By Isak Stoddard, Kevin Anderson and Associates (1)
Republished under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
Historical accounts suggest that there was a shared understanding among influential industrialists, scientists, and politicians as early as the late 1980s that anthropogenic climate change was a real concern and that action was needed. Indeed, the topic was addressed in the UN General Assembly in 1988, and the IPCC was established in the same year. Public recognition of the issue started spreading around the world in the 1990s, even if understanding was limited. Had concerted and decisive action been taken at the time, moderate emissions reductions and an incremental transition away from fossil fuels could have averted much of the climate change that now has been locked in. Instead, and in just three decades, more fossil CO2 has been emitted than previously throughout history (804 GtCO2 in the 240 years 1750–1990 and 872 GtCO2 in the three decades 1990–2019). The cumulative nature of CO2 emissions has accelerated the rate and depth at which fundamental, system-level change has become necessary if societal development pathways are to be reconciled with the political commitments in the Paris Agreement. For wealthier, industrialized countries, delivering on the Paris temperature commitments and the principles of equity enshrined in the agreement now requires rates of territorial mitigation above 10% per annum.
However difficult or unlikely such an unprecedented and rapid transformation of industrialized societies may seem, failing to do so will further exacerbate the intra- and intergenerational suffering that already has been locked in. Challenging levels of adaptation and irreversible loss and damage (i.e., harms to human livelihoods and ecosystems resulting from sudden-onset events or slow-onset processes from climate change, which cannot be mitigated or adapted to) are now present-day realities facing communities around the world. One increasingly common way to relate to this predicament, across disciplinary domains, is through the lens of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a grand story of humanity’s long-lasting imprint on this planet. It is a concept that draws attention to the magnitude and consequences of a warming world and highlights that the irreversible damage already done to vulnerable ecosystems and people will extend across many millennia. In contrast to the past 12,000 years of relative climate stability, known to geologists as the Holocene, the Anthropocene has been described as an unpredictable and dangerous era in planetary history when humanity has become a major force of nature that is changing the dynamics and functioning of Earth itself. Even if there is considerable disagreement about the meaning, implications, and appropriateness of the term, the Anthropocene has prompted new ways of thinking about our relationship to the natural world, to ourselves, and to our collective existence (15). In a time of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, extreme weather, and mass species extinction, many conventional systems of knowledge and institutional practice are challenged and may need to be radically rethought.
Reviewing Three Decades Of Climate Mitigation Through Nine Thematic Lenses
In reviewing possible reasons as to why the global emissions curve continues upwards, the first two authors of this article (Stoddard and Anderson) formulated nine thematic lenses to structure the process. They cover issues of international climate governance, the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry, geopolitics and militarism, economics and financialization, mitigation modeling, energy supply systems, inequity, high-carbon lifestyles and social imaginaries. These lenses were chosen to complement other recent reviews on, for example, carbon lock-ins, discourses of climate delay, and interdisciplinary research agendas.
For each thematic lens, a pair of additional coauthors were then invited to conduct expert reviews. As no single discipline can explain the sheer scale of the failure to effectively tackle climate change, the lenses drew on broad sets of literature from across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. To ensure some breadth and diversity within each lens, and as a form of internal peer-review, the author pairs were selected, in part, for their different engagement with, and interpretation of, the relevant research. In line with calls for more critical research agendas, authors with a distinct ability to critique orthodoxy and provide perspectives drawing on more heterodox schools of thought were prioritized.
The process of writing this article has been iterative and humbling. The nine lenses provided key insights into the apparently inexorable rise in emissions, but with each insight came new questions and the prospect of still other lenses. As the article coalesced, it became increasingly evident that any attempt to distil a single clear narrative was misguided. Surveying the lenses from a distance, however, suggested several common threads around which they might be clustered, but as with all clustering different threads emerged with each scan. It was only when these alternatives were considered in the context of the article’s core rationale that a stronger sense of direction became apparent, and power emerged as a particularly important thread to emphasize.
On the face of it, a focus on power offers little different than many other analyses but, nevertheless, emerged as a recurrent and important motif in all of the reviews. Reflecting on how power wove through the different lenses opened up important distinctions in how it was both conceived and played out. Ultimately, a first cluster of lenses was seen as embedding deep-seated and largely unchallenged forms of power. Such power has come to shape debates, control institutions, and describe the boundary of the paradigm within which most societies implicitly operate. It is within this rarefied world that questions of global governance, geopolitics and militarism and, arguably, vested interests of the fossil fuel industry can be said to reside, caricatured in this article as the Davos cluster.
Within a second cluster of lenses are forms of power that can more appropriately be described as instrumental, whereby ostensibly “objective” analysis operates within—and thereby reinforces—the deeply subjective boundaries decreed by the powers of the Davos cluster. Here, the image is of a legitimizing collaborator, the Enabler cluster, whereby responses to all issues (including climate change) can be addressed within the contemporary socioeconomic paradigm. (Davos is a Swiss ski resort and home to the annual, invitation-only, World Economic Forum, which engages “the foremost political, business, cultural and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.”)
Whether it’s the unchallenged dominance of mainstream economics and finance, the narrow techno-economic rationality underpinning global mitigation models, or the self-reinforcing technological determinism of centralized and large-scale energy supply, all see the future as a simple extension of today. Yet, and despite their existing and tacit allegiance to the Davos cluster, it is within this “expert” realm that the power to both legitimize and undermine the status quo resides. In that regard, it has the potential of being highly influential and a facilitator of rapid change.
A final cluster gathers lenses that explore phenomena that are arguably more elastic and with the potential to both indirectly maintain and explicitly reject and reshape existing norms. Many of the topics addressed here can be appropriately characterized as bottom-up, with strong and highly diverse cultural foundations. Although they are influenced by global and regional social norms, the expert framing of institutions, and the constraints of physical infrastructure (from housing to transport networks), they are also domains of experimentation, new norms, and cultural change. Building on this potential for either resisting or catalyzing change, the caricature chosen here is one of avian metaphor and myth: the Ostrich and Phoenix cluster. Ostrich-like behavior—keeping heads comfortably hidden in the sand—is evident in different ways across the lenses of inequity, high-carbon lifestyles, and social imaginaries, which make up this cluster. Yet, these lenses also point to the power of ideas, to how people can thrive beyond dominant norms, and to the possibility of rapid cultural change in societies—all forms of transformation reminiscent of the mythological phoenix born from the ashes of its predecessor. It is conceivable that this cluster could begin to redefine the boundaries of analysis that inform the Enabler cluster, which in turn has the potential to erode the legitimacy of the Davos cluster. The very early signs of such disruption are evident in some of the following sections and are subsequently elaborated upon in the latter part of the discussion.
(1) Complete list of authors: Isak Stoddard, Kevin Anderson, Stuart Capstick, Wim Carton, Joanna Depledge, Keri Facer, Clair Gough, Frederic Hache, Claire Hoolohan, Martin Hultman, Niclas Hällström, Sivan Kartha, Sonja Klinsky, Magdalena Kuchler, Eva Lövbrand, Naghmeh Nasiritousi, Peter Newell, Glen P. Peters, Youba Sokona, Andy Stirling, Matthew Stilwell, Clive L. Spash, and Mariama Williams