Thursday, December 06, 2012

Climate politics

For the environmental movement, the spectre of climate change has come to serve as a conclusive vindication of its long-held beliefs about the ecocidal nature of modern industrial civilization. In it, environmentalists see hard scientific evidence for the unsustainability of consumer capitalism but also a threat of sufficient apocalyptic proportions to make broader social change seem not only necessary but inevitable. While the environmental movement would presumably advocate similar lifestyle changes regardless of climate change, the urgency of the climate crisis is thought to offer a vehicle for “selling” these changes to an otherwise unenthusiastic society. It is in this context that we should consider why the environmental movement has shown so little enthusiasm for breakthrough innovation in energy R&D. While the rejection of any “techno-fix” to climate change is also a reflection of a more general distrust of “big science” it does not seem far-fetched to think that the environmental movement would not give a warm welcome to technologies that would make consumer capitalism sustainable at a global scale. Yet, secure in the belief that such technologies are physically impossible anyway or that they would always carry negative side-effects that would dominate over any ecological benefits, it is not surprising that the environmental movement has come to see the hope of radical innovation as a dangerous distraction from the immediate need for social transformation.

In this sense, lifestyle changes are thought to offer a faster and safer path to sustainability than uncertain R&D. Yet, it would be a mistake to think of this merely as a matter of tactics. Instead it is important to recognize that for much of the environmental movement, climate change is not so much a technical as a moral problem and, as such, it is thought to require a moral inner solution rather than a pragmatic worldly response. Unsurprisingly, this kind of moral absolutism has proven to be ill-suited for moving a pluralist world any closer towards climate stability. On the contrary, it has led to further political polarization and a stand-off between irreconcilable worldviews. If the stakes were smaller or the available time longer, it is possible that the world could afford such political posturing. Yet, after decades of failed climate negotiations, there seems to be an urgent need for the environmental movement to reconsider its strategic orientation lest there should be any chance of avoiding a catastrophic destabilization of the climate system.

To be meaningful, it would not be enough for the environmental movement to simply embrace mainstream forms of ecological modernization or to even accept the temporary need for an expansion of nuclear power, measures that clearly are not adequate to ensure global sustainability. Instead, it would have to fundamentally rethink how it sees the linkages between technological innovation, global development and environmental change in ways that would be capable of accommodating the diversity and pluralism of existing societies.

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