Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why We Need a New Narrative for Our Planetary Future

By Scott G. McNall and George Basile

Most of us understand that humans are heating up the planet. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that by the end of this century summers will be hotter, sea levels higher, droughts more prolonged, and storms more severe. But there were anomalies in their original predictions of an ever-warming planet; in fact, there has been a slowing in the heating of Earth’s surface since 1998. Climate scientists noted that such “plateaus” are to be expected; that the overall trend since the beginning of the industrial revolution remains a steady upward progression in global warming. The panel upped its level of certainty from 90% to 95% —from “very likely” to “extremely likely”— that humans are responsible. The certainty has not been sufficient to overcome the ongoing debate about scientific predictions or drive increased action.

A successful narrative must be at a minimum three things: relevant, legitimate, and credible. Today’s climate narrative—and the entire sustainability narrative by extension—is too simplistic. Focusing mostly on environmental problems, it often fails to take into account our political, social, and economic systems. Climate scientists struggle to keep the message simple so that the general public can understand that specific action is essential, yet climate is too complex to be seen as one-problem-one-fix.

Dealing with emergent phenomena, we must move beyond traditional cause-and-effect approaches and embrace the fact that our future is uncertain. This is both credible and relevant. People understand working toward success and managing change as it happens. Climate scientists admit they are modeling complex interactions among a number of different spheres--from sea–ice melting to the buildup of nitrogen in the soil and increased air pollution. The climate predictions that result provide exceptional directionality (with 95% certainty) for managing and directing change—but not all the exact details.

Overall, we need to plan for adaptation—which includes mitigation. The planet will undergo profound changes in the coming decades in ways that we do not yet fully understand. We need to plan for the unknown and resilience. The National Weather Service can issue a tornado warning but can’t promise where the tornado will touch down: they can tell you to get to a shelter. The effort of climate and sustainability science to teach the public should offer similar “shelters,” or social safety nets, to deal with issues as destabilizing as climate change. Within this narrative, the legitimate and relevant outcome to increased uncertainty is increased action, not less.

The current climate narrative often omits human needs from the discussion, dealing a massive blow to its relevance. As sociologists have noted, greenhouse gas emissions (GHG’s) will increase because populations grow, more people move to cities, economies modernize, people become affluent and consume more. We must deal with habits of consumption (maybe best controlled by a tax on carbon use), population growth, and the need for cheap, reliable, and sustainable energy. The human needs of security, education, and health must be met at the same time that we focus on GHG reductions. Indeed effective GHG reduction actions should be framed within these relevant and legitimate contexts.

The current narrative of climate science focuses on feared “disasters.” Humans often respond to fear by ignoring the threat, especially future threats. Second, stories of catastrophe don’t, by definition, help us focus on the kind of future we want. End-of-day scenarios disempower because whatever we do won’t help. We need empowering narratives, focusing on the kind of future we want and on specific actions that build flexible pathways forward.

Our story cannot be just crisis. It must instead be a story that deals with both our unsustainable global footprint and human needs. People in London, Cairo, or Sacramento, all identify economic issues as primary. They want to be safe from physical oppression and need to trust their governments. People demand justice, fairness, and equity. We must use these human design guides as scaffolding for our new planetary narrative. We must move beyond an apocalyptic vision, and focus instead on how to create societies in which social-safety nets and sea walls work together to build a sustainable future.

Scott McNall is Emeritus Provost and Professor, California State University, Chico and Affiliated Faculty Member, Sociology, University of Montana. George Basile is a Professor in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. leave comment here