Ontology and Climate Change

By Bonner, Charles | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview
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Ontology and Climate Change


Bonner, Charles, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

The issue of global climate change has emerged in recent decades as a matter of great concern for contemporary humanity, or more precisely, what we are concerned about are the conditions of the Earth (physico-chemical and biological conditions) that will be "inherited" by future generations of our species. At the center of the climate change problematic is the observation of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, which have accumulated since the Industrial Revolution due to the burning of fossil fuels. This observation becomes troubling in conjunction with the hypothesis, formulated on the basis of complex mathematical models of the Earth's atmosphere, that these increased levels of carbon dioxide will lead to temperature increases and changes in patterns of precipitation sufficient to trigger broad changes in the Earth's biosphere. (We will consider various aspects of this hypothesis, including those projected changes that are already being empirically observed, in more detail below.) Our response to these changes should take the form of technological shifts and innovations, for example, exploiting different possible energy sources, improving efficiencies, and utilizing our current energy sources more cleanly (without producing carbon dioxide, that is.) The climate change problematic is thus conceptualized as a scientific, technological, and as this paper will emphasize, informational problematic.

Ontology, on the other hand, is a branch of philosophy. The word itself was coined in the seventeenth century on the basis of two ancient Greek words designating the area of thinking concerned with a general "theory of being." More specifically, the word refers to the logos or rational discourse concerned with being--concerned, that is, with "the ultimate nature of reality" or the fundamental layout of the world we inhabit. (I prefer the latter formulation, since the concept of ontology always includes an understanding of human existence as well as a general conception of being itself. In other words, every general theory about the nature of reality also inevitable includes, in a more or less explicit way, an anthropology: a theory about the "place" of human existence in the totality of the world.) Now, ontology, as the branch of philosophy concerned with being as such, has no obvious connection with the problematic of global climate change. Measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and predictions of the impacts of continued increase in these levels over the course of coming decades are not usually construed as problems concerned with questions of the ultimate nature of reality. In fact there is an "implicit ontology" taken for granted as part of the modern scientific worldview. Mathematical models and computer simulations that serve as the basis for our knowledge of climate change do not include explicit theories about the fundamental structure of the world we inhabit. And yet, ontological reflection, motivated by thinking through the climate change problematic, may serve to resituate or reconfigure this problematic in unexpected ways.

This paper will attempt to bring together these two very different areas of inquiry: the scientific formulation of the climate change problematic, and the ontological investigation ("the question of being," as Heidegger would say) that arises in a striking way--arises, as I will try to show, necessarily--along with this problematic. The relation between these two very different areas of inquiry can be indicated in a preliminary way by considering two possibilities: first, a general theory of being will help us to "situate" global climate change as an event or a development that emerges within our currently prevailing (scientific) understanding of reality. In order to approach the problematic, then, it would be necessary to question the implicit ontology, to render explicit the prevailing conception of being, of our predominant scientific and technological worldview.

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