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.