A challenge to the dream of reason

This article by David Schlosberg, professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney was first published earlier today at The Conversation. It’s an excellent and forthright overview of the challenges we will face in coming to terms with the reality of climate change.

When thinking of the challenges we face in responding to climate change, it is time to admit that our political focus has been fairly narrow: limiting emissions and moving beyond carbon-based energy systems. For 30 years, prevention has been the stated goal of most political efforts, from UNFCCC negotiations to the recent carbon tax.

For anyone paying attention, it is clear that such efforts have not been enough. And now we have entered a new era in the human relationship with climate change, with a variety of broad and different challenges.

The first of our current challenges is to admit that we will not stop climate change. Prevention is no longer an option. The natural systems that regulate climate on the planet are already changing, and ecosystems that support us are shifting under our feet.

We will be a climate-challenged society for the foreseeable future, immersed in a long age of adaptation. What we might have to adapt to, what an adapted society might look like, and how we design a strategy to get there are all open questions.

One of the hopeful signs is that, even if many national governments are not preventing climate change, there is a growing concern for adaptation at the local level.

Climate change challenges the whole enlightenment project – the dream that reason leads us to uncover truths, and those truths lead to human progress and improvement.

We imagine we live in a rational, enlightened society. In such a place, experts would identify issues to be addressed, and goals to be reached, in response to our creation of climate change. Scientific knowledge would be respected and accepted (after peer review, of course), and policy would be fashioned in response.

The reality is that we frequently have direct intervention explicitly designed to break the link between knowledge and policy; we have seen just how easy it is for power to trump and corrupt knowledge, on a global scale. In fact, organised climate change denialists, and the political figures that support them, have done more to damage the ideals of the enlightenment than any so-called postmodern theorist.

The key adaptive challenge is to rebuild a constructive relationship between scientific expertise, the public, and policy development. It may be that the necessary engagement of scientific expertise with local knowledges and interests will help rebuild some hope of human progress.

How do we play fair?

Climate change will undermine many of the ecological foundations of our ability to provide for basic needs.

Clearly, one of the key challenges is going to be how the burden is distributed, and how we respond to the vulnerability of people to climatic shifts and adjustments – from drought and floods, to health issues ranging from disease to heatstroke, to food security, to environmental migrations.

Even more challenging, however, is the reality that our emissions undermine the environments of vulnerable people elsewhere: Bangladesh, the horn of Africa, small island states, New Orleans.

And, of course, our actions now – given the delay between emissions and impact – will harm people in the future. So our responsibilities of justice now extend over vast stretches of geography and time.

That’s a lot of ethical challenges to face up to – or not. So how might we begin to address the challenges of climate justice?

Importantly, local communities can be thoroughly involved in both mapping their own vulnerabilities and designing adaptation policies. Perceptions of vulnerability will differ across stakeholder groups – indigenous peoples, farmers, and tourism managers might have a different sense of what is made vulnerable through climate change.

Local participation and deliberation – basic rights themselves – can help us to understand and determine the distinct and local environmental needs of various communities, and so plan for adaptation.

Such adaptation strategies can help to address climate justice.

Governing complexity

For all of those conspiracy theorists who think climate change is a leftist conspiratorial plot to develop a UN-based world government – you have got to be kidding. The UNFCCC represents a failure of global governance on a scale we’ve never seen before.

We may be dealing with an issue with a level of complexity that human beings are simply not capable of addressing. Climate change will certainly challenge our adaptive abilities more than anything else the species has faced.

The issue represents a different kind of problem for governments. It will demand multi-scale, widely-distributed, networked, flexible, anticipatory, and adaptive responses on the part of governments from the global down to the local. Climate change will require a radical re-thinking of the very nature of governance, and the adoption of new forms.

We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves (and nature)

But the major challenge of climate change, of course, is whether or not we are capable of changing our currently destructive relationship with the rest of nature. Key here is the reality that, in bringing climate change upon ourselves, we have demonstrated that the very construction of how we immerse ourselves in the natural world, and how we provide for our basic needs, is simply not working.

In fact, our relationship with nature is undermining the lives we’ve constructed. We imagine ourselves removed from the systems and relationships that support us, and so cause these massive disruptions in the life processes around us.

Our continued refusal to recognise ourselves as animals embedded in ecosystems has resulted in the undermining of those systems that sustain us. That’s our key problem, our central challenge.

Thankfully, there are growing examples of alternatives, and of models for adapting to a climate-challenged society. Many groups and movements are rethinking and restructuring the ways we interact with the natural world as we provide for our basic needs – around sustainable energy, local food security, and even crafting and making.

These new materialist movements offer alternative ways of relating to the nonhuman systems that sustain us, and illustrate the possibility of redesigning and restructuring our everyday lives based in our immersion in natural systems. After 30 years of failing in our response to climate change, we may yet demonstrate that human beings still have the capacity to adapt.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

19 thoughts on “A challenge to the dream of reason”

  1. I have been following the conversation at “the conversation” for the past few months and this is another example of an outstanding discussion on the huge challenge that lies before us.
    Of recent times I have become more and more pessimistic that humans can ever respond in a meaningful way to the impending problems that we are creating day by day. However, in the past few weeks I see signs that the tide is turning – not from any overt response from governments, or from new initiatives from non-governmental organizations, or even from renewed energy at alternative technologies, etc, but from the simple fact that peak oil is now beginning to take effect – at least here in NZ. Added to the rapid increasing cost of fossil fuel is the continuing world wide “recession”, which has been exacerbated by over-indebtedness of many national economies. The simple fact is that consumption by the western world is beginning to plateau. Here in NZ people are now driving less, and spending less on their credit cards. The end result is less GHG emissions. Not the way we would want it to be – this outcome is un-managed by government and is inequitable in its effects. However people are beginning to respond and hopefully they will find their voice.

    1. Yes I agree with you there. However, tar sands, fracking, and coal are all relatively more expensive than just pumping crude as they all involve additional technologies (unless burning coal in power plants). The end result, for transportation at least, is that what was a relatively “cheap” fuel is becoming more expensive (and here in NZ day by day).
      Just as the most effective way to reduce smoking levels in a population is to put the price of cigarettes up, so the most effective way to reduce reliance on personal transportation (and challenging the basic assumption that everyone has a god given right to own a set of wheels) is to increase the cost of their use.
      The regrettable problem for NZers at the moment is that our government seems hidebound on building more roads of “national significance”, when rates of personal car use is falling; and deciding to spend less on developing public transportation, when there is clear evidence that that is where the demand in the future will lie.

  2. An EPA Board of Inquiry is tomorrow hearing final submissions on whether to spend $1 billion on a new road down Transmission Gully. Traffic planners for NZTA predict modest traffic growth requiring the road, even with moderate fuel price rises, through to 2026. The Board has alternative evidence that traffic growth is changing and trending to zero. Other evidence points to a high likelihood of declining growth as peak oil sets in.

    This is where the rubber hits the road so to speak. It comes down to whether you believe that by 2026 there will be 10 or 20 or 30% less traffic on the State Highway 1 than now, or it will be moderately up from what it is now. Will be interesting to hear what they conclude.

  3. The Enlightment contained within it the seeds for this to happen. It taught us to stand back from the natural world, look at it in a dispassionate way, take it apart and learn what made it work. But it separated us from the natural world, and the interconnectedness of things.

  4. Looking at the stunning march of the religious conservative nutter brigade and their poster boy Santorum towards a possible Republican nomination in the USA one really wonders what will become of this world and prospect of the genus homo sapiens should this guy be elected president.
    Worse than the issue of having these sort of people in leadership roles is the thought that they are actually elected by their people. The hydra of fear, hysteria and bigotry has many heads…

    1. Ironically, at this stage the field of Republican nominees is about the only thing Obama has going for him. We should all pray assiduously to whatever God/s we do – or don’t – believe in that January 2013 does not deliver us to The Most Stupid Government in History, because sadly this is still very much on the cards…

      1. I can envisage the lunatic Santorum getting the Republican nomination, but not having any chance of beating Obama. Even US voters aren’t that collectively stupid. Obama will be hoping Romney doesn’t get the nomination, as he would be a much more significant threat to him.

        1. Amusingly the Republican cadre just don’t love him, despite (or because of!) his being much more rational/potentially electable, as you say.

          What I fear is that the process of trying to appeal to such a base – combined with the traditional paying off of the vested interests that financed his PACs etc. when he’s in power – will render any comparitive rationality moot!…

          1. On a different topic but certainly on the topic of reason based decision making: New Scientist reported a study on the after-effects of Fukushima on CO2 emissions. Germany’s decision to turn their nuclear power stations off combined with Japans likely decision to keep some 50+ nuclear stations off the grid will nullify virtually the entire CO2 reductions (if any) the EU has accomplished with their energy efficiency directive.


            Perhaps we should ask your cat for an audience? Fresh Canadian Salmon was it? 😉

            1. This is an entirely predictable outcome that was reported by the media some time ago.

              There was no rational reason to can the nuclear programme in Germany. They have scuppered their only realistic short-term solution to reducing CO2 emissions.

            2. On the other hand and in the same edition of NS is a reminder of the massive and amount of money, time and resources that need to be spent on the decommissioning and breaking down of old nuclear power plants, taking often decades longer than the actual service life time of the plants and costing in the order of a billion dollar per plant… with hundreds of plants waiting to be decommissioned and massive amounts of long half life time radioactive waste needing storage for tens or hundreds of millenia to come….
              Perhaps the whole nuclear direction was a rather wishful fancy considering the legacy we leave behind for many generations to come in a world that perhaps might lack the exuberance of resources we were used to when these plants were built.
              So to get to REAL emissions cuts alternative energy solutions are at the moment our best hope besides drastic energy saving measures.

        2. True, as both Romney and Obama are moderate Republicans… the real problem is the lack of pressure on Obama to move left. As a result of Citizens United, he will be as beholden to US oligarchs as Romney.

          1. This is indeed the issue entirely. Where is the pressure inside the USA to lead the country and a sizable portion of the rest of us to safer shores on the left side of the abyss….
            The further the USA drifts to the right – and when Obama is branded a “liberal” by the Republicans, then, Oh Dear, where have we ended up already? – the less will be the chances for the planet and our civilization to have a chance of a sustainable tomorrow.

    2. From what I can gather from the GOP fiasco – it appears more to be a “race to the bottom” – who can be the most stupid, irrational, despotic, racist, despicable candidate, with the most money “wins”. Unbelievable stuff! So much for “democracy”. If that is what the States wants for the rest of the world heaven help us.

      1. “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”
        ― Charles Bukowski

  5. (Cross-posting my response on the Conversation. BTW, I think this headline is far better!):

    We may be beyond the point where it is possible to limit warming to 2ºC (which is probably beyond the point of “dangerous” climate change anyway), but this doesn’t mean that mitigation is still not the main game. Without mitigation, we are very likely to be heading to 4ºC+ and quite possibly 6, 7 or 8 ºC. These are very likely to be well beyond the ability of natural and human systems to adapt.

    The apparent impossibility of mitigation is a political one, and politics is the art of the possible. What is possible depends on culture and imagination as much as anything. It is still quite possible (even if unlikely) for us to experience a widespread awakening and culture shift away from high consumption lifestyles and growth economics.

    Yet it is also worth acknowledging just how unlikely this is, and to prepare ourselves emotionally for a much, much bumpier future.

  6. Nice… “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”
    ― Charles Bukowski

    Btw I read somewhere that Germany did manage to reach there emissions reduction target dispite switching off nukes…..

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