Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why we disagree about climate change? Summary

I was lucky enough to attend the public lecture last night by Mike Hulme (his webpage is titled after his book Why do we disagree about climate change, see here for example.

He initially (using anonymous quotes) identified a number of different voices on the issue, from denial (our perturbations on the climate system are insignificant compared to past natural variability) to apocalyptic visions. He then went on to discuss various metrics (my word not his) of the present debate in society about the issue.

If science is the measure - then the IPCC for all its faults is THE source, reviewing as it does a large body of literature. Hulme noted the increase in confidence that we are largely responsible from 1990 to 2007 (FAR to AR4 in the jargon of assessment reports), and yet a contraction in the projected sea level rise with increased uncertainty in the role of ice sheets. The take home message is that while the scientific consensus is that it is warming and we are largely to blame, there is still uncertainty in the impacts like sea level rise.

If publications is the measure of interest in the topic, well the number of papers in various journals has grown exponentially. Certainly there has been controversies like Climate Gate (where everyone has been absolved of any scent or fraud, cover up or obstructionism) or the errors in the IPCC report (note that the scientific basis or first part did not contain the errors about the Himalayan glaciers that the impacts report did).

There are also various societal measures such as prices from the EU carbon market, where carbon prices per tonne have varied from 8 to 30 euros. There is also language changes, such as the exponential growth since 2005 of the term 'low carbon'. One might also have added terms like 'sustainable development' here.

There is also a measure by literature, with a change from one book per week last decade to one per day most recently. This includes science books, economics, philosophy and fiction (like the average and scientifically misinformed State of fear).

There has also been activity in the religious sphere. A practicing Christian himself (yay!), Hulme warns against ignoring religion on this topic (see also EO Wilson's plea to conservative Christianity in his book The Creation). There is plenty of dialogue that is positive happening in various quarters of the Christian church for example (like Ethos Environment).

There are media reports and representations (again from twisting via Murdoch - Fox, etc to more sympathetic views), peaking with events like Glen Eagles, IPCC reports, the Garnaut Report (in Australia), COP15 negotiations and Climate Gate. Then ther is public analysis like the Six Americas, which has seen a shift to the right, towards apathy and denial from 2008 to 2010.

There is of course also the negotiations themselves.

The kicker in all of this is despite all of our scientific knowledge, chatter and negotiations, emissions of CO2 are accelerating! Only the global financial crisis caused a (temporary) downturn.

So Hulme raised two questions:

1. Why is climate change the mother of all questions?
2. Why is it such a difficult problem to comprehend and tackle?

He uses the idea of framing from social analysis; ways of structuring complex issues and how they affect what is highlighted and what is ignored. For example, the shift in language from gun control to gun safety shifts the issue from freedom to public health. Likewise the change in vocab from biotechnology to frankenfood.

So what are the six frames (there can be more but Hulme lists six. These are important as the frame not only influences how the issue is discussed but the action taken. Note that apart from one of these, science doesn't play a role in deciding which is the one to take, and in a number of cases they are complimentary or at least different ways of looking at the same problem.

1. Market failure. This is the way the Stern (2006) report looks at it. As a friend and fellow Ethos Environment colleague Amar Breckenridge, CO2 is an externality. It is never properly taken into account in the price of things, even though as EO Wilson notes it affects the free ecosystem services we receive. Seen as a market failure, cap and trade of CO2 is seen as the solution.

2. Technology hazard. In this understanding, climate change is a manufactured risk caused by growing humanity, and often inadvertent. The solution is green technology like solar, wind, nuclear (I personally doubt this is green), etc. A paper by Scolow and Pacula (2004) or say Beyond Zero Emissions shows such technologies exist now.

3. Global injustice. This view emphasizes consumption in the west and the difference in what we live off per day versus the developing world. Groups like Rising Tide or people like Aubrey Meyer advocate contraction and convergence so that one day everyone on the planet will have the same environmental footprint.

4. Overconsumption. This is essentially a Malthusian view. Paul Elrich came up with the formula I = P x A x T, impact is a product of global population by affluence and technology. It recognizes there are too many people living the high life with energy intensive technologies. It will clash with frame 1 in that is sees growth and sustainability as illusion, hence groups like The Dark Mountain Project or author Tim Jackson and his book Prosperity without growth?, or groups like the Optimum Population Trust who see condoms as a way to reduce emissions (pardon the pun).

5. Mostly natural. Denialists like Ian Plimer focus on adaptation - recognising that changes are occurring but denying we can influence them, just adapt to them. Groups like NCCARF and the WCC - 3 meeting also recognise the need for adaptation. There is a synergy here with frame 3, since global injustices in the economic system are propagated by the impacts the global poor will feel,.

6. Tipping points. An idea taken from Malcolm Gladwell and made famous by Jim Hansen (also Tim Lenton), this frame sees the problem as so urgent (we are about to slide into irreversible climate change with catastrophic impacts) that the required response is geoengineering at great cost. This can be incompatible with frame 3 for example in terms of spending or 4, but possibly compatible with frame 2.

These frames are important for as Kahan and Braman (2006) note, culture is prior to facts and our world views affect our beliefs about empirical consequences of certain problems like climate change. And so it comes down to cultures of knowing: not just scientific rationalism a la Dawkins, or a two cultures model (CP Snow) or a three cultures model (Jerome Kagan) but of four cultures of knowing.

1. Environmental sciences - bringing us technical data and models.
2. Philosophy and religion - world views and views of humanity and nature
3. Creative arts - inspiration and motivation
4. Social sciences - cultural filters of risk

[See MC Nisbet et al 2010 in Frontiers of Ecology and Environment, 8(6), 329-331.]

How then should we view the pluralism on the issue? Not as a bell curve with believers at one end deniers at the other. Instead, Hulme promotes the model of fatalists, egalitarians, individualists and hierachists to map where people sit on the issue.

Finally, Hulme counsels against looking to Copenhagen etc for our solutions. Instead he favours polycentrism (Elinor Orstom 2010) which emphasises that the problem has to be tackled in different ways, timescales, scales, coalitions etc. Hence, all 6 of the above frames have their place, perhaps not all at once and not for all of us to act.


  1. Here's some polycentric support for C&C proposition mentioned in point 3 above: -

  2. Replies
    1. That's a pleasure Mick.

      Might you consider support for this proposal please: -

      . . . . will you consider supporting GCI's "Contraction & Convergence" [C&C] Proposal to the UNFCCC: -

      The details of the proposal submitted by GCI are on this web-page: -

      Sent out recently, there is support building for this now: -

      It would be welcome, useful and influential if your name were added in support of the this proposal to the UNFCCC.

      As you may know, C&C was presented to UNFCCC in 1996 effectively saying that and providing, for better or for worse, a mechanism whereby a very difficult transition might be 'negotiated'. An increasing number of voices agree with that and now openly say that C&C also provides a model for the 'containment of other factors and vectors' that are presently inimical to a stable and perhaps sustainable future. I think - I certainly hope - that is helpful.

      The UNFCCC are now debating the way ahead beyond 2012 and invited submissions from observer organisations. The proposal is a very straightforward re-statement of how to use C&C as the collective basis of the negotiating framework needed for UNFCCC-compliance.

      So if you feel you are able to support the present proposal - I very much hope you do - please will you send me [minima] a one-line e-mail saying just that and I will add your name and affiliation to the list that is being collected and conveyed to the UNFCCC Executive.

      With best wishes

      Aubrey Meyer
      57 Howard Road
      LONDON E17 4SH

  3. I find Hulme has plenty of helpful things to say, but when he is actually talking about the science, he doesn't always seem to be in his strongest suit. For example, although it is technically true to speak of a "contraction" in the estimates for sea level rise between TAR and AR4, it is quite misleading to compare the numbers directly, since AR4 explicitly leaves out the contributions of dynamical ice flow, which is likely the most important factor.

    Thanks for the summary.

  4. Yes Byron good point - he did in the talk mention increased uncertainty in sea level rise, I guess because we've become aware of uncertain physics. Comparing the ranges isn't helpful in this case.

    I haven't read his book (yet) to see his weaknesses. It happens (there are a couple of errors/overstatements in Flannery's book too).

  5. That said, maybe I need to read more. I have only read some articles and a book chapter from him. Haven't got to his full book yet.