April 22, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Tracking fluctuations in climate change debates

Our ESRC funded project on climate change is coming to an end soon and we are just starting to prepare our end of award conference in Amsterdam. As part of our project we intended to monitor and describe fluctuations in debates about climate change. This aim overlaps with that of a project within the Leverhulme programme where we chart one particular aspect of such debates, namely the issue of climate scepticism.

The Making Science Public blog has, over the last two years, hosted a number of posts I have written in part as a Leverhulme grant holder, in part as an ESRC grant holder. In this post I want to revisit some of my old posts that describe changes in debates around climate change (and also make reference to work/posts by Warren Pearce, Kim Holmberg, Iina Hellsten, Rusi Jaspal and Luke Collins).


I wrote two posts about one event which became crucial in shifting debates about climate change from a fragile political consensus to a fractured political dissensus. On the occasion of the most recent Rio Earth summit in 2012 I reflected on what, if anything, has changed over twenty years since the first summit in 1992. When Hurricane Sandy happened in 2013, I looked at online discussions about this weather event that affected parts of New York. And finally, after the publication of the latest IPCC report we studied the traces it left on the twitter landscape.


More –gates

Rio plus 20

Hurricane Sandy

IPCC report (Warren, Kim, Iina)


Over the last few years, the notion of scientific consensus has come under attack, while at the same time being promoted as a way to engage people with climate change. While some believe asserting the increasing certainty with which scientists can monitor and asses the effects of rising greenhouse gas emissions, it has also become clear that more honesty about uncertainty is important, alongside a recognition that uncertainty means different things to different people.

Around the publication of the fifth IPCC report (and in the context of the 2014 UK winter floods), the issue of adaptation has risen in prominence in public debates. However, it should be stressed that it has never been absent from IPCC debates and climate summits since around 1988, something we tracked in a post on adaptation, mitigation and geoengineering.




Adaptation, mitigation, geoengineering


New –isms

While climate science has come under scrutiny from climate scepticism, a number of other –isms have emerged and I tried to trace them in blog posts:




New languages

While before climategate a new language of ‘carbon’ had developed which we charted in a previous project, the new landscape of debate since climategate seems to be calling increasingly for a new ‘energy’ language, some new metaphors, as well as a new way of talking about global warming, or rather heating. There seems however still to be no real room for new ways of deliberating in new ways about climate change, something that became evident in a linguistic study of reader comments.


Climate cliff

Global heating (Warren and Mike Hulme)

Polarisation or deliberation? (Luke)

New technologies

While we were carrying out our research into climate change debates, a number of new technologies have emerged, amongst them fracking and geoengineering, the one seen, by some, as a bridge between a high and a low carbon future, the other as a ‘plan B’ that, some argue, might have to be implemented if we have no other options to save humanity’s future.

Fracking (Rusi)

Geoengineering (Rusi)

Climate, weather, extreme weather

Over the last two years or so, many people have begun to speculate about links between particular weather events and climate change. I first reflected on this topic during a particularly dry February in 2012 and then carried on writing about issues about unseasonable weather, extreme weather, as well as some new ways of talking about extreme weather.

Weather or climate?

Unseasonable weather?

Extreme weather (1)?

Extreme weather (2)?

Weather on steroids?

Climate change communication and public understanding

Despite all the public debates we have charted over the years, positions on the issue of climate change are as entrenched as ever, and there are still major obstacles to speaking about climate change in ways that bring people together rather than pulling them apart. In two posts I discussed some climate change communication conundrums and some misunderstandings about public understanding of climate change.

Climate change communication

Public understanding of climate change


Image: Big wave breaking near Santa Cruz, Wikimedia Commons



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