What have 25 years of climate change campaigns achieved?

In 1988 Margaret Thatcher warned of the dangers of global warming. Ever since the debate over what to do has heated up

Thatcher was a qualified scientist, which some observers say explains why she initially took climate warnings seriously (Pic: UN)

By Mike Hulme

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.

The central subject of Thatcher’s 20-minute speech to the Royal Society was the environment, in particular the greenhouse effect and climatic change.

Whilst praising the enterprise of UK science, Thatcher warned of “a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability” and raised the possibility that “we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself”1.

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.

Climate change: ‘the plan’

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 catalyse 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 which 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 the action to which all would be committed would be a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The twin processes of the IPCC and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were central in shaping and driving forward “the plan”.

But it crashed in the winter of 2009/10. 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 fifteenth conference, held that year in Copenhagen, revealed the dominance of national interests over any putative enlightened global political order.

Contesting ‘the plan’

This account is of course a caricature, but in essence it captures the dominant framework advocated by the IPCC, the UNFCCC, the EU and other powerful international and Western institutions. However, at every stage in the development of this narrative, challenges have been mounted.

One of the earliest was to the credibility of the IPCC’s first assessment report in 1990. That summer Greenpeace published its own account of global warming and what should be done about it. The book was edited by Greenpeace’s then director of science, Jeremy Leggett, and in it he accused the IPCC of “failing in its responsibilities” in refusing to listen to warnings from climate scientists.

As he describes, “This then [Global Warming: the Greenpeace Report] is the book which says what the IPCC – in order to be consonant with the warnings of its own scientists – should have said about how we must respond to the greenhouse threat”.

Greenpeace saw the “correct” response to global warming emerging directly and unambiguously from the scientific evidence. The only way to act on this evidence was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through an immediate radical programme of energy efficiency, energy innovation and technology transfer, funded through a tax on armaments.

Human limits

Another challenge to “the plan” came in 1991 when two Indian analysts, Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, confronted the early framing of human-induced climate change as an environmental problem.

In their influential pamphlet Global Warming in an Unequal World they argued that questions of equity and justice lay at the very heart of climate change. Luxury emissions needed to be distinguished from survival emissions. The seeds of the climate justice movement were sown.

A different sort of challenge also became institutionalised during the 1990s. The Global Climate Coalition (GCC), comprising large mostly US-based corporations with interests in fossil fuels, was founded in 1989 and provided a powerful counter-narrative to “the plan”.

It eventually disbanded in 2002, but a few years later the free-market think-tank the Heartland Institute took up the mantle of the GCC and became a powerful institutional voice against the wisdom of “the plan”.  In this it was supported by growing numbers of individual voices who began to use the new social media to “audit” the claims of climate science and policy.

Re-framing climate change

These challenges to “the plan” emerged from the mobilisation of diverse political, cultural, economic and corporate interests.  But it is also important to realise that science itself has been re-framing climate change since 1988.

By this I don’t mean the simple notion that climate or Earth System science has been “filling the gaps in knowledge” or “narrowing the uncertainties” of climate predictions.  Rather, what we have seen is that the philosophy and practice of climate science keep changing the form and locus of the “climate reality” being studied.

There are many examples of this.  Changing scientific conceptions of the climate system have given much greater prominence to the role of non-linear thresholds and feedbacks. Changes in scientific philosophy and practice have resulted in more recent descriptions of future climate change being couched in terms of likelihoods rather than the earlier use of scenarios.

The dominant focus of climate science to develop and improve climate predictions on the time-scale of decades-to-centuries is giving way to a new focus on weekly-to-seasonal-to-decadal prediction. And the whole field of climate attribution studies is also changing shape.

Rather than asking the question which dominated the 1990s and 2000s – “have we detected human influence on the climate system?” – climate scientists are now investigating a rather different question: “what is the probability that this extreme weather event was caused by [greenhouse gases/soot emissions/dust particles]?”

Changing representations

In 1988, when Margaret Thatcher gave her speech, most serious commentators believed the politics of climate change would be tortuous. Yet the assumption has remained through this period that human-induced climate change is an important, urgent and discrete problem which at least in principle lends itself to policy solutions.

This 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 which will over-ride 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- – which suggest different forms of political and institutional response.

Taken together, these two lessons suggest other ways of engaging with the idea of climate change, not as a discrete environmental phenomenon to prevent, control or manage, but as a forceful idea which carries creative potential.

Climate change today

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 which have been 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 recognise the transformation that has occurred. Climate change – and what it means for different people living in different places – cannot simply be understood and analysed 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, King’s College London and author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2009). This is an edited version of the essay “The public life of climate change: the first 25 years”, first published in: Hulme,M. (2013), Exploring climate change through science and in society: an anthology of Mike Hulme’s essays, interviews and speeches. Routledge,  Abingdon, UK, 330pp.

This article was edited by the Climate News Network

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