Who is responsible for climate change?

Posted by Pierre-Antoine Ullmo

June 3rd, 2020

Human responsibility in climate change has long been ignored or questioned.  

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book Merchants of Doubt tell the story of how some scientists with deep connections in politics and industry tried to mislead the public and deny or mitigate the impact of man-made greenhouse gases. 

This crucial evidence can’t be denied any longer. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss said it clearly in his book The View from Afar: “L’homme ne subit pas l’agression des nuisances, il les cause.” (Man does not endure pollution: it causes it.)

According to Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, we have entered an entirely new phase of planetary history driven by human beings: “For the past three centuries, the effects of humans on the global environment have escalated. Because of these anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, global climate may depart significantly from natural behaviour for many millennia to come. It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch, supplementing the Holocene — the warm period of the past 10–12 millennia.”  

This is a massive change. In the words of Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin from UCL: “Homo Sapiens since Darwin was established as a part of the tree of life with no special origin. Adopting the Anthropocene may reverse this trend by asserting that humans are not passive observers of Earth’s functioning.” 

Climate change has become our major challenge. French philosopher Bruno Latour makes climate change “a question of the survival of civilisation”. A state of planetary emergency has been declared by scientists. In the view of Timothy Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter, we are “exceeding tipping points in the Earth system — such as the loss of the Amazon rainforest or the West Antarctic ice sheet”.  

Philosopher Donna Haraway thinks even more globally upon the existence of “an inflection point of consequence that changes the name of the game of life on earth for everybody and everything.  

“It’s more than climate change; it’s also extraordinary burdens of toxic chemistry, mining, depletion of lakes and rivers under and above ground, ecosystem simplification, vast genocides of people and other critters, etc., etc., in systemically linked patterns that threaten major system collapse after major system collapse after major system collapse.” 

We can no longer keep an exclusively ecological perspective to address climate change. 

In other words, climate change is not only and can’t be only an ecological issue.  

Henrietta Moore, Director of the Institute for Global Prosperity at UCL, describes “the development model followed by countries in the global north in the 19th and 20th centuries as completely out of step with our modern understanding of planetary constraints”. Climate change for her can’t be dissociated from colonialism that “involved institutionalised racism and the deliberate impoverishment of the global south”. 

Katrina Forrester from Harvard University and Sophie Smith from the University of Oxford in their book Nature, Action and the Future (Cambridge University Press) tell us that “an exclusively ecological perspective masks the kinds of political puzzles climate change poses and the ways that it exacerbates existing problems within modern political systems. Climate change shapes considerations of social and distributive justice, and is intimately tied to questions about the fate of modern capitalism”.


If we humans are responsible, how do we act? 

Oreskes thinks about responsibility in three ways: “personal responsibility, collective responsibility, as expressed through governance, and collective responsibility in terms of the business community that has produced the products that have caused the lions share of the problem”. 

Can we make a difference as individuals? It is first a matter of choice. For anthropologist Margaret Mead, it all begins by understanding “the immense and long-term consequences of what appear to be small immediate choices”. David Runciman argues in an article entitled Optimism, Pessimism and Fatalism that “anything we do as individuals has little impact on collective outcomes” and that “the scale of the challenge requires large-collective action whose effects will take many years or decades to play out”.  

Sociologist Saskia Sassen from Columbia University recognises in one of her articles that too much emphasis has been put on “how people as consumers and household-level actors damage the environment” and we haven’t addressed enough “the fundamental issue of how an economic system, prices and modes of production are not environmentally sound”.  

French jurist Mireille DelmasMarty formulates proposals that shift from focusing on the actions of individual sovereign states to one that recognises global ecological, social and economic interdependence”. 

Interdependence and cooperation between nation states are however difficult to establish and the various COPs’ decisions have resulted in being difficult to implement. Amy Dahan – French mathematician and historian of the politics of climate change – writes about the “reality schism” to highlight that in climate negotiations violence and arbitrary matters prevail and can cause the situation to explode.  

Shouldn’t we find another level of governance? Sassen suggests acting at the city level as “cities are at the center of our environmental future and will be forced into the frontlines because of their extreme dependence of cities on complex systems”.


“Stepping out of the Counting House”

Alternative voices are beginning to be heard. A few months ago, schoolchildren following the example of Greta Thunberg started to go on climate strike. Their movement – supported by scientists worldwide echoes philosopher Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago, when she once said (Cultivating Humanity, 1998) that “we produce all too many citizens whose imaginations never step out of the counting house”. 

How do we step out? According to Nussbaum, we need Socratic citizens who are capable of thinking for themselves and arguing with tradition. It goes back to key questions raised by Mead back in 1969 (Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap): Can I commit my life to anything? Is there anything in human cultures as they exist today worth saving, worth committing myself to? 

This is certainly a good moment to listen more carefully to what young people say and, more importantly, do (or can do). One of the key principles of child participation, elaborated by Roger Hart, director of the Childrens Environments Research Group at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of Children’s Participation, was that the highest level should be “child initiated, shared decisions with adults. Colin Ward, in his book The Child in the City (Bedford Square Press), concluded that “the most important thing is that children can actively play a part in shaping their surroundings, that what they say about where and how they live will be listened to and that the key to their future lies in their own awareness”.

The participation of young people in climate action is first a political subject which calls into question the balance of power and the manner of exercising it and therefore requires political decisions. 

Tracey Skillington from University College Cork addresses the issue of intergenerational justice:“Increasingly, the demand is for a justice framework that responds to knowledge of anthropogenic climate destruction by extending traditions of democracy, freedom and right to a broader range of subjects. The realization is that prevailing models of justice are in need of revision, bound as they are by spatially and temporally limiting frameworks.” 


The right of the environment in regard to man 

French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss proceeds with revisiting the right of the environment as “the right of the environment in regard to man, and not the right of man in regard to the environment”.

Sociologist Richard Sennett, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics (LSE) and director of the New York Institute for the Humanities, however, argued in one of his essays that “we are moving into an era, particularly in our relations with the natural world, where the sphere of human self-control and autonomy is shrinking. (…) The laws we need will have to deal in some regions with rights to scarce water, in others we’ll need strategies for abandoning parts of the city exposed to flooding, in yet other places we’ll have to ration electricity because we no longer burn the coal to generate it”. 

Simon Schaffer, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridgequoted James Lovelock, author of the Gaia theory, on the need for a more authoritative world: “We need a more authoritative world. We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say. It’s all very well, but there are certain circumstances—a war is a typical example—where you can’t do that. You’ve got to have a few people with authority who you trust who are running it… I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.” (Lovelock 2010)

Drastic decisions must be taken. Will that endanger our democracy … or save it?


Photograph by Andoni Canela ©




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