Our common future under climate change: where science meets social justice

Climate Change

What should our approach to climate change be? Is it time to elevate the importance of morals and ethics in climate change debates? Daniel Morchain, Global Adviser on Climate Change Adaptation, reflects on the key messages of last week’s Our Common Future under Climate Change conference. 

‘We are beyond the Copenhagen illusion!’ admitted the highly influential climate scientist John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), to an audience of about 2000 mostly scientists gathered in Paris last week at the Our Common Future under Climate Change conference. He was referring to the climate talks held in Denmark in 2009 where, despite high expectations, delegates failed to reach a global deal to address climate
change, disappointing many.

This December, climate change negotiators from countries around the world will again meet in Paris at the annual conference of the UNFCCC. And, while expectations this time are lower, a new and hopeful perspective to address climate change seems to be emerging. It couldn’t come any sooner, since there is an enhanced urgency in the race against climate change and planetary degradation six years after Copenhagen.

…climate change negotiations need to be driven by valuesThis new perspective, as evidenced in the Our Common Future conference, is a lot about ‘elevating the language of value to that of the language of fact‘ in the words of Sheila Jasanoff of the Harvard JFK School of Government. Equating the importance of science with that of morals and ethics is a much needed and welcome transformational shift in
the climate change debate. This is especially so since science has basically already proven beyond doubt the link between man-made greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

That climate change negotiations need to be driven by values and the acknowledgement of global and individual responsibilities to protect people, animals and the environment, and not driven by economic growth priorities alone, was a clear message of the scientific conference. Laurence Tubiana of the Paris School of International Affairs, for example, said that global climate talks need to be framed from a moral and ethical point of view. Schellnhuber himself said that decency needs to be the most
compelling force in the negotiation process.

Refocusing the climate change and development debate on values should also be understood by humanitarian and development NGOs as an accolade to their contribution and their model.

The Blue Marble. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image by Reto Sțckli (land surface, shallow water, clouds).My feeling is that the omnipresent leader behind this turning tide is Pope Francis, whose name Рas far as I can tell and to my surprise Рwas mentioned more during the conference than those of Obama, Xi, Hollande, Merkel and the IPCC leaders

The Pope’s recent encyclical and his views on the environment, climate change and capitalism have introduced a much needed and welcome transformational shift in the climate change and inequality debates, especially by putting the individual at the centre of the debate, making the issue a personal one, and making the debate accessible to the layman.

Another turning point of this scientific conference was a common understanding that social transformation and innovation need to be the driving force in the required decarbonisation of the global economy. Zhu Dajian of UNEP and Tongji University in Shanghai recognised, for instance, that social innovations are now more important than technical ones and that China has to change its focus from a GDP-centred one to one where quality of life leads policy making.

While pricing carbon remains an important tool for achieving emission reductions Prof. Frank Geels of the University of Manchester rightly commented that such thinking is too simplistic. He, too, argued for innovation and bringing people closer to the decision making process, claiming that technocratic policy making is a dangerous bet.

Make no mistake: the Our Common Future conference in no way diminishes the role of science in addressing climate change, but it does make two important points in relation to this role. The first is that scientists need to be more willing to engage in normative discussions and policy recommendations. Secondly, in the words of Jan Corfee-Morlot, Head of the Climate, Enivronment and Development Unit at OECD: ‘There’s not a lack of information; there’s a lack of usable information.’ Framing research
based on the needs of people, especially those of the more vulnerable groups, and actively promoting the uptake of research into policies and practice are fundamental links to be strengthened.…climate change shouldn’t be approached as a fundamentally technical problem

After all, as Karen O’Brien of the University of Oslo rightly suggests, climate change shouldn’t be approached as a fundamentally technical problem: it is rather as an adaptive challenge requiring solutions which look at beliefs, values, worldviews and emotions. Many other speakers echoed her in the following days, as surely would Pope Francis.

The transformation required to address climate change in Paris and beyond will entail more joint approaches and policies across different sectors, as well as a considerably enhanced role for social sciences and humanities in this debate.

As such, a reframing of the IPCC’s contribution to the climate change debate by reducing the predominance of its biophysical focus over social aspects would be welcome, as many speakers suggested.

So, while there is now a more sober, cautious approach to the upcoming Paris climate change conference compared to the overexcitement that preceded Copenhagen in 2009, this time it should feel like every stakeholder is playing the same game, whose outcome is necessarily a common one: ensuring our common future on this planet.

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Banner photo: Our Common Future under Climate Change International Scientific Conference. Credit: INRA/B. Nicolas
Body photo: The Blue Marble. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image by Reto Stöckli (land surface, shallow water, clouds).

Author: Daniel Morchain
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.