Working Group III: Mitigation

Other reports in this collection Discourse and Symbolism

The spread of new communication technology may make it increasingly difficult for governments to exert a direct influence on social structure and culture. On the other hand, governments, along with the business community and NGOs, continue to have a substantial presence in the media and they all contribute to the shaping of the public discourse on climate change (see Box 5.3). Some of the essential features of that discourse are the differing views on the risks and uncertainties associated with GHG emissions; the costs and benefits of GHG mitigation; the allocation of blame for past and current emissions; and the rights of the victims of climate change to compensation. Disagreement on these various points poses an important barrier to GHG mitigation, especially where media presentation tends to emphasize controversy. There are many ways of helping to build of a common discourse, or narrative, about climate change, involving the various players taking all available opportunities to meet, discuss, and work together for common goals. An important example is the growing development of partnerships between transnational companies and environmental NGOs, for example, to develop accreditation schemes for green products or to design environmental strategies.

Box 5.3. Narratives about Climate Mitigation

Discourse or narrative – the written and spoken word – is one of the most important ways in which governments, businesses, NGOs, and the media influence each other and build agreement on policy directions. One of the most important barriers to GHG mitigation is the perception by some participants in national and international discourses that mitigation efforts might be costly, or might conflict with values such as individual freedom and equity. By analyzing these people’s discourse, new opportunities may be identified for developing GHG mitigation measures that are consistent with their core values. It may also be possible to build new coalitions among institutions and actors, to seek mutually satisfactory GHG mitigation strategies.

Discourse and narrative can take many forms, including history, science, philosophy, folklore, and “common sense”. Foucault (1961, 1975) has shown how narratives become an instrument for wielding power. MacIntyre (1985) offers a way of thinking about narrative as part of our cultural context or tradition, as something that we inhabit. Professional analysts, such as scientists and economists, are members of groups that define themselves by such traditions and have their own narratives about the world. Our narratives co-evolve with our notions of “the good”, our understanding of our selves, our conception of society, our science (conception of nature), and our understanding of God or the spiritual dimension (Taylor, 1989; Latour, 1993). These understandings and conceptions are also central to our responses to climate change.

Analyzing discourses can provide essential insights into different people’s assumptions and beliefs about the world. Thompson and Rayner (1998), Ney (2000) and Thompson (2000) have mapped out some of the essential features of the discourses that are used to describe and define positions on climate change. They focus in particular on two axes of the discourses: their view of nature and their conception of society. For example, some view the environment as robust, while others view it as fragile and vulnerable to human interference. Some believe that society works best through market-based institutions, while others believe that there should be more explicit emphasis on egalitarian, participatory approaches. Ney differentiates three main orientations: market-based, egalitarian, and contractarian or hierarchical. Some characteristics of these orientations are summarized in Table 5.3. Of these three, the market orientation clearly dominates international negotiations as well as the dialogue on climate change within many countries. It is also the source of the dominant discourse on climate mitigation policy within the IPCC.

Table 5.3: Discourses on climate change (adapted from Thompson and Rayner, 1998)
Discourse Hierarchical Market Egalitarian
Myth of nature Perverse, tolerant Benign, robust Ephemeral, fragile
Diagnosis of climate problem Population Pricing/market failure Profligacy
Policy bias Regulation Libertarian Egalitarian
Public consent to policy Hypothetical Revealed (voting) Explicit (direct)
Intergenerational responsibility Present>future Present>future Future>present

There are, in fact, many “axes” that can be used to map out discourses on climate change. Another important perspective is that of gender (Grover et al., 1999; Hemmati, 2000). To some extent, the different axes can be correlated with those chosen by Ney, Rayner, and Thompson: feminist discourses have tended to align themselves with egalitarian discourses and in opposition to the hierarchical and market discourses as defined in Table 5.3.

While analyzing different positions can be a first step to resolving differences, something more is needed: we need to understand how the dialogues that underlie the climate debate have evolved over time, and might change in the future. In particular, we need to be more aware of the links between our scientific understanding of nature, our political and economic structures, and our ethics. Michaelis (2000) finds traces in the climate debate of a long-running process of development of alternative cultures or traditions in our society:

  • The modern tradition, with roots in the 17th-18th century European Enlightenment, is built on a separation of humanity and nature, with its central aims of economic and technological progress and its commitment to finding “the good” in the everyday working life. This tradition is dominant in the words of government, business, and science. To a large extent, the different positions analyzed by Ney (2000), Thompson and Rayner (1998), and Thompson (2000) fall within the modern tradition. The climate debate within this tradition revolves around different ways of understanding nature and society.
  • The romantic tradition, a reaction to the early Enlightenment in the late 18th and early 19th century, is committed to the emotional life of individuals, to romantic love and the family, and to an ideal harmony between humanity and nature. This tradition is dominant in the world of entertainment, advertising, and individuals’ private lives. It views climate change as a problem caused by the modern tradition, and tends to blame institutions such as businesses and governments which represent that tradition. However, narratives within the romantic tradition tend not to recognize the role of romanticism in shaping the consumption patterns for which industry produces.
  • The humanist tradition, with much older roots going back to ancient Greece, is maintained by academic and intellectual circles in modern society, and is committed to the search for “the good life”. Viewed from this tradition, the climate change problem appears to be caused by the failure of the modern and romantic traditions to understand human nature, and the nature of the good life. Less emphasis should be placed on material production and consumption, and more should be placed on developing family relationships, communities, civic involvement, and opportunities for learning and contemplation.

Writers such as MacIntyre (1985), Gare (1995), and Latour (1993) see little hope within the modern tradition for solving the problems of our time. MacIntyre advocates a revival of humanism. However, many social scientists have described the emergence of “postmodern” values, which recognize the multiplicity of valid traditions and narratives. This recognition sometimes leads to nihilism, but it could also be the basis for a renewed search for shared values and conceptions of the good life.

The linking of symbols to fundamental values may also be important in shaping behaviour. Ger et al. (1998) compare the symbolism of consumption patterns, based on interviews and observations in Denmark, Turkey, and Japan. They find that the symbolic attractions of resource-intensive consumption patterns are more powerful than those of more sustainable consumption patterns. The symbolic attachments are different depending on the country and the subculture within the country.

Narrative and symbols carried by the mass media form a large part of the means through which ideas, arguments, and values are transferred from the public to the private sphere, and ultimately may be integrated into individuals’ consciousness and identity. Moisander (1998) has observed that consumption choices respond strongly to personal morals or ethics. It is in shaping ethics that the public narrative can play a particularly strong role.

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