What if Climate Change is not an 'Environmental' Issue? - RSA

What if Climate Change is not an 'Environmental' Issue?

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  • Climate change
  • Social brain

Like most people I know, I accept the gravity of climate change at an intellectual level, but don't live my life as if the message has really sunk in. It seems that many if not most people reading this blog will be in a similar state: fully aware of the balance of evidence but somehow trapped in patterns of thinking and behaving that seem to prevent us from aligning our actions with our awareness.

Today, via twitter, I read an 'oldie but a goodie' blog by David Roberts at the wonderful Grist site that offered some fresh perspective on why this might be the case. Simply stated, as long as we think of climate change as an environmental issue we allow it to be something outside of our lives. When we realise it is not an environmental issue, it is harder to carry on as we have been before:

Environmentalism” is simply not equipped to transform the basis of human culture. It grew up to address a specific, bounded set of issues. For 50 years, (American) environmental politics has been about restraining the amount of damage industries can do. Environmental campaigners have developed a set of strategies for that purpose, designed to overcome the resistance of industries and politicians to such restraints. And they’ve been successful in a number of areas. So when climate change entered (American) politics via environmentalism, that is the model into which it was slotted. Environmental campaigners set about restraining the amount of greenhouse gases industry can emit, and industry set about resisting. Greens and industry fought ferociously, but in the wake of the victories of the’70s, the public largely watched with indifference, barring a few episodes where support swung one way or another (usually as much due to economic circumstances as anything).

The fact that climate change became framed as an environmental issue meant an opportunity was missed. Instead of leaping on to the existing environmental movement will all the limitations that brings, and opportunity was lost to form a climate change movement that could target the problem more directly, more holistically and more powerfully (because it wouldn't be lumped together will all the other environmental issues).

Two things fall out of that:

1) We may need to actively build a climate movement that deliberately distances itself from environmentalism.

2) We need to start being more careful with our language. Perhaps we shouldn't conflate climate change with other environmental issues, even if they are related. And for a while now, I have felt we should always say 'climate crisis' rather than 'climate change', if only to prevent knee-jerk reactions to the more familiar term.

More generally, I like this kind of deep reframing. There is a lot of peripheral, half-hearted, tokenistic work done on climate change. Over the last few months I have occasionally tried to highlight some of the approaches or suggestions that made a deeper impression, for instance here, here and here and I am glad to be aware of this one.

So what follows? If climate change is not an environmental issue, what exactly should we call it: an existential threat? a planetary emergency? an economic problem? The ultimate test of democracy? I am not sure, but the basic idea is sound. It is not just another green issue, but the defining challenge of our time.


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  • Many thanks Ian. I will look with interest at fdsd.org and look forward to talking more about this with you soon.

  • Thanks Cyrus. Your comment reminded me of this recent paper about climate change communication http://www.psypost.org/2012/05... which I think you know about, but I was also reminded of a previous post on the common cause report: http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/201...
    On the last point- I am not sure whether we can ever turn the clock back on the framing of climate change as an environmental issue...but I do think there is a danger of knee-jerk reactions to things that are perceived to be 'green' and that efforts to prevent runaway climate change suffer from that.  

  • How about an issue of values and change? In the first case, we're presented with an evolving body of knowledge that purports to identify a growing threat to the stability and wellbeing of our civilization. The deep and ongoing divide between those who subscribe to this evidence and those who don't seems to be increasingly centered on the values held by each group (or rather portion of the spectrum). It's an area I'm only beginning to familiarize myself but seems to be gaining traction (Google "literacy and climate change beliefs")

    In the second case, your opening comments indicate that we have variable responses to the perceived threat - that is how we react to a potential change. Some, like my friend who works for a prominent "think and do tank" in the field, will experiment with composting even if circumstances don't permit a proper set-up, whereas others, presumably like you and me, carry on without making too many changes to what we see as a modest lifestyle.

    The question in my mind is whether working with values offers opportunities to get to the point where a significant enough population (whether that be majority or plurality) grant permission to sufficiently engage with the threat and move us forward. Additionally working with values offers the potential to internalize the issues at hand and could drive action at the individual level as well.

    Accordingly, while I agree with your assessment that climate change poses a "unique" threat, I'm not terribly keen on the idea of separating climate change form other environmental issues. I'm inclined to believe that the driving factors (within human and social decision-making and norms) are common to a variety of social and environmental ills. Tackle those and you will make progress on a variety of issues.

  • Thanks for this, Jonathan. I agree with the analysis.
    Climate policy is indeed hampered by being framed as 'environmental'. It starts with an ecological problem - which makes other environmental challenges even harder - but it is about economic, technological and employment strategies above all. This is routinely paid lip service by politicians but the institutional arrangements and policy instruments for climate action don't reflect the need for it to be mainstream work for economic and science/technology agencies in government.

    'Climate change' is normal. What we are at risk of producing is climate disruption on a relatively short timescale such that adaptation is very costly, difficult - and potentially impossible for many species and places.

    I agree that politically all this presents a deep challenge to democracies. I am co-chair of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (wwww.fdsd.org) and our director Halina Ward has produced comprehensive and valuable papers - available from the website - on the relationship between democracy and climate disruption. 

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