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  • Theories of Certain Uncertainty:Climate Change and Negative Capability
  • Deborah Lilley (bio)

Timothy Clark has described environmental crisis as “inherently deconstructive of traditional modes of thought in politics, economics and cultural and literary theory” (2008, 46). Yet although the effects of climate change and the unraveling of their causes are disruptive to such means of interpretation, alternatives are not forthcoming: instead, spaces of uncertainty are opened up. This essay looks at some instances of how these spaces are discerned and managed, and examines how some approaches are using the concept of uncertainty as the keystone of their thought: not only by approaching the problem of theorizing these spaces of uncertainty, but by occupying positions of uncertainty themselves. I hope to demonstrate that, in these examples, the acknowledgement of uncertainty marks the beginning of the exposition of the problem. In particular, I will discuss the affirmation of uncertainty through the concept of negative capability, and its application in the context of climate change.

As has been well documented across academic, political and public spheres, uncertainty is intrinsic to the discourses of climate change. Indeterminacy accompanies the complexities involved in its recognition, communication and interpretation. On the one hand, the multiplicity and diversity of its causes and their effects and the difficulty involved in discerning their interrelationship provide resistance to its conceptualization as a coherent problem. On the other, the necessary imprecision involved in understanding those causes and effects, and the questions such understanding must raise for theoretical and political practices, demonstrate that climate change can also be understood as a problem that makes the means by which it is comprehended uncertain.

Attempting to account for indeterminacy productively is essential, though not straightforward. The acknowledgement of uncertainty uncovers further uncertainties, and produces new ones: bringing uncertainty into focus can make the problem seem more remote. As Clark comments, “at no time before has the future condition of the physical world been so assiduously studied and mapped out, to the point, ironically, of neutralising the horror [End Page 97] of the probable scenarios” (2008, 45). Through volume and frequency, speculation can become routine, whilst the enormous scales of time and effect involved can make its outcomes appear incommensurate to the here and now.1 However, as numerous critics have noted, the distantiating effect of the uncertainties of climate change is not reflected in its material outcomes or in the potential we may have to mitigate for them.2

Navigating the uncertainties associated with its “certain uncertainty” is built into the discourses of climate change. Delimiting uncertainty by filtration through quantifiable measures presents a means of control, but can be hampered by the additional uncertainties that it raises, such as the methods of assessment used and the limitations imposed for the purposes of assessment.3 For example, the Inter-Governmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) highlights “the importance of consistent and transparent treatment of uncertainties,” and thus attributes degrees of uncertainty in the presentation of their findings to ranges of probability in line with their “guidance notes on determining and describing uncertainties” (2007, section 1.6). However, critics have noted the apparent difficulties in achieving the aims of consistency and transparency through formal measures of uncertainty in practice. Metrics of probability and consensus are vulnerable to criticism of and limitation by their inherent subjectivity. In addition, assessing and representing complex and developing uncertainties challenges the concept of formal measures, demanding a commitment to reflexivity within the measures themselves. The numerous versions of the notes can be seen to adhere to this demand, but at the same time demonstrates the necessary uncertainty that these formal measures represent and introduces the paradox of refinement producing opacity in the possibility of uncertainty between versions.4

In another way, theorizations of risk raise the intangibility of climate change through what Barbara Adam and Joost van Loon have called the “im/materiality” and “in/visibility” of risk (2000). Transposed into narratives of risk, problems may be made apparent, but the constructed nature of this disclosure may at once occlude its empirical basis and also supplement that basis with threats conceived within the virtual environment of hypothesized risk (Adam and van Loon 2000, 3). Accounting for the uncertainty of mapping...


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pp. 97-108
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