Kate Mackenzie Climategate, and why we disagree

Controversy about how to react to climate change looks set to continue long beyond this month’s Copenhagen meeting. For the world’s policymakers, the question is largely about what action should be taken, and how to reach agreement on it. But for some critics (recently emboldened by the Climategate emails) the debate is about the science. Carbon trading systems, despite being popular with policymakers, are probably the most controversial solution (look at the heated – to put it mildly – exchanges between Joe Romm and the Breakthrough Institute as an example).

Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at East Anglia University and founding director of the Tyndall Centre, had some of his own emails stolen from CRU servers. He is also the author of a new book that looks at some of the issues raised by the scandal: specifically, how our current views of climate change arise from our different political views, and in turn is based on the ‘stories’ that way tell ourselves, as individuals and societies. There is, for example, the ‘fragile mother earth’ story, in which humans destroy nature with their profligate consumption. Or the technological triumph story, in which humanity develops a way out of peril.

It might all sound more literary theory than climate science or economics. What does it mean for the Climategate, or for how to move forward on climate change?

Hulme writes in a WSJ oped today just why these stories we tell about climate change are important in understanding the debate:

Too often, when we think we are arguing over scientific evidence for climate change, we are in fact disagreeing about our different political preferences, ethical principles and value systems.

In a conversation we had with him just over a month ago, he explained why he looked at the ‘stories’ around climate change:

It’s different from other issues, because climate is bound up in the very matrix of human life. No-one told stories about (ozone) – it wasn’t really there. It didn’t have a cultural home. Whereas climate does have this. And trying to reduce that to one global story is not possible – we have a multitude of stories about climate and what it means to us. So my starting point is a bit different, but we seem to arrive at the same point. We need to disaggregate, localise, we need to do things that can be settled outside of a 192-nation agreement. We can do things bilaterally, unilaterally – there’s a much greater range of tools.

One problem, he says, is that climate change means different things in different countries:

What climate change means to the Indian government is very clear – it means seeking redress and reparation for a post-colonial legacy they feel has affected their development path. It’s not about saving the polar bear or saving the plant, its about seeking redress for past injustice.

If you look at cookers, there’s a huge huge health burden which health workers in India are acutely aware of. It’s not about keeping climate change to 2 deg, whatever that means to them.

I’ve also worked quite a lot in Africa, and it seems to me that with Africa, too, the perceptions are not the sort of perceptions about what the problem is. The perception is around basic development rights. Securing and achiving the [millennium development goals] would be a much higher priority for most governments and communities in Africa than keeping climate to no more than 2 degrees.

Many of the NGOs, Oxfam, cafod and so on, have bought into the global climate story – this is one of their big stories, in their literature. There’s a story about a farmer in Burkina Faso, or a woman in Ethiopia, and climatechange is

So it’s collecting longstanding needs about development, but using climate as the hook to establish donors in the west.

Hulme also says that these stories help explain why the debate around addressing climate change has become so rangebound:

The problem now is we’ve got multiple issues [in climate change]: it’s about intellectual property, it’s indigenous property rights, tropical forests, Millennium Development Goals. So much has been put on the climate change plate that we need to go in the opposite direction and disaggregate everything.

We’re using climate change to achieve other goals. What matters is about taking people out of these situations of vulnerability. If these orgsare using climate change to draw attention to it, then yes, but let’s recognise what we’re doing. CC is being used to achieve lots of other things.

But this, Hulme says, is what’s complicated the international approach to dealing with climate change.
He looks at the pragmatic effect these stories have, such as the Kyoto/Copenhagen process itself, which he argues arose from misplaced optimism about the success of the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals, and from the view that the fall of communism meant that a new form of world governance was possible:

It also came post-1989 when the world was changing rapidly, and there was a sense with the demise of communism that there weas a huge opp to create global government without the ideological risk of the previous era. The Montreal Protocol was a great analogue for that.

From my perspective now certainly, I realise why Montreal is not a good analogue for Kyoto. The world in that burst of post-communism enthusiasm in the 1990s, although that particular ideological risk has disappeared, there are no shortage of ideological rifts in the world still. They may be different, but they are still there, we know what they are.

Back to climategate and Hulme’s WSJ oped. The problem, he says, is that dramatic campaigns do not persuade everyone; and the pursuit of an utterly infallible and complete scientific line on climate change is futile.

Ultimately, he concludes, Climategate could be a good thing if it leads to more openness and transparency in science, and makes it less partisan:

It will enable science to function in the effective way it must do in public policy deliberations: Not as the place where we import all of our legitimate disagreements, but one powerful way of offering insight about how the world works and the potential consequences of different policy choices.

Related links:

Why we don’t do much about climate change (FT Energy Source, 28/10/09)