What if Climate Change is not an ‘Environmental’ Issue?
Like most people I know, I accept the gravity of climate change at an intellectual level, but don’t live my life as if the message has really sunk in. It seems that many if not most people reading this blog will be in a similar state: fully aware of the balance of evidence but somehow trapped in patterns of thinking and behaving that seem to prevent us from aligning our actions with our awareness.
Today, via twitter, I read an ‘oldie but a goodie’ blog by David Roberts at the wonderful Grist site that offered some fresh perspective on why this might be the case. Simply stated, as long as we think of climate change as an environmental issue we allow it to be something outside of our lives. When we realise it is not an environmental issue, it is harder to carry on as we have been before:
Environmentalism” is simply not equipped to transform the basis of human culture. It grew up to address a specific, bounded set of issues. For 50 years, (American) environmental politics has been about restraining the amount of damage industries can do. Environmental campaigners have developed a set of strategies for that purpose, designed to overcome the resistance of industries and politicians to such restraints. And they’ve been successful in a number of areas. So when climate change entered (American) politics via environmentalism, that is the model into which it was slotted. Environmental campaigners set about restraining the amount of greenhouse gases industry can emit, and industry set about resisting. Greens and industry fought ferociously, but in the wake of the victories of the’70s, the public largely watched with indifference, barring a few episodes where support swung one way or another (usually as much due to economic circumstances as anything).
The fact that climate change became framed as an environmental issue meant an opportunity was missed. Instead of leaping on to the existing environmental movement will all the limitations that brings, and opportunity was lost to form a climate change movement that could target the problem more directly, more holistically and more powerfully (because it wouldn’t be lumped together will all the other environmental issues).
Two things fall out of that:
1) We may need to actively build a climate movement that deliberately distances itself from environmentalism.
2) We need to start being more careful with our language. Perhaps we shouldn’t conflate climate change with other environmental issues, even if they are related. And for a while now, I have felt we should always say ‘climate crisis’ rather than ‘climate change’, if only to prevent knee-jerk reactions to the more familiar term.
More generally, I like this kind of deep reframing. There is a lot of peripheral, half-hearted, tokenistic work done on climate change. Over the last few months I have occasionally tried to highlight some of the approaches or suggestions that made a deeper impression, for instance here, here and here and I am glad to be aware of this one.
So what follows? If climate change is not an environmental issue, what exactly should we call it: an existential threat? a planetary emergency? an economic problem? The ultimate test of democracy? I am not sure, but the basic idea is sound. It is not just another green issue, but the defining challenge of our time.