As part of the Rise for Climate rally last Saturday, thousands of activists gathered in over 100 countries for a march. Their objective: to challenge politicians to take radical decisions. This global event helped to raise awareness just before COP24 which will take place in Katowice, Poland, in three months time. In France, on the eve of the event, a collective of 700 scientists marked the occasion by addressing an opinion piece in the newspaper Libération to political decision-makers to encourage them to “move from calls to action to actual action to finally progress towards a carbon-free society. Especially now that the solutions are available.”
A growing level of commitment
As far as we know, there have been no other actions like this across Europe and French scientists have distinguished themselves from the rest of their European colleagues by this initiative.
This kind of activism around scientific causes seems to be becoming more and more common in France. For example, recently over 124 doctors took a public stand against alternative medicines, and homeopathy in particular in the newspaper Le Figaro. As we also discussed some time ago, in an editorial entitled French Scientists in revolt, groups of researchers and academics are organising to challenge politicians and get messages across to them, such as we need to get back to a scientific culture or let’s not give up on science. Undeniably the level of political commitment amongst the scientific community is increasing in France. So the question is: if there is no problem that science cannot crack, why are scientists increasingly choosing political engagement? Does this not indicate there is a fundamental ideological debate to be had?
With an issue like the climate, for example, we note that the primary demand of the 700-strong group of scientists is not to obtain “more resources to improve research and technological development”, but to call for a radical change in society. They want politicians to do more to ” initiate a revolution in how we go about development, our collective relationship to energy and natural resources, consumption, transport, housing, leisure, etc.” It is clear that this demand proposes a political vision by setting out a social model. Of course, they add a list of “available solutions” (“reduction of energy consumption, use of low-carbon energies, better building insulation, redesigned transport options avoiding combustion engines, piggybacking…”) but we note that these solutions come after the political call to action.
Their main objective is for the state to legislate for the imposition of a model: “We recognise the role of other players, including business and civil society, but it is up to governments and parliaments to put in place the conditions – legislative, regulatory, institutional, budgetary and fiscal – for a transition to a carbon-free society. ”
So here we have a group of scientists humbly handing the keys to humanity’s destiny to politicians, essentially telling them “We have taken stock of the cataclysm, we have a list of solutions to respond to it, but it is up to you to change society first”. However, is it not somewhat risky to allow political decision-makers to believe they need to take the initiative? Is there not a risk that the scientific approach, in which constant questioning is a prerequisite, will stand down when faced with ideology?
The recent resignation of the French Minister for the Environment, Nicolas Hulot, could help us to work through this question. This is a politician who gave up his position because “he no longer wanted to lie to himself” in failing to impose the model of society he believed in. Some commentators saw his resignation as an opportunity for science to regain the upper hand over ideology.
According to Jacques Delpla, the resigning minister has done nothing towards climate R&D, on the contrary favouring “degrowth”, and distrust towards science and progress. For this economist, “scientists at MIT, Stanford or Berkeley, industrialists like Elon Musk (Tesla) or Google will do much more for the climate than an ecologist who is sceptical about progress, like Nicolas Hulot.”
Laurent Alexandre believes it is time to say no to apocalyptic ecologists: “There are two philosophical currents confronting each other: the pessimistic collapsologists living with a constant expectation of the apocalypse and the optimistic transhumanists who are preparing for the future. Collapseologists are convinced that the shortage of raw materials and energy will lead to the end of our civilisation. The theorists of this ecological collapse, such as the Movement for the Voluntary Extinction of Humanity, even propose that we stop making babies in order to disappear from the planet to leave it to untouched Nature. ”
Trust in the Enlightenment
As we have seen, while it may be helpful for scientists to get involved in politics, it does however seem necessary that they should not give in to political ideologies and should continue to stand by the critical method that has been so crucial to the reputation of science, and which has a long successful history. In this case, in an area as complex as the climate, science and technological progress will be needed more than ever.
As we stressed in our review of “Enlightenment now” Steven Pinker’s latest book, confidence in progress is essential and should not yield in any way to the ideology of a “degrowth”; all the more so as all the data confirms the success of Enlightenment philosophy and its vision of the world over the last two centuries. Wouldn’t it be a shame to stop mid-success and hand over the keys to our future to decision-makers who appear to have different agendas?
 It should be noted, in addition, that a few days before, France had also been in the spotlight with another opinion piece, this time in Le Monde, signed by more than 200 international artists – though predominantly French – who declared that “any political movement not making the fight against this cataclysm its concrete, overt and actioned priority will no longer be credible.“