Politicians don’t lead movements — people do

Debates must be moved from political and academic silos to streets and dinner tables if we want to stop playing the climate change Russian roulette.

San Francisco youth climate strike — March 15, 2019

Peder Hjorth* and Kaveh Madani**

The advent of the steam engine and the water wheel had a decisive impact on development. Humans were no longer solely dependent on muscle power in efforts to transform and exploit the environment. The mechanization of our environment gained momentum year by year, but came with a major unwanted consequence.

The average global temperature is by now about 1ºC higher than it was when the mechanization process took off and unless rapid and very determined actions take place on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, global warming is not going to stop. Whether you call it climate change, climate disaster, climate emergency, or climate crisis, and whether 1.5ºC or 2ºC is set as the bearable limit, the international political system still lacks the adequate practical measures to halt global warming within a reasonable time frame.

Climate change is a major threat — not to the planet necessarily– but, to mankind. The planet may, indeed, be better off without humans interfering with its natural cycles. The atmosphere has actually experienced higher concentrations of CO2 than those we talk about in the climate change debate. The carbon deposits that we are now unearthing at turbo speed are believed to be the product of a balancing act by the nature to reduce the atmospheric CO2 and mean sea level.

We can expect nature to react by reversing its balancing act as a response to our determination to continue to burn carbon, but this will most likely not be a very human-friendly procedure. Even if our civilizations would manage to survive an unchecked temperature increase, the effects would be devastating. Playing Russian roulette with global warming in this way is a much more serious issue than most people appreciate. The failure of our political leaders to ensure a safe future for us represents a crisis of legitimacy of almost unfathomable proportions.

The debate about the implications of climate change is still topsy-turvy. The significance of the unprecedented problems of the Anthropocene is not yet recognized by those politicians who see ingenious humans as capable of overcoming any problem through technical breakthroughs. Nonetheless, political leaders parade in numerous international gatherings that result in what may be compared to ant-steps.

After the Copenhagen 2009 débâcle, advanced diplomatic trickery made the Paris Agreement acceptable to all parties in COP21. But that came at the expense of wording the agreement such that in reality, it does not actually commit anyone to anything. Three years later, in the COP24 meeting in Katowice the politicians were still in a fruitless search of a ‘rulebook’ that can make the Paris Agreement functional.

The Paris negotiators left out key principles such as equity and justice, and dodged some of the harder decisions, hoping that they will be handled in the future meetings. Whatever happened in Paris, we must remember that it is the road through Paris, not the road to Paris, that counts. Thus, it is now increasingly urgent for the civil society to make the politicians deliver on their promises/rhetoric, because politicians don’t lead movements — people do.

There will be no meaningful measures to deal with climate change unless the general public feels into their bones what is at risk. We, therefore, need to create a narrative, a digestible story that clarifies how our planet works and simply explains the interactions between the parts that, together, determine what kind of climate the humans have to live with, and what devastating impacts this may have on things or conditions that are very dear to them.

Our school system and media have come a long way in their efforts to make reflexive thinking of the past. Consequently, many or perhaps the majority of politicians and the general public tend to think that modern man can expand our material limits at will. What also tends to be neglected is that the climate change threat is, however, just one side of the coin.

We need to make clear that climate change is part of a bigger issue — that of sustainable development.

We need to make clear that climate change is part of a bigger issue — that of sustainable development. Thus, the debates of energy dependency and climate change must be moved from the political fuzzwords and academic silos to the streets and dinner tables. Especially, we need to activate the young people and make them aware that they actually have both an opportunity and a pressing need to ensure that a real and effective action is taken. They are the ones that will have to live with our future climate.

Undoubtedly, inequity, both between nations and within nations, has grown significantly since Rio 1992. This has been a strong driver for the profligate resource use and greenhouse gas emissions increase. In Rio, the perfectly achievable dream was to strive for a world that is equitable both within and between generations. This dream was supposed to come true by means of a development that promotes social, economic, and environmental sustainability within the limits of our natural life support systems. However, human behavior has remained utterly inappropriate to this end.

Clearly, the “human ability to do” has vastly outstripped our moral faculties and the human ability to understand. Now it is really the time for reparation and a clear statement from the scientific community that another future is indeed possible if the politicians listen with due diligence to the people who want it and work for it.

Triggering effective action on climate change ultimately requires negotiations with ethics, morality, and meaning-making both in collective and individual terms. The common plea that we need to increase public understanding and access to information will never be sufficient enough to support real change. We must get away from the idea of our planet as a giant shopping mall and from the fascination with the glitter. This requires us to pay more attention to language and mental maps that have a real and tangible influence on public policies, policy makers, and questions that touch our lives.

Climate change communication strategies must change to stop the climate crisis.

Mental frames serve to make us blank all parts of an issue that are outside the frame. Thus, framing easily becomes a damaging mental bias, which distorts the perception and analysis of an issue and the whole decision-making process. Frames are mental structures. They shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world, just like giving people a new prism through which to see the world. Activating new frames would be impossible without developing a new language. Speaking differently is essential to thinking differently.

Looking back to the origin of the environmental movement in the 1960s, one can see two triggers. Firstly, “Silent Spring” that connected the disappearance of beloved species to the industrial abuse of chemical compounds and, secondly, the pictures that NASA produced of the Earth as seen from outer space. Here, the Earth appeared as a tiny and fragile little element in an infinite universe. Both things hit people at their hearts and provoked a number of ethical questions. The reactions were so strong that politicians and lawmakers passed a whole series of regulations to protect our ecosystems. The most interesting example is the US National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) of 1969, which essentially was an early forerunner of Agenda 21, even if being restricted to concern about the welfare of contemporary and future Americans.

If the NASA pictures of the Earth in the 1960s had made visible the hungry, angry earthlings down there — and the smoke and the sewage and trash and sophisticated weaponry, the general public would probably have expressed much deeper and persistent concerns about the outcomes of our current development path.

If the NASA pictures of the Earth in the 1960s had made visible the hungry, angry earthlings down there — and the smoke and the sewage and trash and sophisticated weaponry, the general public would probably have expressed much deeper and persistent concerns about the outcomes of our current development path. These examples indicate what kind of qualities a narrative needs to have in order to achieve some reframing and awake the ethical side of the man in the street. Numbers produced by the scientists and promoted by the IPCC reports do not provoke strong feelings.

If we want people to wake up and change minds, it’s often necessary to reframe the mainstream questions. There are nearly always old arguments, philosophical differences, and vested interests that shape the way a question gets discussed. We must always be careful and reflect on whether it is the right questions that are being asked. Systematic frameworks can help us define general objectives without specifying uniform approaches and activities. They also offer a potent methodology to make sure that problems posed are adequately defined and to detect biases in goal formulation stemming either from dominant actors or from “solution oriented approaches”.

The Agenda 2030 is committed to “leave no one behind”. This calls for an increased concern about the wellbeing of the most vulnerable, who also tend to be those most severely hurt by climate change. The UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are all valuable and need increased attention and support. However, they remain unachievable unless a more ethical framework for responsible political leadership emerges.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the year 2030

We can no longer afford to accept the mainstream dogma that there are no alternatives to the existing models of governing the world and running our economies. So, it is becoming increasingly urgent for the society to confront the politicians and force them to stop the shift that is transforming the living earth to a warehouse for natural resources and a playground for consumerism and exploitation, if a lasting future for humankind is desired.

About the authors

Peder Hjorth, Lund University
Peder Hjorth, Lund University

*Peder Hjorth is a sustainable development and water management researcher at Lund University, Sweden.

Kaveh Madani, Yale University
Kaveh Madani, Yale University

**Kaveh Madani (Twitter: @KavehMadani) is a former Vice President of the UN Environment Assembly Bureau. He is currently a Henry Hart Senior Fellow at Yale University and a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Environmental Policy of Imperial College London. He has previously served as the Deputy Head of Iran’s Department of Environment and led the country’s negotiations team at COP23 in Bonn, Germany. More about this author: www.kavehmadani.com

Former Deputy Head of Iran’s Department of Environment, Ex-VP of United Nations Environment Assembly Bureau, Rice Senior Fellow at Yale, www.kavehmadani.com