Book Excerpt from The Environment

Feb 1, 2019
Paul Warde, Libby Robin, Sverker Sörlin

The Greening of Climate Change

The climate issue came to a climax in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Climate had grown so big that other dimensions of environment became marginalized in the popular media. Yet the environment still embraces much more than climate change, and climate concerns themselves drive sectors like “energy transitions” and insurance risk predictions, not just “the environment.” Generally, climate change now adds to the ongoing expansion of environmental policy making rather than being separate from it. Climate is, in this sense, the best evidence that environment is becoming an integrated part of what Hannah Arendt famously called “the human condition.” Climate, at least since Hippocrates, was considered the most fundamental of human conditions; airs, waters, places—what could be more of the essence for human existence? Another word for these elements is, precisely, environment.

Climate was absorbed into the environment through a long and circuitous process, starting in earnest in the 1920s when both concepts began to emerge in their modern meaning and accelerating through to the early twenty-first century. This chapter has thus followed a pattern already established in previous chapters where certain notions of societal growth (for example, population, economy) enter the ambit of the environment. Climate, although it is not about human societies, shares many of the features of economy and population as it becomes a relevant dimension of the environment by changing it, in worrying directions, at a worrying pace. Knowledge of the direction and rate of climate change seems to be a prerequisite for understanding the environment in the present century.

With climate, however, this played out somewhat differently. The changes in climate are not very easy to perceive or measure. Even more opaque to the layperson are the possible causes of this change, once its direction and rate have been established. This could only be done through computer programs and sophisticated monitoring on both the local and the global scale, skills that were acquired later (although not very much later) for climate than for population or even economic growth. Nonetheless, they belong to the same family of phenomena. There may even be a certain kind of mimicry going on, including the methods of the digital revolution. The overarching idea that rates of change, established numerically and with a systematic trend or direction, are necessary for the construction of the environment holds as true for climate as any other dimension.

Climate change also brought with it new strands of expertise for the environment. In common with older environmental expertise, it was largely scientific and relied heavily on quantification. But its use of models of global systems was greater, and it had a far more tenuous connection with field stations, especially compared with early environmental sciences. Already, field experts like Vogt, who drew heavily on his ornithological fieldwork in Latin America, had been replaced by systems experts like Eugene and Howard Odum. Climate change science reinforced this tendency. Still, the scientific culture of atmospheric science was different from the already established “environmental science,” which did not facilitate their entry; leading climate scientists such as Rossby, Charney, Plass, Keeling, and Revelle had conspicuously meager exchanges with life, field, and biological scientists, and vice versa.

Global programs and institutions reflected the new expertise. By the 1970s some of the earliest and the biggest global research programs, such as GARP I and GARP II, were related to climate change science. As “global change” science programs started to appear in the 1980s, climate was a distinct and integrated part, signifying that it was at home in the environment (see chapter 7).

Thus climate has become a very important part of the globalizing narrative of environment. Even more important, climate globalized the environment through the very nature of climate change, as an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exists everywhere and causes a universal, albeit geographically varied, rise of temperature. When it was mentioned in the 1950s, it was merely one of several aspects of environmental change in local places, not a global issue. Climate went from being an ultimately local phenomenon, which it had been since antiquity, to becoming ultimately global. As such it is also unique, as it brought humanity together to face a common problem rather than just a local problem with parallels elsewhere. So climate change became an arena where the global was an obvious condition of the discourse, spurring the environmental discourse in a global direction. Yet paradoxically, its “global” dimensions depend on the notion of human forcing of change. The local diversity is still evident in the effects, which disproportionately affect the world’s poor, who seldom are a major cause of emissions. The “slow violence” of increasing climate change effects already compromises the capacity for many Pacific and “small island state” communities to continue to live in the lands of their cultural traditions.

Albeit unique and somewhat extreme, climate aligns with most other dimensions of environment that we have so far described in this book. It enters into the idea of environment at a certain point in time, adding to its diversity, bringing new expertise, and contributing to the globalizing narrative. In current discourse the phrase “climate and environment” is still often used. This reflects the terms’ deeply distinct and long histories and perhaps a distinction between atmosphere and terrestrial land and ocean. It is very rare that someone talks about “demography and environment” or “economic growth and environment” with the same ease. This has nothing to do with climate being less environmentally relevant; rather, it is a sign of the magnitude of the issue and indeed its direct overlap with the environment at its biggest scale. Whereas economic growth, demography, natural resources, public health, and other core areas of the integrative concept of the environment of 1948 still lead their own lives separated from environment, climate change hardly has a life of its own anymore. Natural variability has become a slow background factor. Climate change has become purely environmental and scientifically understood as anthropogenic.

Excerpt from The Environment: A History of the Idea by Paul S. Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sorlin. Copyright 2018. Used with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.