by Judith Curry
Roger Pielke Jr. brought to my attention a provocative paper entitled “Discursive stability meets climate instability: A critical exploration of climate stabilization in contemporary climate policy.”
Discursive stability meets climate instability: A critical exploration of climate stabilization in contemporary climate policy.
Maxwell T. Boykoff, David Frame, Samuel Randalls
Abstract. The goals and objectives of ‘climate stabilization’ feature heavily in contemporary environmental policy and in this paper we trace the factors that have contributed to the rise of this concept and the scientific ideas behind it. In particular, we explore how the stabilization-based discourse has become dominant through developments in climate science, environmental economics and policymaking. That this discourse is tethered to contemporary policy proposals is unsurprising; but that it has remained relatively free of critical scrutiny can be associated with fears of unsettling often-tenuous political processes taking place at multiple scales. Nonetheless, we posit that the fundamental premises behind stabilization targets are badly matched to the actual problem of the intergenerational management of climate change, scientifically and politically, and destined to fail. By extension, we argue that policy proposals for climate stabilization are problematic, infeasible, and hence impede more productive policy action on climate change. There are gains associated with an expansion and reconsideration of the range of possible policy framings of the problem, which are likely to help us to more capably and dynamically achieve goals of decarbonizing and modernizing the energy system, as well as diminishing anthropogenic contributions to climate change.
Online link to the full paper is here.
In his recent testimony, Somerville summarizes where the push for stabilization has been coming from:
The conclusion from both the IPCC and subsequent analyses is blunt and stark – immediate and dramatic emission reductions of all greenhouse gases are urgently needed if the 2 deg C (or 3.6 deg F) limit is to be respected.
If global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2 deg C (or 3.6 deg F) above pre-industrial values, global emissions need to peak between now and 2020 and then decline rapidly. To stabilize climate, a decarbonized global society – with near-zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases – needs to be reached well within this century. More specifically, theaverage annual per-capita emissions will have to shrink to well below 1 metric ton CO2 by 2050. This is 80 to 95% below the per-capita emissions in developed nations in 2000.
However, now that the goal is set, at least by several countries, science can say with confidence that meeting the goal requires that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak within the next decade and then decline rapidly.
The politicians have responded. The Boykoff et al. paper starts off with this quote from Tony Blair:
‘‘Above all, internationally, the best stimulus to the action needed to reduce emissions and create the right incentives for investment in clean technology will be to decide what level we should aim to stabilize green house gas concentrations and global temperature levels. This must be the heart of future negotiations on climate change, bringing together science and economics’’ Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Blair, 2006)
The motivation for the Boykoff et al. paper is described in the Introduction as:
This paper situates itself in interdisciplinary approaches that seek to examine complex and dynamic human–environment interactions and interrogate ‘‘how social and political framings are woven into both the formulation of scientific explanations of environmental problems, and the solutions proposed to reduce them’’ (Forsyth, 2003, p. 1). This paper analyses how particular discourses regarding climate challenges and possible solutions have ‘fixed’ understandings and considerations of complex environmen- tal processes. Through framing, elements of discourse are assembled that privilege certain interpretations over others (Goffman, 1974). Hajer has written that these discursive negotiations involve ‘‘complex and continuous struggle over the definition and the meaning of the environmental problem itself’’ (Hajer, 1993, p. 5). Furthermore, useful to this study is research that examines how particular discursive constructs have material – such as political economic – implications for ongoing environmental governance. For example, Rayner and Malone (1998), Demeritt (2001), Ba ̈ckstrand and Lo ̈vbrand (2006), and Liverman (2009) variously draw upon, critique or evaluate contemporary science, policy, or governance associated with discourses around climate change. Concepts like climate stabilization, however, have passed largely unnoticed into the lexicon of climate science–governance with little critical reflection. This paper seeks to fill this gap and illustrate that the clear political attraction to goals and objectives of ‘climate stabilization’ perilously draws upon a continuing predominantly science-driven and long-term focused climate policy.
From the paper’s discussion section:
First, some research communities may actually benefit from the focus on stabilization since it gives their research agendas an apparent policy relevance that would otherwise be hard to defend. For instance, paleoclimate modeling – while valuable as a part of fundamental research programs and process understanding in geophysics, biodiversity and ecosystems research – perhaps benefits from a prominence accorded it by its claims to help constrain climate sensitivity (Hegerl et al., 2006; Schneider von Deimling et al., 2006; Crucifix, 2006) that would be hard to sustain if the global policy community were to reframe the question in terms of the relationship between 20th century attributable warming (Stott and Kettleborough, 2002) and expected 21st warming (Frame et al., 2006). Thus, from this perspective one might not expect some researchers to embrace the sort of reframing conversation we have in mind here.
Second, the focus on long-term stabilization targets places scientific certainty and uncertainty at the centre of considerations of decarbonization and distinct from political perspectives. By framing action in such a way, further scientific inputs regarding links between GHG concentrations, emissions and temperature change can unearth more questions to be answered, rather than settling already existing ones (Jasanoff and Wynne, 1998). Therefore, greater scientific inputs actually can contribute to more complicated policy decision-making by offering up a greater supply of knowledge from which to develop and argue varying interpretations of that science (Sarewitz, 2004). The allure of the scientifically focused ‘climate stabilization’ discourses distracts attention from open political debate about the timescale, respective burdens and objectives of climate policy. Instead of posing these challenges and/or objections to particular actions as scientific ones, they can more effectively be treated as political ones (too), as well as ethical ones. Rayner notes, however, that ‘‘for good or ill, we live in an era when science is culturally privileged as the ultimate source of authority in relation to decision-making’’ (2006, p. 6); often, the focus on securing scientific certainty can effectively obstruct effective policy action (see also Oreskes, 2004). Also, as mentioned before, it contributes to dominant considerations of mitigation policies, often to the detriment of considerations for policy action on adaptation. Thus, assessments of anthropogenic climate stabilization have prema- turely foreclosed around fixed international policies on mitigation (e.g. Kyoto Protocol) and associated proposals/practices (e.g. targets and timetables, temperature rise ceiling of 2 8C and 450–550 ppm CO2 atmospheric concentration caps).
Third, while the stabilization-based discourse may have been valuable in building broad policy actor and public engagement in climate mitigation, it has also fostered sub-optimal aims and unrealistic expectations. For instance, the ‘Stop Climate Chaos Coalition’ based in the UK has now involved over 11 million citizens, spanning a wide range of environmental and labour organizations as well as development charities and faith-based groups. However, their mission statement includes a call to support activities that ‘‘keep global warming below the two degrees (Celsius) danger threshold to protect people and the planet’’ (Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, 2009). While those claims-makers – barring medical science breakthroughs – will not be alive to defend their claims, there is irony in claiming intergenerational equity as the ethical requirement to stabilize the climate, when the attention remains focused on stability instead of preparing our grandchildren for new relations with their future climates (through already existing commitments to a certain amount of climate change). By critiquing stabilization we are not critiquing long-term thinking per se; we posit that this should be an open engagement rather than one tied predominantly to scientific targets and notions of stability. More- over the name Stop Climate Chaos has a strange Canute-ishness about it, as though we either could or should stand together on a beach and command, in the name of good climate governance, that change and variability cease.
The paper’s concluding paragraph:
In this paper we have argued that the elegant attraction of ‘climate stabilization’ discourses has culminated in a focus on long- term mitigation targets and a cost-effective climate policy that does not address broader political and ethical questions about the timescale, actors and costs involved. It seems appropriate, scientifically, historically and socially, to question this discursive hegemony and open up debates on more productive and effective framings of climate policy. This paper therefore argues that while the climate stabilization discourse (and associated ways of thinking/proposing/acting) has been valuable in drawing greater attention to human influences on the global climate, it is time to explicitly move to more productive ways of considering minimizing detrimental impacts from human contributions to climate change.
JC’s comments: This paper touches on a number of themes that I have raised at Climate Etc., in an integrated and eloquent way. I encourage you to read the entire paper, it should provide a springboard for an interesting discussion.