The ‘issue from hell’

December 2, 2015

From November 30 to December 11, the eyes of the world will be on Paris as leaders from around the globe convene to agree historic measures aimed at reducing carbon emissions. With COP21 now in full swing, the Campaign takes a look at the role of social science in understanding the causes and impacts of climate change, and what can be done about it.

In the first article in our COP21 series, John Urry FAcSS, distinguished Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University, tracks the history of our understanding of climate change, explaining why it is ‘the issue from hell’ and what human actions might bring about bluer skies in the future.

Climate change necessarily involves trying to understand and model long term futures, especially the consequences of past GHG emissions which remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. And the future climate partly result from events and social practices yet to occur. It is not surprising that estimates of future temperature increases vary widely and why it is so difficult to deal with the issue of climate change.

We can date the initiation of climate change as a major issue to 1998, a year of record temperatures. The IPCC was established and leading climate scientist James Hansen announced in US Congressional hearings that anthropogenic global warming had started. Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the UK’s Royal Society added to a growing sense within policy circles that human activities were indeed transforming future climates. She argued that the system of the planet was subject to a massive ‘experiment’. Many now argue that the earth system entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene where human activities constitute a ‘great force of nature’. Al Gore describes climate change as the ‘issue from hell’ – its complexity, scale and timeframe all making its causes and solutions so difficult to resolve, this often termed a wicked problem.

One aspect of this wickedness is how ‘climate change’ is not a simple problem that could be ‘fixed’ through for example adjustments within a specific system, as arguably the hole in the ozone layer caused by the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) in refrigerators was fixed. Indeed ‘climate change’ is not a single ‘cause’ nor a single set of ‘effects’. There are many elements: increases in Arctic temperatures, reduced size of icebergs, melting of icecaps and glaciers, reduced permafrost, changes in rainfall, reduced bio-diversity, new wind patterns, more droughts, dust storms and heat waves, and greater intensity of tropical cyclones and other extreme weather events. Climate change increases the probabilities of such events.

Many climate scientists calculate that future temperature increases should be limited to no more than 2˚C with the implication that rich societies must cut emissions by up to 80%. Such a programme cannot be simply delivered by new or different kinds of energy – it cannot be ‘business as usual’. It is now thought there is a maximum carbon budget, with societies around the world having already burnt through two-thirds of this. The implication is that more than half of current fossil fuel reserves should remain unexploited and left in the ground, with many financial consequences for fossil fuel companies.

The major reason for why climate change is a wicked problem is that, even as far back as 1998, it was realised that it necessarily concerns human activities and not just physical or technological futures. The varied climate sciences show how ‘human activities’ are principally responsible for increased emissions and hence for changing climates. This means that how societies have been, and will be organized in the future, is critical for anticipating future emissions and temperatures. The problem of the climate is people and their habitual patterns of life and what can be seen as locked in social practices. This is why this is the issue from hell. Can anything be done here we should ask.

There are three piece of relative good news about these ‘human activities’. First, the increase in CO2 emissions is actually recent, stemming from the Great Acceleration of burning fossil fuels from around 1950, after which its increase was exponential. It could be argued that we need to return to lifestyles similar to those we had in the 1950s, before consumption levels of diverse goods and services really took off. In this previous period there was a perfectly good standard of living for most, indeed in many societies wellbeing seems to have been higher. And there are interesting examples of how in periods of war where ‘everyone’ can be seen as being in the same boat, wellbeing in a paradoxical way was higher. During the Second World War, Britain almost ceased leisure driving, public transport use doubled in the US, there was a marked growth in biking and car sharing in most Allied countries, two-fifths of fresh vegetables in the US were grown in ‘victory gardens’, there was a big emphasis upon recycling and mending, and it was stated in the US: ‘if you drive alone you drive with Hitler’. So there are at least dimly remembered visions of a different kind of society before the development of a pervasive consumerism where people form social identities through purchasing, using and making symbolic capital out of consumer goods and services produced by others within large energy-intensive factories, offices, shops and places of pleasure. After a point is passed rising growth does not translate into rising wellbeing.

Second, there is thus increasing research into, and acceptance of, ‘managed degrowth’, of reducing GHG emissions by 8-10% per year through turning around the oil tanker of growth and pointing it in the opposite direction. This alternative involves developing and substituting social practices and products that presuppose a substantial powering down of carbon intensity and its global scale. Such a possible future draws upon innovations in thinking and practice involving tens of thousands of experiments, groups, networks, prototypes, laboratories, scientists, universities, designers, activists, and new businesses made possible through novel digital worlds including the App economy. De-growth would involve ‘transition’ to a smaller scale system of neighbourhoods and cities fragmented into more self-sufficient neighbourhoods without rigid zoning. Powering down thus involves re-designing places in both physical and social engineering terms and then linking the innovations together often in part through various digital worlds. The example of the internet or fax machines or mobile communications does show that rapid change and the development of new social practices can occur very rapidly. So although people are habitual, some new habits can form quickly and people cannot imagine how life was possible before these new habits.

Third, the EU and various other societies show that CO2 emissions do not increase inexorably, there being a recent small decrease. There is a longer term decline in UK resource use – material consumption reached a peak around 2001-3 and since then has declined both absolutely and per head. This fall in the rate of material consumption commenced before the onset of the 2007-8 economic and financial collapse. In many small ways the effects of NGO activities, environmental journalism, government campaigns, innovative small businesses, the developing discourses of sustainability seem to have reduced carbon intensity. There is some suggestion that car use in the developed world has ‘peaked’ especially amongst young adults. Is it possible that these are the green shoots of a ‘great deceleration’ here as human societies power down, with many innovations springing up to develop further lower carbon social practices? This is not the most likely future but its odds are not zero!

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.