We love our climate – and yet we fear it, writes Mike Hulme in his recently published book “Why we disagree about climate change” (Cambridge University Press). He observes that ‘we are not quite sure what to make out of the idea of climate: we can celebrate its power to evoke strong emotions in us, while also bemoaning its unpredictability or fearing its future behaviour. We expect climate to perform for us; to offer us the water around which we work and create and within which we relax and recreate. Yet we know too that climate is fickle, with a will and a mind of its own, offering us not only days of tranquility and repose, but also the storms and dangers that our ancestors encountered over countless centuries and that continue to afflict us today’ (Hulme, 2009:2).
Climate has both physical and cultural connotations. From a physical point of view, one cannot deny that the climate of the Amazon is wetter in an absolute sense than is the climate of the Sahara. From a cultural perspective, this may become irrelevant, as the climate of the Sahara means something quite different to a Bedouin than it does to a Brazilian. ‘Ideas about climate are always situated in a time and in a place. Climates can change physically, but also ideologically’ (Hulme, 2009:4).
What about climate discourses? In a very inspiring essay, O’Brien writes that climate change is usually represented as bad news, except among sceptics who argue that a warmer world may be more beneficial for human beings than a cold world. However, climate change may also be good news: Never before in human history has there been such strong evidence that we live in an interconnected world, where actions taken in one place have consequences in another. The notion of winners and losers, which has been a driving force for competition among individuals and between groups and states, becomes an illusion as the process of climate change accelerates. There is now a window of opportunity to recognize that human well-being and human security are really about the connections and relationships among different perspectives. In other words, climate change forces us to realize that the “I, we, and it(s)” are in this together (O’Brien).
There is no single “solution” to climate change, and no measure will be met with the instant gratification that people in modern, high-energy consumption societies often expect. For her it is clear that the emphasis on understanding climate change from an objective, systems perspective has downplayed the importance of subjective, interior dimensions of climate change, when in fact the integration of both aspects is needed (O’Brien, in press). The science and policy communities dealing with climate change often do not recognize or respect different stages of development, and instead insist that presenting rational arguments and complex graphics of climate model output should be enough to convince people to change their behaviour (ibid.). Recognizing that climate change will mean different things to different individuals, communities, groups, or cultures is essential to providing ownership of the problem, a prerequisite for responding to climate change, she argues.
Climate change scientists in particular can benefit from such an integral approach, as it provides an inclusive framework that can guide interdisciplinary research. Policy makers and practitioners who are dealing with the complex challenges of global warming, amidst many other processes of change, can also benefit from an integral approach, which draws attention to human development and relationships to culture, values, and worldviews. Focusing on change, rather than on climate, allows one to see obstacles to and opportunities for responding successfully to climate change (O’Brien, in press).
This article originally appeared at SustainabilityForum.com.
Picture credit: ewen and donabel