How do we do research on climate change?

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by David McKelvey (2006)

by David McKelvey (2006)

The opening meeting of the Climate Change Research Group (CCRG) was hosted by King’s College London on Wednesday 29th of January 2014. By focussing on the question, ‘How do we do research on climate change?’, the organisers sought to attract a variety of academics working within the field of climate change covering all disciplines including social, political and physical science. The explicitly reflective element of this central question, however, attracted few academics currently working in natural science. Nevertheless, the group of participants was hardly homogenous but it involved people from across the social sciences and humanities as well as academics who started their careers as climatologists but are now taking a critical stance towards such expertise.

Moreover, the meeting which was particularly aimed at PhD students but included contributions from more senior academics, provided a great environment for an open exchange amongst individual researchers. As such, it comprised short presentations from postgraduates (focusing on methods used rather than actual findings), as well as a number of talks and a roundtable discussion with leading academics. The topics covered by the contributors ranged from climate change adaptation in Scottish islands communities to climate change reporting of UK businesses. But two key themes seemed to most strongly attract the curiosity of the participants.

George Adamson raised important issues during his presentation on ‘Climate history, adaptation and policy: Do we really do research in climate change?’ While the question included in his title potentially poses existential challenges to all those conducting research on a changing climate, participants of the workshop did not think that this invalidates their own research. It was particularly interesting to see most participants agreeing that the foci of their research could indeed be studied independently of climate change but at the same time holding that the latter is an important area of inquiry. The rationale behind this was phenomological one. For, it was argued, ‘climate change’ is an area of controversy and concern in society, and by its very nature as a societal phenomenon demands scientific attention – even if research then focuses on the cultural, political or economic underpinnings of related societal discussions. Although this is a valid and common justification for academic inquiries, I would contend that it is based on a one-dimensional understanding of the interactions between science and society. Science, after all, has played in important role in shaping the climate change discourse as well as in developing the technologies that have caused anthropogenic climate change in the first place.

Having said this, the CCRG meeting did not end with a simplistic answer to the question ‘how do we do research on climate change’. Rather the discussion following Mike Hulme’s presentation on ‘Integrated research on climate change: attempting the impossible’ highlighted that there are various representations of climate – some, but not all of them are scientific. The real challenge then, the participants of the meeting agreed, is to research these representations not in isolation from each other. In this sense inquiries particularly about ‘how do we facilitate mutual dialogue between disciplines as well as societal and scientific actors?’ was deemed necessary. It is this normative rephrasing of the initial question with which the meeting concluded.

Picture by David McKelvey, 2006

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