Why We Disagree on Climate Change (M.Hulme)

hulme coverMike Hulme is a professor of climate change and director of the prestigious and controversial research Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research  .  The book is not a book on the science of climate change.  If it were only about the science, Hulme argues, reaching agreement would be straightforward.   Rather, disagreements on the science of climate change are symptoms of much more fundamental differences in human nature.

Such underlying reasons include:

  • Different ways people look at science and understand its limitations
  • Different ways people see the relation between (scientific) knowledge and policy
  • Different ways people consider risk;
  • Different ethical positions people take about their responsibility for future generations and are willing to invest for future welfare (quantified in the ‘discount rate’)
  • Different beliefs in our duty to others, who’s responsible for climate change and our religions
  • Different world views, described by Douglas and Wildavsky’s Cultural Theory
  • Different ways people communicate about climate (no message is neutral) and interpret those messages
  • Different ways people think climate change should be governed.
Four Rationalities in Cultural Theory

Four Rationalities in Cultural Theory

Cultural Theory distinguishes four dominant world views, expressed by the intensity of bonds between people (individualist vs collectivist) and the extent to which people believe that few or many rules are necessary to control behaviour.

  • Fatalists: nature is a lottery, there is nothing we can do
  • Hierarchists: experts can manage the outcomes if we get behind them
  • Individualists: it’s down to individuals and markets
  • Egalitarians: altruism and common effort, built on social justice, are the way forward

The cultural dimension of climate change is also revealed by the language and images we use.  Expressions like ‘dangerous’ climate change, ‘save’ the climate, ‘tipping points’ and ‘fragile’ climate express different views on climate.  Greenpeace has used a range of images of the years, from the ‘climate change bomb’  to the polar bear to communicate climate change to different target groups.

In discussion on avoiding ‘dangerous’ climate change, questions such as whose climate (small island states, Western Europe, Saharan Africa…), dangerous for whom and what climate is desired (pre-industrial, Holocene…) are often glossed over.

These underlying differences have created various ‘stories’ about climate change, inspired by 4 basic human desires:

  • nostalgia for a lost ‘ideal’ climate
  • fear for the unknown future
  • mastering and controlling nature
  • call to respond to social injustice

Climate change has become a central concept in development as well.  Climate change prominently features in calls for proposals or as a transversal theme in programmes.  At first sight, this might seem strange.  Does it make sense to invest funds in the welfare of future generations if current generations lack basic amenities such as basic healthcare and education.  Investing in the economic development of the poor will enable them to protect themselves better against any natural disasters.  Limiting fertility rates (as a result of economic development) is likely to do more for climate change than any planned ‘development’ intervention (as China likes to point out).  Climate change mitigation and development are frequently in conflict each other.  Projects under the Clean Development Mechanism rarely benefit the poorest.  Increasing trade is bad for the carbon level in the atmosphere but has lifted millions out of poverty.  The European decision to subsidize biofuels has pushed up food prices.

However, if you look at climate change as an idea (like ‘democracy’ or ‘terrorism’) that has as much to do with science as with culture, it makes more sense.  Climate change as an idea carries a variety of meanings and interpretations.  Then, climate change becomes a tool to advance development agendas of social justice, better functioning markets or public welfare.

As solution, the book gives some recipes from complexity science.  Rather than aiming to find one global solution, a variety of approaches catering to different world views, ideas about governance, science etc. stands a better chance at curbing climate change.  Climate change derives from various other problems, such as population growth, unsustainable energy, endemic poverty, food security, deforestation, biodiversity loss…  Rather than framing climate change as a mega-problem, requiring a mega-solution, Hulme argues that disentangling the issue, moving climate change to the background, is more likely to yield effect.

If you like an intelligent take on why climate change is about so much more than debates on science, then this book is for you.  For development people, discussions on the IPCC, the Stern Report and the disagreements between North and South are all there.  Duncan Green from Oxfam also has a fine review of the book.

Discussion ‘Seeing Like a State’ (James Scott)

I recently finished James Scott’s ‘Seeing Like a State, possibly the most broadly venturing book on development I’ve ever read.  I ordered the book after reading a raving review by Duncan Green on FP2P.

What’s wrong with seeing like a state? States have been seeking to expand their power by increasing information they collect about their citizens and territory. This process from “blindness” towards ever increasing “legibility” involves a simplification of complex natural and social situations and processes, retaining only “useful” information.  Ever increasing state capacity allows pursuing ever wider ambitions to appropriate, control and manipulate (levying taxes, collecting conscripts, prevent undesired behaviour…).  Historical examples are the introduction of permanent last names and the standardization of units (for length, weight…).

Scott discusses a few cases in detail.  The introduction of German forestry science transformed chaotic “old” forests into standardized, geometric wood-production factories and enabled centralized management by state bureaucrats.   The modernist urban vision of Le Corbusier ignored both history and local people’s desires and made abstraction of the complex micro-sociology that turns areas into vibrant and attractive neighbourhoods.   Lenin’s socialist vision aimed at re-making society, ignoring political and social complexities and realities.

All those examples share a naive optimism in the ‘make-ability’of society, inspired by an erroneous belief in the scientific method.  Rather than questioning assumptions and adopting the uncertainty, characteristic for science, they overestimate the power of science and show contempt for local knowledge.  The fatal overestimation of human capability to design society and the importance of local and practical knowledge are highlighted by critics such as Jane Jacobs (on Le Corbusier’s plans) and Rosa Luxemburg (on Lenin’s plans).

Scott stresses that states can use more ‘legibility’ both to improve and curtail freedom.  It can be used to improve public welfare, introduce literacy or vaccination campaigns or offer a bulwark against global homogenisation.  However, it can just as well lead to disaster.  Administrative reordering of society and nature is not sufficient to generate social disaster.  Combined with a high modernist ideology, an authoritarian state and a weak civil society, it can have lethal consequences.

This process of legibility also affects power relations.  By discarding local knowledge, simplification of processes benefits state bureaucrats.   The language of policies, procedures and permits de-skills people with local and practical knowledge such as farmers and teachers.

“The capital has its order, the village its customs” (p.33)

This double-edged character of a legible state raises dilemmas for development agencies, as well-intended efforts to increase institutional capacity to improve citizens’ literacy may later just as well be used to suppress them.  The development community often still sees the world as something that can be planned top down, captured in a log frame.  A body of knowledge and jargon impenetrable to outsiders systematizes and simplifies a wide variety of local situations and provides an aura of authority.  The drive towards ‘evidence-based’ interventions based on ‘what works’ similarly assumes that reality can be reduced to a few variables and that only knowledge that is acquired through tightly controlled experiments is valid.  The archetypical ‘flying in’ of experts shows contempt for the history of place and domain.

A good example is poly-culture in West-Africa. It was dismissed by agriculture experts in favour of more efficient mono-culture.  However, yield maximization is not the only consideration for small African farmers.  For some, steady yields are more important than occasionally higher ones.  Constraints on land, skills, tools and labour also play a role, as well as elements of culture and group identity.

Scott suggests that ‘practical knowledge -friendly’ institutions should be flexible and adaptable to changing local realities, although he doesn’t explicitly writes it implies decentralisation.  His recommendation resembles in the discourse on complexity and development.  Secondly, development interventions should be analysed to what degree they enhance the skills, knowledge and responsibility of those who are part of it.  He pleas for polyvalent institutions that foster reasoning and negotiation among its members, distinguishing ‘canned’ institutions that permits little or no modification from those that are largely open to the development and application of local knowledge.

The book has plenty of lessons for education and development.  Supporting ministries in teacher training, curriculum design or national assessment all increase state capacity, often to the detriment of local and practical knowledge.  Traditionally, the role of the state in education has focused on the input (curriculum, textbooks) and the output (assessment, accreditation) of education, whereas the how was referred to as the ‘black box’ of education, the domain of the teacher and largely illegible to the state.  The teacher was recognized as a professional, equipped with a rich arsenal of knowledge about his/ her students, the local context and pedagogical content knowledge.  It was accepted that the teacher would know how best to translate the intended learning outcomes into powerful learning activities.  However, this zero-sum game between ‘education experts’ (academics, bureaucrats) and teachers is at play as well.  Experts use (evidence-based) education  research, large-scale assessments, control over professional development and an avalanche of reporting requirements to encroach on the ‘how’ of the teaching, characterised by ever more detailed curricular descriptions and focus on assessments.

On the other hand, some countries struggle to attract qualified teachers, in particular in areas such as maths and science.  These subjects are taught by teachers without the expertise, experience or motivation to provide qualitative education.  Stronger control by means of curriculum and assessment may be a necessary way to guarantee a minimum quality to children.  However, it might just as well kill the love and passion for teaching


EdX IMF Course Financial Programming and Policies: Macroeconomic Accounts & Analysis: Final Notes

mooc_cartoonEdX is a non-profit MOOC platform provider, started up by Harvard University and MIT.  Its platform is used by a variety of universities and a few international organisations such as the World Bank and the IMF for delivering free on-line courses, inappropriately called MOOCs.   This course took place over 8 weeks and contained 6 modules.


1.  The Content

The main sectors of a country’s economy were discussed. The pedagogy was based on the usual behaviourist EdX model: lectures of approx. 10 minutes, followed by short practice questions and occasionally interspersed with a little reading or MS Excel exercise.  Content was challenging (for me, as a non-economist), with a clear progression from basic principles over simple applications to more advanced scenarios and case-studies. Ideas encountered earlier in the course were regularly revisited.  The bulk of the course consisted of explaining the main macro-economic balances (real sector, financial sector, external sector…).  The most interesting parts of the course were when these balances were related to real world examples (using thinly disguised pseudonyms such as ‘fiscalia’).  Part 2 of the course will hopefully continue with this more applied approach.

2. The exercises

Exercises were generally of an appropriate level. Some multiple choice questions required combining several concepts and revisiting the content from earlier weeks. There was an overall

imf1In order to remain eligible for a certificate of completion a weekly minimum score of 50% was required. Apart from multiple choice questions, the weekly assignment also contained an exercise, made extremely simple because of video tutorials explaining in detail how to do the exercise. I assume this aimed at allowing as many learners as possible to proceed to the next level.

Every week, learners were asked to analyse sector data for their country and publish this in the forum. This should have been the most interesting part of the course. Looking at how the monetary or government balances of various countries illustrated the effect of global evolutions or national policies. Unfortunately, very few learners engaged in this activity (me neither, I admit). I believe the main reason is time. The envisioned time per week was approx. 10 hours, leaving many people with little time left to do this exercise and explore others’ postings. Spreading the course over more weeks, or even allowing a separate week for this kind of exercises would be a solution. Also, in a more open and connectivist spirit, encouraging learners to post their writings on their websites or blogs would have allowed outsiders to read and comment. This may also have allowed bringing in some counterweights to the procedures and analyses of the IMF.

3. The Pedagogy

The forum was clearly the problem child of the course. Most interaction was limited to learners asking questions (duly answered by IMF staff). There was little discussion; in particular during the second half of the course. Given the international origin of participants (given introductions in week 1) this was a missed chance. Activities actively fostering discussion could help, as well as IMF staff taking a more tutoring rather than teaching approach.

It’s rather baffling how these courses still largely ignore what decades of experience and research on on-line learning have found. Salmon’s e-tivity model could be used to design on-line activity sequences, insights on communities of practice could be used to foster on-line collaboration and link course content to participants’ contexts. Web 2.0 tools could be used to let participants engage with course content and re-create materials, such as concept maps, blog posts, podcasts etc.   This neglect of existing expertise raises questions about the real intentions of the course.

These xMOOCs are quite far away from the original cMOOCs as they were introduced by Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, George Siemens and others in 2008.  In fact, based on content and pedagogy, this MOOC could aptly be described as a ‘textbook with ambition’.  Moreover, these MOOCs are only open in the sense that they are free, not in the sense that their materials can be re-used or adapted.  Such a version of openness can hardly claim to be a social justice endeavour, as these MOOCs often claim to be.

4. Final verdict

A positive final verdict though. Unlike other MOOCs from the EdX/ Coursera/ Futurelearn school, this course offered more than a mere taster. It was a thorough and intensive introduction to the analysis of macro-economic accounts. However, I felt disappointed that the pedagogy still hasn’t improved since the last time I completed a xMOOC.  The IMF plans a few other courses on EdX. I’ll certainly give them a try.