Reflecting on Radical Emission Reduction Conference 2013

This week the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research organised a conference on the need for ‘Radical Emission Reduction’. I was given ten minutes to talk about a philosopher’s take on ‘radical change’ and the consequences for the manner in which we frame responsibility, for both individuals as institutions – in front of around two hundred (social) scientists, mitigation specialists, lawyers and journalists.

One of the main points of the conference was that a rise of the world’s temperature is inevitable if we continue down the path we’re on today. And whether this rise will be 2 degree Celsius or 4 or 1.5, we need to avoid this in order to avoid radical situations in which the world as we know will have disappeared.
My own take on this is that change, when it is not just a mere illusion or modification of the same, in other words that ‘radical’ change consists of a break of the present epistemic order. Which goes beyond discourse analysis and paradigm shifts. And that so-called solutions that bring the climate debate into the present-day (economic) paradigm that is responsible for the problem, are not going to solve the problem.
One reaction to my short presentation called it ‘provocative’, another wanted to state that we had come a long way from the 1960s French structuralism and that he felt the need to save philosophy’s name by distancing (himself/philosophy?) from my views. In general my calling for the need to commit to the impossible did stir the minds, and some form of academic discussion ensued. (Which is more than I can say for other presentations, but then I’m not a scientist so I tried to keep myself away from commenting too much on empirical datasets and its analysis.)
I don’t think any philosophy that needs saving, should be saved. Philosophy is an act. Anything that calls itself philosophy and does not move away from present understanding of reality, cannot be called a lover of wisdom. And when asked to answer the question as to what they consider ‘radical’, silence is their only answer.
Which is fine. It only shows that the on-the-side conclusion of the conference, that the real change in behaviour and thought was to be found in students and in small community networks. We cannot look towards our corrupt governmental system for guidance. In the closing remarks of a Member of Parliament, Caroline Lucas, this was once again painfully visible. She said that “it is not enough to be right”, meaning to say that the support of the people is needed to create different policies in government. But what she actually acknowledged with this remark, is how MPs think they know they are right and therewith closing off any possibility for deliberation, for a combined search for solutions and a framing of the problem.
Another interesting ‘attack’ came from Andrew Simms in his closing remark, which I do want to go into a little bit as it was quite interesting. He started out by repeating some of my thoughts and making them ridiculous. After which he tried to explain how his own idea of a new green economy is much more sane. He gave the example of a small Swiss village in which a new paradigm was once born, at which time it was ridiculised by contemporary thinkers, but how that neo-liberalism has become the leading paradigm of today. (Get the irony here?!) After which he ended by saying what he thought was necessary now – a verbatim account of my presentation but minus my language (for something can only be deemed reasonable when it can be said without words like ‘discourse’ and ‘impossible’).
Another interesting point about this conference was the precense of quite some young(er) people, who were oriented towards all this in a positive fashion. Bruno Latour was mentioned a couple of times in private conversations. As was the need to be okay with the paradox that two things can be true at the same time.
Most interesting perhaps was that many people picked up on the word ‘humble’. Larry Lohmann gave experienced this first-hand. It is counter productive to try to get people interested in climate change issues. Instead of showing them your wonderful solution, one needs to be willing to listen and see how the concerns of the other are related to what you are thinking about. You cannot do this by bringing your own superiority to the table – humbleness is what we need as we approach people that matter to us.
Another example in this regard was given by professor Wilks, who talked about a people in Belize, who had a very egalitarian society and when one wanted to get into office, one had to spend so much money one ended up poor. This is the only way to prevent the hunger for power that we witness today in many societies around the world.
It is strange how certain words are picked up on, whereas others are taken totally out of context. Perhaps my blunt statement that “I don’t belief in physical reality” when asked how to deal with the discrepancies between shifting conscience and physical truth, didn’t make it easier for people to hear the rest of the sentence. This is always a problem when philosophy is brought back to slogans, time limits that make it impossible to go through the whole argument.
Hopefully when the full article will be published coming spring, people will be able to object with regard to the content, and not focus so much on their problem with a framing that reminded them of French philosophy. (Although it is a funny thing when you realise people label you a french philosopher, unable to pronounce my name, and calling me by my first name even though we’ve never met before.)
The video of the presentation should be posted on Tyndall website someday in the future. For now, the conference website which also includes the programme and abstracts:

3 thoughts on “Reflecting on Radical Emission Reduction Conference 2013”

  1. Hi. It was a pleasure to share the stage with you and I enjoyed your presentation. However when you write ‘And whether this rise will be 2 degree Celsius or 4 or 1.5’ as though it is irrelevant to what extent we are willing to change the climate system I think you reveal the limits of relativist thinking, a point which Latour has made in respect of relativism and climate change discourse.

    1. Hi Christopher. For a non-scientist like me, the actual amount of degrees is just not so very important. this is where I see the role of science to debate among themselves what the actual amount should be and what the effects are. What I do think is (more) important is the urgency involved in this message (especially for people like me who cannot really judge the difference between 1.5/2/4 degrees). I agree relativism is one of the most serious dangers of our society, so thank you for pointing this out, this was not what I wanted to imply with this post.

  2. Nobyeni,
    Erica Chenoweth has a book with an empirical analysis of non-violent citizen movements. Historically, if 3.5% of a country’s population is involved in a movement, then 80% of those movement achieve success. In a UK/US case, success means strong climate-protecting policies are adopted. I have not heard a convincing narrative where strong policies are adopted without a new, super-strong political force driving that change. In the US, the federal government is in a state of semi-permanent gridlock, where game-changing legislation has not been adopted in decades.
    Here is a summary of Chenoweth. I find that the results bring some focus to a somewhat reasonable path of action to protect the climate. But further, I believe the US is holding up international climate protection. Once US adopts strong policies in line with Kyoto Protocol, then the US will, in a not-so-gentle manner, persuade other nations to adopt the same policy set. Hence, an 11 million American citizen movement can persuade the US to adopt strong climate policies, which will in turn protect the world climate. So that’s not too hard. Not too many people.
    From the Tyndall Conference, I was looking more for convincing narratives (with some empirical backing) about how the system gets changed. I think the easy part is figuring out what to do and the harder part is “how do we get there.”
    In California, there is a rigorous planning process where GHG from all economic sectors are tallied. If Andrew Simms has an idea, then he could presumably put his solution into a scenario and receive a GHG forecast as output. IE the planning process is such that we can go well-beyond giving a PPT to where we can develop vetted, validated scenarios that accurately forecast future GHG. There are surely some PPTs out there that wouldn’t produce the target future GHG reductions when run thru a modern forecasting model.

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