June 26, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Rio plus 20 minus hope

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development has recently been held in Rio de Janeiro (20-22 June, 2012). This summit has come to be known as Rio+20, as it was organised to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which, it should be pointed out, was organised 20 years after the June 1972 United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm, a turning point in environmental politics.

As a media analyst of sorts, I was surprised by how little media coverage there has been of this year’s summit. Between 20 and 22 June, when the conference took place, there was, for example only ONE article in The Times (according to the data base Nexis®). There were of course many blogs and the BBC also covered the summer, but UK national newspapers, apart from The Guardian, seem not to have been interested. So I became curious to know how things went 20 years ago and downloaded the articles written for UK national newspapers for that summit (3-14 June, 1992). There were 68 articles from across the spectrum of the traditional national press. The first one of these articles was published by The Daily Mail with the headline ‘How Science Can Save the World’ and the last appeared in The Sunday Times under the headline ‘Summit Pledges Radical Action’. Of course, the present day coverage had no such headlines. And, of course, there were no blogs in 1992! Not only has the news technology changed radically over the last two decades, so has the status of science within the climate change debate, and so has the status of hope that some people had about ‘radical action’.

Science and climate change

The article for The Daily Mail, with it’s now so quaint sounding title and the hope it expressed that science could save the world, was written by Richard Doll, or rather Sir William Richard Shaboe Doll (28 October 1912 – 24 July 2005). As Wikipedia points out, he was a British physiologist who became the foremost epidemiologist of the 20th century, turning the subject into a rigorous science. He was a pioneer in research linking smoking to health problems. Before coming to his article, I want to mention that his work is nowadays still linked sometimes to debates around climate change when discussing climate change and health, for example.

In his 1992 article, Doll stresses that global warming is one of the “greatest threats facing the world and the future of mankind”, threats that, he says, the summit intends to tackle. However, Doll warns that “[a]mong all those delegates and all that talk we may be seeing a new attitude emerge: an irrational ideology opposed to science, to industry, and to progress”. He claims that for “those pressure groups, the tenets of logic do not seem important. Yet the discussions at Rio demand logic, and real analysis; they are too important to be treated any other way.” He goes on to list three main dangers that the world is facing and describes ways in which science and industry can be involved in dealing with them. The dangers, which are interlinked, are: “poverty, overpopulation, and the global changes in climate brought about by the activities of Man.” He laments the fact that “[s]cience and industry are being painted as villains at the Rio summit”, while they “are, in reality, the only solutions to its problems.” He ends his article by proclaiming the “problems of the world are caused not by science, not by industry, but by mankind” and he pleads: “Please, give us our role in solving them. The Rio summit must not be hijacked by an anti-science mafia. For without science, mankind has very little future.”

While words like ‘irrational’ and ‘anti-science’ were used in 1992 to describe the environmental movement (and still are), the same words are now mostly used to describe certain (‘sceptical’) attitudes to climate change, but also to GM food, evolution and so on. There are various problems with using this word.  One blog in particular, by Jack Stilgoe, tried to tackle this issue and, on the whole, I agree with Jack when he says: “My over-riding impression is that ‘anti-science’ is a term that is imaginary and unhelpful. It describes almost nobody and it gets us nowhere. Climate deniers are not anti-science, they are anti- a political view that considers environmental protection as important. Creationists, too, have moral objections to the implications of an evolutionary worldview (John Evans is very good on this).”

Polarisation, wicked problems and the loss of hope

In the context of climate change, some groups have however painted some scientists (not so much industry) as villains, while they, in turn, have also been labelled villains by others. This is unhelpful and leads to a polarisation of opinion that Doll probably could not have foreseen. The problem is that this situation may make what Doll called “real analysis” impossible, as well as real dialogue and real action (whatever people think that may be). This is a social and political problem.

In addition, it has become increasingly clear that finding ‘solutions’ to climate change as a scientific problem (amendable to ‘clear analysis) may in fact be impossible, as climate change is a so-called ‘wicked problem’. And to add to the complexity of it all, wicked problems seem to resist not only scientific solutions but also (global) government and policy solutions. Where does this leave us? The 2012 summit seems to have shown one thing quite clearly: governments seem to be walking away from discussing issues around climate change, environment and sustainability and many people and peoples, who are worried about the implications of changes to the climate and changes to their environments, are left without hope. The question is: Where can we go from here?

PS added 28 June, 2012

A Nature editorial that makes the social sciences part of the answer

A more in-depth analysis of the media coverage of the two Rio summits in 1992 and 2012 will be carried out as part of our climate change project (‘Climate change as a complex social issue’)  funded by the ESRC (which has a special webpage devoted to Rio: ‘Planet and people: Rio+20 and the social sciences‘)

Image credit wikipedia

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics