Climate and Society
eBook - ePub

Climate and Society

Transforming the Future

Robin Leichenko, Karen O'Brien

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eBook - ePub

Climate and Society

Transforming the Future

Robin Leichenko, Karen O'Brien

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This bold and important new book presents current and emerging thinking on the social dimensions of climate change. Using clear language and powerful examples, it introduces key concepts and frameworks for understanding the multifaceted connections between climate and society.

Robin Leichenko and Karen O'Brien frame climate change as a social issue that calls for integrative approaches to research, policy, and action. They explore dominant and relevant discourses on the social drivers and impacts of climate change, highlighting the important roles that worldviews and beliefs play in shaping responses to climate challenges. Situating climate change within the context of a rapidly changing world, the book demonstrates how dynamic political, economic, and environmental contexts amplify risks yet also present opportunities for transformative responses.

Aimed at undergraduate students and others concerned with a critical challenge of our time, this informative and engaging book empowers readers with a range of possibilities for equitable and sustainable transformations in a changing climate.

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Setting the stage

Climate change is transforming the world as we know it. In some places, extreme or unusual weather events are raising concerns that “climate change is happening now.” In other places, longer-term shifts such as increasing temperatures, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels are leading to existential questions about how climate change may affect future livability and survival. Along with increasing awareness of the reality of climate change, there is growing recognition that the sooner we take action, the lower the risks of severe, widespread, and irreversible global impacts (IPCC 2014a). But how should we respond? What can we do? Answering these questions begins with seeing climate change as more than an environmental issue. We need to look more broadly at social, economic, political, and cultural processes that are both driving climate change and influencing responses. We also need to look more deeply at how we see ourselves in the world, how we relate to others, and how our individual and collective decisions and actions are shaping the future for generations to come.
This book explores social causes, consequences, and responses to climate change. Our point of departure is that there are many different perspectives on the problem of climate change and many different approaches to solutions. When climate change is viewed as an environmental problem, the solutions are usually technical or behavioral, such as managing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting environmentally friendly lifestyles. When climate change is viewed as a social problem, the solutions expand to include economic, political, cultural, and institutional changes, some with the potential for transforming society in ways that address multiple global challenges, including poverty and inequality, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and health crises. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 recognize that all of these global issues are linked, including SDG Goal 13: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” (United Nations 2015).
This introductory chapter sets the stage for our investigation of the social and human dimensions of climate change. We begin by exploring the question of why climate change matters, what it means for economic, social, and natural systems, and its implications for issues of equity, ethics, and justice. We then consider climate change within the context of the Anthropocene, a new geologic epoch distinguished by human influence on Earth-system processes. We situate climate change in geological, historical, and future time frames and connect it to industrialization and ongoing globalization processes. We then explore openings and opportunities for reducing climate change risks and vulnerabilities. We conclude by making the case that climate change is a fundamentally transformative process; it is not only transforming Earth systems but also how we think about ourselves and our capacity to create change. We emphasize that future impacts and risks are not predetermined. There are enormous differences between a world that is 1.5°C warmer and a world that is 4°C warmer (New et al. 2011), and there are many openings and opportunities to create an equitable and sustainable future.

Why does climate change matter?

When asked why climate change matters, many people struggle to articulate its significance. Some feel that climate change is too abstract to really grasp, or that it “doesn’t really affect me,” or “isn’t something that I need to worry about in my lifetime.” Others see it as just one of many pressing social concerns, including global poverty, homelessness, disease, addictions, unemployment, terrorism, and military conflicts. With so many competing issues, it can be easy to downplay the significance of climate change or assume that technological innovations will eventually solve the problem. While many people are indeed very worried about climate change, they may be simply overwhelmed by its implications, convinced that it is too big an issue to address. All of these are examples of what Kari Norgaard (2006) refers to as implicatory denial – the failure to integrate knowledge about climate change into everyday life and transform it into social action.
Let’s think about some of the many reasons why climate change does matter. Climate change matters for very practical reasons, as weather and climate are foundational to our everyday lives (the difference between weather and climate is discussed in chapter 2). When the weather becomes less predictable, we have to live with greater uncertainties and new risks. From mundane questions about whether to wear a jacket or carry an umbrella to decisions about the timing and location of outdoor excursions, festivals, sports events, and weddings, we manage our daily lives based on certain expectations about the weather and the climate. For some, the everyday experience of climate change means new inconveniences, such as navigating roads that are subject to more frequent flooding. For others, climate change involves adjusting routines, such as reducing daily water usage in response to long-term drought. For many, climate change means increasing exposure to extreme weather events, such as floods, forest fires, or heat waves. For all, climate change raises questions of what we value most and why.
Indeed, at a personal level, climate change matters because it affects things that we value. Most people care about access to fresh food, clean water, and good health. Some also care about experiences like skiing, ice fishing, or bird-watching. Many people value being able to work or exercise outdoors during summer months, or perhaps they value the experience of snow in winter. The diversity of plants, animals, and ecosystems matters, not just because of the benefits and services that they provide but because of the intrinsic value of nature. Values and identities will be influenced by climate change as it transforms conditions and experiences that matter to individuals, communities, and nations. Safety, prosperity, and a sense of place are among the many things people care about that are affected by climate change.
Climate change also matters because social and economic systems are organized around a preference for stability and predictability. Climate change alters fundamental rhythms of nature, and this has consequences for agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing, tourism, and many other sectors of the economy where activities depend on predictable seasonal patterns. For farmers, decisions on when to plant crops and when to apply fertilizer and irrigation are rooted in expectations about weather and climate. For fishermen, a warming ocean can affect what types of fish are available, when to catch them, and how much to harvest. For manufacturers, more frequent coastal storms can damage port facilities and disrupt global supply chains. For sectors such as ski tourism, a lack of winter snow can have dramatic repercussions for local economies.
Climate change means that the past can no longer serve as a reliable guide for the future. With baseline environmental conditions continually changing, water resource managers are facing difficult decisions about how to plan for future increases in demand. In sectors such as logistics, engineering, and construction, decisions ranging from where to site new warehouse facilities and how to plan new roads, bridges, and other major infrastructure projects are complicated by uncertainties about future temperatures, rainfall, flood heights, wind speeds, and sea levels. For the property insurance industry, extreme weather and a changing climate mean increased costs and less predictability about future damage payouts, which, in turn, means higher premium rates for their customers.
Climate change also matters for reasons of security and well-being. In addition to intangible losses to cultural identities and values, human populations are experiencing material damage to property and livelihoods, and in some cases they are being displaced from their homes because of sea-level rise, droughts, or floods. Climate change is a potential threat to national security in many countries, whether due to the disappearance of coastlines, stresses on agricultural and water resources, or population displacement and migration. In the future, it is likely to affect where people can live, what they can eat, and how they experience life. For this reason, young people, those who have (or anticipate having) children or grandchildren, and those concerned with the well-being of future generations have a critical stake in today’s climate change policies and actions.
It is not only humans that will be affected by climate change. Climate change matters because it affects other species and ecosystems. For example, a warming and acidifying ocean influences marine ecosystems, affecting coral reefs as well as the entire food chain. Many species of fish feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton, which are sensitive to temperatures and ocean acidity. Some of these fish in turn provide food for other fish, for birds, and for mammals such as penguins, polar bears, dolphins, and walruses. Changing climate conditions represent an exi...

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