Climate change: a process, not an event

keeling curveThe Keeling Curve. It shows the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over time. Anyone who follows climate change will know it well. It’s called Keeling after a Charles D. Keeling, and it’s curved because it’s going up. Dr K began a regular measure of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back in 1958, from an observatory in Hawaii. Today, his son Ralph works on the same research project; a nice example of the long-roots of our multi-generational science of environmental change. The full graph shows the long sweep from 1958 – when it was around 317 parts per million – till today’s readings skirting around 400. That’s what graphs show: Change. They are stories in a way.

I share it because I want to stress the point that climate change – like the science that lets us witness it and politics that helps us do anything about it – is a process, not an event.

Events have their uses. I was at a conference last year where scientist Myles Allen argued events like the upcoming Fifth Assessment of the IPCC were more trouble than they’re worth; an interruption to more effective on-going processes of science, only offering opportunities for sceptics. In response, journalist Fiona Harvey argued such events might not obviously serve scientists, but they allowed her a chance to take stock of the developments in climate science and work out what was best discussed with her readers. I think she had a point.

There was the Energy Bill last week, for example. An event which may not have come to the conclusion everyone wanted, perhaps, but it still had outcomes we can build on. It was also a chance to publicise the issue and build momentum, even if we’re not up to speed yet. On an international level, there are events like COPs, or Rio +20 last year. Again, frustrating for many, but not without reasons to be cheerful too. It’s important that these events are recognised as part of a longer process and that we build in spaces for reflection and recovery after moments of political failure. For all that the post-Copenhagen slump was understandable, it took way too long to recover from, and there are going to be more like that. Action on climate change isn’t a series of battles building to summative liberation; it’s a long, hard slog.

Dramatic moments within the processes of environmental change can also provide useful anchors for social and cultural reaction; whether they are events we can easily witness like the recent floods in Central Europe (yes, you can talk about weather events, just do it well) or those we need scientific work to help us see (such as when we passed 400ppm on the Keeling Curve).

If you’re playing horizon scanning, there’s also the potentially disruptive role of new technology to consider. Geoengineering is a key concern here, especially the way the very idea of it can impact on current plans, regardless of whether it actually happens or not. Science studies people sometimes talk about the sociology of expectations, the ways in which ideas of the future are applied and managed to influence what we do today. I don’t want to imply techno-pessimism here. The idea of a simple technofix may be silly, but technology can help us fix things too. There are reasons to be hopeful about the power of innovation. Still, we have to be bold and clever and take control of it, which is another reason why events much be understood as part of a process, so we can join the process as early on as possible and play a role in the direction technology takes (“upstream” engagement if you will).

Climate campaigners would also be served by paying more attention to science as a social process. They could work harder to forge alliances with scientists, utilise science’s social and cultural capital, and play a role in helping scientists productively talk to each other (especially in terms of how Western scientists might help those in the developing world). I’d also like to see them critique research funding more, helping to open public debates over why, what and whose ends our R&D budget is aimed at. Environmental NGOs could play a powerful role in helping science stand up for itself here, as well as helping science improve by critiquing itself; both things the scientific community should welcome.

That said, climate change communications could leave the science alone more often too. Climate change as an issue, isn’t simply the science of tracking what’s happening in the natural world, it is something we’ve been trying to act on for decades (albeit not always that successfully). And yet, if you look up “what is climate change”, you typically get scientific explanations. Programmes like adopt a negotiator are all too rare. We need more of these, ones that talk to different audiences in different ways, but at least try to connect the public with the political infrastructure of climate change. It’s perhaps no surprise many feel politically disengaged with climate change when all they are offered are depoliticised inscriptions of science.

But back to that graph, because it is important, and the point it hit 400 ppm last month. If you’d been following its climb, the power of hitting that symbolic point was very dramatic. I certainly felt it. But you needed to have been following it, or the drama looked a bit silly. Symbols don’t mean anything if you can’t anchor the referent. If we want people to be there for the various events of climate change, you need to engage them with the process first. If you want to avoid being surprised by other people’s events, you need to be connected to their processes. If you want to be resilient in the face of political failure, you need to see it as part of a long game and build spaces for recovery along the way. Climate change is a long game; action on it needs to keep its eye on that.

The first appeared on Greenpeace’s Energy Desk blog.

3 thoughts on “Climate change: a process, not an event

  1. Pingback: Climate change: a process, not an event | through the looking glass | Colin's Folly

  2. RKS

    Yes, CO2 is still increasing because of the Chinese, creating our carbon footprint for us by proxy as they produce so much of the consumer goods we no longer manufacture – And yet, good news you’ll all be glad to hear, global temperatures ceased to increase in line with CO2 levels 16 years ago. A FACT admitted by Met Office climate scientist Richard Betts.

    Reply

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