Thursday, 21 August 2014

New paper on the 'burning embers'

By Martin

My analysis of the history of the IPCC's 'burning embers' diagram has now been published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. I've written a short post for the Geography Directions blog which offers an introduction to some of the themes which the paper addresses. A little while ago I also wrote a blog post which put the IPCC's new version of the diagram in historical context: see here. Below is the new paper's abstract:

The updated embers (right), showing risks and impacts
associated with different warming scenarios (left).
The challenge of meaningfully communicating an issue like climate change has vexed those trying to convey the risks, probabilities and uncertainties of the impacts of climate-warming greenhouse gases. This paper investigates the history of one such effort – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) so-called ‘burning embers’ diagram. This colourful visual rendering of global ‘reasons for concern’ has had a chequered institutional and publication history – embraced by some, rejected by others, and used by yet others to argue both for and against the reality of a global threshold where climate change becomes ‘dangerous’. Through interviews and documentary analysis I reconstruct the production and circulation of this diagram in the cultural circuits of climate science, policy and advocacy. I suggest that the notion of ‘objectivity’ is spatial in origin, concerned with distance and visual perspective. As a practice and performance, objectivity is also found to be situated within particular cultural and political formations. In applying these arguments to the history of the burning embers, I narrate a geography of objectivity concerning the visual composition of particular subject–object relations, and of contestation over the practice and objectivity of ‘expert judgement’ as the diagram circulates and encounters actors with diverse interpretive commitments and political objectives. Although excluded from the IPCC's 2007 report after governmental objections, the diagram has continued to haunt climate change debates. I suggest in closing that geographers of science pay greater attention to the visual image and to how norms of scientific conduct are performed and contested through the production, circulation and reception of visual knowledge. This would in turn enable geographers of science to supplement the interest in circulating knowledges with insights into situated interpretations of the meaning of science itself.

This paper represents the last main empirical publication from my PhD thesis which means that, aside from a review article and a couple of related book chapters currently in preparation, I can now turn my attention to other things, like my developing project on colonial meteorology and histories of scientific internationalism in the British Empire, which I'll try to blog about soon. 

Publishing in Transactions always means an extra-stringent review process, and the paper was undoubtedly improved by the feedback of the reviewers and the editor, so my thanks to them. Thanks also to all those who I interviewed as part of the project, whose recollections and explanations were crucial in making sense of this fascinating episode in the history of climate change science. It is a story which is still unfolding, with the IPCC Working Group II having published an updated version of the diagram (pictured), and negotiations underway on the contents of the overarching Synthesis Report - the document in which the first embers appeared in 2001. Hopefully I'll be able to follow-up on these latest developments in due course.

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