I recently spotted an interesting piece on the use of ‘extreme scenarios’ in climate policy research and debates. If you ignore the inflammatory click-bait title regarding “climate porn” and focus on the substance of the piece it makes some interesting observations regarding the apparent institutionalisation of particular ways of constructing scenarios that are relevant to the lines of inquiry proposed in my last post.
The author, Roger Pielke Jr, argues that “discussions of climate policy are thrown off track” by way such scenarios are being constructed and, in his view, misused when estimating the benefits of climate change mitigation.
An argument being made is that these climate scenario practices – and associated efforts “to maintain continuity with past studies” (e.g. for comparability of study results) and to “separate the signal of a greenhouse gas forcing from the noise of natural variability” – have had the cumulative, gradual, unintended effect of constructing the ‘business-as-usual’ future (i.e., the ‘baseline’ scenario with no mitigating policies) as the worse case scenario. The further suggestion is that this results in policy being “thrown off track”, perhaps (this is my suggestion) by promoting more hyperbolic or skewed discourse.
The latter claims aren’t clearly substantiated in the article, and some might argue that a focus on worst case possibilities motivates more action and/or is justified in relation to either the observed impacts of climate change and/or emissions trajectories. I’m not convinced that this is correct, but I’ll put that to one side for now.
One reason that this article resonated with me is that I’ve seen similar norms regarding greater attention on and use of worst case scenarios and the associated characterisation of ‘business-as-usual’ futures as worse case outcomes. The question of ‘How bad will things get?’ (e.g. link) seems to be a stronger focus in many areas.
It also suggests a related issue where representations of the future become more ‘extreme’ (in both directions) rather than fully engaging with the full range of plausible futures. So it seems with climate change, where some argue that in the absence of mitigating action the future will soon be apocalyptic whereas others argue the reverse suggesting no major risks are likely in absence of mitigating actions, arguing that no new policies are therefore needed. Some emerging knowledge practices appear to promote the former view – as per the article I referred to – and other actors’ practices seem to promote the latter view. Related to this some actors argue that, for example, the costs of climate change have been underestimated – and suggest we’re similarly underestimating future risks – and others focus on predicted impacts that haven’t occurred to argue that the costs have been overestimated.
This links to issues raises in my last post. Here in the Australian context, with respect to the climate issue (and others), actors increasingly seem to be living in completely separate worlds: some are more strongly concerned with ecological crisis and others increasingly dismissive, with little chance of common ground or common cause.
Pielke Jr focuses on the “mischaracterization [of particular futures] as the “business as usual” scenario”, arguing that “at best, this represents a form of cherry picking”. Related to this, there are risks to science if dramatic projections of future climate impacts don’t come to pass and allegations of bias (e.g. a lack of objectivity) can be substantiated.
The interesting suggestion made by Pielke Jr is that developing norms in climate research may need more critical attention, not just the use (or lack of use) of climate research.
I would suggest expanding such inquiry to consider developments in other related areas of research over a longer period of time. For example, we could go back to the 1960s and explore the ecological sciences from then to now and consider whether any institutionalised tendencies may have promoted related trends in climate research.
I also wonder about wider interaction patterns and social dynamics whereby actors go to contrasting extremes (link) and/or where certain kinds of claims (e.g. that are perceived as extreme or misleading) promote counter-claims and the development of associated disputes (e.g link). For instance, if increasingly some actors are constructing the ‘business-as-usual’ future in worse case terms does that promote contrasting moves by others to construct such a future in base case terms? And, if that is correct, does that promote or reinforce the kinds of disputes we’re current seeing in various environmental debates?
A further possibility – building on Steve Rayner’s ideas about technology assessment (Rayner, 2004) – is that these disputes are an informal form of societal environmental assessment which has developed over recent decades and actors’ knowledge practice both contribute to and develop in relation to. This is an intriguing possibility because it suggests that the practices we’re seeing might have positives regarding informal societal learning – not simply negatives in terms of conflict, polarisation and/or inertia – such as where agonistic interactions seed and motivate wider engagement with claims and knowledge and consequently expand societal assessment of environmental issues. Perhaps we have seen similar environmental assessment dynamics regarding issues like resource scarcity/limits and its implications (e.g. see the book The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future) though such disputes regarding environmental limits are not resolved, continue to be hotly debated and appear largely intractable.