‘Climate Change’: A Synopsis

My new book on climate change, in the Key Ideas in Geography series from Routledge, is published on 27 July 2021. You can pre-order paperback or Kindle editions now with a 20% discount.

Here is a synopsis of the book and a brief explanation of how it relates to two of my previous books, Why We Disagree About Climate Change, and Weathered: Cultures of Climate

A Synopsis

In the late 2000s, I published Why We Disagree About Climate Change (CUP, 2009).  It was an attempt to situate disputes about climate change – at the time heavily framed around the veracity of climate science – within a much broader set of considerations about how people orient themselves in the world: how people think about science, economics, religion, risk, communication, development and governance.  The main ambition of Why We Disagree was to de-centre science from the story of climate change.  Then, in the mid-2010s, I published Weathered: Cultures of Climate (SAGE, 2016), which might be considered a prequel to Why We DisagreeWeathered provided a deeper historical and cultural account of origins of the idea of climate and how the idea of climate continues to fulfil numerous political and cultural functions in today’s world.  Understanding climate comes before understanding climate change and so, logically, Weathered should be read before Why We Disagree

Later this month, my latest book — Climate Change (in the ‘Key Ideas in Geography’ series from Routledge) – is published and can be seen as completing this trilogy of books exploring the idea of climate change.  In one sense, Climate Change can be seen as an update, written nearly 15 years, to the core argument of Why We Disagree.  It has a similar ambition – namely, explaining why climate change becomes a subject of intense political contestation.  But Climate Change has a more carefully crafted focus on the idea of climate change, and opens up the different ways this idea is interpreted by political movements and through different cultural practices.  The book also highlights more decisively why climate change is not best understood as an engineering problem or even solely as a new locus for politics.  Rather, it argues that climate change presents a predicament — a difficult, perplexing or trying situation for humanity.  As with the two earlier books in my trilogy, Climate Change is reflective rather than exhortatory.  You will not find here simple solutions to climate change.  I do not believe there are any.

How I Approach the Study of Climate Change

My approach in Climate Change is rooted in the specific insights and traditions of geographical thought and inquiry into which I was first inducted as a student of Geography in the late 1970s.  Nevertheless, I adopt a particular intellectual stance within the discipline of Geography which guides and shapes this book.  It is best described as one inspired by the sub-field of geographies of knowledge.  A geographer of knowledge seeks to understand how knowledge about the world is made, contested, authorized and used with particular regard to situated historical, cultural and political processes.  She wants to explain the spatially differentiated ways in which knowledge claims emerge in places, how they become institutionalised and how they travel through social and cultural worlds.  In other words, how knowledge is socially constructed.  And he wants to reveal how these knowledge claims are then contested by different political actors and challenged by other cosmologies and knowledge systems. 

This approach to understanding the idea of climate change is one that I have developed over the last 15 years or so.  It has been inspired by critical, cultural and historical geography and by disciplines cognate to Geography — science and technology studies, environmental history and history and philosophy of science.  The central arguments of Climate Change, and the structure that I have chosen through which to present those arguments, can be traced back to this set of intellectual commitments.  My intention with Climate Change is to show how a geographer — in particular how a geographer of knowledge — might understand the idea of climate change.

Climate change is in many ways a confounding idea; that is, it is an idea that causes confusion by not being easily grasped by either human senses or intuitions.  Or to use a complementary metaphor, climate change is a kaleidoscopic idea in that it seems to comprise a constantly changing pattern or sequence of elements, both material or symbolic.  The characteristics of climate change cut-across several of the dualisms which have inscribed themselves in many of the academic disciplines.  Thus climate change is known both by scientists and by lay-experts, but who are each attuned to recognise different forms of presenting evidence; climate change unfolds in the physical world, but also exists in the human imagination; climate change can be quantified objectively, but its risks are apprehended or experienced subjectively; climate change can be represented in numbers, but also through stories; facts and values easily – and inevitably — become entangled in narrative accounts of climate change.

The central claim of the book is that the full breadth and power of the idea of climate change can only be grasped from a vantage point that embraces the social sciences, humanities and natural sciences.  This vantage point is what the book offers, written from the perspective of a geographer whose career work on climate change has drawn across the full range of academic disciplines. 

This kaleidoscopic nature of climate change is why I believe the eclecticism of Geography as a discipline offers a good vantage point from which to try to make sense of it in a more holistic manner than perhaps other disciplines may achieve.  Geographers are disciplined to appreciate the distinctive contributions to knowledge about the world that are made by the sciences, social sciences and the humanities, even if they are not all equally versed in, or personally committed to, these different knowledge-ways.  Nevertheless, the eclecticism valorised by Geography has shaped how I have studied climate change through my career.  And it helps explain the analytical approach adopted in this book.  It is the benefits of this eclecticism that I submit as the reason why taking a geographical approach to understanding the idea of climate change is beneficial for readers beyond the discipline of Geography.

What is My Argument?

Climate Change presents climate change as an idea with a past, a present and a future.  It offers a synoptic and inter-disciplinary understanding of the idea of climate change … from its varied historical and cultural origins, to its construction more recently through scientific endeavour, to the multiple ways in which political, social and cultural movements in today’s world seek to make sense of and act upon it, to the possible futures of climate, however it may be governed and imagined.  At the heart of my argument is the assertion that the idea of climate change is multifarious.  There is no single comprehensive account of climate change that can do full justice to the physical manifestations, political discourses and imaginative power of the phenomenon.  This then leads me to conclude that ‘climate change’ is not a problem that can be solved, any more than the ideas of democracy or freedom are ones that can be ‘solved’.  The world’s climates cannot simply be put back to some pre-disturbance condition.  Climates cannot be restored or repaired in this way – although this does not stop some trying, as we shall see.  Nor can the idea of climate change be decisively dismantled or discarded.  The idea can and will evolve; in the future it will carry different meanings.  But as an idea, climate change will endure. 

This irreversibility and intractability of climate change is what is captured by the notion of ‘a wicked problem’.  This notion of ‘wickedness’ means that the problem itself is impossible to incontrovertibly define.  Is the problem of climate change that the Earth’s radiation balance is dangerously disturbed?  In which case the solution might be to spray particles into the stratosphere to create a sun-screen.  Is the problem of climate change that there is too much carbon dioxide accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans?  In which case the solution might be to scrub carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequester it in durable products or geological strata.  Is the problem of climate change the entrenched self-interest of the fossil fuel and other extractive industries that wield too much influence over the levers of power?  In which case the solution might be to divest and dismantle such industries in favour of less centralised and more enlightened ones.   Is the problem of climate change that the environmental externalities of goods and services are not properly reflected in market prices?  In which case the solution might be to establish a global price for carbon.  Is the problem of climate change that the prevailing models of economic growth and social well-being remain too closely wedded to indicators of material consumption?  In which case the solution might be to re-imagine what is meant by a desirable and worthwhile human life and to inscribe such convictions into new policy metrics.  Is the problem of climate change rooted in the colonial past and its legacies which continue to subject peoples, species and environments to coercive and extractive powers?  In which case the solution might be reparations for the resulting ecological and cultural loss and damage caused by these colonising behaviours.

Of course, some would say that climate change is all these things and more.  All possible solutions need exploring.  (And all of these arguments and propositions are discussed in the book).  Yet to say that all of these solutions are needed simply because ‘time is running out’ would be to misunderstand the nature of the predicament that climate change presents.  Climate change is better thought of as a composite problem, a meta-problem made up of many smaller ones that are overlapping and inter-locking in various ways.  And solutions to any of these constituent problems mobilise different and competing values and ideologies.  Solving any one part of this composite problem (i.e., solving a first-order problem), simply displaces or creates problems elsewhere (i.e., creating second or third-order problems).  To finally ‘solve’ climate change would in fact be to exhaust the political imagination; it would have created a world beyond improving.

There are three underlying and interconnected claims that lie at the heart of this argument.  First, given the mobilising power of the idea of climate change across multiple social worlds, it is important to challenge simplistic and historically emaciated accounts of what climate change is understood to be.  The idea of climate change has a deep history with many different cultural roots and meanings.  I use the analogy of democracy.  As political scientists and historians well know, the idea of ‘democracy’ does not define one, and only one, way for how a polity organises itself to make fair and acceptable decisions.  To think thus of democracy would be frustrating for the individual and ultimately dangerous for a society. 

My second claim is this: injecting into public life different and richer accounts of what climate change is and what climate change means is invigorating for contemporary politics.  The account of climate change I offer in the book challenges the dangerous hegemony of a naturalistic climate science.  Dissenting from hegemonic accounts of climate change opens up new ways of framing climate-society relations.  This is good for thinking through difficult issues like climate change and for improving the quality of decision-making.  Dissent is good for society; and it is good for the individual.

My third contention is that the idea of climate is performative, it has effects in the real world.  How one comes to know climate, and the account one gives of its changes, is never politically neutral nor without effect on the social ordering of today’s and tomorrow’s worlds.  One cannot separate the merely descriptive from the intentionally normative.  Any description of what climate change is carries with it latent but preferential modes of acting in the world in ways that substantively change the world.

One of the enduring features of climate change in public life over the last few decades is its contested nature.  These contests have included arguments about the veracity of climate science and the integrity of its scientists, about the allocation of historic responsibility for climate change between and within nations, about the efficacy of policy instruments being used to arrest climate change, about the wilful spread of disinformation about climate change and, more recently, about the language that should be used to talk about climate change in public.  Some of these arguments are explored in a previous edited book Contemporary Debates in Climate Change: A Student Primer (Routledge, 2020), where I enlisted pairs of scholars from around the world to debate some of these issues.  But my purpose in writing this book is different.  It is to establish the cultural origins of the idea of climate change and to help readers recognise some of the different accounts in public circulation around the world about what climate change means today.  And it is to help readers comprehend how each account is rooted in different histories, ideologies, epistemologies, imaginaries, values and hopes.  Accomplishing this task of recognition is the guiding ambition of Climate Change.

Who Should Read this Book?

Climate Change is suitable for undergraduate and graduate courses within the social sciences, humanities and natural sciences that embrace climate change from inter-disciplinary perspectives.  As explained earlier, the book is commissioned in Routledge’s Key Ideas in Geography series and so it clearly appeals directly to students in Geography and directly allied subjects, such as environmental studies, environmental science, sustainability studies, anthropology and development studies. 

But the book is perhaps even more valuable for those studying climate change from across a much wider range of disciplines in the social sciences, humanities and natural sciences — for example critical theory, earth sciences, ecology, engineering, history, international relations, linguistics, literary studies, media and cultural studies, philosophy, political science, religious studies, science studies, sociology, and many more.  Science students studying climate change on inter-disciplinary programmes will particularly benefit from reading the book to understand how the idea of climate change is understood from different epistemic traditions to those of natural science.  And the relevance of Climate Change extends well beyond those students who happen to be studying in the UK higher academy.  By drawing upon examples from many regions and across different cultures it offers a global geography of the idea of climate change, with which students from different world regions can engage.

Climate Change will also prove valuable to a wider readership than those formally studying for a higher education degree.  For example, professionals, policy advocates, public communicators, teachers and concerned citizens will find here a distinctive synoptic account of the idea of climate change.  The book offers an orienting framework of understanding within which readers can locate their own position or that of public discourses with which they are familiar.  I do not expect everyone to agree with my characterisation of climate change.  Far from it.  The account I offer cannot fully escape my own training, experiences, positionality and values.  At times my own biases will come through.  Nevertheless, I seek to expose the multiple meanings which people in the world — and with different life histories and normative commitments to mine — attach to the idea of climate change.