Meet the New Climate Narrative

It’s much more complicated than the old one, argues Mike Hulme in the Guardian, and that, he says, is a good thing, one year after the event that triggered “climategate.”  Here’s what I think is the money quote from Hulme’s thought-provoking op-ed:

The 12 months since 17 November 2009 have shown brutally that the social, political and cultural dynamics at work around the idea of climate change are more volatile than the slowly changing and causally entangled climate dynamics of the Earth’s biogeophysical systems.

34 Responses to “Meet the New Climate Narrative”

  1. Roddy Campbell says:

    I prefer:
    “The simple linear frame of “here’s the consensus science, now let’s make climate policy” has lost out to the more ambiguous frame: “What combination of contested political values, diverse human ideals and emergent scientific evidence can drive climate policy?” The events of the past year have finally buried the notion that scientific predictions about future climate change can be certain or precise enough to force global policy-making.”
    “Those actors who have long favoured a linear connection between climate science and climate policy ““ spanning environmentalists, contrarians and some scientists and politicians ““ have been forced to rethink. It is clearer today that the battle lines around climate change have to be drawn using the language of politics, values and ethics rather than the one-dimensional language of scientific consensus or lack thereof.”
    my italics.

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    Yup, those are good too.

  3. Marlowe Johnson says:

    I’m sorry but this is strawman bafflegab to me.
    Can someone please identify the mythical actors that supposedly favour a linear connection between climate science and climate policy?  Really, I don’t get it.  Climate science(tists) tells you if you have a problem or not.  It can also tell you to a certain degree how various actions may or may not address said problem.
    Whether or not governments choose to address the problem and the extent to which they choose to do so  is of course a  decision to be made by politicians, not scientists.
    Has anyone ever suggested otherwise?

  4. LCarey says:

    “But if such fragmentation reflects the plural, partial and provisional knowledge humans possess about the future then climate policy-making will better reflect reality. And that, I think, may be no bad thing.”   My conclusion is a little different.  IF the prevailing conclusions in a number of related fields within climate science are broadly correct, then humanity faces a global scale problem beyond the power of any given nation or small group of nations to address.   In that case “fragmentation” translates into “pursing our own short term interest, and not doing anything of great significance regarding CO2 emissions anytime soon”  which translates into “we’re screwed” — within two or three decades we are likely to hip deep in triage, responding to one disaster after another.

  5. Roddy Campbell says:

    Marlowe – he doesn’t single out scientists.  I think what he means is that people have said that we are warming the earth thru CO2, this will have effects, many of them bad, and so we need to start reducing CO2 emissions, mitigation.  That’s a pretty linear train of thought.
    He states that many actors have had this linear view (Obama and Brown both expressed it pretty simply if I recall pre-Copenhagen),  as the quote makes clear.  Haven’t Hansen and Mann also expressed their views on mitigation?
    It’s a terrible line of argument, and deserves to fail.  Imho it was not climategate that had the biggest effect, but politicians seeing exactly what they were being asked to sign up to.  In the UK we have a very green Minister for Energy and Climate Change (yup, same Ministry) who has never been in office before.  He has just approved nuclear and cancelled tide, the opposite of his stance pre-election.  Why?  because he had a good look at the numbers.
    Hulme’s piece is extremely good.

  6. LCarey says:

    P.S., I agree with Marlowe’s points — science can only provide the scientific community’s best estimates of certain events, their possible impacts and possible avenues of response.  It is the responsibility of policy makers (through an inherently political process) to choose among the possible responses and devise appropriate policies.  It’s that “step 2” where things have really broken down.  Step 1 – science is saying “climate change is a very probable to be a big problem” and “in light of the probable disruptions, it would be advisable to limit CO2 emissions” (but not saying “X” is THE remedy).  Step 2 – the policy makers are responding with bickering over whether step 1 is correct or even exists.

  7. Keith Kloor says:

    LCarey (4), I have to admit that I had the same thoughts with respect to that bit about “fragmentation” being a good thing. It’s clearly a double edged sword.

  8. Roddy Campbell says:

    LCarey – the scientists in your version are in charge of calculating impacts?  I don’t want that.  How could a climate scientist calculate the costs and benefits of a certain sea level rise?
    The only area where the ‘science is settled’ is that we are warming the earth through ghg’s.   There is nothing settled on impacts, let alone possible responses.
    As Hulme says, words like ‘contested political values’, ‘diverse human ideals’, ‘widely differing values which can’t be homogenised through appeals to science’, ‘the language of politics, values and ethics rather than the one-dimensional language of scientific consensus or lack thereof’.”
    He also says that: “The events of the past year have finally buried the notion that scientific predictions about future climate change can be certain or precise enough to force global policy-making.”  Yup, between the different values and aspirations and the uncertainty you have it all.
    The meta-framing of climate change has therefore moved from being bi-polar ““ that either the scientific evidence is strong enough for action or else it is too weak for action ““ to being multi-polar ““ that narratives of climate change mobilise widely differing values which can’t be homogenised through appeals to science. Those actors who have long favoured a linear connection between climate science and climate policy ““ spanning environmentalists, contrarians and some scientists and politicians ““ have been forced to rethink. It is clearer today that the battle lines around climate change have to be drawn using the language of politics, values and ethics rather than the one-dimensional language of scientific consensus or lack thereof.

  9. Roddy Campbell says:

    Sorry Keith, take out my last para it got left there by mistake in comment #8.

  10. Steven Sullivan says:

    Roddy, one of the ‘impacts’ of AGW is sea level rise.  The extent of which  can and has been a subject of scientific investigation.
    Impacts on populations —  human and nonhuman — can also be topics of scientific investigation, can they not?

  11. Roddy Campbell says:

    SS – what I’m saying is let’s say climate scientists are highly certain of a certain sea level rise, say 1 metre, over, let’s say, 100 years, that’s one centimetre a year.
    Who do you want to advise you on the impact(s) of that?  Rahmstorf?   At that point it has little to do with climate science compared to economics.

  12. Marlowe Johnson says:

    IMO Hulme’s piece  simply confirms the old saying that when all you’ve got is a hammer everything looks like nails.
    “I believe there have been major shifts in how climate science is conducted, how the climate debate is framed and how climate policy is being formed. And I believe “climategate” played a role in all three.”
    “It is difficult to re-capture ““ or even quite believe ““ the cultural and political mood around climate change in the autumn of 2009. There was a rising wave of expectation that the world leaders gathering for the climate change summit in Copenhagen in December would change the world ““ and the climate ““ for ever.”
    Evidence? A link to InTrade odds perhaps?  More likley that there was very little hope of a meaningful agreement as the world was coming out of a brutal recession (and we all know how well environmental issues play during such times).
    “instead, there is a new pragmatism in the air. This pragmatism has many colours and shades, but at the heart of it are three principles:
    “¢ an emphasis on the climate co-benefits of other policy innovations, such as those on health and poverty”
    EVERY policy initiative that is developed and promoted (whether it is government or advocates) emphasizes co-benefits.  It’s part of the basic sales job.  THe idea that climate policy advocates are somehow only catching on to this now is ridiculous.

    “a necessity to drive forward new publicly-funded investments in low-carbon energy technology”
    Since when is this new?  Hasn’t he heard of ARPA-E or looked in his own backyard at the UK Carbon Trust?
    “the cultivation of multi-level polycentric institutions and partnerships through which policy innovation may occur, rather than relying exclusively on the UN process”
    Again, I guess he hasn’t been paying attention to thework being done under the EU ETS, WCI, RGGI, UN GEF, etc…

  13. harrywr2 says:

    Marlowe Johnson Says:
    November 16th, 2010 at 12:27 pm I’m sorry but this is strawman bafflegab to me.

    “Can someone please identify the mythical actors that supposedly favour a linear connection between climate science and climate policy?”
    The mythical actor is a 450ppm target or 2 degree C target that must be met ‘regardless of cost’ because the ‘science’ dictates those numbers.
    Reality is some combination of pay now or pay later.

  14. Marlowe Johnson says:

    I assume ‘regardless of cost’ is in quotes because it’s a quote from someone.  Can you point me to the person(s) who said this?
    I agree with you that “Reality is some combination of pay now or pay late.” but would add that the climate science and economics confirm that there are significant procrastination penalties if the response is skewed towards pay later.
    an ounce of prevention and all that.

  15. Marlowe Johnson says:

    replace confirm with suggest

  16. Jay Currie says:

    Marlowe, “an ounce of prevention” assumes a) that the ounce is relatively cheap, b) that the harm to be prevented is real and serious.  “a” is clearly wrong as the assorted disasters in wind and solar amply demonstrate. “b” is uncertain and will remain uncertain unless and until really good climate models can be built and, more importantly, tested against a well made observed data set (which currently does not exist.)
    The old saw about never buying a pig in a poke comes to mind.

  17. Roddy Campbell says:

    Marlowe you puzzle me.  In comment 3 you asked a question or two, which I answered (tried to) in comment 5.
    Then you ignore your own questions, and the answers, good or bad, and launch into a classic RC type comment of playing the man not the ball.
    Hulme wrote an article.  I think it was insightful, interesting, and, regardless, worthy of notice given the man’s cv.  You don’t like the implications, so can’t say anything positive or even balanced about it.  You take one of his paras which starts ‘I believe….’ and say ‘evidence?’ afterwards.  He said ‘I believe’.
    Chill a bit.

  18. Lazar says:

    If it were true that reading Phil Jones’ naughty emails lead to;
    “The meta-framing of climate change has therefore moved […]”“ to being multi-polar”

    “the fragmentation of climate policy-making.”
    … I would think that this world is very probably mad.

  19. keith kloor says:

    Lazar, I don’t think that’s quite what Hulme had in mind. Here’s the parts of the recent Nature article with his quote, which is consistent with what he’s said before:
    The report said there had been a “consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness”.
    Some scientists echo these conclusions. Mike Hulme, a climate researcher at the UEA who worked at the CRU from 1988 to 2000, said that certain aspects of the culture in the research unit were “unwise and unhealthy”. He notes in particular that the CRU was slow and inconsistent in responding to data requests, and says it suffered from “intense tribalism”. But Hulme says the work at the CRU “was not fraudulent, and certainly did not justify the personalization of the attacks subsequently made on them”.
    Do you think this is a reasonable summation by Hulme?

  20. Marlowe Johnson says:

    You’re right.  It’s probably all a hoax that’s been foisted on virtually every national science academy in the developed world.  Guess those tree huggers are more politically savvy than anyone realized eh?
    And all those studies that show that energy efficiency pays for itself pretty quickly are bunk too? Those IPCC kleptocrats even managed to hoodwink a bunch of economists!
    Of course, since all of our knowledge about climate physics is based on models and we can’t know anything useful about the future since it’s well…in the future….we shouldn’t bother to do anything or be worried about anything other than the weather tommorow.  No regret strategies? Bah! Peak Oil? Another conspiracy dreamed up by the greenies in league with you know who…
    OK now that I”ve got that out of my system, I’ll do my best to go calm-blue-ocean for a while.
    My beef with Hulme’s piece (not with you) is primarily that he’s ignoring pretty obvious facts on the one hand –because they don’t support his chosen narrative– and failing to back up his ‘feelings’ on the other hand with any facts at all. Since he’s an academic I hold him to a higher standard than your average columnist.  It has nothing to do with liking the implications or not.  As I think would be obvious from what I wrote, most of what he’s saying: either isn’t supportable by any evidence that I’m aware of (e.g. major shift in how climate science is being done), or is unoriginal and/or mundane (e.g. pushing co-benefits, clean tech r&d, sub-international policies, etc).
    OTOH if his piece is making you think about these issues in a way that you hadn’t before, then so much the better.  Just forgive me for rolling my eyeballs when I read it.
    Now I’m wondering if you could elaborate on this “It’s a terrible line of argument, and deserves to fail. ”

  21. Lazar says:

    I would go with that, and with Hulme’s claim that “climategate” has already produced more openness.

  22. NewYorkJ says:

    Global warming is happening relatively slowly from a human viewpoint, compared with how fast-paced politics is, and how people tend to react to short-term events.  From a geological view, global warming is happening at a breathtaking speed.

    Similar case from a biological standpoint:

    This analogy is always spot-on:

  23. Francis says:

    I dunno.  I’ve read and co-authored my share of press releases.  This one says:  We got punched in the mouth, and knocked out cold.  But look how much we’ve learned!
    yah, you’ve learned that large groups are resistant to change, and extremely resistant to incurring substantial costs when benefits are speculative and deferred.  There was a tiny window of opportunity for a bunch of people to all agree to say we’re all going to die without carbon taxes (which was a lie), but that window (if it ever existed, which appears extremely unlikely) has closed without carbon taxes being imposed.  Unless the Chinese use solar power to put a man on the moon, we’ll be lucky to cap CO2e at 600 ppm, and our grandchildren will get to figure out how to adapt.

  24. Hulme’s take, at this point, is somewhat amusing, considering his ‘ask not what we can do for climate change, but what climate change can do for us’.

    It’s also worth noting that BC [Before Climategate] Hulme’s former partner in pre-Kyoto “consensus” building, Joseph Alcamo, alerted the Oct. 26/09 IPCC Bali meeting attendees:

    as policymakers and the public begin to grasp the multi-billion dollar price tag for mitigating and adapting to climate change, we should expect a sharper questioning of the science behind climate policy”

    In light of events of the past year, I’d say that Alcamo’s assertion was a considerable understatement. 

    It’s most unfortunate that none of the “enquiries” AC [After Climategate], bothered to question “the science” before declaring that it was “sound”, OWTTE.

  25. Roddy Campbell says:

    marlowe #20 – I will elaborate, I need to get it right so give me a while.

  26. Pascvaks says:

    Mike Hulme of the Guardian, one year after, and “spot on”!   

  27. Marlowe Johnson says:

    @25 take your time; it’s not a race 🙂

  28. Roddy Campbell says:

    Marlowe, I can’t do it.  I’ve reviewed your comments above, and there is no point. 🙂  Here is a very short stab at it.

    I said: “I think what he means is that people have said that we are warming the earth thru CO2, this will have effects, many of them bad, and so we need to start reducing CO2 emissions, mitigation. That’s a pretty linear train of thought. It’s a terrible line of argument, and deserves to fail.”

    You ask me to elaborate on my last sentence.

    1 We are warming the earth thru ghgs. We’re both ok with that I expect.

    2 It will have effects on eco-stuff, including humans; eco-s and humans are more or less adapted to how it is now, and therefore these effects are likely to be bad ones – that would be your position?

    3 Other effects will include rising sea levels, extreme weather etc – that would be your position?

    4 This is all happening quite fast, in next 100 years, so we need to do something sharpish – your position?

    5 It’s CO2 that’s causing it, we’re emitting it, we know how to stop by cutting right back on fossil-derived energy, we must do that.

    6 (optional) It’s even more important because the poorest will suffer most, and the richest did the damage

    My position is Lomborgian.  You have to work out what might happen, what is too uncertain to even try to work out, and what we can do to help humanity with a given amount of dollars.  Quite how you value one death over here versus 10 hip replacements over there is a question of moral philosophy.  For example the oft-quoted heat deaths in France in 2003 – how would we value those, how would we measure sans AGW how many more days/months these elderly people, many of who died because their families were at the seaside.  How would we value the increased agricultural yields from gently warmer temperatures.
    I find point 2 pretty unproven.
    I find point 3 not terribly harmful – 1cm a year?  Is it worth stopping most fossil fuel usage with consequent radical changes to prevent that?  Not so sure.  Extreme weather unproven, and slightly so what anyway.
    Point 4 – I view 100 years as slow.

    In contrast, use of fossil fuels brings such benefits to mankind, and there is, nuclear aside for electricity, no substitute.  If you ask a Bangladeshi whether he would traded light, power, wealth, education, medicine, all available by exploiting their vast coal reserves, for a gentle rise in sea levels I think he’ll go for it.  After all, his country has expanded by 150,000 sq km over last x years (from memory, correct me).  I would encourage him to do so as well.

    As we have seen the BRICs do, especially at Copenhagen.
    Which leaves us saying, we in the West will voluntarily cut our lifestyles so emergers can improve theirs?
    I wrote a post which connects somewhat with this subject:
    Sorry, that’s not a great reply, I’ll work on it.

  29. Marlowe Johnson says:

    1. agreed. basic physics
    2. yes, bad impacts will greatly exceed net benefits.
    3. Yes, although net effect on global extreme weather events impacts is tricky, but probably bad long-term.
    4. Yes. Human civilizations and the natural ecoystems that underpin them are not well equipped to respond to the pace and magnitude of climatic changes that mainstream suggests suggest will occur with a BAU emission path.  For example, even if it takes 200 years for sea levels to rise, the amount of capital that would have to be deployed to protect coastal infrastructure would be colossal.
    5. Yes, CO2 and other GHGs and deforestation are the primary drivers.  Google Santer and fingerprint.
    6. Personally, yes; but that just my opinion based on my conception of justice.
    There have been entire books written about Lomborg’s deceitfulness, so I won’t go into all the problems with adopting his particular POV on climate change.  But I will simply say this.  Uncertainty cuts both ways.  How you, or your government, responds to that uncertainty is a value judgement not a scientific one.  If you are selfish and care only about yourself and your immediate relations, then of course you won’t support policies impose a cost on you but benefit others, even if the cost-benefit ratio were 0.000000000001. It simply wouldn’t matter. Nor would the existence of any uncertainties one way or the other.
    If you accept that climate change is fundamentally a risk management problem with inter- and intragenerational components, then the discussion moves to one of values not facts.  What gets my goat is seeing people with virtually no expertise to assess the facts questioning/rejecting the validity of the facts as understood by experts because they don’t like the implications.
    Look, if you don’t give a shit about people in bangladesh and/or people born 100 years from now, and therefore don’t support climate mitigation policies, then fine so be it.  It’s not a position that I share, but at least it’s intellectually honest.
    If you support climate mitigation policies just not the ones that are on the table, then again, fine.  But at least be clear whether or not your disagreements are based on a technical disagreements or your value judgments (e.g. libertarian view of goverment).
    IOW one shouldn’t use ignorance of climate science or climate economics as a proxy for disagreements about values.
    At any rate thanks for your response Roddy, and sorry Keith if this is OT.

  30. Roddy Campbell says:

    Marlowe I agree with all you say re values – it’s a reason I liked Hulme’s article – ‘combination of contested political values, diverse human ideals and emergent scientific evidence’ and ‘using the language of politics, values and ethics’.
    Some of my views were in my post I linked to above about actual policy response.  In that post I talk about Chinese (and by implication all emergers) emissions, which are relevant here.
    I think a Bangladeshi born in 100 years will be just fine, almost certainly finer than he is born today, certainly finer than 100 years ago.
    I don’t support any mitigation policies I’ve seen because I haven’t seen any that have a chance of being implemented or any that work at remotely acceptable cost.
    Kyoto would have made zero difference to world temperatures. cap and trade is awful.  A global carbon tax might raise enough money to invest in r&d, which might be ok, but no-one will set a tax at a level that would actually discourage consumption to any material degree.

  31. Toby says:

    Hukem had some good bits (about communication of the science) but he was way off base with most.

    Old fallacy “Post hoc ergo propter hoc = Happened afterwards therefore because of”. President Bartlett explains it in an episode of West Wing. Hulme thinks that everything that happpened after the e-mail hack is because of the e-mail hack.

    Come on. Did China and India change their negotiating position at Copenhagen because of the hack? Were the Republicans gong to agree to the American Power Act only for the e-mail hack? Get real.

    And all this linear stuff is just postmodern tripe. So “competing narratives” about climate change (non-linear?) are to given equal time? Like Feminist Science, Hindu Science, … any irrational set of values that forces itself onto the political scence. John Shimkus and his belief in God’s promise to Noah is equal to James Hansen? Is that where this heading?

  32. A thoughtful piece by Hulme, though I don’t fully agree. LCarey (nr 4) makes a very good point.

    What struck me was Hulme’s more or less self evident point that there is more than science that influences a political decision. But then he goes on to say that due to uncertainty in the science, there won’t be a global policy any time soon. Huh? Isn’t that in contradiction to what he had just said that contested values and ideals are also at stake?

    I thinkg it’s not because of uncertainty in the science that the political proces hampers, but mostly because of differences in values and circumstances, combined with the tragedy of the commons playing out on a global scale.

    “with scientific uncertainties and complexities about the future proliferating (“¦) further policy fragmentation around climate change is inevitable”

    Hulme seems to say that if only the science were 100% certain, there we would all agree on the policy. I’d say that, in line with Hulme’s earlier procalamation of ideals and values being important, that such fragmentation is inevitabel because people don’t share the same values and ideals (and circumstances).

  33. Roddy Campbell says:

    It’s both isnt it?  What I took him to mean was that the science would have to be extremely certain to have a chance of the disparate ideals and values reaching agreement on policy.
    But it’s a short article, difficult to divine precisely.
    I’m not sure what he meant by suggesting the scientific uncertainties are proliferating, that surprised me (from him) if that is what he meant.

  34. […] I’ll quote a comment by Lcarey over at CaS, which captures my take quite well: My conclusion is a little different.  IF the prevailing […]

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