The solution to the climate crisis
Karen O'Brien, one of the lead authors of the IPCC's next report, is an optimist. For it is we as a society that holds the key to making the changes that are needed.
Karen O'Brien, a professor at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography , University of Oslo, has been researching climate change for 25 years.
- Since it is we human beings and society that has created the climate problem, it is also we who hold the solution, she points out.
- Because it's not just an environmental problem but a social problem. If we look only at the numbers, it's easy to think that nature is about to reach a critical tipping point. If on the other hand we look at the the social aspect, it is clear that we have a choice about whether we are to change course.
I hope the message of the report really lifts people.
What do we do?
The scientists have had their say: Climate change is real and man-made. Now it’s the turn of the social scientists. How do we relate to the problem? How can we change us and the society we live in? What changes do we need to make? How can the risks of climate change be managed?
In its coming report the IPCC focuses upon the social and economic aspects of climate change and its consequences for food security, health and poverty reduction.
Change begets change
It is the opportunities for action that are now on the agenda. Therefore, we find ourselves at an interesting time in history, according to human geographer.
- I hope the message of the report makes most people feel lifted. It is so easy to think that we individuals cannot make a difference, because it's too late. But that's not true. More and more people are moving away from the assumption that the future is given because climate change is too complex for individuals to make a difference. The key message now is that the future is created by all the decisions we make today, across communities and sectors. It emphasizes the importance of individual choice, says O'Brien.
The researcher believes we should concentrate on strategic contribution: Climate solutions should be part of the plans we make for development. This applies especially urban development, education, energy, health, food production and transportation.
According to O'Brien such a focus leads to a more constructive climate message.
- The report shows that we are in a position to change the future. The changes come, but we can influence them. It shows what leeway we have.
To say that a world that is four degrees warmer than now is inevitable is the same as saying that we cannot do anything about the status quo, about our interests and our habits.
Karen O'Brien, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Oslo, is finalizing the IPPC Working Group 2 report together with the co-chairs in Yokohama, Japan, in March. (Photo: International Institute for Sustainable Development)
Climate Solutions = Quality of Life
O'Brien researches processes that we are all part of, and points out that we are witness to continual change. The world does not stand still.
She emphasizes the link between changes at the individual and community levels. Climate change must be addressed at the community level, but at the same time we know that enthusiasts are often behind changes. The way to go is to focus on climate change solutions that also improve people's quality of life, according to O'Brien.
Bicycle use in Oslo is an example. It is good that some individuals cycle to work, but the goal must be to make cycle infrastructure so good that cycling to work no longer becomes a choice of a few individuals, but is the most natural mode of transport. According to the researcher, it requires extensive cooperation between groups that may have seemingly conflicting interests, motorists, haulage, shop owners and pedestrians. Cycles cities such as Copenhagen succeed because the bike is the fastest and cheapest means of transport.
- What is the problem with the way we live today?
- We take a lot for granted - that social, economic and political systems must be as they are. Often we see no options. But these are opinions that reflect our values and worldviews, they are not neutral.
To say that a world that is four degrees warmer is inevitable is the same as saying that we cannot do anything about the status quo, about our interests and our habits, says the researcher.
- We as a society are at a point where we need to be clear about what we stand for and what we prioritize. What is really important to us? For our community, city, country and for us as global citizens? And who determines what the future will look like?
According to O'Brien, climate change turns our assumptions about our relationship to nature and the future upside down.
She points out that we tend to assume that we humans are not part of nature, or that we think of ourselves as too small to affect the global system.
- Climate change is very clear that we diminish the very foundation that human development builds upon, namely nature, natural resources and ecosystems in balance.
The UN report addresses the risks of global warming across sectors and regions.
- We see that change in one place spreads to another, and this also applies to us in Norway. Therefore, the social aspect is as important as how much ice melts.
The report shows that we are in a position to change the future. The changes are coming, but we can influence them. It shows how much room we have in which to work.
Processes of change
O'Brien calls for new political, economic and social solutions.
- Climate change is about much more than harmful CO2 emissions, it is also about social vulnerability. It is not enough just to wait for new technology to save us from climate change. Many technologies are themselves dependent on energy resources and clean water. Emissions cuts are only part of the solution.
Often this vulnerability is related to poverty and a lack of opportunities for the poor to influence their own situation, she points out.
The researcher believes everyone should take a more active role in combating climate change.
- We need people who can communicate in a way that inspires: people who can see that just solutions create a more sustainable society. People who dare to question how we do things today. Otherwise, we can easily get into a situation where solutions to climate problems create inequality and further environmental problems.
O'Brien points out that although it may appear that social development is hard to change, changes can actually take place relatively quickly. It is not only in nature we find tipping points, dramatic changes occur in society too. One example is the insurance industry. When companies realize that climate changes alter the balance of risks and with it the insurance industry's business model, it leads to rapid changes.
How will life in Norway be if large parts of the world suffer from hunger and flooding? How do we wish Norway to be in 2050? We are part of the world and will change with it.
The IPCC report is a comprehensive and integrated compilation of world climate research. The findings compile in all 12 000 scientific publications. Although it does not aim to outline the specific changes needed, O'Brien hopes that it provides the basis for dialogue.
- I hope it gets Norway away from the passive attitude that this does not affect us, for that would be to misunderstand its message. How will life in Norway be if large parts of the world suffer from hunger and flooding? How do we wish Norway to be in 2050? We are part of the world and will change with it. Climate change is not just about warmer climates, but the whole energy system. It is a perspective that is often lacking in Norway, says Karen O'Brien .