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Taking the heat out of climate change

The American scientist Roger Revelle famously wrote in the 1950s that ‘human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future’.  More than 50 years on and we are now well advanced with this experiment.  Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, indeed accelerate, and climates around the world consequently begin to take on less familiar characters.  We do not yet know the outcome of the experiment.

A second experiment 

Many would say that we are now engaged in another large-scale experiment, the like of which we also have not before seen.  We are in the early stages of a worldwide socio-cultural experiment to see whether the whole panoply of human behaviours, preferences and practices can be directed towards achieving one over-arching goal: to neutralise the effects of Revelle’s experiment by reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.  Unlike the inadvertent geophysical experiment, this socio-cultural one is both deliberate and purposeful.  But as with the geophysical experiment underway, we do not know where it will lead and are perhaps even less sure about what its side effects will be.

As we approach the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, to be held in Copenhagen in December, there will be no shortage of voices, visions and exhortations about the conduct of this experiment clamouring to be heard.  We disagree deeply about our experimental design.  These visions and exhortations will largely be directed at political leaders and negotiators, but through the elliptical processes of the media and the web they will also be absorbed by individual members of the public.  What will be their collective effect?  Will they engage, inspire and motivate, or will they alienate and make cynical a climate-weary public? 

How we talk about climate change matters as much as what we know about it.  In this article I suggest some ways of talking that don’t work and some ways that might engage more effectively.

We should not hyperventilate

We are learning that there are a number of ways of framing and presenting climate change that are ineffective or even counter-productive.  One of these is the trope of impending apocalypse.  One view of COP15 is that it will convene the most important talks in human history.  The 300-350 Show from Climate Radio in London, for example, claims in apocalyptic tones that it will be the story of ‘whether we manage to get our act together to save ourselves.  While more and more scientists throw up their hands in resignation and activists prepare to take their message to the streets, most of the nation lies sleeping.’ 

This sense of a precarious humanity losing the battle against extinction might turn a few heads, but does little to inspire.  Warnings of immanent climate meltdown, catastrophe and collapse are not an effective motivator for change.  This state of hyperventilation – ‘breathing faster than is necessary bringing about lightheadedness and other undesirable symptoms often associated with panic attacks’ – is not desirable.  As communications experts Christina Foust and William Murphy have recently observed,1 apocalyptic framing of climate change does two things.  It endows experts and elites – the modern-day gnostic prophets – with the ‘hidden knowledge’ to understand and foretell the future.  And it reinforces the feeling that ordinary citizens can do little to reduce global warming.  Such rhetoric both excludes and paralyses.

Avoid ultimatums

Another lesson we are learning is that building our engagement with politicians and the public around an endless flow of targets and timetables offers merely a mirage of sustainability.  Whether it is a global warming of 2 degrees, a concentration of 450 ppm or an emissions reduction of 80 per cent, these numerical goals mislead us with their quasi-objectivity and illusions of achievability and security.  ‘If we achieve this, then the future is secure.’  Visions of hope, purpose and meaning are reduced to a series of numbers. 

This is an argument that John Foster has bravely explored in his recent book The Sustainability Mirage:2any target ... is a kind of scientifically disguised whistling in the dark’.  Foust and Murphy therefore advise analysts ‘to avoid framing their estimates in terms of ultimatums which exacerbate a tragic denial of human agency’.  The New Economic Foundation’s ticking clock to climate doomsday – due to arrive on 30 November 2016 – is a classic example of such mistaken rhetoric.

Reconsider the ‘good life’

If these are wrong ways to frame the phenomenon and engage the public, then what are we learning from climate change that offers us new ways of thinking positively about the future?  One thing is that climate change opens up new reasons, new spaces and new vocabularies for thinking about what constitutes the ‘good life’. 

In the most general of senses, this is the idea of ‘prosperity without growth’ as Tim Jackson’s eponymous recent report for the Sustainable Development Commission3 puts it.  Paying attention to such possibility is a virtue. This is not because in any substantive sense it will ‘save the planet’, but rather because it will lead to an enhanced human experience in which relationships – with both human and non-human others – matter more than consumption.  We need to use the idea of climate change to talk about things that really matter to people in the present: their sources of meaning, identity, belonging.  These are the intrinsic values which in our society are too frequently obliterated by an avalanche of material goods or are obscured by the allure of cost-benefit analyses such as those offered by the Stern Review.

Concentrate on community

And related to this we can use the idea of climate change to develop new ways of thinking about place-based actions, community and empowerment.  This is very much the philosophy of the Transition Towns movement.  Here, the message and the motivation is less seeking to ‘save the planet’ than it is to ‘create a way of living that is significantly more connected, more vibrant and more in touch with our environment than the oil-addicted treadmill that we find ourselves on today.’

In practice, this involves action and change which is local and rooted in a sense of place and community, where the benefits are both tangible and immediate: improved air quality, easier local mobility, greater energy and food sufficiency.  The problem with trying to ‘stop climate chaos’ – and believing that we can - is that the end is too remote in time (50 years or more) and distant in place (an abstract global climate) for it to have any psychological purchase.  Benefits of change need to be now and they need to be visible.  We can use the idea of climate change to animate such change.

Mobilise human values

As we move from one rhetorical climate deadline to another, there is a real danger that a hyper-ventilating condition of despair and panic will lead society into making either hubristic or authoritarian responses to climate change.  Before we realise it, we may see Paul Crutzen’s howitzers pumping shell after shell of aerosols into the stratosphere to wage (almost literal) war on climate change.  And we may find new versions of Stalinist authoritarianism emerging in our political systems as we keep missing our chimerical numerical targets (after all, what sanction does the UK Climate Change Committee have when the Government misses its 2018-2022 emissions target?).  Are these the types of experiment we have in mind? 

What we should be doing is using the idea of climate change to reveal, animate and mobilise widespread and latent human values of temperance, compassion and justice.  And we should be promoting actions – usually local in scale and humble in spirit - which contract the time and space scales which separate purposeful actions from their visible benefits.  This will not bring utopia on Earth and it will not stop climate changing, but it will add to our quality of life and our experience of being human.  And in the end, is not this what matters most?

1 C R Faust and W O Murphy (2009), Revealing and reframing apocalyptic tragedy in global warming discourse. Environmental Communication 3 (2), 151-167

2 J Foster (2008), The sustainability mirage: illusion and reality in the coming war on climate change. Earthscan

3 T Jackson (2009), Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy. Sustainable Development Commission, London

Mike Hulme
Mike Hulme in Professor of Climate Change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. His latest book, reviewed on p 26 of this issue, is called Why We Disagree About Climate Change
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