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OPINION: Mitigation actions by any other name


Stefan Raubenheimer, co-founding Director at SouthSouthNorth, currently co-leading the MAPS programme, reflects on the role of language at the Development and Mitigation Forum (DevMit), hosted in Cape Town in January this year. The Forum provided a space for climate mitigation and development researchers, practitioners and experts from the developing world to present and discuss their work and experiences on this complex challenge.

One of the many reflections from our recent DevMit Forum was that the “climate community” and the “development community” (very broadly speaking) are struggling to enter into meaningful dialogue. What emerged was a problem of language.

Development leaders, both in the private and public sector, do not always place climate change at the top of their agenda. Its as if they are saying : “yes we acknowledge that science is showing us that there is a problem, but growth/development/returns are more pressing rigtht now”.

It is up to the climate community to persuade action, be the catalysts of change. We have the evidence: the science is now consistent and certain that the world economy needs to be carbon neutral by the mid century, or at least shortly thereafter. Either we achieve that, or we see that same economy being gradually destroyed by the impacts of a 4 degree world.

But if its so clear, why this disconnect? Why is the world emission trajectory still climbing at full lick, despite so much engagement from the climate community? Are we speaking a dialect that is not being understood?

Wittgenstein famously argued that our language limits our world. The climate-talk that has become the default mode for expressing ideas within the climate change community has set the direction of our enquiries, our practices and galvanized our current challenges.

What is in a name? In this case the very name of the Forum was up for contestation; development and mitigation are not separate, or exclusive but must be made into one concept. Development must result in the zero carbon economy; mitigation must be part of all development. Not just some activity peripheral to the real economy. Not just some project or some carbon trade.

So is climate-talk estranging the development community and, more importantly, directing climate-related research  away from the human element that is central to any solution to the impending socio-political crisis that rising atmospheric temperatures, acidifying oceans and melting glaciers will bring?

This is how Navros Dubash summed up this problem of language: “How we talk about climate change, mitigation and development, depends on what your entry points are.”

The point is crystalized when thinking about two oft used phrases in the climate change community: “mitigation actions” and “co-benefits.” The climate change community thinks of development as an extra, an aside, or “co-benefit”, to actions that mitigate carbon emissions. But if we are to connect to any community outside our own we have to turn the concepts around.

“We should think of development actions first and as mitigation as a co-benefit of development,” challenged Prof Harald Winkler. According to Prof Dubash, this is more than mere wordplay: “So the question changes from: ‘What constitutes a nationally appropriate mitigation action?’ to ‘What do we want our cities to look like in 20 or 30 years?’”

Climate talk is so abstract, so far from people. It’s gobbledygook for most normal consumers. Rashmi Mistry, of Oxfam, a development “provocateur”, challenged attendees to put people first in their climate talk: “[This Forum] started from the position of ‘we need to cut carbon’ rather than ‘we need to address poverty and inequality.’” Until the climate change community puts people at the centre of their work it threatens to remain a preserve perceived by outsiders as people who care about polar bears for the sake of polar bears.

“The Pacific has a rich cultural and linguistic tradition. Hundreds of distinct languages are spoken in homes throughout our 14 countries,” said Marcus Stephen, President of the small island nation of Nauru, at COP16 in Cancun. ”However, none of our words are quite so exotic as the ones spoken by the climate change negotiator. The people who inhabit these walls communicate in acronyms: QELROS, LULUCF, and NAMAs: letters that carry the power to determine which of our nations may thrive and which may vanish beneath the waves.”

COP16 in Cancun, Mexico:
“The Pacific has a rich cultural and linguistic tradition. Hundreds of distinct languages are spoken in homes throughout our 14 countries,” said Marcus Stephen, President of the small island nation of Nauru. ”However, none of our words are quite so exotic as the ones spoken by the climate change negotiator. The people who inhabit these walls communicate in acronyms: QELROS, LULUCF, and NAMAs: letters that carry the power to determine which of our nations may thrive and which may vanish beneath the waves.”

Climate change is still viewed from outside as a preserve for “tree huggers” and “greenies”. The perception of the climate change community as anti-people or at the least apathetic towards their plight is also fueled by the impenetrable maze of new vocabulary we’ve created around ourselves. A vocabulary that does not appear to outsiders, at first glance, to have any clear connection to the conceptual framework that the non-climate establishment employs. Over the past couple of decades, social scientists and practitioners working within the climate change community have developed an extensive and intricate body of technical work on the solution to the problem of climate change, involving NAMAs, Annex 1 countries, non-Annex 1 countries, CDM, tonnes of CO2e etc, climate finance and the GCF (didn’t understand any of that? Click here). None of these are anti-people per se, but in spending all our time talking in these terms we often forget the implicit opportunity costs: Less time, space and energy to deal in established and widely used terms. And in exhausting our energy and creativity in developing our own internally coherent and self-referential world of concepts, we have to some extent lost touch with other, more established communities.

Try as many of us have, the climate change community has not managed to make climate change an issue about people for the sake of people. Until we’ve put climate change as a liability on the CEO’s balance sheet, on the institutional investor’s risk analysis, on the electioneering officials campaign list, on the city planner’s blue print, in the hydroelectric engineer’s models, mitigation remains a pipe dream.

Bert Merz argued that a change in approach was a necessity to establish the kind of deep collaboration with non-climate fields required for finding a solution to the problem. He argued that researchers in the climate change community have tried unsuccessfully to be specialists at all the fields touched by climate change, like economics and finance. In the process they have become second-rate economists and finance specialists outside the establishment that lends credibility. He argued that integrating climate change into development planning processes and research requires collaboration with “real” economists and specialists outside of the climate space, who are first and foremost concerned with their field, not as a derivative interest based on their climate expertise. This in turn requires climate change specialists to boil climate talk down to established terms within those disciplines.

Another advantage of talking beyond our own community and in terms of other disciplines and sectors is that we open ourselves up to re-articulate the terms of our own challenges. “I’ve really struggled with the idea, often mentioned during the workshop, of the ‘reality’ of a rising middle class that only wants big cars and assuming there is nothing to do about it… Aspirations and ambitions are the realm of the marketing and advertising sector. Bring Saatchi and Saatchi into the room, throw them some money and tell them to make mitigation cool.” Argues Mistry. Climate-talk implies many assumptions about fields beyond our own, fields we don’t know and that we take for granted at the cost of missing potential solutions.

Words can shape intractable oppositions and gridlocks or open up new pathways for sympathy and cooperation, but the climate change community needs to appreciate that the power of words is largely a function of established norms and usage. Few things signal your identity as either an insider or an outsider faster than the words you choose to use and, importantly, those you choose not to use.

How about starting our conversation with infrastructure talk; let’s talk bridges and dams, electricity and water, poverty and jobs and health; let’s talk interest rates, risks and return on investment, let’s talk about people’s hopes, fears and ambitions… and let’s see where this conversation takes us.

The Forum was supported by the Mitigation Action Plans and Scenarios (MAPS) Programme and co-hosted by the Energy Research Centre (University of Cape Town) and the Policy Research Centre (New Delhi, India)

Feature image:

Barry Aliman, 24 years old, bicycles with her baby to fetch water for her family, Sorobouly village near Boromo, Burkina Faso.

Photo by Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

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