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September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

Beyond Global Warming: A Leap of Imagination

Patricia Vieira

Who is responsible for the current environmental catastrophe? Scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations depend upon political and economic decisions that, in turn, are the outcome of our attitudes towards the environment, other living beings, and even ourselves. Therefore, climate change is, first and foremost, a product of our mindset, externalized into the ways in which we shape the world around us. The very expression “climate change,” frequently used instead of the more accurate term “global warming,” is already a sign of the problem. “Change” can be, and often is, something good, but massive plant and animal extinctions, the desertification of large areas of the globe, or the acidification of the oceans, to name just a few consequences of the Earth’s increasing average temperatures, are certainly not positive developments. Let us identify the three main tenets of the worldview that has spawned global warming and point towards some possible solutions: 

1. Renewal Fallacy

The seriousness of global warming is often dismissed by those who believe that mother nature can renew itself and absorb the impact of human-generated pollution. A subset of this argument indicates other planets as a quick fix to our difficulties: Why don’t we export our nuclear waste to the moon? Or colonize Mars, once the Earth is too dirty for us to inhabit it?  

The first step in dealing with global warming is recognizing that, for the foreseeable future, human beings are tied to the Earth as the only livable planet and that nature’s capacity to renew itself has long been overstepped. Earth Overshoot Day—the day when we exhaust the resources the Earth is able to renew in 12 months—arrives earlier each year; it fell on August 8 in 2016. We are to blame for global warming and there is no way out of the problem but to collectively try to solve it.  

2. Anthropocentric Hubris
Human beings tend to consider themselves as the pinnacle of Creation or, in a secularized version, as the apex of nature: the most intelligent, versatile, and powerful of animals. If, following the moral law developed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, we believe that we should treat people as ends in themselves, we consider all other living beings and the Earth as a whole—the mountains, the oceans, whatever is below the ground—as means at our disposal to fulfill our ends.  

Addressing global warming entails extending respect to all living beings. Humanity is part and parcel of the continuum of life and does not have the right to exploit non-humans at will. Plants and animals, together with the world’s poorest communities, suffer most of the consequences of human-induced climatic alterations. If speciesism often goes hand-in-hand with racism, abolishing an anthropocentric approach to the Earth and to its non-human inhabitants would also go a long way towards eradicating the inequalities that plague humanity.  

3. (Im)Possible World

Even those who acknowledge the severity of global warming are frequently convinced that it is impossible to do anything about about it. Such is the power of our technocratic, capitalist ideology that tells us our society, our well-being, our very lives, depend on continued economic growth and consumption, tied to the use of fossil fuels and other polluting technologies.  

We need to envision a future different from the present, one where ecological concerns would trump monetary gains, politics would be concerned with protecting our common home, and science and technology would be put at the service of life. This leap of imagination is the key dimension in our fight against global warming today.

Patrícia Vieira is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese, comparative literature, and film and media studies at Georgetown University. Her most recent book States of Grace: Utopia in Brazilian Culture is forthcoming in 2017 with SUNY University Press.

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