Climate Pragmatism – a new way to approach Climate Change?

By Virginia Thomas-Pickles, GLOBUS Correspondent

Climate change is arguably the greatest threat to human society. It will, and is already starting to, have a huge impact on society, for example by undermining our water resources and food systems and by threatening our healthcare systems. As it is such a multi-layered issue with no easy solution means climate change is often referred to as a wicked problem. A wicked problem that needs to be addressed urgently.

Politically, climate change is a huge challenge. There are many different stakeholders involved and many different views to consider and address when creating and implementing. Arguably, many of the current climate policies are not working. Take the Paris Agreement, which is meant to be a ground-breaking international agreement limiting global temperature increase to 1.5oC above preindustrial levels: it has already seen the United States of America withdraw.

This departure from such a large greenhouse gas emitter made me question current policy. It had me thinking about other approaches to climate change. Then I stumbled across Climate Pragmatism.

I came across an interview with Professor Mike Hulme on The Sustainability Agenda podcast, where he talks about the politics and culture of climate change. Hulme believes that climate change will never be eradicated, so instead, society needs to consider what can feasibly be done about it. And throughout the interview Climate Pragmatism was repeatedly mentioned.

So, what is Climate Pragmatism?

You may never have heard of this term- I certainly hadn’t until a few months ago!

Climate Pragmatism is based on practicality and increased flexibility and values pluralism as a means to address climate change. The way pragmatism works is by using proven approaches and setting realistic goals through policy change. It is a move away from Climate Solutionism, which believes climate change is solvable by working towards artificial deadlines. Hulme argues that these artificial deadlines (including the 1.5oC global temperature rise limit featured in the Paris Agreement) are a result of political negotiation, and that they have removed moral judgement. Climate Pragmatism also incorporates fairness for all, which is evident from the Hartwell Paper.

The Hartwell Paper was created after the Kyoto Protocol failed to create real global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over a fifteen-year period. Climate Pragmatism played a large role throughout the Paper, which called for the reframing of climate issues in the context of human dignity, through three main objectives:

  • ‘Ensuring energy access for all’
  • ‘Ensuring that we develop in a manner that does not undermine the essential functioning of the Earth system’
  • ‘Ensuring that our societies are adequately equipped to withstand the risks and dangers that come from all the vagaries of climate, whatever their cause may be’

These three objectives are echoed throughout the pragmatic approach.

How would a Pragmatic approach work in practice?

When political negotiations about climate change stall over disagreements, climate action also stalls, thereby prohibiting the progression of climate policy. A pragmatic approach does not need complete agreement, instead it aims to create short-term benefits for participants, thus creating an incentive for parties to further their climate efforts. Plus, these policies are independent rather than being encompassed by a global treaty. This allows them to evolve at their own pace. If one policy fails, it does not impact the progression of other policies.

Fairness is a huge part of pragmatism, and something Hulme repeatedly reiterated during the podcast. There are many people still without reliable energy services, and increasing global energy access is needed to break the current technological apartheid, and help contribute to the redistribution of wealth. It is simply unfair and unjust for future climate policy to penalise those lacking access to energy sources. The Hartwell Paper discusses how this energy can be generated whilst also decarbonising the supply of global energy to help with the climate change effort.

We know moving to cleaner energies, adapting to our climate, and air pollution reduction works in addressing climate change, so Pragmatism says this is the best approach to use. Now is not the time to experiment with carbon taxes and other measures that we cannot be sure work. It aims for progress in the right direction and sees no point in over promising and under achieving.

But this approach is not perfect

Climate Pragmatism has seen its fair share of criticism. Climate change is a major threat acting now –do we have time for gradual changes heading in the right direction?

With no metric targets or deadlines involved, action taken could be very minimal. This would be of little benefit to climate change policy as it means there is little incentive for nations to act. Furthermore, having no metric targets fails to see that the different increases in temperature create different potential impacts for the future, with the impacts worsening the more the global temperature rises. This could mean the 1.5oC target is greatly overshot, and I think we can all agree that largely overshooting this is something we would really rather avoid.  

Concluding Thoughts

Climate Pragmatism is an interesting concept that has, for me personally, altered my perspective about climate policy. Although I cannot say that Climate Pragmatism has fully won me over, I definitely feel there are some valuable lessons that should be taken forward for future climate change policy:

  • We need realistic policy with realistic goals – with time running out to prevent some of the worst impacts of climate change we cannot afford to severely overpromise and severely underdeliver.
  • We need to ensure that fairness is incorporated into climate policy – the poorest, most vulnerable in society cannot be penalised.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

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