What Kind of Problem Is Climate Change?

Updated: Nov 14

The greatest threat facing human life on Planet Earth. A chance to make the world better. The death sentence to our species. Wicked, various, abstract, but also noticeable in our everyday lives. It might directly affect some more than others. Non-existent, or the highest priority.

What kind of a problem is Climate Change?

This is an important question, since how we define a problem influences the types of solutions that will be identified.

Most commonly, climate change is understood as an environmental problem related to increasing levels of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions due to human activities (Anthropocene). Biology, Physics, Geography and Chemistry – natural sciences in general – claimed a lot of legitimacy over the past decades, when it comes to the topic of climate change. Inevitably determined by their own methodologies, they put their definition of climate change as a biophysical crisis to the focus of attention. Most commonly, climate change is referred to as the environmental crisis that is caused by human pollution – and calls for technical solutions and policies that limit greenhouse gas emissions.

In later years, other sciences joined the discourse: political science, sociology and economics, for example. Aspects such as environmental justice, uneven distribution of consequences, different vulnerabilities and responsibilities were brought to attention. This led to a diversification of interpretations with which humans framed climate change. The discourses multiplied, and so did people’s opinions on the topic.

“[…] We have to live with the fact that different individuals and groups use different discourses to make sense of the same nature/s. These discourses do not reveal or hide truths of nature but, rather, create their own truths. Whose discourse is accepted as being truthful is a question of social struggle and power politics.” (Castree 2001, p.12.)

Did you ever sit at the dinner table and had a (rather awful) discussion with others about climate change? Everyone just repeating what they picked up from a televised debate, reciting facts they found online? I had, but never enjoyed such discussions until about a week ago, when I came across an article published by K. O’Brien and R. Leichenko (2019, p. 2): “By drawing attention to discourses, we see that different approaches to climate change are rooted in particular ways of making sense of the world.”

Researchers differentiate between four common discourses on climate change: the biophysical, the critical, the integrative and the dismissive narrative. While the first one draws attention to technical and environmental challenges (greenhouse gas emissions etc.), the critical discourse focuses on climate change as a social problem which is caused by economic, political and cultural processes. The critical discourse analyses consumer culture, global capitalism and uneven power structures. Adding to that the importance of values, worldviews and mind-sets, the integrative discourse sets the relationship between humans and nature as the centre of attention. The integrative narrative argues, that nature is not something separate from us humans – something to be controlled - but rather everything that we are, something we have to work together with. Opposing this strongly, we find the dismissive discourse: here, climate change is understood as non-existent, or at least not as a problem of urgent concern.

Now imagine, every person who sits with you for dinner is placed in a different discourse. You all think differently about one and the same phenomenon. It is crucial to understand: climate change can be many things – depending on which discourse you place yourself within. When my father says: “there has always been climate change” – it doesn’t make much sense to him when I argue that consumer culture, capitalism and industrialization perpetuated emissions which in turn increased the threats of climate change in the Anthropocene… It also doesn’t make much sense to him when my brother tries to argue how rising emissions are the main reason why our climate is changing so fast. Because to him, the climate has always been changing. The reasons, to him, why it is changing now, are most likely the same reason

s as they were 1000 years ago. To him, climate change is not connected to human activities – his dismissive discourse doesn’t share mine and my brother’s assumption, that climate change is human-made.

I no longer get angry at him, but I understand, he’s placing himself within the dismissive discourse while I am arguing, on the other end of the table, according to the critical discourse. And I understood: It is important to get the people where they are. There is no good in fighting over a problem that is not defined in the same way for all of you. Your arguments will never make sense to someone who has a fundamentally different understanding of the problem. The solutions you propose will never be successful, if you don’t work with the narratives present: by acknowledging the multiple – and all valid – discourses, we are acknowledging reality. A reality in which problems are spaces of interpretation and creativity. So next time, you’re trying to make a point on climate change, try to first understand the placement of people within the system of discourses. And I promise, your argument will get a lot more attention than it did before.

Yesterday, my father came upstairs with a cup of tea. “My dear, why are you so sure, that climate change is caused by human emissions?” And I was able to explain it to his open ears. Without judgment. But with sensitivity to all our different realities.

Extra reading:

  • Castree, Noel. 2001. “Socializing Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics.” In Social Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics, edited by Noel Castree and Bruce Braun, 1–21. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publisher.

  • O'Brien, K., & Leichenko, R. (2019). Climate & Society: Transforming the Future. London: Cambridge Polity Press.


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