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Provocation and Debate

July 1, 2010

At a big-giant-conference such as this one, I find that I’m drawn to the more subversive presentations. For example, one of the few things that is keeping me from ditching the last session and going to the beach is this provocative title:

Circling from Virtuous to Vicious: How the IPCC stopped helping and began hindering adaptive behaviour.

Ann Henderson-Sellers of Macquarie University really delivered a barn burner with this one. I found myself swinging violently back and forth between vehement agreement and vehement disagreement. YES we really do need to stop focusing on uncertainty! YES, we need to ditch the IPCC, which assumes we need a consensus on facts to precede policy decisions. NO, there is no reason to assume that climate change should be the top priority for international politics (what a ridiculous assertion!). Good times.

Another really interesting one yesterday called into question our assumptions about the nature of migration. Francois Gemenne of Sciences Po Paris presented the results of a very ambitious global study under the title:

Migration doesn’t have to be a failure of adaptation. An escape from environmental determinism.

So many in the climate community are laboring under the assumption that migration is a last resort, to be undertaken only when the impacts get unbearably severe. And migration is painted as a security risk. What will we do with the hoards of environmental refugees crossing national borders and destabilizing the communities where they arrive? Gemenne argues convincingly that these assumptions are a bit naive. Migration is usually a response to insecurity–one which actually improves the security situation. Migration is usually within countries, and transnational migration is the exception. And migration requires resources. The poorest of the poor, and the most severely impacted generally cannot migrate, and are forced to stay in place.

At his plenary presentation on Tuesday, Mark Howden dangled some provocative ideas in front of the crowd. He suggested, for example, that we need to abandon our climate centric view of adaptation, and move toward a decision centric model. Understand the decisions people are making first, and then shape your science around that. Amen! He also suggested that our Panglossian view of the climate – our insistence that any deviation from the norm will be entirely negative – has alienated us from those we are seeking to help out. We need to find more positive and optimistic ways of talking about climate change. Focus on the opportunities. This was clearly not something that everyone in the room agreed with!

It’s great to see these assumptions challenged, even if it doesn’t make the issue any simpler. And it’s great to get some conflict and debate at a conference, especially after a couple days of soul-sucking fluorescent conference rooms! As Ann Henderson-Sellers said at the beginning of her talk in this last session of the week, “by this point everyone’s over it!” Time to head home.

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