Oxford Climate Forum 2014

I’m fresh from the Oxford Climate Forum, held this weekend. Presenters and panel speakers attempted to remain resolutely upbeat, but it was hard, at times, not to feel despondent—and that came through.

Professor Lord Giddens, the eminent British sociologist, and doyen of climate change politics, gave a presentation entitled “What Cause for hope?” Note, he gave the same speech a month previously at the LSE, available here (starting at 4 minutes). He commenced his speech with this statement:

Over the period from 2008 to 2014 today, on the one hand, the science of climate change, our understanding of climate change and our understanding of the dangers posed by climate change to the future of our civilisation has advanced substantially…………yet public opinion has become more indifferent.

Why should there be such a yawning gap between the dangers we face and our reactions to those dangers?

To answer this question, Giddens pointed to the fossil fuel lobby, the inability of a small coterie of scientists to convey the climate change message, the free-rider problem and, finally, the ongoing disputes between rich and poor countries over who should shoulder the burden of CO2 mitigation. Yet Giddens ultimately sees all these reasons as secondary; rather:

No other civilisation has ever intervened in nature remotely to the degree which we do on an everyday basis. Therefore, there is no historical situation, no historical record, no historical data from which we can draw upon to seek to mobilise public opinion against it…… The consequences of it are not there, they are to come.

I see the central difficultly of our world getting a stable future for itself in the 21st century around this situation; this situation being that we are likely to wait until there is some cataclysmic happening which can be unequivocally linked to climate change before we stir ourselves to action. But then, by definition, it will be too late, because we can’t get the greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. I see this paradox as the central issue.

Giddens’ paradox also explains why, ironically, the young appear less concerned about climate change than the old, despite it being the young who will shoulder the burden in years to come. I’ve blogged about this issue here, but, in short, my explanation of the relative indifference of the young is that they have less experience of the fact that “shit happens”. Most fifty-year olds know of someone who has died of cancer, been killed in a road accident, attempted suicide, descended into alcoholism or ended up in prison. Must 18-year olds don’t.

Dr Adam Corner of Oxford’s Climate Outreach and Informational Network (COIN) didn’t quite see it this way. To COIN, climate change communication is a question of narrative. You can see their approach here. Moreover, a unifying feature of the forum was that narratives should be positive: climate change mitigation being an opportunity as much as an obligation. My take is that we have seen some pretty powerful political youth movements in the past that were a reaction to a threat, whether fascism, Vietnam or apartheid.

If there was some silver lining in Giddens speech, it was that a transformational technological change may arise. This is a similar line taken by the Google engineers Ross Kosingstein and David Fork in an article titled “What would it really take to reverse climate change“. They argue that we should be pouring money and resources into blue sky thinking, since it is only such thinking that could help prevent a catastrophe.

An unapologetic bare-knuckle prize fighter at the forum was Bob Ward from the Grantham Research Institute. Ward concentrated on calling out UKIP’s climate skeptic energy policy, a copy of which you can find here. It contains such gems as this:

We do not however regard CO2 as a pollutant. It is a natural trace gas in the atmosphere which is essential to plant growth and life on earth.

To which my riposte would be that water is vital to human life, but that does not mean to say we can’t drown in it.

Ward’s worry is that UKIP could quite easily perform the  role of king maker in any future minority Conservative Party government. As such, UKIP’s demand that the UK’s Climate Change Act should be torn up does no bode well for any constructive British participation in the Paris 2015 climate talks.

The media currently views climate change activism as essentially “boring”. In the 1930s, large parts of the British media viewed the rise of central European fascism as a matter of no consequence. How wrong they were, and how wrong they are now.

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