Climate Change Denial

October 14, 2013


George Marshall @ 3:19 pm

According to a new report, after 2047 every year -even the coolest- will be hotter than the hottest years ever recorded. This deadline offers an original and potentially very useful new frame for climate change that breaks with the history of environmentalist deadlines and brings a sense of proximity, and a narrative of a journey that leads to an irreversible transformation.

The report (link…) just published in the online publication Nature by a team at the University of Hawaii has a new take on the climate modelling data – they ask how long will it be before every year, even the coldest, will still be warmer than any other in the long term record? They have defined this as the ‘year of climate departure’ and it is, at current trajectories, due to come in 2047 . Three years later will come the year when every month in every year will be hotter than that month has ever been before. The researchers put this year within a range of 14 years either way so the worst case is  2033 and the best is 2071.

I have been wondering why this feels like such an original and effective way to present the modelling data.  I think it comes down to narratives and proximity.

Climate change suffers from ambiguous timelines, and this kind of temporal anchoring is very useful. Scientists usually use timelines that appear on the x axis of a graph- 2050, 2100- which feels abstract and arbitrary. Environmental campaigners try to create deadlines in terms of emissions targets, with countdowns towards some supposed atmospheric tipping point.  Two recent examples from 2007 and 2008 are a celebrity campaign called Global Cool which announced 10 years to ‘save the planet’ and the London based New Economics Foundation which launched the campaign ‘100 months to save our climate’.

I fear that these deadlines are so coded with environmentalist language about saving and defending things and the threat that ‘if you do not do what we say then this will happen’ that they do little to engage the wider society and, unfortunately, can easily feed an already well fueled prejudice about greens overstating their case.

These campaigns aim to create a sense of urgency through an impending deadline, but their real weakness is that this deadline feels imposed and artificial. Of course we don’t really blow up in 38 months from today, even though the ticking bomb style countdown on the 100 months to save the planet website implies that metaphorically. The problem is that, come that deadline, it will probably all feel fine, just as we have happily gone through a clutch of previous deadlines.  It is not really 100 months to save the world so much as 100 months before the odds shift into a greater likelihood of feedbacks- which is certainly less catchy.

But this new deadline is much more interesting because, rather than drawing on old and familiar narratives, it creates a new one: that we are about to make a step change into a new world where nothing is like the old world.

Climate change is a process not an event, and this language speaks far better to that reality: this speaks of metaphors of journeys, making a transition, crossing a line, and a stage of no return. It speaks less to the finality of a deadline (which, as the name suggests, I suspect we process subconsciously as a warning of our mortality) than a moment of commitment and passage.

And this speaks very well to the way that we build our understanding of the world on our recent experience: what is sometimes called the hindsight bias.  We all carry a mental scale of past hot and cold weather and this says: you remember that very hot year? From this year onwards nothing will ever be cooler than that. 2047 is 34 years from now- potentially quite a powerful figure because that is close to the average childrearing age (in the UK the average age for women too have a first child is now 30, 32 for men). This allows the argument that we will enter this new era ‘when your children are the same age that you are now’. I say ‘potentially quite powerful’ because there is little  evidence that having children makes people more concerned about climate change: though this may provide a better way of engaging parents who do already care about it.

This approach also reflects the uncertainties of the science far better. It doesn’t matter whether this happens in exactly 2047. Or how much of any individual heat wave is ‘climate change’ and how much is ‘natural’ (a false dichotomy that enables people to deny climate change). What has always been important to people is not what causes what, but how it will feel: and this argues that, from this year on, nothing will feel like anything that has happened before.  That word ‘nothing’ has a bold authority to it that counters the uncertainties of the science very well. This is not a matter of degree- of things being a bit hotter or stormier: this new world it going to be something totally and dangerously different in every respect. This is the natural partner of the emerging language of the ‘anthropocene’: the age when the world is shaped more by human than any other natural or physical force.

There are, as ever, dangers with this framing too. It speaks far more strongly to adaptation (batten down the hatches) than it does to mitigation (stop burning that stuff) . There is the danger that the inevitability and irreversibility of this impending crossing point could feel so threatening to people and therefore less effective than other narratives. Maybe so- but then climate change of some kind is now inevitable and irreversible, so maybe we need to be finding ways to talk about it that reflect this.

The paper itself says that this year of climate departure is coming whatever we do, and that even with a scenario of aggressive emissions reduction we will still cross that line in 2069.  It argues that these additional 22 years could be critical for the survival of many species and ecosystems but this is a technical argument that will not make sense to people’s intuitive understanding of the world. In any case 34 years and 66 years are both already in the category that most people would regard as long term and the psychological research on hyperbolic discounting shows that people are not overly concerned about differences in losses and gains that far ahead.

And then, of course it works for me.  I believe in climate change and I think it is at threat. Other people’s views will always be mediated by their worldview and politics and, if they don’t believe in climate change or climate models, I can’t think that this will  suddenly win them over.

Generally though, this is the first deadline I have seen that could speak well to a general audience- grounded in the science, timescales that work well for them, speaking to common experience, and lacking the coding of environmentalism that can sometimes repel .

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