In his book The Violence of Climate Change, Kevin J O’Brien describes how climate change can be understood from a variety of perspectives. The framing of the problem determines which solutions are considered, and who might be responsible.
A scientific problem
There are a lot of numbers in climate change – 350 parts per million being one of the more iconic, along with 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees of warming. Those who have set out the challenge are often scientists, such as the IPCC, or those who appeal to the science to make their case. This is necessary, and we need to understand what we’re up against. It can also lead to narrow solutions that focus exclusively on the numbers, as if the climate is a machine that can be recalibrated. This kind of thinking leads to a search for the techno-fix, and it’s very common. For example, Boris Johnson launched the plans for COP26 with the call to “come together with the courage and the technological ambition to solve man-made climate change.”
An environmental problem
Alongside the science, environmental arguments are also very familiar and are regularly made by the Green party or environmental NGOs. Polar bears on melting ice are the image that comes to mind, suggesting that humans have meddled in the natural world and endangered other species. “Understood environmentally,” says O’Brien, “climate change is a problem because human beings are making the rest of the world less healthy, less beautiful, and less natural.” This line of argument leads to appeals to change our way of thinking, and trying to convince people that they need to care. While it clearly isn’t wrong, this hasn’t proved to be sufficiently effective thus far.
A human problem
It’s quite possible to be concerned about climate change without even considering the moral argument that we should care for the planet. It’s why the US military takes it seriously, or development agencies. Climate change is already playing havoc with human societies. It’s a destabilising force. It tips people back into poverty as they’re on the verge of escaping it. It leads to migration and conflict, and it’s an injustice. When environmental framing positions climate change as a risk to animals and ecosystems, a human perspective sees it as a threat to our way of life, or to peace and stability.
A political problem
Even if you recognise and accept all of the above, it still might not lead to change. And so for some, climate change is a political problem first and foremost. Vested interests, corruption and bad governance prevent us from fixing it. Change will start with politics – perhaps by voting in a different party. Perhaps the solution lies in more democratic participation, such as climate assemblies. For some radicals, such as Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion, it means overthrowing the government entirely.
An economic problem
After years of more or less ignoring climate change, it was the Stern Report that prompted the British government to act robustly for the first time. And that was an economic presentation: ultimately it would cost less to address climate change than to pay for the damage later. Lord Stern ran the maths and told the government what would be best for the economy, describing climate change as “the biggest market failure the world has ever seen”. Just as often, economic arguments are used to stop climate action, suggesting that the economy will suffer and jobs will be put at risk if the status quo is challenged.
A religious problem
Finally, climate change can also be described in religious terms. This could be a failure to steward the earth, selfishness, or the sin of human greed. Some see it a symptom of a deeper longing too: consumerism and the drive for eternal growth reflect a spiritual poverty. We are chasing shallow and unsatisfying substitutes for the meaning that we ought to be looking for in – depending on your tradition – God, or our own inner divinity, or an inter-connected unity. From this perspective, change begins with our own transformation or conversion.
To those six, O’Brien adds another angle, looking at climate change as violence – a compelling and necessary addition to this list. But his main reason for outlining the various perspectives is that “climate change is the kind of problem that cannot be fully understood from one vantage point.” On its own, each of those framings is insufficient. We need insights from all of them, and dialogue between them.