A climate of change ripe for advantageous instability


Everything changes. Including the climate. We seem to have forgotten that. We believe that we can somehow wish this change away or use some sort of mantra to prevent that universal principle of “anithya” or impermanence from affecting the climate. We cannot.


Change isn’t exactly a bad thing as we all know. However, instability certainly is. When things are in flux for any length of time, things don’t just change. They fall apart. The operative word here is “things” – in the plural. Four: the fiscal thing, the food thing, the energy thing and the climate thing. All are very much in flux, very intrinsically interconnected, very politicized and very much in the news. One thing that is not in the news is the one thing that seems to be relatively stable and unchanging inside of this roily, shifty gruel.




We think we can respond to these life threatening crises by holding desperately on to phraseology such as “our ways of life”, “businesses as usual”, “this was the way then and this will be the way now” even though they were the cause of this mess. We think we can pack, couch or sugar coat the same tired, useless models in new phrases such as “alternatives sources”, “sustainable development”, “nuancing and contextualizing”, “common but differentiated responsibilities”. We go from RIO to COP, from G8 to G77, from OECD to UNDG, from FAO to IFAD, uprooting ourselves from one watering hole and heading off to the next, always moving, always fluxing, always changing in a quixotic effort to find “stability”.


The reason why we make like nomads is because stability is not a goal. Rather, it is a ruse.


When faced with crises, we, collectively, expend enormous amounts of time, money, materials and effort to continue within the framework of our attitudes, to win throws when every dice is loaded against us, to make for ourselves our personal havens and heavens while damning everyone else to wastelands and hell. We! Want to fiddle while the planet burns – with exactly the same mentality and for exactly the same reason that Imperator Nero Cladius did, 1949 years ago.


We! Instinctively think we must somehow hold to our comfort zones, our respective understandings, our separate conclusions, our exclusive experiences, our unique perspectives, our personal advantages and battle to the death all who dare contradict us, oppose us or threaten us. Even if we give way, we give grudgingly, attempting to acquire as much if not more than that which we cede.


Let us take climate change and see where our attitudinal adherences have taken us. Well, we have come a long long way – going nowhere. Here’s why:


The climate crisis is utterly bound up with the other three crises mentioned above. The segregationist views of modern science and the application of specialized expertise is supposed to solve the problem of climate per se. Will it succeed? No.


Scientific experts from physicists to economists legitimized uncivilized behavior in the name of civilization. They laid the foundation around 400 years ago for the eventuality of the multiply threatened existence we are experiencing now. Within their scientific realities they have, over two decades, proposed about 200, mostly contradictory response strategies. None of them have even the remotest chance of succeeding and scientists now, as scientists then, will happily retreat into their laboratories and studies sniffing and snorting at the lack of political will to see their ideas brought to fruition.


Political will I: Good one. Laughable. Politicians are willed by self-servitude. When the ex-biggest polluter of the world, the USA tenaciously hung on from COP 13 to 18 to its right to be “America” and the “right to pollute”, it (and Canada) were smoothly broadsided by China (and India) who want to occupy center stage in the “fight against climate change”. The chief polluter is dead, long live the chief polluter!


COP debates

So we shall argue and we’ll compromise and realize that nothing’s ever changed…


Political will II: This is good – two. heh!  It changes from year to year, from COP to COP. The current flavor of how not to do while talking about how much to do was at the recent COP (19). This time it was carbon credits for REDD where developed countries are ready to spend millions to see that forest resources in developing countries are in sound working order. Small problem here: apparently they are not willing to spend a single dime until there are reliable reference levels to show how much capturing is done. Developing countries are not willing to spend a single dime to obtain these figures until someone flashes some green their ways. We are very self-willed aren’t we? We are progressing…onward… march… to the next COP!


Ok. So we recognize we are going nowhere. Where then is nowhere? I don’t know? By definition, that should be apparent but crisis politics seem to enthusiastically tell me that it is a utopic place lurking just beyond the scope of my vision. If someone can enlighten me, please, do so. I’ve been waiting a long time and have paid my dues.


Here are some indicators that I like from Alex Evans to that chimerical place. They are not exclusive paths, crisscrossing and riding rough shod over one another constantly. There are many more and they are just as good or just as useless as any since no one has gotten there yet, but, for whatever they are worth:


  • They who argue for “one last push” believe that nothing short of a global deal based on binding targets and timetables will cut the mustard. But it also doesn’t think that ‘big bang’ approaches can work either. So they argue for a ‘muscular incrementalism’ based on the steady, hard work of assembling political coalitions to make progress and open up political space, one step at a time. 20 years, 19 COPs, 2 RIOs, 1 Kyoto and no, it’s not happening ducky.
  • They who argue for “technological competition” reckoning that the main driver of change will be countries competing with each other to secure shares of massive future clean technology markets. Competition got us in this mess. Competition won’t get us out of it so, sorry, no cigar.
  • Those who argue for a “tooling up to a zero sum world” who knows climate change is a problem but don’t care much about solving it. Instead, they focus on coping with heightened competition for oil, land, food and water implicitly boosting low carbon tech that can yield energy independence and other such national goals or, drive investment into less sustainable options like tar sands, shale gas etc. Fear of tomorrow? You are about to have a very bad day my son.
  • Those who argue for “new designs for living” do not trust the policy elites and try to work from the bottom up on small scale, sustainable mechanisms. Works. Problem? Impossible to upscale despite all the love and goodwill in the world. Political wiliness shall kill your efforts dear lady, even if political unwillingness doesn’t.
  • Those who argue for “using shocks intelligently” and seek to deal with the lack of political space for action on climate by being ready for shocks – extreme weather events etc. – and using the political windows of opportunity that open up (usually suddenly and only briefly) in their wake. Like Alex, I like this one the best. In a world where no one knows where nowhere is, it charts a map that has a shade more clarity than all of the others combined.


However, one of these days, the collective crises might yield a series of minor shocks over a very short window of time that taken together will be tantamount to one mega shock that no one will be able to survive – regardless of our specific attitude or our individual comfort zones and regardless of the fact that cop-out 19 just like the 18 before got undone and undusted.


Anyone reading this might think I am talking about changes in natural climate. Well…yeah. That too.


Here’s a mangling of the lyrics of Billy Joel’s song on the subject:

And so we argue and we compromise,
And realize that nothing’s ever changed,
For all our mutual experience,
our separate conclusions are the same.


Now we are forced to recognize our inhumanity,
Our reason co-exists with our insanity.
And though we choose between reality and madness…
It’s only sadness no euphoria.


How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies
Perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies.
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives,
With our respective similarities…
It’s only sadness no euphoria.


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