- Published: 17 April 2014 17 April 2014
I’m trying to step back and see the wood for the trees among the mass of news reports, magazine articles and blog responses to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on the impacts of climate change.
For whilst some of the messages coming out of AR5 are valuable – e.g. climate change is already happening and it’s affecting everyone – others are slightly worrying.
One powerful narrative, anticipated by Fred Pearce in Yale Environment 360, is that the report signals a retreat from what he describes as the ‘alarmist tone’ of the Fourth Assessment Report of 2007. So rather that scare people the emphasis in the new report is more upbeat, on what people can do. The emphasis is on resilience rather than vulnerability. Whilst the 2007 report devoted just 2 pages to adaptation the new report devotes four whole chapters and resilience and adaptation are in fact dominant themes of the summary for policymakers.
A second narrative I can see developing appears to have been initiated by Andrew Lilico in the Telegraph in the week before the IPCC report was published, this was then picked up by the Economist on April 5th and the Atlantic on April 1st and by the climate scientist Judith Curry on her website Climate Etc. The basic theme of this second narrative is that AR5 signals ‘the end of climate exceptionalism’ by which they mean the end of the idea that climate change is a problem like no other (trumping other problems such as the control of global population or tackling global inequality). Rather, the new IPCC Report tends to situate climate change alongside a range of other factors such as public health, nutrition, access to clean water, the rapid expansion of massive urban populations in low lying regions, and so on. For Curry this introduces a healthy dose of ‘realism’ into AR5. As the Economist argues:
This way of looking at the climate is new for both scientists and policymakers. Until now, many of them have thought of the climate as a problem like no other: its severity determined by meteorological factors, such as the interaction between clouds, winds and oceans; not much influenced by “lesser” problems, like rural development; and best dealt with by trying to stop it (by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions). The new report breaks with this approach. It sees the climate as one problem among many, the severity of which is often determined by its interaction with those other problems. And the right policies frequently try to lessen the burden—to adapt to change, rather than attempting to stop it. In that respect, then, this report marks the end of climate exceptionalism and the beginning of realism.
Note the interesting slip here from ‘we need to adapt and prevent’ to ‘we need to adapt rather than prevent’.
Interestingly enough the controversy about the economic impact of climate change, and Professor Richard Toll’s much publicised criticism of the IPCC’s redrafting of his part of the report, links both narratives. Toll has argued for some time that assessments of the economic costs of climate change such as the Stern Report have grossly overestimated the likely economic impact. Toll argues that the extra costs of 2º C warming are likely to amount to no more than 0.2 to 2% of world GDP or, as he puts it, ‘half a century of climate change is about as bad as losing one years of economic growth’. Toll has said, ”the message in the first draft was that through adaptation and clever development these were manageable risks, but it did require we get our act together”. But whilst Toll’s figures were cited in the final draft they were surrounded by caveats which suggested that many economic impacts (such as ocean acidification) couldn’t yet be quantified and the eventual economic cost was likely to be much greater. For Toll this redrafting was proof, if proof were needed, that the 5AR, like 4AR, is still all about ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’.
Some neo-liberal commentators have already taken Toll’s comments as evidence that the costs of mitigating climate change (by switching to renewables etc) will be greater than the costs of doing nothing. So we can see a new trend emerging here. From outright denial we can anticipate a neo-liberal reconciliation with the scientific evidence on the basis that though climate change is happening the economic impact will be fairly limited and that in ‘adaptation’ there will be abundant opportunities for new sources of economic growth and development. Of course what the Economist completely fails to take into account are the other costs, that is, the non-human costs. Adapting the insurers’ concept of ‘loss adjustment’ George Monbiot notes (Guardian 1st April) that we are being invited to collude with a process of writing off those parts of nature which will be unable to adapt. Indeed I can even glimpse a dystopian version of this neo-liberal position in which, as global temperatures push past a 2 degrees rise towards 4 degrees, new waves of capitalist accumulation arise based on the economic opportunities to be derived from programmes of defence, repair and adaptation to our trashed planet. In their book Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously Brad Evans and Julian Reed argue that the concept of ‘resilience’ has become so fashionable precisely because of the way in which it prepares us for a coming world of endless insecurity and trauma.
Of course the interesting thing is that Pearce’s narrative assumes that AR4 was ‘alarmist in tone’ whereas a growing number of climate scientists privately believe (and some, like Kevin Anderson publicly state) that the IPCC has been so anxious to gain the ear of policy makers that it has in reality consistently understated the degree of danger that we face. The more upbeat tone of AR5, with its strong emphasis on adaptation and resilience, should therefore give us pause for thought. Faced with consistent and overwhelming resistance to the climate change message from all levels of society (we can’t just ‘blame the politicians’ that’s far too easy) is a new common sense emerging which says we have to remain resolutely positive, avoiding anything ‘scary’ or which could make people feel in the slightest bit guilty, appeal to peoples’ better nature and to our common interests, emphasise human resilience and inventiveness, etc.? Within the UK I think we can already see evidence of this trend in, for instance, the belief that we need to reframe our messages so that people don’t simply dismiss it as ‘green’ or ‘environmentalist’, further that the very concept of climate change is a divisive one, it sets people apart rather than bringing them together.
What I’m worried about is that as things gets worse, as the idea of holding global temperature increases to 2 degrees is quietly dropped (as is already starting to happen), we are being encouraged to pull our punches and not do anything that might alienate those who hold opposing views. This is what worried me about the interview with George Marshall in Transition Network of March 20th. Speaking of people who have been affected by the recent flooding in the South West of the UK and yet still don’t make the connection to climate change George says, ’what they are not receptive to is a direct challenge that therefore brings up all of their defences’, and later, ‘the solutions always lie in ways of talking, ways to behave that would involve…drawing people together rather than pulling people apart.’ Well I have to say that whilst the psychotherapist part of me recognises the importance of avoiding judgemental stances and believes in dialogic approaches to change the political activist part of me wonders whether such ‘softly, softly’ approaches don’t always need to be complemented by clear, angry and forceful forms of direct action. Indeed it’s even more complicated than this. For I also recognise that no matter how hard a therapist tries not to be these things he will often be seen as judgemental, smug or condescending because that’s how the client needs to see him at the moment s/he feels challenged. But if the therapist then stopped being challenging then all possibility of psychic change would disappear. Surely we need to be able to identify with the other and care about their plight and we need to be able to talk with conviction.
Which brings me back to the two narratives. Adaptation aims to preserve an existing lifestyle, and in adapting to flooding and other threats people are brought together. Thus it’s attractiveness to policy makers compared to mitigation. And although adaptation is expensive it promotes ‘business as usual’ and an upbeat message – “see, the broken rail link at Dawlish to Cornwall has been restored in record time!” And meanwhile the urgent need for action to mitigate climate change is quietly forgotten as, in the very same week that the rail link is restored and the IPCC Report is published, the UK Conservative Party decides that it will oppose onshore wind turbines in the coming general election.
Now I believe that in the UK the battles to support onshore wind and oppose fracking are both at the forefront of the struggle to sustain the mitigation agenda – onshore wind is the cheapest and most quickly operationalisable renewable whereas fracking directly contradicts the urgent need not to exploit new sources of fossil fuel (hence Bill McKibben’s valuable slogan “Keep it in the ground”). And it is absolutely no coincidence that both the Conservatives and UKIP can oppose onshore wind whilst simultaneously being cheer leaders for fracking shale gas (even though the aesthetic impact on rural landscapes is probably similar). According to the Guardian report (April 5th) which revealed the new strategy, Conservatives believe onshore wind has become self-defeating, ‘alienating people from the whole clean energy debate’. Now whilst I am happy to believe that some Conservatives such as MPs Anne McIntosh and Tim Yeo have a real commitment to clean energy it can’t be any coincidence that both of them were deselected by their constituency associations earlier this year! The reality is that this guff about onshore wind being ‘self-defeating’ is simply a ruse to cover up ‘the dash for gas’.
In conclusion, I’m very wary of the IPCC’s attempt to strike a more ‘upbeat tone’ about climate change because the public do not want any more ‘doom and gloom’ and I’m even more wary of the idea now being trumpeted by some economic interests that, rather than being the fundamental issue facing humanity in the new millennium, climate change can be seen as one problem of many, none of which are inherently insoluble within the ‘business as usual’ paradigm. The threat of climate change seems more urgent and, in the UK, political polarisation on this issue is increasing not decreasing. In this context we surely need to adopt a twin track strategy. On the one hand our psychological knowledge can be put to use to support those already reeling from the effects of climate change (e.g. coping with fear, loss and uncertainty) and to communicate with the lay public in ways which draws together rather than pulls apart. On the other hand we need to fight for renewables and oppose fracking with even greater conviction, and this must mean sharp debate and political opposition to the UKIP led reaction against renewables currently sweeping parts of the UK including the Conservative Party.