Beyond our control: an alternative approach to climate change

A the COP23 summit, Novembre 8, 2017. Patrik Stollarz/AFP

This article was published in partnership with the online review La pensée écologique, headed by Dominique Bourg. It is an excerpt of an article on global climate change governance.


The COP23 took place in Bonn, Germany, from November 6-17. Participants in these annual climate conferences are driven by the idea that they can control the global rise in temperatures with resources and willpower. The recent proposal for a Global Pact for the Environment is also founded on this premise.

The same belief in control applies more generally to flows generated in all areas of human activity: since they are man-made, we assume that we can simply stop, unplug the machine so to speak, and the flows will cease. Numerous systems (relating to waste, data, capital, and populations) are built around this idea.

But it is an illusion. Stakeholders – that is, states, businesses and individuals – are increasingly overwhelmed by the flows they themselves triggered.

Climate change

Greenhouse gases are a perfect illustration of this loss of control: once released into the atmosphere, they are beyond the reach of humans as they accumulate and move freely above us.

Stakeholders in climate negotiations – such as the COPs – strive to wait out the (lengthy) period over which the existing gases will dissipate and to reduce current and future emissions.

But while the second point may appear to depend solely on the will of negotiators, it is in fact highly conditional, since it is not sufficient for one country, company or person to drastically reduce emissions. Everyone must take action if we are to achieve the desired effect worldwide.

The possibility of a scenario beyond human control prompts us to posit the existence of “total uncontrolled flows” and establish a theory of their [governance].

When applied to climate change, this perspective calls for a new platform for global discussion and negotiation, based on the assumption of a loss of control.

A brand new way of debating

Current efforts in climate negotiations are concentrated on public policy and civic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These measures aim to bring global warming below a 1.5°C threshold, with a maximum limit of 2°C set for 2030. The idea is to use the intervening time to help endangered areas (under threat from rising sea levels, for instance) adapt to the problem.

Given the possibility of a scenario beyond human control, a second significant round of discussions and negotiations should be undertaken within the COPs.

These talks would focus on the following question: how can we prepare for scenarios in which the global flows of greenhouse gases reach uncontrollable (meaning higher than currently anticipated) levels? Within these discussions, there would be no pretence that either the causes or effects of the phenomenon can be contained. Instead, their total and uncontrollable nature would be faced head on.

A necessary utopia

Here are three of the various reasons that explain why this approach would be valuable.

  1. The problem could be examined from a distance, well before we are confronted with the issue of managing the crises that will occur if “point-of-no-return” thresholds are exceeded.

  2. The extreme risks would no longer be denied. While it is clearly impossible to know in advance precisely when and how a disaster scenario may occur, they can be monitored and, to a certain extent, measured.

  3. Conducting analysis based on a loss of control would also provide an opportunity to think about how we can respond to the violence that would be unleashed should thresholds be exceeded. This would open up debate on the adoption of strict anticipatory measures, such as a global ban on the use of certain energy sources, or a worldwide tax on said sources, which would destabilize the economic models underpinning them.

Such dramatic scenarios may seem utopian, but they must be examined now so that all stakeholders face up to their responsibilities.


Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.

This article was originally published in French

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