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Why [just maybe] we need to stop talking about climate change

By 12 April 2012

We seem to be witnessing a social phenomenon that could indeed come to define the kind of world we live in. Climate Change is a real and pressing problem. However, as a global society, we seem to be talking about it a lot, but not doing anywhere near enough to help combat it. The impasse between science and policyseems absurd. But is it? Should we really expect decision makers to be able to take positive steps to tackling climate change, when intense public pressure to do so is absent?

I recently had the pleasure of attending a knowledge cafe hosted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and KM4Devthat sought to address two related questions: Why is there such a divide between climate science and policy? And how can we bridge the divide? The event was wonderfully eclectic and brought together a number of different positions; covering climate change research, research communication, knowledge management, and a broader group of people relatively new to the questions being posed.

While there is great merit in bringing together people with different ideas and backgrounds, there is also a great deal of room for not getting to the heart of the issue, and for the conversation to take a different track. Nevertheless, this was a wonderful opportunity to witness a tapestry of climate change narratives unfold at first hand.

There seemed to be an instant pull among the participants towards the grand narratives attached to climate change, and without doubt the ‘alarmist’ camp was in town (For a useful breakdown of the different narratives relating to climate change see WarmWords: How are we telling the climate story and can we tel lit better?).

I felt disappointed to come away from such an event feeling like the overarching consensus was that policy makers and the general public will not seek change until we witness a massive climate related crisis in the northern hemisphere; that individuals cannot make a difference on their own, and that there was no point doing anything as a nation unless we could drag the likes of the USA and China with us.

There was something beautifully out of sync with the discussion for a number of reasons. Firstly, the two questions we were asked to address were largely overlooked; and, secondly, despite been set background reading that ought to have to lead to more nuanced debate, there was a constant tendency to lurk back to ‘popular’ narratives.

If I was writing a hypothesis it would be thus: ‘We failed to address the questions relating to the divide between climate change science and policy because as a group we did not know enough about this subject, and as a result we turned to alarmist centred narratives, the ones we are all familiar with and comfortable talking about. These narratives provide no way forward, and as a result the impasse remains’.

The climate change issue has come to embody a social phenomenon, a concept that for many has been separated from science, and been subsumed within our parallel subconscious, where social reality is constructed and very difficult to disconnect from the way we think about the world. For this reason Climate change might just be a concept that is dead in the water, and one we need to start looking at very differently, and very soon! We need to think about other framing devices, ways of situating climate change into the context of our everyday lives, to build better learning and understanding around specific issues, rather than focusing on one huge social phenomenon and its grand narratives.