Climate change: from issue to magnifier

About the author
Mike Hulme is professor in the school of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia.

The headline in the Independent newspaper on 13 October 2007 made it quite clear what the issue was: "He's won an Oscar. He's won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now, can he win the Presidency?" Can Al Gore accomplish what no one has done before and secure this unique triumvirate of accolades and accomplishments?

The award of the 2007 Nobel peace prize jointly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the former vice-president of the United States has been applauded the world over. "It recognises climate change as a security issue", "... it emphasises the role of science in problem-solving", "... it rewards a charismatic communicator who has put climate change centre-stage". To the contrary, I found the rationale for this award bizarre. It was bizarre for Alfred Nobel's peace prize to be thus awarded - I fail to see where peace has broken out as a result of climate-science papers or Al Gore presentations. And it was bizarre to join together the enterprise of a huge international scientific assessment with a one-man publicity campaign aimed at subverting the power of the White House. The Independent newspaper, for all its populist ballyhoo, clearly saw what it was about. Why was the Nobel committee taken in?

Mike Hulme is professor in the school of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia. He is currently writing a book, to be published by Cambridge University Press, called Why We Disagree About Climate Change. His website is here

The limits of formula

I want to examine the thesis, this formula - implicit in the Nobel award - that good science + good communication = peace. (And here, in the context of climate change, we have to think of "peace" as a shorthand for reducing the risks to societies posed by a warming climate). The IPCC represents good science, Al Gore and his inconvenient truth represents great communication; put them together and they can change the world. If only it were as simple as this.

This formula is very reminiscent of the deficit model of science communication, popular in the 1970s and 1980s, but now largely abandoned except in the bastions of scientistic hegemony that survive in western liberal democracies (although sadly still more prevalent in some other parts of the world). The deficit model suggests that the reason for perverse or laggardly public policies with regard to environmental hazards is that the public and the politicians haven't grasped the science. Louder siren voices from the republic of science, crisper and more seductive communication of that science from the spin-doctors, will rectify matters (see Simon Retallack, "Ankelohe and beyond: communicating climate change", 17 May 2006). If science speaks truth to power - to use the old Quaker formulation - and speaks it persuasively through the mouth of Al Gore and the soft-lens focus of his biopic movie, then power will surely respond. Peace will break out; a runaway climate will be brought under human control.

But this is not how our world works; and this most certainly is not the way that this world is going to come to terms with its inadvertent project of climate modification. To do that, much more than just good science is needed; and it most certainly is not sufficient for that science to be filtered through the preferences and peculiarities of one man. Camilla Toulmin points out on openDemocracy that Gore's remedy for his climate fever, promoted in An Inconvenient Truth - recycle, change your lightbulb, buy a hybrid car - is not relevant for a large majority of the world's population (see "Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore", 27 July 2006).

openDemocracy writers debate the politics of climate change:

Stephan Harrison, "Glaciers and geopolitics" (27 May 2005)

Saleemul Huq & Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change: from science and economics to human rights" (7 November 2006)

Simon Retallack, "Climate change: the global test" (10 November 2006)

Tom Burke, "Climate change: choosing the tools" (21 December 2006)

John Elkington & Geoff Lye, "Climate change's right and wrong fixes" (2 February 2007)

Dougald Hine, "Climate change: a question of democracy" (2 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A politics of global warming: the social-science resource" (29 March 2007)

Oliver Tickell, "Live Earth's limits" (6 July 2007)
No, we need to understand the full significance of climate change in a different way. For sure, let us make sure that everyone understands that humans truly are altering climates around the world and that unfettered carbon-based material growth will lead to accelerated change ahead. This is what science is good at; this is what good science communication should be aimed at. This is lower-case "climate change"' if you will: climate change as physical reality.

The space of difference

But at that point, we have only just started on the task required. There is also an upper-case "Climate Change" phenomenon: Climate Change as a series of complex and constantly evolving cultural discourses. We next need to embark on the much more challenging activity of revealing and articulating the very many reasons why there is no one solution, not even one set of solutions, to (lower-case) climate change. "Solving" climate change, "stopping" climate chaos, "saving" the planet in ten years are fantasy projects. We disagree about Climate Change (upper-case, its social meanings not its physical reality) not because the science is uncertain or because a few well-paid sceptics have a loud voice. We disagree about Climate Change because we disagree in quite fundamental ways about the nature of the risks posed and about what constitutes appropriate responses.

Moreover, these disagreements can be traced back to things that matter very deeply to us. They emerge from our different perceptions and tolerances of risk; from our faith in, or suspicion of, the technological genius of human engineers and innovators; from the different views we hold about the role of the state in the regulation of individual freedom; from the ways we value the natural world relative to the human world; from the beliefs we hold about the autonomy of human action relative to the idea of a divine Creator.

We have to reveal these deeper reasons why we disagree about Climate Change rather than pretending that louder, crisper and slicker communication of science will somehow bully the world to a convergence of response. In different form, but with similar intent, this has been tried before in theocracies and been found wanting. God's ten commandments delivered from smoke and thunder on Mount Sinai went out of fashion a while ago. An Inconvenient Truth is hardly an adequate substitute. As David Goldston has said with respect to the US Congress: , "... the complexity of the policy discussion [about climate change] will make the previous congressional debate over whether climate change even exists seem like child's play" (see "Climate of opportunity", Nature, 17 January 2007).

This is not a prognosis for despair. It is only once we truly understand how deep our differences are, and respect them - differences in beliefs, values, goals, instruments, politics - that we will be in a position to think more clearly about what we really want to happen in the future. The role of Climate Change I suggest is not as a lower-case physical phenomenon to be "solved". We need to use the idea of Climate Change - the matrix of power relationships, social meanings and cultural discourses that it reveals and spawns - to rethink how we take forward our political, social and economic projects over the decades to come.

Climate Change is a good magnifying glass for us to use in a more forensic examination than we have been used to of each of these projects – economic growth, free trade, poverty reduction, community-building, demographic management, social health, and more. Let’s use the magnifying power of Climate Change – its emphasis on the long-term implications of short-term choices, its global reach, its revelation of new centres of power, its attention to both material and cultural values - to attend more closely to what we really want to achieve for humanity: affluence, justice or mere survival.