Re-Imagine Climate Change Communication

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(How) are we Experiencing Climate Change? A Phenomenological Approach to Climate and its Changes

Impulse text by Maximilian Hepach, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, UK
Seeing three media at once? Paul Klee’s Fish Magic (1925)

In August 2018, following heat waves and wildfires in Sweden, Greta Thunberg decided not to attend school and to instead protest outside of the Swedish Parliament, initiating the soon to be global school strike for climate or Fridays for Future movement. As the Guardian then reported, Thunberg had been concerned about climate change before the extreme weather events of 2018, but “her protest [had] captured the imagination of a country that [had] been struck by heatwaves and wildfires in its hottest summer since records began 262 years ago.” (Crouch, 2018: emphasis mine) It was as though climate change had been brought home, to Sweden, that summer. Green member of Swedish Parliament Janine Alm Ericson, interviewed for the same Guardian article, argued that: “Thanks to the hot summer it has become easier for people to imagine what climate change can mean for us and others in Europe if we continue to ignore what is happening.” (Crouch, 2018: emphasis mine)

Expressing concern over climate change on the basis of extreme weather, however, is wrought with difficulty. When, for example, climate change deniers point to unusually cold weather as evidence against global warming (Bump, 2015), we are quick to point out that weather is not the same as climate. Weather can be experienced, whereas climate takes place on scales of space and time that are incomprehensible to human perception. Anthropologist Rudiak-Gould (2013) has called this position climate(-change) invisibilism: “Climate change presumes that the change is in the climate, a mathematical abstraction that is not only invisible but, in a sense, unreal.” (Rudiak-Gould, 2013: 122)

In the face of this ‘unreality’ it is not a coincidence, I argue, that imagination played a crucial role in how the 2018 heatwaves and wildfires were related to climate change. The statements cited above reveal a fundamental tension at the heart of experiential accounts of climate change, a causal asymmetry: Changes in climate must at some point find their expression in changes in weather, but changes in weather do not necessarily point to changes in climate. Hence any particular unseasonable weather can, at best, serve as an occasion to imagine what climate change would mean for us, experiencing “a preview of one possible future” (Obama, 2015), even as one is experiencing right at that moment what it would mean for climate to change; the imaginary turning real.

 

This gap and asymmetry between weather and climate is one of the key challenges climate change communication faces. As Schneider & Nocke (2014) point out, because “climate is a scientifically constructed object”, as opposed to an object of experience like weather, “there is no way to learn about it other than through media devices. We need media to learn about climate change.” (Schneider and Nocke, 2014: 12) Examples of such media are graphs and images that communicate climate and its changes in distinct ways, even when these changes are “unimaginable” as they “contradict all experiences we have about the world today” (Schneider and Nocke, 2014: 13).

However, experiences of weird weather, of “global warming weather” (Morton, 2013: 55), such as the aforementioned wild fires and heatwaves, evidence that climate change is increasingly becoming an object of our imagination.

 

We are left with imagining climate change because the very concepts we use to understand climate and its changes rule out the possibility of climate itself being experienced. Yet, I argue, climate does not necessarily require media to be understood or communicated. Rather, climate itself is a medium of experience and existence. Instead of approaching climate change communication as a problem of visualising or representing the unimaginable or invisible or imperceptible, I suggest further developing our concept of climate to account for how climate is given in experience as a medium with the help of phenomenological theory.

The key phenomenological concept I propose for uncovering the experiential reality of climate and its changes is the phenomenological correlation. Put simply, the phenomenological correlation describes the fact that in experience, subject and object are always already correlated in distinct ways. Hence, a phenomenological investigation into the nature of perceptual experience would not only turn to the subject of perception, the perceiver. Nor would the phenomenologist only turn to the object of perception, the perceived. Rather, the phenomenologists would reflect on how perception itself affords the possibility of perceiver and perceived, of subject and object in perceptual experience. The same approach is applicable to all other modes of experience, such as memory or imagination.

Phenomenologist Günter Figal (2016) recently posed the question of how we experience rooms. According to Figal, rooms are nowhere to be seen. We may be able to look at objects in a room, at a room’s walls and ceilings, at the windows and lights which illuminate a room, but we can never quite get room itself in front of our eyes.

Figal explains this by pointing out that room is not an object of our perception, but rather something that correlates experience in much the same way as perception itself does. Rooms afford experience by admitting subjects and objects somewhere, by opening them up to experience. Rooms are inconspicuous media of experience and existence that we can never face, but that we nonetheless experience through the ways in which subject and object are given.

Climate, I argue, is an inconspicuous medium of experience in much the same way as rooms are. Climate is not something we should look for somewhere ‘out there’. Rather, climate too is a distinct way of correlating experience; a way in which we and the objects around us are open to experience in distinct ways. Climate, then, is not an object of experience, but a way of experiencing.

What is disquieting about climate change, then, is not simply the fact that temperatures rise and precipitation changes. What is more existentially unsettling is that such a change in climate calls into question ways of life, ways of being that are intertwined with climate. The lesson phenomenology may teach us here is that if climate correlates and affords experience much in the same way room or perception do, then a change in climate means a change in the very way our world is given to us. A change in climate may hence be akin to a loss of a certain way of being. Unprecedented changes in climate, in turn, entail unprecedented ways of being. What we are experiencing and imagining in the face of weird weather, of wildfires and heat waves, then, is a change in the very medium of experience and existence through which we comprehend ourselves and the world.

 

Bibliography:

Bump P (2015) Jim Inhofe’s snowball has disproven climate change once and for all. Washington Post [online]. Availble at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/02/26/jim-inhofes-snowball-has-disproven-climate-change-once-and-for-all [Accessed 01/02/2020].

Crouch D (2018) The Swedish 15-year-old who’s cutting class to fight the climate crisis. The Guardian [online]. Availble at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/sep/01/swedish-15-year-old-cutting-class-to-fight-the-climate-crisis [Accessed 01/02/2020].

Figal G (2016) Unscheinbarkeit. Der Raum der Phänomenologie. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Morton T (2013) Hyperobjects: philosophy and ecology after the end of the world. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Obama B (2015) Remarks by President Obama at the First Session of COP21. The White House. Office of the Press Secretary [online]. Availble at: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/11/30/remarks-president-obama-first-session-cop21 [Accessed 01/09/2020].

Rudiak-Gould P (2013) “We Have Seen It with Our Own Eyes”: Why We Disagree about Climate Change Visibility. Weather, Climate, and Society 5(2): 120-132.

Schneider B and Nocke T (2014) Image Politics of Climate Change: lntroduction. In: Schneider B and Nocke T (eds) Image Politics of Climate Change: Visualizations, Imaginations, Documentations. Bielefeld: transcript: 9-28.