The Numerology of Climate Change

An abstract for a paper I’m writing – [update - here's the link to the short article in Anthropology News]

One does not need to go far in the public discourse surrounding climate change to be inundated with the mystique of number. In the United States, where viewers of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth were treated to specific stunts of quantificatory pontification, just as in Singapore, where I teach climate change to nonspecialist undergraduates, the numberwork of graphs and charts has its own techie vitality. Check out the graphical puppetry in this University of Minnesota project in which a cellist tracks global temperature changes no matter how out of key the song is. The human is the dependent variable of an unknown function, whose independent variable is temperature driven by anthropogenic CO2. Anthropogenic goes two ways: anthropogenic CO2 has re-made the climate, and now the climate promises to dictate. Where is this tune going?

Drawing on my on-going research on the imaginative dimensions of carbon accounting, in this commentary I look toward key moments in the emergence of climate change science to identify why the numbers mystique holds such powerful sway over the possibilities for thinking climate change. Part of the story must include the promises of ‘big data’ and sheer computational prowess of the late-20th century. But what fascinates me are very early moments in climate science that seem to have secured the terms through which contemporary political thought takes place.

Joseph Fourier, working in the first decade of the 19th century, secured the mathematical speculation at the heart of climate modeling and associated debates about uncertainty. Svante Arrhenius, often credited with articulating the first complete theory of climate change, published in 1896, decisively established the quantification of carbon dioxide as the key independent variable, and articulated this in the same form through which carbon quantification is dealt with today. Lastly, Dave Keeling’s monumental efforts to rigorously measure global CO2 levels have established the unity of climate change as a scientific and political issue based on its theoretical human etiology.

When one imagines scary apocalyptic futures fraught with uncertainty but which hinge on that single variable, through these three elements—speculation, quantification and anthropogenesis—that imagination is possible.

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