Critical decisions about our collective future rapidly unfold in the interstices of human institutions and the environment. Prominently nested here are considerations about how we protect ourselves from the climate - adaptation - and the climate from us - mitigation.
A number of scholars have worked to make sense of these high stakes, high profile and highly-politicised interactions. Among them, Simon Dalby has noted in his work, climate mitigation and adaptation decision-making pose significant challenges not just for the climate and environment, but also for the resilience of institutions as multiple scales of governance. Furthermore, climate change is a diffuse and global issue that reaches across many cultures and requires massive amounts of resources over many generations. Each of these characteristics have impeded substantive policy progress on contemporary climate change to date.
Silvio Funtawicz and Jerry Ravetz have described these complex current circumstances as ‘post-normal’, where science-policy interactions are turbulent, characterised in four primary ways: uncertain facts, disputed values, high stakes and politicised alternatives for action. By acknowledging that climate science-policy activities cannot achieve complete certainty and objectivity, they have sought to help acknowledge the need for decision-making amid uncertainties. Moreover, their work has endeavored to help inform a spectrum of possible actions rather than providing simple justifications for inaction, where they open up perennially vexing problems through greater accounting of context, values, morals and multiple regimes of “truth”.
Scholarly interventions like these call attention to ways in which these endeavors are highly contentious undertakings: substantive actions posed here cut to the heart of industry, economy, politics and society in the 21st century. As such, from local adaptation strategies to international treaty developments on reducing deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), the power-infused ‘politics of climate change’ are as pervasive and contested as ever.
Over the past two and a half decades, the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has worked to enhance understanding of global climate change through careful interpretations of emerging climate research via peer-reviewed and consensus-driven processes. The IPCC has taken up a primarily ‘managerial discourse’: by drawing authority primarily from scientific findings, focusing largely on macro-scale solutions and finally through basing actions predominantly on external policy interventions.
Such a discourse can be juxtaposed with other approaches such as grassroots and social movements discourses, which emanate from more localised and bottom-up processes. Increasingly, these types of interventions – such as those from indigenous peoples regarding REDD+ governance in the tropics as well as warming impacts in polar regions – have gained more audible voices in negotiations regarding climate mitigation and adaptation.
Yet, it is work from the IPCC that acts principally as a global-scale authority to interact with national and international policy discourses in United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) negotiations, such as the current COP17 meeting in Durban, South Africa. Over time, this ‘managerial discourse’ has tethered institutional activities and actors storylines that surround human contributions to climate change, and has reproduced itself (or has sought to do so) through policy-relevant decisions.
While international negotiations grope for pathways of progress over the chasm of ongoing North-South debates, local communities and regional networks have been moving forward with climate mitigation and adaptation actions. For example, the network of regional and local governments for sustainability called ‘ICLEI’ has grown to over a thousand communities involved in climate actions over the past two decades.
These community-based actions have then scaled up in powerful and influential ways. The group has facilitated activities that reach to seventy countries, and an estimation of nearly 600 million citizens around the world. As another example, in 2005 in the United States (US), Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels launched an initiative to advance the goals of the Kyoto Protocol at the municipal level, by encouraging various US cities to pledge to meet or beat Kyoto targets of 7% greenhouse gas emissions reductions from 1990s levels. What began as the endeavor of a few cities quickly grew to commitments from over 1,000 US Mayors representing approximately 90 million residents (about a quarter of the US population).
Global decisions – in the international arena – logically have the ability to influence more people more efficiently than many efforts at the local level. For example, a global cap on per capita carbon emissions has far greater and more immediate impact than community-level voluntary commitments such as those of the ‘US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement’. Therefore, global action may be seen as the more preferable avenue for substantive climate action.
But in terms of engaging with people, local initiatives contain the ability to inspire greater accountability, responsibility and help people to understand and locate their place of potential positive engagement in what can often be a daunting global challenge.
These comments do not mean to suggest that there is a binary logic to these considerations. 21st century climate policy progress will be comprised of multi-scale engagements. And multi-scale approaches have become more nuanced, varied and necessary in recent years.
Cooperative efforts such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development – an alliance of more than two hundred multi-national firms – have sought to take up low-carbon initiatives to decouple economic growth with environmental impacts. At the primarily local level, efforts like the Eco-Renovation initiative in Oxfordshire, England have engaged in regional, cross-sectoral enterprises to promote significant low carbon refurbishment of UK homes, reducing GHG emissions at the household as well as national level. These multi-scale alliances and activities illustrated the rapidly expanding engagement in the public sphere with climate change challenges.
While looking for effective spaces where “solutions” can grow and thrive, it is worth recalling the cautionary words of scholar Mike Hulme: “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?”
There is no blueprint for implementation of the principles and policies that stakeholders can and should commit to in order to ensure the integrity of public action on climate change. Yet work to find ‘solutions’ from the global to the local are worthwhile endeavors. Associated science and policy deliberations on these vital issues cut to the heart of how we live, work, play and relax in modern life, and thus critically shape our everyday lives, lifestyles and livelihoods.
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