Karen O’Brien – Climate change: the real answers lie in social response

This is the third in a series of “5 questions” blogs in which I explore the same five key questions with climate change thought leaders. In the interviews, we take a look at recent significant developments in the climate change arena, focus on what global leaders as well as ordinary people should, or could, be doing, and highlight any hopeful signs. The interview ends with a snapshot assessment – the climate change barometer – of where we are in addressing, or not, this potentially devastating global threat.

Here is my interview with Karen O’Brien, who is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo, Norway. Karen has an extremely impressive record – see a brief bio below. Amongst other achievements, she participated in the IPCC Fourth and Fifth Assessment Reports, as well as the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX). Together with a colleague, she has started a web page on “transformation in a changing climate“.

I was lucky enough to run into Karen at last year’s UCT ACDI Southern African Adaptation Colloquium, and am very happy to present her thoughtful and nuanced responses to the five key questions, which she has compiled just after the completion of the IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report. I was especially interested in her analysis of the social and transformational dimensions of responding to climate change, with associated signs of hope, and I’m sure you will be too – read on!

Karen_OBrien photo to use

1. What recent developments or studies on climate change do you consider to be most significant?

I find that most recent studies on climate change are telling us what we already know, but often revealing that changes are happening faster or to a larger extent than earlier anticipated. While there are many areas that concern me, the most significant are those about the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, as their loss and a corresponding sea level rise has so many consequences for humanity.

2. What should global leaders be most worried about, concerning climate change?

Global leaders should be worried about the emissions trajectory that we are currently following. The IPCC Synthesis Report concludes that without substantial mitigation, the warming by the end of this century will lead to a high to very high risk of “severe, widespread, and irreversible” impacts. They should also be worried about our collective capacity to cope with the disruptions and disasters that are likely to occur as a result of increased risk and vulnerability to climate-related hazards and extreme events. Clearly the reinsurance industry is concerned about this, and that by itself should send a powerful signal to leaders about priorities.

3. What are the three things that global leaders should agree to implement without delay, to address the crisis?

First, global leaders should agree on and implement an ambitious global target to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Such a goal would send an important signal to the world and trigger responses and actions at all scales. Next, they should direct investments towards efficient and renewable energy technologies. A transition away from energy-intensive consumption and fossil fuels will happen sooner or later, and the sooner it occurs, the less the need for costly adaptation measures.  Third, they should agree on a massive education campaign to increase the public’s understandings of systems change. This would focus not only how humans are influencing the global environment and how climate change will impact other parts of the global system in non-linear and irreversible ways, but also on how humans can change systems to influence outcomes in positive ways. This last measure is critical, yet likely to face even more resistance than a climate target from many of those who hold power and benefit from the current system. These alone will not address the problem, as we are already experiencing changes and have to reduce vulnerability and adapt to changes that are occurring or imminent. They will, however, create an opening for wider discussions and actions about the type of future we want to experience.

4.     What are the three most effective things that people could do in their own lives, to help respond to climate change?

First and foremost, to respond effectively to climate change, people can begin challenging their beliefs and assumptions about the way that the world is currently organized, including about the role of individuals in relation to social groups and larger systems. There is a tendency to naturalize social forces such as power relations, financial systems, economic relationships, social hierarchies and so on and consider them “inevitable”, rather than looking at the interests that maintain them. Next, we need to collectively update our understanding of “leadership” and recognize that everyone can lead within some situations and arenas — we all have a sphere of influence. There is a tendency to want for and wait for someone else, especially authority figures, to lead.

Finally and related to these, it would be useful if people began to voice their hopes, fears and concerns about the future in relation to climate change and discuss them with family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, and strangers. The lack of effective dialogue leads to a polarized debate on climate change, and the issue often remains abstract, unvoiced, and isolated from the day-to-day concerns of many. Once climate change is discussed as a social issue, a cultural issue, and a human issue, a much wider range of collaborative solutions will be evident. Currently there is so much attention on technical innovations and solutions, whereas the real answers lie in social responses.

5.     Are there any glimmers of hope?

There are glimmers everywhere! It is important to recognize that social change is also a complex, non-linear process. In the same way that climate impacts are occurring more rapidly than we expect, we are likely to be surprised and amazed at the rate of social change, especially after we reach what in retrospect will appear as an inflection point. The challenge is that we currently see no evidence of such a point–and often evidence to the contrary–but the seeds are continually being sown. I would look for changes in mindsets, especially among younger people, and listen for changes in the stories that we are telling ourselves. This story includes a recognition that humans are part of a larger, connected system. And when part of the system becomes consciously aware that it is changing itself, then everything changes.

Lastly, there is strong agreement that a 4 degrees Celsius increase in temperature over pre-industrial levels would constitute a catastrophic situation for the world. Where would you say we are in terms of this trajectory towards catastrophic climate change – how would you rate the global response on the climate change barometer?

Barometer 44 – Urgent action needed right now

Graphic by Trish Urquhart

Karen O’Brien’s research has focused on climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation and the implications for human security, as well as on the links between global environmental change and globalization. She is especially interested in the role of consciousness and collaborative power in transformation processes, and on the relationship between personal, cultural, and systems transformations. She has written and co-edited a number of articles and books, including Environmental Change and Globalization: Double Exposures (Oxford 2008); Climate Change, Ethics, and Human Security (Cambridge 2010) and Climate Change Adaptation and Development (Routledge 2015). Her website on transformation in a changing climate is at www.cchange.no


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