Q&A with Times of India on IPCC Special Report on Global Warming at 1.5 deg C

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(The version appearing in print in the Times of India of 22nd Oct., 2018 is an edited down version of this full text from the interview by Sugandha Indulkar of TOI).

What, for you, were the most significant changes between the latest IPCC report on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade, and the earlier reports?

The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming at 1.5 degrees, to give it its official title, is particularly noteworthy because it was in response to a specific request from the Parties to the Paris agreement. For the first time in the Paris agreement the limit of 1.5 degrees centigrade of global warming above pre-industrial levels was mentioned as a goal that countries should strive to achieve. Hence a special report from the IPCC was called for.  Subsequently, in designing the outline of the report, it was agreed that it would look at the methods of achieving these goals; involving, mitigation options and consequences of adaptation even to 1.5 degrees of warming. It would also examine the differences between mitigation and adaptation for a 1.5 deg and 2 deg target for limiting global temperature rise, while keeping up the goal of sustainable development. So in this respect, the report was significantly different.

With respect to specific details,  the report makes it very clear that the difficulty of reaching the 2 deg target  was less steep compared to achieving the 1.5 deg  target. At the current rate of emissions, of about 42 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, the cumulative emissions permitted for the 1.5 deg target would be reached very quickly — between 10 to 30 years from now on. For the first time, the report introduces a widespread role for negative emissions arising especially through methods of removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Some of these methods have been field tested on a limited scale, but by and large the scale on which they are required for a 1.5 deg limit are significantly very difficult, some would say impossible, to achieve.

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Why Science and Reason belong to the Left.

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Talk delivered at EMS Smrithy 2018, Thrissur. Dedicated to the memory of comrades Dutt Mash and Murali Mash.

Abstract:

This note argues that genuine radical politics has an instinctive affinity to science and reason, whereas right-wing ideologies, especially those anchored in religious fundamentalism or varieties of obscurantism are fundamentally threatened by them. It points out that this requires some care in our view of what is meant by science and reason, going beyond mere empiricism or instrumental views of reason. We point out the significance of the bourgeois revolutions of Europe and the Enlightenment in the advance of a critical attitude to religion and the displacement of religion from its predominant position of an earlier era. The note specifically underlines the importance of the work of Marx and Engels in making science and reason intrinsic to being Left by establishing the foundations of a thorough-going scientific understanding of societies, and particularly through their scientific analysis of capitalism and its system of exploitation. We also argue that the crux of why science and reason belong to the Left lies in the transformative nature of the science of society that Marx and Engels developed, a science that was as much a science of social transformation as a science of society.

The note also discusses some of the challenges to science and reason in the contemporary period. It also, in particular, discusses briefly the recourse to anti-science and anti-rational views current among many variants of environmentalism and environmental thought.

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The title that was originally intended for this talk was “Why science and reason threaten Right-wing ideologies.” On reflection though one felt the need to change it, partly because of a certain confusion and ambiguity that has come to attend, in recent times, the answer to the “dual” question, posed in the current version of the title. Even among those who would agree that right-wing ideologies are threatened by science and reason, and the evidence that they are has never been more stark in some respects, there are some who hesitate to stand behind the assertion that science and reason belong to the Left. To put it more bluntly, there is a marked reluctance among some on the Left to take ownership, as it were, of science and reason. Hence it appears necessary to address both questions if we are indeed to do justice to the original one.

Under the broad rubric of the Right in politics, one may of course identify a wide range of political formations and their ideologies, with fascism and extreme religious fundamentalism at one extreme, and including various shades of authoritarian rule that deny or restrict democratic rights to a significant degree, or formations that promote various kinds of majoritarianism, directed at different minorities depending on the context. In the particular context of India, one should note also the close connection between caste oppression and caste discrimination and the religious mind-set associated with most variants of Hinduism. In a more general sense, the term Right has been used for any reference to political formations that seek to preserve the status quo or are opposed to social and economic reform. Historically, this has encompassed those that sought to deny the active entry and participation of the working people in politics, the preservation of the hold of religion on various aspects of personal and social life, the denial of voting rights to women, regular encouragement to socially exclusionary policies – the list is virtually endless.

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Marx on Science

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It is a remarkable fact that at Marx’s funeral, his life-long friend and comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels chose to eulogise his friend’s commitment to revolution in terms of his passion for science. Engels noted, “Science was for Marx a historically dynamic, revolutionary force. However great the joy with which he welcomed a new discovery in some theoretical science whose practical application perhaps it was as yet quite impossible to envisage, he experienced quite another kind of joy when the discovery involved immediate revolutionary changes in industry, and in historical development in general. For example, he followed closely the development of the discoveries made in the field of electricity and recently those of Marcel Deprez.” But to note only this part of Engels’ speech, would be to limit Marx’s vision of science.

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Promises to Keep: Science and Scientific Temper in India

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(To appear as a contribution to an edited volume — detailed reference will be provided when ready for publication)

Two political projects have characterised the India of the last two and a half decades. The first is the advance of Hindutva, India’s own particular brand of religious majoritarianism, with elements of fundamentalism and obscurantism, linked to a revanchist view of the origins of the Indian state. The second is the neo-liberal turn in the economic policy of the Indian state, often described more benignly as economic reform. Both emerged on the national stage in rather rapid fashion in the early 90s, strikingly similar in their common charactertistic of a radical departure from the ideals that in the previous nearly half a century were taken for granted as underpinning the idea of India. Even after almost two decades and a half since their emergence as significant features of national life, both appear to be projects that are still underway, especially in the view of their most active proponents, who consider that their gains have not yet been consolidated in stable form. Despite the apparently irreversible changes that have been made to the economy and economic policy-making in the country by so-called “reform”, the constant clamour for further advance still continues. As for the proponents of Hindutva, in view of their agenda of rewriting the entire ideological basis of contemporary India in the pursuit of their majoritarian vision of the future, it is evident that they must constantly seek new avenues and arenas of confrontation with the secular, pluralistic and inclusive trends in Indian society.

To those who have viewed the emergence of these projects with concern and even alarm, both appear to have indeed made significant advances, giving rise to the danger of a dual polarization of Indian society. Economic reform on the one hand, can be argued to have significantly contributed to widening inequality in society, with persistent large-scale deprivation coexisting with the creation of a relatively narrow stratum of beneficiaries, even within whose ranks, apart from a section of the super-rich, the increase in incomes is accompanied by greater insecurity. On the other hand, the Hindutva project threatens a long-term polarization along religious divides, while also intensifying divisions along the fault lines of caste, setting aside even the modest gains obtained over the decades towards the making of a democratic and inclusive economic, social and political order.

Both these projects strike at other core elements of what one may call a “national” vision that for a few decades after independence was taken for granted. Perhaps their most chilling effect has been on the building of science and scientific temper, arguably among the most positive aspects of the perspective that characterised India’s path of development for the first few decades after independence. This is not to suggest that science or scientific temper in India prior to the nineties was not beset with many difficulties. But it was a period when, it could be argued, there was increasing clarity on what needed to be done to overcome these and some hope that the configuration of social and political forces required for realizing these goals could eventually be successfully mobilized. One of the positive features that gave hope for such a mobilization was the increasing realization, though often not well or fully articulated, of the close connection between the actual practice of science with the larger social and economic conditions that made for a scientific temper.

But post the nineties, not only do the prospects for such a mobilization appear to have retreated, but a variety of new challenges have risen from new and unexpected quarters. In part, due to these challenges, the setbacks to science in this country due to the two-pronged attack from both reform and Hindutva have not received their due consideration. These new challenges to be more precise derailed in particular the emerging effort at understanding the relationship between science and the social, economic and political conditions of its advance.

It is the contention of this note that science and scientific temper in India are on the threshold of a crisis and that they face a situation that is unparalleled in its seriousness. In elaborating and critically understanding the origins of this crisis, we will do so in an impressionistic account, based in part on the author’s own personal experience and learnings from his involvement with science and science movements in the country. Even if this account does not entirely satisfy the more analytically minded reader, we trust that she would consider this as a series of working hypotheses awaiting further detailed study (or studies) that we do not attempt here.

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From determinateness and quality to quantity

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April 28, 2016

Let me move on quickly to talking about quantity and then pause for a bit. In the dialectical view, quantity follows on quality. Why? Because quantity comes out of “setting aside” quality in determinate being. This is again quite simple and really one does it all the time in teaching elementary mathematics (or at least we should). If you are talking of oranges, you can talk of five oranges. Five as quantity, comes to the fore by setting aside the fact that we are talking of oranges. Similarly we can have five of anything, cows, goats, persons, books, anything. So quantity emerges when we set aside the specific determinateness that is quality.

This “setting aside” may also be called “determinate negation”. This is because when we say five, we “negate” the specific quality of being, of being oranges or whatever. But this is not negation, in the sense of simply annihilating the being. It is there in the background as it were, not coming to the fore, negated but not annihilated. So quantity has this property of being rooted in being, but with being set aside. The fancy philosophical term, used sometimes in the dialectical philosophy literature, is “sublation”, but we need not be forced to use it, if we know what we are up to.

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Two comments on the previous posts – the significance of determinateness

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April 28, 2016

Two comments are in order regarding the previous post. One is to do with (one aspect of) the relationship between the finite and the infinite. Dialectics distinguishes between two kinds of infinity. The first kind is the endless repetition of a ciollection of finite things, ad infinitum. This is the boring infinity. However the more interesting infinity is one that is a totality, that pulls together determinate beings, in such a way that both the “is” and the “other” are present in the totality. This is when the structure is interesting. An interesting infinity always brings together determinate beings, boring infinity simply repeats it “mechanically” ad infinitum. (The new fad called assemblage theory, belongs in some ways to the second infinity, but that is a later story).

The second is that there are all kinds of determinations that can be made about beings. Men can be tall or short, fat or thin, hair may be black or white and so on. So there is no god given rule that this or that particular determination is important. But it is perhaps a good rule to find determinations such that it covers only a part of the whole. Then things are interesting. Say we are talking of society. Thinking of society as composed of identical individuals (the determinate being is now in this case the individual) based on some “universal” human is boring, since almost all are covered by it. It makes a society into a totality that is the formal repetition ad infinitum of some unit. Such a determination is very useless because it covers almost the whole.

On the other hand, if we think of determinate beings as given by the determination of labour, then it is interesting, because we immediately get workers and non-workers as part of the whole that is society. And these are distinct parts.

Finally any totality, a whole, in this view will always contain contradictions (implicitly, since we have not got to contradictions just yet), since it is always composed of determinate beings who include both “are” and “are not” with respect to some attribute. So totalities will have both “is” and “is-not” and that is the beginning of why the whole is beset wiith contradictions.

Dialectics – The first steps

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April 28, 2016.

Back to dialectics after a break earning my living. In the last post I was talking of the importance of making sense of the chaotic whole that we first confront through perception. So how do we go forward from here? Because to stay at this stage, talking vaguely of “holism”, “should not be reductionist by breaking up the whole”, etc is to know nothing.

A good way to understand this point is to think of an “avial”, that classic dish of Kerala cuisine. A simpler example, a country cousin if you wish, is the kichdi. Can you learn about an avial by simply staring at it, even holistically? You can taste it, smell it, touch it, but will that take you even one step towards learning how to make it (important – learning how to make it!!) – not at all. Unlesss you learn what it is made up of, all its separate parts, you cannot know how to even buy the necessary ingredients to make an avial. That is of course not all of making an avial, but that is the indispensable starting point.

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Dialectics as the theory of knowledge of materialism

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April 21, 2016

So now, inspired by Bengaluru, and the evidence of the capacity of the Indian working class for spontaneous large-scale action, and the victory on the EPF issue that they have contributed to, let us move on with dialectics.

Now, despite the history behind the usual presentation of dialectical materialism, I will firmly stay away from the “materialism and matter” together with “dialectics and motion” view, and the historical rationale for this mode.

Instead let me emphasise first, that to speak of “matter”, or “objective reality” (including the natural and social) is to speak of “matter in motion”. The two are not separate, to be brought to together externally. So then what is the issue? The issue is really, how do we understand this objective reality, how do we come to know it and what does knowledge mean? Have we missed out on something, have we forgotten that the point is to “change” the world? No, we have not, because in what we call “to know” we shall make clear the relationship between “knowing” in thought and “knowing” in action, and to “know” for us will mean both, separately and together. We can leave the definitions here if you wish, but this issue is what is meant by dialectics.

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Dialectics and the “motion” of the whole

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April 17 at 09:52 am

I have already distinguished three kinds of “motion” that are part of the world. One is motion in the usual sense of a temporal change of location, form and so on. Another sense of “motion” is a change in limits, limits either of an “attribute” or “property” of something or physically a limit. For instance going from wet to dry or from say a lake to a shore. Thus change (or transitions) need not always change in time but can also be change in space itself. A third form of “motion” that I have mentioned is transformation that I loosely clubbed earlier with the second aspect into “development”. But one very important aspect of dialectics is to think of the “motion” that arises when something becomes part of a whole. So, for instance, you have the hand, but the hand as one of the limbs of a human body is in “motion” in a dynamic living organism.

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Is there a “State of Change” or only a “Change of State”?

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April 16 at 10:01am

So what is the problem with motion? Is there indeed a “state of change”? Now one obvious question, from a scientific point of view, is what happens to calculus in this view. After all calculus is about infinitesimal change. So this view of change should be able to say something about calculus. The problem is immediate. In the standard view of calculus, in the final analysis, motion is simply a jump from one point to another. There is of course a long story here, to do with analysis (a branch of mathematics) and the foundation of calculus etc. But the consequences of this view are easy to understand. The infinitesimal that we are familiar with in calculus (in the usual version) is actually valid only at a point. So a tangent to a curve, we are told, does not really lie “in” the curve. It is only a line that touches the curve exactly at one point.

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