Time to ask the public: Why 2 degrees?
This guest post is from Dr Chris Shaw, a visiting Research Fellow at Sussex University. Chris asks why, given the importance of the issue, has there never really been a public debate about the ‘two degrees’ limit, so fundamental to the political construction of climate change?
Uncertainty has played a central role in public debate about climate change – and how to communicate it – from the beginning.
However, the types of uncertainty open to public interrogation are tightly policed. For example, projections of future climate impacts are constructed under conditions of profound scientific uncertainty, meaning the process of defining a ‘dangerous’ limit is more of a social than a scientific judgment. Despite this, there has never been any attempt to involve the public in discussions about perhaps the most fundamental question of all: how much warming constitutes an acceptable risk.
Instead, the idea of a two degree dangerous limit has emerged as the end point target which defines the climate policy debate (Anderson and Bows, 2008). My research has shown that discussion of the two degree dangerous limit idea is largely ignored in the news media and where it is mentioned, it is constructed as scientific fact (Shaw, 2013), thereby denying the ostensibly free citizens of democratic societies the opportunity to engage in the most important and basic question about climate change.
I suggest that, in light of the failings of current policy frameworks to even slow the rate at which CO2 levels are rising, the climate problem should be ‘unstructured’.
A structured problem is one in which the dimensions have been predefined by a priori assumptions. Climate change has been structured as a phenomenon with a two degree dangerous limit. Removing the idea of a scientifically defined two degree dangerous limit would allow for a fuller socialization of the climate debate by legitimising the risk attitudes of the public, rather than framing the problem as one to be deliberated only by those in possession of complex climate science knowledge.
Including subjective attitudes to risk in the decision-making process has been identified as essential to the building of ‘meaningful environmental citizenship and participatory policy’ (Ockwell et al., 2009, p. 321). If claims of a two degree dangerous limit prove incorrect then public trust in climate science may be undermined, with negative consequences for public engagement (Boykoff et al., 2010). Conversely, by allowing citizens to become ‘both critics and creators in the knowledge production process’ (Rayner, 1987, p. 8), not only are the chances of finding a solution improved (Cash et al., 2003) but additionally, explicit public recognition of the social limits to climate science will ensure ‘continued scientific authority in the international climate regime’ (Lovbrand, 2004, p. 449).
What might such a properly deliberative process look like? It would begin by asking people what they would choose as a dangerous limit. Respondents would not need to be climate scientists in order to answer this question because the limit has not been defined through the interpretation of complex meteorological data. It is drawn from some broad brush stroke assumptions about what might happen at different levels of warming, as shown in reproductions such as the IPCC Burning Embers diagram. (Also, see here for more information on why two degrees has been chosen as a dangerous limit).
The most important determinants of the two degree limit are the social settings in which the deliberations are conducted. Under conditions of empirical uncertainty, such as those characterising climate change projections, institutional setting alongside social and political values come to play a determining role in defining what is considered ‘true’ (Johnson and Covello, 1987: 357).
Achieving group uniformity becomes an increasingly important determinant of decision making the greater the level of uncertainty. The groups that have defined the two degree dangerous limit are powerful political and technical actors. The idea of a limit has been defined according to the interests of those groups making the decisions.
What does climate change look like if the available information is interpreted by the values of citizens? The purpose of such an exercise would not be to agree a new ‘dangerous’ limit. Rather, it would be to allow publics to better understand the decision making process and see how uncertainty – rather than offering a reason for doing nothing – actually shows that there is not a single dangerous limit, the avoidance of which means safety from harmful climate impacts.
There are risks and uncertainty at any level of warming, but being honest about these will allow more meaningful public engagement, and ultimately, a more substantive and legitimate societal response.
Anderson, K., Bows, A., (2008). Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 366 (1882), 3863–3882.
Boykoff, M.T., Frame, D., Randalls, S., 2010. Discursive stability meets climate instability: a critical exploration of the concept of ‘climate stabilization’ in contemporary climate policy. Global Environmental Change 20, 53–64.
Cash, D.W., Clark, W.C., Alcock, F., Dickson, N.M., Eckley, N., Guston, D.H., Jaeger, J., Mitchell, R.B., (2003). Knowledge systems for sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 100 (14), 8086–8091.
Johnson, B. and Covello, V. (Eds). (1987). The social and cultural construction of risk. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishing.
Ockwell, D., Whitmarsh, L., O’Neill, S., (2009). Reorienting climate change communication for effective mitigation – forcing people to be green or fostering grassroots engagement? Science Communication 30, 305–327.
Rayner, S., (1987). Risk and relativism in science for policy. In: Johnson, B.B.,
Covello, V.T. (Eds.), The Social and Cultural Construction of Risk. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, pp. 5–23.
Shaw, C (2013). Choosing a dangerous limit for climate change. Public representations of the decision making process. Global Environmental Change. (In press). DOI 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.12.01
Turner, J. (1991). Social influence. Buckingham: Open University Press
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