Climate change responses: does the nature of risk society prevent science and policy from making a difference?

Van Weele, Gerard Alexander
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ABSTRACT Climate change is a modern global risk and knowledge of it exists mainly in scientific projections. Beck’s theory of risk society, as part of the field of social constructivism, implies that in a risk society, responses to risk should result in changes to the fundamental causes of the risks, also known as reflexive change. Climate change science and responses to climate related risks should therefore result in improved understanding of the nature of climate risks and of the fundamental causes of climate risks. In practice, the application of the theory is less clear, and use thereof as an analytical tool difficult, as is shown by a preliminary examination of the official response to climate change in South Africa. The research presented here used the risk society theory to conceptualise a model framework of how responses to risk manifest in modern societies. This framework was then used as reference for a review of the content of the South African national policy response to climate change and an evaluation of comments obtained from some of the actors directly involved with the response. The results indicate that the nature and extent of reflexive change is determined by perceptions or definitions of risk as part of a public, political and academic debate, as well as a reaction to external opportunity costs rather than ‘pure’ climate change threats. Reflexive change is therefore incidental rather than intentional. On the other hand, perceptions and definitions of risk impact on decisions relating to strategic response directions, such as debates around mitigation and adaptation measures. It also shows that a wider practical application of the risk society is necessary in order to fully understand its relevance in non-European settings.