How Climate Change Comes to Matter

The Communal Life of Facts

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Candis Callison
Experimental Futures
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , December
     2014.
     328 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780822357872.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The topic of this book lies at the nexus of communication, journalism, and the public understanding of science. Candis Callison is a professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia and this work originates from her MIT doctoral dissertation. Her professional experience as a journalist combined with her academic formation in STS (Science, Technology and Society) lend both compelling story telling and rigor to her study.

The book’s relevance to religious studies is evident from the first page: Callison avers that her approach deals as much with matters of meaning, ethics, and morality as with debates about the certainty of science and ‘matters of fact’. While climate change discourse must maintain absolute fidelity to scientific fact, it must also inhabit the spaces of ethics and morality and speak in a language accessible to diverse audiences. This book is a highly articulate and erudite examination of the ways climate change is construed in a variety of settings among various sectors of society. Yet it consistently returns to the ethics of communication, examining the tension between scientific objectivity and detachment on the one hand, and the seriousness of the climate situation on the other. The pressing issue is how to communicate scientific findings on climate to diverse publics who utilize, as she puts it, varied vernaculars.

With an introduction and epilogue, the book is structured in five chapters that relay her ethnographic fieldwork among five diverse communities: chapter 1, Arctic indigenous people; chapter 2, science journalists; chapter 3, American evangelical Christians; chapter 4, economic and science policy experts; chapter 5, corporate social responsibility managers and activists. Each chapter reports on and analyzes the group’s particular discursive vernacular. Callison’s ethnographies, her reporting on her own direct encounter with these groups, make the book a very lively and compelling read. At the same time, her command of the vast literature on climate change is obvious in the notes and bibliography and these in themselves constitute a highly useful resource for any reader.

Chapter 1 focuses on Alaska. Callison notes that a two degree warming in the southern United States could mean as much as ten degrees warming in the Arctic region (54). Obviously, there is a differential as to who is most responsible for climate change and also a differential as to where its effects are most acute.  Callison discusses the work of Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier and the Inuit Circumpolar Council. She touches on debates about the scope of the role played by TK, Traditional Knowledge. (I would ask here if it is possible that sometimes claims to Traditional Ecological Knowledge may become what Gayatri Spivak has termed “strategic essentialism”?) But even if we acknowledge that possibility, the fact remains that the worldviews of indigenous peoples are often far from the worldview of the dominant Western economic paradigm and there is the persistent challenge of communicating across that divide.

Chapter 2 deals with journalism and how the press and news outlets have communicated climate change. Again, this is a highly useful review of debates on the role of the media. This includes the vexing question of how science is to be conveyed to the public in a manner that truly informs while avoiding oversimplification or alarmism or complacency. When does journalism cross over into advocacy? What do balance and objectivity mean when there is near scientific consensus on the issue? How are the profound changes brought about by digital media affecting the ability of the serious press to report on this monumental issue? Callison situates her analysis in terms of the central conundrum examined in the book: how to maintain fidelity to scientific expertise while being prepared to ask about the ethical implications of that expertise. As she puts it, this is not only a matter of what “the truth” is, it is also a matter of what “the truth” means.

Chapter 3 on evangelical Christians in America is likely to be the part of the book of most interest to scholars of religion. The chapter opens with Callison attending a symposium on Creation Care at a Florida mega-church. Of course, “Creation Care” is a locution that, for many evangelicals, avoids the odious connotations of “environmentalism” by locating environmental ethics in the Genesis 2:15 injunction to steward the earth. The term illustrates her contention that different groups employ their own vernaculars and that it is vital to be cognizant of those vernaculars if one is to understand how climate change comes to matter to diverse groups. This chapter also provides a fine overview of the history of the controversial development of evangelical environmental engagement.

Chapter 4 shifts attention from religion to the realm of finance. Again, the question becomes: how do the findings of science get translated this time into the discourse of economics? One way has been to transpose the science into the language of financial risk and risk management. When the “dismal science” quantifies potential climate costs, the policy makers and politicians tend to listen. But religion, in the dimension of morality, again returns here when questions arise over what costs are to be borne by whom.

Chapter 5 finds Callison conducting interviews at a conference on corporate social responsibility. The discussion moves from risk for investors to companies now feeling compelled to situate themselves as part of a climate solution (with attendant danger of “green washing” – claims to environmental virtue as corporate PR spin). An epilogue to the book sums up Callison’s concern with public engagement. She suggests that engagement signals the public’s need to not only be informed but also the need to act on that information.

This book can be located next to Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree about Climate Change (2009) as a key work examining the wide variety of “discourse coalitions” involved in climate communication. It is a magisterial treatment of the deep roots of contention in this momentous and unfolding story.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Noel Salmond is Associate Professor of Humanities at Carleton University.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Candis Callison is Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia.

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