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The trouble with how we talk about climate change

It’s a rare day when the news doesn’t cover something related to climate change, whether biodiversity loss, climate refugees, retreating glaciers, or an extreme weather event. Though it’s broadly accepted that climate change is caused by “us,” at some level, we often assume the solutions are covered and controlled by experts, especially natural scientists, engineers, national governments, and international organizations. In that sense, climate change is not in our hands, even as it lies at our feet. Another tendency of the daily climate change reminders is to suggest that we are all in this together. That this is a global challenge, and that we stand shoulder to shoulder in a global lifeboat, collectively imperilled by climate change.

These are oversimplifications.

And they boil down to five problematic “reductionisms.” In academese, we term these disciplinary, participatory, experiential, teleological, and species reductionisms.

The first—disciplinary reductionism—is to focus on the men (mostly) in white coats (largely). This makes sense; when we want our car fixed, we go to a mechanic, not an anthropologist. When we want to understand climate change, we go to the scientists engaged in measuring and understanding the atmosphere and the physical world around us. However, when climate change comes home, into our lives and livelihoods, we must think more broadly about its effects. On how we feel, what we do, and on what we know, and what we don’t. Natural science alone is simply not enough. Climate change is social and cultural, as well as natural. And, of course, also economic and political—making it a matter of justice.

Public participation needs to be much more than merely passive or nominal to ensure justice.

The second—participatory reductionism—is to be a passive recipient of expert knowledge. While experts do provide important information about the reality of climate change, it’s also important for non-experts to share the knowledge that they, too, might offer. We should be engaged in expressing our views, meaningfully engaging with debates, and encouraged to do so; indeed, to collectively produce knowledge. What do we think of geo-engineering? Of the trade-offs that are at the heart of addressing climate change? Such public participation needs to be much more than merely passive or nominal to ensure justice.

The third—experiential reductionism—refers to the way in which scientists and policymakers see the world through lenses colored by their own professional concerns, and influenced by their own interests. But many other issues take priority in people’s minds beyond climate change (e.g., struggling to make ends meet, finding enough clean water to sustain one’s family for the day). These are often dominant in shaping decisions and actions. Such concerns need to be taken seriously, and not just regarded as background “noise.” This is not how most people see and experience the world. To ignore these perspectives is to ignore true climate justice.

Fourth, how will the future look? Teleological reductionism refers to the tendency of climate change science to use models, based on current knowledge, to forecast future conditions, albeit with various degrees of confidence. Such unilinear thinking arguably make it hard to entertain alternative futures. Indeed, some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that such future thinking actually helps to realize such futures. The world could look different—to achieve justice, we must challenge ourselves to imagine so.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the species reductionism of the global—the tendency to view a global problem as a global experience. It isn’t, and it won’t be. Global inequalities, whether between or within countries, will have their climate change parallels. And it is not just a case of rich and poor; ethnic minorities, older adults, women, and children will experience, be exposed to and—critically—insulate themselves from climate change in different ways. Even you and your next door neighbor, for instance, may respond differently. In short, climate science needs to come home.

Together, these reductionisms make climate change a matter of justice. Who is hurt by climate change? And compared with who is to “blame”? Why are some groups affected more than others? And how do we respond in tailored ways that take people’s lived experiences, needs, and knowledge into account? By challenging these reductionisms—by widening our lens—we contextualize climate change and increase our chance of achieving meaningful, sustainable change.

Featured image: “Phayao, Pha Chang Noi, Thailand” by Boudewijn Huysmans. Public Domain via Unsplash. 

Recent Comments

  1. William

    A recipe for inaction. Typical sociologically infected introspection. By the time we give even cursory attendance to these squeamish academic considerations we will be gone as a species (along with many others).

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