Our responses to climate change have become routine and institutionalized, according to the editors of Re-Imagining Climate Change. We have certain ways of thinking about it, with firm boundaries around what solutions can be considered and which ones can’t. Mostly, we like the solutions that are technical and fit neatly within our existing economic system – Climate Inc, as the book refers to it. “The world becomes more tone-deaf when the language switches to, for instance, questions of social justice, the distortions of capitalism, moving beyond mitigation and adaptation, and critically assessing modernity.”
So this is a book that seeks to reframe the climate change debate in a series of different ways, looking for “hitherto neglected possibilities”. It aims to expand our sociological imagination, and offer some new and perhaps experimental perspectives. Like any experimental process, not everything will work, as the editors say right at the start.
Among the various things considered here are the idea of the anthropocene, a chapter looking at climate change through the lens of security, thoughts on Arabian eco-cities and climate engineering.
One of the more intriguing is a chapter from Richard Falk on “the temporal imagination”, which points out how politics is concerned with the spatial, with borders and regions, territory and jurisdiction. Climate change is a truly global issue and it “scrambles the dominant spatial metaphor”. We might find new approaches by looking at climate change across time instead, from past emissions to the rights of future generations. Or we might consider that rather than thinking of the future as more or less like the past, there are ‘kairos’ moments when things shift. Climate change could be such a moment, a breakthrough of some kind.
The essay I found most useful was Paul Wapner’s contribution on ‘climate suffering’. Climate Inc focuses on mitigation and adaptation, but has nothing much to say to the people who are already suffering the effects of a warming world. Since those most likely to suffer are the poor, many of whom have done almost nothing to cause climate change, this is a major injustice that is almost entirely disregarded. (As I mentioned before, the whole idea of climate justice gets one passing mention in the 32 pages of the COP21 document.)
Wapner’s suggestion in response is the idea of ‘radical resilience’. Normally resilience is about bouncing back from a climate shock, regaining equilibrium. If that just means a return to an unjust status quo, then resilience doesn’t get us far enough. Radical resilience goes further, using the shock to take a step forward, challenging injustice and the power structures that drive climate change in the first place. It’s a promising idea and one I will come back to.
I also enjoyed Manjana Milkoreit’s essay on ‘climate fiction’, and how fictional scenarios and storytelling can give us an emotional context for climate change. I’ve read a couple of bad attempts at climate-related fiction, but I’m a fan of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series, which is discussed here in some detail.
Re-Imagining Climate Change is aimed at an academic audience rather than a general readership, but if you work in communicating or campaigning on climate change and are interested in new ways of formulating the problem, you may find it helpful. The chapters on justice are particularly worthwhile, and it highlights some blind spots and limits to current thinking that are well worth further discussion. I think the broad argument is absolutely right, that we have lacked imagination in tackling climate change – not innovative technologies, but bold ideas that reshape global power structures and create new synergies of social and environmental justice.
Just don’t expect carefully wrapped new policy ideas from this book though. “The reader is encouraged to relax her standards of ‘realistic’, ‘practical’, and ‘policy-relevant'”, we are warned at the beginning. Instead, these are “investigational forays” into imaginative thinking about climate change – and you will probably know from that whether or not you will fins this worthwhile.