Heated debate

There’s no such thing as right and wrong when it comes to tackling climate change, says Mike Hulme. That’s why we need to stop looking for scapegoats and start engaging in honest discussion. 

One of the enduring characteristics of public debates and political negotiations about climate change is that the protagonists end up arguing about different things. Political arguments masquerade as arguments about science; ethical arguments become economic ones. Legitimate differences about ideologies and values are reduced to trading blows about the ‘right’ numbers – the decimal points on rates of warming; the number of noughts in the cost of climate change. We are not being honest with one another. The consequence is that the quality of both science and public debate suffers. 

Since it first emerged as a prominent public-policy issue in the late 1980s, anthropogenic climate change has evolved into an idea that now carries an astonishing amount of ideological freight. Yet, too often, arguments about climate change continue to treat it as an environmental problem to be solved. But climate change is not a phenomenon of this kind. It is not like mercury pollution in rivers, asbestos in buildings or even ozone-depleting gases entering the stratosphere. These relatively ‘tame’ problems lend themselves to relatively straightforward solutions: the Montreal Protocol, for example, which opened for signature in 1987, successfully restricted and then prohibited the use of ozone-depleting substances.

Not so with climate change. Climate change is a ‘wicked’ problem. There is no unambiguous formulation of what the problem is and no opportunity to learn from other, similar cases. Proposed solutions are so embedded in matrices of social, economic and political cause and effect that they are likely to spawn further unforeseeable and unwelcome side effects. It is not surprising that some have despaired and are now suggesting that we must cut through this Gordian knot and find a more direct solution through climate engineering. Pumping aerosols into the stratosphere, it is claimed, would allow us to control the planet’s temperature directly, bypassing these troublesome entanglements and this social inertia.

But climate change has come to signify far more than the physical ramifications of human disturbance to the composition of the earth’s atmosphere and its energy balance. Climate change has become as much a social phenomenon as it is a physical one. Arguments about the causes and consequences of climate change – and the solutions to it – have become nothing less than arguments about some of the most intractable social, ethical and political disputes of our era: the endurance of chronic poverty in a world of riches; the nature of the social contract between state and citizen; the cultural authority of scientific knowledge; and the role of technology in delivering social goods. Climate change has become a metaphor for the imagined future of human life and civilisation on earth. 

The different meanings that can be attached to the idea of climate change are illustrated well by considering ways in which the issue is framed in India. For many in this country, the key concerns are how to secure financial reparations for environmental damage caused by northern nations through the proxy of climate and how to use climate change to advance the development of the 500 million people living in absolute poverty. This framing of climate change is very different from that which prevails in much western discourse and implies a very different set of international and domestic policy prescriptions. The issue is less about how to reverse a two-degree temperature change, how to save polar bears or how to avoid metaphorical tipping points than it is about how to secure hundreds of billions of dollars to invest in basic human welfare.

It is not surprising, then, that arguments about climate change are invested with powerful ideological instincts and interests. Solutions to climate change vary from market-based mechanisms and technology-driven innovation to justice-focused initiatives and low-consumption localism as a form of lifestyle, each carrying ideological commitments. It is despairingly naive to reduce such intense (and legitimate) arguments to the polarities of ‘belief’ or ‘scepticism’ about science.

Belief in what, exactly? Is it the belief that humans are contributing significantly to climate change? Yes, science can speak authoritatively on this question. Or a belief that the possible consequences of future change warrant an emergency policy programme? Scientific evidence here offers only one strand of the necessary reasoning. Or a belief that such an emergency policy programme must be secured through an international, legally binding targets-and-timetables approach, such as Kyoto? On this, science has very little to say.

On the other hand, what exactly is it that the so-called sceptics are charged with? Scepticism that environmental scientists, businesses and central government are in collusion to fabricate evidence? This is barely plausible. Or scepticism that claims about the future that are based on scientific knowledge are sometimes overstretched and underplay uncertainties? The latter is a warning that all would do well to heed. 

The problem here is the tendency to reduce all these complexities into a simple litmus test of whether or not someone believes orthodox scientific claims about the causes and consequences of climate change. This is dividing the world into goodies and baddies, believers and deniers. Climate change demands of us something much more sophisticated than this. 

Rather than reducing climate change to arguments about how settled – or not – the science is (predictions in environmental science are rarely, if ever, settled), we need to provide the intellectual, educational, ethical and political spaces to argue fearlessly with one another about the very things that the idea of climate change demands we take a position on. These include our attitudes to global poverty, the role of the state in behavioural change, the tension between acting on knowledge or on uncertainty, the meaning of human security and the value of technological innovation. Where we stand on issues such as these will determine which sort of solutions to climate change we choose to advocate. 

None of these things is new. They have been around for a long time – for at least the 50 years since novelist and physicist CP Snow declared that advancing science and technology was the only sure way to secure human welfare. 

But the idea of climate change – suggesting, as it does, that our current development trajectory may not be as systemically benign as we might wish – demands that we re-examine these troubling issues. We must examine them explicitly and honestly. And we must respect the different legitimate positions people adopt about these ideological and ethical entanglements when they appear in public spaces. Indeed, we must foster such exchanges without applying the sleight of hand that turns them back into arguments about belief (or otherwise) in scientific claims.

Neither scientists nor politicians should try to discredit unorthodox views about how to respond to climate change by using the pejorative labels of ‘denialist’ or ‘flat-earther’. Scientists must learn to respect their public audiences and to listen more closely to them. Now is no time for the elite to despair of democracy. We have only one planet, but we also have only one political system that most people would choose to live under. Politicians must learn not to hide behind science when asked to make complex judgements. Science is useful as a form of systematic critical enquiry into the functioning of the physical world, but it is not a substitute for political judgement, negotiation and compromise. 

Mike Hulme is professor of climate change at Britain’s University of East Anglia. His latest book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity, is published by Cambridge University Press.

This article was first published in the spring 2010 issue of the RSA Journal, a publication of the London-based Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and is used here with permission.

Homepage image from Roberto Rizzato