The Paris COP21 negotiations are almost upon us.
The range of opinion as to whether these will provide a substantive agreement and subsequent action runs from hopeful to hopeless. At one end of the spectrum is Ed Miliband’s overly optimistic analysis, which the Guardian headlined hyperbolically as Yes, the Paris climate change negotiations can save the world. He hopes that Britain “could be a leader on climate change” and believes the summit will see “every major country taking action to reduce emissions”.
At the other end is the sentiment expressed by Owen Jones in his article Melting glacier? Yawn. Climate change is boring, worthy – and terrifying. On this alternative reading climate change is someone else’s problem, one of a stream of issues competing for our ever-shortening attention spans. Climate change is “terrifying”, but is too huge to grasp, too uncomfortable to address, and by implication best left to the professionals. To be fair to Mr Jones, he acknowledges these problems and briefly makes the increasingly-heard case for climate change to be seen as a social-justice problem, as much as an environmental one.
Despite the huge contrast in tone, however, these two opinion pieces are ultimately from the same ideological stable. There is a telling reference in Miliband’s article to how “technology has thrown us a lifeline”. Importantly, the problem of climate change is seen as something that is happening to “us” and a problem, an “issue” we need to fix.
Owen Jones, too, exposes this underlying assumption by writing that “climate change has already given us more extreme weather”. It might seem pedantic, but the way that sentence is constructed says a great deal about what has caused, and what can be done about, the changes taking place within the biosphere.
What these two views share is the absolutely fundamental understanding that the climate, with all its attendant problems, is something outside of ourselves. Nature is seen as an external force, one either benign or malevolent.
Naomi Klein writes extensively in her excellent book This Changes Everything about the extractivist mind-set. The planet, she explains, is seen by the dominant contemporary ideology as a resource, one that can be tamed and managed. I would also argue that a consequence of this extractivist attitude is that we take not only hydrocarbon resources out of the earth, but ourselves along with them. This is why climate change can be seen as just one of a number of issues; a discrete problem, with a potentially discrete solution. If we don’t see ourselves a part of the natural world, then the natural world is just one of a number of our general concerns.
But climate change is not a single ‘issue’ at all.
Climate change is an economic issue – despite mainstream economics blindly denying the reality of planetary limits. It is also a human rights issue, a land-use, international relations, social-justice, democratic-deficit and equality issue too.
Climate change can feel like too vast a thing with which to get to grips. A huge monolith, or a vast oncoming wave. How can a solution possibly be found to this problem, which resists all attempts to pin it down? The only way is to stop treating it like everything else. It’s a not a simple issue, that can be dealt with on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, before moving on to the more exciting stuff. The implications of a changing climate are all encompassing and know no arbitrary political boundaries. This must also be true of the response.