Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Crucial climate talks in Paris take place in a socially repressive environment

Posted 30 Nov 2015 / 0

At Paris, two equally-nihilistic cultures clash, but where do the people get a seat at the table?

2015-11-30a.jpgToday crucial climate talks are under way in Paris, France amid massive police presence and an atmosphere of social repression. The message is to “stay off the streets” as the leaders of world (and a few monarchs and businesspeople) meet to try to finally do something about our already-problematic impact on global climate.

Since the Kyoto meeting took place nearly a quarter-century ago, one could easily argue that every climate meeting has been “crucial”. But as time marches on and the world’s major societies continue to provide feeble response to scientific warnings about the present and future disasters caused by our impact on climate, every meeting becomes more pressing. And the climate around climate change seems to be better than ever for a meaningful deal to be brokered. The United States, historically both the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the biggest foot-dragger on agreements to mitigate our effects on climate, still has a sitting President who takes climate change seriously. And Americans are finally beginning to support action on climate. Ditching the failed approaches of the past, countries will now come to Paris with voluntary targets in hand. There is a sense that something might get done this year at this high-profile climate meeting.

Unlike a lot of other “global crises”, climate change is actually a problem that is going to affect the lives of pretty much every person on the globe. So it would be understandable — and commendable — if members of the world population wanted to make their voices heard during these crucial talks. But as chronicled in this piece by NPR, the French are using the “shadow” of recent terror attacks as a rationale for preventing serious public demonstrations. Public marches have been cancelled, leading to clashes between those who wish to have their voices heard and the police. As has happened in countless other public demonstrations, the idiotic actions of a few people present at the protests are being used as a rationale for heavy-handed police tactics that make meaningful, peaceful protest impossible. Rather than being used as an instrument to preserve world citizens’ right to publicly demand action on climate, the police are being used to suppress the voices of everyday people.

If the people no longer have a stage, whose voices will be heard in Paris? Well, 147 world leaders will be there, as they have been for many other climate meetings. The captains of industry also have a seat at the climate table (discussed in this piece by NPR). Of course this meeting was planned to be an affair of the elites, but now the elites no longer have to deal with the people at their doorstep.

I would not place terrorism too far up my own list of pressing global crises. What happened in Paris, and what happened fourteen years ago here in my own city of New York, and what is happening all over the world on a nearly weekly basis, is all terrible. Terrorism is by design emotionally disruptive. But what’s most emotionally salient is not generally what is actually most important, especially in the complex, large-scale societies that we now live in. Worldwide, poverty and disease claim far more lives than terrorism. In Western Industrial countries we are far more likely to be killed by motor vehicle traffic than terrorism. And for our children and grandchildren, the threat of climate change looms far larger than any attack by a militant jihadist minority.

And therein lies the irony. If there is any threat posed by an extreme version of Islam, it is to the very mechanism of our large-scale societies: a free, integrated, and open society. ISIS is about returning a small segment of the globe to a time of where a relatively-local and mostly-isolated “caliphate” is ruled by a single leader. Economically such a society would be heavily isolated; socially such a society would be highly repressive. ISIS wants to roll back the clock on cultural evolution to a more fuedal time. I certainly do not want to minimize the impact of ISIS on everyday people unlucky enough to call “home” an area that ISIS now controls. But we also know that ISIS is not a credible threat to the military, economic, and social power of the rest of the world. Large-scale societies now dominate the earth for a reason, and a wistful desire to return to smaller-scale times is not going to erode that dominance.

So the real threat of ISIS is that it will manage to coerce us into compromising on the principles that enabled our societies to reach such scale. Although our globalized world provides many of us with unprecented affluence and security, that great benefit of our large-scale civilization is not shared fairly. So in order for our current civilization to maintain its many benefits without succumbing to its inherent predisposition for inequity, we need to make sure that the voices of everyday people balance the power of the elite. There is a lot of work to do towards creating this balance, but in many places and for many people the counter-balancing force of social action and activism has provided huge benefits. What’s needed is a globalization of social movements aimed at making general social welfare the target of our massively-successful economies.

The problem of climate change exemplifies this need like no other issue. Over a relatively short period of time, a very small fraction of the world’s population has become fantasticly affluent by doing what only a large-scale civilization can: harnessing the Earth’s stores of fossil fuels as a source of widely-distributed energy. Although the benefits of fossil fuels are shared by a lot of people, they are shared very unevenly. The problems associated with burning fossil fuels, however, are much more evenly shared; in some situations, the costs of climate change may even be disproportionately bourne by those who have done little to cause the problem. Only a large-scale civilization could cause a problem like climate change, and only the democratic mechanisms of a large-scale civilization can solve the problem. We have the technologies needed to maintain a very high standard of living whilst averting catastrophic climate change; the global populace just needs to make it clear to the elites (who benefit from the causes of climate change) that we demand a more sustainable future.

The problems of global terrorism and global climate change seem pretty different at first glance. Terrorism is intensely local in time and space, and following attacks becomes a very immediate concern. Climate change is global and spans long periods of time, which can make it hard to consider the warming planet a pressing problem. But I see strong parallels between both the culture of extremist groups like ISIS and the culture of fossil fuel dependence: both are deeply nihilistic cultures that cannot be sustained. If large-scale civilization continues to foster a warming climate, eventually that warming climate will make it impossible for large-scale civilizations to survive. An isolated, repressive society like that fostered by ISIS will eventually be over-run by the larger, better-equipped, more cooperative societies of the planet. That is, unless we allow the culture of ISIS to undermine the cultural values that got us this far.

Paris image of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower courtesy of Greudin via Wikimedia Commons.

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