Thursday, March 28, 2013

Climate Zombies

In our book, "Die Klimafalle", we sustain the idea that science helps to create "Klimaerzählungen", climate narratives, which regularly run out of control; like magic, graphs turn into symbols and science into politics. The best example to illustrate this idea is the 2-degree-limit, which is a hybrid of science, culture and politics, to say the least. So we cannot leave the 2 degree limit to science alone, but have to analyze it as a symbol of relevance for the organization of our societies. The ethnographic method to "read culture like a text" and to analyze science as a cultural practice, has a long tradition of its own in cultural studies and serves well to shed new light on the climate debate and its symbols.
In the Guardian, Christopher Shaw deploys this method in his article, What zombie films tell us about climate change: there's no one happy ending. He argues that "Zombie films play havoc with traditional narratives – like the one that puts a mythical 2C limit at the heart of climate change".

Here we go, straight into Zombieland:
 Dawn of the Dead, George A Romero's classic 1978 satire on consumer society, opens in a chaotic television studio. An unnamed expert and a TV presenter are sat across from each other, with panic unfolding all around them, and the expert is trying to convince the presenter that the dead are coming alive. The expert shouts accusingly to the presenter, "Do you believe the dead are returning to life and attacking the living?" To which the presenter replies, 'I'm not sure what to believe doctor. All we get is what you people tell us.' As the camera pans away to a TV studio being rapidly abandoned by the traumatised staff, we hear the exasperated expert cry out: 'What will it take to make you people see?'"

 From here, it doesn't take much to jump to climate change and the atmosphere surrounding it:
In this article I want to talk about this sense of panic, and how expert opinion shapes our understanding of climate change risk. I will attempt to show why powerful actors have promoted the claim of a two-degree dangerous limit, and the negative implications of the two-degree limit idea for democracy and social progress.

 In reading climate change like the script of a Zombie movie, he deconstructs the narrative of the 2 degree limit; in doing so, science appears as closely connected to political power:
 Constructing climate change as a phenomenon with a two-degree dangerous limit is an overtly political act. It is an approach which frames the issue as amenable to political regulation through the same kind of targets regime that defines much government policy.

and produces discourses of control:
As Ross noted when writing about climate change over 20 years ago: "Calculations surrounding our ability to survive in a dramatically altered natural world are presented rationally so as to deny the irrationality of the actions generating the crisis." From this perspective, the two-degree limit is in reality a discourse of control".  

 He argues that science tends to normalize and naturalize the social and political causes of climate change:
The abstraction of a single dangerous limit removes climate politics from our immediate lived experience and into the locked conference rooms of global institutions. Instead of being rooted in the value systems which people use to negotiate life it becomes a symbol, residing in the hands of a few, that can be reconfigured to suit the changing needs of these elites. (...)  To maintain a particular symbolic definition of a crisis, the state pulls on the esteem of science to give a value position the appearance of fact, because an ideological position "can never be really successful until it is naturalised, and it cannot be naturalised while it is still thought of as a value rather than a fact."

But how come that journalists, critical social scientists, campaigners and NGOs have acceptly the 2-degree-narrative so widely? Maybe there is a simple reason: there would be no story to tell about climate change. This is where the Zombies come in:
 Stories generally have three elements; a thesis (the existing order), the anti-thesis (the thing that threatens to disturb that order) and the synthesis (the new order that emerges after the threat has been dealt with). That is what gives a story its narrative arc and tension. The great thing about proper zombie films is that they play havoc with this structure. There is a thesis and an anti-thesis but no synthesis. The zombies are never destroyed and no new stable order emerges. And that, I fear, may be the truth of the climate change story.

Here it is in a nutshell, the 2-degree fairytale:
According to the two-degree narrative, once upon a time there was an order called modernity, and all was well. Along came the nasty climate change monster to threaten this order. Luckily the monster did not become dangerous until it heated up by two degrees. This gave the people of the land the time to find a way to keep the monster safe by creating a green economy. The new green economy was very nice and everyone was happy. That story is simply a fairytale.

 But this is not the end. Welcome in a fuzzy reality:
But there is another story, blocked by the two-degree narrative, which does have not one single happy ending, but many millions of different endings, some happier than others.
In this story, there is no two-degree limit. There is a world of massive uncertainty, a chaotic non-linear range of climate change impacts which the people realise is beyond the scope of modernity to even understand, let alone respond to. All the knowledge, ways of being, cultures and technologies of the past and present are part of the millions of different stories that people in different parts of the world need to tell themselves to be able to find their own way through what is happening and what is yet to come. Who knows what the endings of these different stories will be, but they will be stories that people have made by themselves, rooted in the opportunities and constraints of their own lives, not fantasies foisted on them from afar to serve the interests of people they do not know and will never meet. Ironically, our best hope for reducing climate danger may lie in rejecting the very idea of a dangerous limit to climate change.

Maybe the political essay, based on good research and unlikely comparisons, is the best contemporary form to approach the poetics and politics of climate change. Even if the science were settled, as some proponents of the 2-degree-limit say, the interpretative work still has to be done.

 (thanks to Oliver for sending the article).


@ReinerGrundmann said...

"According to the two-degree narrative, once upon a time there was an order called modernity, and all was well. Along came the nasty climate change monster to threaten this order. "

I could not agree more - this indicates that even if we somehow 'solved' climate change we would not have solved any of our pressing problems in the world (poverty, health, environmental...)

We are reminded of this by the very uncertainty of the knowledge base of the 2 degree target. The Economist nicely summarizes the debate. The big story, of course, is the uncertainty about climate sensitivity.

What this means in policy terms is disturbing for climate science and all those who think science is the most important part in this debate. It could be that we stay within the 2 degree target without doing anything. But it could also be that we will miss the 2 degrees target despite all our best efforts.

Ironically, climate sensitivity and the 2 deg target have been invented in order to tame the issue and establish symbolic markers to guide collective action. Should it turn out that they unwittingly contributed to a loss of narrative control? Will the 'zombies' take over public discourse?

Anonymous said...

Climate sensitivity has been invented? By Arrhenius 1896.


@ReinerGrundmann said...

Sorry should have read 'has been invented' otherwise would make no sense