You are here
Climate change and epistemic injustice

Climate change and epistemic injustice

“The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance” – Socrates

Whilst I don’t agree entirely with Socrates that these are the only good and evil in our world, I certainly agree with him in relation to the broad substance and force of both knowledge and ignorance within our society. I’ve recently become interested in knowledge and its importance in helping to secure social justice and awareness of climate change. The distributional and discriminatory injustices associated with knowledge are known as ‘epistemic injustices’. The word epistemic simply refers to knowledge or knowing. Whilst there has been much commentary around other fairness-related issues inherent to climate change, this seems to be a bit of an overlooked issue. I thought about this as I sat on the bare wooden floor of a stilted hut on the banks of the Mekong in a remote part of Cambodia.

I’m originally from Australia. We have one of the highest per capita rates of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and rank 15th out of 196 countries overall in terms of total emissions. In stark contrast, my hosts, indigenous Khmai, have some of the lowest emissions on the planet and are the 121st ranked country in terms of total emissions. The average Australian burns 61 times more CO2 than the average Cambodian, and as a whole, emits 87 times more than Cambodia. Despite this, Cambodians will be some of the hardest hit by the impacts of climate change, whilst in comparison, I will likely be ‘okay’ even though I have had a greater contribution to the creating the problem.

You might be surprised that despite scientific consensus regarding human activity as the predominant causal factor of climate change, more than half of my fellow Australians don’t believe that climate change is happening, or that humans are to blame. Come September, we might even have a climate-change denier as our Prime Minister, who has committed to abolishing Australia’s carbon price if elected. I have become increasingly disappointed by the attitudes and politics prevalent within my country in respect to climate change, especially because on top of being responsible for this problem in a big way, we may even hold the key to solving it, but continue to squander opportunities. Australia is being a laggard, when it could be a leader. People I meet have the perception that Australians are ‘progressive’, care deeply about their ‘natural wonders’, and give everybody a ‘fair go’. In our response to climate change, are we being ‘un-Australian’?

But you might be more shocked to discover that although more than 80% of Cambodians have heard of climate change, 67% do not link climate change to global greenhouse gas emissions, instead erroneously believing that deforestation within Cambodia is solely to blame.

Confronted with these realities, eye-to-eye with the climate change victims who will suffer the most, I felt sobered, and in some ways, quite uncomfortable as a guest in their village and the beneficiary of their generous hospitality.

It quickly became evident that there’s no direct translation for the term ‘climate change’ in Khmer (the language of Cambodia). It translates as ‘Kar PreProul Akas Theat’, or ‘weather changes’, because the words for ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ are very similar in Khmer (‘akas theat’ and ‘theat akas’). This is important because as we understand in English, weather and climate, although related, are not the same thing. I understand that Khmer is not the only language for which this is the case.

I wondered whether this missing nuance could partly explain why most of Cambodia’s citizens do not understand what is happening to them and who is to blame? Was this akin to Orwell’s ‘newspeak’? Perhaps it might be Whorfianism, the idea that a language influences the way a speaker thinks about their world, in action?

Or maybe the more powerful causal factor was the existing background injustice of an unfair distribution of information, education and knowledge?

Similarly, I questioned why more than half of the population of one of the countries most at fault were seemingly so ignorant of the consequences of their actions, and the harms and wrongs they are, and will be, responsible for causing to others?

What most concerns me though, is that this might not be merely a case of bad luck: we could potentially have what the philosopher Miranda Fricker, calls ‘hermeneutical injustice’, on our hands. The word ‘hermeneutic’ means interpretation. It comes under the umbrella of epistemic injustices, and occurs when people are unfairly prevented from accessing the conceptual resources required to make sense of their social experiences. They are the result of existing inequalities, such as the disparities in resources and education. A group is ‘hermeneutically marginalised’ when their hermeneutical participation with respect to significant areas of social experience is unequal to that of other groups, and that inequality redounds to this group’s disadvantage.

Fricker uses the example of women previously not understanding that under certain circumstances they were being ‘wronged’ before the concept of ‘sexual harassment’ was understood, developed and integrated into our culture. This knowledge has vital importance to us because as Fricker notes, the liberal ideal of freedom requires contestation, and contestation requires epistemic justice.

Can analogies be drawn between these examples, and what is happening in relation to climate change? Perhaps the answer to this question is not clear, because it cannot be answered until more people are become aware of the truth about the source of climate change… or in the case of some, stop denying it. We cannot continue to act as if how we’re currently responding to climate change is morally permissible. At best, we’re moving at a snail’s pace, despite an increasing urgency to act radically.  At worst, we may have already crossed a tipping point and have no option than to hand over a tragically impoverished future to posterity.

Looking back over history, you can see that this phenomenon, so entwined with the operation of social power, was prevalent during many of what are now considered our greatest moral failures: the domination of South Africans of colour under Apartheid, the silence and cooperation of the German public during Hitler’s regime, and the once-normality of slavery in the U.S. Whilst we continue to go down the current path of our emissions-fueled, resource-intensive lifestyles, imposing quality of life reductions on the already disadvantaged and yet to exist, one may possibly be correct to label this as a form of domination, oppression, racism, and marginalisation, albeit a subtler variety.

I believe what appears to be a void in our collective moral understanding and practices is currently one of the biggest barriers to genuine and effective action on climate change.

Whilst it would be naive to think that the provision of more information will be the only thing to help us steer a more ethical course, information containing the truth could be one the most important resources for Cambodians and Australians alike. As one Cambodian council leader noted: “I do not know what resources I need because I do not understand about [climate change]. I think the best [resource] is knowledge.”

This is a cross post from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research website, reproduced with permission from the author.

The following two tabs change content below.

Erin Nash

Erin is a Research Assistant to Professor Ian Gough at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a consultant researcher for the International Institute for Environment and Development. She has a ten years of experience in sustainable development and holds a Bachelor of Environmental Science (Hons) and a Masters in Philosophy and Public Policy from the LSE. She is particularly interested the ethical dimensions of climate change and sustainable development. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinJNash

Related posts