Wednesday, 8 September 2010


This week is Challenger 2010 week at NOC, so I've been in local-organising-committee mode doing all sorts of little jobs for BAG-who-shall-be-obeyed. It's been fun, but pretty hectic. I can't imagine how much of a stressathon it's been for BAG - it's enough of a trial getting the little things sorted out without having the whole conference on your back.

One of the highlights that I've found time to see was a lecture last night from Mike Hulme, a climate scientist from UEA. Not someone I knew a lot about going into his plenary seminar, but someone whose name I was familiar with. Anyway, he gave an interesting talk based around one of the key messages of a book he published a couple of years back, Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

The main narrative of his seminar focused around how different people frame climate change, and how this framing colours how they interpret and respond to evidence or discussion concerning it. Framing is one of those things I'm faintly aware of but never give any thought to, preferring instead to stick to more tangible topics. So it was nice to have someone else do the heavy lifting and present a summary of what the major frames that people use in the context of climate change. Little came as a surprise, but it was good to see a rather over-familiar subject viewed askew from a social sciences perspective.

I suspect that some people might have thought the seminar was a bit too artsy or airy-fairy sociological for an ostensibly scientific subject but, in a way, that kind of view was really the meat of the seminar. That is, the way people frame a subject dictates how they perceive, among other things, other frames, and that those viewing things from a high-minded scientific frame (I mean, who does this???) need to realise that what's compelling to us isn't convincing to others. One of the upshots of which is, Hulme argued, scientists need to tailor their messages in different ways when dealing with different communities.

In principle, this sounds almost totally obvious, but Hulme meant more than simply altering our language, or shifting the emphasis of our presentation onto aspects more easily understandable. He meant that we should imagine climate change through the frames of others, and determine what sorts of things are likely to be interesting or persuasive. And, also, what sorts of things just won't work with a particular audience. In the context of so-called climate scepticism, this might mean avoiding any attempt to persuade that climate change has an anthropogenic component, and focusing instead on subjects that one might get agreement on, for instance climate adaptation.

In questions afterwards, Hulme made this re-framing sound almost a little sinister, suggesting that it should be used as a tactic to gain entrance and credibility within (so-called) skeptical communities. I know he didn't mean it like that at all, but his phrasing might have excited the more conspiratorial fringes. Anyway, overall it was a well-paced introduction to his book and to the role that the social sciences might play in making progress in minimising climate change. Certainly, it's been clear for a long time that the sciences, for all of their direct and detailed knowledge, have very little to offer society when it comes to getting action on climate change. We already know more than enough to tackle the first-order part of climate change, but our civilisation seems reluctant to act on even this information - more nuanced detail isn't going to change this. Approaches that try to engage with people at philosophical, ethical, moral and spiritual (yikes) levels seem much more likely to succeed.

Changing the subject slightly, another interesting "spiritual" revelation came out of a debate on geoengineering between an advocate and a scientist from Greenpeace. Normally I find myself in the sceptical camp when it comes to geoengineering, but the empty platitudes and scare-mongering from Greenpeace pushed me decidedly towards it. Time and time again the Greenpeace spokesman just played up the uncertainly and dismissed geoengineering out of hand. He was firmly of the opinion that we should do nothing that could be deleterious to the world, and just plain refused to answer the question "what should we do in the face of a sudden, unexpected climate calamity?" (or, rather, words came out of his mouth, but they did not engage with the question). Greenpeace have almost a theological devotion to environmental issues that sees everything in black-and-white, and which won't even countenance research that might give us a Plan B at a minuscule cost to the Earth. It's a holier-than-thou mindset that is so far from persuading anyone that it's not even funny. As the great ecologist Garrett Hardin said many years ago, "With friends like these the environment needs no enemies".

Anyway, the conference has one more day to run and, despite the science, I'm quite looking forwards seeing the back of it tomorrow. I think I'll stick to attending conferences in the future. Even small-scale organising like that I've been involved in doesn't seem to suit me!

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