Global Future of the Environment

Global Future of the Environment

September 12, 2016

Climate Change as a Function of Social Change

Randall Amster

As we consider the nexus of issues under the rubric of climate change, there is an increasing emphasis on the scientific and technological dimensions of the problem. This turn is understandable in light of the magnitude of the moment, as reflected in the dire projections of scientists indicating that our collective environmental footprint is impinging directly upon the “safe operating space” for humanity that has enabled the advent of complex societies.

The critical nature of these concerns is encapsulated by the recommendation of an influential working group to formally designate this epoch as the Anthropocene, due to factors including large-scale perturbations in baseline chemical processes and significant alterations to global climate—culminating in this sobering assessment: “Many of these changes are geologically long-lasting, and some are effectively irreversible.”

No wonder, then, that among many concerned parties the impetus is toward finding quick fixes to match the urgency of the situation, often devolving upon the technical aspects of developing new energy sources, curtailing carbon emissions, and even potentially intervening more dramatically through geoengineering in an attempt to reverse rapidly deteriorating conditions.

This sensibility infuses the discourse, as with Bill McKibben’s recent article likening the battle against climate change to a “world war” and advocating a swift conversion to a green energy economy on a par with the industrial mobilization undergirding U.S. involvement in World War II. McKibben’s formulation is replete with reminders that this is a war we are currently losing (with the “enemy” identified as no less than “the laws of physics” themselves), and furthermore that “winning slowly is exactly the same as losing” in the context of climate change.

While noting the earnestness of such insights, we might also consider their limitations. Undoubtedly, we need to make significant inroads immediately in order to have any chance of averting the worst impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. And yet, if we rely primarily upon technological fixes while leaving the basic structural arrangements of society in place, it is likely that we will only find ourselves back to confronting root causes again while failing to forestall the crisis.

It is at this juncture that the interconnectedness of climate change and social change becomes salient. Confronting ostensible “enemies” such as carbon levels and the laws of nature tempts us into “fighting” in the geophysical realm, while deflecting our own culpability in fomenting the predicament—reminiscent of Pogo’s lamentation that “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Discernible patterns of gross inequality, mass displacement, and endemic intolerance represent more complex factors existing in both a cause and effect relationship with climate change. The core of the dilemma is as much a function of “software” as it is “hardware” and, as history counsels, our inclination to overlook enduring injustices cannot be offset by our willingness to embrace emergent innovations. Rethinking our relationships to one another and the habitat must coincide with our search for technical solutions to the climate crisis if we are to do more than simply borrow time.

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. He is the editor-in-chief of the Contemporary Justice Review, and is the author of books including 
Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015).

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