Tag Archives: climate change

Energy “futures”

This post was first published for the Nobel Prize Dialogue.

Sociologists like to talk about the sociology of expectations, the manufacture of futures. You can’t just say “it’s the future, take it” (or at least you can’t and not just sound like a bit of a tool). But futures are made, not least by imagining what we might expect, and those expectations can be managed. Or, as the sociologists put it, ‘the future of science and technology is actively created in the present through contested claims and counterclaims over its potential’ (UCL has a good overview, if you want to read more).

A nice study of making the future in action can be found in Megan Prelinger’s book ‘Advertising the Space Race: Another Science Fiction’. We’re all quite used to the idea that science fiction may interact with actual science and technology (nice report on this from NESTA or just go have a nostalgia over Jetson’s videophones). What Prelinger’s book does is show how science fictional ideas and images were really reflected in 1950s and 1960s adverts for space technologies. Amongst the trade magazines of the mid-20th century, Prelinger shows how some of the most fascinating discourses of hope for the future weren’t in the pages of pulp fiction, but those aiming to cash in on the ‘new frontier’ of space. As such, they actually worked to construct this future too.

What has this got to do with energy?

Much of this Dialogue on energy was about offering us imagined futures from which to make decisions about today. Because so much of the energy debate comes down to ideas of economic growth and climate change, it is deeply futuristic; obsessed with forecasts. Technological forecasts. Economic forecasts. Climate forecasts. All uncertain – indeed, we saw several of the Dialogue speakers joke about having forecasted incorrect oil prices – but all powerful too. Just the very idea of what the future could be can provoke a particular response, used as tools to both close down and unlock policy ideas. Forecasts frame futures, they are part of the materials we make tomorrow from, even if they can’t predict or determine what is going to happen, or we act in spite of them rather than with them.

The futuristic aspects of the energy debate were played out quite reflexively at the end of the Dialogue with the concluding discussion ‘mapping scenarios for our energy future’. The panel – Fatih Birol, Steven Chu, Karin Markides, Johan Rockström and Semida Silveira – reflected in a reasonably dramatic way where they might imagine being at some date in the future. Or at least it was more dramatic than the usual abstracted graphs of the business (which we’d all seen many examples of during the day) though less dramatic than traditional science fiction, rooted in their expert ideas of what they feel to be real and likely rather than simply what would make a good story. Day After Tomorrow this wasn’t.

Earlier in the day saw some interesting debate around the role of technology in building the various environmental and economic models. Rajendra Pachauri in particular argued that we were not baring in mind technology enough in terms of forecasting. We need to consider technology prospects and work out how to better fold them into our energy projections. We need to think about disruptive technologies (e.g. that shale gas revolution we’re always being told about). Such arguments have a long history. The Limits to Growth report in the 1970s was criticised at the time by people such as Chris Freeman, arguing that, for all that yes, the Earth only contained so many resources, their particular projections had failed to give enough attention to technology. One might argue, however, that we already work too much influence of technology into our forecasts as we fold in still under-developed technologies such as CCS into our forecasts (Kevin Anderson is interesting on this, even if you don’t agree with him). Or as Greenpeace’s Isadora Wronski tweeted in response to one of the Dialogue’s talks, ‘every year @IEA projections gets closer and closer to ours, but they overestimate the role of nuclear and CCS in the decarbonisation.’ Maybe the IEA are right. Or maybe Greenpeace are. I don’t know. My point is simply that it is contested. And that you may have to expect the unexpected, but you can’t count on it.

Above all, I think we need to think more about how we might involve a larger number people in this sort of imagining. As my colleagues at the STEPS Centre might say, too often it’s narrations of the future built by powerful actors and institutions which become ‘the motorways channeling policy, governance and interventions’ overrunning a host of often valuable and more diverse pathways which stem from and respond to poorer people’s own goals, knowledge and values.

Because nice as the scenarios session at the end of the Dialogue was, it was a line up of the great and the good giving us stories. It wasn’t an exercise in collaborative story-making. And we need to take more time to do that. Otherwise I doubt the futures we make will be nearly robust or fair enough. And the policy-makers, scientists and engineers need to get better at devoting large chunks of time to talking with a diverse set of people about what they are doing, in a very routine way. Relying on technologies such as CCS or geoengineering into the various forecasts we use for energy policy before they are even built is one thing we might fight about, but doing so without first explaining what these are to the public and inviting them to be part of decisions around them is another.

“We’re using a lot of energy, and we’re doing it in an extremely uneven way”

This post was first published for the Nobel Prize Dialogue.

The UK Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander recently claimed the new government energy bill cutting plan was a “win, win” policy.

But can there really be any such thing as a win-win policy when it comes to energy? Because even putting aside specific scepticism about the UK context of that line, the simplistic binary of ‘win-win’ limits the sorts of questions, perspectives and expectations we might have about energy policy. It glosses over the diversity of people within such groups and the diversity of ideas or impacts they might have. There are more people on the planet, and more people yet to be born in the planet to consider than simply those charging and playing bills in one country today. There also other businesses, other ways people interact with energy than simply bills, other ideas, other frames, other ways we might weight our concept of winning.

As Sujatha Raman, Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Nottingham, said when I asked for questions to take with me to the Nobel Dialogue: ‘Can we have affordable uninterrupted energy supply (the International Energy Agency’s definition of energy security) without the exploitation of somebody somewhere?‘

With that in mind, one of the most interesting themes I saw emerge in the Nobel Prize Dialogue was discussion of difference. As Chris Llewellyn Smith, Director of Energy Research at Oxford University, started off his discussion on energy outlooks: ‘We’re using a lot of energy, and we’re doing it in an extremely uneven way.’ On a very simple level, some people are getting to use more energy than others. There are big emitters, who also get the value of these emissions, and low ones, who simply don’t have access to such value.

Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA, stressed issues of difference perhaps most of all the introductory morning talks. As well as making a moral case for a pro-poor global energy strategy with drive to even out access to energy resources, he outlined some of the complexities of the global energy market, showing that what is true for one country is very different for another. He also stressed change; difference over time. Or, as he put it, the ‘job descriptions of key energy players are being re-written’. Countries which had previously been major energy importers are being significant energy exporters. There’s the US and its so-called shale gas ‘revolution’ but also Brazil, which is becoming a significant exporter due to the impact of two major policies – increasing production, but also pushing biofuels – which are quite different from the picture we’ve seen in America. Conversely, more established energy exporter countries are looking for new markets, largely in Asia. Back to the pro-poor dimension, he also discussed how divergent prices for energy are in different countries (gas is cheaper in the US than in Asia) and how this price differential provides an important dimension for different economies. Above all, perhaps, Birol stressed the role of subsidies to change to appearance of energy prices, especially in terms of picking between energy choices: ‘For me, fossil fuel subsidies are number one public enemy of sustainable energy development’ as governments are putting money from their own citizens to push the price of fossil fuels down, encouraging us to use them in a wasteful manner.

We also heard a moving speech from the UN’s Richenda Van Leeuwen outlining why increased energy access is so important; not just in terms of fuelling economic growth and improving lives by opening up new possibilities but also to save people, especially women, from the sorts of energies they current rely on. Fuels that cause burns. Fuels that choke. Fuels which put young women in danger of rape if they go out to collect firewood.

What we hadn’t heard much of however – at least by lunchtime when I wrote this – was the impact of climate change on poorer parts of the world. References to poverty are often used in calls for greater use of one energy or another – and it was indeed mentioned by BP’s Carl-Henric Svanberg in his address at the start of the dialogue – but unless the views of the people in the countries you are talking about are discussed, with full inclusion of concerns about the impacts of climate change too, it seems a bit like empty rhetoric. I’m totally in agreement with Van Leeuwen about this element of the energy challenge, but I can’t help thinking that if we in the west really want to take the well-being of the rest of the world seriously, some sort of sense of their ‘growth’ is going to have to give. And pro-poor rhetoric from the likes of BP looks a bit crass. Because I still have hope that Raman’s wrong and that we don’t need to exploit people for energy, but we might have to change how we live our lives, and recognise how much exploitation it is built upon.

A postnote though: As Christof Rühl (also of BP) noted in his talk on energy outlooks, we’re seeing a convergence in fossil fuel mix, and this is a big deal because for the first time in human history, we don’t have a dominant fuel. Maybe there’s a sign of hope for change there, even if the use of non-fossil fuel options are still way behind.

Disinvesting unis: Tip of the speedily-melting iceberg

A new form of climate change activism has been speedily flying through American Universities the last year. And it’s coming to Europe. It’s interesting partly just to see people caring about climate change again, but whether this fits your own political interests or not, it’s also because of the particular approach it takes – disinvestment – which suggests some new public interest in the way we plan and organise science.

Disinvestment is, quite simply, the opposite of investment. The campaign invites students to think about their universities as financial institutions – not just sites for learning, research or socialising – and ask questions about where their universities invest their large endowments. There is some history of this with respect to South Africa under apartheid and the tobacco industry, and focusing on pension funds rather than money held by universities, but this quantity of activity on fossil fuel disinvestment is reasonably new.

Seeded in universities, it has broadened to the financial clout of cities and religious institutions too, even (slightly embarrassingly) the endowments of green NGOs. Last July, American environmentalist Bill McKibben published a long, thorough and impassioned article in Rolling Stone entitled Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math outlining what was described as “three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe”. This was followed by a Rolling Stone sponsored tour of campuses across the states entitled “Do the Math”.

The focus of the rhetoric has very much been the idea that this is all simply a matter of the logical application of a few numbers; the maths of how climate change is happening (scientific) and the maths of how it might be solved (economic). This is somewhat of an illusion, as the bulk of this work is politics. The tour might have featured “after-math” parties (yeah, really) but this was a space for local groups could organise, not a chance to get your squared paper out. The tour bus itself contained what McKibben calls, in a follow up Rolling Stone piece in February, “a bevy of progressive heroes” author Naomi Klein, indigenous activist Winona LaDuke, filmmaker Josh Fox, Hip Hop Caucus founder Lennox Yearwood. McKibben also argued that universities were the places to start such activity because they were where we found out about global warming, and that the contain communities who understand the maths. He’s forgetting that they are social spaces where, unusually people of different countries and different generations come together. That’s important for climate change, which is an issue with unusually large global and temporal reach.

When I was first told about plans to move this campaign to the Europe, I was sceptical it’d work. It’s not that people aren’t interested, just that our universities are just funded differently, without quite the same endowments. So I was impressed with the way the idea has been redeveloped and extended by People and Planet. They start with a sort of “Move your money” approach of demanding universities screen for and exclude the fossil fuel industry from their investment portfolio (or perhaps move “our” money, which is why the campaigns have traction). However, they go on to focus on the other forms of capital universities hold. There is the symbolic cultural and social capital such institutions can offer through honorary degrees or sponsorship of events and student societies. Perhaps most importantly is the way in which certain industries (not just energy) have been able to capture the energies of our scientists and engineers. So People and Planet are also asking UK higher education to work harder at offering students with more diverse careers advice, refocus research to climate solutions rather than fossil fuel research and, perhaps most importantly of all, demand more research funding for renewables.

They started with a protest for the opening of the University of Oxford’s “Shell Geoscience Laboratory” along with a letter in the Guardian from angry graduates (alumni being a useful form of political pressure as universities increasingly try to fundraise and market themselves through them).

This new Shell laboratory is just tip of the speedily-melting iceberg though, and whatever your own views on fossil fuels, this protest draws attention to the ways in which collaborations like this are commonplace. The People and Planet campaign invites us to at least notice such use of universities, and have a think about whether it’s pulling our public resources in the directions we want.

Last summer, BP announced it would invest £64 million to set up an International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM) based at the University of Manchester. The Telegraph had a lovely headline with “BP invests in UK research to help it drill deeper” but Nature News was perhaps slightly more astutely on the money with their observation that as corporate research-and-development labs wither, many are turning to campuses to fill their research needs. Universities seem quite happy for their spaces to be used in such ways. Indeed, they are being encouraged to as our funding system is increasingly being pushed to favour matched funding (for example). This gets played as a mix of “but we need our limited funds to be topped up” and “collaboration is good” but it limits you to only asking questions that serve interests of those who have money.

Academics like to kick up a fuss about need to stand up for “blue skies” research in the face of corrupting directional research, but this is of the most pernicious red herrings in science policy. Because it’s good to direct bits of research – and we’ve been routinely doing it for years – the question is how and where.

As well as funding policies, there are corporate members of the research council peer review colleges (i.e. people who get to decided what research gets funded by public money). This is a good thing. BAE, Shell, Pfizer et al contain some great expertise worth tapping into. They also help the academy lift ideas out of itself a bit, stop it being too closed minded. But if we’re drawing on industry, there are other external experts we could draw on too. To put this in some context, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s peer review college (pdf) contains thirty members from BAE systems (in comparison, there are eighteen from the University of Sussex).

We should also remember softer influences, like the ability of larger companies to buy space at careers fairs (and this runs right down to the careers advice we give primary schoolchildren). There’s also the sponsorship of events for senior academics and policy makers and it’s increasingly common to find universities have devoted offices to corporate partnership (e.g. Imperial’s members and UCL’s).

Whatever your personal view on whether we should keep fossil fuels in the ground or not, we should welcome any greater interest in the politics and ethics of what we do with the resources held by our universities; their people, their ideas, their hard work, their money, their histories and social credibility.

If you believe that science and technology has power to change the world (I do) it’s worth keeping an eye on which particular visions of the future it’s structured by.

 

This was first published in the June edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read the August edition’s piece on health data. See their new educational subs (for .sch or .ac email addresses).

“I’m a scientist. I shall be my own Minister for Science”

Via a mate who’s just read the new Thatcher biography by Charles Moore. On Thatcher, scientific advice and “the weather”:

“Dr John Ashworth, the Chief Scientist, who worked within the Central Policy Review Staff, asked to see Mrs Thatcher shortly after she had arrived at No. 10. As he entered, the Prime Minister said: ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am your Chief  Scientist,’ Ashworth replied. ‘Oh,’ said Mrs Thatcher, ‘do I want one of those?’ He explained his work, mentioning that he was completing a report about the then almost unstudied subject of climate change. Mrs Thatcher stared at him: ‘Are you standing there and seriously telling me that my government should worry about the weather?’ She told Ashworth that she was not going to have a minister of science at all: ‘I’m a scientist. I shall be my own Minister for Science.’” (p426; CM’s source = interview with Ashworth).

“But… Mrs T quickly realized that… she needed experts” and Moore says in a footnote she was “much later… the first head of government to make a major speech on the subject of climate change”. So that is OK then.

Related: Margaret Thatcher, science advice and climate change (by me, earlier this month)

Energy and Climate Change: Some Good Reads

scary

This post originally appeared on the New Left Project

A friend recently asked me for book recommendations on energy and climate change. “I want books” they stressed, “not policy briefing papers or essays or scientific reports. Something to curl up on the sofa with, something that digests and explains the issues and spins a few good yarns along the way. A good read.”

Here are my suggestions. I know I’ve missed loads: e.g. Merchants of Doubt, The Carbon Age and The Oil Road. I’ve stuck to factual literature, but if anyone wants to suggest some fiction, please do. Arguably we could do with some better fiction on this issue (good essay in the LA Review of Books on this), and I could also have included long form journalism like Bill McKibben’s piece for Rolling Stone last summer, or books for kids. What would you add?

The Discovery of Global Warming. Spencer Weart (2nd edition, 2008).

Global warming, like most scientific discoveries, was less a singular moment and more a long process of many discoveries. Weart weaves a tale involving many people over many years, gradually learning about the phenomenon and coming to terms with it (as continues to be the case).

Such a picture of slow, gradual development, refinement and sharing of human understanding of climate change might seem a bit depressing. A simple “eureka!” (or perhaps “oh, bugger” would be more appropriate) might seem easier to deal with. We’d see, know and just do something about it. Except the world really isn’t that simple and in many respects, discussion of the complexity is liberating. It’s crucial for understanding where we are now on the science and the policy and, I think, key to thinking about what we might do about it too. It also makes for a much more interesting read. Eureka tales don’t really take you anywhere.

It’s also, in a way, quite a hopeful book, as Weart is keen to stress that we have taken actions to learn more and do something with this knowledge in the past. We can continue to do this, and do more. It’s a story of change, with a real sense that more change is possible.

As well as being the best introduction to climate change I’ve read, this book is also simply a great case study in how scientific discovery works, and fascinating in terms of the interactions between international policy and science in the 20th century. It’s also reasonably short, clearly written and engrossing. Weart’s published a hypertext version too but the linear dead tree version’s my favourite.

Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. Mark Lynas (2007).

A neat bit of narrative non-fiction which won the 2008 Royal Society science book prize, turning scientific modeling into a very literary experience worked step-by-step as we’re invited to imagine first a world where the average temperature is one degree warmer than now, then three, then four, and so on. It’s a form of fantasy fiction, perhaps, but where the rules of this different world are based on scientific research, not simple make-believe (comparable with the way the Mr Tompkins stories tried to explain modern physics in the 1940s). This is a global story, as any on climate change will be, although this time the characters are largely waters, winds and other non-human entities. It’s a science book, although political in a way, it’s about things, not people, and expect a small amount of numbers, but it’s not hard to understand at all.

It’s a bit scary in places. But climate change is scary. I re-read the four degrees chapter at the end of last year, while the Doha conference was crawling on and we were going through quite a cold snap, and found myself hiding under blankets with jumpers and legwarmers, the howls of the sea ominously mingling with the noise of the traffic outside, the heating resolutely off and only a small solar powered torch to read by. It’s when it gets to six degrees it really gets a bit scary. As the climate modeling scientists he’d been using as a guide up till then fall by the wayside, generally falling short of simulating six degrees warming, he starts to uses sketchier geological information about extreme episodes in the Earth’s distant past. There’s something of the horror movie narrative to it, starting in the relatively familiar, gradually unraveling into chaos as he invites readers into “the sixth circle of hell”.

This is another book that manages to end on a relatively hopeful note, arguing we can build a low-carbon society, and leave it as a gift to the future so the nightmare image he presents really is just a nightmare. You might disagree with him on his version of how, which is arguably the rub, but if Weart provides a “yes we can” message, Lynas’ book says “you better bloody get on with it”.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. Daniel Yergin (1991).

This isn’t a short book, but it’s a page-turner, and if you give it time, you get really drawn in. It’s got a lot of characters, spanning many countries and covering a historical sweep of over a century. But it’s well structured, so you won’t get lost. It’s choc-full of stories, and would make a good commuting read if it wasn’t so bloody heavy, because you can read it small chunks (perhaps this is what e-readers are for).

You’ll find that learning about the history of the oil will teach you a lot about other aspects of the world (insert your own joke about oiling the wheels of modernity here). Just as Weart teaches you something about the way we invested in climate science partly as an odd attempt at peacekeeping during the Cold War, from Yergin you can expect to learn something about the slow construction of the type of capitalism we’ve built for ourselves over the last few centuries. You’ll also read a lot about war. And you’ll never look at a petrol station in the same way again.

Did you know Shell is called Shell because they used to sell shells? (In the East End of London, not by the seashore, sadly) Or that the American oil market started off selling small veils for medical purposes? (burning came later).

Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Alexis Madrigal (2011).

We might think of wind energy community co-ops or electrical taxi cabs as something new, a recent response to concerns over climate change and peak oil, but they’re not. There is a long history to both, as there is for solar power, wave energy and more. Madrigal even suggests that, at one point in the late 19th century, it looked like the future of transport in America would largely be a matter of electrically powered public systems, not the fossil fuelled individual vehicles we have today (apparently it’s partly the bike’s fault this didn’t happen). Electrical cabs were reasonably common in Manhattan in the 1890s. Londoners can see one built for their own city in 1897 in the ground floor of the Science Museum.

In some respects, this is a book of roads not travelled and, like Weart’s description of the slow, gradual ongoing story of the discovery of climate change, it could be quite depressing, yet it also manages to be inspiringly hopeful. It is a story of how energy could once have been something different, and so might be something else again. More explicitly than Yergin’s epic, this book helps you realise technology is something we make, and invites you to think about can we might remake it, or at least pay more attention to the structures which build such things so new technologies can be built to meet the needs of the planet, not exploit it.

Madrigal also makes some interesting comments in the concluding chapter about the way we imagine environmentalism, especially with respect to any sense of division between people, technology and nature. The “creation myth” of American environmental movement might be that they put the protection of nature first, but many environmentalists are highly aware that an idea of “natural” is both complex and not necessarily a substitute for “good”. Madrigal stresses the worth of a human focused environmentalism (or at least one rooted in an idea of the anthropocene) which acknowledges how much of an impact humans have had on the Earth and aims to be clever about our role in its future. He weaves into this ideas of national identity and the idea of the American sublime – American wilderness as some ultimate authenticity – and nods to David Nye’s sense that there is a strong history of the American technological sublime too. My critique of Nye’s (in many ways brilliant) book is that he doesn’t unravel the inequality involved in politics of the human construction of this sublime, something which a human focused environmentalist critique, for me, would have to do. But I think Madrigal’s book does help us reflect on this political aspect.

The Portslade “Gassie”

portland gassie

In Scotland, it’s traditional to give people coal when first greeting them in the new year. It’s meant to symbolise hope for warmth and light for the future, rather different from the tradition of giving naughty children nothing but coal in their Christmas stocking (from other parts of Northern Europe, I think).

I don’t have any coal, but here’s a picture reflecting another way in which our reliance on fossil fuels runs deep: the “Portslade Gassie”. It’s a piece of public art – not the most aesthetically striking of objects, stuck by a rather dull bit of road and covered in litter when I stumbled across it this afternoon – but marking an interesting piece of energy history. Gasworks were built in Portslade in 1884, after local demand outstripped the smaller works at Black Rock (built in 1818), partly because the location allowed easy delivery of coal by ship. By the 1920s, the site occupied 40 acres, providing work for many local residents (some more details on this local history blog, including a fascinating history of lighting the Brighton Pavilion). Workers were ferried across a canal by small boats nicknamed “gassies”, which this slightly angular, statue of a man in a boat represents.

This artwork doesn’t help us think about what our energy future should be, but it does at least prompt us us think about the past. It also reminds us that energy infrastructure is something made by people. I re-watched Brassed Off over Christmas, which is more directly about coal, and helps make a similar point.  How we find, distribute and use energy is something that changes over time, not always due to the wishes of these people or what is necessarily best for the world. It’s something we’ve made, and should be thoughtfully remade.

Engagement with climate science

liable to flooding

I was a speaker at yesterday’s Royal Meteorological Society’s meeting on Communicating Climate Science. I was asked to talk about models of science communication in the light of their new report on climate science , the public and the media, in particular the shift from top-down to more discursive approaches. I also took the opportunity to question the applicability of these models a little. What follows is roughly a script of my talk, but with links.

I’ll start with a potted history of science communication, it’s the sort of history professionals tell themselves about themselves, so read with some caution, even though it’s pretty illustrative. Once upon a time, around the end of the mid 1980s, scientists in the UK and America (and a few other places, science is an international business after all) decided the public had stopped listening to science, and that this was dangerous. Science had grown immensely over the middle of the 20th century,  developing multiple strands and a mass of complex, specialist knowledge, but in doing so it had left many behind. There was a gap between what scientists knew and what the rest of the world understood. If only the public knew more science! And the media were better at delivering this information! Something. Must. Be. Done.

They kicked up all sorts of fuss and, in the UK, forming a sort of movement for the Public Understanding of Science (PUS), with a Royal Society report (“the Bodmer report”), a multi-institution committee (CoPUS), a journal, a set of courses, a load of general fuss and worry, etc etc. Soon after, however, a load of educationalists, historians and sociologists (many of whom had been working on this stuff for years) started pick holes in the more simplistic end of this argument, complaining that the PUS approach was not only ineffectual, but might be considered anti-democratic, even morally repugnant and non-scientific even too. They set up their own ‘critical PUS’ camp in opposition and pointed fingers at Bodmer et al for being a bit “deficit model” (i.e. seeing the problem as being a matter of a deficiency on the part of the public). The book “Misunderstanding Science” is the classic text of this sort of approach, but maybe not the easiest of reads.

There are three main problems with the deficit model:

  1. It’s unrealistic. You can’t black-box science, media and public. I mean, what does “the public” even mean? Moreover, we cannot imagine that the media will take this science and happily and simply pass it on to their readers who, in turn, will happily swallow it all. Such an idea is based on a really naïve ‘transmitter-receiver’ view of media effects (if you’ve never read David Gauntlett’s essay on what’s wrong with the media effects model, do).
  2. It’s patronising. It assumes the public are stupid and journalists are just information carriers, both of which is likely to alienate both groups.
  3. It’s limiting. Science policy issues aren’t just about the science. That doesn’t mean science shouldn’t have a role. A large one. But there are other things to be woven in too, and there are times when criticism of the scientific community is both entirely justified and highly productive (even if there are times where criticism is not only misplaced but dangerously over-emphasised). Journalists should ask questions and contextualize what scientists say. As should the public at large (and they should be asking questions and contextualising what the journalists say too).

These criticisms, along with the experience of GMOs and BSE, had a lot of impact in the UK. By 2000, the House of Lords report on Science and Society formally stated there was a “new mood for dialogue” replacing the older, slightly naive, top-down approach.

And that’s what the term “engagement” is meant to symbolise, for a lot of people: A shift from simplistic top-down approaches to a more nuanced one that appreciates not only that sharing science with the general public is a hard thing to do, but that public debate on science and technology is just that, a debate. The problem of science communication was now understood as not merely a matter of how to clearly transmit information, but how to have good, clever conversations about expertise in society. Changing scientific discourse as it travels into the public realm was not necessary seen as a distortion, but a matter of course. Scientists should listen as well as talk; communication is something you take part in, not simply deliver.

PUS and the deficit model became the bogeymen of UK sci com, with people actively booing references to it at conferences and snidely whispering criticism of unpopular colleagues as “a bit deficit”. Arguably, some people just took the language of this shift without actually understanding the ideas behind them though. There is a lot of science communication that talks as if it moved on from the deficit model but is really quite simply about shouting “but science is awesome” at the general public. Moreover, it sometimes looks like we’ve simply replaced the presumed deficit of knowledge with one of trust (i.e. the public don’t trust scientists enough, see Alan Irwin’s essay for this OU reader). Such a view often argues that scientists need to earn public trust, and might suggest discussion as a way to go about it, but it still based in a rather technocratic attitude that the world will be saved if only everyone just listened to the scientists.

Which brings me to this new report on the public, media and climate science. Because in places it seems, well, a bit deficit model, a bit preoccupied by getting the message across. It looks at context, and is meant to be rooted in what the public think and want, and many of its results are useful and interesting. But its central notion of communication, for me, seemed to be pretty linear and just a bit naive about how the media works. It’s all still about how we can give science to people, not how we might have conversations which connect science with a range of other topics. It says we need more “engagement”, but it’s not really what I’d call engagement.

But maybe they’re right to. Maybe we shouldn’t assume the public want to be engaged any more than that they don’t. We might also ask if a shift to debating science is dangerous when applied to climate, considering what is at stake and the keenness of some to ignore, even dismantle quite certain and useful science in this area. Maybe climate science simply doesn’t have the luxury to be so open? As Naomi Oreskes argued in an LA Times op-ed last January, perhaps we need leadership here. Debate just confuses people and delays action. Oreskes has thought about this. She is also coming from thoughtful empirical studies in the history and sociology of science understanding that sharing expertise isn’t simple. Just as Wynne et al said the deficit model is too simple, so can a simplistic call to engage.

As I’ve noted before, in some contrast to Oreskes, much of the discussion post-Rio+20 was that leaders had failed us, but there is hope in the grass roots activism of civil society. E.g. Mary Robinson. I like the rhetoric here, but I worry still. It’s the kind of world I want, but I’m not sure it’s possible, or it’s happening. To fuel my cynicism, in another obit for Rio+20, John Vidal cited “two-catching global bottom-up initiatives” – one the save the Arctic campaign, and another to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies – as having emerged at Rio and “reasons to be cheerful”. I call bollocks, at least about the bottom-up. These were projects that were launched at Rio, not ones that emerged. They are downstream invitations to passive engagement within a pre-set frame – sign a scroll, use a hashtag, follow a celebrity – more about enumerating the actors of PR than diffusing political power. Which isn’t to say there are wrong, but call a spade a spade.

Whenever I see any climate communication I feel an echo of Steve Yearley’s argument that the green movement enjoys the language of mass participation but only when it comes on their own terms (his essay here) and that similar critique can very easily be applied to the scientific community, or politicians, or industry, or anyone involved in the debate. So the question still remains, can we have open public engagement on climate change?

I don’t know.

Oh, Canada. Oh, Rio.

Rio 1992, by Alice Bell aged 11. No idea why I still have this, somehow got filed with my swimming certificates.

I have a post on Comment is Free arguing this week’s protests by scientists in Canada are not just a local issue, but of global concern. Modern science is a global enterprise: people from all over the world have studied at the Experimental Lakes Area (currently threatened with closure). It’s also a global concern because the biggest tensions seem to surround environmental issues with global impact: the Experimental Lakes Area is where where the first evidence for acid rain came from. Plus, there are multinational industries and NGOs involved, and that’s without delving into any intersections with defence policy (cough, polar hawk purchases, cough). We can’t pretend Canadian science is simply a Canadian matter any more than we can divorce the natural world from political decisions.

I also wanted to stress a need for democratic engagement. These protestors held banners proclaiming “No science, no truth, no evidence, no democracy”. They did so partly because they worry corporate interests are clouding public debate, especially around energy policy (see, for example, Robin McKie on this back in February) and want to offer science as a way out of corrupted discourse. Still, it’s important scientists bring the public with them when they make proclamations like this; share their ideas and show how the public value science. Otherwise they’re just demanding people listen to them, and I’m not sure how democratic that is.

Thinking about that question of democracy made me reflect back on the Rio +20 summit last month. Reading the various requiems for these talks, the key message seems to be that our leaders have failed us but there is hope in public activism. Mary Robinson has some strong words on the topic. Even the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need look beyond governments. Part of me is really inspired by statements like that. Part of me’s still cynical.

I dug out Naomi Oreskes’ LA Times oped from January, where she argues the need for leadership on climate issues. I didn’t like it when I first read it. She seemed to give in to a top down approach to science in society which just doesn’t sit well with me. Re-reading it now I want to shout “ha, well look at your leaders now, ner-ner-ner-ner”. But I take her point sharing esoteric expertise isn’t that simple. It’s also hard (impossible?) to do public engagement at the scale of global population.

John Vidal cites the emergence of “eye catching bottom up initiatives” as some reasons to be cheerful after Rio+20. I’m really not sure his examples are the best ones. I think they are projects that were launched at Rio, not ones that emerged. They look like rather downstream invitations to passive engagement within a pre-set frame, more about enumerating the actors of PR than diffusing political power. I felt echos of Steve Yearley’s argument (e.g. 2008) that the green movement enjoys the rhetoric of mass participation but only on their own terms. Maybe that’s ok, they are campaigns after all, but lets not kid ourselves into imaging we’ve found a new type of politics. Yet.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being grumpy.

Climate Stories at the Science Museum

Coal at the Science Museum

Pots of coal, Changing Climate Stories, Science Museum

The Science Museum has a new art/ history of tech exhibition exploring issues of energy and climate change: Climate Changing Stories.

It mixes a few re-interpretations of old exhibits with some dazzling new installations. It weaves through the museum as a whole, plotting new narratives, connecting previously separate spaces. It plays with ideas of pasts, futures and futures past. It left me with a big grin and a head full of ideas. It comes highly recommended.

It’s also sponsored by Shell. Ignore that for a moment though, I don’t want it to get in the way of the many good aspects of the exhibition. Park it at the back of your mind – just as you might on a visit to the museum – and I’ll return to it later.

The trail starts at the front of the museum, in the history of energy hall, inviting you to think of the immediate impact of the Industrial Revolution on the 18th century countryside. This look back to past environmental change is echoed a couple of floors up, in a room next to the energy futures gallery, with a film about a flood in a seaside resort in the early 1950s which juxtaposes the optimism of growth of the town due to holiday-makers in the 1930s with this flood, explicitly playing with our sense of flooding as a future narrative of climate change in the process. There is a similar display near the Agriculture Gallery, this time on air pollution. Its 1952 news reels describe smog as the “greatest mass murderer of recent years”, calling for cleaner fuels. It’s futuristic in a way, abeit an old future, long gone now. It is also current, echoing 21st century debates about slightly less visible air pollution.

The Making of the Modern World gallery has some of the best pieces. I loved artist Yao Lu’s beautiful series of photos; made to look like traditional Chinese landscapes but actually mounds of rubbish covered in green netting. There’s also the incredible toaster project and their resident spaceship now comes with added note on Stewart Brand and the blue marble. The highlight, however, has to the electric London taxi cab from 1897, in the centre of the Wellcome Wing. We might think of electric cars as something futuristic but, again, the museum is keen to stress they’ve been the future for quite a long time now (nice Wired post on this).

One might be wary of the museum’s steampunkish play with narratives of climate change. The line on the BBC preview that the gallery explores how “humans have adapted to keep pace with our changing world” is the sort that can set some environmentalists’ hair on end, as if climate change is just business as usual. I don’t think the museum frames it that way, personally, though other eyes might read it differently. It’s probably worth noting that the end point of the piece on coal was a move to greater regulation, not a techno-fix (although there is also an exhibit on fictional world-saving GM crops).

Moreover, for me, exhibits like the electric cab help show that technology is the consequence of choices, that the world might have been different and, if we let it, provoke us to make better choices today. That cab reminded me of a great bit in Alexis Madrigal’s history of American green tech, Powering the Dream, about how a betting man at the end of the 19th century would have expected transport in the US to have gone in the direction of electrically powered public transport, not fossil-fuelled private vehicles. As Maggie Koerth-Baker puts it in her review of the book: “Energy isn’t just what it is. Energy is what we have decided we want it to be”.

electric london taxi cab, 1897

An electric London cab, from 1897! 1897!

Brilliant as many aspects of this exhibition are, I left the museum feeling something was missing. I realised later it was the topic of oil. Which is a shame considering their lead sponsor is such an expert on the topic.

My mother accused me of being snide with that comment, which is not my intention. I genuinely think it’s a shame. That’s in earnest, not sarcasm. I actually want to see more about the oil industry in museums, or at least more than logos.

Shell have a fascinating history (official version). Did you know they are called Shell because they started off as shop that sold seashells? An antique dealer in the 1830s realised there was a fashion for using shells in interior design. They were so popular he had to import them from abroad, laying the foundations for an international import/export business which – via trading of rice, silk, china, copperware, sugar, flour and wheat – by the 1890s was transporting oil. An exhibit based on that could be ace. You could even, like the electric car, use stories of how the world wasn’t always how it is now to consider how it might be in the future; have an interactive asking visitors what different products Shell could trade instead, for example.

So great as this new Science Museum trail is, you might want to stop by Tate Britain too and catch the Patrick Keiller Robinson Institute exhibition which has a bit on the history of BP (till October 14th, free, sponsored by Sotheby’s).

Postscript: A new campaign Science, Unstained aims to ask questions about the sponsorship of science communication. I’m happy to say I’m part of the group behind it. I wouldn’t have registered the URL in my name otherwise. There are several other people involved though, and it’s up to them to decide for themselves if they want to be open about this. It’s just a few 100 words on a blog at the moment and we’re not sure how it’ll develop yet. You can follow it, or even get involved, if you’re interested. Or not, if you’re not.