3.4.4 Knowledge politics

Knowledge co-production and mobilisation at the science-policy interface is never a-political, but shaped by power relations, social contexts, existing political interests, and values. Political interests often affect what kind of knowledge is produced, for example through public research funding, explicit invitations for reports (such as the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5ºC) or scientific advice, as do scientists’ perceptions of what is useful information to achieve political objectives – i.e. what is believed to be ‘policy relevant’ (van Beek et al., 2022). Other factors within the domain of science also play a role, as well as institutional co-production dynamics (e.g. the process for adopting an IPCC summary for policymakers or issuing a proposal for an IPCC special report), and knowledge mobilisation by political actors (e.g. political leaders speaking at COP sessions referring to a climate tipping process).

We can expect varying knowledge and meanings related to tipping points to emerge in different political and social contexts, and actors with competing political interests to offer competing knowledge claims (for example, using uncertainty regarding a tipping threshold value to argue for and against rapid prevention measures). Depending on their interests, and those of their constituencies, political actors are likely to develop different risk perceptions regarding ESTPs, assign varying levels of importance to them, and develop different preferences for solutions. Actors can and often do use scientific information strategically to further their pre-existing political interests and political positions (Grundmann, 2007), sometimes widening existing cleavages (Sarewitz, 2004) and reinforcing contestations. The ‘same’ scientific information can be used by different actors to justify very different positions (Schenuit, 2023). This can be particularly challenging for cascading shocks (Galaz et al., 2011). For example, political representatives of small island states assessing the importance of cryosphere tipping processes will likely consider the prospect of nonlinear ice sheet loss to reinforce their existing beliefs about the severe risks of sea level rise, and will use the science of tipping points to highlight island states’ vulnerability and strengthen their arguments for urgent international mitigation action. At the same time, actors reluctant to engage in mitigation or curtailment of the fossil fuel industry might use tipping point science, especially related to nonlinearity and irreversibility, to build a case for their desired form of climate intervention (geoengineering), to the extent of arguing that this is the only viable option for averting catastrophe.

Scientific knowledge is only one source of input into meaning-making processes. One of the most important – politically relevant – aspects of meaning making at this point is the formation of national and sectoral interests related to ESTPs (see 3.1.4). Interest formation is tied to multiple factors, including the actor’s identity and values (Wendt, 1992; Finnemore, 1996), institutional mandate or power positions.

Related to the strategic mobilisation of knowledge about tipping points, we must also be aware of the risk of the strategic denial of scientific knowledge. The strategic organisation of science denial involves orchestrated efforts by groups or individuals to cast doubt on established scientific consensus, often by cherry-picking data, manufacturing controversies, promoting false experts, propagating conspiracy theories, manipulating media coverage, funding questionable research, appealing to personal beliefs, attacking scientists, leveraging political influence and exploiting cognitive biases (Cook, 2020a; Dunlap and Brulle, 2020; Cook, 2020a). These tactics aim to create the appearance of uncertainty and debate around scientific issues, potentially serving the agendas or interests of those behind the denial efforts (Schmid and Betsch, 2019; Hornsey and Lewandowsky, 2022; Björnberg et al., 2017), for example fossil fuel companies, elected officials from fossil-fuel producing regions, or conservative think tanks in the US (Ekberg et al., 2022). Research indicates that engaging with rather than ignoring such dynamics is the most promising strategy for dealing with them (Cook, Lewandowsky, and Ecker, 2017; van der Linden et al., 2017; Lewandowsky and van der Linden, 2021; Compton et al., 2021). 

While knowledge politics is an unavoidable component of environmental governance, it is important to make power relations explicit and transparent “to allow for pluralism, create scope to highlight differences, and enable the contestation of interests, views, and knowledge claims” (Matuk et al., 2020; Turnhout et al. 2020, 21).

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