(Updated in November 2018) On 22 April 2016, 175 countries signed the Paris Agreement, setting a world record for the number of first-day signatures to an international agreement. The agreement will enter into force once 55 countries representing 55% of global emissions ratify it. The photo of US Secretary of State John Kerry signing the agreement with his granddaughter on his lap was a compelling reminder that this agreement is about protecting future generations.
Building on the scientific consensus that humans have been the dominant cause of the warming observed since the mid-20th century, we now have a diplomatic consensus that countries should limit temperature rises to well below 2 degrees Celsius – and strive for below 1.5 degrees – above pre-industrial levels. What is needed now is a social consensus about how quickly decarbonisation should occur in each country and at what acceptable cost. Speed matters. Keeping the 1.5-degree goal within reach requires limiting cumulative emissions of long-lived gases below a threshold which we will pass by about 2030-2052 under business as usual. The 2030 targets under the Paris Agreement will only take us to roughly 3 degrees and there are no legal penalties if countries fall short. Making more reductions more quickly buys us more time for new solutions to emerge and mature.
To motivate public support for urgent and ambitious mitigation, some social organisers have latched onto “enemy narratives” which portray the climate change challenge as a battle between good and evil, between the righteous and the enemy. In some cases, this narrative is expressed as “waging war on climate change” whereas in others the enemy is cast as the “fossil fuel industry,” “big business,” “unresponsive government” or “climate change deniers.” While the use of enemy narratives may help to create a sense of common mission, courageous resolve and immediacy for some people, it may prove to be counterproductive.
War is associated with violence, death, destruction, capture, sacrifice, grief and loss. War is about defending against attack and exerting power over others to defeat them. It forces people with diverse worldviews into opposing camps. It stops communication and discourages empathy. It begins with aggression and ends when winners and losers are declared.
In contrast, climate change mitigation should be about working together to shift the global emission trajectory and generate co-benefits for the environment, economy and society. The climate system is not waging war on us; it sustains life on earth and is responding naturally to human emissions. It is true that some groups are making particular effort to resist progress and spread misinformation, but they are not the sole cause of the current predicament. The responsibility for climate change extends across the past, present and future generations of countries at all stages of industrialisation. All of us are contributing in some way – even if we’re trying not to – and it is from society as a whole that solutions must emerge. Climate action does not have a beginning or an end. To be enduring the solutions must satisfy human development needs and have broad public acceptance.
In his excellent book Don’t Even Think About It, George Marshall points out that when one group invokes an enemy narrative on climate change, those being attacked respond in kind but reverse the roles. Both sides then portray themselves as the victims of aggressors who are manipulating the facts and promoting dangerous values, are using this issue as a pretext for gaining power, are aided by special interests and the media, and must be stopped to preserve their own cherished way of life. This moves everyone further from building understanding and consensus.
Instead of waging war, can we reframe climate action as a hero’s journey, one of accepting the call to adventure, crossing the threshold from known to unknown, and challenging ourselves to innovate and redefine the drivers of economic security and human happiness? The “hero’s journey” narrative suggested by George Marshall and others is apt because there is no standing still on this issue. We will walk forward together into either a low-emission world or a +3-4 degree world. With a nod to Hamlet, taking arms against this sea of troubles will not end them. Instead, we can offer to each other our shared responsibility, our willingness to change, and our personal action.
Climate change is a collective problem and it demands collective solutions. Waging war won’t get us nearly as far as waging collaboration.