‘Paradigms’ are typical patterns of thought, acceptance of thought, together with research practices. They provide unconscious guides for people’s patterns of thinking. In his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which gave the term its current common meaning, Thomas Kuhn defined scientific paradigms as: “universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners”.
One question that arises quite often is whether climate change is simply a paradigm that will be abandoned, or whether it will be stable. The basic theory that CO2 and other greenhouse gases can act as a blanket (or greenhouse) holding in heat, and causing warming, has stood for well over 100 years. The observations indicating global warming have been going on for about 50-70 years, so climate change is as well established as a fact as any science can be. Almost certainly the paradigm and the interpretation of global warming will change and grow with more research and modelling, but that does not mean it is wrong, or that it has not contributed shifts to thought, producing new paradigms, already.
In my opinion, a major paradigm shift has happened over the last 40 years largely due to climate studies.
Many people nowadays understand weather, climate and ecologies (and societies) as complex/chaotic systems, which have particular properties, which were previously unexpected.
For example, while these systems normally function under an unstable equilibrium, changes and stress in the system can build up, so that the systems can rapidly change state, even in human terms. In retrospect we call these places which begin the rapid change ‘tipping points’. We can predict that there will be tipping points in climate change when methane is released from the ocean, or the currently frozen tundras or the ice caps melt. Other tipping points may emerge when forests turn into net carbon emitters and so on.
While previously we thought significant climate change (without a massive accident such as meteorite collision) happened slowly in human terms, now we know it can happen quickly. We also know more about the conditions of ‘great extinctions’ and ‘ocean death’ and so are aware that we are building the conditions towards these kinds of events.
We also know that it is extremely difficult and perhaps impossible to predict the state of a complex system in the future. The further into the future the less likely we can predict its state. Consequently all we can predict is increasing climate turmoil, droughts, massive bush fires, storms, flooding, changes in temperature and so on. It is hard to tell people in, say, London, they will experience this kind of weather, this kind of temperature change etc. The gulf stream may drop away due to global heating, and the weather may get colder in London. All we can really and truthfully predict is that the change will hurt people more, and cause social instability.
This lack of accuracy in prediction is something that is often used to deny climate change, (“they said it would get hotter and dryer, but its flooding”). However, it’s hard to predict the weather 3 or 4 weeks in advance, and we are now dealing with constantly changing weather patterns, moving into situations we have not encountered before, so prediction gets more difficult – and the more the system departs from its previous equilibrium states, the worse this will get.
People have also been looking more at the social dynamics of climate change, as that is a major factor in what will happen. So far we can say, governments and businesses are nearly all failing dismally to deal with the problem, and have been since the 1990s. This is probably because of the amount of propaganda issued by powerful corporations and their hangers on, telling us the science is uncertain, or that remedies are too costly.
We are discovering the truth of many previous theories of social collapse – basically the dominating classes want to hang on to their habits, riches and power and the only way they think they can respond is by continuing the situation which has brought them riches and power – to hell with everyone else. As a result society is stuck with solutions to old problems. These old solutions cannot deal with the new problems and make those new problems worse. Societies can be maladaptive systems – however it is also possible that changes in the base (amongst ordinary people) could change social trajectories.
That represents a bit of a change in social theory, which tended to think that the dominant classes were clever and adapted to new situations, and that societies could structure ‘nature’ indefinitely in ways they required.
So global warming is already changing our paradigms, and that changes the data we look for, and all of that data (that I’m aware of) is pretty much pointing to more extreme weather, and more difficult living conditions. It would be sensible to take these new paradigms seriously, and do what you can at a local level as well as a State or business level.