What is the true meaning of climate change?

At national and international levels climate change policy is in a state of almost total paralysis. There is much talk, but very little substantive action.

In part, this paralysis stems from the different ways in which society makes sense of the phenomenon of climate change. Naming and characterising these competing frames is enormously useful in understanding – and perhaps doing something about – the policy paralysis.

In a New Scientist opinion piece (here), Mike Hulme gives a brilliant, concise sketch of four key “myths” about climate change. But these are not myths in the sense of falsehoods, says Hulme – they are myths in the sense of stories that embody deeply held beliefs about the world:

1. The Edenic myth: “the language of lament and nostalgia, revealing our desire to return to a simpler, more innocent era. … Climate is cast as part of a fragile natural world that needs to be protected. … We are uneasy with the unsought powers we now have to change the global climate.”

2. The Apocalyptic myth: “the language of fear and disaster, revealing our worry about the future” but also acting as “a call to action.”

3. The Promethean myth: climate is seen as “something we must control, revealing our desire for dominance and mastery over nature but also that we lack the wisdom and humility to exercise it.”

4. The Themisian myth: “the language of justice and equity. Climate change becomes an idea around which calls for environmental justice are announced, revealing the human urge to right wrongs.” (Themis was the ancient Greek goddess of ‘natural law’.)

These four myths show that climate change is not simply “an environmental problem” around which there is wide agreement, as in the case of ozone depletion for example. Climate change is something much more complex; it is an idea.

Hulme’s analysis has parallels with the ‘images of nature’ categories devised by Arjen Buijs (summarised here). All these images of climate change presented by Hulme are part of the rhetorical landscape of the discourse, pulling in different directions and confusing bystanders and participants alike as they busily contradict each other, talk past each other, and dissipate valuable energy.

Indeed, in another short essay published in The carbon yearbook (pdf here), Hulme notes that, through these ideas, climate change has become “a battleground between different philosophies and practices of science and between different ways of knowing.” Hulme’s four myths bring a lot of clarity to this fog-shrouded battleground. We can see much more plainly the forces ranged upon it; we can see what we are up against.

On such a battleground, the decisive factor is, as always, brute political power. At the moment, the power lies in the hands of the Prometheans – as it has in larger terms, some might argue, in western society for the last 250 years. And so we get a Promethean approach to climate change – maybe the ‘fix’ for our ‘broken’ climate will be carbon capture and storage, or clean coal, or seeding the oceans with iron, or firing aerosols into the upper atmosphere … In the meantime we do as little else as possible.

But if we decide the Promethean approach is unconscionable, and think of promoting a ‘Themisian’ perspective, or perhaps even  some stories previously unheard (indigenous stories for example), we have to ask – how can we possibly challenge the dominant Promethean myth of governments, technocrats and the carbon marketplace?

Hulme, who does not necessarily have this goal in mind, usefully suggests:

Rather than asking: “How do we solve climate change?” we need to turn the question around and ask: “How does the idea of climate change alter the way we arrive at and achieve our personal aspirations and our collective social goals?”

By addressing that question we will mostly likely begin to understand the true meaning of climate change.

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