The Virtuous Circles of Climate Change

In eight short days I’ll be flying to Durban, South Africa to attend the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Conference.

I’ll be one of 18 journalists participating in this year’s Climate Change Media Partnership fellowship.

I’m humbled to have been selected and thrilled to be attending the two-week event.

It will undoubtedly be a momentous one.

Next year marks the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol, signed and ratified by more than 100 nations, but not the United States, in 1997. On a basic level, then, the national delegations will be negotiating about what happens next.

Much has happened to the world’s environment since the world’s countries first gathered in Rio, the precursor to the Kyoto gathering and agreement, and, while there have been many individual, group and even societal efforts to stem the mounting damage, the majority of human activity has been destructive.

The report released Friday by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change i is only the latest in a growing chorus of scientific assessments warning that we are all too rapidly approaching the point at which the world’s temperature may rise more than 2 degrees about pre-industrial levels-a development that could trigger catastrophic and unstoppable devastation.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading to prepare for my trip and have encountered a number of memorable images to describe the earth’s current precarious state.

For activist and author Bill McKibben, the earth is like a middle-aged person for whom the best outcome is a graceful decline through concerted and decisive effort.

For scientist and truth teller James Hansen, the earth is like a baseball hit during a Brooklyn Dodgers-New York Yankees World Series game. If we run with maximum effort, Hansen writes, we can catch the ball and prevent the loss of the game and series.

For the people at the IIED, the Institute for International Institute for Environment and Development, the key image is a circle

By that, co-authors, the late Andy Jones, Michel Pimbert, and Janice Jiggins mean that the we must change from our current linear methods of food and energy production and consumption to live more circular, locally-oriented and grounded lives.

Only then, they maintain, can we avert the almost certain disaster that awaits us.

Full disclosure: IIED is one of the three groups who form part of the Climate Change Media Partnership that is sponsoring my attendance at the conference.

It is important to note that this is not simply a prescription for behavioral change, though.

Rather it is a call for a fundamental reorientation of how societies work and govern themselves. The authors call for a shift from the current top-down, elitist system in which a few people make decisions for the many to a more inclusive and participatory form of decision making for issues large and small.

In other words, the virtues deserve equal billing.

The task may sound daunting, and the work is certainly grounded in a clear-eyed assessment of current practices and the difficulty in changing them in any kind of rapid fashion.

As with other books of this ilk, Virtuous Circles makes a case for change by providing plenty of data where we are, how we have gotten here and what lies ahead should we fail to make the changes the authors recommend.

As opposed to other books, however, this one includes plenty of diagrams, side boxes and even the classic Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.”  An additional appeal of Virtuous Circle is its peppering in throughout the book examples of places in Latin America and the Caribbean where precisely this shift has happened.

The sections about increasing food and water security in the Andes through rainwater harvesting, sustainable water management and agro-ecology are informative, for instance. But in some ways the response of Cuban people to the sudden end of oil support when the Soviet Union fell in the late 80s and early 90s may be more instructive in pointing us toward where we might need to go.The authors’ palpable belief in these projects and commitment to highlighting them radiates out from the pages throughout the book.

The question of course is how the the story ends.

The answer may lie to a large degree in what happens in Durban one week hence.

But the bigger part of it will come in the weeks and months ahead.

Only then will it become clear if these examples highlighted in the book, relatively small scale and expensive as they are, become the harbingers of the virtuous circles in which the authors so clearly believe, or if they become a footnote for later generations to say that those of who continued in the linear way did so not because no other options existed, but rather because we did not insist for ourselves and others that we move in that radical and circular direction.

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2 responses to “The Virtuous Circles of Climate Change

  1. You’ll certainly be right at home with the data driven narrative going on in Durban. When you talk about “a shift from the current top-down, elitist system in which a few people make decisions for the many to a more inclusive and participatory form of decision making for issues large and small,” I think of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
    The spirit of economic malaise that drives the movement isn’t too far removed from the general feeling that there’s something awry going on with the earth’s climate – extreme temperatures, increasingly powerful hurricanes/tornadoes, rising sea levels – the data of all this needs to get connected with some kind of powerful narrative.
    The key is how to harness the malaise into political clout, which means getting hands dirty in the political process, playing hardball with the big boys/girls and activating a sense of agency in voters. Anger is not enough. Facts are required. Focused action is required. I see one of the outcomes of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Conference is informing the climate change movement with data, solid irrefutable data, to get the attention of people on the periphery so they connect the dots.
    Occupy Earth!

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Provocative thoughts, as usual. I’ll be interested to see if the Occupy Earth folks are actually at the conference, too.

      Should be exciting!

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