Strange times for climate change: deadlines, politics and our flickering futures.
It was damn hot in Nottingham on Wednesday night. I was woken by a storm. Not the type of storm I remember experiencing before. Not a flash followed by a boom, with the time in-between telling you how far away the storm is. Instead there was just a relentless flickering, like a faulty fluorescent light strobing outside my window. As I lay there, hoping for the storm to recede, my mind inevitably drifted from weather to climate, and whether this storm was the strange, amorphous idea of climate change made real. In the UK we have seen increasing number of ‘tropical nights’, and expect that to continue as a result of human-driven climate change. More speculatively, I also wondered whether the strangeness of the storm could be a sign that these changes are moving faster than is typically assumed.
These issues have been on my mind this week following the publication of a Nature Climate Change commentary I co-authored on the dangers of setting deadlines for climate action; most notably, the meme that we have 12 years to save the world from catastrophe. In the commentary, we think through the scientific origins and potential dangers of this rhetoric, with a particular focus on the implications for the IPCC. Our article attracted much attention within Twitter’s crucible of extended peer review. Some supportive, but also plenty of criticism from scientists, social scientists and activists. Within these criticisms, a key defence of deadlines was that they inject a much-needed urgency into climate politics that outstrips any of the dangers we highlight. It is, of course, hard to ‘prove’ this one way or the other, but as I lay there amid the flickering storm I thought again about whether our critics might be right that the crisis is upon us and that deadlines would make a useful political lever.
In 2010, Sheila Jasanoff eloquently described how climate change “cuts against the grain” of our ordinary human experience of time (amongst other things). Jasanoff points out that while the future is an open-ended concept, “the scope of moral thinking is ordinarily confined to the immediate past and near-term future”. This is supported by survey data about public attitudes to climate change. For example, in 2017 most Americans saw climate change as a “relatively distant threat” affecting future generations, although more recent data suggests a steadily increasing number who also think climate change will affect them personally. Given these challenges, the potential power of exhortations to act within 12 years (or even 18 months) in order to prevent catastrophe become plain and perhaps even convincing. That is certainly how it appears to some respondents to our commentary. However, I suggest that the problem with this argument is that it is taking place within a very limited, and outdated, conception of climate communication as strategic messaging for persuasion. A reoriented objective for climate communication helps illuminates the flaw in placing too much emphasis on deadlines.
Deadlines for politics
In a new article, Matthew Nisbet revises some of his assumptions from over a decade of science communication research, stepping away from the idea that strategic framing of climate change can help advance policy goals. For example, early research suggested that reframing climate change as a public health risk can help overcome partisan opposition to climate change policy. However, Nisbet highlights an underlying weakness of these (and many other) studies in that they do not assess how such messages fare when in proximity to competing political messages, as they generally are in the real world. What’s more, there is little evidence to support any communication strategy as an effective mobiliser for climate action. To be clear, this is not a reason in itself for desisting from the deadline framing (although we have previous examples of climate deadlines that have been and gone without apparently mobilising a social consensus). However, it does show that strong claims about the persuasive power of deadlines are misplaced in lieu of supporting evidence, which will in itself be difficult to provide. So if such evidence is hard to come by, in either direction, why am I so sceptical about the deadline framing? Because in my view it reflects a persistent and detrimental assumption about what science communication can do for climate politics.
Strategic communication that telescopes bad news stories into shorter timescales, in the hope of increasing public and political salience of climate change, does nothing to address our real challenge: engaging with the fraught politics embedded in climate or, more precisely, carbon consumption. Who pays for energy transition? What should the balance be between system and personal change? How should the costs (and benefits) of addressing climate change be distributed through society? Should developed countries pay reparations to developing countries who have emitted less but are suffering more? There are many more of these questions, but as with so much in climate change (and life) the answers are not black or white, and will always be provisional and negotiated. What they have in common, however, is that they are inherently political. Not in the commonly used pejorative meaning of polarised party disputes, but in Harold Lasswell’s 1936 definition of “who gets what, when, how”.
Science-first to values-first
These difficult dynamics materialised with force in the gilet jaunes protests earlier this year. One early driver of the movement was the rise in fuel taxes, justified by President Macron as a means of addressing climate change through a transition to clean energy. Yet this laudable goal blinded Macron (by accident or otherwise) to the politics underpinning a tax that disproportionately penalised poor inhabitants of France’s remote rural areas. The scale of the resulting upheaval was such that Macron was forced to scrap the tax increases. This technocratic blindness to politics was ably demonstrated in the US by Neera Tanden, President of a leading moderate/progressive thinktank. In short, climate change is so important that the impacts of climate policies on society are of no concern in comparison. Such a view is perhaps unsurprising, given descriptions of climate change as the greatest threat to future generations. However, this requires a political vision of climate change as a social problem. Without this, the deadlines and targets that are the stock-in-trade of climate policy are a distinctly flaccid justification for changing society. As one gilet jaunes protestor is quoted as saying: “Our elites are talking about the end of world when we are talking about the end of the month.”
Imagining a different climate future
The question underlying all this is not about climate change at all, and is rarely addressed within climate politics (with some notable exceptions): what kind of world do we want to live in? It is this question, and the values, beliefs and ideas that underpin the answers, that holds the promise of moving forward in climate politics, rather than a strategy that leads with, and puts huge store in defending, the idea of climate deadlines. In the US, it is notable that contributions from outside the political establishment have led the way in talking about values-first. For example, Marianne Williamson begins her climate change issue page with a statement about “humanity’s spiritual disconnection from nature” and our “responsibility to respect and protect the earth”, while the original Green New Deal report was explicit in arguing for environmental sustainability as a means to achieve “equity, justice, freedom, and happiness” rather than leading with science-first framings. The point here is not that talking about human values can magically bring about a social consensus in a way that science-derived deadlines cannot. Neither is it that a political vision of climate change requires no input from science. Rather, it is the route in to formulating new ideas and arguments around climate change, which can form the basis for a strong political coalition.
Back in Nottingham, the heatwave has passed. For now. But I expect more flickering storms ahead. Such events can help bridge the links between human activity and climate response which spread over such unfamiliar timescales. What I am more certain about is that flickering awareness of this ‘strange time’ is for naught unless the political life of climate change can break out of deadline discourse into an open, inclusive debate about what we want to see in our collective futures. It’s about time.