Why climate change is different: six elements that are shaping the new cultural politics

iglu; Cambridge botanic garden winter 2012

This essay is reproduced from a short book on culture and climate change that you can request from Jan Smith at the Open University Geography Dept., Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA (£5 plus p&p). The book was based on some podcasts you can listen to here or directly on iTunesU. It includes three essays, a timeline and other resources. Our main point is that the cultural task of making sense of climate change is about far more than ‘communication’. Here is a reproduction of my own essay from it. I’d tweak it here and there now a few months on, but stand by most of it:

In one of many acute moments in Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, the Nobel physicist Michael Beard finds himself at the receiving end of a lecture on climate change from a fellow scientist: ‘Beard sank into a gloom of inattention,’ McEwan writes,
‘not because the planet was in peril — that moronic word 
again — but because someone was telling him it was with such enthusiasm’ (McEwan 2010: 36).

If we want to understand why we continue to behave in ways that contradict good quality scientific knowledge, we must consider exactly what is novel about the cultural politics of climate change. By ‘cultural politics’ I mean the ways in which the values and meanings that underpin our economics, politics and society are generated and argued over. Much current discussion about climate change falls between the overstated rhetoric of jeopardy, which is now having a diminishing impact, and more sober discussions round risk and uncertainty, which are largely unreported. Here I want to draw out some features of the cultural context that surrounds media reporting and artistic work on climate change.

Climate change has produced many unexpected responses, one of which (as Renata Tyszczuk points out — see page 25) resembles Stockholm syndrome — the phenomenon of hostages becoming emotionally attached to their captors. A good deal of discussion about climate science and policy has an excited, even breathless tone as it conjures images of social and ecological jeopardy, wrapped up in sober scientific prediction. NGOs and commentators argue that devastation is inevitable unless action is taken in response to specific figures. For example, the website for the network 350.org suggests that ‘350 is the most important number in the world—it’s what scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere… the planet face[s] both human and natural disaster if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 [remain] above 350 parts per million’. Andrew Simms, who writes a monthly blog for the One Hundred Months campaign, argues that time is ‘fast running out to stop irreversible climate change… We have only 100 months to avoid disaster’.
 Insistent arguments such as these have been allied to a very simplified representation of the state of climate science. Phrases such as ‘the science is finished’ or references to ‘the IPCC consensus’ have been used to foreclose debate, so that everyone has to move on to the next stage — taking action. For example, as Oliver Morton points out in the Futures discussion (page 86), the notion of a ‘tipping point’ often functions as a rhetorical trump card. Novelist Giles Foden — whose
latest novel, Turbulence, deals with the special significance
of meteorology for the 1944 D-Day landings — suggests that there is ‘a kind of hubris’ in the reference to ‘tipping points’:
‘it invests too much in human predictions of the nature and consequences and scope of the event’. He suggests that the doom-laden term might be replaced by other metaphors ‘which are generative and work positively as an invitation to action’ (from an unpublished paper). Similarly, research suggests that taking short cuts to public attention through disaster imagery — such as photos of drowning polar bears or drought-stricken children — delivers diminishing returns in terms of political engagement, as well as carrying other kinds of costs in terms of the dignity of the subject and our relationship to it (see, for example, Cohen, 2000).

Over recent years, there have been signs of a falling away
of public engagement even as the climate science community become more confident of its results (see, for example, Spence et al, 2010). This is in part because the phrase ‘climate change’ is put to work in complex ways, and the issue generates multi- layered cultural politics. This was demonstrated — perhaps unwittingly — by the Climate Camp protestors objecting to a proposed third runway at Heathrow airport who held up large scale portraits of potential climate victims from around the world alongside a large banner stating, ‘We Are Armed Only With Peer Reviewed Science’. In his pioneering examination
of these issues in Why We Disagree About Climate Change, Mike Hulme suggests that climate change has become ‘an idea that now travels well beyond its origins in the natural sciences. And as this idea meets new cultures on its travels… [it] takes on new meanings and serves new purposes’ (2009, xxvi).

Great progress has been made in communicating the key points about the science and politics of climate change — some of these points are marked on the timeline found at the back of this book. In just two decades, awareness of the basic contours of the issue has spread across the globe. It is now widely accepted that human activity is almost certainly altering the climate, and there is also recognition of some of the key physical hazards, including melting of polar ice sheets, sea level rise, and the potential for drought, storms and floods around the world. There is also increasing recognition of climate-related threats to economic and social stability in terms of food, energy, water and quality of life. In other words, when it comes to humanity’s responses to climate change there is a shared sense across the world that the stakes are high.

However, it is also true that western societies remain locked in a dogged commitment to carbon-based economies and lifestyles, displaying ‘a gambler-like tendency to commit to failing bids, and to continue with small and incremental adjustments even in the face of group calamity’ (O’Riordan et al., 2011: 7). So what is novel about the cultural politics of climate change? The novelty lies perhaps not in any one of the following six features but in their combination.

The first distinguishing feature is global pervasiveness: climate change gets everywhere — from doorsteps to boardrooms — and pervades all layers of formal politics from parish and local councils to parliaments and international conference halls. It reaches across the world and across generations in ways that no other public policy concern does. This dimension of the issue is frequently noted in both popular and professional contexts, but not the distinctive challenges it poses in terms of ethical and political debate or cultural responses.

A second element is uncertainty, in both science and policy. Media representations in the past have more often than not failed to acknowledge that the sciences of global environmental change are not just ‘unfinished’ but ‘unfinishable’. Climate change research is not unique in this respect, but it is a particularly dramatic and important example of what Funtowicz and Ravetz have termed ‘post-normal science’ (2003). Climate change should not be responded to as a body
of ‘facts’ to be acted upon (with the IPCC as prime arbiter),
but might instead be considered as a substantial and urgent collective risk management problem. Projecting climate change as a risk problem rather than a communication-of-fact problem helpfully deflates ‘debates’ about whether climate change is or isn’t a scientific fact. Such an approach doesn’t walk away from the science but rather opens more possibilities for people to be tolerant of the unsettled, developing relations between climate science, policy and politics.

Thirdly, knowledge of climate change emphasises the interdependencies between human and non-human systems, both near and far. Acknowledgement of humanity’s state
of interdependence can be traced back at least as far as the depiction of city life as dependent on its rural hinterland in Virgil’s Eclogues, written over two thousand years ago. There have been numerous invocations of interdependence across the last century in relation to, for example, food and farming, civil rights and biodiversity. However, climate change calls up interdependence both as a description of environmental processes (e.g. relating to the consequences of the release
of anthropogenic greenhouse gases) and, inextricably, as a political problem (see Smith et al., 2007).

The potential for substantial changes in earth systems that we have tended in the past to think of as stable or static, forces us to acknowledge that we live on a dynamic earth. It would be
a mistake, nevertheless, to replace the hubristic assumption
of human separateness from nature with an account of evenly balanced interdependence between the natural and the
human. Acknowledging our new place in the world includes understanding and respecting the difference between truly interdependent relations and those ‘earthly imperatives’ which might have huge consequence for humans, but not for nature.
A cultural politics that is rooted in a rich understanding of global environmental change is likely to look quite different from our current state. As Nigel Clark puts it in his book Inhuman Nature, we are ‘still a long way from the cosmopolitan thought we need, the kind that might point the way to forms
of justice and hospitality fitting for a planet that rips away its support from time to time’ (Clark, 2010: 219).

It is also important to note that interdependency does not imply an uncomplicated convergence of interests around action. This leads to my fourth point: if the cultural politics of climate change echoes post-colonial discourse, by paying attention to history and notions of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘responsibility’, it is with good reason. The fossil-fuelled development of the last century shaped individual life chances and national opportunities for good and ill across the planet, but these chances were patterned by the pre-existing political economy of development. When Arctic Inuit assert their ‘right to be cold’, and Pacific Islanders argue for action to protect their land from rising sea levels, they do so in the knowledge that the threats they face have been generated by the rich world’s exploitation and consumption of resources over centuries. These questions about ethics of responsibility and vulnerability serve to shift the boundaries of political community. However, there is a danger of complacency in the assumption that climate change means ‘there is no other way’, and that we will inevitably ‘form a global community with a set of shared beliefs’, as Tim Flannery suggested in a recent interview (Flannery, 2011). It seems likely that international climate politics will become far more antagonistic in the future. This need not halt progress on climate change action: rather, it may help to generate the ‘real’, honest and urgent politics that has long been lacking.

The fifth distinctive feature is the interdisciplinary
nature of the knowledge upon which climate change science
is founded. As one climate expert remarked in 1961, ‘The fact that there are so many disciplines involved, as for instance meteorology, oceanography, geography, hydrology, geology and glaciology, plant ecology and vegetation history — to mention only some — has made it impossible to work… with common and well established definitions and methods’ (quoted in Weart, 2008: 33). The processes of the IPCC represent one of the most ambitious attempts at global peer review of a specific set of questions, and draw together a very broad body of scientific research. The panel’s reports summarise an extraordinary
body of intellectual achievement. However, even that process
is limited by its failure to integrate the social sciences, arts and humanities. This is all the more surprising given how heavily the processes of the IPCC, as well as of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, rely on ‘scenarios’, and hence involve acts of imagination about possible futures
in human as well as natural systems. One task for cultural
work in this area is to open up thinking about what it means to construct imagined futures, and the intellectual and creative work it might require. This demands a new relation with time. Just as climate change prompts us to extend the boundaries of politics in space, it also requires that we extend it in time.

The distinctive temporalities invoked by thinking and talking about climate change represent the sixth distinctive feature of the cultural politics of climate change. Economists and policy specialists have sought ways to give future generations a voice in the present, albeit through very attenuated or clumsy proxies such as ‘discount rates’ and ‘policy targets’. Past generations can also be heard: from our prehistoric ancestors, who coped with earlier changes in climate with doggedness and imagination, to the more recent ancestors who bequeathed inventions and discoveries that have changed both climate and our understanding of it, such
as steam engines or techniques for retrieving and interpreting ice cores. Although contemporary human interests are more audible than those of the past, this expanded ethical, political and cultural community is increasingly present in our thoughts and actions. As Mike Hulme says in the discussion which is recorded here, the future ‘is a place that we all live in, in our imaginations’.

Mike Hulme goes on to point out that climate change is ‘both political and cultural’ (page 76). It is the meeting points between these spheres which we have sought to explore in the four discussions documented in this publication. The six features I have outlined here — global pervasiveness, uncertainty, interdependency, the reverberations of history, interdisciplinarity and temporality — are shaping a new cultural politics which is, like climate itself, in a permanent state of change.

[go to the bibiliography at the back of the book to pick up the full refns].

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