The language of climate change

Last month the New Zealand government put out a discussion document on the emissions targets New Zealand should set for the upcoming UN climate change conference in Paris. I worked with 24 other people in the Faculty of Science at my university to put in a submission. I was determined that our submission should not fall into the trap of using the language of finite games, in particular benefits and harms to “the economy”, to justify action. So while our submission made reference to several activities that involve the exchange of money, the focus was firmly on the impact of climate change and climate change mitigation on the real world: on our oceans, rivers, native forests, people, and on our Pacific neighbours.

Climate change is, however, often framed in terms of its impact on "the economy". For example, a report put together by Greenpeace New Zealand refers to a “multi-billion dollar opportunity” and how “NZ’s clean green reputation [is] worth $36.7 billion to our economy each year”. The 2006 Stern Review is also widely cited for concluding that it would cost 1% of global GDP to take the necessary action to mitigate climate change, but 5% of GDP "now and forever" to do nothing. 

Of course neither Greenpeace nor Stern are under any illusion that the economy is what is truly at stake here. But somehow we feel this mythical, lumbering economic beast must be satisfied if we are to make ourselves heard. It is the only language the big boys understand, we tell ourselves. But what happens when we feed this beast? According to many insightful thinkers, including George Monbiot and Tom Crompton, we simply fuel the prevalent myth that competition is the way of the world with the acquisition of wealth – either at an individual or a collective level – being the key measure of success. From an infinite game perspective this is a classic case of attempting to win today’s game, while losing sight of what really matters – each other and the ecosystems we are embedded in for starters.

Even the big boys love their children and are inspired by creativity and beauty and a fresh spring day. And if some do have hearts of stone, who says we must play by their rules? Personally I feel utterly deflated when faced with economic arguments for issues that are about the real, living world. I think we can do better. Be brave, I say, try pushing for what you really care about and see where it leads.

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