You might be familiar with the old parable of The Blind Men and the Elephant: six blind men touch a different part of an elephant – the side, a tusk, the trunk, a leg, an ear, the tail – and believe the animal is similar to a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan or a rope. It seems that today, humanity finds itself living through an oddly similar tale – only our elephant is climate change.
We cannot possibly hope to overcome our most imminent existential threat if we do not understand its character to the fullest extent. The way we frame any problem will become a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of the solutions we find for it. The following article aims to introduce the four main climate change discourses – biophysical, critical, dismissive and integrative – based on the highly influential book Climate and Society: Transforming the Future by Karen O’Brien and Robin Leichenko.
The Biophysical Discourse:
The biophysical discourse is the most well-known out of the four understandings we shall explore. According to this narrative, increases in greenhouse gas emissions driven by humans lie at the core of the climate crisis. Moreover, climate change is an environmental problem for which all humans share responsibility and which can only be addressed through scientific, and technological innovation. This approach is rooted in positivist schools of thought, which aspire to understand the observable processes that govern our existence, and which disregard unobservable, interpersonal and subjective conceptualizations of the world.
One particularly noteworthy aspect of the biophysical discourse consists of the tensions between science and politics. Sometimes, what is scientifically advised is not politically desirable – and vice versa. This is why, even though human ingenuity has yielded in-depth, robust, descriptions of the consequences of climate change – i.e. making Earth inhospitable to life – we still struggle to see the translation of knowledge into policy. Take, for example, the Paris Agreement. Born out of the awareness that an increase of more than 2℃ in Earth’s temperature above pre-industrial levels would prove to be catastrophic, it is still dangerously disregarded by political officials. The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Agreement under Donald Trump is a suggestive illustration of how science is necessary but insufficient when dealing with climate change.
Fairytales of Growth – a highly insightful documentary by Khana – does a wonderful job of putting the tragedy of neglecting societal processes and norms into perspective: the groundbreaking advances brought by the biophysical discourse – from climate engineering to renewable energy – are severely undermined by misunderstanding the political, social and economic practices that govern their implementation.
To address these shortcomings, we must turn our attention to another climate change discourse.
The Critical Discourse:
According to the critical school of thought, the climate crisis is rooted in socio-economic, cultural and political processes. While accepting the scientific explanation proposed by the biophysical discourse – that climate change is driven by greenhouse gas emissions – the critical approach goes one step further in asking what societal structures enable us to produce such high amounts of greenhouse gasses in the first place.
This narrative proposes an understanding of climate change as a direct consequence of capitalist systems. The relentless call for economic growth has led to overconsumption and the overexploitation of planetary resources, which, in turn, have driven carbon emissions to dangerously high extents. Furthermore, the critical discourse emphasizes how these processes are underlined by deeply entrenched – and unequal – relations of power.
While the biophysical understanding of climate change treats humanity as largely homogenous – and therefore equally culpable for the crisis – the critical understanding pays considerable attention to disparities between individuals – mainly in terms of their involvement in decision-making processes and their experience of climate change consequences. A powerful illustration of the severe asymmetry of power – and guilt – surrounding climate change rests on the fact that the 10 countries most in danger of facing acute climate-change-induced hunger – Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya, Madagascar, Niger, Somalia and Zimbabwe – are only responsible for 0.1% of global carbon emissions, while the G20 and European Union, on the other hand, are responsible for a staggering 80%. The critical narrative devotes significant attention to concepts like colonial legacies, gender, race, ethnicity and wealth as important influencers of inequality.
Therefore, in terms of solutions and avenues of mitigation, the critical discourse believes that climate change can only be sustainably addressed if technological responses are supported by reforms of the acutely unequal economic, political, social and norm systems that govern our lives.
The Dismissive Discourse:
This self-explanatory name hides a complexity that has often been unwisely neglected by those who aim to understand how people think about climate change.
The dismissive discourse is not only promoted by climate change deniers. Instead, it unites people who believe that the climate crisis is not driven by human activity, those who believe it is not urgent, and those who believe it is merely a front for governments and technocrats to justify tightening their grip on power and increasing their infringement upon private life.
Leichenko and O’Brien organize the multitude of dismissive views in three categories. First, dismissing the science of climate change refers to those groups who argue that climate change is a hoax – a conspiracy theory meant to advance the selfish interests of governments and scientists. Second, dismissing the human causes of climate change refers to the individuals who recognise that the environment is transforming, but argue that the causes of – or responsibility to address – change cannot be attributed to humans. Those who belong to this strain of the dismissive discourse conceptualize climate change as something far beyond our control, something which can only be understood as inevitable natural processes or divine intervention. Last, dismissing the significance of climate change relative to other issues describes those people who believe that climate change is a real, human-induced phenomenon, yet also believe that it is not an imminent existential threat. Their central claim is that people can adapt to or mitigate climate transformations, and therefore strongly argue for the prioritisation of issues such as poverty reduction and technological development over tailored climate policy.
It is important to note that, although dismissive discourses often lack robust argumentation, they can be highly appealing. Being aware of the urgency and full implications of the climate crisis can be overwhelming for a large segment of the population. Therefore, politicians might weaponise the comfort provided by the luxury of obliviousness and promote dismissive narratives in order to gain political support.
The Integrative Discourse:
The integrative approach understands climate change as a continuous interaction between the physical, social and inner worlds. According to this narrative, at the core of climate change lies the conceptualization of our very humanity, in relation to the environment. As Leichenko and O’Brien suggestively put it: “The potential to deliberately transform human-environment relationships in ways that are equitable and sustainable lies at the heart of the integrative discourse”.
Proponents of this approach aim to challenge the so-called dualistic view of nature and society, i.e. seeing humans and nature are separate entities, where the former has the power and the right to govern the latter. The dualistic view places humans above nature, in a position that allows – and even encourages – environmental exploitation.
Integrative thinking is all about holism. Therefore, effectively addressing climate change means uniting aspects of the biophysical and critical approaches, and grounding them in a deep introspection of our belief systems. Developing sustainable technology and addressing social inequality must begin with questioning the beliefs that have enabled us to create the problem of climate change in the first place. What are the values and norms that make us treat nature as an object? What parts of our inner worlds allow us to be inconsiderate and unsympathetic to each other? Why do we keep in place systems that equate happiness with overconsumption? These – and many more – make up the cornerstone of the integrative discourse on climate change.
Searching for a one-sided definition of climate change is a Sisyphean task. Theory always guides practice, and the discourses we collectively choose to promote and engage with determine our actions towards the climate crisis. The understandings presented above are not mutually exclusive and they should not be confused for absolute truths. At the end of this article, I would like to turn once more to the words of Leichenko and O’Brien:
(…) discourses are also flexible, porous, and sometimes overlapping, and they can change in response to social, economic, cultural, and political circumstances, as well as to shifts in values and priorities.
It is time we move past embracing the pitfalls of unilateral thinking and instead embrace intellectual adaptation, resilience, introspection and holism.
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