Dawn of the Dead, George A Romero’s classic 1978 satire on consumer society, opens in a chaotic television studio. An unnamed expert and a TV presenter are sat across from each other, with panic unfolding all around them, and the expert is trying to convince the presenter that the dead are coming alive. The expert shouts accusingly to the presenter, ‘Do you believe the dead are returning to life and attacking the living?’ To which the presenter replies, ‘I’m not sure what to believe doctor. All we get is what you people tell us.’ As the camera pans away to a TV studio being rapidly abandoned by the traumatised staff, we hear the exasperated expert cry out: ‘What will it take to make you people see?’
This scenario, with the frantic expert desperately trying to convince an incredulous audience of the desperateness of the situation, has many echoes with the increasingly alarmed tone present in much of the climate change discourse. Clive Hamilton noted a mood of ‘barely suppressed panic’ amongst scientists in his 2010 book Requiem for a Species and the environmental journalist Ben Cubby recently commented on Twitter that, ‘Talking to well-informed climate scientists is starting to become a very depressing experience. We really are in trouble here.’ It seems fair to say there is, at the very least, a new sense of urgency, especially following the record Arctic ice melt in 2012. In this article I want to talk about this sense of panic, and how expert opinion shapes our understanding of climate change risk. I will attempt to show why powerful actors have promoted the claim of a two degree dangerous limit, and the negative implications of the two degree limit idea for democracy and social progress.
Panic is often born of surprise and, I would argue that the growing urgency of much of the discussion of climate change in the last year reflects an element of surprise. Policy makers, journalists and NGOs have for some time been claiming that climate change will only become dangerous when the planet has warmed by an average of two degrees centigrade over the pre-industrial average. (I outline the history of the two degree story, and the reasons people give for claiming it is a dangerous limit here. But if climate change is not dangerous until the planet has warmed by two degrees centigrade, why is it we are already witnessing a number of record breaking, high impact, weather extremes (heat waves in the US and Australia, drought and flooding in the UK, and the Arctic sea ice melt mentioned above)? Climate science has never defined a dangerous limit. In fact the vast majority of scientists have long made clear that choosing to define climate change as a phenomenon with a single dangerous limit is a value judgement that should be made through the appropriate democratic processes. My research has set out to explore that democratic process; what it looks like, where it is taking place, what forms of knowledge are seen as relevant to the debate. My search has been a largely fruitless one. Questions about what level of warming constitutes an acceptable risk have been kept out of the public sphere. ‘Not in front of the children’ sums up the attitudes of those deciding how much climate change is to be considered dangerous. The authority of ‘science’ has been invoked by a range of non-scientific actors to give this value choice the status of objective fact. In this story the policy makers are the authors, and the primary audience journalists and NGOs.
Constructing climate change as a phenomenon with a two degree dangerous limit is an overtly political act. It is an approach which frames the issue as amenable to political regulation through the same kind of targets regime that defines much government policy. However, the two degree foundation for the carbon reduction targets is highly problematic and there is little evidence to support the claim that, in the unlikely event of meeting those carbon targets, dangerous climate change will be avoided. In addition, falsely ascribing a scientifically derived dangerous limit to climate change diverts attention away from questions about the political and social order that have given rise to the crisis. Instead the debate is limited to discussing which technologies offer the most cost-effective means of delivering the emission targets. As Ross noted when writing about climate change over twenty years ago: ‘Calculations surrounding our ability to survive in a dramatically altered natural world are presented rationally so as to deny the irrationality of the actions generating the crisis’. From this perspective, the two degree limit is in reality a discourse of control. The manipulation of symbols is a key technique of social control; it has been argued that if the public accepts a particular definition of a problem then they will generally consent to the actions the powerful wish to take. To maintain a particular symbolic definition of a crisis, the state pulls on the esteem of science to give a value position the appearance of fact, because an ideological position ‘can never be really successful until it is naturalized, and it cannot be naturalized while it is still thought of as a value rather than a fact’. As well as working ideologically to construct climate change as the type of problem that does not pose a challenge to the legitimacy of the current order, the claim of a scientific two degree dangerous limit poses climate change as a problem for the future, allowing fossil fuel industries to continue with business as usual while an industrial scale techno-fix is sought.
The abstraction of a single dangerous limit removes climate politics from our immediate lived experience and into the locked conference rooms of global institutions. Instead of being rooted in the value systems which people use to negotiate life it becomes a symbol, residing in the hands of a few, that can be reconfigured to suit the changing needs of these elites. As it becomes increasingly apparent that it will not be possible to stay under two degrees of warming, the goal posts are moved to construct the idea of adapting to a four degree future. When the four degree limit is breached, anyone still left alive can set a new six degree limit, ad infinitum through to extinction.
Why have campaigners and journalists been willing to propagate such a dangerous myth? It could be argued that in having to communicate information about a complex and novel problem in a noisy media environment it is inevitable that these actors will latch on to an easily understood idea which can be described in very few words. That policymakers are already using the concept makes it doubly attractive to campaigners, because they know that any demands they make which are aligned to the two degrees limit will be greeted more sympathetically than by a campaign to, say, limit warming to one degree, or to abandon the dangerous limit idea all together. The mass media have been willing to communicate the policy makers’ two degree line because they are orientated towards, and act as a largely uncritical echo chamber for, the voices of the most powerful on significant policy issues. But perhaps the most important reason why NGOs and journalists have failed to offer any critique of the two degree limit, and why many academics and other commentators have replicated the concept unthinkingly in their work, is that without the idea of a dangerous limit there is simply no climate change story to tell.
I can best explain this by returning to the zombies. Stories generally have three elements; a thesis (the existing order), the anti-thesis (the thing that threatens to disturb that order) and the synthesis (the new order that emerges after the threat has been dealt with). That is what gives a story its narrative arc and tension. The great thing about proper zombie films is that they play havoc with this structure. There is a thesis and an anti-thesis but no synthesis. The zombies are never destroyed and no new stable order emerges. And that, I fear, may be the truth of the climate change story. There has been widespread acceptance of the two degree story because stories are essential to our understanding of the world and most of the stories we tell are narratives designed to impose order on the world. According to the two degree narrative, once upon a time there was an order called modernity, and all was well. Along came the nasty climate change monster to threaten this order. Luckily the monster did not become dangerous until it heated up by two degrees. This gave the people of the land the time to find a way to keep the monster safe by creating a green economy. The new green economy was very nice and everyone was happy. That story is simply a fairytale. But there is another story, blocked by the two degree narrative, which does have not one single happy ending, but many millions of different endings, some happier than others. In this story, there is no two degree limit. There is a world of massive uncertainty, a chaotic non-linear range of climate change impacts which the people realise is beyond the scope of modernity to even understand, let alone respond to. All the knowledge, ways of being, cultures and technologies of the past and present are part of the millions of different stories that people in different parts of the world need to tell themselves to be able to find their own way through what is happening and what is yet to come. Who knows what the endings of these different stories will be, but they will be stories that people have made by themselves, rooted in the opportunities and constraints of their own lives, not fantasies foisted on them from afar to serve the interests of people they do not know and will never meet. Ironically, our best hope for reducing climate danger may lie in rejecting the very idea of a dangerous limit to climate change.
Christopher Shaw is Visiting Fellow, Science and Policy Research, University of Sussex. He is interested in building a more participatory process for deliberating on climate policy. He is desperately trying to find the time to update his website exploring these issues.
 for example, Oppenheimer, M. (2005). Defining Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference: The Role of Science, the Limits of Science. Risk Analysis, Vol. 25, No. 6: 1399–1400.
 Smith, H. (2007). Disrupting the global discourse of climate change. The case of indigenous voices, in The social construction of climate change. Power, Knowledge, Norms, Discourses (Global Environmental Governance), M. Pettenger. (Ed.), Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, p.202
 Ross, A. (1991). Strange weather: culture, science, technology in the age of limits. London: Verso. p.136.
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