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Climate Action Epistemology Part 6: Developing an Intellectually and Politically Active Culture

April 25, 2023

Ed. note: You can find Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of this series on Resilience.org hereherehere, here and here.

The earlier parts of this essay examined how the IPCC report discusses climate mitigation models, demand reduction, technological potential, and social power. The consequences of what we believe about these topics are immense. If we’re not aware when our modeling assumptions and expectations around technology are unrealistic, we may design a societal transition around technological solutions that have unacceptable trade-offs or aren’t viable at scale. The same consequences could result if not enough attention is paid to demand reductions, and the changes to our economy, culture, and lifestyles they entail. If we’re not analyzing power relationships, we won’t be focused on building a transition movement strong enough to overcome elite opposition. This is why climate action epistemology—an examination of what we know about transitioning away from fossil fuels and how we know it—is so essential.

The influential IPCC report should tell us a lot about how academic researchers understand the task of rapidly reducing emissions, views that then shape policy discussions and public perception. It is therefore an important document to analyze. However, the only section of the report that anyone is likely to read is the short Summary for Policymakers (SfP). Unlike the rest of the report, which only reflects the assessments made by its scientist-authors, the SfP needs to be approved by the IPCC’s member governments before it can be published. As a result, it’s conceivable that major technological or political issues would be downplayed in this section. Indeed, in the SfP there is little discussion of the potentially major energy challenges we may face during a rapid transition towards 100% renewable energy systems, the questionable likelihood of implementing large-scale carbon dioxide removal strategies, concerns about resource availability for batteries, significant obstacles to shipping and aviation in an all-renewable world, and other vital questions.

This essay considered not just the SfP but the text of the actual report, which isn’t subject to political vetoes. But while the sorts of issues mentioned above receive some discussion in the report, it’s not connected together into a clear, contextualized picture often enough. The report does offer lots of vital information needed to understand the climate problem. But several feasibility challenges noted by the authors aren’t explored in enough depth or accompanied by a full explanation of their implications for society.

The following are examples of questions around mitigation modeling, demand reduction, technological potential, and social power that can help to build a high-level understanding of climate mitigation:

  • Can we maintain a stable climate without addressing the primary drivers of emissions, economic and population growth?
  • To what extent must we simultaneously address other urgent ecological issues like biodiversity loss?
  • What do current mitigation models tell us and how much credibility should they have?
  • How sure are we that energy will be just as abundant in an all-renewable world as it has been in a fossil-fueled world?
  • Even if a post-transition, 100% renewable economy can largely recreate the types and scale of energy services we’re accustomed to, might we face serious challenges during the transition?
  • Is there enough discussion of uncertainty and contingency plans for all foreseeable obstacles?
  • How much must society change (economically, culturally, and in terms of lifestyles) to realize the low-demand scenarios?
  • What ethical challenges are we likely to face during a rapid societal transition and how might we handle them?
  • What forms of repression can we expect from vested interests likely to oppose the transition?
  • What sort of political groundwork must be laid to achieve low-demand scenarios?
  • How do we scale social movements to create these conditions?
  • What lessons can we draw from past and present movements?

Answering these questions often requires us to ask and explore several sub-questions. The answers we find cultivate a holistic understanding of the challenges we face and better prepare us to craft a strategic transition plan. Is it reasonable to expect the IPCC report to deeply explore and clearly answer these questions? Should it go further in interpreting and contextualizing the information in contains? If the IPCC doesn’t provide that perspective, then who will?

We’ll certainly rely on individual academic researchers to contextualize their findings for policymakers and the general public. But with so much knowledge across different disciplines required to be fully informed, we need some sort of synthesis report that both incorporates and goes beyond perspectives from the IPCC or perhaps one or more institutions dedicated to generating a comprehensive, nuanced, accessible, and actionable picture of the transition.

However, it’s clear that before we can organize an army of analysts working together to provide society with a deep understanding of the nuances of the transition, we must first achieve a critical mass of people who recognize such an effort to be necessary. There are many observations in the report that point to just how essential holistic knowledge is. “Analysing a challenge on the scale of fully decarbonising our economies entails integration of multiple analytic frameworks,” the authors write. These include:

  • “Aggregate frameworks” such as cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analyses, the dynamics of emitting systems and climate impacts, and welfare economic theory
  • Ethical frameworks that “consider the fairness of processes and outcomes which can help ameliorate distributional impacts across income groups, countries and generations”
  • Transition and transformation frameworks that “explain and evaluate the dynamics of transitions to low-carbon systems”
  • Psychological, behavioral, and political frameworks that “outline the constraints (and opportunities) arising from human psychology and the power of incumbent interests”

“A comprehensive understanding of climate mitigation must combine these multiple frameworks.” Perhaps most salient for activists who are driven by their concerns about justice is the authors’ assertion that these frameworks collectively “underpin ‘just transition’ strategies in diverse contexts.”

If only minor changes to society were necessary, then prevailing views about the climate crisis and the details of its solutions might not matter much. But this issue is much farther-reaching. Several areas in the report discuss the need to shift society’s “development pathway” to fully address it. This paragraph from chapter four helps to convey the enormity of the task ahead:

“Shifting development pathways aims to influence the ultimate drivers of emissions (and development generally), such as the systemic and cultural determinants of consumption patterns, the political systems and power structures that govern decision-making, the institutions and incentives that guide and constrain socio-technical innovation, and the norms and information platforms that shape knowledge and discourse, and culture, values and needs. These ultimate drivers determine the mitigative capacity of a society.”

The faster we must reduce emissions, the more we require changes to all of the institutions and norms that define our day-to-day lives. In other words, acting at the scale of the climate crisis means creating a new society.

Holistic knowledge is crucial if we’re to achieve that level of change. “One of the more direct channels through which transitions spread are climate change education and action-oriented research . . . the acquisition of transformational knowledge and transformative learning contributes to thinking and acting that open climate-friendly development pathways.” Education efforts must reach not only our political representatives but the general public, whose support for the transition will depend on advance preparation and realistic expectations. Recall the report’s assertion that “the acceptability of collective social change over a longer term towards less resource-intensive lifestyles depends on social mandate building through public participation, discussion and debate over information provided by experts, to produce recommendations that inform policymaking.” A major part is creating information platforms up to the task of laying that groundwork.

I believe that a curriculum aiming to cultivate holistic knowledge about the issues we face would explore ecological systemstechnology and energy sourceseconomic institutionspower structures, and socio-cultural change. These areas are essentially identical to the feasibility dimensions that the IPCC suggests for evaluating mitigation scenarios.

Armed with a clear and comprehensive framework for analyzing the transition, we’ll need to build education and discussion networks to instill habits of learning about, deliberating on, and actively supporting it. The report points to two foundational pieces of our information system that we should try to influence: media and schools. “The media shapes the public discourse about climate mitigation. This can usefully build public support to accelerate mitigation action, but may also be used to impede decarbonisation,” the authors write, referring to elites’ well-documented misinformation campaigns. They add that “the updating of educational systems from a commercialised, individualised, entrepreneurial training model to an education cognizant of planetary health and human well-being can accelerate climate change awareness and action.” It’s worth seeing how far this analysis can be spread through existing media outlets and school curriculums, which already reach millions of people.

It may also be important to establish information networks both online and in person in as many communities as possible. Reforming existing systems would allow robust transition discussions to reach people on a much larger scale in the near term, but there will surely be significant resistance and various limitations. Having a means of communication controlled entirely by supporters of the transition may eventually turn out to be the best way to create an informed and active citizenry.

Who will lead this mass education and discussion project?  Social movements seem poised to be the driving force, perhaps in collaboration with academic experts across the many relevant disciplines. Chapter 17 explicitly links “Social movements and education” together as one of the main engines of societal transitions. The authors note that “social movements serve to develop collective identities, foster collective learning and accelerate collective action.” Activists can and must act as educators and facilitators until deliberation about and action on the transition becomes a norm across society.

It’s essential to understand that knowledge is power, to have a solid analytical framework with the right guiding questions, and to work with others to share the significant costs involved in becoming deeply informed. Developing a balanced analysis of climate mitigation and the transition without undue optimism or pessimism is very hard, but it’s a key ingredient for creating a sustainable society. We will only go as far as our own ability to decode reality will take us.


Teaser photo credit via Unsplash

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp

Aaron Karp is an activist writing a book about why our ecological crises demand economic and cultural transformation, not just an energy transition, and how the climate movement can lay the groundwork for these changes. He writes at freedomsurvival.org and tweets @LimitsLiberate

Tags: building resilient education systems, climate activism, climate change responses, IPCC reports