Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: a lot depends on how we frame it

Since Mike Hulme is Professor of Climate Change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, he's had reason to think a lot about the politics of climate science. The British university was the place where climate change skeptics hacked scientists' emails and charged, inaccurately, that data was being hidden or fabricated. If you tend to believe in science and get your information from sources that also do, this story was just the usual wackdoodle background noise. This was a very big deal if you got your news from places like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal where Upton Sinclair's theorem holds sway:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Hulme has offered a thoughtful typology at the Australian online publication, The Conversation of six ways that climate change can be framed and their implications. I found this very much worth thinking about.

Framing climate change as market failure draws attention to a particular set of policy interventions: those which seek to “correct” the market by introducing pricing mechanisms for greenhouse gases.

Climate change when framed as a “manufactured risk” focuses on the inadvertent downsides of our ubiquitous fossil-energy based technologies. It lends itself to a policy agenda which promotes technology innovation as the solution to climate change.

Radically different, however, is the frame of global injustice. Here, climate change is presented as the result of historical and structural inequalities in access to wealth and power and hence unequal life chances. Climate change is all about the rich and privileged exploiting the poor and disadvantaged. Any solutions to climate change that fail to tackle that underlying “fact” are doomed to fail.

A related frame, but one with a different emphasis, is climate change as the result of overconsumption: too many (rich) people consuming too many (material) things. If this is the case then policy interventions need to be much more radical than simply putting a price on carbon or promoting new clean energy technologies. The focus should be on dematerialising economies or else on promoting fertility management.

A fifth frame would offer climate change as being mostly natural. Human influences on the global climate system can only be small relative to nature and so the emphasis should be less on carbon and energy policy and more about adaptation: enabling societies to cope with climate hazards irrespective of cause.

Last is the frame of planetary “tipping points” which has arisen since 2005. Climate change carries with it the attendant dangers of pushing the planetary system into radically different states. Such “tipping points” may be reached well before carbon markets, clean energy or economic de-growth will be attained and so new large-scale climate intervention technologies – a so-called Plan B – need to be developed and put on stand-by.

My emphasis added to pull out Hulme's bullet points.

As a person of leftist inclinations, I gravitate naturally to “manufactured risk” with a heavy dose of global injustice. I tend to think we humans shouldn't kick ourselves for striving to make life less brutish and short through our technological prowess, though we've done a damn poor job of ensuring that everyone gets their share of our improved well-being. I therefore conclude that we should use our very powerful brains to solve and mitigate the mess we're making of the planet, and spread the benefits more fairly. It's hard for me to take market failure seriously; tinkering at the edges of a rapacious capitalism isn't likely to help much. This perspective seems however to be the best our current political systems can accommodate; since I'm sure the dangers are serious, I'll take what I can get and push for more.

But I know mine is not the only way to look at climate change -- the overconsumption paradigm places the human animal in our rightful place, as a bumptious burden the rest of planet's life forms. The mostly natural frame seems too passive to me -- but I can imagine smart well-balanced people who can adopt it without despair. The planetary “tipping points” frame would require me to pretend to understand half-understood data that I know I don't master; so it can scare me, but it's not something that makes sense for me to dwell within. If we are hitting a terrible tipping point, we'll know when we crash across it. Meanwhile, we need to do what we can within the other paradigms -- doing what we can makes us the good human animals we are.

Any reader want to play? Which of Hulme's frames do you use to think about climate change? Or do you use something else? Can you bear to think about it at all?

1 comment:

Nell said...

Can you bear to think about it at all?

Not for more than fifteen minutes at a time (because I can't shake off my conviction that crucial tipping points have already been reached). But this is an interesting set of frameworks.

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