The future of the climate debate

The cutting edge of the climate change debate was absent from recent events in New York City, including mass marches. It’s time to unlearn the deluded notions that keep us from exploring the real issues for the future.

Jem Bendell
6 October 2014

Credit: Greenpeace. All rights reserved.

The climate summit and related events that took place in New York at the end of September 2014 got lots of people talking. But I looked at the 400,000 people marching in the streets of Manhattan with a heavy heart. It’s tragic that such a huge wave of awareness has arrived only after the opportunity to prevent dramatic climate change has passed. Instead, we have to explore how to respond to the difficulties that now lie ahead. 

Climate science has moved on, as hinted by actor Leonardo DiCaprio in his speech to the United Nations when he mentioned the plumes of methane that are already rising from the ocean floor. What’s been happening in the Arctic over the last few years is far beyond even the worst case predictions. It already amounts to a localised warming of five degrees centigrade. The summer pack ice looks set to disappear in the next couple of years, when just seven years ago there was a scientific consensus that this might only happen in the 22nd century.

Warming in the Arctic has been exponential, and there are signs that this is already affecting frozen methane on the sea floor, leading to its release into the atmosphere. Over 20 years, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of the greenhouse effect. The release of oceanic methane was the cause of the largest mass extinction on Earth, called the Permian, which ended 95 per cent of species in existence at that time.

Given these trends, future debates about climate change will have to be very different to anything that was on offer in the conference centres or on the streets of New York. It’s this future debate that we need to explore ourselves--and urgently--even if politicians, businesses, and mainstream environmental groups are not ready to acknowledge it. On the sidelines, I’m seeing four emerging lines of thinking and action: profound change, emergency response, local resilience, and transcendence.

Profound change is the theme that’s been heard from author Naomi Klein in recent weeks. The argument is that efforts to incorporate climate concerns into current economic systems have failed to produce any significant impact on aggregate carbon emissions. The claim that such efforts are useful because they are ‘pragmatic’ and ‘non-ideological’ no longer holds any water. Moving forward, the only intellectually and morally sound environmentalism is explicitly revolutionary, in that it seeks to transform our political and economic systems. It’s an analysis I’ve also arrived at in my book Healing Capitalism, in which I explore the need for fundamental monetary reforms.

The second approach is based around the idea of emergency, in which profound changes in these systems are considered insufficient because we are already on course to experience abrupt climate change within the lifetimes of human beings who are alive today. The emergency paradigm starts with a call for urgent geo-engineering to cool the Arctic, including actions like the release of sulphur dioxide at high altitudes. Proponents say that although geo-engineering has significant risks, the situation is so serious that they simply have to be taken.

This call is not just for more scientific research and technological experiments, but for intergovernmental frameworks to implement such an approach and deal with its potentially damaging consequences for regions that might be hit by severe climate and weather disturbances as a result. Authors exploring these ideas include Mark Lynas and several writers in The Ecologist. The emergency approach triggers discussions about how to deal with climate-induced collapses in societies, including humanitarian and security responses: for example, new roles for atomic energy agencies in bringing nuclear power plants to cold shut down.

But while such writers often talk about physical adaptations such as higher sea walls, they rarely discuss the need for any deeper psychological adaptations to climate change, which is where the other two other lines of debate come in.

The first is local resilience, which assumes that it’s too late to avert a collapse in current systems due to catastrophic climate change even if the economy is transformed and geo-engineering is underway. A belief in such near-term collapse leads advocates of this approach to focus on how to sustain at least some forms of life, and on the values and aspirations that might help to facilitate the transition to radically different ways of living. This isn’t the well-known agenda of transition to a post-carbon world, but transition to a way of life in which basic aspects of our current societies no longer exist, such as the nation state, industrial agriculture, and pharmaceutical drugs.

The film Collapse introduced the world to the late Michael Ruppert, who expressed these views eloquently. Some of the more radical elements of the Transition Towns movement also give space to this line of argument, as do authors like John Foster, Charles Eisenstein, and projects such as Dark Mountain which encourage new cultures to emerge to help facilitate the traumatic times that lie ahead. A key insight of this approach is that not making things worse--by remaining attached to current ways of life and values like private property or nationalism, for example--is a key area for action.

‘Transcendence’ is the name I’ll give to the fourth line of thinking that’s emerging. It’s based on the acceptance of probable near-term extinction of the human race (not just collapse)--a harrowing thought for most people, and a prospect that leads to various forms of denial. Critics say that this approach implies fatalism, despair, depression and inaction. But among those who accept its analysis a host of new insights are being generated. For people like me, who for decades have defined their self-worth in terms of their contribution towards strengthening sustainability and protecting the climate, these insights can be extremely destabilizing. Yet despair can also be transformative, leading people to transcend their previous senses of self and allow new ones to emerge that are less framed by linear notions of human progress.

This line of debate calls us to reflect on fundamental questions concerning the meaning of our lives, and the meaning of life itself. Some will turn to religion for answers, while others will find existing religious explanations to be unsatisfactory in addressing such dilemmas. Carolyn Baker explores these issues using insights from hospice care. I think the writings of others who study what we can learn from suffering like Mark Matousek will also be helpful.

These four lines of debate were largely absent from the events on climate change that took place in New York. I’ve found that most professionals engaged in the climate issue avoid these debates because they think they won’t help them to communicate to the general public, potential donors, or the business community. Nevertheless, they are bubbling up in private conversations, and they are beginning to be explored by organizations like the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability.

Current mainstream economic and political systems, including things as basic as monetary institutions, don’t help societies to respond in any of the ways I’m describing. I’m also convinced that our whole understanding of leadership has to be transformed. Critical leadership studies conclude that common notions of heroic leadership from ‘special’ individuals are misplaced. There is no one coming to the rescue. Instead, we need to act together in a movement of, not just for, massive change.

People in senior positions have a useful role to play, but they must transcend the need to conform to stereotypes of successful people who are in command of events. Instead, we need everyone--including leaders--to approach the traumatic times that lie ahead with greater humility, equanimity, gratitude, inquisitiveness, compassion, love, playfulness and hope: leadership that is heartfelt not heroic.

Unfortunately the institutions we’ve created in the political, economic and social spheres have not promoted such qualities. Therefore the greatest leadership challenge of today may be to unlearn deluded notions about self, success and progress that keep us from exploring the immensely difficult issues that the Arctic is now asking of us.

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