How Climate Change Missed the Trees for the Forest

How Climate Change Missed the Trees for the Forest

By Monish Verma

The author examines Ulrich Beck’s essay, How Climate Change Might Save the World: Metamorphosis and gives his take on each of the seven theses on how climate change is changing the world.

“In order to turn climate change politics from its head onto its feet you have to take sociology into account.”

“If one accepts that climate change is real, take responsibility, and confront the overwhelming scale of necessary moral and political change.”

Ulrich Beck, a late German sociologist, posed a deep question about the representation of climate change and the many predicaments that it finds itself in: “Why is there no storming of the Bastille because of the environment destruction threatening mankind, why no Red October of ecology?  Why have the most pressing issues of our time – climate change and ecological crisis – not been met with the same enthusiasm, energy, optimism, ideals and forward-looking democratic spirit as the past tragedies of poverty, tyranny and war?” Beck continues to explore how to answer this question by articulating seven theses. My approach in this article is to unpack the knowledge and wisdom buried within his arguments and to qualify the critical issue that the Indian subcontinent has been facing for a while – How to develop the third pole – The Himalayas – sustainably, which inevitably implies demilitarisation. 

First Thesis: The discourse on climate politics so far is an expert and elitist discourse in which people, societies, citizens, workers, voters and their interests, views and voices are very much neglected. So, in order to turn climate change politics from its head onto its feet you have to take sociology into account. In my opinion, this thesis depicts the peril of the advanced globally anchored discourse on climate change that creates the new climate elites while prescribe how the globe should be managed, but forget about what makes peoples and societies tick? One of the unintended consequences is that science in the public sphere (of climate change) is not just contested (which would be fine) but neglected by large swathes of people. This evolving scenario is critical to address issues such as articulated by Shiela Jasanoff: “Living creatively with climate change will require re-linking larger scales of scientific representation with smaller scales of social meaning. How, at the levels of community, polity, space and time, will scientists’ impersonal knowledge of the climate be synchronised with the mundane rhythms of lived lives and the specificities of human experience.”

The potential impacts of some of the climate change scenarios seem to be already evident and pose a serious risk to India’s developmental strategy. Given the regional/global nature of the issue, action at the country or even local level alone will not do. Only sustained collective action at the multiple levels in sync with the global concerns combined with specific interventions will help bring about the required changes. This is even more true for the Himalayan states in India, which are developmentally marginalised with no sustainable paths to increase the welfare of its people, strengthen their communities and to protect nature (environment). At present only recycled recipes and designs concocted for the great plains are shaping the mountains – One measuring scale to rule (change) them all. This mis-design mirrors the top-down climate governance mechanism that has evolved in the last decades and is in a sense an “imperialistic structure” where the decision-making process and its consequences are attributed to completely different groups.

Beck’s Second Thesis calls for scientific revolution – more like Kuhnian metamorphosis – from methodological nationalism to methodological cosmopolitanism (solidarity across boundaries become real). This metamorphoses must transform the basic concepts and institutions of first, industrial, nation-state modernity. Or how to create a greening of modernity?

Each level of control (of plans and activities) that underwire the structure of governance

has an inbuilt “methodological nationalism” which has to be (gently) transformed to go beyond the ‘either–or’ to ‘both–and’ to create a bottom-up greening of development. This is mirrored in the relations between the center (plains) and periphery (Himalayas), particularly by the challenges posed by climate change where all three domains – nature, society, and politics – must coalesce to develop a new compact of sustainable development. Even in the Himalayas, the actual existing unit for sustainable change can only be the urban jungles of a city, where it is still possible to reconcile the needs of modernising society with the green transformation that climate change requires.

Beck’s Third Thesis discusses how climate change globalises and radicalises social inequities across international, national and sub-national contexts. It separates winners from losers across all divides. Further, as the expectations of equality are increasing and, in the process, are de-legitimising and destabilising the system of national-global inequalities. ‘Developing nations’ are becoming more westernised and reflect the West back to itself, so that the ‘equality’ of environmental destruction leads to the self- destruction of civilisation. This paradoxical thesis points to a crux of the riddle that climate science and policy seeks to address. The more the periphery tries to ape the center the more it resembles it in terms of the consumption-focused and desire-seeking civilization that has been internalised across the world particularly since the end of the cold-war. In the Himalayas this dynamic is not only built-in (human nature) but is also forced by the schemes of national development that ends up using a recipe to concoct the Indian modernity that now confronts us across space and time daily – A space-faring power with a persisting caste-ridden society that is unable to clean the streets clean but mops dust from every nook and cranny in their home and hearth.

In the Fourth Thesis, Beck makes a case for translating the cosmopolitan imperative – Cooperate or Fail – for recreating the green imperative as all of us (rich and poor alike) are impacted equally by the degradation/survival of the planet (in the end). This predicament – being in the same boat – can not be solved at national or translational levels but by reinventing the greening imperative by cosmopolitan cooperation, that is, to find answers to climate change, we should look not only to the United Nations, but also to the United Cities. I have already made a case for looking at cities in the Himalayas, despite their current rapaciousness, as the only vehicle for sustainable development. Beck’s argument adds more gravitas to the idea as the city as the ideal agent for transforming or greening modernity. When will a Himalayan City re-conceptualise what greening modernity means for it and what kind of open, innovative and collaborative structure and polity will it evolve?

In the Fifth Thesis, Beck outlines the idea that World cities are rising as cosmopolitan actors. World cities are becoming a more important space for setting collectively binding decisions. Why? In the city, climate change produces visible effects; climate change incentivizes innovation; cooperation and competition transgress borders; and political response to climate change serves as a local resource for political legitimation and power. In the Indian context, cities are normally defined in opposition to nature, and have undoubtedly had a catastrophic impact on the countryside that the city literally feeds on. However, as the nation-states legitimacy erodes, cities are poised to reclaim their seminal that they occupied aeons ago – Humankind’s adventure began in a polis – city. Once again, the city is placed at the right scale. Cities, historically the social ground for civic movements, might in today’s cosmopolitanized world of global threats once again become democracy’s best hope.

Beck’s Sixth Thesis is that global risk (due to climate change) comes as threat and brings hope. However, this is literally not apocalyptic as activists imagination and media’s distorted lens can do. Global risk has two sides: the traumatic vulnerability of all, and the resulting responsibility for all, including one’s own survival. It forces us to remind ourselves of the ways in which the human race jeopardizes its own existence. Global risk is not global catastrophe. It is the anticipation of catastrophe. It implies that it is high time for us to act—to drag people out of their routines, pull politicians from the “constraints” that allegedly surround them and aim to redefine what strategic self interests at all scales/levels mean and how they must be remade in the cosmopolitan outlook to make vulnerable situations visible, tangible, and ask what consequences for thought and action. This democratic yearning to give them a voice in “our” political processes would indeed require a redefinition of “self” interests. In the Himalayas climate change induced catastrophes are easy to conceptualise (not prove conclusively). However, the one catastrophe that is easy to prove is the presence of military hardware all the way up and around the Himalayas – the abode of snow but now also of three nuclear powers – China, India and Pakistan, all bent upon protecting or going a strategic advantage on each other. This footprint can be measured in waste on one of the most fragile landscape on Earth. If we are too truly address the challenges of climate change this strategic (opaque) dimension needs to be curbed – Else the catastrophe that is Siachen will be the inevitable future. 

In the Seventh Thesis, Beck makes a thought experiment “Climate change skepticism can be a strong position. What then is the counterargument? My counterargument refers to the French philosopher Blaise Pascal and his pragmatic “proof” of God. Pascal argued: Either God exists or does not—I don’t know. But I have to choose God, because if God exists, I win; if he doesn’t, I don’t lose anything. Let’s compare the belief in God with the belief in man-made climate change. Like Pascal, we do not know if climate change is “real.” Despite substantial evidence, a basic uncertainty remains. We need to accept that it is impossible to know if a natural catastrophe is actually the consequence of man-made climate change. This uncertainty creates a critical political moment of decision. If one accepts that climate change is real (as the author does), take responsibility, and confront the overwhelming scale of necessary moral and political change. As in Pascal’s case, there are good, practical reasons, even for climate change deniers, to accept that it is real. Climate change may change the world for the better.

To sum up, answer to question posed at the beginning of the article seems simple – Climate change is call to transformation of polity, technology and cooperation at multiple scales. One has to be careful not to just wait for global salvation (from institutions) but we must actively re-make our prospects step-by-step, layer-by-layer, and of course day-by-day.

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