Tag Archives: climate

Book review: The Burning Question

The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit? Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke (London, 2013: Profile Books). This review first appeared on New Left Project

We used to worry we might run out of oil or gas. That’s one of the reasons why we talk of ‘peak oil’ and refer to various energy choices with the word ‘renewables’ and non-renewables, rather than focus on low or high carbon. But this is a relatively old frame for the problem. Now we’re more aware of the problem that we might actually try to burn the oil and gas we have. Moreover, new or improved technologies such as fracking mean we can access materials we’d previously thought unobtainable, or at least too expensive to bother extracting. And we can’t burn them. Or we can’t burn them if we care about climate change.

You might be forgiven for forgetting this, seeing as how little climate change gets mentioned in media coverage of energy. But it’s a key issue; many would argue the key issue.

So, now, instead of ‘peak oil’ we increasingly hear the term ‘stranded assets’ to talk about fossil fuel reserves we could use in as much as they are there for the burning, but we shouldn’t if we want to avoid even more global warming than we’re currently set towards. We are probably going to have to get used to talking about this because it looks like it’s going to dominate a lot of the debate about taking action on climate change. Just as action on CFCs was mobalised around the then new idea of a ‘hole in the Ozone layer’ in the 1980s, ‘keep it in the ground’ has become a mantra of aspects of the green movement in recent months. Bill McKibben’s article Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math became a viral hit last summer, with a wave of campus activism of following it.

It is also what Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke’s new book The Burning Question is about. An explanation of a slightly different concept of ‘peak’ oil, and how we should consider fossil fuels as stranded assets. As their sub-title puts it ‘We can’t bun half the world’ soil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?’

The book has received a host of warm reviews and comes baring endorsements from George Monbiot, Kevin Anderson and Al Gore. It even made the list of books MP like to tell people they are reading over the summer, heartening maybe considering most of the other titles were simply about other politicians. I can recommend it too. Berners-Lee and Clarke provide a great overview of why this stranded assets issue is both important and so intractable a problem. It reflects a mature and evidence-based approach to energy policy. It has some strong, explanatory prose and is refreshingly short, with a tightly plotted, clear structure. Titles like this could all too easily be one of those great tomes you feel you should read but, textbook-like, really can’t be bothered to get much beyond the first chapter. But something about the coherent, lively prose and the sense of urgency sitting in the background keeps you going. I should also add that this book isn’t hectoring. It’s passionate and urges action, but any more strident campaigning is largely left offstage.

Berners-Lee and Clarke give their readers a host of useful metaphors and some clear graphs, both of which are simplifications in their own ways – giving particular lenses on the larger issue – but both incredibly useful too. In a field whose discourse often places contingencies and uncertainty above all else, it was refreshing to read such clear prose. Some may well find the book too simple and clear in places, and it is worth remembering that most ‘simplification’ tend to include some personal take on the issue. Such personal takes might not be bad – indeed, they can reflect a lot of prior thought – but not everyone will agree what the essential points are. The book offers the idea of reframing peak fossil fuel for climate change I started with, as well as an image of saving energy as like ‘squeezing a balloon’ to explain the often esoteric ‘Jevons paradox’, repeating Myles Allen to talk about ‘loading the climate dice to flood, or that if we talk about being addicted to fossil fuels, we should start looking at the dealers, not users (a line I’ve since seen Naomi Klein use in talks). These are all great explanations, but they won’t please all.

Still, Berners-Lee and Clark are very open about the complexity, reflecting a sense of climate as a multi-layered ‘perfect storm of money and power, science and politics, technology and the human mind’. The book offers you the big picture and then if you want detail, look to the endnotes. They leave the various ends untied for you to unravel if you so wish. We maybe spend too much time thinking about how intractable climate change and energy policy are. Yes, it is complex, but lots of things are complex. It’s also riddled with a lot of uncertainty, but again so are many other things. A strong sense of the complexities and uncertainties at play are crucial for scientists to help them think about new ways to learn more but is not exactly useful for getting things done. Clarity is rarely scientific. It washes over all the contingencies and possibilities of thorough work. But if it’s not your job (or simply favourite hobby) to work through the details of the issue, they become a barrier for involvement. Where as simplified versions of many other areas of science and technology are readily available as introductions for non-experts, there is somewhat of a dearth of explanatory materials for climate change. All in all, I felt this book is welcome as a contribution towards filling that gap.

One of the reasons it isn’t hectoring in its style is arguably because it doesn’t really advocate any strong suggestions. For all that the book is subtitled “We can’t burn half the worlds, oil, coal and gas, so how do we quit?” but that question was left rather unresolved. It offers frames and questions and information which may well help us towards better conversations to deal with this question, but it is a long way from providing some itself. I also finished the book unsatisfied that they didn’t seem to want to dig into deeper political issues or really challenge the systems at play.

They do ask us to think about ownership of resources and the book ends with an answer to the question “What can I do?” which I’m personally quite strongly behind. Namely, rather than just small individual actions at home like recycling, remember you are part of a global social system which runs the larger infrastructures at fault and put pressure on politicians and business leaders to change.

Many of us feel that we’re too insignificant to make a difference, but the social and political ripple effects of our efforts may be more powerful than we’d expect. After all, human society is every bit as much a complex system as the climate itself. Everyone is influenced by everyone else. And most of us are only a few degrees of separation from someone in a prominent role. Every helpful action or comment lubricates every other; every unhelpful action is a brake on progress

Nice sentiment. But this point is a scant three pages long. It may well be all that point needs – say it, then put the book down and get on with it – but I’d have liked a bit more reflection on how power is expressed and might be unpacked to run throughout the book, and think this conclusion could well have been extended with some examples.

The discussion of stranded assets – which comes largely via the Carbon Tracker Initiative – frames the debate very much within financial systems. This is useful, and helps open a new and important area of activism. At the very least, it focuses public attention on a form of social infrastructure which all too often gets to fester away unnoticed. Similarly, McKibben likes to juxtapose the difference between the huge challenge of changing the financial system with the even bigger one of changing nature. This is an important juxtaposition, I think; one that has sat behind much environment politics for decades and is only likely to become more obvious in years to come as we debate it more in the context of new technologies such as geoengineering and more philosophical frames like the anthropocene. Why should money, not nature, be the limiting factor? Money is just something we made up to help us make society run more smoothly. Why should we let this make-believe tool rule us to the extent we endanger our planet? When did we get more scared of this thing we made up called economics than the planet we were born to?

Still, there is something about the emphasis on the idea of stranded assets that leaves me uneasy. I don’t think we should necessarily give in to seeing the planet in such a way. Moreover, I don’t think the issue is as simple as that. People sometimes talk about a new industrial revolution – a green one – which will transform the way we live to a more sustainable future. It’s another one of those simple analogies which can be very useful. But as ever, beware of the spin on reality it takes. Because it’d have to be a very different form of industrial revolution from previous ones. No one will make gazillions of pounds from find new technologies we didn’t realise we wanted/ needed. It’s not about making markets. If anything, it’s about closing them. And that’s a hard sell (so hard we use the word ‘sell’ as a way to even talk about it). Because it is not just about changing finance rather than the planet, it’ll require a host of cultural and social changes too, and the rarefied graphs of Much of the Burning Question, like McKibben’s insistence that we just need to ‘do the math’, is in danger of loosing a sense of that, even if they also offer some really important starting points.

The Burning Question offers a very clear introduction to questions of energy and climate change but, as with any expression of clarity, it’s a slight spin on things. If you think it’s the way we do capitalism which is at heart of the climate change problem, you’ll probably enjoy its more normative points. However, if you have larger economic questions and more revolutionary aims in terms of the sorts of changes required (for more than just the climate) you’ll probably find its prescription a bit of a sticking-plaster. Much I’d recommend this book, I can see why politicians felt comfortable being seen to read this book: It doesn’t really challenge them much.

Science Says So. Sorta

This was my September column for Popular Science UK (subscribe to read current edition) and so written before the fuss over the IPCC report. I think it’s still relevant though.

“Gravity exists. The Earth is round. Climate change is happening. Science says so.” Or rather Obama’s twitter account says so. Those last three words were collected together as #ScienceSaysSo to be precise; a tag which not only passed around virtually, but soon ended up on placards.

Science itself was somewhat co-opted into a bit of political campaigning on climate change here. Because unlike the PR staff supporting the President of the United States, science rarely speaks in one voice. It’s naïve, if not disingenuous, to suggest it might.

We get nodes of agreement which will sometimes coalesce into ideas we’ve decided it is either silly or dangerous to bother to argue against. But few scientists are arrogant enough to really think they unquestionably know. There’s always disagreement and uncertainty; that’s the lifeblood of good science. This can make scientists frustrating to work with for politicians, journalists or anyone else who wants a ‘straight’ answer. But science doesn’t tend to deal in truths, but rather hypothesis which aim ever closer to a description of reality.

Indeed one of the things science (or at least a key scientific institution) says is “nullius in verba.” Latin for “Take nobody’s word for it”, this is the motto of the Royal Society, right there in a very pretty stained glass window in their HQ. They named a minor planet after it too. If we’re playing slogans, rather than #ScienceSaysSo, our most august scientific institutions would rather suggest we avoid listening to dogma.

None of this is to suggest anything goes and you shouldn’t listen to what scientists say. On the climate issue, for example, the clearest introduction I’ve seen talks very openly about different areas of where there are different amounts of uncertainty; points where they are quite confident and others where they are less so. There is, for example, very little uncertainty that climate change due to increased greenhouse gases is happening and that, in future, it is very likely to have significant impacts for human life. But there are many uncertainties when it comes to the size and details of such impacts. Combining climate modelling with knowledge of effects already observed can powerfully improve our predictions, but they are still predictions even if they are the best we have. Its fair to characterise science – in as much as we can ever talk about it as a whole – as thinking climate change is happening.

I can understand people like Obama’s PR team want to simply shout “but we just KNOW this can we all move on already?”

It’s also worth noting that in many ways the whole “nullius” thing is a bit out-dated. Because modern science is a large, team enterprise. One expert needs to rely on the knowledge of several others in order to have time to concentrate of their own little bit of the world. As Isaac Newton is often quoted as saying, his insight was only gained by “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Modern science, for all that draws on an origin myth of having a look for yourself, runs on trust.

Just as disagreement and uncertainty are the lifeblood of good science, so is believing other people and drawing on their expertise as a useful resource, because if we had to had to learn everything for ourselves we’d never get anything done. Most people who self-identify as sceptics openly admit to targeting their scepticism in some way.

The Royal Society knows this. Their website explains the motto as “an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment”. It just means claims should be testable backed up with empirical evidence.

There was an approach to science education popular briefly in the 1970s called “discovery learning”. Loosely, this was based on the idea that children should be allowed to discover nature for themselves, it’s wrong to indoctrinate them with the beliefs of the previous generation and it’s a more powerful learning experience if they can uncover it for themselves. Except, as many educational researchers pointed out, this only works in as much as one believes that scientific research is as simple as an hour spent playing around in a classroom.

Ethnographers who studied what went on in such classrooms soon saw teachers heavily orchestrating what were called “experiments” but were really nearer demonstrations; setting up particular outcomes and accommodating results which did not fit scientific censuses. Because the teachers knew years of detailed scientific study applying more rigorous techniques and equipment were more reliable than what their students were doing, they explained away anomalies.

That’s not to say young people can’t be involved in real science-in-the-making (e.g. recent papers on bees and elephants) but let’s not be naïve about how much they have to take for granted, or simply bracket off, in order to do so.

Precisely because empiricism is so powerful, we shouldn’t use it naively. To return to the climate example, earlier this year Boris Johnson implied he knew global warming wasn’t happening because, as “an empiricist”, he could see the snow with his own eyes. In response, several senior scientists calmly pointed out that they shared this interest in precisely what was going on with our weather and climate and that is why they try to apply slightly more effort, knowledge and techniques than simply looking out the window.

This is as true for us as citizens living in a modern society as it is for a working scientist, school student or London Mayor. You can’t simply re-create all the scientific and technological expertise we rely for yourselves. Or you could, but your life would be a lot less comfortable. To take the various benefits of science and technology, we have to be open to trust other people.

So, in a way, Obama’s PR team are fair to suggest we listen that #ScienceSaysSo. Science says things to itself, and the wider world, and it’s good that we can benefit from its expertise by listening.

Except trust breaks down and has to be earned. Simply reasserting respect my authoritah – Eric Cartman dressed in a labcoat – is unlikely to get you anywhere fast. It’s also, all too often, totally valid. Politicians refer quite loosely to scientific evidence all the time, and even scientific institutions are not above briefing a particular slant on an issue which concerned citizens might find useful to unpick (e.g. on fracking). The scepticism over BSE may have spilled over into framings of MMR in ways which were dangerous and arguably quite misapplied, but that doesn’t mean scepticism over what the politicians were saying on the science of BSE was a bad idea, just that we should have taken a more nuanced view on MMR. Just because scepticism can be misplaced and even deliberately exploited doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing.

It is, annoyingly, up to us to decide what scientific advice and which sceptics we find the most compelling; respecting evidence but also that it’s not, on it’s own, enough to make a decision. This is hard. But then modern life is hard.

Oh, and Mr President, the Earth isn’t round either. Science has been known to say that too. Sorry.

Climate, scepticism and conspiracy

ecologistEcologist cartoon, from article about the 1972 Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment (vol.2, no.10, p.9)

Everyone has a friend who thinks global warming is just a big conspiracy to put up taxes and tell you what to do. Maybe you’re one of those friends yourself.

You are in a minority if so, at least nationally (and internationally) speaking. You might well be friends with other people who share that view, so it’d be normal with certain groups. Climate scepticism is complex and variable – and usually an awful lot more than a conspiracy theory – but the majority of people believe climate change is real. To take one recent survey of the UK public, only 13% felt climate change was not happening. That study cites others if you fancy digging around for more. Try Eurobarometer or Pew, for example.

Still, the conspiracy idea is common enough that the old USA Today cartoon “what if it was a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” has become a depressing cliché of PowerPoint presentations on environmental issues. Most people may not take the conspiracy theories seriously, but many who work in climate communication and policy still find the view significant enough to bother pointing and laughing (or better, actually worry and think about).

I saw a talk a few months ago from Kevin Anderson which turned the usual climate change conspiracy theory on its head. You can watch a video of an almost identical talk Anderson gave at the University of Bristol last year (there’s also a pdf transcript there). He suggested many scientists and policy-makers  routine underplay their public statements on climate change; doing what many sceptics accuse them of, but in reverse. The 2 degree target so often referred to in climate policy discussions is not consistent with science, he argued, and scientists should be standing up and saying so. Anderson isn’t suggesting that scientists sat secretly planning to keep people in the dark, all in the pay of [insert your own bogeyman] (he did apply the Chatham House rule at one point, but I wouldn’t read too much into that, sometimes bits of secrecy is necessary as part of the course of opening up truths). More simply, his point is that forms of understatement have become an unchallenged part of the course for much discourse on climate targets.

Anderson’s no crank. I trust him. But that doesn’t mean I simply believe him. I also trust many of the people he is complaining about too. And so I doubt him and them. I’m confused. I think this a pretty normal state of affairs to be in. But it’s disorientating too.

Doubt is a powerful thing, whoever casts it or why, especially in complex societies like ours which run on large amounts of trust. Sociologists talk about “civil inattention” as a way in which we “do modernity”; simply bracket off and ignore interacting with large parts of our lives just to get on with them. This can quickly unravel at times of crisis though. We trusted, for example, that food labeled beef came from cows, not horses, until that particular scandal broke. Most of us probably didn’t bother to even think that that there were institutions put in place that regularly check that the food we eat is what it says it is, or that such bodies had been struggling with threats of cuts, or that we’ve been doing this kind of gradually more institutionalised checking of the validity of food for hundreds of years. We had other things to worry about. We can see similar patterns of the breaking down of trust with BSE, libor and a host of other topics we’ve relied on technical expertise and found it wanting.

Scepticism can be very positive. Indeed, it powers a lot of scientific work: “Nullius in Verba” and all that (take no one’s word for it, the Royal Society’s motto). People even take up scepticism as a form of hobby, with networks of “sceptics in the pub” meetings. In a recent speech at the Royal Society, Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, used this idea of science’s inherent sceptism as a basis for arguing it’s strength: “Good science is questioning, sceptical, analytical – testing theories and understanding risks. Two hundred years of good science – teasing out uncertainties, considering risk – has laid the foundation of what we now understand. It screams out from decade upon decade of research”.

However, doubt can also make science vulnerable, especially when combined with the everyday inattention most people give the details of scientific expertise. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway show in their book Merchants of Doubt, the natural uncertainty at heart of science has been deliberately amplified by the tobacco and petrol industries. As this short video on the topic argues, it was assumed the public can’t understand the complex nature of climate science (or tobacco’s link to cancer) so it would be relatively easy to convince them the scientists don’t know either (and that without “sound” solid science, it would be wrong to take preventative measures).

Back to Professor Anderson’s suggestion of a sort of alternative conspiracy theory. A paper in the journal Global Environmental Change potentially provides some depth to this (write up without paywall at Skeptical Science). Contrary to the oft-made criticism that climate scientists are alarmist, they argue that many seemed to err on the side of least drama. The researchers stress that restraint is a community norm in science, leading many scientists to be cautious, understated and moderate in their public statements. They also recount ways in which there may have been an extra “chill” exerted on climate scientists due to dogged actions from sceptics. As the paper concludes, in attempting to avoid drama, the scientific community may actually be biasing their own work in a way.

Roger Pielke Jr reviewed this paper rather unfavorably, laughing at its faux-science approach of referring to “erring on the side of least drama” as “ESLD”, like it’s a disease, chemical or something similarly intricate. Moreover, Pielke argues their methodology for proving that scientists were under-dramatising was less than robust. I agree with much of Pielke’s critique, but I don’t think this issue is easy to garner evidence on, and I don’t think Pielke has any robust evidence it is not happening either. Considering what scientists such as Anderson (and others mentioned in that paper, notably James Hason) have to say, I think it’s worth studying further.

Anderson and the people behind the “erring on the side of least drama” paper might well be wrong, but I think it’s worth asking more questions here. Scepticism about the workings of science is a good thing, as long as it’s not lazy or driven unreflexively by ideology. As philanthropist Jeremy Grantham wrote in Nature last year, overstatement may well often be very dangerous, especially for scientific careers, but when it comes to climate change understatement is even riskier, even unethical.

This was first published in the March edition of Popular Science UK. Visit their Facebook page to register for 3 free issues.

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.

Climate, fuel and social justice

Science for PEOPLE 70s socialist science magazine

Some old copies of Science for People – the magazine of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science – landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been lost down archives of the 1970s radical science movement ever since. The following comes from the editorial in issue 25 in 1974.

Energy supply is seen as a purely technical problem to be solved by “experts” with a technical fix: nuclear fission and North Sea oil. These, we are told, will satisfy energy “demand” for the next twenty years. After that, we will only have plutonium waste and memories of the beauty of northwest Scotland. The most important questions are never asked: why will the “demand” for energy continue to grow? Do we really need so much energy? Technical answers will never solve the energy problem, since the problem, short or long term, is not technical but social and political. Cheap and abundant energy, chiefly oil, has been essential for the policy of sustained economic growth that has been pursued by all political parties (and the TUC) since the end of the Second World War. Economic growth has enabled the capitalist system to survive and evolve into its present interventionist, mildly social democratic form, by buying off and suppressing class conflict. The conditions which made it possible no longer hold: commodity prices have greatly increased, the international monetary system is in chaos, the balance of payments deficit is enormous, and oil is neither abundant nor cheap. Policies are polarising, the class structure of Britain is exposed and we must choose either authoritarian capitalism or socialism

I share it partly because aspects of it remind me of a debate on social justice and climate change I chaired last week as part of the Brighton Fringe (video below). The point about a choice between “authoritarian capitalism or socialism” was less overt, but there were aspects of a similar tension running through it, as was a sense that relying on simply technical answers would be foolish, because many of the speakers saw the problem as chiefly political. Or in some contrast, Myles Allen went full technofix in the Mail on Sunday over the weekend.

I don’t know if the similarities in these discourses say something depressing about lack of progress in energy policy or our ways of critiquing it. For all that I generally agree that issues of energy supply are political, not technical (and, moreover, the technical is political) it did feel like the scientific and technical issues were drowned out at that event. I also think that 21st century nuclear should be accessed on 21st century terms, not 1970s ones. Maybe I’m wrong about that though. You can watch for yourself.

Thanks to our panel (Thurstan Crockett, Jim Watson, Doug Parr and Kirsty Alexander) as well as Julia Day for putting it all together. Thanks also to Jon Agar for drawing this Science for People editorial to my attention.

How science works: follow the money

I’m mainly blogging at the Guardian at the moment. Today I posted a piece on the fossil fuel disinvestment campaign, which has been rolling through  US universities for a while.

In essence, disinvestment is the opposite of investment, inviting people to think about how their money’s being used when they’re not using it themselves. There’s a good Rolling Stone piece from last February if you want a catch-up on how the campaign has taken off in the US, or see the 350 website for more.

As I wrote on the Guardian piece, I suspect UK universities will take broader approach to the ways in which their campus might become “fossil free”, largely because they don’t tend to have such large endowments to invest.

The People and Planet site already has a reasonably impressive list of demands under simply “move their money” including changes in careers advice, a phase-out of fossil fuel research and to demand more research funding on renewables. Recent years have seen growing campaigns to “disarm” universities – e.g. Leeds – not only in terms of shares in arms manufactures, but careers fairs and the money they take for research, which is substantial, as funding from the oil industry can be too.

In some respects, this is less about universities disinvesting, and more the other way around. It’s about preventing particular industries from being able to profit from the resources universities hold; the people we train, the cultural authority we hold and, perhaps above all, the focus of the research we do.

I suspect we’ll see more of these campaigns in the future. In fact, the University of Oxford will see on Thursday. Its Earth Sciences department is launching a new partnership with Shell. Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, will be there. And activists are planning to meet him.


How to be optimistic about climate change

reclaim the street, brighton

Climate change is depressing. Really depressing. And yeah, I know the apocalypse is like sex because every generation thinks they’ve discovered it. But it does feel a bit end times. Properly end times. We maybe don’t admit this enough, but it really, really is.

I think it is still possible to have hope though. Moreover, it is possible to have hope without (a) being naïve about some magic technology fairy or (b) sticking your head in the sand when it comes to the science. The trick is to dislodge science from the centre of the debate and replace it with politics.

I appreciate this might sound counter-intuitive and I want to stress this is not the same as ignoring the science. Let me explain.

Some background: On Thursday, I was in the audience for an event at the LSE looking back at the Beveridge Report’s idea of “Giant Evils“, and what a social state might mean in 21st century. Zoe Williams started things off with a call to move away from the pessimism of austerity which too easily plays into the hands of those who want to cut for other reasons (see her piece on their blog, complete with ref to Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect”). She noted the way in which a sense of pragmatism is often claimed as a way to limit options and laugh at socialists as unrealistic. The left’s response, she argued, should be to regain a bit of old school hippie optimism. She mentioned, almost in passing, that the environmental movement had fed this pessimistic narrative. When picked up on this in the questions, she defended the point, although also stressing it’s complex, and expanded it to say she felt it was no accident that Cameron had, at least initially, aligned himself with the green movement. That trip with the huskies wasn’t just a way of expressing a conservative pride in nature; there are ways in which Tory stories of austerity dovetail very neatly with modern environmental stories of scarcity.

In many ways, I agree with Williams. Indeed, I’d say it’s a point of longstanding tension between some elements of left thought and parts of the green movement. The problem is that it’s not just something greens say. It’s part of several discourses, including many scientific ones. The idea that there are limits to what we can do to the Earth isn’t some neo-con conspiracy to quash hippie dreams.

So, how do we find hope? Evidence-based hope? We should shift our focus from debating the science so much and talk more about what we want to do about distributing those resources which we do have, including one resource we maybe have too much of: people. How we choose to manage this is very much up for debate. Our plans might well go left, right or some other frame entirely, but I do think that a focus on what people choose to do is where the sort of freedom from pessimism Williams wants can be found. This is not a new idea. Neither is it simple. It’s a huge global challenge. Way more radical than anything Beveridge faced. I’m not entirely sure it is possible (I’m not sure I’m personally that optimistic about people). But it’s where the hope can be found, I think.

Science can be a big part of this. As Williams said in Q&A, there’s a way in which stories of climate change can be used as a reason to inspire positive change. Scarcity is often as reason to divide and rule, but it can be otherwise. Moreover, I’d add that science can give us a lot more than doom and gloom. Modern science is the best way we have of knowing about the world and, for all that science can be the origin of a fair few dystopic visions, it can give us new ways of seeing things and unravel further options too. It’s also happens to be one of the best expressions of how a group of internationally well-networked humans working together is so much more than the sum of its parts. We’re often invited to wonder at science’s ideas or the objects of nature it uncovers, but it’s a massive social achievement too.

I’ll end with an attempt at a bit of inspiration from a trained scientist famous for insisting there is no alternative: Thatcher. In some ways, her radicalism proves the hippie cliché that another world is possible. Even if we might disagree with the world she helped make, it shows that social structures can be dismantled and re-fashioned. And others can be dismantled and re-fashioned again. And again.

Talking about climate change

future it be now

Future it be now, Vancouver. 

My column for the December edition of Popular Science UK magazine is online (you have to subscribe to read January’s one, on animal testing).

The column first went live just before the Doha climate talks, and focuses on what I see as a lack of government support on communicating climate change. I remembered Mike Shanahan’s blogpost from the year before; asking his readers what their government tells them about climate change and pointing out that in 1992, 200 governments had signed up to keep their citizens informed on this issue. The answer to Shanahan’s question isn’t especially encouraging. As George Monbiot put it in his end of 2012 column, “our leaders treat climate change as a guilty secret”. They shouldn’t. What’s more, we shouldn’t let them.

Here’s an extract of the full piece, or go over to the Popular Science archive to read in full.

Freedom of information requests to the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change last July showed that its communications budget has been cut by nearly 95% since it had come into existence in 2008. Yet recent research showed some key gaps in the public interest and knowledge of climate change and a desire for more information. Moreover, as Shanahan asked, is our Government “just producing communications” about climate change (which might feel like alienating PR) or is it engaging its citizens in a conversation? And if not, why not?

All too often, public debate about climate change happens by accident or when someone works to engineer a news event: when there is a political scandal – be this “climategate” of climate scientists or “energygate” exposing politicians – or when activist engineer stunts like flashmobs at the British Museum or living up chimneys for a week. At a recent discussion on communicating uncertainty held at the University of Oxford, climate scientist Myles Allen made the interesting suggestion that the IPCC should stop publishing Assessment Reports, as they serve no useful public communications purpose (Adam Corner has a good report on this event).

Guardian journalist Fiona Harvey replied that she liked these reports because they gave a hook for looking back and discussing everything that had happened in climate science since the last one; “it’s like the Olympics for climate change”. She makes a good point. Except climate change isn’t a sport. Also, it’s not Harvey’s job to communicate climate science; she journalistically reports and investigate it (and sells papers). She should be free to do her job, but climate science doesn’t work to a news cycle, neither does environmental change or what we might change in ourselves to deal with it: climate communications shouldn’t be left to what’s in the news.

I’d like to see the scientific community take greater responsibility for the job of engaging with the public on climate change, and I think the governmental bodies that fund them should do more to support them in this. We invest in scientists to look at climate change in detail, armed with special equipment, knowledge and methods to see it happening – but we need to invest in sharing this knowledge, too. If governments don’t take a more proactive role in helping us see this and think about what we might do about climate change, it’s easy for it to get lost.

Science isn’t just about finding out new knowledge, it’s about sharing it and putting it to use, too. As American writer David Dobbs put it so neatly a few years ago; publishing a scientific paper is only half the job. One might argue it’s even less than half. Arguably, many are on this job already, but not enough and it’s hard work. It requires some attitudinal change in areas of science, as well a range of support – not just financial – from the range of governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies that surrounds them.

Communicating climate change is the government’s job. They signed up to it and should be taking more of a lead. Government communication on climate science doesn’t have to be top-down. It can be something we take part in. And it can be something we demand too.

Should scientists be bolder in public?

tomorrow disappeared, street art in east london

I spoke at the London Climate Forum this weekend. This is a rough sketch of what I said.

Jeremy Grantham is the investor behind the “Grantham Institute” centres for climate change research at Imperial and the LSE. He recently wrote a provocative opinion piece for Nature, arguing:

Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers) but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical. It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.

It’s a bold statement. But possibly not a fair one. As Roger Pielke Jr quipped, “how about you go first?” More to the point, perhaps, many scientists recoiled from the suggestion, not simply because they lacked the courage or conviction of their work, but because they felt that isn’t a productive way to do science in public. People’s ideas of science vary, but to many it is not about bolding delivering anything, but asking questions.

And yet, perhaps Grantham has a point that climate is different. It’s more urgent, and there are more than enough people external to science ready to pounce and amplify your understatement for you. It’s surrounded by a very different political narrative of certainty and doubt than, for example, BSE. It’d be wrong to build a policy of scientific advice for climate based on models constructed in other crisis. Further, one might argue that climate science as a community is a bit too reticent, a bit too quick to hide (at least compared to other actors in the field), perhaps because the scientists who are currently at the most senior levels came into it before it was such a high profile political issue; they didn’t sign up for this.

In many ways, this isn’t a new dilemma. One might even say it’s the basic paucity of scepticism, the evental emptiness of doubt: At some point, you have to believe in something and act, or you do nothing. That doesn’t mean we have to be stuck though, it’s just a matter of deciding when you do choose to put questions to one side and act.

I don’t think we should be prescriptive about what scientists do here. If some would rather focus on uncertainty, fine, but equally I don’t think we should necessarily admonish those who take their work more boldly to the streets either (for one thing, that plays into stories those working against scientific advice would seek to promote: who are we really serving when we do such scolding?). That’s not to say we can’t critique individual actions we disagree with, but I’d like to think science is big and diverse enough to cover a range of approaches to science in society, and that we should be ok with that. If anything, we should celebrate and foster diversity of political attitude and approach. There’s a lot more to scientists in society than simply those who speak out and those who don’t; there are different ways to speak, a range of frames and a diversity of possible audiences. As Pielke Jr argues in his book the Honest Broker, their are various models for scientific advice one might choose, the important thin gis scientists do pick one approach, and do so consciously  thinking about which they apply, when and why.

I’m not sure I agree with Grantham’s focus on senior scientists, although they will have to be more accepting of such an approach if younger, less senior ones are to be involved too. This kind of work doesn’t just have to be done scientists either, but other members of the scientific community: educators, public engagement officers, artists, psychologists, sociologists, writers, press officers, storytellers, filmmakers, all sorts. (Yes, these people are part of the scientific community – broadly defined – and many are very skilled too).

We just don’t see enough of this activity applied to climate science. And so, I’d say if Grantham really wants a stronger public discourse on climate science, he should put his money where his mouth is and fund some. There used to be the Grantham Prize for journalism, the funding for which was recently shifted to training journalists, but journalism is only one part of the sort of work needed here. I would like to see a much larger project of investment in a larger range of climate communications. (I think it should be funded by the government, but that’s another fight). I know way too many science communication people who deliberately frame their ideas to have a biomedical theme so they can apply to Wellcome public engagment grants. If Grantham helped put together a climate version, I’m sure many would shift their energies, and that’d probably be a lot more productive in the long run than front page photos of Brian Hoskins occupying an oil rig.

A call for open journalism, and open campaigning, on climate change

A view from the Science Museum’s climate gallery.

This was originally published on Greenpeace’s Energy Desk blog and written for a debate they ran at the Frontline Club last month. I might well have written something different today, as I read debate over climate and Sandy and keep track of the anti-gas protest in West Burton. I still think it applies though.

Is journalism fit for purpose when it comes to energy and climate change? I have two answers. They’re both questions.

Firstly, whose purpose are we trying to fit to exactly? This is important. It draws our attention – crucially – to the politics of it all, because the public debate on energy and climate change is all about the politics.

We might, if in a conciliatory mood, agree that we all want to make a happier, safer future for us all. But what this future looks like and how we get there is up for debate. It might be nice to imagine scientists could simply pass their great knowledge on to the rest of the world. But they don’t know everything, and we’re not going to quickly believe them either. Neither is it as simple as a matter of saying we should argue with scientists. See, for example, cases of “false balance” (where a marginal view is put up against a rigorously worked out one, as if they were equivalent) or “merchants of doubt” (where small amounts of uncertainty are exploited to rhetorically unravel strong cases).

I give my students the difference between top-down versus discursive models of science communication to play with, but the reality is too complex for such rarefied models.

Secondly, is journalism really the problem? Greenpeace may organise an event like this, ready to point fingers at journalism, but they should take the chance to look at themselves too. For all that I’d like to see a continued role for professional, independent journalism, we’ll increasingly see direct communication to the public from activists, academics, politicians and more.

We could all be better.

The involvement recent Arctic Ready campaign came under particular criticism. I personally felt those wailing “but Greenpeace LIED” needed to get some perspective. It’s not like Greenpeace is the first to pull something like this. The Office of Fair Trading tried a similar game a few years ago, working with Sense About Science to highlight misinformation around health. Other parodies such as the pregnant man or downloadable tan invite people to consider quite how credulous they are when it comes to science and technology. Arctic Ready fooled you? You should ask yourself why. So far, so reflexive modernisation, perhaps. But I don’t think Greenpeace should cast their audiences in the role the fool. The public discourse on energy and climate change is shadowy, elitist and confusing enough already.

In contrast, Leo Hickman’s “Eco Audit” live blog is a good example of the sort of communication I’d like to see more of. He asks a question, shows the answers he’s actively gone looking for and provides a space for more people to chip in. He listens to these contributions, pulling bits out of the comments threads and twitter, before offering a conclusion.

If nothing else, this approach lets him draw on more expertise than he can imagine when he starts off. It leaves him more open to serendipitous surprise. It also helps build trust around his analysis; even if you only read his conclusion at the end, the workings are there to check if you want to.

I want to see more of this in environmental journalism, and I want to see politicians, activists and scientists similarly asking questions in public in such an interactive way too. Hickman’s approach isn’t as flashy as Arctic Ready, but it offers a more meaningful form of collaboration than space to upload photo-art or a point and click game. It asks readers what they know and think, not simply to perform jokes within a set framework. Maybe we do need more LOL-cat humour in the climate debate (LOLpolar bear? LOL oilrig?).

And arguably the odd bit of subversive art invites us all to think. But both politics and science can still be done with respect for the public sphere as a source of inspiration for what new directions to take, not simply a space to amass support on pre-set routes.

There is a place for privacy, even secrets, when it comes to a lot of work in climate change and energy. Many in the field are defensive for good reasons; be it email hacks, undercover cops or simply a desire for a bit of uninterrupted time to explore an idea on our own. But that doesn’t mean we should close off. Be bold, be open, listen.