The Thing to do is to Start Out

The latest entry for IPCC responses comes from Siri Veland and Amanda Lynch, coauthors of Urgency in the Anthropocene. And if you haven’t already, be sure to check out the earlier installments: Part 1, 2, and 3!

As the IPCC again arms their narrative with stronger terms, we, as global societies find ourselves on the threshold of being too late to remain within the known and familiar variabilities of the climate state within which agrarian societies emerged. The report warns that the global climate is moving into a state for which there is no documented historic precedence, a ‘new normal’ humans have not yet experienced. With the news comes renewed calls for governments to urgently curb polluting industries, and renewed expressions of grief and anxiety.

Since the first warnings that fossil fuel combustion drives climate change, the focus has been on communicating the science clearly and unambiguously as an aid to policy makers. While meeting the ‘information deficit’ by better communication of climate trends and projections is necessary, it is proving insufficient. Human ability to make meaning is built through telling valid stories of causality; our stories, our values, and our expectations, provide the coordinates by which we navigate a world of constant change. This brings a complementarity between the analysis of climate change and its immediate application to our ways of living.

In the space between global and national policy processes to mitigate and adapt, and the intimate space of grief and anxiety in response to apocalyptic visions of runaway climate change, there is much room for propositional change. There is wide and increasing recognition that ways of thinking –worldviews– are an integral part of both creating problems and finding solutions. We live in a world of myriad framings of human-environment relations, each replete with its own apocalypses and unimaginable risks, scientific methods, modes of being, and conceptual framings of problems and solutions. From the Pope’s Laudato Si, to political denial of climate change, worldviews shape the problems and solutions we are able to accept.

Attention to worldviews poses two key concerns for reaching the 1.5 degree target. First, that in the urgency to respond according to any one framing of the changing world, other framings may be overlooked, limiting the possibilities we are able to envision and accept. Second, that the global, national, and industry-focused discourse on climate change does not translate well into the cultural and subjective spaces humans inhabit. Individuals experience response-ability within spaces of security, meaning, and agency to act.

A key shortcoming of the IPCC to-date has been the global framing of the policy problem. This approach emerges from the impetus to use the scale of the problem as a blueprint for the scale of the solution: the global mixing of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere renders climate change an irreducibly global process. Yet the global policy space has proven ill equipped to solve the problem, the cause of which is principally the lack of sanctioning mechanisms. Voluntary targets and reporting have not provided tractable policy leavers. Additionally, this global scale has defined the solutions as down-scaled implementation of emissions targets and adaptive measures. This down-scaling has produced its own problems by, for instance, presenting farmers with the dual challenge of adapting to both climate change and the adaptation and mitigation policies. In many cases, adapting to policy proves the greater challenge on the ground. Furthermore, the discourse of apocalypse and austerity risks inducing apathy at best, doubling down on established modes of living at worst.

This is not to say that global and national targets for emissions reductions are to be abandoned in favor of individualized or localized onus of response. Far from it. We urge for unprecedented listening—to think together with greater imagination and across a broader range of possibilities.

We find ourselves not in a calm present planning for a violent future, but in a violent present planning for an uncertain future. No success in the face of global climate change, be it a timely weather forecast, a thoughtful risk-reduction strategy, or a robust democratic model, is anything but conditional. Conducting many experiments at once, learning from success and failure, is an ongoing task. In this sense, as citizens, we should penalize only doing nothing.

The question that arises, then, is not whether we will need to transform social institutions for knowledge production, policymaking, and governance, but how to do so. To imagine that we know the solutions based on the same concepts that created the problems is denial at best, hubris at worst. We need new stories of causation to imagine these alternatives. That is, our challenge is to populate the unimaginable changes to come with imaginative concepts, relationships, policies, technologies, and ways of governing. The thing to do is to start out.