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.
From prevention to adaptation
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.
A challenge to the dream of reason
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.
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.