Less heat, more light, please

Tackling climate change is about a lot more than understanding the science, insists Mike Hulme.

February 21, 2008

Is climate change an idea that we invent and talk about or is it a physical phenomenon that we observe and quantify? It is of course both: an idea that exists in our social discourse and a phenomenon that exists in an external physical reality. In this hybrid character of climate change lies its fascination for us and also its intractability.

The Greeks were the first people we know to have conceptualised climate (different climates for them were a function of latitude) and to discuss climate change (they observed that changing the use of land could modify local climates). In the subsequent 2,500 years, our ideas about the changeability of climate and our abilities to observe and quantify that changeability have undergone several distinct phases.

We have arrived in the 21st century with a number of new tools with which to examine our changing climate and with a number of new stories about what it means for us. There is little doubt that the collective impact on the atmosphere of 6.6 billion living people (plus an equal number of dead ones) is altering the ways in which the Earth's physical system is working. We can theorise this impact, we can observe its consequences and we can make tentative predictions decades, even centuries, into the future about what this transformation may presage.

Equally, the idea of climate change, and how it relates to our wider human instincts for preservation, justice, comfort and power, has taken on a different character. Thus we "fear" climate change and seek to "control" and "engineer" climate to some human-defined state of stability.

Which brings us to Gabrielle Walker and Sir David King's new book on the subject of climate change: The Hot Topic. Their credentials as scientists are impeccable and complementary: Walker, an award-winning science journalist and King, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser from 2001 to 2007.

This neat combination of experience offers something new amid the recent avalanche of books about climate change: something that is more considered than George Monbiot's Heat, more synoptic than Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers and less polemical than James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia.

But in the end, The Hot Topic remains a book about climate change written by two scientists. And herein lies its main weakness. For a scientist to write a book about climate change would be like a Catholic theologian writing a book about the nature of human consciousness: we definitely need this perspective, but it's hardly the whole story. Walker and King offer us a science, engineering and technology reading of climate change, with some economics and politics thrown in. The offerings from the social sciences, the arts and humanities, from religion and ethics are meagre indeed. Culture is mentioned three times in the book, public opinion and ethics just once each, the latter condescendingly referred to as "touchy-feely choices" and set against the authoritative voice of science.

This unbalanced set of analytical tools that Walker and King bring to the issue of climate change reveals both the power and the weakness of the current framing of the phenomenon. We have focused too much on climate change as a physical phenomenon, largely ignoring the ways in which the idea of climate change gets constructed and appropriated for use.

Such a purely physical framing invites a problem-solution dialectic. But if climate change is an idea as much as it is a physical reality, is it possible to solve it any more than one can "solve" violence?

The Hot Topic defines the problem of climate change through the lens of natural science and offers solutions that borrow largely from science, engineering and technology. Framing it differently as an idea would instead force us to explore our values, our relationships and our view of ourselves. Is our purpose on Earth to secure greater affluence, to seek justice, or is it merely to survive? This is the really big question that the idea of climate change is demanding an answer to; and on this The Hot Topic has too little to say.

The Hot Topic: How to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights On

By Gabrielle Walker and David King
Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN 9780747593959
Published 21 January 2008

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