Amanda Machin

In fairy tales, giants come most often in the form of beanstalk-shaking, bone-crushing, evil and ignorant ogres. But giants can take different forms. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the largest, most renowned and widely cited scientific body in the world regarding climate change, is certainly a giant, but it is a pensive and well-meaning one. The IPCC treads carefully, knowing that its weighty footfall carries consequences. Yet its efforts have been criticised from various directions. What role does it play in the fight against this ‘wicked’ problem? Does it channel its strength in the right direction?

Created by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988, the IPCC does not itself conduct research. Rather, it reviews and assesses the relevant scientific, technical and socio-economic information regarding climate change. The fifth assessment report is currently being published in stages. The first part, the Physical Science Basis, compiling contributions from 259 authors from thirty-nine countries and peer reviewed by experts, has recently been made available (to be followed next year by a volume on “impacts, adaptation and vulnerability,” a volume on “mitigation” and a synthesis report).

The Physical Science Basis report makes it abundantly clear that anthropogenic climate change is happening. It states that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that the “unprecedented” changes in the system over the last sixty years, are “extremely likely” to have been influenced by human activity. These are not ambivalent statements. It explains that atmosphere and ocean temperatures have already increased, that the ice sheets are already diminishing in mass and that sea levels have already risen. This is due to the rise in concentrations of greenhouses gases (GHG) and the report confirms that even if emissions are reduced today, climate change will persist for centuries. There is “high confidence” that the Greenland ice sheet will be entirely lost, producing an average sea level rise up to seven metres. “Continued emissions of greenhouse gases” the report states bluntly “will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions”.

Climate change is not, then, a fairy tale. It has very real causes; the emission of GHG from burning fossil fuels in power stations, transportation, cattle farming and the decreasing potential for carbon capture arising from deforestation. And it will have very real consequences, which could include flooding in some areas and drought in others; a rise in avalanches, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions; the likelihood of human migration on a massive scale and the conflict that this might bring. Scientists can with a degree of certainty (though not infallibility) tell us the facts about this very real issue. What, then, should be done about it?

Science can give us data, but it cannot tell us what to do with it. Science cannot point a finger at the real-life environmentally unfriendly witches and inform us how they might they be slain. It cannot magic up a green fairy godmother, or provide us with a map to manoeuvre our way through the thick and thorny forest—that is, in any case, being felled for cattle ranching. Science cannot tell us what priority to give climate change. It can inform us of what might happen, but it cannot reveal to us what should happen. It cannot tell us how to allocate resources; whether to focus on climate change mitigation or adaptation; whether to pursue geo-engineering or renewable energy or wide sweeping lifestyle change. These are political and ethical decisions that cannot simply be “read off” from scientific data.

The IPCC report declares itself to be “policy relevant” not “policy prescriptive.” It outlines possible future changes of the climate system and it presents its projections using four different pathways; one in which GHG emissions have been reduced, two in which it has been stabilized, and one where they are high. None of its predictions are held as certain, and there is no suggestion that there is one right way to combat climate change.

Yet there is a yearning from policy makers and activists for science to reveal to us what to do. Science is not expected to make the choices for us, but rather to render such choice unnecessary. Political and ethical decisions are apparently expunged, inelegantly hidden behind scientific expertise. Take, for example, the target of keeping the global temperature to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This was the “aspirational goal” agreed at Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, and that has been widely urged by activists, in articles, films and blogs. Yet these media often fail to clearly articulate the baseline for this 2°C, what it translates as global emissions and what actions it actually requires. “2°C” is a mantra, an easy-to-remember symbol of urgency, and yet which is too often cut off from the complex and plural choices that this “2°C” marks. This target is presented scientifically and ethically given, something that we have to see as a fact unless we are to be classed as ignorant, irrational or immoral. Setting such targets involves making political decisions that are informed by science, but not dictated by it. And once a target has been decided it requires a variety of collective, strategic, committed actions. What this action is, whether it means reducing carbon emissions, taxing energy, preventing deforestation or changing lifestyles depends on where we live, how we live and who we are. No direct route or easy bypass will magically appear; communities will have to stumble clumsily through, encountering obstacles as they go.

Why is such a hefty demand laid upon science? Why are politicians and campaigners tempted to obfuscate their own role in the decision making process by hiding behind apparent scientific fact? There may be various answers here: a desire for certainty, disillusionment with the pace of democracy, a shirking of responsibility for unpopular policies. But also, I suggest, there is a tendency to position climate change as a clear-cut problem with a straightforward solution which can and must garner global agreement. This depiction of climate change demands that the issue can be seen only in one correct way, and science seems equipped to provide such an objective perspective. As climate scientist and commentator Mike Hulme notices in his recent book, the prevailing assumption over the last twenty-five years has been that a global scientific consensus must inevitably propel a global political consensus. And the IPCC has been a key player in this assumption.

Although, as we have seen, the IPCC is adamant it is not prescriptive of policy, it does, however, frame the issue as one problem, a single issue best grasped at the global level. Its maps show regional variation, and it mentions the different constraints and capacities of different parts of the world, but it summarises all its data by pulling it back to world averages. Such framing may be useful, but it also hinders a more sensitively drawn picture. It encourages a folding together of disparate impacts, ignoring the fact that people and places will be, and already are, affected in different ways. As Hulme writes, “climate change has come to mean different things to different people in different places at different times.”

The depiction of climate change as a singular overarching issue may chime with the genuine concern and rising desperation of environmentalists who demand its prioritisation. Yet perhaps this hegemonic depiction of climate change as the global problem with one correct global solution actually propagates a feeling of helplessness and ultimately detachment. The problem of climate change is engorged, becoming one of those unapproachable fearsome bone-crushing ogres, easily deflecting any efforts to combat it. As Anne Karpf, a self-confessed “climate change ignorer” puts it, “the mismatch between the extremely dangerous state of the earth and my own feeble endeavours seems mockingly large.”

Professor of geography, Erik Swyngedouw has noticed that the depiction of climate change as a global catastrophe is inaccurate in its homogenisation and unhelpful in its foreclosure of political decision. Such a depiction “produces a thoroughly depoliticised imaginary, one that does not revolve around choosing one trajectory rather than another, one that is not articulated with specific political programs or socio-ecological project or revolutions.” Any differences in political or ethical perspective are marginalised, those that dissent are labelled as irrational and immoral; summarily dismissed as “fossils.” But by shunning alternative opinions, by shirking political disagreement, collective decision making that might actually produce a committed action to tackle a climate-related problem is shut down.

Advocating the adoption of the “right” perspective on climate change and attempting to forge world-wide consensus is a strategy that forestalls real change in our relationship with our environment. Activists, I suggest, may be better advised to focus upon the particular impact brought by climate into their region or community and acknowledge the disagreement that inevitably occurs over such “wicked” issues. Such an approach may garner greater public engagement and proffer more promising alternatives.

Climate change is not a fairy tale. It cannot be condensed into a simple narrative, with a cast of stereo-typed characters who are either good or evil, with an uncomplicated moral and a simple “ever-after” ending. Rather, it is a multi-faceted set of issues that need a more localised, varied and clumsy set of responses.

Amanda Machin is a lecturer at the Department of Politics and IR, University of Westminster. After being awarded a PhD for her thesis in political theory, she worked as a research fellow to develop ideas on political responsibility and climate change. Her other research interests include political identification, politics and psychoanalysis, cohesion and citizenship, and embodied political protest. Her latest book is Negotiating Climate Change: Radical Democracy and the Illusion of Consensus (Zed Books, 2013).