Climate change is a journey, not a battle

December 06, 2021

The recent conclusion of COP 26 has brought with it a resurgence of binary climate change narratives, and I’ve been thinking about how productive these narratives are.

By binary climate change narratives, I mean framing climate change as a “battle” that can be won or lost, where a given intermediate event or milestone (such as the COP) is our “last chance” to “solve” climate change or avoid climate disaster.

For many, this alarmism reflects real consequences, happening today. But in a broader sense, our chance of being able to treat climate change as a binary problem that can be solved is long gone. Due to the externalities of activities undertaken over a century ago, for as long as climate change has been in the mainstream public discourse, it’s not been an issue that we can actually solve, but rather something we can mitigate, and potentially reverse in the long term.

This “win/loss” framing is perhaps partially a result of society reconciling our inherent short-termism with the geologic scales of “locked-in” climate change, and partially a result of the real losses that are happening right now, such as those losing their homes in low-lying Pacific islands, or loss of biodiversity as habitats collapse.

But I worry that this “win/loss” narrative won’t motivate us the way it might with a different issue; it sets us up for a number of demoralising losses and empty victories, when the reality, at a macro level, won’t be as bad (or good) as it seems. Presenting climate change as a binary “win/loss” issue creates an opportunity for everyone to define what winning and losing means to themselves, and as climate change is already happening around us, even the most encouraging “wins” will feel insufficient for some. We won’t meet every target we set, the outcomes of the COP will always be framed as not good enough by someone, and for the targets we do hit, we won’t get the tangible feedback that a “win/loss” issue usually brings.

If climate change is a battle, we’ve already lost. But if climate change is a journey we’re taking towards a more sustainable, equitable society and economy, then we have an incredible opportunity in front of us to mitigate, adapt, and manage the problem for ourselves and countless future generations.

Yes, there will be real losses along the way, which will be deeply painful and challenging for many, and mentally formidable to those privileged enough to avoid them directly. Yet channeling the justified alarmism about such consequences can push us towards greater progress on this journey.

Paradoxically for an issue that’s often so hard to tangibly feel, the impacts and discourse around climate change these days are maybe even easier to notice than the real, tangible progress. For those of us putting our time, energy, and effort into working on this issue, tangible positive feedback is hard to come by. Binary framing of the issue often denies us the chance to acknowledge that despite lots of bad news, there is meaningful progress happening. And it denies us nuance; as is the case with many things in life, it’s often never as bad (or good) as it seems.