Interview with an academic – on “Two Degrees”, Paris, #climate and so on

The Two Degrees Dangerous Limit for Climate Change: Public understanding and decision making” is a (very) new book by academic Chris Shaw. Here he responds to a series of questions about the two degree limit, the recent Paris conference, and ‘what next’. [The book itself is a good ‘un – if anyone in Manchester wants to borrow my copy, contact me through the usual channels.]

Your book was ‘inspired’ by the 2003 heatwave that killed thousands in Europe. And you did your interviews in 2009, before Copenhagen. It’s 2015- what took you so long? Did “Real Life” get in the way? When did you send it to the printers?

The book started as a PhD thesis. It was 2003 that made me doubt the ‘climate change not dangerous until 2c’ narrative. So I had to go away and do the research. It was 2005 when I went back to university to do a masters and then a PhD whilst also being primary carer to two young children. So that was all slow going. Then that was followed by a period of self-doubt, where the idea’s any good etc. Once I realised it was worth publishing then, as you note, the data felt perhaps a little old. So I thought, OK, I will write a whole new book. But by then I was working full time, alongside home and family commitments and I found writing the book a real struggle. But I didn’t want to just re hash what I had done previously. Even though my thesis was passed without correction and described as very literate I still felt I could do better, that my thinking had progressed. But when it came to it, I really struggled to find the time and whilst I could have continued with new research etc I was also keen to get it published by COP 21, with 2C back in the headlines. So in the end it is a mix of new ideas and the interview data from pre – 2009 which is actually timeless, as it is describing how the idea of a dangerous limit to climate change took hold. It went to the printers in the summer.

Who do you hope reads it (and don’t say ‘everyone’!)

Mostly climate change communicators. The debate, such as it is, is characterised by political naivety, that somehow corporate and human agendas can be aligned and that we have a pluralist democracy. I want to challenge that bourgeois complacency. I have seen a shift in the discourse since 2009, it is now sometimes described as a political target or an internationally agreed target rather than something scientists say is dangerous. We need more of that, an acceptance that we don’t know what we are doing, that science hasn’t identified a magic line below which everything is fine. We need to develop a discourse which allows us to make sense of what is happening around us (today in the Telegraph Boris Johnson was writing that the exceptionally warm weather is nothing to do with climate change)

For those who aren’t up on their Kuhn/Lakatos/Popper etc – What do you mean by by 2 degrees being a ‘constructed number’ -if a bunch of scientists agree it, isn’t in then Scientific?

But they don’t agree. It is very clear, science can offer probabilistic projections of future climate impacts but it is not the role of scientists at what point those impacts become unacceptable.

You say that the construction of the two degrees target silenced other voices. At times you imply that was a deliberate silencing. Could you elaborate on that, and on whose voice(s) were silenced

It is a globalised perspective. An abstract statistical construction. Most people in the west have never heard of it, have no idea what it means or the risks it implies. The concept is a complete irrelevance to the vast majority of the world’s population – what does it mean to a subsistence farmer in Asia? The trade-offs involved, the costs of the costs-benefit analysis underlying the 2c claim, will be born by those who have no awareness of the idea. To measure the emissions of the global economy, match those against projections of warming and associated impacts requires laboratories, higher education, a scientistic culture. It has given birth to a way of being populated by salaried professionals. If you aren’t playing that game you have no voice in the ‘debate’. But 2c is also a very broad tent, it can accommodate a range of political perspectives from left and right. As a result any one pissing into the tent from outside can be dismissed as irrational and irrelevant. The only goal any reasonable progressive could aspire to is 2c of warming.

Given how busy we will be just surviving soon, it’s probably a good idea to get a head-start on the ‘post-mortems’ – What went wrong in our species’ response to climate change?

I have always been motivated by a belief in humanity. But the vast majority of humanity have a very different attitude to risk from elites. You know the drill, elites in politics, corporations, sport etc get schooled in the wonders of taking risks, not being timid, going for it etc etc. This elite culture is the one that got to define what sort of problem climate change is and hence what sort of responses are appropriate. Go for 2c, it’s high risk but human ingenuity will find a way to transition to a carbon free neo-liberalism. haven’t we always muddled through? For most people, what they stand to lose in a warming world is not compensated for by the meagre crumbs falling from the rich man’s table. That is why the issue has to be constructed as one beyond political debate – the people would come back with the wrong answer.

On the recent Paris Conference – were you surprised by the inclusion of the 1.5 degrees reference(s)? Why were they in there, in your opinion?

I was surprised, given there is no plan in place for 2c. I assume the intention was to placate marginal voices to help promote Paris as a ‘success’. We don’t want any flies in the ointment. But in the end it doesn’t matter what the number is 1c, 1.5c or 2c, unless the response is rooted in a democratic political contestation of values then all anyone is doing is rubber stamping the corporate agenda.

What is the significance of the developing countries having signed away their “loss and damage” claims?

It is a blow for the climate justice agenda but it seems they had little choice, the rich nations weren’t going to sign up for it. But the relationship between North and South has always been an exploitative one so I can’t see what has happened in global politics to change that relationship. The poor countries were never going to get the money. That’s not how the world works.

Anything else you’d add on Paris?

Well the success is rooted in a final death knell for the idea that responding to climate change will require a fundamental shift in politics, society and economics to a more equal future and a rejection of neo-liberalism. Instead the dominant narrative is that humanity and the planet will be saved by a transformation of the energy system. Neo-liberalism without the emissions.

Gazing into your crystal ball, what do you see for ‘us’ and ‘others’ as the world powers towards (and beyond) two degrees of warming, where ‘us’ means

a) climate-oriented academics – I do not see how the ‘system’ can survive 2c plus of warming and sustain a thriving and open academic culture. Even if economic and agricultural systems remained intact I think our days (people like you and me) are numbered. Shut up, play the game and help usher in the energy transformation. There will not be a living to be made from challenging the status quo.

b) privileged white citizens of (currently) prosperous countries – as above really. I don’t think we have a handle on just how severe the impacts of 2c warming will be. Mark Lynas wrote that under 2c of warming every summer in Europe will be like 2003. I don’t think Europe could take many consecutive summers like that.

c) and where ‘others’ means the poor in the Majority World. Well, the Inuit culture is almost finished now as a result of melting ice. I would hate to proclaim what will happen to the Majority World, but I fancy their chances better than ours – we couldn’t even survive 24 hours without youtube.

Anything else – other than ‘buy my book’ – that you want to add?

Maybe don’t buy the book as it is priced for the closed market of academia. I have a website in development, www.dangerouslimits.org.www.dangerouslimits.org. Maybe visit there in 6 months when I have found the time to update the content, to see what is happening in the sorry world of global climate governance.

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