Why must climate change be de-naturalised and re-politicised? (and what does that mean?)

By Daniel Morchain, Oxfam

Food insecurity, conflict, climate change are among many stresses often originated in or made worse by bad, unrepresentative governance. Mural in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: Daniel Morchain

The reason why taking photographs has become such a widespread and seemingly urgent task for so many of us – in addition to technological progress – is because we’ve become conscious that our world is “increasingly transitory and unstable”, says author Lyle Rexer. That notion of wanting to preserve in some way what is familiar to us, what we love, used to hold as perpetual but may now become ephemeral, haunts us now more than ever, as headlines of conflict, war, famine, environmental collapse or epidemics are made even more pressing by the threat of climate change. This cocktail of global forces threatens the essence that our world, and necessarily our sense of self within it, is a solid backdrop to our existence.

But, how does climate change fit into reflections about feelings, identity, nostalgia and values? Moreover, is all the fuss about climate change justified? And...who is figuring out what to do about it?

Understanding what climate change is and does, and who develops this understanding, has enormous implications for people and environments affected by it and for what the development sector truly contributes to their well being. Indeed, however climate change adaptation is defined preempts what it will identify as problems and solutions. Which is why it is interesting that adaptation has so far been framed as a question that can best be posed to and answered by natural scientists, and which subsequently is ‘solved’ by predominantly technocratic approaches.

This is a problem because this apparent ‘de-politicising’ (or ‘naturalising’) of the climate change agenda is actually a political manoeuvre in disguise. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its assessment reports are highly influential in determining climate related policies worldwide, so their emphasis on climate science produced by Northern institutions as a steering force for adaptation predisposes the framing of adaptation pathways and reduces the influence of social science research and non-vetted knowledges on integral adaptation responses. In other words, this framing makes it difficult for local and indigenous knowledges to be considered in formal discourses and, therefore, they fail to attract adaptation funds.

The leading ‘naturalising’ climate change narrative makes climate change, precisely, a natural thing, something that is bound to happen and affect people regardless of what others do or don’t do (governments, corporations). As such, climate change can become a scapegoat for bad and unjust governance structures, blurring the line between accountability and negligence. Two examples: The devastating floods in Northern Colombia in 2010 were blamed on climate change and labelled the worst natural disaster in the country’s history by President Juan Manuel Santos – otherwise the latest and well-deserved recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – when in reality they were mostly the result of La Niña (a natural phenomenon not attributable to climate change, although its higher frequency may be) combined with other issues like territorial planning and land use, together with even more deeply rooted problems such as dispossession, criminalisation and poverty. In Turkey, Professor Mikdat Kadıoğlu blames the impacts of floods on people’s lives and livelihoods in this country mostly on government practices that increase risk, warning that solely focusing on climate change impacts as the culprit is an easy way out for decision makers to avoid responsibility.

"Welio, 37, looks for seed pods from the Prosopsis tree to feed her children and animals in Bisle, Sitti Zone, Ethiopia"
Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith

Yet it remains commonplace worldwide to paint the climate change question narrowly and therefore it remains over-simplified. The proposed solutions to this question are mostly technocratic, incremental efforts (for example, engineering better seeds or expanding infrastructure works) that exclude a systemic understanding of the complex set of issues at hand and minimise the importance of inter-disciplinary thinking and...of people. This framing, as I claimed before, is a deliberate political strategy that allows institutions in the development sector – multilaterals, global North and global South governments, elites – to maintain control of the solution space of adaptation, thus remaining meaningful and justifying their very existence. It also allows (us) practitioners and researchers to be complacent and avoid going beyond their (our) comfort zones. Adaptation needs to be transformational, but it can’t be so unless the actors driving it radically change their own ways and become more inclusive.

Adaptation without transformation is dangerous, it is short-sighted, and it can even be unethical. While not all adaptation efforts should be transformative, and incremental adaptation is necessary and has its well earned place, the point here is that climate change adaptation work has so far failed to bring about the new, alternative approaches to development that those unhappy with development-as-usual had hoped for. On the contrary, adaptation has served to cement the position of the usual suspects in development and left little space so far for non-mainstream knowledges (indigenous voices, grey literature, ‘non-experts’) to seriously influence the debate.

What I’m trying to get at is that, yes, climate change has to be understood as a socio-political challenge, as much as a human-induced climatic and meteorological one. We can never isolate disasters as caused by climate change alone, because then we would be missing the manifold causes of the impacts caused by droughts, or floods, or increasing temperatures. We can’t isolate climate change from development. Roger Calow calls it doing “good development in a hostile climate”.

So let’s call things by their name: climate change what is climate change, industrial pollution what is industrial pollution, land use decisions and land grabs what they are, and the same for post-colonial attitudes. Let’s apply to climate change what former French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, considers crucial for the world order: alliances have to be inclusive and welcoming “to the guy who wants to come in”; ideas and values can’t be imposed on people just because powerful actors think they are good ideas and values. Politicising climate change is necessary to prevent rights from ever being bypassed in the name of global adaptation. This politicisation, though, does come with risks; namely legitimising institutions that will claim to be representative, without genuinely being so. This risk is worth taking and it represents the struggle we need to be in if we want to preserve more than just the memory of our rich world and of our humane selves.

Note: This blog is a reflection of a 2-day workshop titled “Denaturalizing Climate Change: Perspectives for Critical Adaption Research”, organised by the Die Junge Akademie (German Young Academy of Scientists), in collaboration with the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores in Antropología Social (CIESAS – Institute for Social Anthropology Research) and the University of Bremen’s Artec Sustainability Research Center in Oaxaca, Mexico, on 29-30 September 2016, in the context of the Mexican-German Year of Science and Technology.