The Climate Crisis is a Social Crisis

It is time to place under critical scrutiny the cultural capacity that affects the way climate change is debated and regulated.

Authors: Anna Durnová, Dagmar Rychnovská

The threat of climate change has been hanging over us for some time; however, the 2018 UN report suggests that action is urgently needed to avert disaster. The latest scientific analysis gives us just twelve years to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Unless we slow that rate, no one will be safe from the consequences of climate change. The poor, marginalized and disadvantaged will suffer most - Africa and India, for instance, will be subject to massive and deadly flooding and drought. The effects of climate change are already visible, and Europe is no exception in that regard. Recent heat waves accompanied by massive droughts already negatively impact nature, agricultural production, and our well-being. To divert the deadly course on which we have sent the Earth, we have to immediately take the actions that experts and activists called for decades ago. Their advice to us was, in a nutshell, to change how society functions and especially to stop deferring to the interests of industry and capital at the expense of humanity.

Despite such advice, and despite the increasingly worrying tone in which climate change and its estimated effects are portrayed, the governance of policies that could reduce climate change has continued unchanged. Some politicians deny climate change, while others claim it as natural and inevitable, criticizing any actions to stop it as too radical or even irrational. Many politicians then state, in an self-important and grave tone, that altering our now-established course of human activity would be too complex. Reading these sweeping proclamations and listening to the toothless talk of global action reveals a bitter truth. Modern Civilization cannot organize (or reorganize) itself to avert a massive extinction of fauna and flora, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the associated thermal disaster that ultimately would have having grim consequences for the whole planet.

Why are we failing to change the system of governance, even though we already can foresee the devastating impact of continuing down this road? The failure to find a solution is not rooted in either a lack of knowledge or a lack of resources. The problem is, we argue, that modern Western democracies are trapped within their cultural capacities with which they design policy solutions. These cultural capacities are built on the great narratives of Western culture, and they set up the rules of the political debate. They frame some actors as reasonable, making some scenarios meaningful and credible, while they display others as not credible or even irrelevant. They mobilize the values with which we think and argue about threats, such as global climate change. Unless we submit these to critical scrutiny, no change in coping with climate change can occur.

The blueprint of apocalypse

In literature, popular culture, and public debate, our societies are keen to know if and when the "end of the world" will come. The expectation of an apocalypse is, after all, an important aspect of many religions, including the Christian faith. Christianity's version of the world's destruction is tied closely to the extermination of the human race as punishment for its sins. The apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation is interesting in particular because of its terrifying imagery, which inspires the different uses of this reference in contemporary debates. Apocalypse is portrayed as a sudden, ugly, and obliterating event that will cause the extermination of humanity. Despite the various interpretations of the Book of Revelation, what resonates most in contemporary understandings nevertheless perfectly corresponds with threats such as a falling asteroid, a nuclear disaster, a world war, or an invasion from extraterrestrials. In contrast to the religious concept of the destruction of the world as a punishment for human disobedience, contemporary popular culture often uses the theme of apocalypse to tell the story of how the world will be saved by a heroic savior--a strong man, who, in the final moment, displays the courage needed for humanity to avert catastrophe.

Yet, the image of the end of the world as the dramatic intervention of some external force into our society--which can be avoided by a suitable "technical" solution--is precisely the cultural pattern that is so harmful to the debate on climate change. First, it turns our attention only to selected phenomena and problems. The world does not have to end in flames--we may experience a much slower and more creeping destruction. This kind of destruction, though, may be easily overlooked or underestimated because its results do not appear overnight, but rather slowly and gradually over decades. Furthermore, the notion that any of these problems can be avoided by a supernatural wisdom of gifted human individuals (isn't that in itself a contradiction?) is also harmful. It confers legitimacy to the pattern that we just need to find the right person to solve the right equation or that we can identify direct political responsibility within a single election cycle, which thus disguises direct political responsibility. Last but not least, it legitimizes the view that it is enough to invent the right chemical or to design the right technical instrument in order to avert the imminent catastrophe and continue our peaceful (and consumption-oriented) lives, undisturbed.

Climate threat is a social threat

Against this background, it is stunning that a handful of Western countries—including e.g. Austria, Australia, Italy, the Visegrád countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary), and the United States—have resolved to abstain from the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This step demonstrates not only the reluctance of some of the world's most developed states to participate in the search for global solutions to global problems, but also the general misunderstanding of the reasons behind the migratory waves making their way around the world. For instance, the Austrian vice chancellor suggested that neither climate change nor poverty can justify migration. While the decision to abstain is related to various factors for each of the nonsigning countries, it also reflects our mental settings toward climate change.

Climate change is exactly the type of problem to which an instant solution doesn't exist. It is also a problem that renders difficult the already complex relationships between people and nature and among people themselves. To what extent climate change is caused by humans and whether it is or is not a natural phenomenon are in fact irrelevant questions. After all, ecology deals with the relationships between organisms and their environments, which humans also belong in as well as shape - compared to other creatures, though, we do so at a rate that far outpaces nature’s ability to cope.

Above all, climate change has already had major societal impacts. Rapid weather fluctuations, droughts, and heat waves in some parts of the world, and melting glaciers and subsequent changes in sea levels elsewhere create a breeding ground for social and political tensions. The best possible outcome of a lack of water and crop failure is that the affected people seek—and find—better lives elsewhere, but the worst outcome (so far) is that these problems lead to violent conflicts about the redistribution of resources and power in society. Combined with poverty, human rights violations, existing inequalities, and the legacy of prior wars and colonialism, water scarcity and extreme weather can easily trigger new conflicts.

The boundary between a reluctance to help and a readiness to sacrifice entire groups of people who had the bad luck to be born in the wrong region can be very thin. Persistent racial, ethnical, and gender stereotypes can morph into "legitimate" arguments to orient policies that disadvantage the targeted groups, in the guise of an urgent action to prevent the disastrous effects of climate change. Moreover, if we combine this mindset with the predominant narrative in Western post-industrial countries, which praises the individual and its strength to prosper and survive, the climate genocide is nearer than it would seem. Climate change could serve certain groups as an excuse to justify new and yet unimaginable forms of eugenics, serfdom, or caste systems.

Climate crisis is thus a social crisis. We must stop treating it as a purely technical problem and admit that it is a problem of our culture, which is based on growth, success, and strength of the individual at the expense of dignity and solidarity. As long as we design our better future as featuring perpetual growth, as long as we focus only on those changes in the system that are rapid, effective, and productive, we cannot change the political framing of climate change. With all the fallacy of rational and cautious planning, we can already begin today to plan--rationally and cautiously indeed--where to dig our own graves. If we wait for one gifted savior, we might end up waiting until the very end. Or, on the contrary, the one gifted "savior" might prepare for us a very different plan; just take the example of the new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who is planning massive exploitation of the Amazonian rain forest.

What shall be saved? Dignity and humanity

Maybe the only thing we can do in the time we have left is to find a decent and humane solution to the inevitable end of our species. In a way, the skeptics who are denying the anthropogenic cause of climate change might be right: maybe there is no way to divert the course of our actions. It is indeed very likely that a solution to climate change does not exist. Because the devastating flames consuming our civilization are in fact the hungry flames of our greed for capital growth and our selfishness. We actually don't need any extraterrestrial forces or warmth indicators for the apocalypse to happen . . . because we can cause it all on our own.

Why don’t we use these very beliefs in ourselves to strengthen not the technical but the social capacities to prevent the climate apocalypse and concentrate on solidarity and dignity of our fellow humans? By doing so, we could prevent, or at least attenuate, the social apocalypse caught in the undertow of the climate apocalypse. This would require, as a humble beginning, that we admit that we have failed to prevent climate change from happening and the last thing that remains to us--and that makes us humans--is to preserve our human dignity. Let us use our cultural capacities to agree on ending the world as humans rather than as monsters.

About the Authors

Anna Durnová is a political scientist at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS) and also Faculty Fellow at the Yale Center for Cultural Sociology. She researches the sociopolitical interplays of emotions and knowledge in politics and uses examples from health and science controversies.

Dagmar Rychnovská is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow at the IHS. She specializes in international relations, security studies, and science and technology governance and currently explores security controversies in research and innovation.