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Author: Joe Smith

Climate change: Think risk not fact

Updated Monday, 2nd March 2015
Dr. Joe Smith, Senior Lecturer in Environment at The Open University discusses how we should focus on risk when looking at climate change. 

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Society Matters cartoon, climate change footprint This evening the BBC will screen their first climate change-dedicated documentary in some years.  The show Climate Change by Numbers is all about the statistics behind key numbers at the heart of research that is trying to understand the scale and pace of human influence on our climate. Cassian Harrison, Channel Editor BBC Four suggests that the show ‘puts aside the politics to concentrate on the science’. Nice try, but no: science and politics can’t be separated on this or indeed any other topic where there are wide economic and social consequences. But everyone involved in the programme is doing us all a great service in reminding us that climate science ought to be allowed to be just interesting sometimes. And this kind of approach offers a far more sturdy basis for public conversation than tired insistence upon a monolithic scientific ‘consensus’.

In an exemplary move for a TV show the team includes three academic consultants. Two of them, Tamsin Edwards from The Open University and Doug McNeall from the Met Office Hadley Centre, have long been very active on social media inviting people into an understanding of their work as unfolding and ambitious. Tamsin asks us to learn to love the uncertainty in climate science:

‘We haven’t always sold the idea of uncertainty as not only inevitable but even exciting, and we’ve sometimes over-simplified our communication. That pause in warming of the atmosphere surprised the media and public, even though scientists always expected this kind of thing could happen in the short term.’

This fits nicely with my own argument that appears in a book of essays Culture and Climate Change: Narratives. As a social scientist and policy researcher with a particular interest and involvement in the media I’ve long been frustrated by some of the dominant tactics aimed at mobilising public concern. Phrases like ‘the science is finished’ and ‘the greatest challenge facing humanity’ have sought to enroll the public and politicians in a grand cause. But these approaches may alienate as many as they attract.

It is far more robust to headline the natural science of climate change as a hugely ambitious risk assessment, the main contours of which have changed little since the early 1990s, and then explain that the rest of the research and policy effort is a big, messy risk management process. It is often forgotten that the IPCC’s First Assessment Report insisted that ‘we are confident that... uncertainties can be reduced by further research. However, the complexity of the system means that we cannot rule out surprises.’

Focusing on risk frees the natural science to become a lot more interesting on its own terms, enchanting even. Explaining it as a backroom risk assessment operation, and inviting everyone into that back room now and again to follow progress, will help to build trust and engagement in some of the most interesting, complex and difficult questions human beings have ever set themselves. This approach is greatly helped by the openness and generosity of excellent scientists like Doug, Tamsin, and some of my other OU colleagues such as Mark Brandon and Vince Gauci. They are giving up time they could spend with their feet up giving public talks and investing scarce hours on social media to help reinforce an understanding of their work as compelling, relevant, unfinished and above all, honest.  

But the natural science is only one, albeit centrally important, part of the climate change story. In cultural terms, climate change is a difficult body of new knowledge that holds significance for all the challenges that humanity has always faced regarding shelter, comfort, food and mobility. In media terms, however, the topic often seems strangely disconnected from mainstream business, politics and everyday life. Climate Change By Numbers is a great commission, but in my perfect world it would be the first in a 12 part series that goes on to reach into the many and varied consequences of taking the risk of anthropogenic climate change seriously.

Climate change is one of the strongest drivers of innovation in engineering and design, and is spurring radical new thinking in the arts, humanities and social sciences. It is catalysing major advances in lighting, mobility, communications, architecture, food and energy. It is also driving far-reaching and entirely novel conversations about where and how we redraw the boundaries of ethics and politics across time and space. Not everyone is going to find all of this interesting. But slivers of these themes will be important to pretty well everyone. Giving full rein to the mad diversity of ideas set in motion by this difficult new knowledge helps to engage those people who are bored or alienated by an over-generalised and repetitive chorus of projected woe.

Allowing the topic its full cultural scope may also serve to open up the public imagination in ways that can make the politics of climate change more dynamic. People will bring their own lenses to these new circumstances. For some this means that ‘we are as gods and have to get good at it’. I think that’s a foolish but telling analogy on the part of the extreme techno-optimists. My reading of the classical myths was that the gods, even the most powerful, more often than not got a mighty kick in the pants on account of the unintended consequences of their actions. My own hope is that increased sensitivity to the interdependence between social, economic and ecological systems will bring most people to a more accurate notion of humanity’s rather modest place in the world. Climate science doesn’t tell me the Earth is a fragile thing, or a tool in the hand, but rather a dynamic system that humanity inhabits and increasingly shapes for better or worse. It provokes me to feel that we need to respect and love our one viable home, and its complex and changeable nature.

This post draws on ideas contained in my essay in: Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, edited by myself, Renata Tyszczuk and Robert Butler, Shed publications, Cambridge, 2014.

A version of this article was published in The Conversation - 2nd March 2015


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