[lg policy] Not exactly language policy, but somewhat related (climate change)

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Sep 18 16:34:12 UTC 2015

 A Slip of the Tongue: The Language of Climate Science
Like it?
Posted September 16, 2015
*Keywords*: Carbon and De-carbonization
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/4788>, Energy Security
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/4798>, Sustainability
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/4813>, Utilities
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/13045>, Climate
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/4789>, Environmental Policy
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/4799>, Cleantech
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/13049>, Public Health
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/13046>, Environment
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/15418>, International Climate
Conferences <http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/13047>, Finance
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/4797>, Renewables
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/4810>, Risk Management
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/15402>, Energy
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/4794>, Energy and Economy
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/4795>, Fuels
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/15417>, News
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/14557>, climate science
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/4834>, COP 21
<http://www.theenergycollective.com/all/24551>, language





*[image: Inline image 1]*

*by Nicholas Gallie
<http://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/sussexenergygroup/author/nig21/> *
*On the language of climate science following the Tyndall Assembly 2015*

Hopes for a legally binding “hard” international agreement amongst nations
attending the 21st COP in Paris in December are fading. A more likely
outcome is a “strong symbolic agreement” with a built in review mechanism
that would allow the “Paris Treaty” to be revisited and updated on a
regular basis. As the prospects for a binding agreement slip away, so does
optimism that the world can keep within the so-called 2 degrees of warming
“safe Limit” that is the nominal policy objective of the UNFCCC. That limit
itself, from a climate science perspective looks increasingly
inappropriate. At last week’s Tyndall Assembly – a gathering of climate
scientists, policy academics, psychologists, energy industry and UK
Government representatives, held at the University of Sussex, the mood was
very much that even with a global warming target of 1.5 degrees over
pre-industrial temperatures, the world would be pushing its luck.

What language then, would be appropriate to describe the impacts of climate
change and their risk of occurrence should the world, as looks increasingly
likely, find itself committed to “somewhere between three and five degrees”
of warming by the end of the century? Language matters a great deal,
because policy and action consequent upon policy are determined by it.
Policy is constructed and construed within language; it matters profoundly,
for example, whether science advice to policy makers is couched in terms of
“danger” or in terms of “adverse or negative consequences”.

Climate science, understandably enough, is concerned with being able to
make measurable observations of real world events and quantify
probabilities, but policy makers (who are people) and people at large lead
their lives in terms of quality, and they respond only to qualitative
threats to life as they know it or would have it. Quantity is only of
interest as a bearing on quality. We forget this. The “negative impact”
that a risk assessment seeks to evaluate is a qualitative event, not a
quantity. A 2 degrees of warming notional boundary is set with respect to
increasing likelihoods of qualitatively devastating events occurring as the
climate changes in response massive energy build-ups within the global

The language of carbon, carbon dioxide, two degrees, mitigation,
adaptation, even the term climate change itself, are hopelessly abstract
and completely fail to express or capture quality. The focus on a chemical
element (carbon) takes the eye off the interests behind the daily decisions
that ensure the planet’s energy balance is thrown ever more out of kilter.
This is a major reason why ‘climate change” has so significantly failed to
engage policy makers and the public at large in the sense of triggering
dramatic action and fundamental change necessary to avert a global lock-in
to a catastrophic future.

But the linguistic problem, surely the most easy to solve among this
problem of problems that constitutes climate change, turns out not to be
not so easy at all. The scale – the global framing, the futurity, the
imponderability of climate negotiation mechanisms, all these ways of
talking about it, drag climate change out of the reach of lives lived now
and crucially, out of reach of qualitative affect. Unless of course one’s
life is visited by a climate induced event that shatters one’s sense of
place in the world. But for the vast majority of us who live in advanced
economies, this has not the case.

How about systemic threat? How about the combined effects of crop failure,
mass starvation, heat stroke, water stress, economic collapse, endemic
conflict, enforced mass migration (refugees or economic migrants?), new
pandemics, of which we are witnessing only the tip of the iceberg (to use a
very unfortunate metaphor) today? Does it help to take a systems view of
climate change impacts if one-off events don’t cut it? But then we are
driven to the limit of language to even begin to describe what all this
might mean in terms of quality, of suffering, of consequence.

Where is this driving? In the Tyndall Assembly it was noted how the
language of climate science and policy is already sliding further and
further into the abstract, necessary perhaps to ameliorate the collective
failure (not ours, surely) to address the reality unfolding before us;
language whose quantity is multiplying exponentially along with the number
of aspects and avenues of the problematique that analysis reveals, while
its quality is more and more sifted of affective potential. A sliding
language that retreats lock step with sliding policy goals and the
determination to meet them. We are like the hare, caught in the headlamps
of the *thing* that is bearing down upon us but which we can neither
describe nor react to because, like the hare, we don’t have the language
for it.

We ask, what can we do right now, we who are dumbstruck in the face our
finitude? And the answer is *speak . *To pull climate change into the
present, to bring it down to our size, we have first to make it present in
our lives so that it touches and hurts. Take a leaf out of Chris Rapley’s
book (subject of a brilliant Royal Court Theatre performance earlier this
year)  *2071, The world we will leave our grandchildren*
or go for a walk among wildflowers and chase butterflies whose fate is
already sealed – and weep. Our first duty is to make this *thing* real in
our own lives, by whatever means, and then from that feeling, from that
realisation of quality – act within our own spheres of influence, limited
though these most certainly are. Action has a strange quality. In the
presentness of action, boundaries dissolve and the nature of what is
possible opens up. Anyone who has taken “political” action will tell you
this is true.

Did I say something inappropriate. A slip of the tongue, surely? Does
feeling really have a place in an academic science policy forum? This was
the subject of a debate in the University of Sussex’s Politics of Nature
forum that ran simultaneously with the Tyndall Assembly. A great pity there
was no cross over between the events. Without feeling, the forum mused, how
are the people to rise up – us in whose name the world is being consigned
to oblivion.
Nick Gallie is a Doctoral Researcher (PhD Candidate) at the Science Policy
Research Unit (SPRU), Sussex University

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