Author: Judith D Schwartz | Published: April 3, 2017
It’s easy for all concerned about air, water and nature to descend into despair as we watch brazen rollbacks of environmental legislation in the US. Just last week, developments included an executive order to rewrite US carbon emissions rules, jeopardising the country’s ability to uphold its Paris climate talk commitment; the end of a moratorium on new coal leases; and the green-lighting of a pesticide claimed to cause harm to children. But as apathy is not an option, let’s try to think beyond the usual strategies. For one, we can recognise that the way we talk about our environmental challenges has interfered with our ability to truly grapple with them: that we limit ourselves by creating too simple a story. Specifically, the story we tell about climate.
Now I’m not speaking of climate-change denial. For at this juncture, with wild temperature swings and record-breaking weather becoming the norm, outright denial amounts to a kind of temper tantrum, a primitive railing against the inconvenience and indignity of elemental change. Rather, I mean the way that we understand climate change, the story we tell ourselves.
In a popular TED talk, Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie introduced the concept of the “single story”: the tendency to uncritically embrace received wisdom. While she referenced social and ethnic narratives, the “single story”, and its inherent risks of limiting perspective, applies to other beliefs as well. By shifting to a more complex, multifaceted story we can envision solutions that better reflect the realities of climate and how the natural world processes heat.
Our characterisation of climate change – the “single story” – is this: “Climate change is global warming caused by too much CO2 in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels. We stop climate change by making the transition to renewable energy.” This is certainly a key aspect of the story, and we absolutely need to shift away from fossil fuels … like, 20 years ago. But there are several problems with this narrative. One is the uncomfortable fact that even if, by some miracle, we could immediately cut emissions to zero, due to inertia in the system it would take more than a century for CO2 levels to drop to 350 parts per million, which is considered the safe threshold. Plus, here’s what we don’t talk about when we talk about climate: we can all go solar and drive electric cars and still have the problems – the unprecedented heat waves, the wacky weather – that we now associate with CO2-driven climate change.
Climate is not a function of one sole metric; it is not a single story. And this is where we find opportunities.