Purdue Climate Change Research Center

REVIEW ESSAY "It's Too Late Baby, Now, It's Too Late?"

August 23, 2011

“It’s Too Late Baby, Now, It’s Too Late?”

Frustration and Resignation in Recent

Books on Climate Change Policy

Review by Leigh Raymond

_______________________________________________

Hulme, Mike. 2009. Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding

Controversy, Inaction, and Opportunity. Cambridge University Press.

Malone, Elizabeth L. 2009. Debating Climate Change: Pathways through

Argument to Agreement. Sterling, VA: Earthscan.

Stehr, Nico and Hans von Storch. 2010. Climate and Society: Climate as

Resource, Climate as Risk. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific.

_______________________________________________

 

      At the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio

de Janeiro, the nations of the world began to work in earnest on poli-

cies addressing anthropogenic climate change. Eighteen years later,

after tremendous acrimony and disagreement, the one thing all sides

appear to agree on is how little progress has been made. This

disappointing (for some) state of affairs has inspired a new round of

introspection and reflection among climate change scientists and advocates

alike. Three important contributions to this “where do we go

from here” discussion are reviewed in this essay: Why We Disagree

About Climate Change, by Mike Hulme, Debating Climate Change,

by Elizabeth Malone, and Climate and Society, by Nico Stehr and

Hans von Storch.

      Despite their authors’ very different institutional, national, and

professional backgrounds, the books draw some surprisingly similar

conclusions. All acknowledge the miserable state of climate change

politics today. All agree on the need for more social science in the

study of climate change, and for better recognition and understanding

of the social or cultural factors that shape climate science and policy.

These are important points, and climate change scientists, advocates,

and policy makers would do well to take note of them.

      From this common ground, however, the authors arrive at remarkably

different conclusions about what to do next. After providing an

exhaustive review of the many reasons why we continue to disagree

about climate change, for example, Hulme concludes that we should

stop trying to “solve the problem” and focus instead on what we

might learn from climate change in terms of improving our collective

worldview and lifestyles. Stehr and von Storch largely follow Hulme’s

argument that cultural factors impede our ability to agree on climate

policy, and that we had better get ready for changes in climate that

are now inevitable. At the same time, they are more critical of these

cultural factors than Hulme, arguing that poor public and media

understanding of climate science is a crucial obstacle to better climate

policy. They are also less worried about the risks of future climate

change and urge policies focused more on adaptation strategies and

opportunity costs. Finally we have Malone, whose book is in some

ways the most optimistic, agreeing with Hulme about the “vibrant”

nature of current climate discourse in all its conflict. Unlike Hulme,

however, Malone believes she has found seeds of agreement in this

conflicted discourse. Unlike Stehr and von Storch, she also seeks to

move the public conversation regarding mitigation forward, rather

than accepting and adapting to inevitable climate change effects.

      Thus, the three books form a sort of triangle of agreement and

disagreement. Hulme and Stehr and von Storch largely agree on the

inevitability of future climate change, while Malone remains more

focused on mitigation efforts. At the same time, Malone and Hulme

accept the social construction of climate science, while Stehr and von

Storch are sharply critical of undue cultural distortion of scientific

analysis. This makes the books a striking example not only of how polarized

the debate over climate science and policy remains, but also

of how experts in the field draw different conclusions from the same

basic assessment of the state of the public discourse on this topic. In

this respect, the texts themselves represent the challenges and opportunities

of differing social constructions of the climate problem very

well.

      Hulme’s book is the most ambitious, and ultimately frustrating, of

the three. It reads like a personal struggle by a self-professed believer

in the dangers of anthropogenic climate change over how to deal

with the inability of the world to agree on almost anything regarding

the topic. The substantial majority of the book (eight out of ten chapters)

offers a comprehensive review of the many reasons why we dis-

agree about climate change. These chapters are organized by different

approaches to the issue, including science, risk management and

communication, economics, religion and ethics, and politics. The

breadth of the review is ambitious, but Hulme does an admirable job

discussing important concepts in many of these areas, including the

social construction of science and the “Cultural Theory” approach to

risk perception, disagreements over discounting and the role of nonmonetary

values in economics, and the manner in which various major

religions have grappled with climate change. Although any review

of this breadth is bound to have some important areas of omission—

in this case the lack of attention to economic methods such as contingent

valuation, and work on risk perception rooted in Prospect

Theory or Paul Slovic’s research come to mind—the overall discussion

is thoughtful and well-informed on a wide range of disciplinary perspectives.

This is an impressive achievement for any interdisciplinary

book, especially one with a single author. It also makes the book a

useful potential addition to many courses on climate science and

policy.

      Hulme’s conclusions about what we should do in the face of this

intractable disagreement are more problematic. Addressing this topic

primarily in the first and last chapters, he argues that rather than trying

to “solve” the problem of climate change, we should shift attention

to a different question: “…how does the idea of climate change

alter the way we arrive at and achieve our personal aspirations and

our collective social goals?” (p. xxviii). He suggests that we should be

able to use the “idea” of climate change as “an intellectual resource

around which our collective and personal identities and projects can

form and take shape.” Channeling the spirit of former U.S. President

John F. Kennedy, Hulme concludes: “We need to ask not what we can

do for climate change, but to ask what climate change can do for us”

(p. 326).

      Although this is a thought-provoking reaction to the current political

stalemate about climate change, it is hard to figure out exactly

what Hulme has in mind. Part of his argument appears driven by a

sense of resignation that the climate system is already on the road to

substantial changes no matter what we do, so we had better start

thinking about how we want to live in this new world. This need to

“face up to an uncomfortable reality” (p. 332) of political failure and

now inevitable changes in our climate is an important part of Hulme’s

argument, one that resonates in important ways with the conclusions

of Stehr and von Storch.

      But Hulme’s argument goes beyond mere fatalism, citing the transformative

potential of climate change for improving our self-conception

and our collective goals. This positive spin on climate change as a “resource”

appears to stem from a sense that humanity has a long and

complicated historical relationship with fears over climate change

(another point echoed by Stehr and von Storch), but has proven able

to live in a wide range of climatic conditions. (In Chapter 1, Hulme

even mentions theories of climate change as a useful stimulus to important

evolutionary developments). Thus, Hulme (p. 363) urges that

we use climate change to stimulate “new thinking about technology,”

“new artistic creations,” and to “invigorate efforts to protect our citizens

from the hazards of climate.” This seems like a quiet call for

more policies related to adaptation to climate change, although the

details of how we might use climate change to “…rethink how we

take forward our political, social, economic and personal projects”

(p. 362) remain frustratingly unspecified. This lack of detail leaves the

reader a bit nonplussed at the end of Hulme’s lengthy text: having

been well-convinced of all the reasons why we disagree about climate

change, we are offered a relatively short exhortation to embrace

our new future as a path to new thinking about the human condition.

More discussion of how we might utilize climate change as an asset

for human development would make Hulme’s conclusions more reassuring,

especially for those genuinely worried about a changing climate’s

impact in the coming decades.

      Stehr and von Storch go farther than Hulme in explicitly calling

for policies related to climate adaptation, including adaptation to currently

existing climate risks such as flooding or extreme weather

events. In a chapter entitled the “Zeppelin Manifesto on Climate Protection,”

Stehr and von Storch (pp. 130–131) echo Hulme in arguing

that anthropogenic warming is now inevitable, and that any climate

policy that neglects the “urgent need for adaptation” is “irresponsible.”

Unlike Hulme, the authors of Climate and Society show little interest

in using climate change as a foil for rethinking humanity’s basic

goals and relationship with the natural world. Their view is more

pragmatic, arguing that adaptation, rather than climate change mitigation,

is likely to generate the most benefits for the citizens of today

and the future.

      Indeed, although it reaches similar conclusions to Why We Disagree

about Climate Change, Climate and Society is far less sanguine

about the cultural factors shaping climate policy and science. Despite

the relative brevity of their manuscript (137 pages, or about 1/3 the

length of Hulme’s volume), Stehr and von Storch give more detail than

Hulme in their historical examples of human concerns about climate

change, including an extended discussion of now-discredited theories

of “climate determinism” which argued that climate has a powerful

effect on shaping human cultures. Climate and Society also includes

a detailed and instructive discussion of various ways in which humans

have misinterpreted climate data and natural variability over time.

      Thus, Stehr and von Storch appear resigned but unhappy about

the deep influence of culture on the interpretation and framing of climate

science. Their discussion of “climate as a human construct,” for

example, consists of a litany of (familiar) complaints about public

misinformation on climate change and science in general, as well as

a condemnation of climate scientists for pursuing “political, ideological,

and other subjective interests alongside their scientific interests”

(p. 105). Where Hulme views the cultural construction of climate

change as a unique opportunity for rethinking the human condition,

Stehr and von Storch see it as a perhaps unavoidable but certainly regrettable

obstacle to our ability to make scientifically rational climate

policy.

      In this respect, Stehr and von Storch’s argument follows what

Hulme refers to as the technocratic model of science in policy making,

suggesting in effect that the problem with climate policy is the inability

of good scientific information to carry the day. This makes their

policy recommendations unsatisfying in the opposite manner as

Hulme’s: where Hulme is optimistic (but frustratingly vague) about the

transformative opportunities presented by climate change, Stehr and

von Storch are too dismissive of any positive effects or opportunities

that might result from the “social construction” of climate. Indeed,

Stehr and von Storch (p. 126) imply by historical analogy that many

of today’s policies about climate change are not unlike the Archbishop

of Canterbury’s “climate policy” (their phrase) in the fourteenth

century demanding holy services and fasting to improve a series of ruinous

crop failures due to above average rainfall.

      In making these sorts of analogies throughout their text, Stehr and

von Storch score a number of effective polemical points. Unfortunately,

they also oversimplify the relationship of human culture and climate

science in a way that is ironic for a book stressing the need for better

social science on climate change. Reviewing previous periods of human

concern about climate is useful for understanding the current

conflict over climate change, and both Hulme and Stehr and von

Storch offer excellent reading in this regard. The apparent implication,

however, that today’s worries about climate change are much like

those of previous centuries (that is, based on an irrational public fear

and misunderstanding of basic facts about weather variability and climate)

is facile without more careful comparison across cases, and

fails to consider modern humanity’s much greater global reach. This

oversimplification is aggravated by the surprisingly casual approach

to documenting social phenomena in the Stehr and von Storch text.

The authors frequently rely on anecdotal evidence from a handful of

embarrassing or inaccurate media accounts or reports (often in the early

days of climate discourse in the 1990s) to make a particular point, or

report survey results as percentages without basic information like the

number of respondents for each question. Although one suspects the

authors have better data than what they present to support their

claims, the lack of such detail weakens their arguments considerably.

      Although Hulme offers a more careful discussion of the social

construction of science than Stehr and von Storch, he also seems a little

blasé about the potential differences between today’s concerns

about anthropogenic climate change and the climate change worries

of previous eras. After reading both books, it is easy to think that

Hulme would largely agree with Stehr and von Storch (p. 136) when

they conclude: “The past has shown that humankind will solve the

problems linked [to climate] changes, and we are convinced that it

will continue to succeed in this.” Hulme is a bit more pessimistic, but

still concludes that even if we stabilize climate at two degrees C

above current values (something he finds unlikely), “it is difficult to

see any reason” why our lives will be better as we will still live in “a

world with wars, poverty, inequality, hunger, and disease” (p. 337).

      This somewhat blithe belief in our resilience to climate change,

past and future, is the most frustrating aspect of these two very different

books. On the one hand, both offer a detailed consideration of

many social and cultural factors that make climate change a difficult

policy issue resistant to political change today. In at least one instance,

that discussion is quite thorough and carefully presented. But

the largely unquestioned premise of both books appears to be that

current anxiety about climate change is substantially similar to other

historical cases of humans worrying (often irrationally) over a changing

climate. The implication, made explicitly in Climate and Society

and only implicitly in Hulme’s book, is that our current worries about

risks to human society are exaggerated—humanity will be OK in our

new climate-changed world, and there isn’t much we can do to stop

the changes that are coming anyway.

      While this is a defensible claim, it requires some actual evidence.

Unfortunately, the idea of human resilience to climate change in the

coming decades serves more like a core assumption than an active

point of argument in both texts. Stehr and von Storch briefly address

several of the more serious worries of some climate scientists, including

sea level rise or the greater spread of diseases, but quickly dismiss

these concerns. Avoiding the details of such scientific controversies

makes Climate and Society more readable and streamlined, but it also

leaves the book vulnerable to the criticism that anthropogenic climate

change happening today is quite different in severity and scale than

in previous examples of climate change “anxiety.” (As an aside, it is

also worth noting that there is little concern expressed in either book

about climate change’s impact on nonhuman species, some of which

appear to be at grave risk of extinction in a warmer world).

      Elizabeth Malone takes a different approach to the current climate

change stalemate. Rather than accepting future climate change as a

given and shifting our focus toward adaptation, Malone hopes to uncover

prospects for new agreements on climate mitigation from a

more careful analysis of current climate change discourse. Like Hulme,

she is less interested in finding any definitive “scientific truth” about

climate change, and more interested in the social construction of various

climate change arguments. Unlike Hulme, Malone believes that

our current social constructions of climate change offer “pathways to

agreement.” Reviewing 100 public documents and statements related

to climate change from a variety of sources dating from 1993–2003,

she claims to find some basis for agreement “in the arguments themselves—

in the definition of the situation, or in one or more of the

premises, or in the proposals made” (p. 54).

      By taking this approach Malone tackles conflicting climate arguments

head on, hoping to find a way to agree on climate change

hidden within the arguments themselves. This makes her book the

clearest attempt at offering a path toward political progress on the

issue, which is commendable (at least to this political scientist). Her

focus on the content of specific arguments is also refreshing—an example

of a growing trend in social science and policy research that

takes ideas seriously as a source of political change and power. In this

respect, her work is a good example of a growing social science literature

devoted to climate change, contrary to the complaints of Stehr

and von Storch (p. 136) that “hardly any social science climate research”

exists.

      Malone documents several points of agreement among different

“families” of arguments about climate change. All arguments in her

study, she says, take climate change seriously as a problem, agree on

the vast uncertainties regarding the issue, and agree that the issue is

not a problem “sui generis” but has important precedents and linkages

(p. 81). Perhaps more importantly, she concludes (p. 102) that

many of the arguments in her data agree that people can manage nature

successfully, and also often agree on similar policy objectives like

greater technological progress on this issue.

      Malone also conducts a “social network analysis” to find additional

connections of professional authority, worldview, or types of

acceptable evidence shared by these speakers. Her claim is that these

shared connections offer additional routes to agreement. This is a creative

way to approach the current political stalemate, but one that is

somewhat different from Malone’s original and laudable goal of finding

agreement in the content of various arguments being made on all

sides of the climate debate.

      It is also hard to believe that some of the connections that emerge

from this social network analysis offer much basis for agreement. Anyone

who has witnessed discussions at faculty meetings or academic

conferences might question, for example, the claim that the shared

professional authority of being an “academic” constitutes an important

new basis for future agreement among those promulgating different

climate arguments (p. 87). In addition, the social networks that emerge

from her computerized analysis include some extremely odd bedfellows.

To claim that the American Petroleum Institute and two climate

justice activists from India (Sunita Narain and Anil Agarwal) share the

same worldview and are in the same social network, as Malone does,

is to stretch the bounds of credibility. Such results call the social network

analysis portion of the book into some question, even though with

more refinement of its categories of analysis the method has potential

for exposing hidden areas of commonality among climate speakers.

      Malone’s self-selection of the 100 documents without random

sampling or other methods to address selection bias also calls some

of her results into question, including numerous conclusions about

the “largest number of arguments” in her sample relying on the same

underlying assumptions, or the “predominance” of scientific voices in

the climate debate. Although the author initially cautions the reader

against her ability to make claims about the “relative prevalence” of

arguments or anything else due to the sample of convenience (p. 60),

some of her subsequent analysis still draws these kinds of conclusions.

She also does not present many of her quantitative data results in

the book, again one presumes in the hopes of greater readability. But as

with Stehr and von Storch above, the lack of certain important details

makes her overall argument more difficult to evaluate or interpret.

      Although unfortunate, these weaknesses do not obviate the general

importance of Malone’s project. “Ideas matter,” as Deborah Stone

has said about politics, and Malone’s book offers a promising approach

on how to craft political agreements out of seemingly opposed

climate discourses. Her evidence that conflicting discourses can converge

on similar policy solutions is the most concrete (and useful) suggestion

in any of these books on how to find a path forward from the

current climate policy stalemate—focusing less on why we disagree

about climate science, or even on the social construction of the climate

issue, and more on specific, potentially narrow, shared policy

objectives. Malone is probably more optimistic about how much

room for such agreement she has uncovered than others might be, but

at least she offers a political path forward rather than recommending

either (a) we embrace the idea of a warmer, riskier future as an opportunity

for self-reflection, or (b) we somehow get the media and public

to listen more attentively to objective climate scientists.

      For this careful focus on areas of argument and agreement in climate

policy, Malone’s book deserves a wide audience. But after reading

these three books at this moment of political frustration, it is hard

to shake the sense that all of them have a somewhat unrealistic view

of the political process. While they are on solid ground in their general

discouragement regarding the lack of policy progress on climate

change over the past two decades, their analyses are surprisingly deficient

in their understanding of politics—at least as most political scientists

understand the process.

      For example, all three books pay surprisingly little attention to the

role of interests—especially economic interests—in obstructing or facilitating

any agreement on climate change. One does not have to be

a dyed-in-the-wool public choice scholar to acknowledge that the

major economic interests at stake in climate change conflicts make

agreement more unlikely. (As others have noted, the Upton Sinclair

quotation that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something

when his salary depends upon his not understanding it” seems very

relevant to the current climate change discussion). Yet in more than

600 combined pages of analysis, these books spend virtually no time

on this aspect of the debate. Hulme talks briefly about the large eco-

nomic issues at stake, in distinguishing climate change from the more

easily resolved problem of ozone depletion, but overall the books

treat various climate change arguments in relative isolation from the

powerful economic incentives that might keep us from agreeing well

into the future. While the focus on ideas and arguments is welcome,

it is important to connect those arguments to the powerful economic

interests at stake. Any “pathways to agreement” will have to confront

these economic interests, and how they shape the arguments and beliefs

of specific actors.

      Indeed, a more critical perspective might question the relentless

focus in these books on agreement. Malone (p. 126) suggests at the

end of her work that it would be “fruitless” to seek a path forward

where “everyone agrees about everything from the definition of the

climate change issue to the steps to address it.” She remains convinced

that the key to political progress is to not wait for agreement

on every detail in order to explore areas of agreeable policy action.

This is in welcome contrast to Hulme, who concludes that our inability

to agree on the details of the climate change issue is largely fatal

to political progress. Stehr and von Storch also seem to think that

disagreements in public and scientific understandings of climate change

block most policy progress, but say little about how to overcome

those obstacles, offering only a manifesto of what rational policymakers

should do (but presumably will not).

      This pessimism about the political process is understandable

given the timing of these books on the heels of the widely condemned

failures of recent UN negotiations at Copenhagen, Bali, and earlier.

But the focus on agreement regarding climate science and risk may

obscure alternative paths toward policy progress, especially in terms

of shared policy objectives among diverse coalitions at smaller scales.

Significant examples in this respect (that are not discussed in these

books) include surprising sub-national developments on climate policy,

including the unexpected emergence of important new climate

policies (such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) at the state

and regional level in the U.S. and Canada.

      In other words, too much focus on why we disagree about climate

change may overlook the vital role of ambiguity in politics. Sometimes

ambiguous arguments and policy declarations are the best option

for addressing important policy problems. While Stehr and von

Storch seem convinced that more precision in our understanding of

the climate problem is the way forward, other students of the political

process might argue the opposite: only a reasonably vague or am-

biguous agreement is likely to have any political success, at least in

the short term. One need only look at examples of ambiguous policies

like the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (all six pages of

it) or the Endangered Species Act and their significant and somewhat

surprising impacts as models in this respect. (“Normative pragmatists”

like William Lafferty have made similar arguments about the useful

ambiguity of policy ideas like “sustainable development” in this

regard.)

      Indeed, the big question raised by these books, and our collective

frustrations with climate change policy today, is how climate change

differs from many other so-called “wicked” problems with conflicting

science and no clear social consensus. Somehow, the world has made

progress on many of these wicked problems, including issues related

to the global commons. We have a Law of the Sea treaty dealing (with

at least limited success) with the overuse of global fisheries, for example,

and a reasonably effective Antarctic Treaty limiting exploitation

and militarization of that continent. The European Union has made

significant strides in regulating uncertain and socially constructed

risks about synthetic chemicals in recent years. How is climate change

different from these other concerns? Why has it been impossible to

make even this degree of incremental progress in the climate area?

Are the many challenges outlined by these authors regarding climate

policy applicable to a wider range of environmental and other problems?

If so, does this suggest we are reaching the limits of our political

and social structures to address certain global problems? These

books are largely silent on this point, but this question of what we

might call “climate exceptionalism” seems to be the elephant in the

room—what is it about climate change, exactly, that distinguishes it

from other problems in making political progress so difficult?

      Perhaps it is unfair to ask these authors to address this issue, but

their work clearly raises the question of how climate change is (or is

not) different from other global environmental governance problems.

Rather than asking why we disagree about climate change, in the end,

the reader of these books may be left asking why we disagree (or not)

about climate change so much more deeply than other difficult, global,

scientifically-complex environmental problems. What is it about climate

change in particular that inspires such a spectacular level of

conflict and policy gridlock even after nearly twenty years of effort to

reach agreement and consensus? An answer to that difficult question,

one suspects, might point toward additional pathways to agreement

on this issue, if they are indeed out there to be found.

 

Nature and Culture 6(2), Summer 2011: 192–203 © Berghahn Journals

doi:10.3167/nc.2011.060205

 

_

Leigh Raymond is Associate Professor of Political Science at Purdue University

and a founding member and Associate Director of the Purdue Climate

Change Research Center. He received his Ph.D. in Environmental Science,

Policy, and Management from U.C. Berkeley, and a B.A. in Philosophy from

Yale University. Raymond has published on environmental and climate policy

in a variety of journals, as well as in his 2003 book Private Rights in Public

Resources. His most recent work on climate policy is a chapter on “The

Emerging Revolution in Emissions Trading” in the 2010 Brookings Press volume,

Greenhouse Governance. Address: Department of Political Science,

Purdue University, 100 N. University Street,

 

 

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