Friday, 27 September 2013

You can't have it both ways?

So, in case you've been under a rock all week the IPCC have released their fifth report. For the first time, the summary included a paragraph on climate engineering. Josh Horton at geoengineeringpolitics provides (as always) a decent and balanced piece with context here. I agree with Josh that the paragraph is neither supportive nor overly dismissive. The paragraph's inclusion has prompted a strong negative response from those worried about legitimising 'geoengineering' (really SRM and ocean fertilization) including predictable statements from both Clive Hamilton and etc group. They are pretty consistent with their opposition to SRM, and they have a right to be. Interestingly, Jack Stilgoe has waded into this space with a piece in the Guardian. That, in of itself is not particularly unusual - Jack is a salient commentator who has been working with (sometimes on) SPICE and with others thinking about climate engineering for some time. However, his position highlights a clear tension within the social scientist fraternity. Jack, and others, have spent the last years insisting that we engage with publics and broaden the debate. I think he's right. So, then, how is the inclusion of climate engineering (especially so heavily caveated) not addressing that aim? Surely the IPCC should be talking about climate engineering? I'm minded to agree that their cursory discussion in the SPM (Summary for Policy Makers, in case like me you had to look it up) is not useful or really appropriate BUT I also think that there is a danger here that social scientists aren't practising what they preach. Suddenly, discussion is promoting legitimacy. How to engage then? Surely not by leading the public to their world view? That's clearly profoundly unethical. I'm afraid that, if it is to be discussed openly, then bodies like the IPCC will (and should) be charged with presenting it.

To put it another way, how do you discuss something this controversial with stakeholders (i.e. everyone) without bias. My personal framing (thanks in part to Phil MacNaughten and Jack for encouraging me to think this way) is agnosticism (see various different previous posts). This is not a rhetorical trick - as a scientist and in the absence of evidence I must be agnostic. It is not, however, the complete picture. My instincts are to be alarmed by large-scale intervention because of unintended consequences, attribution and selfishness (and/or greed). But, you cannot have it both ways, right? If the public are engaged and informed and, fairly and without leading, come to the conclusion that climate engineering is a legitimate course of action to consider, then I'm afraid that is an outcome that those opposed to climate engineering have to accept. It appears to me that Jack's piece counters his position that rational debate is the most desirable outcome. In a quickly released statement, etc group have condemned the inclusion and got to the nub of the debate with this sentence....'The actual sentences about geoengineering in the IPCC report matter less than the fact that they are there at all.' I'm sorry, but that is also the problem I have with both Jack's piece (whom I almost always agree with) and etc's stance. If the IPCC had been really scathing of climate engineering neither would, I suspect, have complained. Therefore it is the content of the paragraph that has perturbed them. A careful look at the paragraph suggests it is neither encouraging nor positive, rather simply capturing a (slightly outdated) conventional wisdom. I don't think you can object to discussion around climate engineering unless you are vehemently opposed to all research and deployment as an ideology. In that sense, etc group are entirely consistent. I'm not sure Jack, in this instance, can say the same. I feel similarly confused about Clive Hamilton's stance - his two most recent books 'Requiem for a Species' and 'Earthmasters' feel similarly juxtaposed.


  1. 'If the public are engaged and informed and, fairly and without leading, come to the conclusion that climate engineering is a legitimate course of action to consider, then I'm afraid that is an outcome that those opposed to climate engineering have to accept'. Where can I access the results of that survey/those surveys? If it is indeed the will of the people, why does the will of the people define policy in this area but not others? For example, on the climate topic, there is overwhelming support for the state to take the lead on moving to a system of renewable energy provision built on the principles of equity and justice (see Nick Pidgeon's work for this). There was massive opposition to the attack on Iraq, but the government went ahead anyway. When you say 'without leading', have people been protesting on the streets demanding geo-engineering, or where they asked the question in surveys? If so, then that's 'leading'.

  2. Conqueringlion -

    Firstly, the distinction between research and deployment is so critical. I even emboldened 'to consider' in the original piece. Your response conflates geonegineering (which I intepret as deployment) and research. Maybe I am being naive but I believe research, in the absence of a strong evidence base and undertaken objectively, is as likely to rule out deployment as it is support it.

    Secondly, I think you fell into the very trap I highlighted. Why, do you believe that Nick Pidgeon's work on equality on and justice is legitimate but work on geoengineering work is not. Why is Nick's work on renewables not 'leading'. Simply, I suspect, because the results fit your (and, in fairness, my) world view. This is thrown into stark relief by the fact that the 'asking the questions in surveys' was done by none other than Nick Pidgeon. So, I ask again, why is his (undoubtedly excellent work) on renewables legitimate in your view, but *his* work on geoengineering *research* is not? As fas as I know there have been two public engagements conducted in the UK - I am not endorsing them, nor am I expert enought to answer questions on the details of the work. There are others in process (Nick Pidgeon is involved with IAGP, whose work is focused on this very question - I've not seen results yet).

    Firstly, there is the 'experiment Earth' work undertaken by NERC by IPSOS-Mori

    Secondly, there is Nick's work on SPICE.

    Neither provide overwhelming support for research (as I read them) but suggest a range of conditions where the publics would be more (or less) comfortable with how research was conducted. As for your final point (if I interpret it as meaning research and not deployment), and ignoring unwarranted attempts at reducto ad absurdum, plenty of things are done for good without people out on the streets demanding it?

    I guess in response to Jack's commentary I have appeared, to you, to defend geongineering. That was not my intention. Maybe I should have added the (I think obvious) caveat that if there were widespread opposition to geoengineering research then those keen *to consider* geoengineering would have to accept that too.

  3. Hi Matt

    Thanks for such a thoughtful commentary on my post. It has prompted me to try to clarify my thoughts on this matter. I still have not come down firmly on one side. I think that the politics of this are finely balanced. Yes I think it is a good idea to talk openly and sceptically about geoengineering, emphasising the scale and range of uncertainties, scientific and other, as often as we can. But I also advocate caution in how geoengineering debates are initiated and engaged with, particularly when they are framed by science. Public debates about issues involving science are often framed in particular ways by scientists, as Nick's and others' work has shown, and this can narrow the discussion. But my main concern is that the IPCC summary is explcitly not an 'opening up debate' document. It is a presentation of evidence directly to policy, and the choices made in the presentation of relevant evidence are therefore hugely important.

    In this case, my sense is that the Summary for policy makers is by necessity a political document. It is aimed at policymakers, who have, rightly in my opinion, been so far unwilling to take geoengineering seriously as a policy option until now. The IPCC authors should, I hope, have known that the inclusion of this discussion in the summary will have changed this in a small way. As you would expect, I disagree with both Clive's and ETC's objections, and I appreciate the careful wording of the paragraph by the authors. But political judgements are often very fine. In this case, I think they have made a political mis-step. But I think this discussion should continue...

  4. I agree it's finely balanced, and that inclusion *in the SPM* represents something of a sea-change. It is easy to buy into the ETC (and Guardian) framing that it is all highly political but I'm not sure it is - I think Ollie Morton's explanation holds more water. RCP2.6 necessitates CDR in some form for any sort of plausible pathway. The issue for me, I suppose, then becomes 'if you can't 'frame it by science' (as per above) nor do you want it to be overtly politicised, how do you discuss it?' I would argue that the Guardian's knee-jerk reactions (and not-too-subtle hatchet jobs - e.g. Russian unilateralism pre-IPCC by Adam Vaughan) has the feel, and timing, of pre-Copenhagen climate-denialism *and* does more to raise the profile of climate engineering more than almost anything else. I also feel that, despite their vociferousness it's that quarter that currently frames the narrative. Despite sharing their world view, I do question their objectivity. I sent the Guardian a piece on Tuesday, urging objectivity (and also being quite critical of the Guardian's stance) which I hoped they would publish before the IPCC release. I guess that was asking a little too much, or maybe it's just sour grapes on my part!