The Climate Change Primer

Understanding the problem, the storm and the search for answers

The Climate Change Primer

We briefly examine the main dilemmas we face when presenting the environmental discourse and potential points for resolution.

What is Climate Change?

In the context of ‘Climate Change’, when we talk about 'The Environment', what we mean is the interaction of the natural ecosystem and human society, or what is best called the socio-ecological system. This helps focus our attention explicitly on the interaction between our engineered (anthropogenic) and the natural environment to better understand how the two function (or fail tofunction), as an entire system.

Towards the late 20th century, the industrial revolution reached a peak, as almost all indicators for the economy and ecosystem started changing at an exponential rate, including population growth, loss of species, and energy consumption. This acceleration has given birth to a new geological era that scientists have now started to call the 'Anthropocene', where human activity has become the primary driver of changes within natural ecosystems. Here, the stabilising forces that once provided equilibrium to the natural ecosystem (through negative feedback looping) have become degraded and, left to their own, can no longer sustain our earthly systems.

It is, for this reason, that COP - the annual ‘Conference of Parties’ -  brings together world leaders to deliberate on the state of our earthly systems, and, more specifically, the anthropogenic driver for climate change. The key commitments revolve around mitigation, adaptation and finance. More information on COP27 can be found here.

Why is the discourse so contentious?

Most people feel a level of responsibility and obligation toward fellow human beings, albeit to differing degrees. Yes, we may do things that harm fellow humans, consciously or unconsciously, but we are at least aware of the harm being caused. But, it isn’t all that intuitive when it comes to our relationship with the environment.

This sets up an interesting dichotomous relationship between humans and nature. It seems important to recognise that this polarity exists, especially when it comes to individual and political decision-making about consumption and resource allocation.


For example, when an urban planner is embarking on a development project, this polarity should loom on their mind when making a decision between:- a) seeking development with necessary environmental degradation or b)  forgoing development in the hope of environmental preservation. In this example, we assume that development (as a precursor for wellbeing) - within the current economic model using GDP as a proxy - rarely succeeds in meeting the demands of modern society without sacrificing some aspect of nature (e.g. land, forestry etc). (It begs a further question on the sustainability of ‘development’ and ‘modern society’). There is a clear footprint on earthly systems.


Other examples include whether to consume meat or not, and use petrol or electric cars.

Notwithstanding climate scepticism, let us assume that climate change is a real, and even a dangerous phenomenon. The problem is no longer one of science but one of ethics. It shakes some of our fundamental value systems because 'modernity' has been built on an anthropocentric model of reality. "What is right and wrong? Who is responsible? What ought we to do? Whose interests count in determining how we should respond?"are all questions that require a coherent answer. But is there one?

Why is it so complex?

Stephen Gardiner posits that climate change presents a complexity we've never before encountered, threatening our ability to behave ethically, calling it a "The Perfect Moral Storm". He outlines the convergence of three factors (or storms) that make this problem particularly troublesome. In turn, the three storms are related to three characteristics of the climate change problem:

  • the dispersion of cause and effects
  • the fragmentation of agency
  • institutional inadequacy

The Global Storm

Emissions of greenhouse gases may be produced in one part of the world, but their effect will be felt in a different part. The effect is far removed from the cause. The issue is not caused by a single agent, but a vast network of actors who are not organised or coordinated thourgh a comprehensive structure of agency. Finally, there is no effective global governance system to address the challenge.

Side question: Are there any philosophies, traditions or civilisations that have successfully resolved this globalising problem?

Intergenerational Storm

The current generation has more pronounced and asymetric power over future generations. Due to the deferred impact of say, fossil fuels, we may never encounter the worst effects in our lifetime. Do we even have the necessary means for current and future generations to cooperate? Is there enough of an incentive to restrain ourselves for the sake of the future generation?

Side Question: Are there any philosophies, traditions or civilizations that have successfully resolved this intergenerational problem?

Theoretical Storm

We need to be more proficient in formulating a coherent theory or organised value system to deal with issues that are so far-reaching and long term. This is largely because our societies grew from interpersonal and immediate feedback mechanisms. It grew from the knowledge that Nature is always, abundantly generous and we have unlimited resources.

Side Question: Are there any philosophies, traditions or civilizations that have successfully resolved this deeply ethical problem at a theoretical level?

What ought we to do?

The answer to what 'the right thing to do is', is a contested one. The complex moral storm, together with our dichotomous relationship to Nature leaves us confused in our duty.

When presented with difficult decisions about 'what ought' to be done, we can utilise normative frameworks to help guide our decisions in a coherent manner.

Economic Framework

This is based on a consequentialist account of 'what we ought to do', and positions the argument squarely on the aggregate utility of intervening (or not) to mitigate climate change. Will solar power produce a net economic gain? If so, let's install more solar. Will reducing meat consumption harm our economy? If so, keep consuming. Will burning fossil fuels keep our supply chains thriving? If so, keep burning. In this cost/benefit analysis, our framework for deducing the rightness of an action is purely economic.

Justice Framework

Some advocate for a justice-based or human rights-based approach. Here the analysis is on whether climate change is harming the rights of particular individuals or groups. They are less concerned about aggregative benefits or harms, and more about individual or group-level harms. From a justice perspective, certain human rights are universal and must never be violated, irrespective of whether the violator can be easily identified. The right to life, to health and subsistence are some of these universals and within this understanding, climate change violates those rights. From severe weather events and heat waves, to poor health outcomes and crop failure.

Both the above frameworks are prone to political influence and the error of not having a clear, causal understanding.

Ecological Framework

Another framework posits that the entire ecological system is intrinsically important. Not just for humans but for itself. The loss of biodiversity, extinction of species, and loss of life in factory farming are things that are intrinsically important, irrespective of how they impact human society.

With the growth of the plant-based food industry, we are seeing a small but concerted effort towards 'everyday compassion'. Because meat consumption dents the environment in such a huge way, from an ecological framework, giving up meat and adopting an entirely plant-based lifestyle saves animals and the environment.

How can we think about it?

Thus far, it may seem like a gloomy future. But, we can find some solace in emergent fields and indigenous cultures. We broadly delineate the two dimensions of this exploration:- thinking and being.


We've already demonstrated that the problem is not a mechanical one (if x, then y). This is by virtue of the climate system being a complex, adaptive and emergent system.

It is complex by virtue of having a vast number of actors, species, and ecological terrains interacting with one-another in a continually changing way. It is adaptive in that it is constantly changing and the considerable time lag between cause and effect make it difficult to pin. It is emergent in that new phenomena arise from positive or negative effects. The cycle continues.

There are many reasons why we need to think using a Systems Approach, but mainly because we live in a globalised world.

Firstly, as ecosystems around the planet are being degraded, and less capable of maintaining equilibrium, we are also witnessing an extraordinary scaling up in global economic activity due to increased population and consumer demand. Secondly, whilst the 'nation-state' approach to governance worked through the industrial age and the previous century, this approach fails to address the global challenges by virtue of governments not having jurisdiction in other areas of the world. We still operate in a way that the internal organisation of the state is more important than at a global level (and some would argue, rationally so). Aside from these reasons, many others exist to destabilise the natural ecosystem:- increased consumer demand, multiple asymetric actors, intergenerational competition, the dispersion of source and effect, growing populations, institutional failures, and competing global goals.

When we talk about 'Sustainability', we refer to the ability of a given system to sustain and uphold itself. The key question to ask is, 'how effectively can a system sustain itself to a given level of functionality, before it is degraded to a lower level?'.

Leading lights like Satish Kumar, Fritjof Capra and Peter Senge are enabling people to think at a level beyond conventional thought, towards more regenerative thinking.


But, if we are to sustain a regenerative mindset, theory must be accompanied by practice. We can ask the question, "who am I being?"

It is here that indigenous cultures have been leading lights.

The fundamental ontology of most indigenous civilisations has been to see themselves as being in relationship to everything around them. It is not "Me and You". It is "Me-You and You-Me". These civilisations where unfortunately labelled 'primitive' as a derogatory remark to their nature-centric practices. However, what seemed like 'primitive worship' from a religious and outsider perspective, was in fact, a deep 'connectivity practice' from and pragmatic and insider perspective.

Seeing the sun, waters, mountains, animals and trees as deities were less about theological worship and more about developing a visceral reverence to that Whole, one interconnected, self-regulating system, of which, humans play a part. The 'ritualising' aspect of these 'connectivity practices' was to impress a discipline upon the individual and collective psyche.

In the Yogic system, for instance, way before yoga postures come into play, are the Yamas and Niyamas - guides for good human conduct. Of these, two, in particular are Ahimsa (non-harm) and Santosh (contentment). They act to restrain the restless human thirst. To ascend the ladder of human perfection, an aspiring Yogi must observe these first. These were norms and values that indigenous cultures knew all too well.

Over time, however, as we became increasingly removed from villages to urban environments, we were divorced from nature, and these 'ritualising practices' became labelled as just rituals, losing their cosmic significance.

We are left with a nugget of positivity. Can we reframe our understanding of indigenous practices as 'connectivity practices', which can actually aid our societies in being more concious of our behaviour.

Resources and Experts

Experts on systems thinking: Peter Senge, Fritjof Capra, Satish Kumar.

'The Perfect Moral Storm', by Stephen Gardiner

'What are the key issues at COP 27', by Chatham House

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