Category Archives: Media

Huhne versus History

The great social question of our time, how to respond to climate change, poses us crucial historical questions. Indeed, it might be said that the cisis engendered by anthropogenic climate change is nothing but an historical question. Take Chris Huhne’s recent intervention in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (25 August 2014), for example. His second sentence invokes history (with an absent capital ‘H’). “For the first-time in history”, he claims, “we are growing richer while using less energy”. Let’s leave aside the fact that this claim is probably incorrect, and in any case unlikely to be verifiable, Huhne’s instant resort to historical argument and (lack of) historical evidence tells us something important about the terms of the climate change argument; something that should be taken on board by both historians and public alike.

The second paragraph of Huhne’s article really gets to grips with the historical. From the middle-ages, he argues, “living standards just edged up at a snail’s pace, and we did little damage because forest absorbed carbon from wood burning. The population was small”. Again, leave aside the arguable historical claims here, though it is interesting that Huhne touches on an old socialist-inspired historical debate, now partly forgotten, on the fate of living standards in pre-industrial and industrial Europe. It is intriguing that Huhne commits perhaps one of the more disreputable sins (in the eyes of mainstream historical scholarship at least) of anachronism. Was your average feudal overlord concerned with ‘living standards’? To apply the term to the middle ages sounds bizarre, and its uncanny effect is a warning.

The key lesson of history, is one of constant surprise. Surprise at encountering the strange. Huhne take it as read that the middle ages were concerned with ‘living standards’, but the lesson of the unfamiliar is crucial here. For Huhne’s overall argument, that endless growth of energy usage is now technologically feasible, and with it ever expanding capitalist development and ‘prosperity’, is founded upon precisely leaving out the historical contingency of this mode of thinking about what constitutes wealth. For Huhne, a world in which living standards were of secondary concern, can barely enter into history proper .

After a brief bit of Hobbes on the social condition of England, we enter into history proper with industrialisation and the rise of real GDP, another age-old scene of historical argument among economic historians. We are assured that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw ‘real progress’ with the rise of male life expectancy. The ‘male’ here stands in for the seething undifferentiated mass of humanity as a whole. Reaching back into the dark depths of my undergraduate years, I recall enormous dispute among historians of medicine regarding the relative importance of nutrition versus public medical provision on the fall in mortality in this period.

All this leads finally to Huhne’s conclusion that prosperity and welfare are directly connected to the scale of energy consumption, and, in the recent past, to fossil fuel consumption.

In order to establish his key foundational claim, that energy use is the base of modern wealth and welfare, Huhne has had stumble through at least three major fields of historical debate. Yet at no time in his argument is history as a scholarly discipline even acknowledged.

As practitioners of a particular form of social critique, historians should be deeply worried by this. That historical claims can be made to found a political claim, in this case the necessity of intensive and extensive energy usage to modern well-being, is hardly a surprise. The fact that historical disciplines, arguments and, most importantly, uncertainties can be more or less excised from such an account is troubling. It points to a key component of modern ideology, the absence of a genuine sense of historical time and of historical ‘otherness’, the idea that things could have been, or will be different.

Yet, of course, Huhne’s article is written not to propose a particular response to climate change, or to debate the science. His argument, that the increasing rate of adoption of new ‘clean’ energy generating technologies is proceeding apace, is precisely intended to propose no change. That we can continue indefinitely with the structure of energy production and use that we have, and, more broadly, with the form of social reproduction with which we (in the global North) are familiar. It is history, of a kind, which allows him to pose and to structure this thought.

Immediate response to his argument from the left predictably, and quite correctly, pointed to the range of empirical mistakes and omissions Huhne made in his understanding of the potential impact of technological change. Andrew Dobson (Guardian, 28 August) provided a succinct demolition of Huhne’s failure to grasp that climate change demands the reduction of global carbon dioxide emissions in absolute, not relative, terms. Yet, Dobson does not acknowledge Huhne’s reliance on a very particular, and very uncertain, understanding of both concrete historical arguments about wealth and welfare, and a particular sense of historical time.

This latter is particularly concerning, and easily missed in focusing on empirical questions. For while Huhne relies on the past as a legitimation of the present, he fails to use it to think any alternative future. Huhne effectively deals in a non-past, he has no sense of the processes of historical change, just a binary opposition between some past, dimly remembered dark age, and our present age of light, wealth and universal well-being. But the difference between past and present is not of this nature, and in this case the nuances of historical thinking, even what we might call the ethics of the historical mindset, matter politically.

We are both more like, and more unlike, our ancestors than we care to admit. Huhne’s article effectively abandons any real sense of the historical as such. He has no conception of the causes of change, no notion of historical conflict or antagonism. He inhabits a mode of thought that truly believes in the progressive character of technology (historians of science take note!). Huhne ultimately inhabits a present without a past in any meaningful sense, without a history that could have been different. Huhne’s article stands as an exemplar of the fundamentally anti-historical mode of thinking that defines genuinely neo-liberal thought, the inability to tolerate any other way of being, in this case any historical ‘other’.

Here, I believe that we encounter the real political meaning of anthropogenic climate change. The discourse of climate change messes with our sense of historical time. It poses, in its most apocalyptic form, an ‘End of History’ scenario. Such an end, constitutes a traumatic encounter for neo-liberals, not simply because it poses the end of capitalism, but because it points to the inadequacy of the non-historical mode of thinking that founds their ideological claims.

History is riven with contingency, unintended consequence, bitter rivalries, the constant barrage of moments in which everything threatens to be radically different. Huhne’s ideas are not dangerous because they suggest to us that all will be well, that technology will rescue neo-liberal capitalism. They are dangerous because they falsely foreclose the contingency of historicity proper, the idea that we can make history beyond the impersonal forces of ‘progress’ and economics.

Anthropogenic climate change has reopened our sense of historical time as a key political battleground in the present.

The Media and Climate Change in the 1990s

This is a summary of an undergraduate dissertation on climate change and the media in the 1990s, kindly contributed by Laura Williams, one of my students. Her work address some of the limitations of newspaper coverage in constructing the way climate change was viewed in the nineties, and concludes with some of the lessons to be considered as a result of this research. It is an excellent example of how historical knowledge can contribute to the questions of how we got where we are, and “what is to be done?”.



“I was first drawn to selecting a dissertation focusing upon climate change due to a module I took in my second year concerning Anthropogenic Climate Change. In this module we studied various ideas surrounding the development, acceptance and approaches towards Anthropogenic Climate Change and how this was reflected within society. The issue of climate change is an important topic that has relevance to many disciplines and is one that I find can be directly related to the skills and approaches utilized by historians. Climate change is a global issue with potentially global consequences; therefore it must surely be understood and appreciated in both academia and wider society. The study of climate change and the way it interacts within society is perhaps where history becomes most significant. In taking specific questions through tasks like dissertations, there presents an opportunity to explore broader issues and concerns.

The title of my dissertation is “What power relations were at stake within media representations of climate change in the period surrounding the first and second IPPC Reports, 1990-1999?”. There has been much work done on the discussion of climate change throughout the media and within newspapers in particular. Significant examples of such works that I used to initiate my research were studies by Anabella Carvalho and Maxwell T. Boykoff. However in these cases and indeed many other studies the primary focus is upon broadsheet newspapers, with the influence of the tabloid press disregarded as excessively simplified. It is upon the perceived notion of tabloid insignificance that I decided to base my research. The quality press is often focused upon due to its perceived influence upon public and climate policy, however this argument with regards to climate change is perhaps questionable. I would argue that surely public policy is dependent upon and indeed reflects public policy; a policy may encourage action, but the public must first be prepared to act. The tabloid press and especially the newspapers I chose to focus upon, The Daily Express and The Daily Mail, have a far greater readership than many of the broadsheet newspapers combined. As such I decided to explore the power relations permeating coverage specifically within the tabloid press and challenge the notion that climate coverage in such publications is too simplistic, serving no influence in politics.

Throughout the two samples I considered I found that a number of similar themes emerged. The establishment of both national and knowledge hierarchies within the text, variations in meanings and language plus a persistent trend of technological optimism all display the operation of power relations within the newspapers. These power relations are significant throughout the samples due to their ability to alter and control public understandings and actions regarding climate change. The use of hierarchies is particularly problematic for they narrow the public’s perception of climate issues, blinding readers to the global nature of a problem that we are not only significantly contributing to, but also suffering from. Nevertheless, there is a difference in each newspapers use of this. The Daily Express often used the notion of national hierarchy to displace individual blame, whereas The Daily Mail often appeared to displace blame from capitalist industries, instead using hierarchy to appeal to provincial readerships. The use of a knowledge hierarchy is equally problematic for in focusing upon the scientific and expert professions, the need for individual responsibility is often diverted. The same issue can be extended to issues of technological optimism and it is here that seems most pertinent to pause and consider the power relations at play. If climate coverage is consistently interspersed with technological ideas then this must surely create a template for publicly acceptable solutions to the problem. By creating a binary based upon climate change and technology, newspapers are protecting the primary position of technology and its associated industries in our society. By using this thematic approach in examining climate issues within the tabloid press I believe I have come some way in questioning whether it is appropriate to disregard the influence of the tabloid press in climate discussion.

Perhaps the most interesting section I found of my dissertation was the consideration of how we should attempt to address climate change issues in the public sphere. The manipulation of language throughout the newspapers has often served to maintain the particular vested interests of industry. A situation has been encouraged whereby the readers have accepted a manipulated form of debate and as such no meaningful action is pursued. Although overcoming such ingrained practices may seem daunting, the situation is far from hopeless. In many cases newspapers themselves are overcoming such issues. By using particular examples, such as a traditional love of animals or peoples pastimes, where the newspaper recognizes values that are important to ordinary people, the papers power is divested. The newspapers must rearticulate their coverage from abstract theorizing to addressing the contradictions that emerge in the face of concrete emotions. Therefore in this way we not only see the power relations at play, but also the power established through the relationship between a newspaper and its audience. Regardless of a newspaper’s rhetoric it is ultimately governed by the desires and concerns of its audience. As such, as anthropogenic climate change becomes increasingly accepted and its effects increasingly threaten our society, the demand for information and hopefully subsequent action will surely begin to permeate not only the tabloid and quality press, but all forms of media.”

Laura Williams (3rd Year, History)