CIGI talk looks back on climate change narratives


“We’re long past the days of denying climate change,” expressed Fred Kuntz, the vice president of public affairs at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI). “Each year the earth’s temperature increases, as does the attention given to the issue.”

Kuntz shared these sentiments last week in his introduction to CIGI guest lecturer Mike Hulme, professor of climate change and culture at King’s College.

Hulme is the author of the book Why We Disagree about Climate Change, which explores the contested views towards climate change and how it has taken such a dominant position in the realm of politics. He challenges the prevailing presumption that policy intervention in climate change will result in public benefits.

Hulme spoke to an auditorium full of eager listeners, sharing what he deems the 25-year history of climate change in the public sphere.

“My story, then, begins 25 years ago, on the evening of the 27th of September, 1988, in central London,” said Hulme.

On this evening, then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shared her growing concerns on the effects of greenhouse gases and the human role in climate change.

“She praised British scientists but she warned in the speech of a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability,” Hulme shared. “She referred to the possibility that we had unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet.”

Hulme explained that Thatcher’s concerns demonstrated a major shift in attention over the issue of climate change. What was once an issue predominantly discussed and researched by scientists had made a shift into the public sphere and was becoming an increasingly politicized topic.

“At this moment, the late 1980s, the early 1990s it’s very important to understand events that were occurring internationally, geopolitical events that were occurring internationally,” explained Hulme.

“Two in particular I draw attention to. One is the recent signing of the Montréal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances. 1987 had led to this rise of a sense that these types of global environmental problems could be attended to satisfactorily through multilateralism.”

Hulme argued that his view on the issue of climate change can be addressed through multilateral approaches is far too simplified. The issue is simply not as straightforward as it seems.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s international policy makers began to develop various plans to combat the issue of climate change.

Hulme explained, “There are two components that are central to this emerging plan. First of all that knowledge leads to action, science drives policy. The second component part of the plan was that the action that would surely follow was a multilateralism in which emission reductions driven by a targeted timetable approach agreed to by the significant nations of the world would be the way in which the risks of human-induced climate change would be regulated.”

He outlined that the international plan to combat climate change was, in the end, unsuccessful because of the withdrawal of powerful nation states. Following the global recession in 2008, interest in climate change began to decline and fell off the radar of media outlets.

“A plan B began to take shape during the last decade,” Hulme said.

“And this plan B is the idea that if the plan isn’t going to work, if the world’s nation states and multilateralism aren’t going to reign in greenhouse gas emissions virtually, world scientists need to take matters directly into their own hands.”
Hulme calls for the recognition that there is no simple way to end climate change in terms of policy.

“Our focus is to break down the constituent elements of the problem and recognize that these smaller, fragmented pieces of the problem can actually be dealt with in different ways by different coalitions.”

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