The Real Challenge of Climate Change

This was published (in Chinese) as an op-ed in the People’s Daily (Beijing) on 25 July 2013, they gave it the title of ‘The Challenge of Climate Change in the Anthropocene’. The authors are John S. Dryzek and David Schlosberg.

The fact that climate change presents a great challenge to the world is widely recognized, but the real depth of the challenge is not. The most profound aspects of the challenge do not lie in the science of climate change, or the technical aspects of policies that might be chosen to confront it (such as a tax on carbon dioxide, or a ‘cap and trade’ scheme to limit greenhouse gas emissions). Rather, they lie in the way the world’s main economic, social, and governance systems operate and how they interact with ecological systems.

These human systems were not designed, and did not evolve, to cope with issues like climate change. National governments in particular were designed or evolved to cope with three broad categories of issues: ensuring economic growth, maintaining security both internally and externally, and providing for social welfare. Of course governments do not always succeed in these three tasks, but they are generally organized to at least try to succeed, and we have some idea about reasons for success and failure.

Climate change is different. It drives home the idea that we are entering a new and unstable era in which human influences are primary drivers of the Earth system – this is what some scientists now call the ‘Anthropocene’. The Earth system may react in potentially catastrophic ways: changing patterns of rainfall, flood and drought, extreme weather events, sea level rise, the movement of climates between regions, and even the creation of new kinds of regional climates, with all kinds of consequences for human wellbeing. Human civilizations evolved in a very different ‘Holocene’ era of the past 10,000 years in which the Earth system was much more stable.

At the global level, twenty years of UN-sponsored negotiations have failed to produce an effective treaty to bring greenhouse gas emissions under control. Global governance mechanisms designed for economic and security issues have not worked when it comes to climate change.

At this global level no less than elsewhere, the dominant response to failure has been for everyone to continue doing more of the same as what they were already doing. So government negotiators still behave as though a comprehensive global treaty is possible. Civil society organizations and lobbyists still focus their efforts on influencing these negotiations.  Scientists continue to conduct more research. Economists continue to produce more estimates of the costs of climate change. Policy makers worry about the design details of emissions trading or offset schemes. Organized climate change deniers financed by powerful fossil fuel interests continue to strive to undermine the science and so block any action (though they are prominent only in the United States, Canada, and Australia).

How then can we begin to think about a more effective response? Responding effectively to climate change will require many linked things, at multiple levels, rather than one big thing (such as a global treaty). Of course societies need to move in the direction of an economy that does not depend on fossil fuels, but that is only part of the story. Such moves need to be made without waiting for an international agreement, and in ways that do not sacrifice development goals; renewable technologies such as solar and wind are already emerging to make this happen, and can be adopted almost anywhere in decentralized ways that suit the local environment.

But then what does development itself mean? We are used to thinking about development in terms of growth in national income. Yet such growth does not necessarily translate directly into growth in human wellbeing. Once basic needs have been satisfied and a decent level of income achieved, more material income does not produce more happiness. New economic thinking should be able to envisage economies that are not geared to unlimited material growth, but rather that serve ourselves and our descendants, while respecting the integrity of social-ecological systems on which human life depends. Material production can be organized such that the sourcing, flow, and disposal of materials do not undermine the functioning of ecological systems. Economies can flourish with more durable products and more sustainable production processes that take into account the crucial role played by the environment in which human beings live, as well as being guided by human values such as equity and justice.

As much as we plan for such a future, climate change is already upon us and is here to stay, so we need to develop thorough and effective adaptation strategies to cope with the impacts of climate change when they do arrive. Again, adaptation planning is not one big thing, and certainly does not require any global agreement. Climate change will hit different communities in different ways at different times – through heat stress, disease, drought and food insecurity, sea rise and storm surges, flooding or fires. Vulnerabilities can be lessened by effective preparation and awareness, especially if communities have the social capacity to prepare and act collectively, and can cultivate constructive relationships with ecological systems. Communities should not see themselves as somehow separate from, or at war with, nature.

Finally, developing a new economy and turning toward effective adaptation to climate change will also require new forms of governance. We noted at the outset that existing forms of government were not designed to cope with a challenge of the sort that climate change presents. So what might effective climate governance look like?

Around the world we see many innovations and experiments, such as local ‘transition towns’, cooperative arrangements to install or transfer clean technologies, or networks to oversee emissions trading schemes. We still lack obvious positive examples of forms of climate governance that are good enough on a scale big enough. Yet we know that some governance arrangements do better than others. We know plenty about the reasons for failure, and in theory quite a bit about arrangements that ought to work better.

What climate governance at all levels really needs is a capacity to deliberate about its own reform. In this light, effective governance is not just a matter of securing cooperation among all those with the capacity to act—it also requires opportunity for contestation in governance systems, to promote social learning about what does and does not work. Nobel prizewinner Elinor Ostrom spoke of a ‘polycentric’ approach to climate governance, involving many different kinds of initiatives at all scales, from the local to the global, but we also need ways to join these forms to common purposes through effective and open communication.

Climate change is now a permanent feature of the human condition, our constant companion as we move into a more unstable environmental era. It is too late to stop it completely, but we can bring it under control, and adapt our social, economic, and governance systems to cope with its effects. Climate change is a mirror in which humanity can see its best and worst sides. If the worst currently seems to dominate, it does not have to stay that way.  This is our challenge.

Professors John Dryzek (Australian National University) and David Schlosberg (University of Sydney) are co-authors, with Professor Richard Norgaard (University of California, Berkeley), of Climate-Challenged Society,  to be published in October 2013 by Oxford University Press.


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