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Getting off on global warming

A new report labels alarmist reporting about the environment as 'climate porn'. But it takes a missionary position on changing our lifestyles.

Peter Martin

Topics Science & Tech

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The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) recently commissioned Linguistic Landscapes, a consultancy specialising in applying discourse analysis to business and marketing issues, to analyse current conceptions of climate change in the UK and to stimulate ‘climate-friendly behaviour’. The conclusions were summarised in the report Warm Words: how are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better?

The authors of Warm Words, textual analysts Gill Ereaut and Nat Segnit, were surely aware that their characterisation of alarmist climate change stories as ‘climate porn’ would generate headlines. They must be pleased to have made a rather dry and academic paper so newsworthy, even though the main message passed unnoticed by the general public.

Pornography literally means the writing of harlots. However, Ereaut and Segnit would not go so far as to say that the green doom mongers are in it for the money. After all, the authors appear to have signed up to the cause themselves. Instead, they believe the problem is with the level of excitement that climate porn creates. While ’secretly thrilling‘, climate porn ’excludes the possibility of real action or agency by the reader or viewer‘. Ereaut and Segnit do not have a problem with the content of climate porn, rather their concern is that it doesn’t elicit the right response.

For the IPPR, the time for talking about climate change has come to an end; the arguments have been won, the matters have been settled and now it’s a question of manipulating people to follow the message. That’s why the IPPR have employed textual analysts to write about climate change policy, rather than experts who might actually know something about it. But in doing so they’ve exposed the flaw in their own position – there isn’t a consensus on climate change. A minority of people continue to challenge the basic theory and scientific evidence of climate change and others challenge the evidence that humans are a factor in it. Even after dismissing these views, the IPPR paper lists the many and varied options of what to do about them, analysing the various ‘linguistic repertoires’ in debates around climate change.

There is ‘settlerdom’ – represented by the Daily Express and the Daily Mail – where climate change is taken as so large and fantastic that it cannot be part of people’s lives, which are based on everyday experience and common sense. For ‘settlers’, climate change will only be worth addressing when it has a direct and tangible impact on their lives and until then there is no need to do anything.

There are those who are concerned about the negative effects of measures to counter climate change; people such as Bjorn Lomborg whose argument goes something like ‘in the sum total of human well-being, money spent on battling climate change could be better spent elsewhere’. Ereaut and Segnit characterise this stance as ‘free market protection’, which is disingenuous as one doesn’t have to be a free marketeer to be concerned about humanity’s best interests.

Another ‘repertoire’ is ‘warming is good’, which displays ‘apparently informed optimism’ with a tendency to construct a model of continuity, rather than sudden and violent change. There is also ‘techno-optimism’ according to which technological answers will be found either from existing or new interested parties. And then there are a whole range of active mitigation approaches such as, ‘David and Goliath’ and ‘small actions’.

However, rather than recognising that the existence of these different positions show a lack of consensus on climate change, the authors criticise them for being ’unproductive‘. Presumably they mean unproductive to the IPPR’s message, which is right, unlike the others, which are wrong. As the paper states, ’the facts need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken‘. This Orwellian doublethink is remarkable for an institute which claims on its own website that ’deepening democracy underpins all of IPPR’s work’.

The IPPR’s message is that ’if dangerous climate change is to be avoided, the public’s contribution to it will need to be reduced dramatically‘, and Warm Words shows the insidious campaign being waged to change individuals’ expectations and attitudes. With climate porn doom-mongering we at least know where we stand but this new campaign is designed to get under our skin and into our heads.

‘Warm Words’ starts by saying: ’Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing mankind this century‘. It has surely overtaken some pretty big concerns, including unemployment, disease, the secularisation of society, communism and poverty to name a few. This can be seen as a generational change, embodied by the different worldviews of Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband’s, with his concern for class-consciousness and his son, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, David Miliband’s concern for carbon consciousness.

Last month, Miliband proposed that we should all carry carbon swipe cards to tot up and moderate our individual carbon emissions (1). We have been told that carbon must dominate every aspect of our lives. Recent examples include being urged give up cheap flights (2), pop stars worrying about making their gigs carbon neutral (3) and suggested carbon audits for our homes (4). We have reached a point where the only good thing we discuss about nuclear power is its low CO2 emissions, and where you can worry about the carbon footprint of your doorbell (5).

It is generally presented as unquestionable that carbon must dominate our lives and that we don’t need evidence or arguments to decide whether this will be an effective or appropriate thing to subject ourselves to – and we certainly don’t need a vote on it. As Warm Words has it, the ‘facts’ shall be unspoken.

The energy we access through carbon-based fossil fuels has taken us a long way from pre-industrial life. The energy that fossil fuels contain will still make a tremendous difference to people’s lives around the world. Even though we can’t use them forever, and whether or not a change is required sooner or later, a celebration of what they’ve given, and continue to give, would be apposite. Most people choose to continue with life despite the climate change doom-mongers. But life with carbon swipe cards will encourage a sense that we should apologise for everything we do, to be meek and make acts of contrition by planting trees when we go on holiday. At least climate porn allowed for some guilty pleasure. This is a whole lot worse.

Warm Words can be downloaded from the IPPR website.

(1) Labour under fire on ‘green’ bid, BBC News, 19 July 2006

(2) Give up cheap flights, holidaymakers told, Observer, 6 August 2006

(3) T in the Park shows wooden heart, BBC News, 6 July 2006
(4) Blair urges home pollution checks, BBC News, 7 August 2006
(5) The green gauge, Observer, 6 August 2006

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Topics Science & Tech

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