Climate crisis: a challenge for society

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

Climate change has shifted from being an environmental problem to a societal one. Lifestyles, social organisation and systems of governance are all set to change. The social sciences and humanities community is actively seeking new avenues for collective action …

“We are facing the most serious threat the world has ever seen, which poses a historic challenge for collective action,” warns Scott Barrett, economist and professor at Washington’s Johns Hopkins University (USA). At a conference held in Paris from 22 to 23 September 2008, the issue under debate was global warming. European and American economists, psychologists, geographers, law and philosophy experts, the media, political scientists and population scientists gathered at the conference entitled ‘Social sciences and humanities facing climate change challenges’, organised by the Toulouse School of Economics in connection with France’s presidency of the European Union. The conference was designed to foster interdisciplinary exchanges in the social sciences and humanities (SSH) field. The challenge is being taken up by the European Commission, which has implemented its first SSH programme worth €600 million to last the full term of the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development.

Towards a new form of climate governance?

“Development is the most crucial issue for tackling climate change,” said Amy Dahan, historian and philosopher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). To fully understand the issues at stake, there needs to be a review of international negotiations. The target set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for late 2009, when the first series of commitments undertaken under the Kyoto protocol are due to expire, is to reach an ambitious new intergovernmental treaty to continue reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions after 1 January 2013.

The target put forward in late 2007 was to halve GHG emissions by the year 2050. The problem is that developing countries feel that this places unfair limitations on their growth and want the industrialised countries to continue their efforts alone until 2020. So, the first prerequisite is to give developing countries a guarantee that their legitimate aspiration for better living conditions will not be denied. “We must change our ways too,” adds Amy Dahan. “If we don’t, it will be impossible for the North and South to reach agreement on how we can all live and consume in the future while emitting as little carbon as possible. This is the point on which we must move forward now.”

Is it possible to use our existing technologies and infrastructure and our existing market and institutions to achieve the transition to a post-carbon society? “We have been trying to do just that for 25 years to no avail,” replies Scott Barrett, adding: “There are no economic incentives for developing cleaner and more efficient technologies and disseminating them worldwide. The Kyoto protocol will change nothing.” Scott Barrett has proposed a solution inspired by the Montreal protocol’s success in eliminating substances that deplete the ozone layer. “According to my estimates, the Montreal protocol has achieved a target five times higher than the Kyoto protocol target, without even trying,” he pointed out. He says that first we need to identify the most effective incentives for each economic sector (including the electricity, automobile and maritime transport industries) to bring about technological change in that sector. Separate treaties should then be concluded to secure intergovernmental agreement in each sector.

Scott Barrett sees no other solution and points out that, if the negotiations fail, there will be a great temptation to accept global warming as a fact of life and to confine investment to damage-limitation sectors, such as dykes, air conditioning or irrigation systems, with disastrous consequences for some of the world’s populations.

Getting people’s imaginations moving

“There’s no way out without social innovation,” says Amy Dahan. The fifth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which plans to completely overhaul the scenarios developed 20 years ago, could introduce new opportunities for reflection. These overly technical old, scenarios, with different uncertainty intervals, failed to win over public opinion. They were designed from a global perspective and have proven to be contradictory on a local scale, so they will be reviewed. “This provides an ideal opportunity for social scientists and politicians to engage in a public debate concerning our choices for society between now and the end of the century,” she adds. The agenda will include testing the social acceptability of the different options, supporting field experiments and identifying obstacles. “If we don’t do that, how can we get people’s imaginations moving?”

Numerous stakeholders across all disciplines are eagerly awaiting just such a movement towards informed, active and committed citizen participation. Isn’t it happening already? According to Richard Norgaard, an ecological economics expert at the University of California in Berkeley (USA), “An emerging feature of the current system is the increasing involvement of individuals in NGOs or in religious activities throughout the world, seen from a perspective of human co-evolution with the Earth.” By engaging in these activities, individuals appear to find intellectual and social satisfaction and a sense of identity that provide an alternative to consumption. Our ways of living and thinking seem to be changing. “In conjunction with the democratic and discursive collective processes already at work in science, these changes may already be leading us in a new direction, with opportunities for a new type of governance,” comments Richard Norgaard.

Overhauling the legislative system?

Legislation should make better provision for resource depletion, ecosystem services and the value of something as priceless as a climate compatible with life on Earth. But can legislation achieve this goal in a failing economy? As things stand at present, the answer is no. “We must invent new legal structures and introduce Earth jurisprudence, which could provide the framework for a new form of governance,” says Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency. For example, we must ensure that there is legal representation for endangered natural areas such as rivers, glaciers or forests and for endangered species. Jacqueline McGlade explains that, to combat global warming effectively, “in Europe, we must secure the right for new clean and renewable energy resources to be exploited locally, with surplus energy being sold to a decentralised distribution grid.” Essayist Jeremy Rifkin coined the idea of a ‘third industrial revolution’, which the European Parliament took up in its written declaration of 12 February 2007 calling for a transition to renewable energies, a hydrogen economy and intelligent power grid generation – the three fundamental pillars for ushering in the Third Industrial Revolution (publication no. 00016/2007).

It is difficult to predict which solutions will finally be selected to respond to the climate crisis. Will they reflect the wide diversity of human needs and lifestyles in the world? Which values, which interests will ultimately guide decision-making? We need to make up our minds on these key questions. Urgently.

Sandrine Dewez


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Global warming puts our values to the test

Am I attached to traditional values, or am I modern or even progressive? What challenges will I have to face when the consequences of global warming challenge my value system? Karen O’Brien, a human geography expert from the University of Oslo is exploring these and other questions on how humans and society adapt to change. She says that when the most vulnerable populations all across the world are disastrously exposed to rising temperatures, it means that certain benefits will be lost to the entire human race and nothing we do to adapt will enable us to make up for them. “If we fail to take into account human values, the things that are intrinsically desirable to each of us and that govern our vision of the world, if we fail to realise how these values will be affected by climate change, we will misjudge our real ability to adapt,” she adds.


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