Our generation will face problems which have never been encountered before. Are we doomed to suffer the consequences of climate change? Can societies adapt the way they deal with the climate? What can we expect to happen? These questions are central to humanity, yet the science and politics behind them are not easy to grasp. Our discussion with Dr Carl Death, a senior lecturer at The University of Manchester, shed some light on the concepts and issues behind climate politics and seemingly grand successes such as the Paris agreement.
Your research is very much focused on the politics of climate change. But despite efforts by people like yourself to understand and analyse this issue, the public is still often unaware or uninterested in it. Why has there been a problem in communicating climate change to populations?
I think it is because environmentalists have operated with the assumption that if they can simply scare people enough about what is going on and what is going to happen, then change will come. But the scale of change and the scale of risk are so great that it gets quite disempowering. So people actually prefer to ignore it, and even forget about it.
How can we convince people to care?
It is important to try and make the case for how a society with a socio-economic system which is more sustainable would be a better and happier society. It is true that many people in the West have benefited a lot from fossil fuels and decades of economic growth. But you also have unequal cities and societies, segregated communities, an increase in the length of the working week – all without an increase in the level of happiness. We are working much longer, much harder than we did in the fifties in order to be in the same place. Thus I think this kind of radical far-reaching change is actually about more than climate. It is about the role of economic growth, the way societies are organised, and how power and wealth are distributed in societies.
Why has nothing really significant happened to reverse climate change?
Because the cost of climate change has not been lived by those who are in a position of power. The cost of climate change for the last decade or so has been lived primarily by poor, vulnerable and marginalised populations. If you are a farmer in Bangladesh or northern Kenya, then you have been feeling the effect of climate change for quite a long time, even if you haven't been able to attribute it to climate change. But those are not the populations which have the ability to change global politics, and powerful actors have a lot to gain from the status quo. You can travel around the world and see that the world we live in doesn't work for the majority of the people. But it works very well for a small minority who have very comfortable lives – including most of us here in Manchester, and at this university.
Still, the international community has made some efforts, the most recent of which was the COP21 conference in Paris. Would you say that the Paris agreement was a victory, or just a theatrical performance like others we have seen before?
I think the Paris agreement represents a different sort of agreement. It is a bottom-up approach. States have agreed to act on climate change but they have not agreed on how much each will do. They have just said they will all act together. All states have agreed they are going to do something. So it is a success in that respect. But I think it comes out of the failure to come up with a binding international treaty that would be fair, just and effective.
So there was some theatre…
In terms of the theatrical element of it, I think these big summits always have an element of theatre about them. Which isn't always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it would be more worrying if no one was watching the theatre and paying attention to the show, which is something to worry about in climate change governance.
Can we blame states for not taking enough action?
The history of climate change shows how difficult this issue is to govern internationally, and how much of a threat it represents to existing development paths. What is required is nothing less than a fundamental, radical revolution in global political economic and social structure. And that sort of thing is really hard to achieve. States have been quite enthusiastic in trying to address it, but the international system is very hard to change.
So how can we change it?
I think it is important to look at other sides of politics; to look beyond the state, to look at the way cities are run and to look at local communities. It is important to put activist pressure on cooperation, on universities and on councils. I think we will also have to stay focused on holding democratic nation states accountable, though.
Because even if cities do more, it might not be enough.
The question of what is enough is a difficult one. The question of climate change is not: "are we doing enough for the planet to survive?” The planet will be fine without us. Human civilisation… I'm relatively optimistic that we will find a way to carry on. We are quite an adaptable species. The real question is: "who will gain and who will lose?" And at the moment the poorest and most vulnerable populations in the world are the ones who tend to lose vast amounts from climate change.
I'm relatively optimistic that we will find a way to carry on. We are quite an adaptable species. The real question is: "who will gain and who will lose?"
If the system in place cannot resolve the issue, then would a kind of revolution be the solution?
Yes, but the key question is: a revolution of what kind? I would make a distinction between revolutionary change, or radical change, and a revolution. In the past, we have tended to think about a revolution as a violent change of government and socio-economic system. I don't think a revolution of that kind is needed. But I do think some sort of revolutionary change is. Where this comes from and what shape it takes, is a big and important question.
Do you have an answer for it?
I tend to think that far-reaching radical change can come from lots and lots of smaller changes. Look at the movements against slavery, for democracy, for colonial liberation, feminist movements and civil rights movements. These have often come as a result of thousands of smaller changes. I think change tends to happen on those scales, but still, they can radically change society. The same could happen for climate change.
Many people, like myself, want to help the cause of fighting climate change. So what should each of us do?
I think it is a question for people to answer in lots of different ways. There is no one right solution. An excellent starting point is being educated at university on the politics and science of climate change. I think universities do have a role to play in this sort of radical systemic change that we were talking about. I am more sceptical about the idea that if we all start recycling or riding a bike this will bring the level of change that is required. Going beyond active individual consumption is important. This could be by going to a climate march, entering into formal political processes, living an alternative lifestyle, joining an NGO or being involved in research. There are lots of ways.
Is the climate movement more organized than other civil society movements were in the past?
The contrast with others movements is appropriate. Because in the others cases you can see that some groups were directly affected by the issues. The feminist movement was always led by women who experienced various forms of discrimination and injustice from the patriarchy. Civil right movements were led by communities that were exploited and victimised by racist systems. And so on. But the environmental movement has a problem because the “victim” is so hard to define: either everyone, or “poor communities”, or even “nature”. And nature just doesn’t mobilise. So environmental justice movements have yet to find a way of framing the struggle which has a deep resonance across societies sufficient to create a willingness to make a real change. TMM