Essay: Climate change grows up

Thatcher Reagan-768

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with Nancy Reagan at No. 10 Downing Street in 1988. Photo by U.S. White House, via Margaret Thatcher Foundation.

Sept. 30, 2013

Twenty-five years to day after then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher delivered a seminal speech before the Royal Society in London, the IPCC released the first section of its Fifth Assessment Report. 

How we think about climate change has changed considerably in that period, much like the world's physical climate.

By Mike Hulme
Climate News Network

LONDON – A serving British prime minister seldom delivers a speech to the Royal Society, but then there have not been many prime ministers who have been trained scientists.

Today all of human life is lived not just in the presence of a physically changing planet, but in the new cultural spaces created by the idea of climate change.

But Margaret Thatcher was one, and on Sept. 27, 1988 she delivered a 20-minute speech to the Royal Society about the environment. Her central theme: The greenhouse effect and climatic change. 

Whilst praising the enterprise of UK science, Thatcher warned of "a global heat trap that could lead to climatic instability" and raised the possibility that "we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself."

By drawing out "the wider implications for policy" of these scientific insights, Mrs. Thatcher was deliberately claiming that climate change and its human dimensions was a matter for political attention. She was the first senior world leader to turn human interference with the climate system into a major national and international policy issue.

Background events

The greenhouse effect first became an object of public conversation in the Western world in the late 1980s. Two important background events helped shape the dominant frames which first emerged.

One was the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, signed in 1987 and ratified in 1989. The other was the demise and subsequent collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union.

The former suggested that scientific evidence could catalyze a global regulatory framework for atmospheric pollutants; the latter that a new era of American dominance in a unipolar world was beginning.

They were central in establishing what Dan Sarewitz has called "the plan" – the dominant assumptions that both frame the problem of climate change and offer the solution. For Sarewitz these assumptions were, first, that knowledge about climate change – its causes and potential impacts – would drive forward both a common understanding of the problem and also a widespread commitment to take action.

The second assumption was that society commit to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The twin processes of the IPCC and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, were central in shaping and driving forward "the plan."

National interests

But it crashed in December 2009. The leaking of emails between climate scientists and the IPCC's error in saying that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 undermined the power and virtue of climate science, and the Convention's 15th conference, held in Copenhagen, revealed the dominance of national interests over any putative enlightened global political order.

This account is of course a caricature. But a central presumption must now be questioned: Maybe the climate system cannot be managed by humans. 

There are at least two reasons why.

First, there is no "plan," no self-evidently correct way of framing and tackling the phenomenon of climate change that will override different legitimate interests and force convergence of political action. 

Second, climate science keeps on generating different forms of knowledge about climate – different handles on climate change – that suggest different forms of political and institutional response.

Taken together, these suggest that climate change is not a discrete environmental phenomenon to prevent, control or manage, but rather a forceful idea with creative potential.

Climate as culture

When Mrs. Thatcher gave her 1988 speech, the assumption was that human-induced climate change was a discrete problem that lent itself to policy solutions.

Spain art-400Today all of human life is now lived out not just in the presence of a physically changing climate/planet, but in the new discursive and cultural spaces created by the idea of climate change. 

It is as though all human practices and disputes now can be expressed through the medium of climate change:

So photography, cartoons, poetry, music, literature, theatre, dance, religious practice, architecture, educational curricula and so on, can now be expressed through this medium. 

And political disputes about landscape aesthetics, child-rearing, trade tariffs, theology, patents, extreme weather, justice, taxation, even democracy itself, find themselves inescapably caught up in the argumentative spaces and linguistic expressions of climate change. It has become a new medium through which human life is now lived.

This intrusion of the idea of climate change into all areas of public life was not perhaps foreseeable 25 years ago. But as the IPCC's scientific assessment gets debated in the days ahead, it is important to recognize the transformation that has occurred. 

Climate change – and what it means for different people living in different places – cannot simply be understood and analyzed by scientists using measuring instruments, satellites and models.

Yes, climates are changing under human influence and will continue to do so, with attendant risks. But what climate change means for diverse peoples, and how the idea does (or can) drive political and cultural change, can be understood only by studying people and their beliefs and cultures. 

Another mega-report on climate science is hardly enough.

Mike Hulme is professor of climate and culture at King's College in London and is author of "Why We Disagree About Climate Change" (Cambridge University Press, 2009). This is an edited version of an essay, "The public life of climate change: The first 25 years," published in an anthology of Hulme's essays, interviews and speeches, "Exploring Climate Change Through Science and in Society" (Routledge, 2013).

Picture of climate art, by José Diaz of Madrid, courtesy Oxfam International/flickr.

Climate News Network is a journalism news service delivering news and commentary about climate change to media outlets worldwide.

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