Climate change: power to the people

08 December 2015

Interview with

Professor Karen O'Brien, University of Oslo

According to the University of Oslo's Karen O'Brien, who has penned a paper this Climate Change Protestweek in the journal Science on what's needed to avert climate change, "an agreement by itself does not guarantee action and desirable outcomes, and current pledges are far from sufficient to limit warming to 2°C. Nor are new technologies and energy infrastructure. Meeting this ambitious target and adapting to the impacts and risks associated with a warmer world will require transformations of a scope, magnitude, speed, and penetration that are unprecedented in human history. Chris Smith asks, without an instruction manual, where do we begin?...

Karen - Paris is a really important and exciting moment in history for getting people together on climate change, but I think we are heading in the wrong direction because we are looking at climate change as if it's just a problem about CO2.  The real problem is a human problem, it's a social problem; it's about development; it's about how we relate to ourselves and relate to each other and to the environment.  Putting climate change in a separate environmental box actually misses all these connections with economic changes and globalisation with social and cultural changes, and so by focussing just on carbon dioxide as the issue, and there's no doubt that that's important, we forget that it's really about our consumption; it's about the way we've been using resources and of course energy, and it's about how we organise society.

Chris - So what's it going to take then to turn this ship around because we always say climate change is a bit like an oil tanker steaming at very high speed in towards the shore, even if you turn the engines off a mile off shore, it's still moving by the time the dock looms into view. 

Karen - Behind every ship there's a small rudder called a trim tab and when you push that in the opposite direction, it pushes the whole ship in the direction that you want to go, and those small trim tab moves; those little changes can actually have big changes and, for me, the real solutions to climate change are going to lie in humans.  In people expressing their political agency and not just changing their behaviours but actually challenging the way things are, and starting to say hey I can make a difference.

Chris - So have you've got a list of points that you're making in the paper that you're publishing this week where you're saying, look I think this is what needs to happen. This is the only way we're really going to solve this.  We need the politician; we need Paris but at the same time we need societal change in the following ways and this is what I think is important?

Karen - Well the point I'm really making in the paper is that political agency matters. A lot of people point to individuals and say oh you know; walk to work; don't use plastic bags; don't eat meat and things, and that may be important also but individuals have influence, they have influence in whatever arena they're active in, and engaged in.  They can actually change things, they can challenge systems and the structures that are contributing.  My point really is, is that we need a different type of understanding of political agency that's wider, that lets people feel like small changes that they make actually make a much wider difference.  But also a deeper understanding of political agency where we start to really question all our assumptions that we have about our own power, our own possibilities for influencing the future.

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