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“We Have Seen It with Our Own Eyes”: Why We Disagree about Climate Change Visibility

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  • 1 Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Anthropology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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Abstract

Can the phenomenon called “global climate change” be witnessed firsthand with the naked senses? The question provokes sharply divergent answers from different individuals and ideational communities. Physical scientists and experimental psychologists tend to regard climate change as inherently undetectable to the lay observer, while others, such as anthropologists, indigenous advocates, and environmentally inclined Western citizens, often claim that the phenomenon is not only visible in principle but is indeed already being seen. A third understanding of the visibility of climate change is held by some scholars who portray climate change as invisible at the outset but capable of being made visible via communication tactics such as the miner’s canary. This paper queries the motivations for and consequences of these divergent answers to a deceptively simple question, ultimately suggesting that the dispute between climate change “visibilism” and “invisibilism” is not scientific so much as political, being a proxy war for a larger debate on scientific versus lay knowledge and the role of expertise in democratic society.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Peter Rudiak-Gould, Department of Anthropology, McGill University, Rm. 718, Leacock Bldg., 855 Sherbrooke St. W., Montreal, QC H3A 2T7, Canada. E-mail: peterrg@gmail.com

This article is included in the Ways of Knowing special collection.

Abstract

Can the phenomenon called “global climate change” be witnessed firsthand with the naked senses? The question provokes sharply divergent answers from different individuals and ideational communities. Physical scientists and experimental psychologists tend to regard climate change as inherently undetectable to the lay observer, while others, such as anthropologists, indigenous advocates, and environmentally inclined Western citizens, often claim that the phenomenon is not only visible in principle but is indeed already being seen. A third understanding of the visibility of climate change is held by some scholars who portray climate change as invisible at the outset but capable of being made visible via communication tactics such as the miner’s canary. This paper queries the motivations for and consequences of these divergent answers to a deceptively simple question, ultimately suggesting that the dispute between climate change “visibilism” and “invisibilism” is not scientific so much as political, being a proxy war for a larger debate on scientific versus lay knowledge and the role of expertise in democratic society.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Peter Rudiak-Gould, Department of Anthropology, McGill University, Rm. 718, Leacock Bldg., 855 Sherbrooke St. W., Montreal, QC H3A 2T7, Canada. E-mail: peterrg@gmail.com

This article is included in the Ways of Knowing special collection.

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