Climate change is a matter of social science

A synopsis of a talk, plus a book review.

The entire way home this evening I listened to a long recording of Clive Hamilton (Professor of Public Ethics, Australian Green Party candidate, author of Affluenza) addressing the RSA on May 12th 2010, on the occasion of the publication of his book Requiem for a Species. (Just one species? Apparently so.) The presentation took in the failure of the international summit at Copenhagen, the tendency of official bodies to omit what cannot be said for certain, the vilification of climate scientists, Climategate, the climate change denial movement, and the irresponsibility of the media, different adaptive and maladaptive responses ordinary people have to news this bad, the poverty of the consumer movement, Camus’ The Plague and what people do when hope is all but gone, young people’s youth lost to worry, poor people’s stolen prospects, and the hollowness of optimism.

Hamilton is in line with the most enlightened climate scientists in recognising that only social science can provide the tools steer us, by activating humanity’s collective imagination about our future. I fear it may be counter-productive to talk like this, because it sounds redemptive, and as such it would probably raise hackles about academic freedom and instrumentalisation of research. (Or maybe I’ve been working where I work – a distinctive place where an institutional scheme to reduce waste is baselessly condemned by senior academics as a disingenuous austerity measure – for too long.)

His summary of the predictions, that we have exceeded the tipping points to limit global warming to the 2 degrees most scientists think would limit climate change, aren’t new to anybody who has been taking notice these past few years. The expectation is 650ppm by the end of the century and the attendant 4 degree global temperature rise. This certainly makes a mockery of the way I live my life, and as somebody pointed out in the discussion, we are all everyday denialists. The effects, most people who have studied these things agree, are going to be drastic.

But what was new were the kinds of questions he was asked, including one about whether society could afford democracy (response: to become authoritarian would be unconscionable), whether we should control the population (response: a statistic – one British person’s emissions legacy – where the legacy is your descendants and theirs – is equivalent to that of 136 Bangladeshis’, so if we do control, we start with the most developed countries first), whether we need to live like it’s WW2 (response: yes). I had no idea that a critical mass of people was talking about that stuff. It must then be time to think about how to be responsible global citizens, and also to live fully human lives where we look after what is valuable and what want to protect, out of the stuff that may not look so important when it’s crunch time.

Extract in The Guardian about the intertwinement, post Cold War, of climate denial and political conservatism. A predictable part for The Guardian to pick up on, which doesn’t deal with the more interesting parts of the book, about maladaptive responses of ordinary people, short of denial.

To end, a Times Higher review by Steven Yearley (Professor of Sociology of Scientific Knowledge at the University of Edinburgh).

“As the reader quickly anticipates, there is to be no happy conclusion to this book. Hamilton is looking for a different kind of “closure”, arguing first of all for acceptance that things really will alter for the worse. We should despair and banish false hopes, acknowledge that the world will change irrevocably and commit to what actions we can to reduce emissions.

This is a provocative and sobering book, in which Hamilton shows very clearly that the climate problem is now primarily a question of social science: of psychology and political economy. For my money, he could have done more to systematise his social scientific analyses and to specify the relative importance of the numerous factors he highlights. But this is nonetheless a vivid book and an urgent invitation to do much more detailed social science.”

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