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“Climate change is a social construct with scepticism and alarmism all boiling around together” McEwan, 2010. To what extent do you agree with Ian McEwan’s assessment?

| December 3, 2012

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Climate change is a massively discussed subject in today’s society, leading to dramatic changes in how we live our everyday practices, and even more global attempts to solve the problems associated with it such as renewable forms of energy and the global aim to reduce carbon emissions and green house gases. The statement taken from McEwan (2010) derives from his new book ‘Solar’, and for me it is true to an extent, but for the suggestions of climate change to arise there had to be initial changes to encourage the alarmist and sceptic behaviour. Hulme (2009)  tries to establish why we disagree about climate change, and distinguishes the factors that are involved such as where climate change comes from, what it means to different people in different places, and of course why we disagree about it. His concept of seeing climate change as an idea as much as he sees it as a physical phenomena is similar to my thoughts on climate change, which in many ways agrees with McEwans’ statement above, as both alarmism and scepticism lead to the idea establishing and becoming this recognised phenomena that we know today. There are two different extreme views that are associated with this statement, one is that “climate change is a real” (King, 2004, p. 176) which is more of an alarmist view, and the other is that climate change is socially constructed (McEwan, 2011) which is a typical view held by sceptics due to their mistrust in science. With the use of academic literature and examples these two concepts will be considered more closely allowing for McEwans’ statement to be assessed and to show to what extent I agree with it.

Changes in the climate are constantly occurring, and along with the depletion of our natural resources, there has also been an increase in the emissions of greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide levels and other pollutants correspondingly increasing in our atmosphere. Sir Nicholas Stern recognises these issues that we are facing in his 2007 report on ‘The Economics of Climate Change’, and states that “ The scientific evidence is now overwhelming: climate change is a serious global threat, and it demands an urgent global response” (p. 10). Since then global recognition of climate changes and global warming has increased significantly, leading to a much greater public awareness of the topic which has become infamous. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) in its report in 2000 on energy use, global warming and climate change the following was stated:-

“There is an annual imperative to act now. If this generation took no measures to curb rising emissions, it would be condemning our children, grandchildren and generations beyond them to considerable dangers” (RCEP, 2000, p. 23).

This statement along with others led to targets being made to help reduce carbon emissions. The first target was set by the UK Government in 2003 with an aim of a 60% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 in its 2003 Energy White Paper as a form of commitment to the situation. Two years later in the 2008 Climate Change Act, the commitment was then increased to a further 80% by 2050 (DTI, 2003; pp. 11, & DTI, 2007; p.8). There have even been more formal attempts to try and combat these climatic changes, one of the first major international agreement was established in 1997 and is known as the Kyoto Protocol, and was then put into force in 2005. The protocol is used to “define the basic structural elements upon which global efforts have been used to tackle climate change in the twenty first century” (Grubb et al, 1999). He puts forward that the protocol represents the pinnacle of efforts made to reduce climate change effects. So to these extents climate change is real as the issues and changes that are occurring are as much of a physical occurrence as a socially constructed one. The issues that our plant is facing in terms of climate have not been helped by humans, and in many cases the climatic incidents that have been occurring have been heightened as a result of humans,  as Jepma et al (1998, p.53) suggest that “humans are gradually but certainly changing the Earth’s climate”.

Some examples of physical changes that have been noticed are changes such as sea level rises, global temperature rises, and warming oceans that have led to shrinking ice sheets, declining arctic sea ice and even glacial retreats. The most common change is the increased amounts of extreme events and weather conditions (Global Climate Change, 2011). Proof and evidence of climate change has been shown by many, a well known example is the pattern of increasing carbon dioxide levels over the past 400,000 years which is freely accessible, and is also used in the documentary produced by Al Gore which is a documentary that was released in 2006 called ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, which is a clear, rational and believable account of climate change being present in the world, and becoming ever more of an issue and was produced to try and make people more aware of the changes that are occurring. This increase in carbon dioxide levels is shown in the graph below (Figure 1) and shows how over the past centuries these carbon dioxide levels have increased to scary figures. These levels of carbon dioxide are agreed to be “a result of human actions, mainly the emissions of carbon dioxide, which is a by-product of burning fossil fuels” (Victor, 2004, p.104).

Figure 1. Graph showing Carbon Dioxide levels on a time line. Taken from Global Climate Change: Nasa.

As well as environmental issues that we experience, Downs (1972) suggests that these experiences are also a result of social and cultural factors, “such as how media construct narratives about the environment”. The concept to be understood is ‘Social Construct’; this is where the notion of climate change is created/constructed by society through beliefs and opinions being established within a society. In terms of climate change, the basic concept is real, but as a result of societies exaggeration of the dangers and issues related with climate change it can be seen as socially constructed. These fears establish what the risks are in relation to climate change, and as implied by Leiserowitz (2005), “risk perceptions are socially constructed”.

What has to be understood is that climate change has become a central topic in public discussion today, from  news articles, government policies, activists, and politicians, all of which connect in some way or another which has led to the scale of climate change and public awareness having a “substantial effect on the world as we know it” (Pettenger, 2007). As much evidence as there is in terms of climate change, the problems that it has in many ways have been seen to have been exaggerated in many forms. This exaggeration has led to alarmism and scepticism being intertwined with the notion of climate change, there is a desire however to find the middle ground between alarmism and scepticism, “a perspective hoping to treat climate change seriously while bending problem formulations toward manageable solutions based typically in a public health understanding” (Russil, 2008, p.147). The concept of scepticism is the idea that it is impossible to know anything without complete certainty, or to know the world and the things within it as they ‘really’ are. This uncertainty is a result of the exaggeration that surrounds climate change. In the past century there have been several films that have presented climate change as exaggerated , and in many cases for the worst, for example ‘The Day After Tomorrow’(2004), ‘An Inconvenient Truth’(2006) and ‘2012’ (2009) are only a few.  A current trend can be seen in all of these, all of which have been made in the past century and all see the climatic changes occurring in the world to lead to a shocking outcome for the world, unless something is done. The forms of representation include other types of media such as film, documentaries and books to name a few. Jacques et al (2008, p. 349) suggest that “scepticism is a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism”, which in turn can contribute to less effort being put into the commitment to environmental protection. These sceptics in turn are problematic to solving and protection climate change in current society. Sceptics are at one end of the scale who are sometimes referred to as ‘naysayers’ and ‘denialists’, and on the other end of the scale is the other term that McEwan mentions which is alarmism.

Alarmists have been identified by Leiserowitz (2005) as “a contrasting interpretive community with high-risk perceptions of events” such as climate change. This means that small events are made into larger and more dramatic situations that have a negative aspect associated with them. The fact of the matter is that public perception has a massive impact on the actual events and how they are perceived. This may be a result of societies interconnectivity and advanced forms of communication, all of which show how powerful societies can be, and how “public risk perceptions can fundamentally compel or constrain political, economic and social action to address particular risks “(Leiserowitz, 2006, p.47). There have been situations that have encouraged sceptics on the matter of climate change; an iconic moment that has encouraged the sceptic community was allegedly said by Sir John Houghton who is considered to be one of the most distinguished climatic scientists of his generation, supposedly said in 1994: “Unless we announce disasters, no one will listen” (The Independent, 2010). This has led to the trust in climatic scientists diminishing, and queries on who can be trusted. As suggested by Antilla (2005, p. 338), climate change is surrounded by “uncertainty, controversy, and climate scepticism”, all of which has led the public to question where and who information comes from and whether it can the information is reliable. This can have such a large impact on what we believe, for example alarmists normally tend to be scientists and other expert figures that have access to climatic information, which we used to feel could be trusted. These are the people who should be listened to rather than the sceptics who are people such as science fiction writers, news and media presenters, and other voices that can speak for the public who do not necessarily have the correct knowledge on the matter, however due to this lack of trust, society has started to question who to believe. But this uncertainty in science can also be way to ensure knowledge and power were kept at different levels in terms of the public and experts, which has been argued by Zehr (2000, p.85) as he suggests that that the uncertainty was used to “construct an exclusionary boundary between “the public” and climate change scientists”. These boundaries may also help to regain people’s faith in science, as Victor (2004, p.101) suggests “sound science is essential to sound policy”, which in turn leads to a more organised and functional society.

The question that has arisen is do these sceptics matter? This heightened awareness produced by alarmist’s means that action to reducing climatic changes is enforced, which is a shared common goal for most. Maibach et al (2008) discuss how communication and marketing interventions are extremely useful methods of promoting the climatic changes that have been occurring, and also to encourage people to “combat climate change” which can be done using any and all forms of representation as it is important to encourage  population behaviour change to reach the desired climatic objectives. All of which are means to promote knowledge. Castree (2005) suggests the notion that knowledge is a filter; you can choose what to focus on and ignore other aspects. This can lead to things that we think of being questioned in terms of whether they are a result of “passive mirroring of natures truths” or “active intervening”. If knowledge is a filter as Castree (2005) suggests then nature is a reflection of nature’s truths, however depending on the circumstances they can be altered with the intervention of humans. What this in turn means from looking at Castree (2005) is that our knowledge’s once filtered can structure our understanding of nature which brings us back to McEwan and his notion of climate change being socially constructed. McEwans’ statement provides great depths of discussion in terms of climate change and where it originates from. The statement to an extent can be agreed with as climate change originated from facts and figures, and the concept then being recognised as a result of society and its awareness to the topic. This awareness has been heightened from communities such as sceptics and the opposing alarmist figures. These opposing ideologies have meant that the middle ground is lost, which is a shame as both sides want the same outcome, for the climatic challenges to be resolved to help protect the Earth that we live on.

To conclude the statement put forward by McEwan has enough supporting evidence to agree with it. The fact is that climate change over the years has become a topic that is surrounded by both scepticism and alarmism, both of which stand on opposite ends. Sceptics have meant that climate change is questioned, along with science and other experts on the matter. Alarmists in a sense make a balance in terms of climate change, as they encourage awareness and put forward the serious impacts we are having on climate changes. These views however have not established themselves from nothing, as the concept and idea of climate change is real, and sure enough we as a people have had an impact of the rate these changes are occurring. These social reactions to the issue of climate change are events that have led to the subject being considered to be a social construction. The reality is that from a real issue of climate change, the awareness and reality of the matter have been heightened by social implications.  In many ways climate change is not an issue in present times, as the “science on climate change is far from settled, and no one can show with any analytical rigor that climate change over the course of this century will be the cause of serious ecological damage” (Michales, 2005, p.viii). However the effects it will have in the generations to come is where our concerns lie, and in turn this thoughtful concern for the future is where these two different views are found.


Figure 1: Figure 1. Graph showing Carbon Dioxide levels on a time line. Taken from Global Climate Change: Nasa, on May the 6th from



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