Why we disagree about climate change: 30(!) wedge issues - RSA

Why we disagree about climate change: 30(!) wedge issues

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  • Behaviour change
  • Climate change
  • Social brain

Climate change has moved from being predominantly a physical phenomenon to being simultaneously a social phenomenon. And these two phenomenon are very different...It is a story about the meeting of Nature and Culture. - Mike Hulme.

Ever had the feeling that we will never agree about what to do about climate change? Me too. But can we at least agree about what we disagree about? That would represent massive progress, but is easier said than done.

To make sense of this challenge, I have been enjoying Mike Hulme's book: Why we Disagree about Climate Change:

"Our recognition of climate change as a threat to the ways of life to which we are accustomed and which we value depends on our views of Nature, our judgements about scientific analysis, our perceptions of risk, and our ideas about what is at stake- economic growth, national sovereignty, species extinction, or the lives of poor people in marginal environments of developing countries- and whether it is ethically, politically or economically justifiable to make trade-offs between these...."

The core point is that "Even when scientists, politicians and publics agree on the basic principles and most robust findings of climate science, there is still plenty of room for disagreement about what the implications of that science are for action."

General disagreement is one thing, but what follows are the thoughts prompted by beginning to think like Hulme, and a first draft of a list of wedge issues on climate change; major issues that shape our perception of what the problem is and how we should act- issues that are therefore likely to divide us, even when we recognise the problem represents a shared threat.

I expect this list will grow and change, and I imagine there are other categories that should be included (e.g. sociology, anthropology, epistemology, perhaps more about different kinds of energy). It also feels like the right length of major wedge issues is probably about 50 and I'm already noticing questions I missed out.

I hope readers will help me make the next draft a much better one- so do let me know what you think. I have only briefly annotated here, and given a few links, but I  plan to explain each of the wedge issues, and why they matter, in the next instalment, either here or in a more formal report. Enjoy!


1. Do we really understand how the climate works?

(If it's so much more complex than the financial system, and we got that badly wrong...)

2. Is climate change happening?

(Yes, demonstrably so, but some say 'climate change' is not - i.e. it's nothing out of the ordinary if we had access to records that went far enough back. They are almost certainly wrong)

3. Is climate change anthropogenic (man-made)?

(Almost certainly, but there are enough sceptics to allow people to imagine there is a position to be taken here- we are often asked "Do you believe in climate change")

4. Is ‘runaway global warming’ likely or not?

(How valid/important is the idea of 'tipping points')

5. How many degrees of planetary warming are ‘safe’?

(Is the 2 degree limit a political or scientific judgement?)


6. Are there any likely scientific breakthroughs that will solve ‘the problem’?

7. Do current intellectual property laws help or hinder the development of carbon abatement technologies?

8. Will anticipated technological change happen quickly enough to prevent avoidable harm, or not?

9. Could an ‘energy internet’ meet our energy needs?

(Some, e.g. Jeremy Rifkind argue the key is to make households produce and share energy, not just share it)


10. Is it viable to stop seeking economic growth in the developed world?

(Some say economic growth is economically imperative, but ecologically impossible)

11. Do we have to assume indefinite economic growth in climate models?

(Most climate models, e.g. The Stern Review, assume 1.2% growth in perpetuity- this matters because it implies future generations will be richer, and better able to deal with the worst effects of climate change)

12. What should the price of carbon be?

13. Is ‘absolute decoupling’ possible?

14. Does/could ‘cap and trade’ work?

15. Can we design a viable carbon market that is ‘functional and fair’?

(The magazine Ephemera recently devoted an issue to this question)


16. Do natural systems and species have intrinsic value or not?

17. Can we place a quantitative or comparative value on a life?

18. Should/can we value the quality of life of future generations as much as our own?

(This question, the so-called 'discount value' appears to be a critical wedge issue because it can only be a value judgement, with no objective way of settling the question, but most economic models discount future generations considerably in their models).

Communication/social marketing

19. Is ‘climate change’ the best expression to work with?

20. Is climate change an environmental issue?

21. Is Climate change best framed as a public health issue?


22. Are relatively short democractic electoral cycles part of the problem, or not?

23. Does the developed world have an obligation to allow the developing world to pollute relatively more to correct for historic exploitation, or not?

24. Do we need more regulation or less?


25. Is nothing sacred?

(Are there things that don't have a price, or that if they were given a price, would be valued even less?)

26. Are we likely to be reborn?

(A funny one, and I'll probably delete this later, but it occurs to me that if a key question is the discount rate, and our attitude to future generations, our sense of whether 'we' will be there in future might be relevant)

Behavioural Science

27. Do attitudes drive behaviour, or is it the other way round?

(A biggie, but I was impressed by this resource as giving some ammunition for an answer)

28. Is the rebound effect serious or not?

29. Should we appeal to economic incentives, or not?

30. Should we work directly with values, or not?


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  • au contraire: the developed world already has progressed a lot, so is it fine for the developed world to continue to benefit from its modernity while imposing Malthusian, energy-austerity proscriptions, which essentially stifle progress in the developing world?

  • A provocative list and one that could generate pages of commentary. I'll add one here about environmental justice.

    Is it fine for the developed world to seek progress knowing that its actions will have a disproportionately negative effect on the environment of the developing world?