Numbers and the sedimentation of climate discourses

Anabela Carvalho's picture

[This post is part of a series of IECA members at the COP21 in Paris]

Numbers are a powerful communication code. They carry an appearance of truth and a credibility that tends to be unparalleled by words. Climate-related numbers made headlines around the world again today with the publication of a study on Nature Climate Change that projects a slight decrease of global emissions in 2015. Meanwhile, in Paris, much of the wrangling between parties at the COP21 is about the target of the agreement (which is now in its ‘final’ stages and in the hands of ministers). A 2°C rise in global average temperature is the European Union’s and many other countries’ reference number. Small Island States (SIS) and other vulnerable countries are not buying that. As the Climate Action Network wrote in their Saturday newsletter: “All countries questioning the urgent need to include a long-term goal to keep temperatures below 1.5°C should check their conscience. For countries that have suffered the wrath of climate-related extreme events due to the current 1°C temperature increase, any attempt to negotiate a further increase in temperature is a violation of the right to life of many human beings and threatens the existence of ecosystems and species.” As a sobering note, let’s recall that the promised (but as yet non-committing) measures in the INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) would take us past 3°C according to most estimates.

A 2°C target is hailed by many as the means to “save the world”, a tired language that I have seen used about climate change since the 1990s but still in vogue in some official speeches at the High Level Segment ministerial meeting today and of course in media. 2°C is the number in the infamous Copenhagen Accord, which speaks of “recognizing the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius” ( to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system (the objective of the 1992 UNFCCC). Countless scientific studies and projections counter this claim (and what is “dangerous” anyway? Ask SIS…). My personal witnessing of the making of 2°C as “the scientific view” offers some hints at the process of institutionalization and other forms of sedimentation of certain discourses. The story goes back to March 2009, several months before Copenhagen’s COP15, and to a large scientific meeting on climate change that took place in the same Bella Center. At the final plenary session some of the most well known climatologists debated the likely impacts of a 2°C rise and spoke of 1.5°C as a less perilous goal. Then comes along Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then Denmark’s Prime Minister. For preparing COP15, he mentioned, he needed a number. It appears, he said, that scientists are not fully in agreement about what that number should be. But “as a politician”, he continued, “I cannot operate in a room with moving targets.” “So”, he asked, “give me a number. Is that number 2°C?” He turned his head to the big time climatologists next to him. They froze. Silence. 2°C was it. I was sitting far in the back of the room and felt my heart sink. As a member of the so-called “scientific community” I felt outraged that no one had the courage to stand up to that new “official” number.

Fast forward six years. At a side event at COP21 today titled “Metrics of progress towards net zero and the two degree goal: science for a safe climate” there were several more mentions to the arbitrary and distorting nature of numbers and number-based projections. We heard that whereas the IPCC First Assessment Report introduced three time-horizons in 1990 – 20, 100 and 500 years – to calculate the Global Warming Potential of greenhouse gases, negotiators of the Kyoto Protocol chose 100 years “without any scientific basis”. CICERO’s Research Director Jan Fuglestvedt also told the audience that “it is known that they did so because it was the one [number] in the middle”. Fuglestvedt also contested the current (official) practice of homogenizing the impact of six different greenhouse gases into CO2 equivalent warming saying that black carbon, for instance, “affects climate in profoundly different ways” of what CO2 does. That equivalence leads to an “ambiguous climate effect” in projections, he argued. Speaking in the same event New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that “some of the words that are produced by negotiators at 5 in the morning when everyone is burnt are haphazard. But six months later they are treated with reverence.” This is an extraordinary account of the process of naturalization of certain linguistic choices, including numbers, in all their rhetorical authority.

Today’s experiences at the COP21 raised a series of questions in my mind about the science-policy nexus, about what is accepted “science” and “knowledge”, what is and what should be the role of science and scientists, including communication scholars, in the governance of climate change. To start the day I had sat at the meeting of RINGOs (Research and Independent NGOs) that IECA is affiliated with. The chair reminded us that RINGOs are not an advocacy group and are not pushing for a particular outcome at the COP. They only defend that decisions are based on “sound science”. I was not sure that summarized my position as temporary IECA representative… All of this also made me think about the work of Christopher Shaw (Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford) who has written on the “choice” of the 2°C target and who got an Honorary Mention in the IAMCR/IECA Climate Communication Award a few months ago with a proposal on “the possibility of democratic deliberations on acceptable levels of climate risk”. Democratizing the politics of climate change involves widening – or at least debating – who has a say in defining what is acceptable. Communication scholars and practitioners have important responsibilities in exposing the genealogy of climate discourses and their constitutive effects over policies and political subjects.