Blindspotting climate talks; from shrinking thinking to systems thinking

The latest UN Climate Summit will happen in New York next Tuesday. No agreement is planned; this is just a rally for the 2015 Climate Summit in Paris. A People's Climate March is planned for Sunday in New York and elsewhere, as a rally for the rally. As we approach the 20th anniversary of climate walks and climate talks is the world really closer to walking the talk? Or should we do a little blindspotting, to ask what everyone keeps missing?

The climate summit and the climate march share the same call for commitments to ‘climate action’. If we know the problems and we know the practical solutions then the debate is over and everyone just needs to take action, right? As a blindspotting experiment let’s assume this is wrong. Calls for climate action could be part of the problem. What if climate action is an expression of ‘shrinking thinking’; making massive overwhelming problems feel manageable by reducing them to something smaller and tangible. 

The perilous unsustainability of civilisation becomes a climate problem, then an emissions problem, then a technical question of energy choices and percentage reductions. Over the years, as the problems grow in scale and complexity, we respond to our failure to shrink them in the real world by shrinking our thinking about them. Shrinking thinking creates agendas that draw crowds but it cannot create action to actually solve any global problems.

My dream march or summit would use systems thinking not shrinking thinking to make the scale and complexity manageable. That’s what systems thinking is there for. The problem would be unshrunk, from climate as an issue to climate as one of many symptoms of systemic errors that can be defined and fixed. The goals would be unshrunk, from cutting the flow of emissions toward the politically convenient 2C target to cutting the stock of greenhouse gas concentrations asap. 

Now we have a bigger problem and a bigger goal, which invites the mechanisms for change to be unshrunk. National commitments for scheduled percentage cuts to emissions are futile and irrelevant even if they could be agreed worldwide. Even carbon pricing is thinking too small. Carbon is just one element that we sell as products knowing there’s a high risk it will end up in ecosystems as accumulating wastes. A systemic solution is circular economy. Governments should enable markets to price ‘waste-risk’ and thereby switch economics and economic growth from self-destruct to self-organising action on a relevant scale. Other systemic solutions are ready and waiting – when climate walks and climate talks are ready for real action.

James Greyson is head of the BlindSpot Think Tank. 

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