So we have come to the end of our first Gaps in the Dialogue theme of the month. We were of course discussing the Environment and each of the contributors has looked at a different aspect of the issue.

Initially I looked at the Environment in the context of philosophy, and specifically the enlightenment. Jez Byron then argued that the zero-sum attitudes of civil servants in negotiations are the wrong approach to take on climate change. He argued that it may take at least ten years for a new generation of civil servants to develop who are less directly hostile at negotiations. This, he admits, may in fact be too late for meaningful changes.

Louis Connor argued that in fact we needed to reassess the way in which we conceptualise the environment to think of it as a Wicked Issue – a site of persistent political failures unbounded in scope that is impossible to ‘solve’ once and for all. He advocated, therefore, a considerably more all-encompassing approach to looking at the environment. There was, however, little discussion of how this reclassification would help prevent climate change.

Owen Thomas built upon these ideas by arguing that climate change can only be dealt with on a self-interested level where an individual actor is pressured by others. This, the implication was, would affect the actor’s rationality in a seemingly game theory approach to dealing with climate change. The question I would pose to this theory is how he sees these changes occurring within a self-interested view of actors. Climate change is by its very nature a collective problem that has not thus far been dealt with on the level of individual rationality.

To bring this month’s theme together I feel two themes unite all four responses. Firstly, a desire to move away from large meta-narratives towards small scale changes. When Gordon Brown says that “global warming is a global problem and so it must be dealt with on a global scale” he is wrong. While I accept it is a global problem it can only be dealt with through small scale changes that are situated within a global framework. That global framework is the best that we can hope for at Copenhagen (and a fairly limited one at that I fear) but the small scale changes can only be the responsibility of communities making active decisions that incrementally make a difference. We can no longer rely on top-down visions that continue to assume that this benevolent and fictitious superpower we call the government will save the day.

The second point that I think all articles share is a fear that bubbles away under much of environmental literature: that we might well fail.  All three writers, either overtly or covertly, accepted the possibility that we may not be able to stop the climate change ‘crash’.

This issue has been largely ignored for two reasons. Firstly we don’t like to think of failure as a serious threat. We cling to the enlightenment belief that science will come to the rescue and a crisis will be averted. Secondly, many believe that if climate change cannot be solved then the repercussions are so great that it is not worth discussing: the planet may not even still be habitable.

The facts are that today’s government’s face an unenviable choice. If they continue to chase economic growth as they have for the past century then the emissions cuts needed for the planet’s environment are just not possible. If they try to curb growth as is necessary for the planet they will put millions of their own people out of work and be thrown out at the earliest possible opportunity. Whilst the creation of green jobs can go some way towards squaring this circle they are not sufficient in number to make a difference.

I am far from a pessimist but this month’s theme is going to conclude on a depressing note that all four contributors have hinted at: it may only be a case of alleviating the worst affects of climate change rather than preventing change altogether. Copenhagen may provide us with a global framework but unless we reinvent the philosophical currents that have allowed us to destroy our environment it will all be too little too late.

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