Climate Change Changes Everything


Climate change changes everything. Hardly am I the first to say it – yet neither can I recall seeing elsewhere the simple outline I have in mind. What follows is a discipline-by-discipline tally of assumptions altered and challenges encountered.

Six Angles of View
Geophysical: We learn that human activity can cause planetary-scale perturbations. Ten thousand years of Holocene, a time of relative climate stability, transitions to Anthropocene.

Business, engineering and design: Supplying human needs for food, heat, shelter, electricity, transport and so on, while simultaneously reducing overall emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases, presents an era-defining challenge.

Social-economic: A price on greenhouse gases can bolster market incentives for meeting business, engineering and design challenges. Beyond this important policy goal lie deeper questions of how to value the future and what it means to weigh the expensive against the priceless.

: Leak-proof (or leak-resistant) pricing of greenhouse gases is only possible through an enforceable international regime. To satisfy notions of fairness, enactment of a global agreement will likely have to account for national (or sub-national) variations in development and population. Perceptions of self interest will naturally be factors as well.

Ethical: Questions of fairness and self interest have been examined from many angles, including cognitive, political and economic. In this issue of P&P, Peter Singer and Dale Jamieson each draw upon philosophical approaches to trace the ethical links from climate-changing actions to consequences. Or as sociologist Ulrich Beckposits: It is through the shared risks of climate change that we can no longer “exclude the other,” that the much-heralded global community becomes a stark reality.

Biological-cognitive-social: When facing a risk like climate change, are there biological-cognitive-social constraints on the human capacity for sufficient response? Slow-moving, distant threats like climate change may lack biological or cognitive immediacy. Existing cultural standards or taboos may fail to account for excessively climate-changing actions. And the capacity for global-scale cooperation and collaboration may not be able to supersede misleading or recently antiquated imperatives of individual or national self interest. Adaptability, creativity and sociality will all be tested.

This listing no doubt leaves much room for clarification or improvement, and I welcome your thoughts.

One observation on these climate change perspectives is pretty clear: They have attracted widely divergent levels of scrutiny. The geophysical sciences are closely examined (on Real Climate, for example) as are business, engineering and design solutions (onGreenBiz or Worldchanging, for example). Political angles [in the U.S.] gain national consideration (on Climate Progress, for example). But, generally speaking, attention deficit kicks in after that.

On P&P, we seek both a more varied and a more integral view. Thanks for joining us. Articles will be stored in the issue #2 archive as they are published.

A note on the title: As far as I know, the earliest use of “climate change changes everything” can be traced to Jose Maria Lorenzo Tan andWorld Wildlife Fund–Philippines. IPCC author Tom Downing used the phrase in 2007, and a few months ago, Sarah Kuck of Worldchanging utilized a similar title, “Climate will change everything.” Thanks to Jennifer Marlow, co-organizer of the upcoming Three Degrees Conference, for planting this thought with me.

One caveat: Human-influenced climate change is of course itself but an instance of feedback from a wayward social-ecological relationship. Nevertheless, it is the one that commands greatest attention.

I’ll wrap up with an observation by historian William Cronon, c. 1996: “If we wish to understand the values and motivations that shape our own actions toward the natural world, if we hope for an environmentalism capable of explaining why people use and abuse the earth as they do, then the nature we study must become less natural and more cultural.”

[Update: I should mention a related perspective: Climate Adaptation for Resilient Communities.]