Climate Reconstruction and the Making of Authoritative Scientific Knowledge

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Because the authority of science is thought to legitimise governmental regulations to restrict the emission of so-called greenhouse gases (GHGs), in this thesis I study the making of authoritative scientific knowledge through the lens of a controversy about climate reconstruction. While controversies in climate science are typically explained with vested interests that have turned an innocent form of knowledge into the victim of the political opponent’s misuse, I draw on insights from science studies to illuminate a more nuanced and symmetrical critique on climate science, the theory of anthropogenic
global warming (AGW) and climate reconstruction in particular.

To that end the thesis focuses on three interconnected ideas which dominate the
controversy: the idea of an objective scientific method, which places emphasis on the empirical testing of theory, the idea of an unbiased expert, which shifts my analytical focus onto norms and markers of expertise, and the overarching idea of science legitimising political programmes of action, which all of the protagonists subscribe to. First, climate reconstruction promises to be an empirical test for the scientific theory of AGW, but in the controversy over an iconic reconstruction so-called climate sceptics accuse scientists of having violated the scientific method. Second, in public investigations examining these allegations, the scientists and their critics draw on scientific norms to contest respective claims to expertise. Third, in consequence of these inquiries and the so-called ‘Climategate’ affair, which corroborated the critics, independent scientists re-analyse climate reconstruction: if climate science legitimises
policies aiming at the restriction of GHG emissions, its authority qua science will have to be re-established. This dependence on science in difficult political decision-making puts a heavy burden on the former and obstructs the latter, and it characterises the climate change debate in the United States. Further research on the role of science in the politics of climate change would benefit from taking more explicitly political cultures into account.
Date of Award2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJamie Lorimer (Supervisor) & David Demeritt (Supervisor)

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