Written by Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway who are both history of science professors at Harvard and the California Institute of Technology respectively, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (2014) is not a dystopian novel; it is an essay. It is an essay divided into three parts, which tells the ominous tale of potential future events in the world that are the result of very real climate change and the willful ignorance of it. The essay is written from the perspective of a future historian living in the Second People’s Republic of China and recounts the events of the Period of the Penumbra (1988-2093), also known as the collapse of western civilization.
The essay is not dystopian fiction because it does not bear any of the hallmarks of dystopian literature. A dystopia by definition is an imagined universe in which oppressive societal control and the illusion of a perfect society are maintained through corporate, bureaucratic, technological, moral, or totalitarian control. Through exaggerated, worse-case scenarios, dystopian novels make criticisms about current trends, societal norms, and/or political systems. While the essay is not dystopian fiction, it does nestle neatly alongside the genre. Oreskes and Conway’s, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future functions similarly to dystopian fiction in that it serves as a cautionary tale for its readers, but it does not set out to define an imaginary society; rather, it looks back on the society we live in now and the potential disasters that we are currently facing.
Oreskes and Conway refer to many aspects of contemporary society in their essay that are related to or directly impact climate change. One aspect they discuss and define as being a driver of climate change and climate change denial is the carbon-combustion complex. The carbon-combustion complex, sometimes referred to as the carbon-civilization combustion complex, is “the interlinked fossil fuel extraction, refinement, and combustion industries, financiers, and government ‘regulatory’ agencies that enabled and defended destabilization of the world’s climate in the name of employment, growth, and prosperity.” The carbon-combustion complex works similarly to the military-industrial complex in that it works for the benefit of those involved rather than for the benefit of all as a national or global whole.
Historically, industry and science have been viewed as companions; the advancements of the later driving the evolution of the former. However, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the symbiotic relationship between industry and science became strained as scientific evidence mounted to show that the practices of the carbon-combustion complex were increasing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, causing man-made global warming. Through global intergovernmental conventions (IPCC in 1988 and UNFCCC in 1992), environmental scientists and other leading scientists were able to bring the severity and eminent threat of global climate change to the global stage. This threatened the carbon-combustion complex because these scientists proposed the reduction and eventual elimination of carbon-based fossil fuels as an energy resource. Oreskes and Conway state that “…when environmental science showed that government action was needed to protect citizens and the natural environment from unintended harms, the carbon-combustion complex began to treat science as an enemy to be fought by whatever means necessary.” The power and financial fortitude of the carbon-combustion complex facilitated its ability to discredit and shame scientists in the early 1990s, leading to the phenomena of climate change denial.
The scientific fields associated with the study of climate change also worked against themselves. Scientists are held to stringent guidelines that have been formulated and reinforced through decades and centuries of scientific inquiry. These guidelines include such things as the scientific method and guidelines on what constitutes a valid experiment. Oreskes and Conway chose to focus on the 95% confidence level common to most scientific research to explain how scientists themselves inadvertently worked towards climate change denial.
A confidence level is a fancy way of stating the degree to which scientists or statisticians believe in the truth of their statements. Conventional wisdom holds that when lives matter, higher confidence levels should be employed to ensure that lives are not put at risk. This is counterintuitive when contemplating such things as climate change because society as a whole can only benefit from the changes that would be implemented to prevent climate change, not be harmed by them. The downfall of the 95% confidence level is the corresponding 5% significance level. When evaluating significance, you must accept the status quo if your significance is not within that 5%. That is a very small window and a lot of important research was rejected as being untrue because it failed to fit into that small window.
The 95% confidence interval/level that is pervasive in contemporary science and statistics is an arbitrary construct similar to social constructs that have recently been accepted as arbitrary such as gender and race. There is no hard rule that demands a 95% confidence level for any scientific inquiry and contemporary statistics software packages prove this in allowing the user to choose their own confidence level (although 85, 95, and 99 are the most common).
Ultimately, because there is no rule that demands such a high confidence level, there is reason to consider and accept the likelihood of events with lower confidence levels. The essay rightfully claims that if we, as a society and a scientific collective, set aside this arbitrary ‘necessity’ for proof of existence, we could more firmly have believed and believe in climate change and therefore work to prevent it.