"Climate change needs to be adressed locally, not globally"

November 26, 2016 - 06:00
Article from University of Oslo

The historic UN climate agreement has entered into force. But a Norwegian Professor has little confidence in the agreement.

(Video by The University of Oslo)

This does not mean that we as individuals must solve the climate crisis alone.

"We obviously cannot do that. However, for far too long we have looked for solutions on a global scale, rather than locally. I believe that the key to limiting the climate change confronting us lies in understanding people’s daily lives," Thomas Hylland Eriksen says. He is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo.

An effective agreement?

Climate leaders from all over the world recently gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco to discuss how to implement the Paris agreement. Nearly 200 nations affirmed their “highest political commitment” to combating climate change. The main concern now seems to be whether the president-elect in the USA will follow up the commitments of the Obama administration.

The UN Framework Agreement on Climate Change was signed by 180 countries in Paris in 2015, and entered into force on the 5th November this year when the agreement had been ratified by a sufficient number of countries. Its goal is to reduce global warming by two degrees, ideally 1.5 degrees. Each country has proposed voluntary targets for their own cuts in emissions, but these are insufficient to reach the global target. The question remains open as to how countries can be motivated to cut their emissions further, according to Hylland Eriksen.

A political dichotomy

One challenge is that the UN climate agreement operates at the nexus of economic growth and environmental sustainability, according to the anthropologist.

"In most places, economic growth comes at the cost of ecological concerns. There is a broad international consensus that the climate is changing because of human activity, but the same politicians argue in favour of increased economic activity, which until now has been associated with the use of fossil fuels."

Now, Hylland Eriksen wants to collaborate with researchers from other disciplines to solve what he describes as the perennial dichotomy between economic development and human sustainability. He wishes to combine the micro-knowledge of anthropology with the macro-knowledge generated by disciplines such as political science and economics.

"To understand our contemporary world, we need the perspective of a helicopter circling high up in the air just as much as the details on the ground, the ones we can see only by using a magnifying glass. The combination of these perspectives is currently missing as a key to understanding a constantly changing world."

Tailored solutions

Hylland Eriksen has undertaken fieldwork in the mining town of Gladstone in Australia.

"The environmental activists in Sydney are very keen on saving the world, but they have no idea of what they should do with real people with factory jobs," one of the informants pointed out.

"This tells us that in order to devise appropriate climate solutions we need to understand the local world that people live in. A coal miner will quite naturally be more concerned with having a job to go to than with the consequences of emissions from coal. Moreover, we are living in an age of globalization where people communicate across national borders, and this is a source of hope. Climate solutions must be adapted to the reality of people’s lives, before being regarded in a wider global context."

Hylland Eriksen believes that today’s energy system lacks the necessary flexibility to change course, because the economic system is so closely linked with fossil fuel emissions.

"The rapid changes that characterize the modern world tend to have dramatic and surprising consequences. Fossil fuels were a source of progress, but have now become a source of climate problems. Throughout history, our dreams and hopes for the future have been closely linked to more material wealth and increased energy consumption."

Is green growth possible?

One of Hylland Eriksen’s collaborators is Bård Harstad, Professor of Economics at the University of Oslo. The economist shares the concern for the possible conflict between increased consumption of resources and material goods on the one hand and sustainability on the other.

However, Harstad believes that economic growth and sustainability are compatible.

"Green growth can be based on technologies and better ideas for resource use. Social economists study the pathway from resource extraction to consumption, and this understanding is required to identify climate solutions. In essence, economics is about how to minimize resource use while ensuring a given level of wealth," the economics professor explains.

Difficult climate agreements

Harstad has studied climate agreements for years and is well aware of the limitations inherent in the Paris agreement.

"Greenhouse gas emissions represent a classic dilemma. Each country gains from continuing their emissions, because the cost is divided among everybody. In addition, the costs are shifted far into the future. This uncertainty regarding the actual size of the risk is exploited by politicians and special interest groups in their claims that the risk climate change presents is low."

Still, Harstad maintains that a binding international agreement is important, if not the entire solution.

No sign of sustainability

Hylland Eriksen remains pessimistic about the ability of world leaders to agree on solutions that will make a real difference.

"We have yet to find the recipe for long-term, global sustainability. There are no signs that the growth in energy consumption is levelling off, or that a huge shift towards renewable energy is right around the corner."

Since climate change is increasing in seriousness, it might be advantageous for businesses and states to refer to global systems, according to Hylland Eriksen.

"They can abrogate responsibility by referring to global climate change. So whom can I blame and what can I do if my life is upset by climate change?"

He points out that if the blame is apportioned to ‘climate change’ as an abstract concept rather than to a local source of emissions, it will be extremely difficult to identify political solutions.

"The global focus may simply be an obstacle to our understanding of the real problem," Hylland Eriksen concludes.

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