Climate change as crisis

Climate change as a conventional environmental crisis

Vital to the rationale for the international response to climate change is its depiction as an environmental crisis. Oral traditions, history, and scientific research tell of the associations between climatic conditions and social well-being, a subject of long and active debate. Although the linkage can easily be exaggerated, such as in the hands of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century climatic and geographic determinists (of whom Elsworth Huntington is perhaps the most notorious - see Fleming 1998), climate has shaped human life on earth, from the evolution of our species to development of cultures (Schneider and Londer 1984). Brief or extended periods of extreme climatic conditions have wrecked havoc on many civilizations throughout history and pre-history. Conversely, there appear to be strong associations in the pre-modern era between human development and benign, stable climate (Lamb 1982). Yet, a cautionary note must be sounded here: ''It would seem that many students of history have invoked too easily the dues ex machina of climate change and resource depletion to account for cultural explanations'' (Tainter, 2000: 336). As history reveals, there are conditions of cultural change that climatic deterioration have caused ''great cities to grow and polities to become complex and yet also cause these systems to collapse'' (Tainter 2000: 336-337). Into these differences over the relative importance of climate change, it is worth considering the prospects for the disruption of human affairs produced by a full-blown ice age or greatly warmed world will be more extreme than those arising from the perturbations during the Holocene that has provided 10,000 years of relatively stable climate.

Up to the advent of the Industrial Revolution, changes in global climate were regarded as natural or supernatural events shaping the fortunes of human and other species alike - climate change was another of the natural world's variations. Pre-modern explanations of human activity as an agent of climate change abound; Glacken describes numerous theories, including those of Theophrastus in Ancient Greece (1967). Advancing scientific and traditional knowledge revealed patterns and predictive explanations in climate change, such as the Milankovitch cycles (see, e.g., Gribbin and Grib-bin 2001), emerging through climate's chaos and complexity, and theory and speculation abounded over the last two centuries.

Through the scientific era to recent times, climate was considered as entirely independent of human activity. With the association drawn between atmospheric pollution and global warming confirmed in contemporary times, the innocent view of independent nature was lost (as in McKibben's (1989) 'end of Nature'). Realization that the global climate bore the accidental imprint of industrial ingenuity triggered a series of events to address the issue, giving rise to the contemporary era of 'climate politics.'

Briefly, the complexities of climate change can be reduced as follows: as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, large-scale deliberate combustion of fossil fuels, notably coal, natural gas, and oil products, carbon dioxide and other gases are released to the atmosphere. Abundant, inexpensive, and available fossil fuels supply the bulk of the energy for the world's industrialized economies; some refer to this as the 'carbon economy' (Leggett 2000). By the addition of the so-called 'greenhouse gases' (primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) to the atmosphere, the world's retention of heat from solar radiation becomes more efficient, increasing the extent of warming through the (somewhat misleadingly labeled) 'greenhouse effect.' As the planet retains greater heat, the world warms and global climate is affected, sea levels rise, and other changes occur. Global climate is still subject to the processes of natural variation over different timescales, but the effects of human intervention overlay the natural processes of changing climate. Because it is likely that the human effects on climate will predominate in the immediate centuries if not millennia, climate change in this period will be shaped by the consequences of human activity.

Greenhouse gases released by human activity remain resident in the atmosphere for varying lengths of time, the longest of which is carbon dioxide that can remain for several centuries (IPCC 1996a). It follows that the current greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere reach back to James Watt and the early days of coal as an industrial fuel in the age of steam power and that today's fossil fuel combustion will exert a future atmospheric influence on those some eight generations removed from us.

Actions to cut emissions are designed to lessen the future impacts of climate change caused by global warming from future greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Despite a variety of research projects on the subject, there are no current feasible technological means to reverse the level of greenhouse gases (IPCC 1996a, 2001a). Consequently, extensive fossil fuel combustion has altered the distributional loads of the global 'carbon cycle,' so that centurial to millennial periods are needed to return conditions to an equilibrium that existed before the anthropocentric carbon additions to the atmospheric.

Until recent times, the major fluctuations in global climate were assumed to be gradual or reasonably so. Past climate has now been shown to be volatile through analysis of analogue climate data, revealing past climate changes of great rapidity, interspersed with periods of both stable, and highly unstable, climate (IPCC, 1996a, 2001a). (Changes in outlook, such as these, may reflect a more general scientific trend in perceiving the natural world, in which 'steady state' concepts have been superseded by views of complex adaptive systems and 'chaotic' system characteristics.) To prompt climate change is risk-taking, in which 'surprising' outcomes may occur. Because of the lag between greenhouse gases release and resultant climate change, management can only now influence the extent and magnitude of these changes - but not prevent them. And as differentiating between natural climate change and anthropocentric climate forcing may remain an impossible quandary, whatever response actions are taken with the goal of mitigating climate change impacts, humanity has initiated a process of irreversible ecological change whose degree of 'managability' cannot ever be properly known.

With the emergent 'new global economy' being characterized as possessed of a 'post-industrial' character with a dominant tertiary sector, some argue that economic ties to natural systems, such as resource demands, are being weakened (known as the 'de-materialization' thesis) (von Weizsacker et al. 1997). Critics claim that national improvements in energy and material efficiency are illusionary and misleading, being the product of the illusionary character of GDP, changes in energy forms, and neglect of import/ export mixes in critical products (see, e.g., Trainer 2001). Evidence exists of trends of greater resource and energy efficiency in developed nations, but globally such gains are overwhelmed by increases in total consumption (as shown in the International Energy Agency's annual statistics on production, consumption, and economic output) (WEA 2000). Globalization is in fact driving global natural resource harvesting, material consumption, and waste generation to unprecedented levels (see, e.g., the UN Development Index) (UNDP 2000; UNDP et al. 2000, 2001). Global industrial growth is not lessening its reliance on ecology, but instead rapidly increasing its dependencies on diminishing natural resource bases and weakened ecological services.

Increasing economic activity has caused global ecological conditions generally to continue to deteriorate and patterns national economic devel opment marked by growing social inequalities (UNDP 2000; UNDP et al. 2001). Ecological losses under climate change will increase under economic globalization, as human disruption to natural systems and the landscape have diminished the adaptive options for species and ecosystems (IPCC 1996b, 2001b). Growing world population has found the absolute number of the world's poor increasing (UNDP 2000; World Bank 2000a). For this unfortunate group, their association with the natural world is absolute and immediate. Survival, for many, is linked to highly stressed local systems of food gathering, agriculture, and water production. Furthermore, the world's poor remain highly vulnerable to climate-related diseases and to climate-related natural hazards (IPCC 1990b, 1996b, and 2001b).

Developed nations have the opportunity to react adaptively to many of the potential climate impacts simply by virtue of being developed; research, education, governance, infrastructure development, technology, and other factors can assist in reducing the harm of effects. But even so, the economic damage of these impacts could be enormous (IPCC 1990b, 1990c, 1996b, 1996c, 2001b, and 2001c). Coastal urban development, for example, will require protection from the associated effects of sea level rise. Natural disasters, such drought, flooding, and severe weather, cannot be dismissed even by the wealthiest of nations. Small island states have been identified as being particularly vulnerable, with human habitation already being diminished in a process that can now only intensify and worsen (IPCC 2001b). Climate change is both conceptually amorphous and elusive, yet climate events can be manifested as cataclysmically as the Asian and Northern African droughts and the floods of Bangladesh during the last century. Potentially, climate change impacts could claim hundreds of millions of human lives (see, e.g., IPCC 2001b). It is in this context that potential climate change impacts must be considered.

Ecologically, climate change will produce a wide array of changes that will be added to other impacts of human activity. At the species level, climate change will increase extinction rates and act as an evolutionary force to alter species distribution, range, and abundance (Midgley et al. 2002; Root et al. 2003; and Thomas et al. 2004). Species loss at this scale could be without precedent in terms of natural losses from human cause. For example, Thomas et al. (2004) modeled the effect of changes in 1103 species' ranges in response to three climate models to 2050 for six sample regions covering 20 percent of the earth's surface. Thomas et al. found that the extinction rate was 15-37 percent. Ecosystem processes will also be affected, such as hydrological systems under altered precipitation regimes and coastal ecosystems by accelerated sea level rise. Another potentially very serious but highly uncertain issue now receiving increased research attention is the increased oceanic acidification resulting from the increased uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Environmentalists and those concerned with protecting ecological values have been at the forefront of efforts to promote social responses to the climate change crisis. At least two separate streams of thought have contributed to this awareness. Firstly, there are those general concerns raised by environmental ethics, which express a human responsibility for nature; prominent in this effort have been Passmore (1974), Callicott (1994, 1999), Rolston (1988), Stone (1987), and Zimmerman (1987, 1994). Low and Gleeson (1998) draw together many of these themes in their description of 'ecological justice,' which embraces a conception of justice that extends to future generations and to many aspects of nature. These issues have found resonance in the climate change debate. Shue (1993, 1995, and 1999), for example, has identified a number of ethical dimensions for the need to respond to climate change, and more specifically identified ethical aspects of the choices of response.

Secondly, are those writers and activists dealing with environmental issues and economic development, prominently from developing nation NGOs. Their concern over the global and local environmental impacts emanating from developed nations and local industrial activities has promoted awareness of these issues as constituting 'environmental injustice.' Prominent members of this diverse and numerous group have include Agarwal (Agar-wal and Narain 1991; Agarwal et al. 2002), Bello (Bello and Rosenfeld 1990; Bello 1992), Escobar (1995, 1996), Khor (1993), Sachs (1991, 1992, 1993a, 1993b, 1994, 1996, 1999a, 1999b), and Shiva (1993, 1997, 1998, and 1999), many of whom have addressed the climate change issue. Environmentalist NGOs were highly influential in the development of national climate policies and the FCCC process, and it was these conceptualizations and arguments that formed the basis of the prominent campaigns by such groups as the Climate Action Network, the Centre for Science and Environment, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Third World Network, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (see, e.g., Agarwal et al. 1999; Grubb et al. 1999; Gupta 2001; Leggett 2000; and Paterson 1996).

Further, we might now add the issue of security as an emerging motivation to respond to climate change, although oddly enough little systemic work has been done in this field. Part of this concern emerges from the growing field of environmental security (see, e.g., Barnett 2001; Dalby 2002). Many authors refer to climate change's security implications, although frequently in a compilation of global environmental problems. Part of the attention given to climate change also derives from more traditional national security concerns, especially as emerging in the wake of contemporary terrorist activity and the geo-political significance of the September 11 attack on the U.S. Perhaps there has been no more surprising expression of this latter dimension than a report to the U.S. Defense Department (Schwartz and Randall 2003) contemplating the implications of abrupt climate change for U.S. national security. Schwartz and Randall's report is alarmist, if not apocalyptic, and is not dissimilar from the type that drew criticism when expressed by conservationists. Barnett (2003) establishes some potential foundations in this field by tracing out the idea's history and laying out several broad themes for future investigation. Bennett also identifies a number of potential advantages of a climate change security discourse for motivating an effective climate change response. Taking it as axiomatic that environmental degradation leads to violent conflict is, as Barnett explains (2000, 2003), a dubious proposition and one likely grounded on a political defense of the status quo.

In short, there is a compelling rationale for considering climate change as an environmental problem deserving of attention and a sizable and widespread NGO community is now devoted specifically to climate change issues, while established environmental NGOs have added climate change to their political and activist agendas. Newell (2000) provided an extensive account of the NGOs' role in international climate change politics (see also Carpenter 2001; Gough and Shackley 2001; and Grundbransen and Andressen 2004). Climate change is global in scale and will produce highly differentiated impacts of permanent losses to social and ecological values. While future global warming now cannot be avoided due to the irreversi-bility of the climate system, reducing the level of global greenhouse gas emissions may lessen the magnitude of these impacts.

Managing climate change

Climate change is an environmental crisis because it presents a range of hazardous impacts, but additional to this depiction of a natural hazard is the complicity of human agency as a causative factor. Understanding climate change as a crisis, therefore, involves assessing the extent to which society can alter or meliorate the human role in determining the magnitude of climate change impacts. Essential to the social construction of this 'crisis' is not only an assessment of the potential losses that might be incurred, but additionally a determination of the extent to which social action can shape these impacts. Both the magnitude of the risks and dangers depend on the degree to which they can be managed, implying the necessity of controlling both the social and natural aspects of the problem.

Climate change will produce global impacts, in theory affecting all nations and peoples to differing extents, and is an outcome of greenhouse gases emissions emanating largely from the world's industrial economies. Reducing greenhouse gases emissions therefore requires emission reductions by a majority of the world's industrial nations and in accordance with a coordinated or agreed approach. Yet, because of scientific uncertainty, it is largely unknown what associations exist between the level of climate change impacts and the rate of greenhouse gas emissions. Action, therefore, involves national efforts and international agreements, which must be contentious, controversial, and difficult. While climate change is far from unique in being the subject of an international environmental system, there are few precedents for a regime with this difficult combination of characteristics.

Greenhouse gases are normal pollutants in one sense, but possess a number of unusual and possibly unique characteristics. Few pollutants produce globally dispersed effects, are as ubiquitous with the routine operation of industrial societies, or tied to the basic source of energy on which industrial society traditionally depends. In addition to having a multiplicity of diffuse and point sources, greenhouse gases are emitted by effectively every major sector of an industrialized economy (agriculture, industry, energy utilities, transport, residential, and commercial), and in great quantities. Without exaggeration, curbing greenhouse gas emissions engages every citizen in the industrialized world in everyday life. Curtailing such pollutants has no recourse to ready emissions limits, technological innovations, or voluntary agreement.

Further, emissions vary greatly between and within nations. Great national differences in greenhouse gas emissions exist in comparisons such as between gross totals, per capita totals, historical accumulated totals, and per capita accumulated totals (see, e.g., Byrne et al. 1998; Gupta 2001; and IPCC 2001a). OECD nations dominate global emissions, particularly from the largest economies, and while India and China also have substantial emissions, nearly all developing nations have low emissions and very low per capita rates. Within nations, further differentiation is apparent at the scale of the firm, household, and individual up to industrial sectors and regions. Emissions reductions, therefore, present many complex choices within and between nations.

Climate change impacts present further difficulties for a policy response. Potential climate change impacts threaten human and natural systems, but their global and social impacts will be unevenly distributed, so that few generalizations can be made. Since there is a general absence of regional or local estimates of future climate and other conditions, predictions of climate change impacts at the scale where households, communities, and local government could make adaptive decisions through planning are generally unavailable (IPCC 2001b). As a result, adaptation policies to anticipate these impacts are needed, but until these impacts have relatively clear definition, adaptation measures are highly circumscribed. Calls for increased efforts on adaptation issues come from many quarters, but adaptation policy remains the most neglected field within the existing policy landscape (IPCC 1990b, 1996b, and 2001b).

Politically and ethically, a number of implications flow from these characteristics. Present generations must take action on behalf of future generations because of the consequences of decisions made by past generations. Climate change impacts will tend to bear most heavily on poor nations, who, by and large bear little responsibility for greenhouse emissions. Curtailing fossil fuel combustion has clear economic implications, not least of which may be the potential for inhibiting economic growth in developing nations. Corporations involved in the fossil fuel and transport industries are amongst the world's largest and whose commercial interests are closely tied to the consumption of their products that entail the release of greenhouse gases (NRDC et al. 1999). Actions to reduce emissions by one nation can be rendered useless by another increasing emissions, so that many argue that international cooperation is essential for achieving overall reductions. Greenhouse gas emissions have grown continually, more or less, through the last century; reducing global emissions first requires stabilization, which in itself is difficult at best (see, e.g., IPCC 2000a).

Because of the asymmetry between the impacts and human action, climate change does not generate local sites of political resistance as most issues of environmental injustice. As a global problem, despite the highly differentiated specificity of forecast impacts, the site of political contestation is not local but largely within the institutional settings of international processes and the national fora that formulate foreign and domestic policy. International political activity concerns the actions of nation states, so that policy outcomes are the result of national positions and international negotiations. Vested national interests are a major influence in international climate change negotiations because the implications for the world's major corporations are so high and their association with nation states so close, as well as the interests of states' own enterprises. Local passions rarely come into play in these processes. International climate change policies greatly reflect national interests. Scientific information plays a prominent role in this problem, making control over the production and distribution of knowledge highly politicized and the implications of scientific findings being of great political importance.

Developing a rational policy response typically builds on a relatively clear articulation of the relationships between the actions proposed and their anticipated effects. For climate change, science has attempted to develop an understanding of a highly complex system from which policy responses can be developed. Despite large strides in scientific progress, great uncertainties remain of the identification, location, timing, extent, and seriousness of climate change impacts. Contrasting with many pollution problems, climate change is a real time and singular issue (i.e., there is only one global climate), so that the ultimate effectiveness of actions taken is difficult to assess.

However it is viewed, whether ethically, technically, or politically, climate change is a complex problem. Both extant and future generation's interests are involved, in which present actions determine future values to an extent beyond smaller-scale pollution issues. Ecologically, the implications of climate change policies have permanent effects, with the survival of extant ecosystems in many locations being at stake. Other than large-scale nuclear warfare, few other disturbances of human origin have the potential for such large-scale ecological change. Competing preferences and values between social groups, nations, corporations, and with non-human entities and interests must be resolved, but whatever policy decisions are taken, these will necessarily produce great redistributions of utility, for want of a better term.

Actions to significantly curtail greenhouse gas emissions will entail expenditure, although cost estimates of the transition to a 'low carbon or no-carbon' future vary greatly. Cheap, abundant, and secure supplies of fossil fuels underpin industrial economies and the export of which is the mainstay of several developing nations. Renewable energy use by industrial nations remains low (see, e.g., the World Energy Assessment (WEA 2000); UNDP et al. 2000), a large portion of which, furthermore, are the ecologically harmful technologies of large-scale hydro electricity and waste combustion. Energy efficiency and energy conservation offer low-cost approaches to greenhouse gases abatement; however, reaching a low-emission condition additionally necessitates widespread application of renewable energy. Economically, socially, and environmentally, the benefits of the transition away from conventional energy systems to their ecologically more sensitive alternatives are well established (see, e.g., IPCC 1996c, 2001c), and the case for widespread use of renewable energy, compelling. Barriers to the greater implementation of these energy system alternatives are increasingly less technical and more financial, political, and cultural. Framed in this manner, the rationale for understanding climate change as a major ecological problem is clear, and equally so is the difficulty of the task of devising an appropriate international response.

Forming a contrary view of the crisis

Clearly the conventional view of climate change is deficient. Climate change is a product of the routine functioning of industrial society and the international (and national) responses to date are confined within this system of its constituent forms of knowledge, governance, economic relations, nature-society relations, and other factors. Understanding of the climate change problem has generally been identical with these restraints. Breaking out from these limits requires developing a critique of industrial society, that is, a critique of modernity. In the following chapter, a foundation is provided for understanding the development and composition of modern society. Industrial society has been challenged on terms of its nature-society relations, by ecologism and environmentalism, and by postmodernity, which has critically examined the cultural premises of modernity. These critiques have been forged, after a fashion, by environmentalists into something akin to a 'postmodern environmentalism,' an effort that will also be explained and scrutinized for its relevance to the task of addressing the problem of climate change.

Continue reading here: Modernity and postmodernity

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