The COP 17 meeting is again making global climate change front page news. As if we could forget. Climate change is rather remarkable in the extent to which it has managed to galvanise people across cultures and continents. Increasingly, ordinary people all over the world are attributing everyday observations of weather and seasonality to global climate change. But little scrutiny is given in these conversations as to what exactly is ‘global’ about climate change.
Climate change is global first because it is projected to impact on the entire planet. Nowhere is safe, according to computerised models that attempt to understand how rainfall and temperature will change. In part because of these universal impacts, political solutions are seen to require similarly global, coordinated responses. But perhaps more importantly, climate change is considered global because of the way in which it connects different parts of the globe to one other. Emissions produced in North America and Europe, for example, will impact on climate in Africa and South Asia. As the world watches the negotiations in Durban, it is worth exploring each of these in more depth to understand exactly how and why climate change is a global system and to interrogate the political consequences of framing the problem as ‘global’.
Our knowledge of climate change owes at least as much to computer modellers as it does to atmospheric scientists. Given the challenges of collecting samples or observations of everyday and seasonal changes in the gas composition of the upper atmosphere, atmospheric science is heavily dependent on modelling. Computer models allow scientists to input data from both the past and present and use the models to generate scenarios. By trial and error, they have managed to produce models that can accurately show changes in temperature and rainfall over the past couple of centuries for areas in which long-term, observational records exist. Their work is what first brought climate change to our attention.
The models themselves have been important in terms of framing climate change as a ‘global’ problem. Early versions were very coarse-grained, with the technology and the data available both demanding that scientists homogenised large parts of the world such that all they were able to show were large-scale, regionally-based predictions. As a result, ‘climate change’ was understood to be a problem across large areas and to effect big parts of the globe in the same manner.
Yet, the evidence emerging suggests that the impacts of climate change will be more localised and specific than the predictions generated from these models. Certainly from the point of view of peoples’ lives, how average temperatures will change in a specific valley or town, rather than the average across say, an entire country like Switzerland, is the most important consideration.
If the average is 2 degrees C, it could well be that in a particular valley or at particular altitudes rainfall will become increasingly scarce and temperatures will rise by more than the 2 degree average. Indeed, because of the need to understand climate change more accurately at the regional level, more modelling efforts are already being directed at smaller scales and there is a push to collect data in areas where long term records do not exist. These issues are relevant not only at the scale of the valley, but also at larger scales, bringing into question the usefulness of thinking about climate change as a ‘global’ problem. How would the Durban COP 17 negotiations differ if climate change was thought of as a series of local or regional problems that need to be individually addressed?
While physical science may have laid the foundations for framing climate change as a ‘global’ problem, social and political factors have also had an influence. Two issues are important here. First, because the atmosphere cannot be contained or partitioned off, emissions produced anywhere in the world are relevant for the rest of the world. If one country makes a commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 70%, it will be meaningless if the world’s largest polluters do not also make similar efforts at reducing their emissions. The COP negotiations themselves are a product of this inter-linkage between the physical realities of climate change and the political realities of separate nation states.
Yet global agreements are not the same as the ‘global’ nature of the problem. Climate change is not, fundamentally, a global phenomenon. Rather, it is the net result of multiple changes in atmospheric gas concentrations interacting with radiation from the sun, causing a variety of temperature and rainfall variations. These variations are place-specific. They are not the same everywhere and the risks of climate change are highly variable across the globe. Even emissions themselves are highly localised in terms of which nation-states are the biggest emitters right the way down to which industries, which factories, and which cars are most to blame.
When the problem is framed globally it has three consequences. First, it provides justification for a number of top-down measures to gain compliance. Many adaptation and mitigation programmes have paternalistic undertones and millions of dollars have been earmarked for research on how to change the behaviour of ordinary people. REDD+, for example, seeks to encourage forest conservation by paying developing countries for carbon credits gained from forest protection. While in principal it is difficult to find fault with these goals, in practice the international community is effectively dictating to developing countries how they ought to be using their natural resources, a practice that has long roots in our shared colonial histories. Further, it provides excuses for governments to centralise forestry governance, excluding the poorest of the poor from having a voice in the process. In some places, decentralisation gains made during the era of participatory development are being clawed back as central bureaucrats see REDD+ as an opportunity to once again control the management and revenue of forests.
Second, the nature of the predictions emerging from climate change models has led to a focus on food security and climate justice issues across large regions. Productive resources in Africa, for example, are expected to be disproportionately impacted, raising serious questions of environmental justice. Most states in Africa are some of the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases yet their populations are projected to be some of the hardest hit with drought and temperature increases. While there is no reason to dispute these predictions, the scale at which they are made fails to account for the politics of power and resource distribution within nation-states. It is not that the African continent as a whole will suffer. On the contrary, some actors in Africa will undoubtedly gain as they are able to profit off their control over increasingly scarce water, land or food. The global framing of climate change obscures such issues and assumes evenly distributed impacts within regional populations.
Third, framing the problem globally tends to bring attention to two scales of analysis only: the global (through global political agreements or global average temperatures) and the national (through laws and tax incentives). There is very little attention to the way networks of actors can be harnessed to address emission reduction problems that span regions and cross national boundaries but do not necessarily have a global presence. The emphasis seems to be on bringing nation-states into an agreement about compliance and then to encourage individuals to change their everyday behaviours to help cut emissions. But solutions to climate change are far more likely to be successful if medium-sized and regional groups are targeted. Perhaps the follow up to Durban needs to be a series of globally supported, but regionally autonomous meetings that seek to find solutions to the localised problems of climate change and allow a broader range of actors to define exactly what is global about climate change.
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