Three-D Issue 27: ‘Climate Cultures’ and the Role of Communications Scholars

The recent COP22 Climate Summit in Marrakesh coincided with an announcement by the World Meteorological Organisation that 2016 will be, in global terms, the hottest year on record. That such an announcement should be made during an international climate change summit did not mark the Marrakesh forum as particularly unique. Such alarming declarations are, sadly, becoming routine as record-breaking temperatures have been reached for the third year in a row. Indeed, for the discerning media consumer, reports by scientists detailing specific instances of environmental degradation are issued in a seemingly perpetual stream. What did make the Marrakesh summit unique from predecessors, however, was the continual utterance of a single word by delegates and other attendees: Trump. The US presidential election victory of a man who – among other contradictory statements – declared climate change to be a hoax invented by the Chinese, greatly concerned leaders of many of the other 200 attending nations. Consequently, the immediate implementation of the Paris Climate Accords, before the president-elect takes office, was spoken of as an ‘urgent duty.’

On a deeper level, the Marrakesh summit also highlights some of the key challenges for climate and environmental scientists, policy-makers and communicators. Despite the protests of a handful of conservative politicians, corporate lobbyists and fringe scientists, the evidence for the existence of anthropogenic climate change is beyond dispute. However, this does not guarantee action on the part of the political leaders who ostensibly accept the scientific evidence, nor the publics in whose interests they supposedly act. This suggests some of the problems that a dependence on scientific and environmental knowledge alone as a spur to action, as well as a focus on macro-level climate change mitigation practices, might create. At the same time, it poses questions about the emotional connections that individuals and communities may have with their environments and with climate change, and how these relationships might foster environmental in/action. The Trump presidential campaign demonstrated something that was already known about the role of affect in political mobilization. Trump’s victory represents both the potency of affect – as seen in his ability to project and articulate the emotional fears, anxieties and hatreds of a section of the electorate – and also the obstacles that hinder macro-level top-down environmental policy implementation.

With such challenges in mind, MeCCSA’s Climate Change Environment and Sustainability Network convened a workshop at the University of Reading that brought together scholars from a range of disciplines within the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities to explore the role of affect and the everyday in climate change practices and policies. Prompted by the belief that social sciences and humanities scholars, particularly communications and cultural studies researchers, must take a lead in any successful understanding and promotion of sustainable lifestyles, the workshop sought to advance knowledge of contemporary climate cultures and the ways in which they are they being performed across a number of scales. In particular, the workshop addressed how everyday and ordinary sustainable practices intersect with diverse social discourses of climate change, and the role of affect in forging relationships between individuals and groups with their environments.

The two-day workshop provided a unique forum for academics and activists to think about the role of personal narratives, consumer practices, emotion and affect, within the everyday and domestic spheres. With a focus on micro-level sustainability practices, instead of spectacular and macro-level institutions, the workshop fostered interdisciplinary discussions of how climate change and culture are intersecting, how sustainable lifestyles can be developed and encouraged, and how environmental ideas are being incorporated (or not being incorporated) into everyday lives. This not only advances understandings of how sustainability can be developed in ways independent of the prevailing winds of electoral politics, but it also helps to position media, communications and cultural studies in their rightful and necessary position at the centre of efforts to understand and advance environmental sustainability.

Posted by Einar Thorsen