreover, PR companies still remain who have not made any commitment to reject campaigns to block information or disseminate disinformation.

However, the rejection of disinformation campaigns by some of the largest firms has made a change in the social context for the fake “debate” over the science of climate change.

Knowledge questions

Some central points for Theory of Knowledge are well illustrated by these stories on climate science and its social context.  (See TOK course companion, “A Guide to Evaluating Knowledge Claims”, 219-220):

  • The concept of shared knowledge is no more than a starting point. About any controversy with conflicting knowledge claims, we might well ask: “What do we mean by ‘shared knowledge’? Who is doing the sharing, for what purpose, by what means, and with what implications for action if we accept the knowledge claims?”
  • Acknowledging differences in perspectives is likewise no more than a starting point, since not all perspectives have the grounds to be taken equally seriously in their knowledge claims. We might ask: “What assumptions, values, and selected information come with this perspective? What justifications of evidence are offered for this point of view? Is it reasonable to accept it?”
  • A methodology within an area of knowledge is a means of seeking the truth, communicating findings, and setting up the possibilities of replication and testing. About any controversy with conflicting knowledge claims, we might again ask: “What is the process by which these conclusions have been reached? What are the criteria for accepting conclusions? Is it reasonable to accept them ourselves?”

But this particular story – the story of climate change in our times – raises another truly important question of ethics, politics, and action: “Given that climate change is real and damaging, and that human beings are causing it, what should we do?” This is where the debate should centre – not on the long-established science of climate change but on the implications of knowledge for action. Some of these implications are spelled out in the video with which I conclude, with action forcefully urged:

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge Course Companion, 2013 edition. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Intergovernmental Panel on Cimate Change

Associated Press.

The Guardian.

The Guardian.

The New York Times.