Not sceptics, but climate dyspeptics


Photo: Grayson Perry pot from British Museum Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman Show, BM London 2012, Joe Smith

(This post also appears at the Huffington Post)

Strange but true: the number of people who doubt that climate change is human-caused has, if anything, increased in the UK and US over a period when uncertainties in the science have been narrowing. However to think that this is all down to radical libertarian thinktanks like the Heartland Institute or energy industry lobbyists is a dangerous distraction. Attempts to spin climate change have been going on so long they have their own historians: Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt shows the similarities – and links – between the tobacco and climate story. But this is of the ‘Pope is Catholic’ category of news. To think that lobby groups and think tanks are the reason that plenty of people are at best ambiguous about climate change is to fail to understand how many of us feel about relatively new and demanding ideas about humanity’s relationship with its environment.

Globescan, Eurobarometer or recent Yale/George Mason University studies show polling that offers fairly consistent accounts: somewhere between 15 and 35% of people are not convinced climate change is happening and/or don’t believe it is human caused depending on the framing of the question. These can be read as ‘glass more than half full’ results, but it is impossible to build robust international political support for mitigation and adaptation policies without engaging more people with a good sense of the best available scientific thinking on the topic. But the words that are used to describe the negative feelings that a substantial minority of the population have about climate change science and policy may be part of the problem. Terms like sceptic, denier and contrarian are not just inaccurate, but more to the point, create a stark and false binary of ‘believers’ and ‘deniers’.

One of the most widely used phrases is climate sceptic. But scepticism is a part and parcel of any good research and journalism. Indeed we need all the scepticism we can get from researchers, policy analysts and journalists if humanity is going to do a good job of responding to new knowledge about the world. So let’s just say we’re all climate sceptics now and leave that phrase alone.

I’m mostly serious in suggesting a new term: climate dyspepsia. An ugly term for sure, but it is useful because it describes not a position but a condition. Certainly this seems to capture the anti-science, crotchety and closed-minded attitude of some sour cherry-picking bloggers and pose-striking journalists. But it also suggests much more widespread feelings of discomfort. It summarises the state people are in when they find all the talk about climate change science, policy or politics difficult to digest. I come over climate dyspeptic myself fairly often – probably because I spend quite a large proportion of my life working on the topic.

There are many climate dyspeptics who are fearful about or irritated by the way climate issues have been presented in the media and with some good cause. The climate research and policy communities need to be more considerate about how people feel about new knowledge about climate change. They also need to be more willing to trust people’s capacity to cope with more open accounts of complex long-term problems. Often this will not be about doing things differently but about naming them differently. There are three things that could be presented in a new way.

First the science of climate change needs to be told as a broad and unfolding process rather than a fixed result. People have a good nose for authenticity and know that over-hasty phrases like ‘the science is finished’ misrepresent the work. And what work it is: climate science includes some of the most ambitious questions that humanity has ever set itself – why is it so rarely experienced as such?

Second the policy response needs to be framed not as the pursuit of a single final UN agreement that arises out of a great big finished fact, but rather explained as a long term collective risk management process. Everyone who drives a car understands the need for rules about car insurance; everyone in a country with a health system understands the principle of collective risk burden sharing. In fact we tend to do more than tolerate these responses to risk: we treasure them. Climate change policy is no more than an extension of these principles. It is an idea that almost everyone can get behind. Politicians need to inhabit climate policy and not palm off their job on researchers who have a different job to do. Elected politicians have the legitimacy and responsibility to make decisions about the most substantial risks facing their societies and need to step into these big shoes.

Thirdly it is remarkable, but too rarely noted, that almost all of the extraordinarily broad range of policy, business and community responses to climate change carry other benefits. This is the fact that will make the political task achievable. Some of the most compelling developments in design and engineering of our age are at least in part catalysed by knowledge of climate change. Furthermore they are delivering improvements in the quality of everyday life and the long-term profitability and sustainability of business. So here’s a cheering thought: the things that people are actually doing about climate change can overcome the sickly feelings that can be brought on by all the talk of it.

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