The Climate Crisis: An Act of Epistemic Injustice?

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Talking about the weather is often the last resort for immigrants like me to get painfully reserved Swedes to start chatting. In this age of climate crisis, possibly being the most climate-conscious people in the world, Swedes love to talk about the vagaries of the weather: how a cold snap in late spring hampered wine production in southern Sweden, how dry summer heat caused forest blazes in central Sweden and forced people to flee their homes, how a lack of snow ruined their Christmas celebrations. With my Bangladeshi compatriots, the weather-talk serves a very different purpose. You often broach the subject in the hope of thwarting these overtly friendly people from exploring every nook and cranny of your private life.

I cannot help but notice the remarkable differences in views about the climate crisis between these two nationalities. Swedes offer well-informed analyses of the situation. They point out their own culpability and that of the worst polluting nations and look for creative solutions. Bangladeshis, however, start by blaming themselves. They complain about the rapid and unplanned urbanisation process, vehicle exhaust pollution, and deforestation — especially the one resulting from cutting down coastal forests to accommodate the Rohingya refugees. There is only a tangential reference, if any, to the responsibility of the worst polluting nations in bringing about the crisis. Such a response seems baffling when one takes account of the fact that Bangladesh is currently responsible for only 0.21 per cent of the global carbon dioxide emissions.[1] What makes many ordinary Bangladeshis blame themselves for a crisis they played only a minor role in engendering? The clues, I believe, can be found in the idea of epistemic injustice.

In her seminal work, Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker delineates two kinds of epistemic injustice: testimonial injustice and hermeneutic injustice. In both cases, an individual is done wrong “specifically in their capacity as a knower”.[2] Testimonial injustice “occurs when prejudice on the part of the hearer leads to the speaker receiving less credibility than he or she deserves”.[3] If, for example, a speaker is denied credibility or accorded less credibility to their statement based on an irrelevant ground — such as their accent, race, gender, or social background — they face an unfair disadvantage in contrast with those speakers and knowers who are not subject to such prejudice.[4] The US judicial system often accords less credibility to African-American testimonies because of racial prejudices harboured by the jury. While testimonial injustice occurs during the communicative activity, hermeneutic injustice occurs “at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.”[5] Fricker puts forth two examples of hermeneutic injustice: one of a woman who suffers from sexual harassment prior to the time this critical concept was developed, rendering her incapable of comprehending her own experiences and communicating them intelligibly to others[6]; the other of a homosexual man failing to make sense of and explain his sexual orientation in favourable terms in a period when homosexuality was deemed as a sickness.[7]

Morten Byskov identifies two conditions in Fricker’s work that must be met to claim any injustice is epistemic in nature: the disadvantage condition and the prejudice condition. The former is connected to hermeneutic injustice and the latter to testimonial injustice.[8] Often the experiences of a disadvantaged group — women, religious minorities, sexual minorities — are not incorporated into the collective of social experiences — denying these communities to make sense of and effectively communicate their experiences and, consequently, perpetuating the existing discriminatory status quo. Explicit and implicit prejudices, on the other hand, make the experiences that these disadvantaged groups manage to communicate to the dominant groups seem less credible in the eyes of the latter.

When it comes to climate change-induced environmental damages, disadvantaged groups worldwide face the brunt: from the Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic region to the coastal communities in South Asia. Historically, these groups have faced marginalisation and colonial exploitation; they have been denied the opportunity to share their experiences by the gatekeepers of collective interpretive resources; long-held prejudices have made their testimonies less credible. Recall that scientists in the last century already rang warning bells about climate change. However,  only when major urban metropolises in the global North started experiencing the adverse effects of climate change did the experiences of vulnerable communities suddenly find a place in the global collective social experiences; their testimonies now sound more credible. The destructions wrought by Hurricane Sandy in North America had suddenly made the West act like an opsimath. All of a sudden, it has become au courant of the proliferation of cyclones in the Bay of Bengal.[9]

Could epistemic injustice be thought of as a variety of distributive injustice? David Coady, contrary to Fricker, believes that both types of epistemic injustice — testimonial and hermeneutic — are forms of distributive injustice. Credibility is not only a finite good but it is often in short supply, and there is competition for it.[10] Moreover, like any other distributive good, privileged groups are usually assigned high credibility at the expense of marginalised groups who are given low credibility.[11] The success of urban, highly-educated, white, middle-class climate activists from the global North — Greta Thunberg, the Extinction Rebellion et al. — in winning public solidarity for the cause of protecting the climate should be understood against this background.

This is not to claim that these climate activists do not deserve the credibility they receive but to argue that every time we wait for privileged groups to raise their concerns about a global crisis, this means that irreparable damages have already been done to less-privileged and hermeneutically disadvantaged communities whose clarion call for urgent action have fallen to deaf ears for years. This is also not to claim that climate activists from the global North never face epistemic injustice. The stakeholder condition developed by Byskov maintains that when a stakeholder is unjustifiably discriminated against as a knower, an epistemic injustice takes place.[12] When Greta Thunberg — a representative of a stakeholder young generation that faces an uncertain future due to the worsening climate crisis — is denied credibility, supposedly because of her young age, her gender, and her having Asperger’s syndrome, an epistemic injustice is committed against her and her generation.

Hermeneutic injustice could take the shape of distributive injustice when hermeneutic power — the ability to assign words and phrases to one’s own social experiences — is unjustly distributed.[13] Hermeneutic power, a finite resource like credibility, is often disproportionately allocated to the privileged sections of society. On the international stage, it is to the most affluent nations. Epistemic injustice thus is best understood in relational terms: someone is disadvantaged in relation to their counterparts.[14] Recall that hermeneutic injustice takes place before testimonial injustice. The lack of opportunities to exercise hermeneutic power makes marginalised communities depend on the interpretations about themselves created by dominant groups’ exercise of hermeneutic power. Thus it doesn’t matter whether Henry Kissinger really remarked that Bangladesh is ‘a bottomless basket case’ so long as this statement is part of the collective sources of interpretation. Bangladesh’s lack of hermeneutic power on the international stage has rendered ordinary Bangladeshis dependent on the interpretations about themselves by those who enjoy an undue advantage in harnessing hermeneutic power.

That many Bangladeshis blame themselves for the climate crisis should be understood against this backdrop. When heavy rainfall inundates London and New York boroughs, those affected readily put the blame on climate change. When the same happens in Dhaka, a city prone to flash flooding, people blame the city’s poor drainage system. The sporadic protests that break out are about the negligence of the authorities in fixing the system and not about the climate crisis. Very few inhabitants of Dhaka possess the hermeneutic power to make the connection with climate change, with America’s automobile industry, with China’s coal industry. Aren’t international donor agencies continuously urging Bangladesh to modernise itself by emulating the United States and China? Then how could Bangladesh afford to criticise its role models? After all, flash flooding is expected in Bangladesh. What else could one expect when the monsoon weather takes over? If the temperature has increased, so have food prices. When you are disadvantaged in virtually every aspect of your life, you don’t always notice, cannot afford to notice, when one aspect gets slightly worse. You have more pressing issues at hand than to complain about the weather. Meanwhile, like the fabled boiling frog, Dhaka residents, on a daily basis, get exposed to a rising urban heat that is becoming increasingly deadly.[15]

Those Dhaka denizens who struggle to make ends meet, who work outdoors in dangerous working conditions, find it challenging to explain their quotidian struggles to those who live in the city’s skyscrapers, who can afford to install air conditioning in their homes. If their affluent compatriots give short shrift to their testimonies, what are the chances that the developed countries would heed to their clarion call? Hasn’t the Bangladesh government for years urged the worst-polluting nations to act? Had Bangladesh’s testimony any real value for her interlocutors, we would not be in this mess in the first place. However, this doesn’t imply that all the environmental challenges Bangladesh faces are foreign in origin. Pollutants emitted by the mega-development projects, vehicles that lack fitness, and brick kilns surrounding the city have made Dhaka the second most polluted city globally.[16] Then again, even if it comes at the expense of environmental destruction, what alternative does the country have to shake off the stigma of ‘a bottomless basket case’ other than sporting Dhaka’s flyovers, metro rail, and skyscrapers to the wider world? International observers often laud Bangladesh for its economic progress in the last two decades. But rarely do they turn their gaze upon the rotten underbelly of this economic progress — environmental degradation.

Kristie Dotson investigates the processes that unwarrantedly exclude knowers from contributing to epistemic systems, and for each kind of exclusion, what degree of change to the system is required for redressing the injustice committed.[17] A first-order epistemic exclusion “results from the incompetent functioning of some aspect of shared resources with respect to some goal or value”.[18] In other words, first-order exclusions — testimonial injustice, for example — do not signal anything wrong with the system, and rectifying the exclusion requires consistent applications of the system’s rules to ensure that knowers are not unfairly excluded from participating because of any prejudices about them.[19] Second-order epistemic exclusions imply that the system is at fault somehow, and ensuring justice requires more than equal participation.[20] Hermeneutic injustice serves as an example of second-order exclusions, and rectifying it would require “an adjustment or addition to epistemic resources for proper testimonial uptake.”[21] A third-order epistemic exclusion takes place when the epistemological systems themselves preserve and legitimise inadequate epistemic resources.[22] Redressing the injustices that this exclusion creates requires thinking about what the current epistemic system doesn’t allow us to think — thus unmasking the system’s inadequacy to perform particular epistemic tasks.[23]

Addressing the climate crisis, I believe, will require us to think about what the current epistemic order doesn’t allow us to think. Not denying credibility to the testimonies of marginalised communities based on prejudices, ensuring their equal participation in creating epistemic resources will help us only in the short term. Indeed, focusing too much on rectifying the first and second-order epistemic exclusions risks another type of epistemic injustice: epistemic exploitation. When privileged groups compel marginalised groups to educate them about the nature of the oppression from which the former benefit, it creates double-binds for the latter — one either has to engage in tiresome and fruitless epistemic labour to prove that their experiences exist or risk giving the impression that these experiences are false. [24]Initiating a third-order change will require us to go beyond the rhetoric of climate change adaption. We will need to question the dominant system of thought that frames the relationship between humanity and nature in hierarchical terms, where the sole purpose of the latter is to be exploited by the former. We will have to challenge the global neoliberal epistemic order that blames the whole of humanity for climate change while exonerating the most guilty. We will need to rethink the epistemic norms that decide what it means to be developed and civilised and, most importantly, to be human.

 

 

Notes:

[1] ‘CO2 Emissions by Country – Worldometer’

[2] Fricker (2009), p.1

[3] ,p. 154

[4]  Byskov (2021), p.117

[5] Fricker (2009), p. 5

[6] , p.6

[7] , p.164

[8] Byskov (2021), p.119

[9]  Amrith (2013)

[10] Coady (2017), p.62

[11] , p. 63

[12] Byskov (2021), p. 123

[13] Coady (2017), p.66.

[14] Byskov (2021), p.119

[15] Bryant (2021)

[16] The Financial Express (2021)

[17]  Dotson (2014)

[18] , p. 123

[19]  Pohlhaus Jr. (2017), p.20

[20] Dotson (2014), p.127

[21] Pohlhaus Jr. (2017), p.20

[22] Dotson (2014), p.131

[23] Pohlhaus Jr. (2017), p.20

[24] Berenstain (2016)

 

References:

Amrith, Sunil S. ‘Opinion | The Bay of Bengal, in Peril From Climate Change’. The New York Times, October 2013, sec. Opinion. www.nytimes.com/2013/10/14/opinion/the-bay-of-bengal-in-peril-from-climate-change.html.

Berenstain, Nora. ‘Epistemic Exploitation’. Ergo, an Open Access Journal of Philosophy 3 (2016). doi.org/10.3998/ergo.12405314.0003.022.

Bryant, Miranda. ‘Nearly 25% of World Population Exposed to Deadly City Heat’. The Guardian, October 2021, sec. World news. www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/04/nearly-25-of-world-population-exposed-to-deadly-city-heat.

Byskov, Morten Fibieger. ‘What Makes Epistemic Injustice an “Injustice”?’ Journal of Social Philosophy 52, no. 1 (2021): 114–131. doi.org/10.1111/josp.12348.

‘CO2 Emissions by Country – Worldometer’. Accessed 18 October 2021. www.worldometers.info/co2-emissions/co2-emissions-by-country/.

Coady, David. ‘Epistemic Injustice as Distributive Injustice’. In The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, edited by Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus Jr, 1st edition. (London ; New York: Routledge, 2017).

Dotson, Kristie. ‘Conceptualising Epistemic Oppression’. Social Epistemology 28, no. 2 (April 2014): 115–138. doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2013.782585.

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. 1st edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Pohlhaus Jr., Gaile. ‘Varieties of Epistemic Injustice’. In The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, edited by Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus Jr, 1st edition. (London ; New York: Routledge, 2017).

The Financial Express. ‘Dhaka World’s Second Most Polluted City’. The Financial Express, October 2021. thefinancialexpress.com.bd/national/dhaka-worlds-second-most-polluted-city-1634967635.

 

Image: Christine Rose Curry / Internet

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