Thursday, November 01, 2007

Climate change, imagination and culture, part 2


This is the second part of a three part essay based on a talk given on 22 Oct in the series The Cultures of Climate Change at CRASSH in Cambridge. Part one is here and part 3 is here.

OK, now the second point in this talk. In the introduction to this series it says:
…culture itself constitutes an indispensable form of knowledge that cannot be overlooked if the wider research community is to grapple with climate change in any robust way.
I’m not going to try tackle that statement, or at least not directly. But it does prompt me to think about – or at least talk about! – a type of cultural activity that many people think has become more important in the last thirty years (1) or so: the so-called ‘third culture’ (2) . Put simply, the third culture is supposed to be a new, undivided space where (or so it was claimed) before there were the ‘two cultures’ of ‘the humanities’ and ‘the sciences’. In the third culture people who study the humanities are expected to have more than a little basic scientific literacy and vica versa.

What kinds of activity with regard to climate change might we (3) hope to see in this new-ish (4) cultural space, and in the wider world as a result of developments and debate within that space? It’s a big question. Adequate answers to it may come from very different people, with some surprises down the road.

Mike Hulme, the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, is among of those challenging the recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He writes (5):
I want to examine the thesis, this formula - implicit in the Nobel award - that good science + good communication = peace... The IPCC represents good science, Al Gore and his inconvenient truth represents great communication; put them together and they can change the world. If only it were as simple as this.

[But] this formula is reminiscent of the deficit model of science communication, popular in the 1970s and 1980s, but now largely abandoned…
Put simply, the ‘deficit model’, is the idea that a complex problem will be solved automatically when the gap in public understanding is filled. If you truly understand how much smoking increases the chances you will die prematurely and painfully you will stop smoking. Almost everyone now seems to think the model is too simplistic and past its sell-by date. But Hulme doesn’t actually dismiss it completely:
For sure, let us make sure that everyone understands that humans truly are altering climates around the world and that unfettered carbon-based material growth will lead to accelerated change ahead. This is what science is good at; this is what good science communication should be aimed at. This is lower-case "climate change"' if you will: climate change as physical reality.
No, his point is more complex. We need, he says, to understand the full significance of climate change in a different way:
At [the] point [where we have achieved clear and effective science communication] we have only just started on the task required. There is also an upper-case "Climate Change" phenomenon: Climate Change as a series of complex and constantly evolving cultural discourses. We next need to embark on the much more challenging activity of revealing and articulating the very many reasons why there is no one solution, not even one set of solutions, to (lower-case) climate change.
The novelist Ian McEwan made a similar argument in his contribution to the introduction to a debate on the politics of climate change two and a half years ago (6). 'Good science’ was essential, he said; but was only the start. Where Mike Hulme calls for more work on “the complex and constantly evolving cultural discourses” of “Climate Change” (upper case), Ian McEwan boils this down to “we need to talk”.

So where might we see some interesting conversations and debates in the third culture and what could be their impacts? I’ll give you three examples: two that I think are failures (routes to avoid), and one that sounds like an interesting experiment.

The first is Arts & Letters, an aggregating site that links to new articles, reviews, and essays and opinion ‘of note’ . My impression – admittedly anecdotal – is that A&L is, or at least used to be, quite widely read in academia and journalism by those looking for a quality filter and selector: a quick way to find what’s worth reading and what isn’t (7). But on the subject of climate change A&L doesn’t just fail to meet a quality threshold; it plummets through the quality floor. A correspondent (8) puts it well:
Arts & Letters commits a category mistake (to use the term loosely). It treats climate change as if it exists in the republic of letters and everyone has an equal claim to the truth (9) . But in this area the opinion of a clever journalist is irrelevant when compared with the research done by [thousands] of scientists. What annoys me in particular about the Arts & Letters position…is that it establishes some critical distance between itself and the majority opinion of scientists, without at any point offering justification for the existence of that gap.
The second example of failure is by a far more prominent player: the BBC.

How could I dare say something nasty about Auntie? (10) Only earlier today (11) an experienced activist at one of the most effective environmental groups in Britain told me he sometimes wondered whether The Blue Planet (2001), a BBC series about ocean life, had done more for awareness than thirty years of campaigning by all the green organisations. To be clear, he was wondering about this, not saying it was the case. But many of us may have had a similar thought. I have, anyway. Like almost everyone I know, I think The Blue Planet is fantastic. It is just one example of high quality nature and science programming from the BBC which many people find inspiring (12).

No, the failure is the decision to cancel Planet Relief, which those of you who were in Britain earlier this year will know was to have been a day-long marathon of documentaries, celebrities and what-not climaxing in a giant ‘switch-off’ event in which, it was hoped, millions of people across Britain would see how much difference they could make if they acted together.

Now I am probably in a minority on this one. The majority view is some form of “it is absolutely not the BBC’s job to save the planet”, as a senior figure at the BBC put it, or “I’m glad the BBC axed Planet Relief. Ricky Gervais preaching low-carbon lifestyles would have been celebrity bollocks”, as a Greenpeace activist put it. But since I am standing up and you are sitting down you have to indulge me for a minute – unless, of course, you walk out.

I think the BBC missed an important opportunity to take what the science and the science communicators are saying and (in Mike Hulme’s words), “embark on the much more challenging activity of revealing and articulating the very many reasons why there is no one solution, not even one set of solutions, to climate change”.

In defending the BBC stance, a spokesman said the organisation would “focus [its] energies on a range of factual programmes on the important and complex subject of climate change” (13).

But how far does the realm of relevant facts – and arguments – extend? If the science indicates (14) that even stabilisation of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at 450ppm by 2050 carries a large risk of a global average temperature rise of more than 2° C, then the world is facing huge ethical, political and developmental challenges – the planetary emergency mentioned earlier. And even for lesser levels of risk this is so. As is the case in wartime, a national broadcaster has a profound responsibility to address these challenges with tremendous energy, creativity and boldness, not just make informative science and nature documentaries (15). The BBC and other media organisations need to tackle at least the following issues in their investigations and programming, in addition to standard science and nature reporting:

• The nature of time delays between cause and effect, how stocks and flows work (17);
• Uncertainty in science and risk management (18);
• Ethical, political and economic choices, and their consequences;
• ‘Solutions’ including but not limited to sustainable development pathways, the costs of adaptation, investment in sustainable energy technology, energy-efficiency, low-carbon living and ecological restoration.

Strictly Come Dancing it ain’t, but something like it is part of the minimum necessary to fill the deficit in public understanding. Now filling the deficit doesn’t always lead to effective action, as Mike Hulme rightly says. But it can help. Quite a few people, though of course not all, stop smoking once they fully understand its effects. This in turn affects the perception of the ‘right’ of others to pollute-and-bugger-the-consequences. Look at what is the matter in Kansas: recently, proposals for a new coal-fired power plant there have been turned down on the grounds that it would contribute to climate change (19).

The third example is an event earlier this month near Berlin. Hans Joachim – ‘John’ – Schellnhuber, the Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research, brought together 15 Nobel Prize winners (from many disciplines but most of them from the ‘hard’ sciences – physics, chemistry etc.) with the German Chancellor (20) and others distinguished figures including economists and writers (21). They signed a memorandum (pdf) with the ambitious title A Global Contract for the Great Transformation. I think it is worth reading, but the memorandum is not actually what I have in mind. My example – an experiment, I think – is the ongoing interaction between climate scientists like John Schellnhuber and artists, writers and others.

In the case of Schellnhuber himself, the first time I became aware of this was an event over a year ago at London’s Royal Court Theatre, where Schellnhuber and Chris Rapley, at that time head of the British Antarctic Survey, found themselves on stage in front of a couple of hundred people mostly from the London arts scene. Schellnhuber and Rapley talked about climate science but they used anecdote too. Schellnhuber recounted his experience when as a young student in the 1970s wandering round West Africa he found himself in the middle of famine. Being young and idealistic he wanted to help, and before long found himself protecting precious food supplies from an angry mob with a pistol. His point was simple: this was where we were heading with climate change if we didn’t change our behaviour, and he wanted to avoid it.

Now I wasn’t at the recent event in Potsdam, but I’ve read a little about it and talked to someone who was there. It seems that Schellnhuber and others continued their courtship of the arts. Ian McEwan read aloud his piece about the boot room on the Cape Farewell expedition boat Noorderlicht: a funny story about how good intentions to co-operate can collapse which you can take as a parable for our times, but which no one would claim to be great art. And I think I heard that Schellnhuber gently badgered Philip Pullman to write more about climate change, in reaction to which Pullman gently cringed.

If the account of Pullman cringing is correct this would be consistent with something he has said elsewhere – that it isn’t necessarily a good idea to try and bang out a novel or a play and convert people to a cause; you have to let imagination work indirectly (22). Maybe one has to go back to the nineteenth century to find novels-with-a-cause that people regard, or at least regarded for a long time, as major works of fiction – such as Charles Dickens on child labour and Harriet Beecher Stowe on slavery (23).

Still, I think the experiment by Schellnhuber and others is worth watching, even if we may never be able measure whether and how these issues get ‘into the gut’ of those who create great imaginative worlds and ideas. I wonder, for example, if Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Laureate in physics who took part in the Potsdam symposium, has talked to Cormac McCarthy about this sort of thing, or will do so further down the road (24).


(1) Taking the success of The Selfish Gene (1976) as a marker of the emergence of the ‘third culture’. Set aside any judgements on the quality and durability of its science and implicit politics, this book was - arguably - the first in modern times that that no ‘cultured’ person, including those who previously professed very little interest in science, could not have read and still claim to be educated. [On the quality and durability of the science in The Selfish Gene see David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson on Survival of the selfless: "Accepting multilevel selection has profound implications. It means we can no longer regard the individual as a privileged level of the biological hierarchy. Adaptations can potentially evolve at any level, from genes to ecosystems. Moreover, the balance between levels of selection is not fixed but can itself evolve - and when between-group selection becomes sufficiently strong compared with within-group selection in a given population, a major transition occurs and the group becomes a higher-level organism in its own right."]

(2) One of the most interesting exemplars is probably

(3) The ‘we’ here means those of us who think that, as I said at the start of this talk, climate change is a first order planetary emergency. If you disagree with this view, fine, we can talk about it; but outside, and not today.

(4) ‘New’ up to a point: it is of course in part the revival of an old idea going back to the Renaissance in Europe, and some other traditions.

(5) Climate change: from issue to magnifier, openDemocracy, 19 October 2007

(6) Let’s talk about climate change, 20 April 2005. McEwan reserves his praise for ‘good science’, and is highly critical of the environmental movement: “Well-meaning intellectual movements, from communism to post-structuralism, have a poor history of absorbing inconvenient data or challenges to fundamental precepts. We should not ignore or suppress good indicators on the environment”. McEwan’s article formed part of the introduction to a debate on the politics of climate change from the British Council and openDemocracy, which ran from April to June 2005. The home page of the original debate is no longer available, but an overview of the debate can be found here.

(7) The site’s motto is ‘veritas odit moras’ (‘truth hates delay’) – from Seneca.

(8) In other words, A&L mistakes climate change (the science) for Climate Change (the cultural discourse) – CH.

(9) Robert Butler quoted in A&(WO)L, Grains of Sand, 20 Sep 07

(10) Disclosure: in the mid 1990s I worked for about a year at Costing the Earth, the flagship environment series on BBC Radio 4. At that time there was some struggle about presenting ‘both sides, not just the evidence’ on climate change. The BBC has moved on from that, but others make it their bread and butter.

(11) 22 Oct 07

(12) I was glad when David Attenborough finally fronted a film directly addressing climate change – Climate Change: Britain Under Threat (2007). (Incidentally, what was the first really powerful film or TV series about environmental degradation? Koyaanisqatsi (1983)? Was it a documentary?)

(13) It has been announced that two and a half thousand posts will go at the BBC, “many of them in the next nine months, with 1,800 redundancies overall and news and factual programming worst hit”. Crisis at the BBC: Is there a vision? The Guardian, 22 Oct 2007. (emphasis added)

(14) See The Certainty of Uncertainty,, 26 Oct 07: “450 ppm is an oft-cited threshold since this keeps deltaT below 2°C using standard climate sensitivities. But the skewed nature of the distribution of possible sensitivities means that it is much more likely that 450 ppm will give us more than 4.5°C of global warming rather than less than 2°”

(15) Perhaps the BBC management, cowed by the pasting it received for allowing a reporter to suggest that the facts of the Iraq war had been fixed around the policy, rather than vica versa, has become excessively conservative. It has been argued elsewhere that most senior figures at the BBC and the regulator OFCOM have an arts and humanities education but little proper grounding in the sciences. In this sense they are not really citizens of the third culture and tend to fall into the same trap as the editors of Arts & Letters. One of the other factors in the decision to cancel Planet Relief may have been that TV audiences for Al Gore’s Live Earth concert in July were something like a quarter of those for the thanksgiving concert for the life of Diana.

(16) Obviously this list is far from perfect or comprehensive.

(17) See, for example, Why ‘wait and see’ won’t do by John Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeney, or my riff: “Imagine that you find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile tearing down a superhighway at high speed. Instead of a normal windscreen in front of you a video shows the view from where the car was a minute ago. The first thing you would probably do in such a situation is take your foot off the accelerator. Next, you might try work out where you actually are now, where you are heading, and what you can you do about it. In the case of anthropogenic climate change the time lag may be fifty or sixty years rather than sixty seconds, but the principle is the same. What we are seeing now are the consequences of what we did some time ago, and we cannot see directly the impact of what we are doing right now.” – from Six Caveats about Six Degrees, 26 Mar 07.

(18) One can do worse than start with How it all ends, a clip posted on YouTube by a high school teacher called Greg.

(19) Citing Global Warming, Kansas Denies Plant Permit, New York Times, 20 Oct 2007

(20) Global sustainability: 1st interdisciplinary symposium.

(21) Angela Merkel holds a doctorate in physics. She is the political leader of the world’s largest exporter.

(22) Referring to a recent Tipping Point conference in Oxford, Pullman wrote: “I detected a sense on the part of some people present that they felt that all the arts people needed to do was get some information in their heads and then go off and bang out a novel or a play and convert thousands of readers; and more than one of the artists had to make the point that you don't create with your will, but with your imagination, and you can't exactly direct that. Nor can you predict how the audience will react: you might think you'd written the most passionate denunciation of globalisation, and people read it for the love story.” (One week in SeptemberThe Guardian).

(23) An exception to that 'rule', perhaps, at least after World War One would be fierce, Swiftian works of satire like Brave New World, 1984, Catch 22 etc.

(24) According to Wikipedia, McCarthy and Gell-Mann are friends, and McCarthy quite often visits the Santa Fe Institute.

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